The Tao as a Path

Stephen W. Sawyer

Since the sixth century BCE, Taoism has become an essential part of the Chinese mind. As the word Taoism suggests, the Tao isi key concept within this religion. The meaning of the Tao, however, has remained ambiguous- The Tao Te Ching [l] begins, "The Way [Tao] that can be spoken of is not the constant way."[2] Although the Tao is alwavs mysterious, one may gain insight into it by analyzing the concept of the Return [3], The Return is governed by a three step process known as "Keeping the One."[4] Within this process Taoists become more aware of the relationship between the cosmos and the self and eventually bridge the gap between them. As Taoists [5] proceed toward the Return, they are following the natural I order of the universe on one hand and deepening their understanding of themselves on the other. In the end, as Taoists interact with the Tao, they discover that the self and the totality of being are in fact one. Thus, through elucidating the relationship between the self and Tao, one can establish a perspective from which to understand the Tao.

"Keeping The One"
Each stage of "Keeping the One" has its own direction. In the first stage, Taoists are bringing their energies together in order to become whole or find the "one" within the self. Thus the Taoists eliminate the imbalances within the self and allow the self to become on organic whole which can interact freelv with its environment.

Taoists accomplish the first stage through meditation, ritual action, or some other patterned behavior. The martial arts are an example of how the Taoist might pursue this preliminary step. As one begins the martial arts, one's mind is often not synchronized with one's body, which is in turn not synchronized with one's breath. According to Taoism, such disharmony between mind, body, and breath separates a Taoist from the "one." Taoists overcome these imbalances by practicing a series of movements, within which thev must integrate bodily motion and breath. For this integration to occur the mind must also be in full cooperation; for if the mind is not focused, the techniques will not be focused.

Wang Pi, a third-century commentator on the Tao Te Ching, described Taoists in this stage as a continuum, It is their goal in this stage to achieve ". . . absolute peacefulness and Purity of mind, freedom from worry and selfish desires, [and the ability] not to be disturbed by incoming impressions or to allow what is already in the mind to disturb what is coming into the mind,"[6] What is essential to this state is that the Taoists are removing the false constructs of desire, prejudice and passion, and in this way integrating the forces within the body. It is the Taoists' goal to accomplish "oneness" throughout the body, mind and spirit. Thus at this stage they are en route to realizing the "one" within the self.

Through this stage in the process, Taoists have overcome the tensions within the self and, consequently, are able to interact as an organic whole. The Taoist student who has accomplished this first stage may feel deep fulfillment, as a recent commentator on Taoism has noted: "The student of T'ai-Chi Chu'an ... is likely to consider that he has already found 'it,' that is the long sought harmony with nature."[7] Despite this sense of success, however, the individual has only completed the first of three stages.

In order to enter the next stage, a Taoist most leave behind the highly structured rhythm of everyday practice for a state of chaos. Kristofer Schipper explains the necesity of advancing to the next stage when he states, "With the practices I have called preliminaries, . . . we are still within the realm of systems, precepts and even recipes."[8] Just as a recipe is only a method, so is the harmony and integration of the preliminaries only one step toward the wholeness of the self.

Playing music serves as an example of how Taoists move beyond ritual and highly structured form into chaos. When a musician begins playing an instrument, he or she learns scales and notes and plays them repeatedly until the notes are instantly recognizable. At this point, the Musician has mastered the preliminary stage. When he or she studies a piece of music and the prior practice translates into freedom within the prescribed pattern of notes. Finally, truly uinderstanding the piece, the musician must transcend all of the notes and practice and enter into the piece. This abandonment is the desired chaos, the state that Taoists find by first mastering the preliminaries and then forgetting them for a more profound state of being.

Within this desired chaos, Taoists achieve free interaction with the totality of being. Livia Kohn, a recent commentator on Taoism, explains: [When the physical body exists no more as all individual entity, it exists permanently as the body of the Tao. Oneness with the Tao [path], the union with the underlying being of the universe, leads to a freedom of all, to the ability to participate in the movements of existence to be or not to be, just as life itself may be latent or active, hidden or apparent.][9] In this second stage the Taoist is trying to move beyond "oneness" within the self to a free interaction with the external[10] As Taoists become whole, embracing the "one," they are able to commune with the cosmic order which is also whole. At this stage, it is as though Taoists find a common denominator between the self and the totalitv which surrounds them, and they are able to join together because of this similarity.

Thus at the end of the second stage Taoists operate in chaos, and yet they maintain complete freedom. At this moment the Taoist is working within the wholeness of the self embracing the two generative forces of Yin and Yang:

Taoists cultivate the Yang (active, masculine, sun) force through the preliminary stage, which helps them to integrate the body and breath. During the second stage they cultivate the Yin (passive, feminine, moon) force by releasing themselves to the chaotic order of the moment. In this state, although Yin and Yang are separate, they are still one within the self (just as they are one within the cosmos). They are in constant interaction, one allowing the other to exist.

The Return
Although the state of chaos may be perceived as an end in itself, to the Taoist there is yet a third stage. This third state is important in that Taoists no longer just move with the external, reacting to whatever situation may arise, but instead become one with it. The Taoists in this case resemble someone driving a car. Often, if one takes a very familiar route, one may not even be aware of the drive until one has arrived home. In this case, the stop signs and turns become a part of the experience. These events along the way cease to be obstacles, but are instead part of the experience of driving. At this point the distinction between the route and the act of driving disappears; the driver is what he or she is driving. Likewise, in this third stage, the dichotomy between the Tao and the experience disappears.

Thus the diagram above is not complete. There must be a return, a return beyond chaos into a oneness that does not allow for differentiation between the Tao and the self. In his commentary on Chuang Tzu, A.C. Graham, a contemporary Taoist scholar, explains the subtle distinction between the second and third stages; he writes:

    yin-shih [is] ... the proper attitude of the Taoist in action [the Taoist during the        second stage] who does not distinguish alternatives ... who reacts with his
         whole being to the situation from one moment to the next .... However, even
         yin-shih comes to an end in the state [the third stage] in which any distinction
         between It and Other is seen to be illusory and all language dissolves in the
         immediate experience of an undifferentiated world."[11]

Thus at this stage the Taoists have finally returned to the state of complete stillness in which they are one with the Tao.

Sexual intercourse provides an example of the individual becoming one with the whole. Two individuals are physically interacting, each taking both a passive and an active role, Through these interactions one experiences a sense of abandonment or chaos (the second stage). This feeling takes over the body as a whole in such a manner that "the rhythm and pulsions which were harmonized in the preliminary stage now become like a stream of music flowing through the whole being."[12] Then amidst this experience there is a feeling of upheaval, or orgasm, and the one is born [the third stage]. At this point, the individuals have shifted from two separate entities to one being (an embryo); now the diagram is completed:

Not only do Yin and Yang, chaos and order, interact on all levels, but within the heart of each exists the other. The two states have become one; the dark cannot exist without the light and vice versa. Thus just as the forces of the two parents are constantly at work in a single child, the self and the Tao are in constant interchange.

An essential aspect of this third stage is that Taoists move beyond themselves, for they cannot become one with the Tao until they become completely open to the totality of being. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains: "The reason I have great trouble is that I have a body. When I no longer have a bodv what trouble have I?"[13] The body in this case can be understood as a metaphor for a closed self. As a closed self, Taoists are unable to become one with the Tao because they are not open to the endless potential of the Tao. Just as water will take on the form of any container because it does not cling to any shape, Taoists must be willing to take on a new role depending on the nature of their surroundings. In this way, Taoists, are able to become one with the totality of being.

Wang Pi elaborates on this stage in his Lao Tzi's Pointers. He writes: "A feature necessarily has something which specifies it. A note necessarily has a place in the scale to which it belongs. Therefore: A figure which takes on features is not the 'Great Figure.' A sound which takes on a note is not the 'Great Sound.'"[14] For Taoists to attain the ideal state they must not limit the self. These limits can be as small as prejudices and as abstract as consciousness; in any case, in order to become one with the Tao, Taoists must not cling to any specific concept of who they are and what behaviors define them.

In following this Process then, Taoists engage in a process which involves the self and offers understanding of the Tao. In the first stage, Taoists establish harmony within the self. In this way they are able to bring all of their energies together so that they may act as one organic entity. Next, they interact with the Tao with their whole selves. Finally the surroundings and the self become one. At this stage, Taoists have reached the ideal state: they have destroyed the boundaries of selfhood and may commune with the greater power of the Tao. It is at this point that Taoists come to understand the Tao, for it is only by experiencing it that they can understand it. While the Tao will eternally elude the realm of language and analysis, it will remain forever omnipotent in the experience of Taoists.


1. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, is the original Taoist text.

2. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, trans. D. C. Lau (London: Penguin, 1968),5. 3. Kristofer Schipper refers to this stage of the process as "La Regression," which could be translated as regression. Sunch a translation may be more accurate in that it has no implication of spatial orientation. Instad, it implies that one is returning to a previous mental state. Kristofer Schipper, Le Corps Taoiste (Librairie Artheme Fayard: 1982), 203.

4. This phrase is also translated as "Guarding the One," or "Embracing the One." This particular translation comes from Karen Duval's translation of Kristofer Schipper's The Taoist Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

5. The author will use they and Taoists because Taoism is not gender specific. However, it does tend to emphasize the feminine role and often uses metaphors that use the female as an ideal.

6. Wang Pi, A Translation of Lau Tzu's Tao te Ching and Wang Pi's Commentary, trans. Paul Lin (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, U of Michigan, 1977), 13.

7. Schipper, 139. This and later references to Schipper refer to Duval's translation of The Taoist Body.

8. Schipper, 139.

9. Livia Kohn, "Eternal LIfe in Taoist Mysticism," Journal of the American Oriental Society 110 (1990): 635.

10. Livia Kohn explains this shift as a reversal from the enstatic to the ecstatic mode of development. Kohn, 634.

11. A.C. Graham, "Chuang Tzu's Essay on Seeing Things Equal," History of Religion 9 (1970): 144.

12. Schipper, 154-5.

13. Lao Tzu, 17.

14. Rudolph Wagner, "Wang Bi [Pi]: 'Structure of Laozi's Pointers' (Loazi weilzhi lilue): A Philological Study and Translation," Tsoung Pao 72 (1986): 103-4.

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