Lao-tzu and the Taoist Way of Virtue

By Stefan Carey

"Come let us stroll at the origin of all things!" So says Lao-tzu, the great Chinese sage and Taoist. This casual invitation to stroll at the origin of all things, the heart of universal being, serves as a fine example of Lao-tzu's style, direct, uncomplicated, and easygoing. Let's walk with Lao-tzu and discover the Taoist Way of Virtue and its implications and relevance to us 2,600 years later, in our highly developed, materialistic society.

Lao-tzu is widely regarded as the originator of Taoist thought, but it seems he was in reality an effective messenger of the ancient wisdom, who chose Taoism as the most appropriate vehicle for the time. Like many other bringers of light in history -- such as Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus -- Lao-tzu left us with a key to unlock some of the mysteries we strive to comprehend, so that we may more fully understand ourselves and the universe. His objective was that we might come to realize our true nature and thus also come to know the ultimate reality behind the physical universe. There are no dogmas in Taoism; each individual must find his own way.

The Taoist approach to the perplexing and eternal questions is to live in accordance with the Tao or "Way." Especially important in this quest is to observe nature, which is seen to be "content with its contentment," without need of words, analysis, or logic. To the Taoist these are mere abstractions which block the way to an understanding of the inner life:

Tao that can be expressed is not Everlasting Tao.
The Name that can be named is not the Everlasting Name . . . -- Tao The King, Mears trans.

To convey the meaning of the Tao is as impossible as trying to describe a sunset to a blind person. As Lao-tzu said, "Reasoning will not make men wise in it."

Lao-tzu (or Lao-tse) was born around the sixth century BC in China, and earned the nickname of "Old Boy" or "Old Son," having spent 72 years in gestation! He is said to have been born with a crop of white hair, a sign that he had already attained wisdom. His is thus one of the many "miraculous" births in history. Of the one thousand books he wrote only one remains, the Tao Teh King. Just before his disappearance on the western frontier of China, legend has it that a gatekeeper persuaded him to compile a summary of his ideas. This small work, the "Way of Tao" or "Book on the Doing of Tao," has been translated more times than any other religious text except the Bible and perhaps the Bhagavad-Gita. It is a treasure trove of Taoist thought, at once mystical, intuitive, inspirational, and paradoxical. There is an attractive freshness and humanity in the way the Taoist message is presented, with instant appeal to those with any mystical yearnings.

Some of the ideas central to the Taoist way are the dynamic interplay of opposites, duality, the importance of non-striving, virtue, the inner life, and the Tao. The Taoist considers the world as one vast flux of opposites, coming and going, expanding and diminishing constantly. Everything in the world of physical manifestation, the so-called outer world, can be known only because it has a corresponding opposite -- for example, birth and death. The way in which our minds see the world and guide us through its complexities is by ascribing values, properties, and states to all of the things that make it up. For example, an apple is a small, round, red, shiny object that can have a vast range of flavors. But these are relative definitions that we impose on the apple. The Taoist seeks to leap across the limitation of singular definitions in an attempt to see all of creation as a unity:

Since the world points up beauty as such,
There is ugliness too,
If goodness is taken as goodness,
Wickedness enters as well.
For is and is-not come together;
Hard and easy are complementary;
Long and short are relative;
High and low are comparative;
Pitch and sound make harmony;
Before and after are a sequence. -- The Way of Life, Lao-tzu

This polarity of all things, of yin and yang, is symbolized by the circle enclosing two interlocking swirls, apparently following one another endlessly. Each has a small fragment of its polar opposite embedded within itself. In the manifested world a ceaseless movement of opposites is in operation, each an "arctic to its antarctic," yet an inseparable and integral part of the whole. Beyond this preoccupation with distinctions is a direct experience of reality where all opposites are seen as components of a greater oneness, complete and absolute. Another way of expressing this idea is: "the map is not the territory" (Capra, The Tao of Physics). Before this movement of opposites -- constant, unrelenting -- there was a state of being called Tao or "Way."

Something there is, whose veiled creation was
Before the earth or sky began to be;
So silent, so aloof and so alone,
It changes not, nor fails, but touches all:
Conceive it as the mother of the world.
I do not know its name;
A name for it is "Way"; . . .

This is the "imperishable source of all things." Those who can see without desire, may see it; to others only the husk is visible, a semblance, a shadow. Lao-tzu did the best he could to convey the meaning of this Tao that cannot be expressed in words; it can be found, for each one of us is a universe in microcosm and an offshoot of that original state.

Tao has also been translated as "the wayfarer," indicating that there is no distinction between us and the way, between ourselves and our actions and their results. The path is the unfolding of potential and the overcoming of obstacles, the results of actions that an individual has created. Aids and obstacles are thus an extension of ourselves, and the path and wayfarer merge into one. By our own doing we prevent ourselves from realizing our true inner nature. Lao-tzu asserts that all we need do is realize that we obscure our own inner light and step aside. If only it were that simple! Perhaps it is.

Non-striving is commonly misunderstood as motionlessness, stagnation, or complete inactivity. Nothing could be more misleading. "It is the Tao of Heaven to benefit and not to injure, it is the Tao (or way) of the sage to do and not to strive." (Tao The King, 81 G. de Purucker paraphrase.) What Lao-tzu implied was not to run around tearing our hair out over being and doing. Simply be and do. Be spontaneous, act as one's own master, be in command of one's self. By running around with overconcern we waste energy and slow our progress. The spontaneous way of being, working with the natural flow of energy, is called Wu Wei. It is at once working in harmony with nature and working in harmony with our true selves. Wu Wei results in virtue:

It is the Way of Tao not to act from any personal motive; to conduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them; to taste without being aware of the flavor; to account the great as small and the small as great; to repay injury with kindness.

Virtue is thus action that is based on an understanding of Tao or of universal principles transformed into action. Teh, or virtue, is principled action. If we agree that the Tao implies an understanding that all of creation is a unity, then to act against others is in effect to act against ourselves. We cannot help being virtuous if we act in accord with the Way. In fact, Lao-tzu even speaks of the different levels of understanding of the Tao and the kinds of virtue that would result:

A man of highest virtue
Will not display it as his own;
His virtue then is real.
Low virtue makes one miss no chance
To show his virtue off;
His virtue then is nought.
High virtue is at rest;
It knows no need to act.
Low virtue is a busyness
Pretending to accomplishment.
Truly, once the Way is lost,
There comes then virtue;
Virtue lost, comes then compassion;
After that morality;
And when that's lost, there's etiquette,
The husk of all good faith,
The rising point of anarchy. -- The Way of Life, Blakley trans., 38

If the impulses governing an individual are self-centered then the doors to the Tao will close. Lao-tzu has given us a tool of understanding with which to open these doors. This understanding often escapes us, he says, for we are too concerned with the outer life of acquisition. Our self-worth is often measured by our possessions and power or rank, which are far too transient to be of any lasting value. (Sadly, there are also individuals with almost no belief in their self-worth.) Lao-tzu espouses an essentially ethical code of behavior -- ethical, meaning to act in accord with the inner laws of nature -- a direct and uncomplicated way of self-exploration and perceiving the universe. The easiest of these to understand is the law of cause and effect, or karma. By a process of self-control, cultivating the inner life and observing nature, the nature of the Tao can be discerned. The resulting state of non-striving is the ultimate reality and goal of the Taoist. Lao-tzu leaves us with a message of hope with which to face death. The only condition he imposes is that we try to understand "What eternally is so":

Touch ultimate emptiness,
Hold steady and still.
All things work together:
I have watched them reverting,
And seen how they flourish
And return again, each to his roots.
This I say is the stillness:
A retreat to one's roots;
Then, though you die,
You shall not perish. -- Way of Life, 16

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1989/January 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu