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Tao Te Ching and Its Influence
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What Tao and Taoism Is

Tao: (literally "Way", the Supreme Principle).
te: (its "virtue", or just as likely "power and prowess")
ching: (book)

Hence, the ancient Chinese classic Tao-te Ching is The Book on the Way and its Power (Virtue) [cf. Waley 1958 (a reference at bottom of the page)]. The work stresses the values of such as quietism, wu-wei (doing seemingly nothing), and remaining thoroughly unknown, and does not think that common people are intellectuals. The universe has its Way, its Tao. There is a Tao of the ruler as well, and some Tao (Way, Means) for the others. In part these Ways are similar, in part they differ.

Tao emblem

The work is marked by a compressed, concise and cryptic style. Tao is a concept that allows for many meanings and interpretations. It is often illustrated as a serpentine curve though a circle. It is a symbol that holds lots of meanings (Illustration).

And Taoism is an ancient, major philosophy and religion - it can be both - tending to good fortune by acupucture, sexual knowhow and prowess, and much else.

Tao of Sex

Holding a sound harmony between male and female, between yang and yin, is essential, and helps well enough love-making, that is, Yang and Yin uniting and working in harmony. Knowledge of the basic principles of union between the two allows for variations and enjoyments, for example by nine sorts of thrusts (!).

And even though perspiration is advocated for some athletes during their training, a Taoist like Jolan Chang (1977) seems to think that sweating severely during intercourse is a sign that the person has not learnt to relax well enough. However, an ancient text he recounts from, the T'ung Hsüan Tzu, points out that at the peak of enjoyment the female partner begins to perspire and breathe faster as her juices flow. Her partner knows from these signs and others that she has reached great enjoyment, even though with clenched teeth.

Only extremely spiritual guys may seek a life in total abstinence, while the artist of love-making learns to value basic cues, such as the female's five basic reactions - and take it from there. Interestingly, copious sweating is near the climax there too.

Two female counsellors of Emperor Huang Ti compare intercourse with fire and water in that both of the two may kill or bring life. Results depend on knowing Tao, or harmony and concord may break asunder. [Chang 1977, passim].

Taoism in China

Chinese Buddhism incorporated may key elements of Taoism, so there is much Taoist material in such as Zen Buddhism too, as well as Tantra (Sex-Yoga).

Taoism has shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. Taoist thought permeates Chinese culture, including many aspects not usually considered Taoist. Taoist philosophy and religion have found their way into all Asian cultures influenced by China, especially those of Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. There is also a tendency among scholars today to draw a less rigid line between what is called Taoist and what is called Confucian. The two traditions share many of the same ideas about man, society, the ruler, Heaven, and the universe. [EB, "Taoism", passim]

Tao-te Ching is a ponderable book of ancient Chinese Taoism (in Pinyin: Daoism). It is allegedly by Lao-tzu. Holmes Welch writes about him:

There is a legend that on the fourteenth of September, 604 B.C., in the village of Ch'u Jen in the county of K'u and the Kingdom of Ch'u [corresponding to the modern Lu-yi in eastern Honan], a woman, leaning against a plum tree, gave birth to a child. Since this child was to be a great man . . . his birth were out of the ordinary. He had been conceived some sixty-two years before when his mother had admired a falling star, and after so many years in the womb, he was able to speak as soon as he was born. Pointing to the plum tree, he announced: "I take my surname from this tree." To Plum (Li) he prefixed Ear (Erh)—his being large—and so became Li Erh. However, since his hair was already snow-white, most people called him Lao-tzu, or Old Boy. After he died they called him Lao Tan, "Tan" meaning "long-lobed." . . .

Different sources tell different stories. Possibly Lao-tzu was born not in 604 B.C., but in 571 B.C.; not in Ch'u, but in Ch'en. He may have spent not 62, but 81 years in his mother's womb . . . [Welch 1966]

Lao-Tzu ("Master Lao," or "Old Master") is Laozi in Pinyin. He is known as the first philosopher of Chinese Taoism and alleged author of the book Tao-te Ching. Lao-tzu remains an obscure figure.

The historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien wrote about Lao-tzu about 100 BC, but had little solid information about the philosopher. The historian renders a celebrated but questionable meeting of the old Taoist with the younger Confucius (551479 BC). However, the sources are so inconsistent and contradictory that the meeting seems a mere legend. According to one story, Lao-tzu closed their meeting by saying:

"I have heard it said that . . . the princely man, though of perfect moral excellence, maintains the air of a simpleton. Abandon your arrogant ways and countless desires, . . . for they do not promote your welfare. That is all I have to say to you."

Confucius went away, shaking his head, saying: "Those that run can be snared, those that swim may be caught with hook and line, those that fly may be shot with arrows. But when it comes to the dragon, I am unable to conceive how he can soar into the sky riding upon the wind and clouds. Today I have seen Lao-tzu and can only liken him to a dragon." [Welch 1966, passim]


Taoism Interview

The eleven questions and answers that follow are adapted from a Tao interview in 2003. The information about Lao-tzu was added in 2006.


What are the biggest themes portrayed in Taoism?

To some it could be the alternative outlooks to consider. And to consider the good versus the childish and immature, and thinking along in the ancient thought currents as fits.

Are writings like Tao Te Ching widely read in the Far East?

In modern China the influence of Taoism may not be easily found outside Taiwan, even though a more liberal policy concerning religion has led to a growth of interest in the practice of Buddhism in mainland China too.

In Zen there is much that ties in with some major facets of Taoism, as Zen dervies from Chinese Ch'an, which incorporated many key elements from the teachings of Tao and its Way. Also, some Zen writings use the term "Tao". The conclusion: There are key Tao elements in Zen Buddhism. "In modern Japan, Zen sects and subsects claim some 9,600,000 adherents". Others say about 12 million. [EB, "Zen"] Further:

In the case of Buddhism—a third tradition that influenced China . . . competition between these two religions . . . resulted in mutual borrowings, numerous superficial similarities, and essentially Chinese developments inside Buddhism, such as the Ch'an (Japanese Zen) sect. [EB, "Taoism"]

Who do you think Lao-tzu meant his main audience to be?

A gate-keeper in the west, according to tradition: Lao-tzu dictated the work to the gate-keeper as his farewell blessing. Welch writes:

At the age of 160 Lao-tzu grew disgusted with the decay of the Chou dynasty and [left it for] a more congenial atmosphere. Riding in a chariot drawn by a black ox, he left the Middle Kingdom through the Han-ku Pass which leads westward from Loyang. The Keeper of the Pass, Yin Hsi, who, from the state of the weather, had expected a sage, addressed him as follows:

"You are about to withdraw yourself from sight. I pray you to compose a book for me."

Lao-tzu thereupon wrote the 5,000 characters which we call the Tao Te Ching. After completing the book, he departed for the west. We do not know when or where he died. [Welch 1966, 2]

In Lao-tzu's legendary journey to the west, he wrote his book in two sections of 5,000 characters. Then Lao-tzu left, and "nobody knows what has become of him," says the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien, who goes on to allude to "other men with whom Lao-tzu was sometimes identified". One was a Taoist contemporary of Confucius; another was a great astrologer. Ssu-ma Ch'ien adds, "Maybe Lao-tzu has lived one hundred and fifty years, some say more than two hundred years." Ssu-ma Ch'ien also seems to think he was one of the recluses who shunned worldly life. The author (or authors) of the Tao-te Ching was probably a person of this kind who left no trace of his life.

The ancient Chinese believed that superior men could live very long. However, Chuang-tzu, the Taoist sage of the 300s BC, speaks of the death of Lao-tzu without emphasizing an unusual longevity. [Ch 3, Section 4]

Ssu-ma Ch'ien also thinks he was one of the recluses who shunned worldly life. The author (or authors) of the Tao-te Ching was probably a person of this kind who left no trace of his life. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

The question of whether there was a historical Lao-tzu has been raised by many scholars . . . The Tao-te Ching, as we have it, cannot be the work of a single man . . . and the book as a whole dates from about 300 BC. . . . The name Lao-tzu seems to represent a certain type of sage rather than an individual. [EB, "Lao-tzu"]

Welch thinks that "except for a few interpolations, the book was written by one man. But I would agree that we know nothing about him . . . Is this a great loss? I think not. The important thing about the book is not its author, but its ideas . . . we have a book. Some person or persons wrote it." Welch also tells that in his book, by "Taoist" and "Taoism" he refers to the doctrines of the Tao Te Ching alone, and "No other book except the Bible has been translated into English as often." One "reason for so many Western versions lies perhaps in the parallels between the Tao Te Ching [in Lin Yutang's translation] and the New Testament". [Welch 1966, 3; Yutang 1963]

Hence, the main audience may be those who think about tall issues of living and consider well - not unlike the good soil of a parable by Jesus. The good audience is not marked by shallow depth and freaking out in jubilations, but by pondering things on one's own and bearing fruit in due time -

When read centuries ago, do you think that Taoism had a different affect than now?

It is not as simple as "centuries ago", basically because of periods of upheaval and loss of influence during different reigns in China, and so on. Also, the Chinese society was and is stratified. There may be no simple answers here. The very neat book by Holmes Welch, Taoism: The Parting of the Way [Welch 1966], shows much significant from the history of Taoism.
      Moreover, there is not just one form of Taoism, and there are different levels and uses of it too. There is philosophical Taoism (of Lao-tzu and Chuang Tzu [Watson 1968] and others), and the religious Taoism that grew around older Taoism, to name a few.

Is it possible to follow Taoism in today's society with all the new technology and time devoted to work?

More or less. It depends also in part on what you put into it. You have perhaps read of books like "Zen and the art of . . ." If you replace "Zen" with "Tao" in the title, the answer is there: it is YES - because basic issues of Zen and Tao intertwine.

However, Taoism also involves making very fit selections and adaptations for long-run survival and, if possible, for success. That is not to be ignored.
      Further, in no small way the answer depends on which society and which niche and stratum of society one is inside. It is generally easier to make alternative adaptations in middling or higher strata - and then again, much depends on one's personal circumstances and one's tradition and heritage.

Do you think Taoism is interpreted differently in America than in Asia? If so, what are the differences and similarities?

Yes, yes. We may see it from how the ancient oracle book I Ching (The Book of Changes) is treated. The book forms a platform for Taoism thinking. In the West, a selection of interpretations that aims at success outwardly is selected first of all, whereas the original's ways of referring tends to be obscure, and allows for many interpretations too, not just those who conform to American middle class success values. It may do some good to compare with I Ching versions too, for example James Legge's version.

Can Taoism be thought of as a quite universal religion?

As for the basics the answer is YES, and Taosm may be fit for a grown-up. But there are different definitions and scopes of the term 'religion' The answer given is attuned to a sort of "middling", common definition.

Can ideas of Taoism be seen in many different religions such as Buddhism and Christianity?

Yes. "Tao is Zen and Zen is Tao," asserts Dr. Daisetsu Taitaro Suzuki (1870–1966), a chief interpreter of Zen Buddhism to the West. He contributed substantially to the understanding of Buddhism in Western countries.

Also, Holmes Welch shows by parallell passages that a number of key tenets look alike in Christianity and Taoism [Welch 1966, 5-6]. Note, however, that much depends on which translation you take to. Welch uses Lin Yutang's version.

What made you decide to make your own translation of Tao Te Ching?

Strong dissatisfaction with (1) over-bold or great-looking statements of many translations; and (2) with the gross one-sidedness of a large number of translations. I put the presumed best shots of three major, renowned translations into a single work and modified the text a little bit otherwise too. [Link]

How do you feel Taoism has contributed to the ideas of the modern society?

On the whole, very little, not ulike main ideas of Jesus, which come pretty close to many of Taoism too. In some translations many ideas even seem identical, in part due to translator preferences [cf Welch 1966, 5-6]. Modern society is both exploitive, profane, and today also explosive (due to combats etc), whereas (Gentle) Taoism does not have to be like any of that. It aims much more at give-and-take deals (balance) in large outline. And Tao is the "balancing line" between such as "in and out" or "take and give", roughly said. This shows a big difference on a fundamental level. Taoism is not as shallow, and hankering for material affluence is far from all there is to it.

Do you think Taoism is more effective if taken completely literally or when looked at with a looser interpretation?

'Effective' is a dangerous term to use, granted that Taoism has a wider, more complete outlook of balance and harmony than most attitudes that drive most Westerners toward hazardious exploitation, global pollution, overcrowding and mistaken identity along with it.

Also, Taoism contains some key symbolic emblems, many idioms and metaphors that insiders are thought to interpret and others hardly so. Some terms are explained in works by eminent translators. However, there is a reason why there is such a wide variation of translations of a slender work like Tao Te Ching: It allows for several interpretations. One big reason is that no one told where to put periods (full stops). Interpretations depend on them a lot.

Also, as suggested, we may not take utterances from ancient pictograms literally; they seldom allow for it and may be a bit obscure. It has to do with how they are built up, and I have explained whys of it in a little series of articles (on-line).

Do you think following the themes of Taoism will lead to a healthier, more relaxed life?

If you are very healthy and relaxed already, hardly . . . Well, the effects depend on what you derive from it. From what you actually live at home. That is the question.

It would also depend on WHICH THEMES of Taoism you choose to adhere to. Much depends on circumstances and on associates, and on one's family tree history and family assets, community help, and the like, and then on upbringing and education too. Many such reservations reflect a Taoism outlook. Even the landscape you were brought up within counts, Lao-tzu writes.

It is presumably best to assent that good coping helps health and that coping that has been carried through to a successful outcome of some sort, could assist in bringing about welcome circumstances. If so, they may afford us with time for both coping and relaxing. That is the goal of many business magnates - they work their health off to be able to lie down to bask in the sun somewhere, calm down away from home for some reason or other, and enjoy life too, at last. Some prefer to live the dolce vita (sweet life) from youth, and not count on becoming old and healthy enough to enjoy all sides of life to the maximum in retirement years. Some get lucky and get it both ways.

Health is ill served in modern societies, where in many places worse to live in urban areas (mainly its slum) than in the country, in general. Nervousness, isolation, Entfremdung (estrangement, alienation), anxiety, stress, dwindling of moral, but not of root guilt are key notes. Many compete till the end of their days in keeping up with the Joneses, parental desires and their own stupidity, and so forth. Many just reflect urbanization, exploitation, and general ways of adaptations that are not good enough, not in the long run, at any rate. But they still jump on the band-wagon. Maybe it is the best they possibly can do! Abraham Maslow holds a different view of what is really worth striving for, though. We too. [Maslow 1987]

A sound blend of Taoism tenets could help many toward the overriding goal of good health and a fit and fine life-style, and so could many elements of good yoga.


Recent archaeological findings of Tao-te Ching manuscripts have confirmed its antiquity and paved the way for some alternate translations already. There are many translations of the quite ambiguous text Tao-te Ching on-line. Also, Moss Roberts is one of those who have incorporated the recent findings into their translations. Older translations by Lin Yutang and Arthur Waley might work well to compare with.

Tao Te Ching Influence, Dao De Jing, Literature  

Welch, Holmes H. 1966. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon.

Geddes and Grosset. 1998. I Ching: Fortune and Fate. New Lanark, Scotland: Children's Leisure Products.

Chan, Wing-Tsit. 1963. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Watson, Burton, tr. 1968. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.

EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Britannica Online.

Chang, Jolan. 1977. The Tao of Love and Sex: The Ancient Chinese Way to Ecstasy. New York: Dutton Paperback.

Maslow, Abraham. 1987. Motivation and Personality. 3rd ed. New York, HarperCollins.

Waley, Arthur, tr. 1958. The Way and Its Power. A Study of the Tao the Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. New York: Evergreen/Grove.

Yutang, Lin. 1963. The Wisdom of China. London: New English Library.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting

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