[This post originally appeared on June 19th on my old Tumblr blog, which I no longer maintain.]
What do the following statements have in common?
- "Receive all with gratitude and release all with love."
- "See if you live up to your own standards before you judge someone else."
- "The greatest gift you can give your child is to believe in him or her."
- "Be careful which words you use when communing with the universe."
- "Make small promises to yourself and keep them, every day."
The common element is: they have nothing whatsoever to do with Taoism. These statements come from an author who, for his/her sake, I will not name. I have also obfuscated the wording of these quotes to help protect the author. The point is not the author's identity, but the content of what is said. Suffice it to say that the author labels these and many other folksy slogans as "Taoist," without a shred of foundation for doing so.
Disclaimer: Those who know something about Taoism, especially the writings of Zhuangzi, will probably squirm a bit while reading this blog post. Taoism (and its Buddhist offshoot, Zen) has a strong "don't pin me down with language" current to it, which I appreciate and adore. But I think for the sake of intellectual honesty it is worth making clear that some things simply are not Taoist and have no authentic roots in any Taoist tradition or philosophy.
There is nothing in the Dao De Jing 道德经, the writings of Zhuangzi 庄子, or the earlier and more essential Inward Training 内业, that remotely resembles the above sound bites.
What is Taoism? It's hard to pin down, and pinning it down intellectually will limit one's ability to truly live it, but there are core elements that define what Taoism is and has historically been. Let's sample some sources, starting with Eva Wong's The Shambhala Guide to Taoism. Being a translator of the Liezi 列子 and an actual Taoist practitioner, she might have something valuable to say:
The Tao is the source of life of all things. It is nameless, invisible, and ungraspable by normal modes of perception. It is boundless and cannot be exhausted, although all things depend on it for existence...
Although the Tao is the source of all life, it is not a deity or spirit... In the Tao-te ching, the sky, the earth, rivers, and mountains are part of a larger and unified power, known as Tao, which is an impersonal and unnamed force behind the workings of the universe.
That's the Tao. How about Taoism? In discussing "classical" Taoism, Wong continues:
The sage is one who cultivates life. The Tao-te ching describes two methods of cultivating life: physical techniques and attitude.
The physical techniques included regulation of breath, physical postures... and possibly techniques of retaining and cultivating sexual energy...
On the matter of lifestyle and attitude, the Tao-te ching states that desire, attachment to material things, and activities that excite the mind, rouse the emotions, tire the body, and stimulate the senses, are all detrimental to health.
So far, there's nothing here about gratitude, believing in your children, or communing with the cosmos.
What about the Dao De Jing 道德经 itself? Long considered the original source text on Taoism (although, in modern times, it has been put in its proper historical place as a descendant of the much earlier Inward Training 内业), this would be a great place to look for these allegedly "Taoist" ideas. Some samplings from Jonathan Star's Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition. From verse 8:
Live in accordance with the nature of things:
Build your house on solid ground
Keep your mind still
When giving, be kind
When speaking, be truthful
When ruling, be just
When working, be one-pointed
When acting, remember -- timing is everything
From verse 19:
and the people will benefit a hundredfold
Abandon the rules of "kindness"
Discard "righteous" actions...
Abandon plots and schemes
Or my translation of part of verse 63:
Prepare for difficulty
when circumstances are still easy.
Achieve great impact
by acting while things are still small.
I could go on and on, quoting from these texts, from the Liezi 列子, from Lau and Ames's translation of Yuan Dao 原道, etc. You can see hints of the undercurrent of what Taoism has been for thousands of years: aligning with Tao (道) and the patterns of nature (理), cultivating health and meditative breath control, discarding lifeless and artificial notions of morality, etc. What you can't see is New Age notions of warm 'n' fuzzy "gratitude," parenting advice, or sending positive mindwaves out into the vasty nothingness of the universe.
I don't really intend to rip apart the author of the faux-Taoist fluff above -- I'm sure that person's intentions are good and noble. But again, we need to be honest about what things are and aren't when it comes to philosophy. "Make small promises to yourself" is about as related to Taoism as "shuffle the deck and cut it in two" is related to nuclear physics.
Taoism is a serious philosophy and practice based primarily on breathing meditation, alignment with nature, and reduction in human artifice that distracts from doing all that. It is not New Age fluff or "thinking positive," as the mainstream tries to make it out to be.