I never set out to be a Taoist, I had no intention to be anything, even now if pushed I wouldn’t refer to myself as a Taoist. That may seem contradictory but in some ways it actually makes me more of a Taoist! Let me explain. The historical figure Lao Tzu could be referred to as the Grandfather of Taoism, yet in his time he wasn’t called a Taoist, I’d imagine if confronted with this label he would mostly likely gently refuse it. Even when the term Tao was initially used by Lao Tzu it was done so with reluctance, a term forced through necessity. In the first verse of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu states,
“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao, The name that can be named is not the eternal name, The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth, The named is the mother of myriad things”.
Lao Tzu was left with a problem, how do we name the nameless, the process of naming something creates something, but the Tao is everything. Through naming we separate, but the Tao is not separate. The Tao is a state of non duality, the original state where all things are one thing. So reluctantly Lao Tzu uses the name Tao. However he also did something very clever, you see Tao means, path, street, road, the Tao means the Way. He named the unnameable but he did so with a word that implies a process, a direction, a signpost. So although we use the word Tao to describe the non dual state of existence, that which existed before time, before this and that. Tao is actually pointing a way, its not the destination, its how we get there, the Tao is a process, the Tao is a river flowing to the ocean, he’s encouraging you to let the river take you. Lao Tzu understood that by naming the destination it no longer is the destination, the very act of naming destroys the original meaning. As such I see no reason to call myself a Taoist, however much like Lao Tzu I reluctantly understand in this world we need labels to define and understand the world around us, as such, maybe I am a Taoist. To begin to understand Taoism a little more why don’t we take a look at the rest of that first verse?
“Thus, constantly free of desire One observes its wonders Constantly filled with desire One observes its manifestations" "These two emerge together but differ in name The unity is said to be the mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders”
The first verse of the Tao Te Ching sets the landscape, it puts you firmly on the path, it shows you the beginning and the end. The rest of the Tao Te Ching expands upon this initial truth. Lao Tzu encourages us to free ourselves of desire so we can see the wonders of life, sowe can see the Tao. If we are unable to do this we will instead see the manifestations of the Tao, what the Taoists often call the 10,000 things. But how do we let go of desire? What Lao Tzu is referring to here is separation, when we desire something we make a judgement, I like this I don’t like that, I want this I don’t want that. In this act of judgement we separate life and so we remove ourselves from the Tao. Now all we see are the manifestations of the Tao but not the Tao itself. Now we see the single drops of water but we are unable to see the ocean. Thus to let go of desire we must let go of identifying with the mind, that part of us that continually judges life. The buddhist would say we need non attachment, the Taoist would say we need to find our true nature. The final verse reminds us that the drops of water are the ocean and the ocean are the drops of water. Both are from the same source, both are present at the same time, only our understanding and perception needs to change. This is the mystery, the mystery that opens life up. When we understand this verse and more importantly feel this verse our world completely changes, however on the outside nothing has changed, only our understanding. As Lao Tzu so beautifully puts it, we stop seeing the manifestations and we finally observe the wonders, we finally remember we are the Tao.
The above video is a short documentary on the history of Taoism and its fundamental approach to life.