The Roots of Taoism

As told by Benjamin Hoff in “The Te of Piglet”

Taoism a Bridge to Reality

             The Roots of Taoism

“Thousands of years ago, man lived in harmony with the rest of the natural world. Through what we would today call telepathy, he communicated the animals, plants, and other forms of life—none of which he considered “beneath” himself, only different, with different jobs to perform.  He worked side by side with earth angels and nature spirits, with whom he shared responsibility for taking care of the world.

The earth’s atmosphere was very different from what it is now, with a great deal more vegetation-supporting moisture.  A tremendous variety of vegetable, fruit, seed, and grain food was available. Because of such a diet, and a lack of unnatural strain, human life span was many times longer than what it is today.  The killing of animals for food or “sport” was unthinkable.  Man lived at peace with himself and the various life forms, whom he considered his teachers and friends.

But gradually at first, and then with increasing intensity, man’s Ego began to grow and assert itself. Finally, after it had caused many unpleasant incidents, the consensus was reached that man should go out into the world alone, to learn a necessary lesson.  The connections were broken.

On his own, feeling alienated from the world he had been created from, cut off from the full extent of its abundance, man was no longer happy.  He began to search for the happiness he had lost.  When he found something that reminded him of it, he tried to possess it and accumulate more thereby introducing Stress into his life.  But searching for lasting happiness and accumulating temporary substitutes for it brought him no satisfaction.

As he was no longer able to hear what the other forms of life were saying, he could only try to understand them through their actions, which he often misinterpreted.  Because he was no longer cooperating with the earth angels and nature spirits for the good of all, but was attempting to manipulate the earth forces for his benefit alone, plants began to shrivel and die.  With less vegetation to draw up and give off moisture, the planet’s atmosphere became drier, and deserts appeared.  A relatively small number of plant species survived, which grew smaller and tougher with passing time. Eventually they lost the radiant colors and abundant fruit of their ancestors.

Man’s life span began to shorten accordingly, and diseases appeared and spread.  Because of the decreasing variety of food available to him—and his growing insensitivity— man began to kill and eat his friends the animals.  They soon learned to flee from his approach and became increasingly shy and suspicious of human motives and behavior.  And so the separation grew.  After several generations, few people had any idea of what life had once been like.

As man became more and more manipulative of and violent toward the earth, and as his social and spiritual world narrowed to that of the human race alone, he became more and more manipulative of and violent toward his own kind.  Men began to kill and enslave each other, creating armies and empires, forcing those who looked, talked, thought, and acted differently from them to submit to what they thought was best.

Life became so miserable for the human race that, around two to three thousand years ago, perfected spirits began to be born on earth in human form, to teach the truths that had largely been forgotten.  But by then humanity had grown so divided, and so insensitive to the universal laws operating in the natural world, that those truths were only partially understood.

As time passed, the teachings of the perfected spirits were changed, for what one might call political reasons, by the all-too-human organizations that inherited them.  Those who came into prominence within the organizations wanted power over others.  They downplayed the importance of nonhuman life forms and eliminated from the teachings statements claiming that those forms had souls, wisdom, and divine presence and that the heaven they were in touch with was a state of Unity with the Divine that could be attained by anyone who put aside his ego and followed the universal laws. The power-hungry wanted their followers to believe that heaven was a place to which some people—and only people—went after death, a place that could be reached by those who had the approval of their organizations.  So not even the perfected spirits were able to restore the wholeness of truth, because of interference by the human ego.

Down through the centuries, accounts of the Great Separation, and of the Golden Age that existed before it, have been passed on by the sensitive and wise.  Today in the industrial West, they are classified as mere legends and myths—fantasies believed in by the credulous and unsophisticated, stories based only on imagination and emotion.  Despite the fact that quite a few people have seen and communicated with earth angels and nature spirits, and that more than one spiritual community has grown luscious fruits and vegetables by cooperating with them and following their instructions, descriptions of these beings are generally dismissed as “fairy tales.”  And, although colored and simplified accounts of the Great Separation can be found in the holy books of the world’s religions, it is doubtful that many followers of those religions strongly believe in them.

However, a number of pre-Separation skills, beliefs, and practices have been preserved.  On the North American continent, they are passed on in some of what remains of native teachings—those of the “Indians.”  In Europe they have largely died out, but traces of their influence can still be seen in such comparatively recent phenomena as stone circles and the marking of “ley lines” (called “dragon veins” by the Chinese)—channels along which earth energy is concentrated.  In Tibet, until the Communist invasion, ancient ways were preserved in Tibetan Buddhism, many of the secrets and practices of which predate Buddhism by thousands of years.  In Japan, they can be found in some of the rituals and beliefs of the Shinto (“spirit way”) folk religion.  In China, they have been passed on through Taoism.  And, despite violent opposition from China’s Communist government, they continue to be passed on today.

Briefly, Taoism is a way of living in harmony with Tao, the Way of the Universe, the character of which is revealed in the workings of the natural world.  Taoism could be called either a philosophy or a religion, or neither, since in its various forms it does not match up with Western ideas or definitions of either one.

In China, Taoism is what might be called the counterbalance of Confucianism, the codified, ritualized teachings of K’ung Fu-tse, or “Master Kung,” better known in the West as Confucius. Although Confucianism is not a religion in the Western sense, it could be said to bear a certain resemblance to Puritanical Christianity in its man-centered, nature-ignoring outlook, its emphasis on rigid conformity, and its authoritarian, no-non-sense attitude toward life.  Confucianism concerns itself mostly with human relations—with social and political rules and hierarchies.  Its major contributions have been in the areas of government, business, clan and family relations, and ancestor reverence.  Its most vital principles are Righteousness, Propriety, Benevolence, Loyalty, Good Faith, Duty, and Justice.  Briefly stated, Confucianism deals with the individual’s place within the group.

In contrast, Taoism deals primarily with the individual’s relationship to the world.  Taoism’s contributions have been mostly scientific, artistic, and spiritual.  From Taoism came Chinese science, medicine, gardening, landscape painting, and nature poetry.  Its key principles are Natural Simplicity, Effortless Action, Spontaneity, and Compassion.  The most easily noticed difference between Confucianism and Taoism is emotional, a difference in feeling: Confucianism is stern, regimented, patriarchal, often severe; Taoism is happy, gentle, childlike, and serene—like its favorite symbol, that of flowing water.

Taoism is classically viewed as the teachings of three men: Lao-Tsu (“Master Lao”), author of the major Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching, which is said to have been written around twenty-five hundred years ago; Chuang-tsu (“Master Chuang”), author of several works and founder of a school of writers and philosophers during the Warring States period, approximately two thousand years ago; and the semi-legendary Yellow Emperor, who ruled over forty-five hundred years ago, and to whom are attributed various meditative, alchemical, and medicinal principles and practices. These three were the great organizers and communicators of Taoist thought, rather than its founders; for, as we have said, what is now known as Taoism began before any of them were born, in what Chuang- tsu called the Age of Perfect Virtue:

In the Age of Perfect Virtue, men lived among the animals and birds as members of one large family. There were no distinctions between “superior” and “inferior” to separate one man or species from another.  All retained their natural Virtue and lived in the state of pure simplicity…

In the Age of Perfect Virtue, wisdom and ability were not singled out as extraordinary.  The wise were seen merely as higher branches on humanity’s tree, growing a little closer to the sun.  People behaved correctly, without knowing that to be Righteousness and Propriety. They loved and respected each other, without calling that Benevolence. They were faithful and honest, without considering that to be Loyalty. They kept their word, without thinking of Good Faith. In their everyday conduct, they helped and employed each other, without considering Duty. They did not concern themselves with Justice, as there was no injustice. Living in harmony with themselves, each other, and the world, their actions left no trace, and so we have no physical record of their existence.

Ever since the Great Separation, Taoists have concerned themselves with attaining the state of Perfect Virtue, through discarding whatever prevents harmony with Tao.”

For more on the Ultimate Nature of Reality see the Understanding Reality Course.