On Taoism

Knowing the Tao is not a matter of knowledge but of experience

BY: Ken Cohen

 

Sit back and

listen

to Ken Cohen's talk on Taoist philosophy.


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Ken Cohen's audiotape series "Taoism: The Way and Its Power" is available from Sounds True, PO Box 8010/Dept. BP98, Boulder, CO 80306-8010.

Excerpted with permission from the Sounds True Audio Collection "In Their Own Words"

Text of the audioclip

: Let's begin now to discuss Taoist philosophy. Taoist philosophy could be called the study and realization of the Tao. Thus the best way to begin our study of Taoist philosophy is by learning the definition of this key word, the "Tao." There's a problem here: Lao Tzu, the first Taoist philosopher says at the opening of the "Tao Te Ching," "the Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao." He also says "those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know."

But here's the paradox: In spite of this philosophy, Lao Tzu did speak. He wrote a philosophical classic that had more than 5,000 words. I believe Lao Tzu used his words like a poet, to reveal an experience of life, the realm from which all words emerged. The fact that God is ineffable--that is, beyond all knowledge and language--has not stopped people from filling libraries with books about theology. The problem, you see, is not words, but confusing words with their reference--with that which words describe. If someone points his finger at the moon, we must look at the moon and not at the finger. So what is the Tao, how are we going to define it?

Tao means "path"--that's the literal meaning of the Chinese character--more specifically, a path that we blaze through the wilderness beyond knowledge. It can mean a physical road, it can mean a spiritual road, or it can mean a way of life.

The word "Tao" has a similar range of meanings to the Greek word "logos." Remember your Bible: In the beginning was "logos," the word, the way, the peace that passeth understanding.

The Tao is also the way of nature. Nature grows spontaneously, according to the inner promptings of its being. Nature is incapable of habitual, compulsive, or contrived behavior. Thus nature becomes the model of the Tao. Nature is always in a constant state of flux and transformation. You can't step twice into the same river. Lao Tzu could have said that. Thus the term Tao implies vitality and movement. You can't fully grasp the Tao with rigid concepts and language, any more than you can capture flowing water in a bucket, or the wind in your hands.

The Tao is a transcendent state of being--beyond the reality of the mind that includes words, and beyond the reality of the senses. Yet paradoxically, the Tao is also right here and now since we can perceive the Tao by observing the course of a stream or the flow of our own breath. The Tao is available to our perception when we are fully in the present. The Tao is the divine life that moves through all things.

The philosophy of Taoism is summarized and distilled in the opening of Lao Tzu's classic the "Tao Te Ching." This line reads in Chinese "tao k'e tao, fei ch'ang tao" which means, "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao"--the great Tao, the eternal Tao, the everywhere Tao. Why can't we speak of the Tao? In other words, why is the divine beyond knowledge? First, I have already suggested that the Tao is movement and change. Words by contrast are static and fixed. How can unchanging, static words grasp the ever-changing Tao? Furthermore, the Tao is everywhere; it includes you the knower, the speaker. There is no way to find an outside perspective from which to know it. Can a sword cut itself? Can a fire burn itself? Can the subject be the object of its own knowledge?

Perhaps the most important reason why we cannot know the Tao is because it is not a matter of knowledge but of experience. In silent meditation, in observing a passing cloud or feeling a sunset breeze, we can most truly understand the Tao. The Tao is experienced and practiced, not understood in words.

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