Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Show #516 on Sunday, September 2, was a response to two items of viewer mail that the TV list received. Jeremy wrote initially to say he is a “religious atheist,” which he described as adhering to a secularized Taoism (pronounced Daoism). Within one week’s time another piece of mail came through addressing the issue of “where do atheists get meaning” in life?

In addition to these two letters, we have received numerous contacts from people asking “Why do you only always focus on Christianity?” Although Matt has addressed this in the past, I felt that a show exploring secular Taoism might be relevant on multiple fronts, and so chose that as the topic for #516.

The form of Taoism that is most prevalent, and with which most of us are familiar, is attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may or may not have ever actually lived. But the text he is said to have written goes back about 2,500 years. The name “Lao Tzu” actually means “Old Man,” and it is doubtful that anyone named Lao Tzu authored the major Taoist work, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is a small collection of poetic Chinese sayings meant to describe the Tao and its operation. The title means literally, “The Book (Ching) of the application of (te) The Way (Tao).” And Tao, literally, means “The Way.” If you read the book, you will not find any list of “dos” and “don’ts.” There are no laws to memorize, and no condemnation or threats. The passages all sound something like this (#43):

The softest thing in the universeOvercomes the hardest thing in the universe.That without substance can enter where there is no room.Hence I know the value of non-action.

“Tao” does not mean “The Way” in the sense that we think of it in Christian models. It isn’t a way to achieve salvation. In fact, Taoists don’t believe in salvation. They wouldn’t understand what they need to be saved from—because they don’t interpret life, death or the natural world to be particularly problematic or flawed. They consider it to be simply, “the way” it is. In fact, “the way” it is, is what “The Way” (Tao) normally seems to represent. A reed is flexible—that is “The Way” (or Tao) of the reed.

Because the verses are so amorphous and malleable, they are interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, this is not considered a problem for the Taoist—who believes that following his own Tao will quite naturally differ greatly from someone else following hers. It does not represent a single path for all of mankind—but a way of looking at life that will help each individual find the path that is right for him or her. It isn’t a mode of enlightenment or special knowledge. It is an affirmation that if one is willing to examine his/her life and motives, he/she can come to an understanding of what direction is best for himself.

Taoism prefers accommodation, flexibility, and seemless integration. The example I used on the program was one of Green Architecture. To build my house on a landscape means to impose myself upon that landscape. A Taoist would do his/her best to utilize the landscape in the most efficient way to support the house, while at the same time taking the environment into consideration as he/she plans his/her house.

Taoism is not concerned with universal origins and makes no claims about how the cosmos were constructed or when they began. Taoism only notes that the cosmos exist and appear to operate under observable laws, which are best used to one’s advantage rather than resisted. A counterweight would be an excellent example. When one has to lift a heavy object, one must oppose the natural force of gravity; but by applying a counterweight, we can actually use gravity to work for us, rather than struggling against it. With a counterweight, gravity can “lift” a heavy object for us.

Duality is another factor in Taoism. We understand that concepts like good necessarily indicate “not good” (or “evil” if you prefer to call it that). But duality goes beyond opposites. In Taoism, it is not so much a statement of X and -X, as it is X and nonX. In other words, there is no “opposite” to Tracie. But there is much that is “not Tracie.” So, the universe is divided, in the Taoist view, by what is Tracie and what is “not Tracie.” Likewise, the universe divides, dualistically, in any number of similar ways with regard to any “thing” you care to define.

I wrapped the show describing some personal views about Taoism from professed Taoists. And I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get as many personal views as possible, to get an idea of how flexible this philosophy actually is. One can only really speak generally of it, as even the Tao te Ching not only fails to—but outright refuses to—define what Taoism is. According to the book, it is “nameless”—personally discerned—and cannot be accurately defined or described. Some have made the leap to call it “god.” But there is no direct indication that Lao Tzu was describing anything other than natural forces and pragmatic observations.

For further reading, I would actually recommend obtaining a copy of the Tao te Ching—perhaps at a local library (for free). The book is brief and, if you like poetry, actually somewhat relaxing to read. An annotated version with some historic reference would be preferable to a cold read if you are entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy or have never read any similar texts. As timeless as it may seem to me, I have to admit that with any text, context is also important with the Tao te Ching.


  1. Great post, Tracie! It's astounding what profound insights are available to us everyday--without the childish need to resort to the mystical or the supernatural. There are many excellent translations of the Tao Te Ching, most with a formal, "Wisdom of the Ancients" feel to the verse. For those with a taste for the modern vernacular, check out Ron Hogan's adaptation. Consider it ancient wisdom as it might be revealed in a Quentin Tarantino film. It's free to download, and there's even a handy text version for your iPod.

  2. Dao ke dao, fei chang dao
    Ming ke ming, fei chang ming

    These are the opening words of the Dao De Jing. Like much of the work, they are impossible to accurately translate even for Chinese. As close to a literal translation would be:
    Dao that is Dao, is not dao
    Name that is Name, is not name

    Even this is inaccurate since "ke" can be "is" since there are no tenses in Chinese, it is also commonly "can be" or "is able to be" so there's a sense of potentiality there.

    Just this can give you an idea of why people can study this one small book for decades and always have something else to say about it.

    Daoism, and the term itself is full of controversy and confusion, was originally a philosophy more than a religion. It soon became associated with a more recognizable "religion" and was eventually used as the label for the synchretic native Chinese religion in all its variety.

    The early philosophical movement, associated with Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) and Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) does not address, much, origins or what we would call dogma. There is much prescriptive discussions of how to live in the world (especially in Zhuang Zi) and what is right action and what is wrong action. But there is no idea of "sin" or that you shall be punished by an external force for doing wrong. Instead, "wrong action" will merely make it more difficult to live in the world. It's more analogous to doing things the hard way.

    There are some good modern translations of the DaoDeJing out there, especially since the discovery in the 80's of a 2nd-century B.C.E. copy of the text, which was interestingly enough, reversed in its order: the De section came before the Dao section.

    Speaking of which, your translation was a little loose (and I'm blaming the source for your translation since I'm assuming you're not translating the classical Chinese yourself). Dao is indeed "the way" or "the path" with all of the same implications as in the English. De, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. It literally means "virtue" but also means "power" with the implication that it is the power that comes from correct action. Some translate the text as "The Way and the Power", but there really is no good translation. The reason the "and" is in the title is that the book is actually split into two sections: Dao and De. Each has a slightly different focus related to the different titles.

    Make sure you read some Zhuang Zi as well. He was much more popular, and is much more approachable. He can also be quite funny at times. Highly recommended. As for a good modern translation of the DaoDeJing, check out Henricks' translation of the Mawangdui texts called, "Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching: A new translation based on teh recently discovered Ma-wang-tui texts." It has the advantage of showing the chinese, the english translation and extensive commentary and notes.

    All the best,

  3. Excellent posts and comments. has an accessible translation of the Tao Te Ching has many different translations of the Tao Te Ching - English Language ones at the bottom of the page. is a translation of Chuang Tzu is a community of nearly 300 philosophical Taoists. A friendly place to explore Taoism further.

  4. emmm, looks like you understands the Taoism more than many Chinese do, beside the Zhuangzi (the supporter of Laozi), you should also study the I-Ching or the book of change, many philosophers in China like Laozi, and Confucius were referring to the book.

  5. Unfortunately, this is NOT how the Tao te Ching is translated. The most accurate translation is "Tao and Virtue Classic" (secondarily accepted could be The Book of Tao and Virtue, for translation specifically to English and the connotation of 'The book of. . .' in our society; Classic refers to 'book' or work in that sense).

    Tao, although it *can* be translated as 'Way', it's proper for it not to be. Tao sort of has its own meaning that isn't really fully translatable to English, so it's best to leave it as is and simply connotate it with its meaning as its own word.

    This frequently happens when translating to English with Asiatic languages, though. Take 'The Art of War' (none of those words exist in the original title, it's actually 'Master Sun's Military Principles'.)

    But I agree, it's entirely possible to be Taoist and Atheist simultaneously. Taoism is more about how you handle and look at life and not the worry of what happens afterward. In that sense, I am theistically Atheist, and live my life by Tao.

  6. This is more in response to the video. I feel like Tracie emphasizes that the way or the energy or the order of things is not a spiritual or mystical thing. However, i would have to say that it is not that simple.

    -If you view everything as not spiritual or mystical, then you are seeing it for what it actualy is, an iceberg 2000 sq. mi. on the surface alone and containg air 50 million year old air compositions floating thousands of miles, or super specific dna encoded cells working together, which is pretty phenominal, and so in many ways mystical.
    -If you view of everything as mystical, an eyelid or big clumps of ice in the water, then although you're saying everything is mystical, nothing is of eternal importance, and nothing is mystical.

    This is another example of getting caughtup on words or labels or concepts- mystical vs non-mystical.

    This is an example of a paradox rooted concept. Another would be an example she used, the forest. It is incorrect to view it as only it's components or to view it as only the total.

    I am a westerner, only understanding Daoist ideas through medias. I am not sure if i should be called a Daoist, but i often find my ideas lining up with those, but as Tracie acknowledged, i may be distorting it toward my own views.

  7. I have never been a religious person, preferring the term agnostic over atheist. I think that Taoism, from what I have seen, is a very powerful and life transforming way of seeing one's own place in the world. It should not be seen as a way to avoid calling oneself an atheist or agnostic; should only be seen as a way to transcend any religious labels while living your life in a more enlightened manner.

  8. i found a superb book on taoism by alan watts. Toaoism: way beyond seeking. Some very good insights into a very good way to live our lives


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