Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World
by Ted Kardash
|Taoism, an ancient Chinese system of thought, views the
Universe as an interconnected, organic whole. Nothing exists
separately from anything else. The Universe is governed by a set
of natural and unalterable laws which manifest themselves as a
flow of continuous change. This natural order and flow is
referred to as the Tao, or the Way. By recognizing and aligning
ourselves with these laws, humans can attain a state of being
which combines the experience of total freedom with one of
complete connectedness to life’s processes - being at one with
To help gain this level of existence, Taoist writings offer us various principles to be followed in the course of everyday living. Understanding and adopting these values presents the opportunity to become whole and complete, to consciously become an inseparable part of life’s flow.
A central concept in Taoist thought is that of te, or virtue. This word appears in the title of the famous work by the legendary sage, Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching - The Power of the Way. Though virtue is the literal translation of te, the word is used in Taoist literature to indicate power or strength (as the Latin root, virtus, indicates). Te refers to the fact that all things contain an inherent power or strength that comes from their own essential being or true inner nature. This power derives from the fact that our true self is an expression of the Tao, because it is intrinsically connected with the power of the Universe. However, the idea of te is that of power exercised without the use of force and without inappropriate interference in the existing order of things.
In our modern society much attention is devoted to promoting self-awareness: "finding ourselves," "knowing who we truly are." Many traditions, including certain schools of Western psychology, regard this discovery and acceptance of self as central to personal well-being, an important step on the path of individual transformation. It also is the belief of certain social thinkers and activists that, without a high degree of individual self-awareness and responsibility, it will remain impossible to resolve the many social and environmental problems currently facing mankind.
What guidelines does Taoism offer in this area? How can we manifest our te, know our true selves in a manner that connects us with the rest of our world?
Our conventional Western outlook is based on the assumption that humans are all separate entities, existing apart from each other and from the surrounding environment. Te, on the other hand, implies a trust and belief in one’s own inner nature and in the interconnectedness of all life.
As a first step, we are asked to believe in ourselves, in our own inherent goodness, in the process that is Tao. "The great Tao flows everywhere. It nourishes the ten thousand things. It holds nothing back," Lao Tzu states, encouraging us not to give in to our doubts and fears.
As a means of developing this trust and belief in the Tao and expressing our inner nature, Lao Tzu counsels us to move beyond conventional values, those social mores and norms which tend to strengthen our view of ourselves as separate egos or selves and which are rooted in doubt and fear. These values only serve to lock us in our sense of separation and rob us of the power of our true being.
To help manifest our te, Lao Tzu gives us his "three treasures" which assist us in developing our perception of the unity of life and in cultivating a way of being that is harmonious with the Tao. The first treasure is compassion, the second is frugality or balance, and the third is humility, "daring not to be ahead of others."
We must feel and experience our connection with all of humanity, all of life. In this way we are able to respond to various situations in an appropriate, helpful manner, serving the higher good. This is compassion. Practicing frugality works to preserve the delicate balance that exists in life and harmonizes our actions with those of the Universe. The Tao will nourish us if we make wise use of its resources. And adopting an attitude of humility allows us to be guided by the creative forces of the Tao and orients our actions towards service to all mankind and the Universe as a whole.
In this way our te emerges. More and more we find our actions truly expressing our inner nature. More and more they are in harmony with the Tao. As our te manifests we experience ourselves as an integral part of our environment, moving effortlessly and naturally along life’s path.
The next article in this series will deal with the concept of yin and yang, the two primal energies that form the basis for all change.
Ted Kardash is the Assistant Director of the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego (619-692-1155) where he teaches classes in Tai Chi Chuan and Taoist philosophy. He also is a licensed Marriage, Family, Child Counselor with a practice in the San Diego area. To contact the Taoist Sanctuary, please call (619) 692-1155..
Part one in our five part series: Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for A Modern World