Taoism 101: Introduction to the Tao
I have been asked many times how to find a Temple, Master or how best to learn Taoism. Here is a brief Taoism 101 course outline on how to discover Taoism.
This is a different type of guide to learning Taoism. Taoism teaches a person to follow their breath, to embrace wonder and the joy in living gracefully with style. So here is the modern practical guide to living as a Taoist!
What is Taoism?
To many people, a confusing aspect of Taoism is its very definition. Many religions will happily teach a Philosophy/Dogma which in reflection defines a person. Taoism flips this around. It starts by teaching a truth; “The Tao” is indefinable. It then follows up by teaching that each person can discover the Tao in their own terms. A teaching like this can be very hard to grasp when most people desire very concrete definitions in their own life.
A simply way to start learning the definition of Taoism is to start within yourself. Here are three easy starting steps to learning Taoism:
1. Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Tao (this will come later naturally)
2. Understand what Taoism really is. Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s own nature.
3. The path of understanding Taoism is simply accepting yourself. Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.
Taoism teaches a person to flow with life. Over the years Taoism has become many things to many people. Hundreds of variations in Taoist practice exist. Some of these practices are philosophical in nature, others are religious. Taoism makes no distinction in applying labels to its own nature. This is important since as a person, we are each a blend of many truths. The truth taught in Taoism is to embrace life in actions that support you as a person.
Taoism teaches a person to live to their heart.
Here are some simple starting tips to help a person live as a Taoist.
* Having a set of basic guidelines can be helpful. However realistically, guidelines don’t determine how to live; Instead Taoism teaches by living you will express your nature.My personal guidelines are the following:
* With care, I aid those who are extended expressions of my nature.
* Be true to myselfConnect to the world as I want to be treated.
* Connect to those outside my nature with decisive action.
* To those unwilling to accept me for my true nature, no action is required:
Just silently let them be themselves as I remain myself.
* I own nothing; I am merely a passing custodian of items outside of my nature.
* Discover a set of practices to aid keeping the mind, body and spirit engaged and strong. Remember practices should support your essence with the activities fitting the needs of the moment. Which means this is a shifting balance of activities relative to your needs. For example I practice martial arts to keep my body strong, yoga to make my body subtle, meditation to clear my mind, bike around simply to fly and lift my spirit. Poetry as a lens of examination. All these and more are my shifting practices to support my essence and in doing each, each helps me learn more about myself and the world.
* Take time, relax and just explore and poke around. Taoism has no plans. Taoism is based upon following your gut feelings and trusting your instincts.
* It’s within the pause of a breath… that each step of living becomes visible for your larger life to improve and follow upon.Smile, when needing to pick a possible next step. To smile is to open possibilities.Breathe when needing a break. Since to breathe is to be at one with yourself.Alternate the two and your path will become free and clear for an entire lifetime of wonder to explore.This may sound simple, but you would be surprise how many people cannot embrace this most basic aspect of Taoist practice! People think it cannot be that simple! Taoism truly is this simple. If you follow and practice step four, not only is that all one needs to fully embrace Taoism, but also anything becomes possible within this simple practice. However, most people need time letting go of expectations. So it’s also ok to dig deeper into Taoism. Taoism has many many levels of teachings on purpose to help people from all perspectives move smoothly in life.
I can summarize Taoism as simply as
Taoism is acceptance of your life.
Taoism is following your breath to find peace.
Taoism is opening up a smile to enable possibility.
If you embrace these three ideas, everything else follows in Taoism. Some people do start here. Others take a longer more colorful path. That’s fine also, since you get to experience more color in your life. No wrong path exists at the end, since it’s about experiencing life.
Practical Taoist Advice
1. At times the process of learning Taoism is also a process of healing. Take time to heal (don’t rush and hurt yourself more in the rushing). Taoism teaches to embrace your body with patience.
2. There are over 7 billion people in the world. This means over 7 billion paths to Taoism! Every person can teach us something.
3. Sometimes you need quietness; it’s ok to take time off to only hear yourself and not the noise of civilization at times.
4. People expect and think that the goal of life is perfection… it’s not… you should desire for being good at something and to embrace the various little imperfections… that end up actually being defining characteristics of each of us. The little bits of imperfection we each have are elements of chaos that give each person individuality and distinction! Without our little flaws we wouldn’t be individuals at all! Taoism teaches us how to accept both the best and worse parts of our life.
5. Taoism teaches a person to drop expectations. The more expectations you have for your life, the less you will become. A Taoist lives life without expectations, living in the here and now fully. Since most people need a few expectations especially when dealing with important future experiences. Here is a trick. Create only a single expectation at a time for that future experience. For example: An expectation you will smile or have some fun. Thats it! Don’t place any learning or changing into your expectation. If you do, this actually plants the seed for the opposite to occur, By creating a single simple expectation such as smiling, this then becomes something you can always fulfill since you can empower that action to happen. Any expectation more complicated or relying on something outside of yourself, just sets up the future to not meeting your needs.Dropping expectation is very very important within Taoism.
6. Lather, Rinse and Repeat, and then toss the instructions away to do what is right for yourself… This is Taoism at the very elemental level, so be open, experiment and embrace what works for you. Taoism as a tradition has teachers who work with students on an individual basis. In the end no guide or Master can be right for everyone. For this reason, we are always our own best teacher. Give yourself credit and patience to be such a teacher to your own life.
Explore Your Essence
First: Learn how to trust your own intuition.
Second: Let go of judgments that hold you back.
Third: Remove conflict and anger from your relationships.
Fourth: Be kind to yourself and pace your life to match your essence.
1. If you need a guide to Taoism, then first start with these three books:
* Tao Te Ching
* Chuang Tzu
* A Personal Tao
I recommend starting with A Personal Tao, as it’s specifically written with a modern perspective to help people discover their nature. Due to the nature of Taoist writings you can easily read all three at the same time and intermix the ideas.
2. If you desire a person as a guide, you can find a Taoist temple, Zen Dojo or local sage to simply chat with occasionally. Taoism’s deepest truths must come from the inside, but at times it’s helpful to get an outside perspective to see your own nature. If you are in the Oakland area of California I highly recommend The Taoist Center. Dr Alex Feng is an incredibly open and sincere Taoist Master. I also offer personal Taoist Retreats and Taoism Classes.
3. If you cannot find a local resource, then start keeping a journal and over time review it. A journal becomes a nice mirror to reflect upon our nature as we move through life.
History of Taoism
Most sites will teach you the terms and history of Taoism. That might be nice for academics: but it really does nothing for teaching you how to live as a Taoist. Taoism is about embracing life in the now and not in being stuck in history or terms.
Originally Taoism can be considered to be a shamanic practice. However, Taoism is so old; the complete history of Taoism cannot be traced through written records. Taoism is very much a tradition that is transmitted verbally from master to student over the generations. Because of this, some of the shamanic roots of Taoism still survive today. Taoism historically is also a very flexible practice. Taoism is a practice of change and it always changes to meet the needs of the times. This is still happening today and even as we speak Taoism is evolving to keep pace with modern culture. This is one reason Taoism has survived for so long, it always adapts with the time while holding onto a few key concepts to keep the practice true to the Tao.
An early surviving text to describe the Tao is the Tao-Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu (The old master). The Tao-Te Ching is a series of poems that can be considered to be a work of philosophy, a treatise on how to run a government, a how-to book for achieving a balanced life, or a sage’s reflection of humanity and the universe. It is known to have been written over 2400 years ago but not much else is retained about the origins. Many fun stories abound about these origins; however, these are just that, stories. What is important is that the Tao-Te Ching and its poetry survive, having had an impact on the course of human events over the past 2400 years. It’s an interesting book, worth skimming. I say “skim” because it is written in a light-hearted manner. If a reader stares too hard or takes the Tao-Te Ching too literally, the multiple intentions within the poetry will be lost.
Many many stories, and tales exist about the History of Taoism. Some of these stories could be true, and some could be fables. As a Taoist, the point is to learn from the mixing of our reactions to the tales. Veracity is best left to history; time will always change “truth” for each generation.
Tao and Chinese Culture
Tao is a word. It translates roughly as: the way. When as a Taoist we talk about the Tao, we are talking about the central aspect of our practice. However, it’s important to keep in mind, as a word, the word Tao is used for a lot more than just Taoism. Every religion has its way. Every person has their way. Every practice has their way. There is a Tao for everything. This doesn’t directly mean it’s the same Tao as what we speak about in Taoism. While from a Taoist view point it’s all the same, from a human literary perspective it’s not. So it’s important to always take the word Tao within the context of the statement being made.
For instance: a Confucian will use of the term Tao to cover how they believe and act. On paper, the Tao of Confucianism is quite a bit different than the Tao of Taoism. A Confucian embraces order while a Taoist will dance to chaos. The Tao that a Confucian teaches is a rigid logical complex system of behavior. The Tao of Taoism is freedom to embrace all the whimsy of life. The same Tao both times: in the using the Tao to refer to a way of life, but the actual results, the path taken is quite a bit different. A path is a path but .not all paths lead to the same place while in the process of the journey itself.
Of course to a Taoist all paths do lead to the same place :). It’s just the journey might seem longer to some than others.
So please keep this in mind if you see the word Tao being used in a slightly different context than what you were expecting.
Advanced Taoism: Tao and God
This last section is for the brave of heart, for those wanting a few more advance answers.
First and foremost: Taoism respects the concept of God. Initially one might think a discussion of God would be an impersonal topic. It isn’t. Each person has a very deep and connected relationship in what they view God may or may not be. A person’s view on god is a statement and reflection upon the way a person also views their own life. As a result when discussing differences in God, it’s best to respect it as also being a highly personal and sensitive topic.
When exploring Taoism, eventually a person compares the terms God and Tao. I would suggest first reading this chapter of A Personal Tao on Religion.
From this chapter:
Taoism offers the option to skip the comparison. This question is irrelevant. God could or could not exist, and either state doesn’t change the way we lead our lives. Our lives are expressions of action between ourselves and the universe. To respect our surrounding environment is a furthering of respect to ourselves. This manner of living doesn’t change regardless of the nature of God or the Tao.
However, most people insist upon definition and seeking deeper answers. So lets expand upon God and Tao. God as a term is often “defined” as being an ultimate creator or universal power. The various aspects of God has been fought over as long as humans have written and used words. All definitions are based upon perception. From a Taoist perspective: human based definitions are both right and wrong: as all definitions are relative upon humanity’s state of mind. A Taoist stays out of arguments of definition. It’s not productive arguing over something relative to each person. Instead Taoism accepts each person’s view of God as being personal.
A Taoist doesn’t think the Tao is before, after or is even equal to God. The Tao is a concept to describe something that goes beyond our capability to define. Taoism leaves the Tao undefined and a Taoist happily explores the wonder that opens up as a result.
All Taoist’s will agree: The Tao is indefinable…
Something which is indefinable: is outside of human definition by default. However, we can still accept it as indefinable. The Tao by being indefinable… removes all issues of perception in its definition… since perception cannot directly reveal the Tao which is undefined. It’s just simply and utterly is: undefined…
If your personal definition of God is: God is indefinable… then the Tao and God at that point merge towards the same concept… Once a person accepts the definition of the Tao as being indefinable, that person by definition has to leave it as undefined… Once you place any definition over such a term… it takes a person further away from the whole concept of the Tao.
In some of the Taoist religions, Taoism does have gods, but Taoist gods typically are very tangible beings. They walk besides us, share tea with us, laugh, play and can alter reality. A Taoist god represents an enlightened immortal that helps other conscious beings work towards grace. In Taoism gods are shown as guides and inspriration towards how to find enlightenment. (Please keep in mind: this paragraph is an extreme simplification of how Taoism views Gods.)
We do say in Taoism: We are of the Tao, or God is of the Tao… but Taoist’s say this… since from our perception of living: we are each undefined. We only define ourselves as we live. While living, we are still moving through life, a large part of our nature is indefinable until the end of Living. As a result: we are of the Tao. A Taoist can see the Tao within everything… This can be a very delicate logical truth and often confuses non-Taoist’s. This is why I wrote A Personal Tao: being human we see the Tao in terms of our own life. This brings us full circle in the Tao’s definition. The Tao is indefinable and yet we are completely of the Tao.
A Taoist knows to leave the Tao as is, to grasp the Tao within the chase of living fully. It’s a wonderful contradiction to embrace and it actually does completely full-fill one’s life within that acceptance. For a Taoist this is all about living and exploring our possibilities, for we each are undefined and of the Tao. Trying to define ourselves just limits one’s nature and what can be done. So a Taoist instead embraces the Tao, to discover and open up all possibilities instead.
From here each person is free to draw their own conclusions… which will always shift to the winds of perception.
If this confuses you, then please go back and repeat these three steps:
1. Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Tao (this will come later naturally)
2. Understand what Taoism really is. Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s own nature.
3. The path of understanding the Tao is simply accepting yourself.
Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.
Remember: Taoism teaches a person to live to their heart.