Taoism > The Basics

What is Tao?

Definition and meaning

Tao is the basic concept of Taoism (the word "Taoism" itself is composed with "tao"). But it is not a term forged by the Taoist mind - it belongs to the spiritual heritage of ancient China.

tao graph
The Chinese ideogram for Tao is made of two characters: head and foot. The ideas suggested are "consciously walking" or the way of ruling of the ancient sovereigns

The word for word meaning of "tao" is represented by the ancient ideogram. It is made out of two distinct graphic elements: the one placed to the right suggests the image of a hairy, human head; the one placed to the left suggests moving by presenting a foot walking.

  • Tao with Taoists and Confucians

Tao meaning differs widely depending on the context of the doctrine in which it is included. Thus, for Taoists, Tao is the very source and creator of all things in the universe and, in the same time, a model for the sage's conduct.

Tao-te ching maintains that the Tao concept is obscure, that is, difficult to grasp. Something without name were there, at the beginning, before the heaven and earth were conceived. Something that rather looks like void.

For Confucius and his school mainly interested in politics and ethics, "tao" refers to the art of ruling the state of the ancient emperors like King Wen and Duke of Chou, famous characters in the history of China. Thus it points to a "way" or "method" of ruling took as a model by the Confucians.

  • Tao in the Book of Changes

In I-ching, a handbook of divination and the most worshiped book of ancient China, the Tao is defined as an yin and an yang, meaning the "movement" of the universe itself by contraries. (See also our course on Lao-tzu and Tao-te ching that explains what is this movement like.)

  • Tao at Robber Kih

But "tao" is also a special skill of some persons. So a "tao" may be found at robbers too, as shown in a text from Chuang-tzu:

    The followers of the robber Kih asked him, saying, "Has the robber also any method or principle [i.e. tao] (in his proceedings)?"

    He replied, "What profession is there which has not its principles? That the robber in his recklessness comes to the conclusion that there are valuable deposits in an apartment shows his sageness; that he is the first to enter it shows his bravery; that he is the last to quit it shows his righteousness; that he knows whether (the robbery) may be attempted or not shows his wisdom; and that he makes an equal division of the plunder shows his benevolence. Without all these five qualities no one in the world has ever attained to become a great robber". (Chuang-tzu, Chap. X, Cutting open Satchels.)

Chinese people admired gifted persons such as archers, butchers, doctors etc. They were invited at the sovereign's court, put to the test and rewarded properly when they proved their skill.

Nowadays one could also find successful businessmen, gifted artists, writers, sportsmen acclaimed by the people, talented politicians etc. All of them have their own tao, and this means a specific aptitude and the way it is performed.

  • Tao at Richard Wilhelm and Carl Jung

Carl Jung
Carl Jung
Richard Wilhelm, the most known Western translator of the Book of Changes, renders "tao" by "sense".

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, famous for his taking part in developing the psychoanalysis initiated by Sigmund Freud, translates "tao" as walking consciously or with a sound head.

In the Secret of the Golden Flower, a Chinese alchemical work commented by Jung himself, "tao" is explained as follows: "What exists only through itself is named tao".

In Hui Ming Ching (the Book of Consciousness and Life), one can read: "the deepest mystery of tao is the human nature and life".

Thus "tao" is the mixture of human nature and life.

Let's conclude that Tao is a concept related to the birth of the universe, the way of governing and even the specific skills of certain people.

Demons Talking - pictureTao, Good and Bad

- What is the Tao good for? asked Wu from the Northern Sea. Is it good for food, for ride or perhaps for fighting enemies?
- No, replied the Master of No Concern, it is not good for food, ride or fighting your enemies. Just because the Tao is Lord of everything you shouldn't ask about its utility.

Wu from the Northern Sea changed countenance and replied sadly: "Once again I mistaken the master for the servant!"

Further resources:

  • You may find more about the meaning of Tao by taking our  courses dealing with it - click here to access the courses page.
  • The collection of sayings of Master Lu deals with the Tao as a day-to-day experience. Learn more here.

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