Taoism > The Basics

What is Tao?

The word "tao" is usually translated as "way", "road", "method", "technique" or "principle". As a concept, Tao is the most important topic in the philosophical Taoism (tao-chia).

In Tao-te ching (the Bible of Taoism), Tao is the name given by Lao-tzu to the Great Pervader or the Mother of all Things. Tao is the creator and sustainer of everything in the Universe. It is described as follows:

    There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth... (Chapter 25, James Legge.)

The words "undefined" and "complete" mean that Tao is understood as the fundamental layer of the created universe that includes both things and beings (wan-wu).

tao graph
The Chinese word for Tao is made of two characters: head and foot (meaning walking). The ideas suggested are "conscious walking" or the way of ruling of the ancient sovereigns

It has no shape or anything that one can perceived as a material feature and this is why we can compare it rather to a spirit. It is complete because it misses nothing.

Tao is the model of conduct for the Taoist disciples and as such it is associated with wu-wei (nondoing) and wu (emptiness).

The word "tao" refers further to the special skills of people such as  good archer, musician, painter and even butcher. The skill itself is called a "tao".

Finally, the Tao concept may be found at Confucians too. In this case it points to the art of ruling of the ancient Chinese emperors taken as model of virtue and humanism.

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 Level 1 of the Taoism initiation course or Lao-tzu and and Tao-te ching Revealed, dealing with the Taoism basics.
  • The collection of sayings of Master Lu deals with the Tao as a day-to-day experience. Learn more about this ebook here.

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