Taoist Principles

By Bill Mason

  1. Oneness
  2. Dynamic Balance
  3. Cyclical Growth
  4. Harmonious Action

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.

Taoism is for a special kind of person. Although anyone can benefit from it, it's not for everyone, at least not this day in age and place. The true benefit in Taoism is found by those who are ready to question what they've been taught. Furthermore, the more one learns of Taoism, the more they learn they must question. As Lao Tzu put it, "in pursuing knowledge, one accumulates a little more each day. In pursuing the Tao, one takes away a little more each day." Everything we've been taught, all the technicalities, categories, and descriptions of nature, keep us from experiencing nature itself. For nature is not something that needs to be categorized. It is the only category.

So Taoism is a nature-based philosophy. This feels wierd for me to write because aren't all philosophies supposed to be as such? However, some philosophies are God-based, some human-based, some gender-based, some animal-based, etc. A philosophy which focuses on one of these specific concepts is, to me, incomplete. They're all part of nature, are they not? In my opinion, the more general the philosophy, the better. A true philosophy has to be able to encompass everything. It has to consider all facets of nature.

Taoism is such a philosophy. It starts and ends with observation of nature. In this way, it is just like science, but it is different in that science observes nature objectively, separate from the observer, whereas Taoism observes nature subjectively, seeing the observer and the observed as one entire system. This is the first principle of Taoism: Oneness. There is not "just us," or "just nature," but both.

Every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao. It springs into existence, unconscious, perfect, free, takes on a physical body, lets circumstances complete it. That is why every being spontaneously honors the Tao. The Tao gives birth to all beings, nourishes them, maintains them, cares for them, comforts them, protects them, takes them back to itself, creating without possessing, acting without expecting, guiding without interfering. That is why love of the Tao is in the very nature of things.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 51

This is not to say that there is not a distinction. We're always separating things into "us and them," in one form or another. Quite often we do this with nature, seeing "us" as the human race, and "them" as nature. However, just because there's a distinction doesn't mean there has to be an opposition. The second principle of Taoism is that of Dynamic Balance. There are always two basic distinctions in nature, symbolized by the yin and yang (sun and moon, heaven and earth, dark and light, chaos and order, etc.), but Taoism sees balance as the basic characteristic underlying these distinctions.

The Tao is the One. From the One come yin and yang; From these two, creative energy (chi); From energy, ten thousand things, The forms of all creation. All life embodies yin And embraces yang, Through their union Achieving harmony.

- Tao Te Ching (Dreher translation), Chapter 42

These two basic polarities (yin and yang) not only balance each other, but also complement each other in cycles. This is the third principle of Taoism: Cyclical Growth. The sun is replaced by the moon, then the moon is replaced by the sun. Summer is replaced by winter, then winter is replaced by summer. Light is replaced by dark, then dark is replaced by light. Everywhere in nature, you will see these basic cycles.

The Tao moves by returning In endless cycles. By yielding, it overcomes, Creating the ten thousand things, Being from nonbeing.

- Tao Te Ching (Dreher translation), Chapter 40

Among these various polarities which are balanced through cycles of nature are yielding/overcoming, fighting/withdrawing, giving/taking, etc. Taoists believe that because these seemingly opposite polarities are actually balanced and work together through cycles, you can actually produce one from the other. This sort of behavior is the fourth principle of Taoism: Harmonious Action. This can be observed in a bamboo stick. Watch it bend with the wind: it overcomes the wind by yielding to it. If it were stiff, it would break because it's so brittle, but because it yields, it overcomes. Thus, weakness produces strength, and strength produces weakness.

If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up. The Master, by residing in the Tao, sets an example for all beings. Because he doesn't display himself, people can see his light. Because he has nothing to prove, people can trust his words. Because he doesn't know who he is, people recognize themselves in him. Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds. When the ancient Masters said, "If you want to be given everything, give everything up," they weren't using empty phrases. Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.

- Tao Te Ching (Mitchell translation), Chapter 22

Through these four basic principles of nature, there are several derived ethical suggestions which make up the bulk of the Tao Te Ching. These ethics are described on a separate page.