Tao Te Ching: Introduction

(Hon Sing Lee, Jan 28, 2003)

It is perhaps the best time now to learn about Taoism. I shall explain this later in this passage.

Fundamental Framework of Taoist Thought

The center of Taoism thought is about attaining order and harmony. To understand Taoism, is to first understand its symbol (see attached). This symbol is also called the Yin-Yang symbol.

To study the concept of harmony, Taoism adopted a framework that everything contains 2 opposite polarities. Rather than being abstract about this, they named the two polarities Yin (?) and Yang (?). Thus these 2 polarities represent many qualities. The Yin represents feminine, dark, evil, passive, rest, downwards, and inwards. The Yang represents male, bright, good, proactive, movement, upwards, and outwards. In the Yin-Yang symbol you can see Yin represented by the black and Yang represented by the white. Thus comes the first Taoist Axiom:
1) Every thing contains opposing forces within it.

The second Axiom tells how these forces change with time:
2) All forces move in cycles. When one force peaks, the opposing force will arise (????).

Thus in the Yin-Yang symbol, you see the white patch starts from a weak tail and grows into a big patch. However where the white patch is biggest, a small black dot arises. This symbolizes that when Yang peaks, Yin will arise within. The cycle continues with the weak Yin tail, which grows into a big black patch. Similarly a small white dot arises when the black patch is biggest symbolizing that when Yin peaks, Yang will arise within. Then the cycle repeats.

This setup curiously seems to explain some phenomenons that happen in our world.  Before a big thunderstorm, the air is usually still.  Before death from sickness, a patient seems to recover in health.  When a country rules too tightly, disorder will arise instead.  When we work too hard and try to be proactive in everything (Yang), we shall tend to fall into depression and inactiveness (Yin).

Next comes the third Axiom:
3) The optimal way to cope with these forces, is to harmonize (with) them.

This is symbolized by the roundness of the Yin-Yang symbol. To harmonize does not mean to 'neutralize', but rather to learn how to co-exist. In general, we harmonize in 2 ways. The first way is to ride along with the forces. Thus we live in harmony with the cycles and experience no conflicts. The second way is to try regulate one force so as to bring balance back towards harmony. These 2 ways are used in different contexts.

About Tao Te Ching

Taoism has three basic texts:
1) Tao Te Ching
2) Writings of Zhuang Tzu
3) I-Ching
In this series, we shall be studying the Tao Te Ching. It is written supposedly by Li Erh (1301 BC, ????,???,??). However since he is the first to be identified with this wonderful writing, he is also honored as Lao Tzu (the Old Master).  Note that this series of discussion will not touch on any superstition aspect.  For proper appreciation of Taoism, we must first understand its philosophical framework.

The proper translated name for Tao Te Ching should be Dao De Jing.  However since most non-Chinese refer to it as the earlier, I shall continue to use that name.  After all, as the first chapter said, the name is unimportant relative to the object.  Many people interpreted the name wrongly and called it 'The Book of Moral Values'.  I beg to differ.  This is because during Lao Tzu's time, Chinese characters were seldom used in pairs.  That is, the characters seldom compound together to convey one meaning.  Hence the characters should be interpreted separately, character by character.  Thus I would interprete the first character Tao, as the Way the universe works.  The second character Te, is ? as in ??.  Thus it means 'properties of'.  The last character Ching, means 'Classical Text'.  Hence the interpreted name would look something like:

The Classical Text on the properties of the Way the universe works.

Tao Te Ching is not a book of moral codes.  It is a book expounding on the properties of the Way.  If we only study the Way, we would only know how things work.  By studying the properties of the Way, we would further know how to harmonize them and be one with the universe.  This book is respected as the classical text, hence it is called the Ching.

Relevance of Taoism in Today's World

In the past, we were used to analysing objects in isolation, as if these objects have an independent nature.  However we now realize that things interact, and when they interact, even their nature changes.  Quantum mechanics is a science which testify to that.  Thus we need a more macroscopic model that can account for these interactions.

The Taoist framework stands out as an ideal choice.  In modern business theories, we are already thinking in terms of opposing forces and how to balance them.  Game theoretic models also study the harmony among entities.  International and national politics today recognize diversity and value the harmonious ways of co-existence.  Environmentalists research into how we can peacefully live with mother nature.  Indeed, harmony is the key word in this new era.

The Chinese thoughts are becoming alternatives to the conventional Western thoughts.  However the Chinese thoughts are deeply grounded on the Taoist framework.  The Chinese medicine models around the harmony among elements within the body; the Feng Shui is a study into balancing the 'chi' in the environment; the Chinese strategies are built upon riding the cycles and the opposing forces to win success and avoid failures.  These treasures seem mysterious to us because we do not understand their framework.  Learning about Taoism can unlock these treasures and unleash a new era of fresh ideas and innovations.

Therefore Taoism is not obsolete, in fact it has become more relevant today than ever.  With the advancement of information technology, the ideal of becoming a global village is at hand.  With cultures each thousands of years old coming together, it is like mixing many different forces into a single mixing bowl.  The Taoist philosophy has something to offer, that of harmony.  Harmony not in the sense of neutralization, but in the way of co-existence and balance (peace).  Such harmony will help civilizations to enjoy living among other civilizations, as well as with mother Earth.  Taoism philosophy is not exclusively for the Taoist.  It is a methodology of equilibrium, which all of us can use some, regardless of the God we have faith in.

Send me your comments.