What Is Tao?

What Is Tao?

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by Alan Watts

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In his later years, Alan Watts, noted author and respected authority on Zen and Eastern thought, turned his attention to Taoism. In this book, he draws on his own study and practice to give readers an overview of the concept of the Tao and guidance for experiencing it themselves. What Is Tao? explores the wisdom of understanding the way things are and letting life

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In his later years, Alan Watts, noted author and respected authority on Zen and Eastern thought, turned his attention to Taoism. In this book, he draws on his own study and practice to give readers an overview of the concept of the Tao and guidance for experiencing it themselves. What Is Tao? explores the wisdom of understanding the way things are and letting life unfold without interference.

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What is Tao?

By Alan Watts, Mark Watts, Marc Allen

New World Library

Copyright © 2000 Mark Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-816-3




    When people see some things as beautiful,
    other things become ugly.
    When people see some things as good,
    other things become bad.

    Being and non-being create each other.
    Difficult and easy support each other.
    Long and short define each other.
    High and low depend on each other.
    Before and after follow each other.

    Therefore the Master
    acts without doing anything
    and teaches without saying anything

Our Place in Nature

Many years ago, when I was only about fourteen years old, I first saw landscape paintings from the Far East. It was as a result of looking at these paintings that I first became interested in Eastern philosophy. What grasped me and excited me about the Asian vision of the world was their astonishing sympathy and feeling for the world of nature.

One painting in particular that I remember was called Mountain after Rain. It showed the mist and clouds drifting away after a night of pouring rain, and it somehow pulled me into it and made me feel part of that mountain scene. It is a fascinating for us to consider that pictures of this kind are not just what we would describe as landscape paintings, because they are also icons, a kind of religious or philosophical painting.

In the West, when we think of iconographic or religious paintings, we are accustomed to pictures of divine human figures and of angels and saints. When the mind of the Far East expresses its religious feeling, however, it finds appropriate imagery in the objects of nature, and in this very important respect their feeling for nature is different from ours. The contrast in these two forms of expression arises as a result of the sensation that the human being is not someone who stands apart from nature and looks at it from the outside, but instead is an integral part of it. Instead of dominating nature, human beings fit right into it and feel perfectly at home.

In the West our attitude is strangely different, and we constantly use a phrase that sounds peculiar indeed in the ears of a Chinese person: We speak of "the conquest of nature" or "the conquest of space," and of the "conquest" of great mountains like Everest. And one might very well ask us, "What on Earth is the matter with you? Why must you feel as if you are in a fight with your environment all the time? Aren't you grateful to the mountain that it lifted you up as you climbed to the top of it? Aren't you grateful to space that it opens itself up for you so you can travel right through it? Why do you even think of getting into a fight with it?"

Indeed, it is this domineering feeling that underlies the way we use technology. We use the powers of electricity and the strength of steel to carry on a battle with our external world, and instead of trying to live with the curvature of the land we flatten it with bulldozers, and constantly try to beat our surroundings into submission.

The problem is that we have been brought up in a religious and philosophical tradition that, to a great extent, has taught us to mistrust the nature that surrounds us, and to mistrust ourselves as well. We have inherited a doctrine of original sin, which tells us not to be too friendly, and to be very cautious of our own human nature. It has taught us that as reasoning and willing beings we should be suspect of our animal and instinctual nature.

In one sense this is all very well, for we have indeed achieved great technological advances through harnessing the powers of nature. If we carry thisx effort beyond a certain point, however, our manipulations interfere with the very course of nature, and this gets us into serious trouble indeed.

As a result of our interference we are experiencing today what we could call the "law of diminishing returns." For example, we want to go faster and faster everywhere we go, and so we attempt to obliterate the distance between ourselves and the place we are trying to reach. But as the result of this attempt to minimize the span of the Earth between these points, two things begin to happen.

First, all places that become closer and closer to each other by the use of jet planes tend to become the same place. The faster you can get from Los Angeles to Hawaii, the more Hawaii becomes exactly like Los Angeles. This is why the tourists keep asking, "Has it been spoiled yet?" What they are really asking is, "Is it just like home?"

Second, if we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must arrive, this thinking begins to cut out all that makes a point worth having. It is as if instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I gave you just the two tiny ends of the banana — and that would not be, in any sense, a satisfactory meal. But as we fight our environment in our tendency to get rid of the limitations of time and space, and try to make the world a more convenient place to live, this is exactly what happens.

For a much better understanding of our place in nature, we can look to the great religions and philosophies that blossomed and took deep root in the consciousness of so much of the population throughout Asia and the Far East.

Taoism and Confucianism

There are two great main currents in traditional Chinese thinking: the Taoist current and the Confucian. Both of them agree on one fundamental principle, and that is that the natural world in which we live, and human nature itself, must be trusted. They would say of a person who cannot trust his own basic nature, "If you cannot trust your own nature, how can you trust your own mistrusting of it? How do you know that your mistrust is not wrong as well?" If you do not trust your own nature, you become as tangled up as anyone can be.

Their idea of nature is that which happens of itself so, and that is a process which is not fundamentally under our control. By definition it is that which ishappening all on its own, just as our breathing is happening all on its own, andx just as our heart is beating all on its own — and the fundamental wisdom behind Taoist philosophy is that this "self-so" process is to be trusted.

Taoist thought is generally attributed to Lao-tzu, who is thought to have lived somewhere around 400 B.C.E., and to Chuang-tse, who lived from 369 to 286 B.C.E. Taoism is known to us as the uniquely Chinese way of thought, living, and liberation, although its roots certainly lie in shamanic traditions common to much of northeastern Asia, and probably to North America as well. In its final form, however, it is so similar to Buddhism that Taoist terms are often used to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese. Once Buddhism was imported to China, Taoism so completely permeated Mahayana Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular that the philosophies of these schools are often indistinguishable.

Like Vedanta and yoga in India, older gentlemen in China traditionally adopted Taoism after they had made their contribution to society, and thereafter they would retire to primitive dwellings or caves to live in the wild and meditate for long periods of time. As in Buddhist lore, where the return of the sage into the world is known as the path of the Bodhisattva, Taoist stories are filled with accounts of the return of the liberated sage into worldly affairs. In fact the primary text, the Tao Te Ching, was originally written as a manual of advice for the ruling class. The teachings of Lao-tzu and of Chuang-tse must not be confused, incidentally, with the Taoist cult of alchemy and magic preoccupied with life extension — that is Taoist only in name, and not in practice.

Although Taoism proper has never become an organized religion, it has attracted the curiosity of scholars and philosophers of the Far East for more than two thousand years.

Taoism regards the entire natural world as the operation of the Tao, a process that defies intellectual comprehension. The experience of the Tao cannot be obtained through any preordained method, although those who seek it often cultivate inner calm through the silent contemplation of nature. Taoists understand the practice of wu wei, the attribute of not forcing or grasping, and recognize that human nature — like all nature — is tzu-jan, or "of-itself-so."

When we look to Confucian ideas, which governed Chinese moral and social life, we find a different word that represents the basis of human nature. This wordhas a funny pronunciation, and although we Romanize this word in English as jen, it is pronounced "wren," with a sort of rolling "r." This word is symbolic of mankind's cardinal virtue in the system of Confucian morality, and it is usually translated "human-heartedness" or "humanness." When Confucius was asked to give a precise definition of it, though, he refused. He said, "You have to feel the meaning of this virtue. You must never put it into words."

The wisdom of his attitude toward defining jen is simply that a human being will always be greater than anything they can say about themselves, and anything they can think about themselves. If we formulate ideas about our own nature, about how our own minds and emotions work, those ideas are always going to be qualitatively inferior — that is to say, far less complicated and far less alive — than the actual author of the ideas themselves, and that is us. So there is something about ourselves that we can never get at, that we can never define — and in just the same way you cannot bite your own teeth, you cannot hear your own ears, and you cannot make your own hand catch hold of itself. So therefore you must let go and trust the goings-on of your humanness. Confucius was the first to say that he would rather trust human passions and instincts than trust human ideas about what is right, for like the Taoists he realized that we have to allow all living things to look after themselves.

The World and Its Opposites

When we say what things are, we always contrast them with something else, and when we try to talk about the whole universe — about all that there is — we find we really have no words for it. It is "one what?"

All of this "one what?" is represented by the symbol of the great circle. But in order to think about life, we have to make comparisons, and so we split it in two and derive from the circle the symbol of the yang and the yin, the positive and the negative.

We see this symbol over and over on Chinese pottery, and today on everything from jewelry to T-shirts. Traditionally this emblem is one of the basic symbols of the philosophy of Taoism. It is the symbol of the yang, or the male, and the yin, the female, of the positive and the negative, the yes and the no, thelight and the dark. We always have to divide the world into opposites or categories in order to be able to think about it. In the words of Lao-tzu,

    When people see some things as beautiful,
    other things become ugly.
    When people see some things as good,
    other things become bad.

    Being and non-being create each other.
    Difficult and easy support each other.
    Long and short define each other.
    High and low depend on each other.


In the literary tradition of Taoism, the legendary Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu is often referred to as a contemporary of Confucius. According to some accounts, Lao-tzu was supposed to have been a court librarian who wearied of the insincerity and intrigue of court life and decided to leave the city and go off and live in the mountains. But before he left, the guardian of the gate is said to have stopped him and said,

"Sir, I cannot let you go until you write down something of your wisdom."

And it is said that he sat down in the guardhouse and recorded the book known as the Tao Te Ching, the book of Tao and Te, of the Way and its power.

The core of Lao-tzu's written philosophy deals with the art of getting out of one's own way, learning how to act without forcing conclusions, and living in skillful harmony with the processes of nature instead of trying to push them around. Lao-tzu didn't actually say very much about the meaning of Tao; instead, he simply offered his advice.

It is now believed that although this work was probably rendered in a single hand during the time of Confucius, or shortly thereafter, the author incorporated the wisdom of a much older folk tradition. One school believes that Taoist literature was inspired by the oral teaching of shamanic hermits in ancient times. Another holds that the Tao Te Ching was an attempt to bring the practical, conventional wisdom of the Chinese people to the ruling class in order to help them to rule with greater wisdom and compassion. Both schools are probably partially correct, and in either case Taoist thought remains among the most accessible of the world's great religious philosophies, and is perhaps the only one to retain a sense of humor.

My favorite picture of Lao-tzu is by the master Sengai, and it shows him in the sort of disheveled and informal style that is so characteristic of Taoist humor, and was later assimilated in Zen Buddhism. This playfulness is one of the most delightful characteristics of the whole of Taoist philosophy and, as a result, I know of no other philosophical works besides those of Lao-tzu and his successor Chuang-tse that are so eminently readable. Of all the great sages of the world, they alone have a sense of the enjoyment of life just as it comes.

Lao-tzu literally means "the old fellow," since Lao means "old" and tzu means "fellow," or sometimes boy. So Lao-tzu is the old boy, and he is sometimes shown as a white-bearded youth, which is of course symbolic of his great wisdom at an early age.

Long before Buddhism came to China in about 60 a.d., Lao-tzu's philosophy had revealed to the Chinese that you cannot characterize reality, or life itself, as either being or non-being, as either form or emptiness, or by any pair of opposites that you might think of. As he said, "When all the world knows goodness to be good, there is already evil."

We do not know what any of these things are except by contrast with their opposite. For example, it is difficult to see a figure unless there is a contrasting background. Were there no background to the figure, the figure would vanish, which is the principle of camouflage. Because of the inseparability of opposites, therefore, you realize that they always go together, and this hints at some kind of unity that underlies them.


In Lao-tzu's philosophy this unity is called Tao. Although it is written t-a-o, inChinese it is pronounced almost as if it were spelled d-o-w. It has the sense of a rhythmic motion, of going on and stopping, and also a sense of intelligence, and so you get an idea of a sort of rhythmic intelligence that ebbs and flows like the tides.

The word has two general meanings. One is perhaps best rendered into English as "the way," "the way of things," or "the way of nature." The other sense of the word means "to speak," so when the opening words of Lao-tzu's book say,

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao,

it makes a pun in Chinese. It says literally, "The Tao that can be Tao is not Tao," or if you read it like a telegram, "Tao can Tao no Tao." The first meaning of Tao is "the way," and the second meaning of it is "to speak," or in other words,

The way that can be expressed is not the eternal way.

I prefer not to translate the word Tao at all because to us Tao is a sort of nonsense syllable, indicating the mystery that we can never understand — the unity that underlies the opposites. In our deepest intuition we know that there is some sort of unity underlying these various opposites because we find that we can't separate one from the other. We know that a whole universe exists, but we can't really say what it is. So Tao is thus a reality that we apprehend deeply without being able to define it.


Excerpted from What is Tao? by Alan Watts, Mark Watts, Marc Allen. Copyright © 2000 Mark Watts. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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