The Rational Taoism Page

    Taoism is the Chinese Philosophy and/or Religion best known through the classical Taoist literature of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Rational Taoism is the Taoism of the modern and international Taoist who wants a world view and Way of life rooted in the insights and aesthetic of the Chinese tradition, and yet one that accepts the good things of the modern, scientific world, and is not limited by the ethnocentrisms of old Imperial China.

    The modern Chinese philosopher Fung Yu-lan once remarked to the pre-eminent British historian of the history of Chinese science, Dr. Joseph Needham, that Taoism was the only mystical system known to him which was not hostile towards science. Taoism indeed was the tradition in Chinese society which actively concerned itself with medicine and chemistry, with the results being the whole system of Chinese medicine and the invention of gunpowder and the rocket motor.

    Unfortunately Taoist science based itself on the Five-Element Theory, which was a dead end, and it never adequately developed mathematical analysis and a truly systematic experimental method. In many ways, therefore, we may say that the science that in more recent centuries developed in the West (inheriting various Chinese elements) is the true heir of the Taoist impulse towards the understanding of Nature.

    At the same time, we must acknowledge that the fundamental world view of Taoism has been shown correct: Taoism has always seen the world as a vast interplay and evolution of energy-matter (ch'i) sccording to its own impersonal formative principles. Minds that have been used to a personalised deity might even today feel uncomfortable with this scientific perspective, which to them seems overly vast, cold, uncaring, and amoral; to a Taoist, though, it is normal, and the spontaneity of Naure in her myriad transformations is ever a source of infinite delight.

    The Taoist has always lived in the world postulated by modern science, and more importantly, he has been happy in that world. He has ever been both mystical and practical, both idealistic and realistic, both artistically inclined and satisfied with the simple and crude, both naturalistic and humanistic.

    For some centuries there has been no great figure in Taoist history. This is partly due to the scientific wrong turning, but also due to the taking over of many Taoist concerns into Chinese Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism. Today, however, the appeal of Taoism is making itself felt around the world as never before, and the time is ripe for the evolution of a truly modern and international Taoism.

    Such a Taoism might properly be called "Rational" not only because it accepts modern science, but also because it uses reason to select from among the highly contradictory strands of the embarassingly rich Taoist tradition elements and interpretations helpful to human life at the begining of the 21'st Century.

    If this enterprise appeals to you, it is recommended that you read the Frequently Asked Questions and otherwise explore this site. Enjoy!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)

Q: What is the "Tao"?

A: The most basic meaning of the word in Chinese is "way". However, its special meaning in Taoism is God-Nature, Deus sive Natura as Spinoza expressed essentially the same concept. The Ultimate, Infinite and Absolute. "Nature Naturing" (Natura naturans), self sustaining and self organising, as opposed to "Nature Natured" (Natura naturata), passive nature as an assemblage of conditioned parts.

Q: Does that mean that Taoists think that everything is God?

A: Yes and no. A tree, for example, is basically "just" a tree. However, it is indeed at the same time a manifestation of the Ultimate Reality which "desires" to express itself in this place and time as a tree. It embodies the general form of tree as a kind of organism evolved on the earth to live under certain conditions, and the whole set of causal relations from the indefinite past have resulted at this time and place in a specific tree with all of the peculiar accidents which make it an individual tree in history. So, insofar as it is useful to think of the tree as a source of shade or wood, it is simply a tree. Insofar as it is useful to recognise its character as an instantiation of Reality, the Taoist so regards it. Sometimes, if it is for some reason a tree evocative (to Man) of the Mystery of existence, due to its age or size or form, a Taoist may even worship it in this latter aspect.

Q: Isn't that just reducing God to Nature and matter?

A: No! There is no "reducing" involved. Taoism does not begin with the Western division of the world into "God" and "Nature" or "Spirit" and "Matter". In Taoism there is from the beginning one Reality. It is not in itself personal, but is capable of having persons within It. It is therefore "Nature", but not a Nature from which divinity has been artificially separated off. And It is at the same time a "Deity" which is not imaginatively abstraced from the concrete and real Nature of which we are a part.

Q: Is it correct, then, to say that we are parts of the Tao?

A: Yes and no. Insofar as we think of the Tao as being like Natured Nature, we are part of It. Insofar as we think of it more spiritually, abstractly or metaphysically, though, as Naturing Nature, it would be better to say that we are It, for the simple reason that in an absolute sense It does not have parts.

Q: Can the Tao be followed?

A: In one sense the Tao is absolute and can be neither followed nor deviated from. In another sense we can choose to follow it consciously, which we do by attending to our inner impulses, respecting Reason, and observing Nature.

Q: Does Taoism allow one to be active in the world? Or must one
retire to the mountains for a purely contemplative life?

A: Retiring into the mountains is good for those who have a personal inclination to do so, and for many of us in later life. However, there are also ancient trends in Taoism which permit and encourage life and "actionless action" in the everyday world. After all, the Tao is everywhere and includes all things. At the same time all Taoists should try to maintain daily and meaningful contact with Nature and through attitude and meditation maintain their internal serenity. Taoists are urged to avoid desires for wealth, fame, popularity or power. Moderation, unhurriedness and ambitionlessness are the key to a happy existence.  The Taoist seeks his wellbeing in tranquility, not in excitements.

Q: What is Taoist "Inaction" or "Actionless Action"?

A: Inaction or wu-wei does not mean that one literally does nothing (although more often than we think actually doing nothing is the best policy). Rather, it means that one avoids unnatural action. This is most often forced or aggressive or obsessively fussy action. It also means, that one performs all one's actions with a natural, unforced attitude. The Taoist remembers that sand will settle out of water in time if the water is left undisturbed, and that no one person can do everything. Above all the Taoist avoids fussing. Excessive excitement over trivial matters is an annoyance to both self and others. The Czech philosopher Comenius expressed the idea in his motto: "Omnia sponte fluant; absit violentia rebus" "Let all things spontaneously flow; let there be no violence to things". Wu-wei is also related to tolerance: one does not insistently interfere in the lives of others unless they themselves are interfering with someone. This letting alone of others is a form of respect and non-violence, and is akin to the modern notion of human rights.

Q: Is Taoism pacifistic?

A: No. Taoism is pacific, but not pacifistic. Well over two thousand years ago Lao-tzu wrote in opposition to aggressive war and in general to imperialism, expansionism and militarism. However, he recognised that sometimes defence of self or others from the aggression of the powerful and ambitious is necessary. For that purpose he recommended guerilla tactics and strategies similar to jûdô - using the enemy's aggressivenes against him. Chinese martial arts have been influenced by this doctrine, and even the gentle t'ai-chi ch'üan has such practical applications. Taoism is both peace loving and realistic.

Q: Does Taoism have a moral code and social concerns?

A: Yes. As mentioned above, Lao-tzu spoke out against aggressive warfare, capital punishment and exploitation of the poor by the rich. And the doctrine of wu-wei includes respect for the autonomy of others. In individual morality Taoism stresses the Three Virtues of Lao-tzu: Caring Love (ts'e), Moderation and Ambitionlessness. However, unlike many other traditions, Taoism mistrusts the value of constant talk about love and other positive virtues, believing that this leads too easily to hypocrisy and the artificial imitation of virtues which should come naturally if they are not perverted.

Q: Are Taoists vegetarians?

A: Traditionally Taoists were (with some important exceptions) not vegetarians. However, the most important modern Taoist denomination, the Yi-kuan Tao is strongly vegetarian, and vegetarianism is popular among other contemporary Taoists as well, albeit not universal. Although this vegetarianism was learned from the Buddhists in China, it is also a natural outcome of the Taoist belief in the unity of all beings and the levelling of unnecessary distinctions among them. (One sage was noted for sharing his wine bowl with his pigs, for example!)

Q: Do Taoists have a special concern for ecological problems?

A: Traditionally, no, because the pressure of human numbers in China was for centuries still not sufficient to endanger the very considerable wilderness areas not suitable for agriculture. And the majority of people lived in agricultural villages, and therefore were close to nature, if not always to wilderness. Taoism always respected the sanctity of its sacred mountains, though, and today many Taoists are coming to see that care must be exercised by Mankind not only to preserve its ecological life-support system, but also to ensure that areas of natural holiness, grandeur and mystery be protected for future generations. It is also a typically Taoist concern that as many people as possible be able to live in direct, intimate and daily contact with nature, and not packed into concrete cities. The most important single aspect of the problem in the long run is the reduction in absolute numbers of human population on Earth. (Expansion in space habitats or on other moons and planets could continue, of course. And space and desert are just as much "nature" as anything natural on Earth.)

Q: How does one become a Taoist?

A: There is no central Taoist authority in the world today. Anyone who derives his primary philosophical, religious or spiritual inspiration and guidance from the Taoist tradition is welcome to publicly declare himself a Taoist, and no one has the right to gainsay that declaration. One can also join a Taoist religious denomination such as the Yi-kuan Tao. In the Chinese cultural context it has always been possible to divide one's religious and philosophical loyalties among the Taoists, Confucians and Buddhists, although some people have elected one such identity almost exclusively. It is accordingly possible to consider oneself a "Christian Taoist" or "Taoist Christian", etc. Zen or Ch'an Buddhism is essentially a kind of Taoist Buddhism or Taoist Buddhism. Taoism is tolerant and all accepting like the Tao Itself.