The Way to the Way:
A Short Guide to Modern Taoist Belief & Practice 

Entering the Way

    The Taoist is one who seeks to follow the Way, the Tao of the Taoist masters, pre-eminently Lao-tzu. Yet this Way is fundamentally not something which can be followed and not something which can be deviated from. And in the understanding of that paradox is precisely the following of the Way.
    The Way cannot truly be followed because it is the Eternal, Infinite  and Absolute which can never be altered, never be added to or taken away from. All space and all time are within it, but it is nowhere and nowhen, since it is everywhere and always.
    And one can never deviate from it, for even deviation is but another manner of following it. Evil cannot separate us from the Tao, as the Tao is not "human-hearted" and its thoughts are not ours. Natural disaster and terrible disease are as much of the Tao as a smiling landscape in spring, and Hitler or Mao are as holy as the Yellow Emperor. Taoism is not fundamentally sentimental or moralistic (although it is moral).
    These are truths of Tao the Absolute, but human minds more often perceive matters in a relative and temporal manner. And from this relative point of view it is possible to see that different people at different times perceive the absoluteness of life to different degrees. To have a perception of the unity of oneself and perfect reality is precisely to be in the Way, and to so transmute oneself that through time that such perception becomes deeper and more constant is to follow the Way.
    When we are in the Way, we see that we have never lost it and that all in the universe is equally perfect. In this state of mind we act more perfectly, we act from our Centre which is the Tao itself mediated to us as its Virtue (Te), which is no other than our own individual nature as it exists in the Tao from eternity to eternity.
    But how can we be more perfect than perfect, when all is perfect? The Tao is impartial and all encompassing, but it is also a norm. In the common human mind the Tao discriminates between good and evil. In the enlightened human mind the Tao discriminates between good and evil correctly. Correctly in that the perceived good is truly good and the perceived evil truly evil according to their objective natures, and also correctly in that these opposites are not seen as metaphysical absolutes, but as simply practical matters related to the human mind, which must, after all, regulate conduct.
    The Taoist does not struggle to be good, because he or she is good. As good as all things are good, as good as a Taoist is good. In the Taoist the Tao serves Itself as It sees Itself in others, doing so by the realisation of the individual nature of the Taoist in all of its creative idiosyncraticity and particularity.

Inaction (Wu-wei)

    The principal Taoist virtue and modus vivendi is inaction or wu-wei. This by no means signifies being like a rock or dead ashes. It is, as it were, an imitation of the Tao, which does all things done in the cosmos, never by an activity from above or without, but in the activity of things themselves as they spontaneously follow their Tao-given natures and interact in the unity of the Way.
    So, the Taoist, insofar as possible, seeks neither to interfere nor to intervene, but to foster and nurture a desirable state of affairs as quietly and as sparingly as possible from behind the scenes, giving any credit to others.
    `More subtly, the Taoist refrains from interfering in his own mental life, but permits his nature to express itself naturally and spontaneously; even if this results in what appears to be action, it is in a spiritual sense not so. The Taoist knows that one can force neither interest nor disinterest nor love not belief, and he commits no violence against his nature by trying to compel him- or herself to feel what is unnatural or believe what is implausible. Rather, he or she gently leads the mind and shows it where its true welfare lies, patiently and lovingly creating insight and wholesome habits. Others he or she treats with a similar patience and gentleness.
    For the Taoist sees clearly that all aggression is contrary to the Tao. Aggression is the strongest form of interference; it is to change the course of the world and the behaviour of others by forceful act of will. The Taoist respects the perfection of things as they are, and the individuality and personality of all human beings. He or she trespasses not on others’ rights or privacy, nor seeks to remake the world by force of will.
    Of course, in the face of aggression by others the Taoist has the right of self-defence and the right to defend others, even by violence – Taoism is peace-loving, but not pacifistic. However, all the necessary harm he or she might then do must be regretted sincerely, and the Taoist may not, out of any vindictiveness, do more harm than necessary to resolve the problem of others’ aggressivity.
    Inactivity also sometimes does mean literally refraining from action. Sand will settle out of water by itself if left undisturbed. We must know when to leave well enough alone, when to let sleeping dogs lie, that the first rule of medicine is to avoid doing harm, and that if something is not broken it is not necessary to fix it.
    The Taoist avoids busyness. He or she has no desire to impress through hustle and bustle, lusts not after efficiency, and does not exist to "get things done". Does not the Taoist already get everything done through identification with the Tao? So, the Taoist values leisure, relaxation, and outright laziness. Living is the joy of life, not struggling to stay alive, which as a necessary evil is not to be praised, but endured in good spirits and minimised as possible. The Taoist is not enterprising, and prefers to "work smart, not hard".
    And it is in leisure, when we may study the Taoist classics, read poetry, meditate, drink tea, chat with Taoist friends, engage in t’ai-chi ch’üan, paint, play the flute, or wander among Nature, that we can most school our minds to profundity and nourish our souls.


    The Taoist has few desires. Indeed, from an absolute point of view he has none, since he knowingly possesses the Tao, than which there is nothing greater and outside of which there is really nothing at all to desire. In a relative sense, of course, he or she does have human desires, being the Tao manifesting as a human being. However, the Taoist seeks to keep these desires both few and moderate.
    In particular the Taoist moderates desires for things harmful to him- or herself or to others, and those for things difficult or impossible to obtain. To desire the impossible is indeed to frustrate oneself, and to desire the difficult to obtain is to condemn oneself to struggle in order to procure the object of desire, and this will lead to suffering or conflict.
    Desiring little, and that in accord with nature and possibility, the Taoist can simplify his or her life.
    The lives of most people in the richer lands is not simple. How much do we serve our automobiles so that they may transport us? How often do we live huddled in a city apartment to be close to a job to make the money to vacation in the country and wilderness, which the simple peasant can enjoy every day? How can we explain paying for telephones to disturb us at random times day and night and disrupt our tranquillity? And how can we justify the installation of televisions which tempt us to the vain excitements of sports or soap operas or "action" films – excitements that in the end simply numb the mind and rob one of the time for true leisure?
    The waste of time and destructive perversity of daily removing the beauty of the male beard is another example of the complication of life. As is the modern fad of virtually-compulsory daily bathing, and worse custom of using artificial deodorants. Our grandparents bathed weekly and did not disgust each other with their natural odours; Taoist authorities recommend a sane moderation and common sense in contrast to the over-fastidious faddism of the age.
    An overemphasis on dust-free, shiny-floored, showcase homes is also an exaggerated time-waster, especially in Japan and Europe. Taoism makes no connexion between cleanliness and godliness, seeing that the Tao is in the ants and faeces as well as everywhere else, while the tale of the Taoist sage who shared the wine bowl with his pig is a well-known and instructive account.
    In general, everything which is based on "fussing" is anathema to the Taoist. The Taoist does not fuss – he or she aims for a comfortable and homey untidiness in life and environment, an absence of obvious and forced perfection, and with it an absence of anxiety about the trivial.
Taoism desires an elegance of life based on exquisite sensitivity of taste combined with naturalness and simplicity. All elegance which is based on conformity to convention, and still worse, the aping of the rich and famous or the misled human herd, is frowned on in Taoism. Taoists are not fashionable.


    One seeks the Tao in the silence, and the Taoist must reserve to himself a daily time of withdrawal for the spiritual task of entering into this silence. Having entered his chamber, or perhaps amid nature, the Taoist will ideally begin with a time given over to breathing exercises, t’ai-chi ch’üan, prayer, hathayoga, the tea ceremony, staring into a fire, listening to suitable music, contemplation of art or nature, chanting, spiritual readings or poetry, whatever is personally most suitable. Generally speaking, one searches for whatever to the individual is suffused with Te, the mysterious power of the Tao. Such things, whether written passages, objects or practices we may call "hodophanic", "showing the Way".
    Having prepared for the silence, the Taoist must seat himself comfortably with an erect spine, perhaps in the lotus posture, and turn the mind towards the expectant silence until of its own accord it accepts the silence and embraces it, as the silence embraces the mind in return. This silence is then allowed to show us what the deeper levels of our mind consider to be suitable for our edification, the clarification of our understanding and the purification of our heart.
    However, whatever experiences of love, compassion, gratitude, insight, visions, energy, and light may come, it is important to accept them and continue, for it is on no remembered experience in past time that the spiritual life of the Taoist is based, but on the limitless and eternal Tao sufficient in Its gifts from moment to moment, which is like an eye that sees but sees not itself, and is therefore ungraspable. It is in the silent and expectant emptiness of the spirit that we meet the Tao and in which we finally realise that we are the Tao and have always been so.
    Into the silence there may come images and thoughts from the worries and hopes of everyday life, or fears and desires from the subconscious. But with practice there will come too a deep understanding of  many things: one’s own nature, one’s relationships with others, and the life of Man.
    The practice of stillness will also sensitise the moral, aesthetic and spiritual senses, and will conduce to tranquillity of mind and a more rapid spontaneous return to serenity after upset. One will be more aware of how the mind contributes to making things seem as they appear, and the mind will display an increased natural vigour and freshness, although at times it may also temporarily seem arid or torpid as it grows and adjusts and transforms itself. (This is typical of all mysticism.)
     More and more the practising Taoist will come to appreciate the silence, to identify with it, and to realise the Tao, and this will illuminate the remainder of his life, which is truly "in the world, but not of the world".


    The symbol of Taoism is the T’ai-chi t’u (as at the top of this page),  the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate in which one circle is shown to be made up of white and black fish-like figures giving the impression of circular movement, in each of which is a small circle of the opposite shade.
    In this image the two shades symbolise any pair of opposites, but in general the yin and the yang. Together they make a whole. The impression of circular movement indicates the cyclicity in time of their respective dominance. Finally the smaller circles of the opposite shade represent that one arises from the other, since together they are a continuum.
    This symbol is often taken to show harmony, and indeed the Taoist life is based on harmony, including the harmony found in conflict. A harmony of past and present, male and female, East and West, active and passive, youth and age, giving and taking.
    However, it also emphasises that we cannot have one element to the extreme in a total situation without calling forth its opposite. For example, extreme success in some matter may in some way promote further success, but at the same time another force begins to work at some point and move the situation back towards the mean. This reversion to the mean is the central tendency of the Tao. Knowledge of it restrains the Taoist from going to extremes and seeking too strict a perfection in relative terms. Perfection means that any change must be towards imperfection, and there is always change.
    In managing the cycles of change the Taoist seeks the right time to act, so that the least action in accordance with the tide of the moment will have the maximum and most harmonious effect. This timing is not accomplished through haste, but through waiting, slowing down, and manifesting a tranquil patience. The supposed opportunities the Taoist "misses" through refusing to hasten are not begrudged, for the Taoist knows that the rhythms of Nature are slow, and only what is attained through slowness is in the long term for the best.
    In seeing the whole of the circle of the Great Ultimate, the Taoist is impartial, objective and cosmopolitan. He takes Nature as his standard, not the conventions he finds around him.


     The Taoist regards the cosmos as his or her native land and the whole earth as home. The Tao is a cosmic force which not only moves in the flowers of the plain and pines of the hill, but in the planets, stars and galaxies, all of which are comprised within the Tao and manifest Its spontaneous creativity.
    Indeed the elements in our bodies were once in the cores of an earlier generation of stars, the nuclear furnace of the present sun is the incubator and sustainer of most life on earth, and it is from the humble elements of this good earth that life was born and diversified so that all living things we know are literally cousins near or distant, and the line of life begetting life has continued unbroken for billions of years.
    The Taoist deeply feels this relation to the cosmos, to the earth, and to other living beings. His thought is on the immensities of the void and the vast ages of cosmic evolution, beside which the extents of countries and empires is microscopic and their histories brief instants.
    Thus the Taoist lives with a natural goodness wherever placed, but his or her loyalty is to Mankind, to Life, to Mind, not to clan, tribe, nation, class, race, sex, generation, caste, linguistic group or received religious tradition. He or she may be involved within the web of society and life, but the Taoist is not willing to be limited by the accident of birth which places him or her in one station and condition, in one family and nation, rather than another. These the Taoist relentlessly transcends as inimical to adherence to the One.
    From this closeness to all other life, the Taoist is also loath to eat the flesh of fellow sentient beings. This compassion was learned from the Buddhists, but is implicit in the doctrines of Taoism towards other creatures.


    The Taoist is moderate, temperate and continent. He or she knows that extremes are perilous and often call forth their unwanted opposites, and knows too that each thing has its proper measure according to its nature.
    Desiring moderately, he or she the more easily refrains from competitiveness, ambition and self-promotion, desiring in nothing to seek the highest place. In seeking obscurity and contentment with little the Taoist is the living antidote to the pathology of societies in which those with the most ambition, assertiveness, competitive spirit, and self-publicising natures are approved and rewarded, while the modest and simple are exploited to reward the clever, masterful winners. This the Taoist knows to be contrary to the Way of Heaven. Leisure and security for all in solidarity, with the necessary work of the world carried out in fair collaboration, is the teaching of the sages of old. Human society is not only for a limited circle of winners, but for all born into the world.
    The Taoist equally avoids, if possible, being too poor to nourish, clothe and shelter the body. He or she avoids self-destructive lusts which bind to inappropriate partners or exhaust the heart with vexation, but does not despise physical love in genuine affection and faithfulness. Uncontrolled intoxication the Taoist may usually avoid, but not the innocent cup of wine.
    The Taoist seeks to avoid that which enslaves and subjugates the self to undue cares, but does not reject goods and pleasures of the world which come naturally and innocently, free from excited pursuit or regrettable consequences. The Taoist does not engage in asceticism or penitence.
    Even moderation, however, is treated moderately by the Taoist, who knows that all things have their exceptions, and that no doctrine is to be used in self-punishment. Doctrines are to serve Man, not Man to serve doctrines.


    Talk of love is mischievous, and often bespeaks lovelessness. The Taoist is suspicious of such discourse. Yet love is one of the Three Treasures of Lao-tzu, and the love that springs naturally from human relationships with each other, with other living creatures, with places and with things, is precious to the Taoist. So too and still more is that special fostering love and compassion for all Mankind and all beings which comes from realisation of the Tao, in which all are seen as One and partaking of the transcendent value of that One.
    Yet the Taoist speaks not of any duty to love, for duty and love are contraries: love is a spontaneous, inward thing, and duty is what objectively must be done, even against the inclinations. The Tao is the Mother beloved of all things, yet no commandment exists that anyone must love the Tao! Were such a law necessary, it would prove the unworthiness of the Tao to be loved.
    Love is natural to Man and flows abundantly where it is not perverted, stunted or thwarted. Does not the parent love the child and the child the parent? Do not man and woman come together from natural attraction, affection and a spontaneous desire to give of themselves? Do not associates come to feel affection for one another, and some few alike in soul come to be true friends, with no need for any commandment or compulsion? Do we not naturally feel compassion for those we see suffering, and will anyone not feel an automatic concern at seeing a totally unknown child about to fall into a well?
    Thus the Taoist does not insist upon love from anyone, but seeks to remove the demands that obstruct love. By this "negative" approach the Taoist seeks to liberate the true and living love that comes unforced and of itself, not to create an unreal simulacrum of love, working to rule.
    A life without love is a life with no true meaning. People, places, activities, and things may all be loved, and being loved may enrich our lives. Yet it is also necessary not to love the inappropriate: sometimes we may love the small and trivial thing or the most common person, but we should never love the inappropriate, for what we love determines what we are.


    The Taoist sees the many but holds to the One. Yet the One is in the individual thing as its Virtue (Te), by which it has its given nature, and this individuality and even idiosyncracity is to be cherished by the Taoist.

"The legs of the duck are short and cannot be lengthened without distress to the duck, and the legs of the crane are long and cannot be shortened without distress to the crane."
In this Taoist dictum of Chuang-tzu we find the central attitude of the Taoist to individuality. Human beings are diverse. Some prefer the hot and some the cold. Some are day people and some are night people. Some are men and some are women. Some prefer the mountains and some prefer the sea. Some love exercise and others repose. Some would fain listen to music and others admire paintings. Some like wine better, others hashish. Some derive more spiritual sustenance from Buddhism and others from Taoism.
    The Taoist accepts these differences. He or she does not merely tolerate them, but actively affirms that within the realm of human goodness there are many alternatives and much space for freedom. In this it finds a wondrous richness from the heart of the Tao’s creativity.
    Other differences, of course, are not irrelevant to the Taoistic goodness of a person. Those who are inclined to cruelty,  aggression or the domination of others the Taoist too accepts, but also desires to restrain and reform, in order to save them and others from what is against the normative Way and leads to suffering. The Taoist does not tolerate intolerance, which by its nature forfeits its right to tolerance. The freedom of  the sovereign individual to be him- or herself and realise his or her own nature is prior to any right of others to enforce conformity to their preferences.


    Reality is Reality, but human nature desires that the Highest Reality be given some image or representation. Some religions picture the Highest as a human-like Father. Taoists to the contrary see the Highest as a Mother. However, this Mother is not a female figure in heaven, but Mother Nature.
    Nature is all around us, and we are part thereof. Nature is beautiful and perilous, but when we are merged in Her through love, nothing can harm us, not even death itself.
    Hence the Taoist loves to seek the mountain retreat or the farm in the backwoods, for there he or she comes face to face not with the works of Man, which we might falsely imagine in the city to be more important than Nature, but with the natural wonders which like the human being seem to spring straight from the mysterious Tao, and thus to be our fitting companions in life and in death.
    The face of Nature is the face of the Ultimate. It is not human and is not human-hearted, and has no use for personality. It is, however, beautiful, mysterious, all-encompassing, and full of meaning. Nor is it only the landscape of earth, but it is the cosmos in its light years and aeons, vasty and majestic, with all of which the Taoist wishes to perceive his unity.
    The Tao in other words is the innermost essence of what we call Nature, and in the Tao Nature undergoes an apotheosis, no longer a mere created assemblage, but an organic Being full of divinity and worshipfulness.
    And to the Taoist the quintessence of the Tao Itself is  mystery. It is that which cannot be explained, but only admired in innocent and holy wonder.

Holding to the One

    The Taoist desires to hold to the One, the Uncarved Block, the Simple. That is, to the Tao. It is impossible, of course, to lose the One in which we live and move and have our being, and which is ever within us, and indeed is we ourselves. However, the mind may more or less clearly, profoundly and constantly perceive this background oneness behind the surface distinctions of life, and in this regard we speak of holding to the One.
    To hold to the One is to constantly strengthen this perception and purify our spirits from the clinging to distinctions. And in this we purely benefit, for it is our sense of alienation from other beings and Being which make us seem alone and vulnerable and so terribly mortal.
    Realising the One, it is seen that distinctions do not disappear (except perhaps temporarily in the depths of meditation), for the One in no wise contradicts the distinctions, as the existence of the Mother does not contradict that of Her Children. The distinctions and the Oneness coexist, and indeed we could not perceive the oneness of the One without the contrast of the Many, but the Oneness is the Origin and the End of the Many, and the more primary.
    However, the One in Its nature "willed" and gave birth to the Many, and the Many are not to be despised – to the Taoist this world is holy and good – for they are indeed the legitimate and loved Children of the One. The Taoist having realised the One behind the Many comes to see the One in the Many and in each of the Many.
    To find this oneness with the One and the One in the Many (including oneself) is the highest form of immortality for Taoists (who may indeed also practise other disciplines to lengthen human life). In the final analysis the highest Way of Taoism seeks not a limited personal immortality and not an extinction of the self, but an expansion of individuality to be the One and the All, which is, after all, a far more preferable thing.
    A Han Dynasty Taoist writer (in John Blofeld’s translation)  sums this up:

Taking good care of his human body, perfecting within himself his endowment of the Real, cleansing will and thought, not straying into the paths of ordinary mortals, his mind and senses utterly serene, impervious to the effects of every sort of ill, welcoming life and death as parts of a seamless unity and therefore not clinging to the one or anxious about the other, free from every kind of anxiety and fear, roaming the world imperturbably at ease, he attains the Way.

For Further Study

The most readable translation of the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu and the Chuang-tzu are perhaps those of Lin Yü-t’ang, followed by those of Wing Tsit Ch’an. ("Lin" and "Ch’an" are the author’s surnames, respectively.)

For information on Twentieth Century Ch’ing Dynasty Taoism the following volumes by John Blofeld are indispensable and charming:

·  Taoist Mysteries and Magic (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.)  1973 [Formerly published under the title The Secret and the Sublime]

·  Taoism: The Quest for Immortality (London: Unwin Paperbacks) 1979

For a modern analysis of the Lao-tzu and general history of Taoism, Holmes Welch’s  The Parting of the Way: Lao Tzu and the Taoist Movement  (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd.) 1957 is an entertaining classic in the field.

Also instructive are Alan Watts’ treatment of Taoism in his The Way of Zen, the general treatment of Chinese thought and sensibility by Lin Yü-t’ang in his The Importance of Living, the treatment of one Taoist meditational technique in Charles Luk’s Secrets of Chinese Meditation, and the treatment of Taoist sexual yoga in Jolan Chang’s The Tao of Love & Sex and Mantak Chia’s Taoist Secrets of Love: Cultivating Male Sexual Energy, as well as the perceptive philosophy of Raymond M. Smullyan’s The Tao is Silent, an idiosyncratic and  thoroughly Western approach.

"The one who unites with the Tao the Tao is also glad to receive."   (Lao-tzu)