Taoist Ethics

By Bill Mason

  1. Selflessness
  2. Moderation
  3. Embracing the Mystery
  4. Non-Contrivance
  5. Detachment
  6. Humility

Portions of this essay is derived from The Tao of Inner Peace by Diane Dreher. I highly recommend this book for the way it beautifully divides the Tao Te Ching into principles and ways to live.

Through the four basic principles of nature, there are several derived ethical suggestions which make up the bulk of the Tao Te Ching. The unique thing about the Taoist approach to ethics is that they aren't designed to preach to people about how to live. They're simply a description of what certain behaviors produce, when applied to these four principles.

It's sort of like wondering why your foot hurts but then you find out that you stabbed yourself in your foot with a nail. The Tao Te Ching wouldn't say, "thou shalt not stab thy foot with thy nail," it would say, "if you stab yourself in the foot with a nail, your foot is going to hurt!" This may seem like common sense, but you'd be surprised just how easily everyone violates the principles of nature.

Selflessness

One thing basic to the Taoist belief is a redefinition of "self" or "ego." Taoists believe that the way we try to stand outside ourselves in the attempt of self-observation is the source of most, if not all, of our unhappiness and loneliness, simply because in order to observe as such, we must see our "self" as separate from other "selves." This creates many unnecessary and troublesome illusions, and is based on an untrue assumption: that organisms are mutually exclusive. For a good argument against this assumption, as well as some of the negative affects of the illusions it creates, it is recommended that you read The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts.

The goal of Taoism isn't to obliterate the ego, simply because this isn't possible. In order to stop ourselves from seeing ourselves as separate, we must see ourselves as separate, which creates a never-ending paradox. The goal instead is to keep our attention on the greater whole, the process to which there is a pattern, which is known to always return the source.

The Tao is infinite, eternal. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Why is it infinite? It has no desires for itself; thus it is present for all beings. The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 7

Moderation

Limitations are everywhere. Even if you were convinced by science fiction that some day, humans will conquer nature, and we will no longer be subject to its limitations (which is logically impossible), think of all the other limitations you're given from day to day: rules imposed by society, parents, and your nation. Even if you pick and choose which rules to obey, you're still left to deal with the consequences. Limitations are unavoidable.

Freedom resides in the recognition of limitations. In knowing how far you're able to reach, you'll have perfect freedom to choose just how far within that range to reach. The ideal of unlimited freedom is an illusion. Maximum freedom is experienced when one is in the middle between the upper bound and lower bound limitations, in other words, moderation. Then one has the maximum range in which to alter his behavior. This is the Taoist ethic of freedom through moderation.

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 9

Embracing the Mystery

Fear is a basic inate feature of living things. It is what allows the "fight or flight" response. By being afraid, one keeps himself away from danger. However, by humbling yourself with the knowledge that you are a part of nature, you know that you have to rely on nature for your needs. Not everything can be "out to get you," and, in fact, most of our fear reactions are overreactions.

Despite all we know of nature, through science and art and living, there are still many things which we don't know. How could we? We only have a brain a few cubic centimeters in volume. How could we store the knowledge of everything about nature? The truth is, we've stored only those things which help us to survive in nature, with perhaps a few added goodies which enable us with the potential to enjoy a happy life and pursue our own dreams and aspirations.

But what of all the things we don't know? That's what religion is for, right? Well, despite what you may claim is true or not true, despite all your opinions and biases, beliefs and disbeliefs, the Universe is still a great mystery to you, and much of life is taken up with coping with this mystery. Living your life in an environment which you know nothing about. No wonder why we're so scared!

But Taoists take a different approach. Taoists embrace the mystery. They enjoy every confusion and misunderstanding and mysterious thing they see, because to them, life is a game, and games, as you know, aren't fun without both the possibility of winning and the equal possibility of losing. Mystery is what makes games fun, and to Taoists, mystery is what makes life fun.

For this reason, Taoists still retain their basic innate fear. As Lao Tzu put it, "they were careful, as someone crossing an iced-over stream," yet "Receptive as a valley, clear as a glass of water." They balance their fear with their curiousity to seek the true potential of their existence. They look within themselves and see all that they don't understand, and they like it that way. Because they're centered in the Tao, they don't need to worry about that which they don't understand.

The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her her radiance. The Tao is ungraspable. How can her mind be at one with it? Because she doesn't cling to ideas. The Tao is dark and unfathomable. How can it make her radiant? Because she lets it. Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 21

Non-Contrivance

As I said above, the Tao Te Ching doesn't preach. At most it describes the results of various behaviors, based on the four basic principles of nature. However, it goes on to warn against those who preach, or try to tell you how to live. It warns against contrived, or consciously manipulated morality.

Because nature is dynamic, and contrived morals are stiff, contrived morals go against nature. Furthermore, the purpose for these morals are usually not better living, but greater control, either for yourself or for others. By dictating your morals, other people feel a sense of control over your life, and its no different just because you dictate your own morals. The bottom line is that whether you're living better or not has no bearing on morality, only if your more controlled. Nature is not something that can be controlled; it controls itself. You needn't impose your control on it, or let others impose their control on you.

Perhaps an example would help here. Several years ago, I worked at a pizza place. I was a great worker, did everything I was told, and did it as efficiently as I knew how. I was very open to constructive criticism, and I was constantly trying to improve my job skills. One day, I had to pick up my mother from work and bring her home before I went to work. I got into work just in time, but I wasn't in my uniform yet. I changed as quickly as I could and reported to my manager at 6:03p.m. She asked me, "what time is it?" I said, "around six o'clock." She yelled, "what time is it?!" I repeated my answer. She told me to look at the clock. I returned and said, "it's six o' three mam." She proceeded to scold me for being late to work. When I tried to explain, she yelled at me to shut up. So I quit. I use this as an example because there was nothing of substantial value I could have done in those three minutes. She scolded me not because I have caused problems but because I broke the grand moral, "thou shalt not be late for work."

If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. Therefore the Master says: I let go of the law, and people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I let go of religion, and people become serene. I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 57

Detachment

Because there are two polarities overriding all existence, to attach to one or the other would be to misunderstand them. By nature, they are inseparable. To have one, you implicitly have the other. Therefore the Tao Te Ching often teaches detachment.

Attachment can come in several forms, just as the yin and yang come in several forms. You can be attached to knowledge from the knowledge/ignorance polarity. You can be attached to life from the life/death polarity. You can be attached to action from the action/non-action polarity. The most general of all, you can be attached to the being, or manifestation, in the being/non-being polarity.

The Tao Te Ching teaches that learning is a part of life, but what you learn doesn't belong to you. To attach to your learning as your own, strutting your stuff and trying to scare people with your big concepts, or to even think that your knowledge is all that important, is to misunderstand the knowledge. In such a game, knowledge becomes a prize, and ignorance is the enemy.

The Tao Te Ching teaches that life and death are cycles of nature. One day something is allowed to live, the next day it dies. One thing lives at the expense of another, and this creates a chain of dependence of one species upon another. This is neither bad nor good, it just is. The goal of all species is to survive, but only as a part of the living/dying game. To attach to life and fear death is to misunderstand life. Life is a cycle, not a grand victory or grand loss.

The Puritan work ethic is prevalent in Western thought. Work, work, work. Laziness, by this way of thinking, is the enemy. The Tao Te Ching teaches that playing gives purpose to work, and work gives perspective to playing. Furthermore, as everything else, they go in cycles. Lao Tzu warned that anything excessive will lead to its excessive opposite. Thus, by preaching that everyone work excessively, the Puritan work ethic is actually creating laziness and excessive playing. People seek more and more exciting forms of play: drive-by shootings, all-night parties with kegs and every drug known to mankind, promiscuous sex, etc. By detaching, you allow yourself to live in moderation.

In the most general sense, all of these can be summed up as the battle between having and not having, being and not being, existing and not existing. The frantic struggle to control and possess more and more things (being, or manifestation), and eliminate lack, misfortune and emptiness (non-being). The struggle, of course, is what makes life fun, but without the thing to be struggled against, there is no struggle. Therefore, the Tao Te Ching teaches to honor the enemy, to humble yourself in knowing that you'll never win, but that doesn't mean to quit playing, it just means to play with honor and fairness. To use the game analogy, it means to not pull a .64 magnum on your opponent in the middle of a monopoly game.

Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don't realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 16

Humility

"Congratulations! You just won! What are you going to do now? ... I'm going to Disneyland." This is a classic Disneyland commercial that most people have heard before. You know, whenever someone does something outstanding, they're what they're going to do next, and they would reply that they're going to Disneyland.

The proper question is, what else is there to do? No one is going to play trumpets for you and have the whole world bow. You'll get a bit of recognition no matter what you succeed at, but you can't expect too much. Disneyland happened to believe the best thing for someone to do once they've succeeded at something is to go to Disneyland. Lao Tzu would agree.

Humility means doing your job with detachment from the outcome. It means to commit yourself from moment to moment, all that it takes. Success happens every moment you do this; it's not something that only happens when you have no more to do. Actually, that's the time that you've stopped succeeding, and, of course, the time to go to Disneyland.

The Master does his job and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao. Because he believes in himself, he doesn't try to convince others. Because he is content with himself, he doesn't need others' approval. Because he accepts himself, the whole world accepts him.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 30