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A Discourse on Taoist Philosophy

In an ancient China full of selfish lords, underhanded merchants who would do anything to turn a profit, and faithless children who went against their parents out of self-interest, the modest thinker Lao-Tze created his philosophy of Taoism. It sought to balance the excess of creative impulse and active imagination [yang] with receptivity, passiveness, and understanding [yin]. His timeless text, Tao Te Ching, overflows with paradoxes and antilogies as it attempts to explain the mysterious power of the cosmos [Te], a concept virtually unheard of in the Western world, translated as actionless action [Wu Wei], the being who has mastered wu wei [the Sage], and the way itself [Tao] things which to the untrained eye, appropriately enough, may ironically never be understood.

Te may best be described as the effortless spontaneity of all things acting in a harmonious way. Lao-Tze saw te as the forces of the world at their purest the perfect concord of yin and yang. It is characteristic of all natural things to act in regard to one another, and Lao-Tze obviously wanted to carry this over to human behavior. Te is also seen as the power which is used by a master of tao not a physical power [that would go against the word of the tao] but rather the humility that living simply will bring. The true key to understanding te is to realize that one is not living life but that life is living the individual instead; to see this one must grasp that all humans are living the same cycle and that they are part of a greater whole [which is paradoxically nothing] they are born from nothing, they exist, and then they return to nothing. To think about this enigmatic cycle is truly humbling. It is no wonder that Lao-Tze described te as the mystical virtue of the world.

A concept deeply rooted in te is wu wei, which is literally translated as not a course of action. It is figuratively interpreted as non-ado or actionless action. Wu wei stresses action that is not entirely actionless , but one of rather less-action . The ideas of wu wei are omnipresent and omnifluent in the natural world water flowing effortlessly down a hill, grass stretching to bend in the wind, the song of birds echoing throughout a valley. They are actions that require the least possible effort but yield a large [perhaps greatest] effect. When one acts with wu wei it is the result of years of mastery in a specific art action that is so harmonious or balanced that it appears to not be an action at all. Think of the cello virtuoso effortlessly churning out her part in the symphony this could be a modern application of wu wei. A point to note is that there are three types of wu wei. The first is natural, like the wailing and suckling of a baby or someone breathing: something virtually rooted at its source, spontaneous and without difficulty. The second is developed over time, much like the cellist needs years of practice to play her instrument perfectly it is where most of the wu wei is concentrated. The last kind of non-ado is the mystical type, in part a combination of the first two kinds with a large element of the extraordinary added.

The being who masters wu wei is known as the Sage, a person who embodies the perfect human virtue of wisdom, and who therefore embraces the mystery and beauty of life to its fullest. The Sage has truly taken the basic concept of wu wei and elevated it to its highest form such that even his or her movement that is an action that mirrors the perfect emptiness of its source. The Sage also fangzhu xuewen, or banishes learning which is not to actually remove learning from its place in life, but instead to become masters of everything done; thus, one eventually phases out learning and replaces it with doing. The wu wei of the Sage also applies to his or her general life as well as his or her specific talents. He or she experiences life naturally, in tandem with tao and all of its elements, and it is this living that enables the Sage to espouse the subtleties of life.

These concepts manifest into the totality of everything and yet nothing tao. It is the perfect balance of light and dark, life and death, yin and yang. It is an energy so pure that if earth were ice and the heavens were liquid water, tao would be mist or vapor. And even though it is so refined, it encompasses everything: life is larger than the individual and tao is larger than life. Lao-Tze also called it the principle of change itself , not how we see the changed exhibit itself. In short, tao is what is has been, what is, and what will be.

The philosophy of Taoism, as contradictory as it is, only makes perfect sense when it has been reached. Tao, manifested cognitively as te, is embodied by the Sage and through his or her learnings and life experiences practiced as wu wei. It is the inherent contradiction within this relationship among these things that was a model of the majority of the paradoxical metaphors in Tao Te Ching. These seemingly nonsensical things represent life s obstacles and hang-ups. Once you fully understand the book, you understand life. And it is within this where one may find the foundation of tao, the most puzzling and equivocation of all: to master life, an individual must understand that life cannot be mastered.

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