There is a mixture that has become one.
It existed before sky and earth.
It has no form, no sound, and no body.
It is one and unchanging.
It encircles everything and it never tires.
It is the source of all life under the sky.
I do not know its name.
So I call it the Tao.

The Taoist Holy Book (Chapter 25)


Taoism has to be the most mysterious of all religions; so mysterious that some readers find it less of a religion and more of a philosophy. Of the many Chinese parables and sayings popular all over the world, chances are they come from Taoist books.

The word, tao, is the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese word "道", which is pronounced in Mandarin as "Dao." This word has multiple meanings, two of which pertain to Taoism. The first is the more literal meaning: the way, the road, the path. And from this literal meaning comes the second meaning: guidance. In essence, a Taoist is someone who follows the path. It is the path of inner peace.

The following Taoist poem might explain:

Into a soul absolutely free
From thoughts and emotion,
Even the tiger finds no room
To insert its fierce claws.

One and the same breeze passes
Over the pines on the mountain
And the oak trees in the valley;
And why do they give different notes?

No thinking; no reflecting
Perfect emptiness;
Yet therein something moves,
Following its own course.

The eye sees it,
But no hands can take hold of it -
The moon in the stream.

Clouds and mist,
They are mid-air transformations;
Above them eternally shines the sun and the moon.

Victory is for the one,
Even before the combat,
Who has no thought of himself,
Abiding in the no-mind-ness of Great Origin.

Lao Zi

The founder of Taoism is a very mysterious Chinese philosopher. His actual name was Li Er (李耳). But he is referred to as Lao Zi (老子) which means Great Master. Historians say that Lao Zi was so smart that when he was a child, the tutors that his parents brought him refused to teach him, saying that they were not fit to teach him for they believed he was more intelligent and knowledgeable than themselves.

It's also reported that Confucius (551 BC ~ 479 BC), arguably the most influential Chinese moral philosopher in East Asia's history, had visited Lao Zi once. When he returned to his disciples, they asked him about the meeting. And Confucius said:

"I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run. Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can be hit by arrows. But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the clouds and the wind. Today I have seen Lao Zi, and he is like the dragon!"

Both Lao Zi and Confucius lived in an era of continuous war between the Chinese nations (today provinces). This upset Lao Zi greatly, and he eventually decided to leave China, traveling west. No one knows where he went, or what happened to him after he had left China. But it was at the western border of China that a gatekeeper tried to persuade him to stay in China so that the Chinese people can benefit from his wisdom. But when the gatekeeper realized he couldn't convince him, he said: Well at least write down your thoughts so that we may learn and gain wisdom. And Lao Zi agreed, and wrote a book that became today the Taoist holy book: the Dao De Jing.

Dao De Jing
The Taoist Holy Book

Lao Zi, at the western border of China, agreed to write down his thoughts, after the gatekeeper had asked him to do so. Three days later, Lao Zi came back with a book that contained 5000 Chinese characters (5000 words), handed it to the gatekeeper, and left and never returned. Many years later, this book would become the Taoist Holy Book, known as the Dao De Jing (道德經).

The first character, Dao 道, as mentioned earlier, means the path. The second character, De 德, means virtue. And the last character, Jing 經, means book; a very important book. Thus the closest English translation would be: The Book of the Virtuous Path.

Anyone who is aware of the depth of the Chinese language, and tries to read the Dao De Jing would quickly understand why this book has become so revered. It is too deep that no soul can claim to have the final authority over what the words truly mean. Many interpreters are out there, but no one dares claim to possess the final interpretation. Thus it is left to each and every individual to read the Dao De Jing on their own and try to figure out what it wants to say. Surely the lack of knowledge in the Chinese language would be the greatest obstacle, so non-Chinese readers would probably have to rely on some semi-acceptable translation and just hope that some truth is transpired.

That being said, no Taoist priest or believer thinks that the truth cannot be accessed except through Taoism. In fact, like all other true religions, Taoism has no problem accepting other philosophies as different versions of the same Virtuous Path.

The Dao De Jing has a poetic style of writing. Very short bursts of words gushing with deep mysticism and wisdom. Here are a few excerpts:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao

(Chapter 8).

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

(Chapter 15).

A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists.
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, "We did this ourselves."

(Chapter 17).

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

(Chapter 78).

Yin and Yang

Life does not move onward and upward toward a fixed pinnacle or pole. It bends back upon itself to come, full circle, to the realization that all is one and all is well.

Huston Smith, The World's Religions, pg 215.

The yin-yang symbol, shown above, represents and summarizes the Taoist world view. It is said that Lao Zi taught that if you keep pondering this symbol, you will unlock the meaning of life in all its aspects.

The yin-yang is a symbol of all opposites: black and white, good and evil, male and female, strength and weakness, and so on. These opposites are not divided by a straight line, which means that the difference between them is relative, maliable, and interchangeable. The small white dot in the sea of black and the small black dot in the sea of white tell us that every concept contains the seed of its opposite. Thus, inside what appears to be good there is evil, and inside what appears to be evil there is good embedded within.

The most famous Taoist parable to explain this concept is the parable of the farmer:

A farmer had one of his horses run away. His neighbor expressed his sympathy with the farmer's bad luck. But the farmer's response was a rhetorical question: Who knows what's good or bad?

The next day the horse returned, along with it two horses it made friends with in the wild. The neighbor witnessing this congratulated the farmer on his good fortune. But the farmer, onec again, asked rhetorically: Who knows what's good or bad?

The next day the farmer's son mounted one of the wild horses and it threw him off its back and he fell and broke his leg. The farmer's neighbor again appeared, sympathizing with his misfortune, only to hear the farmer say to him again: Who knows what's good or bad?

The following day soldiers came riding, demanding that young men be conscripted in the army to prepare for battle, but the farmer's son was exempted because of his broken leg. The neighbor expressed celebration at this good news. And the farmer repeated again the same rhetorical question.

Note: This story has several versions with slightly different details, but with the same overall message.


The second most famous Taoist philosopher is the Chinese master Zhuang Zi (369 BC ~ 286 BC), in Chinese: 莊子. He, too, wrote a book, now named after himself, the most famous part of which is the butterfly dream:

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (Chapter 2)

Another famous story is an exchange between Zhuang Zi the Taoist and Hui Zi, a Confucian master:

Zhuang Zi: "Look how the fish dart here and there at will. Such is the pleasure fish enjoy."
Hui Zi: "You are not a fish. How do you know what gives pleasure to fish?"
Zhuang Zi: "You are not I. How do you know I don't know what gives pleasure to fish?"


Oday Baddar


 TruthPort's Taoist Library