The Tao of the West ─ Reading #1

What is Tao?  (2000)

Alan Watts (edited by Mark Watts)


Part I: The Way of the Tao

Our Place in Nature

[1] Many years ago, when I was only about fourteen years old, I first saw landscape paintings from the Far East. It was as a result of looking at these paintings that I first became interested in Eastern philosophy. What grasped me and excited me about the Asian vision of the world was their astonishing sympathy and feeling for the world of nature.


[2] One painting in particular that I remember was called Mountain after Rain. It showed the mist and clouds drifting away after a night of pouring rain, and it somehow pulled me into it and made me feel part of that mountain scene. It is a fascinating for us to consider that pictures of this kind are not just what we would describe as landscape paintings, because they are also icons, a kind of religious or philosophical painting.


[3] In the West, when we think of iconographic or religious paintings, we are accustomed to pictures of divine human figures and of angels and saints. When the mind of the Far East expresses its religious feeling, however, it finds appropriate imagery in the objects of nature, and in this very important respect their feeling for nature is different from ours. The contrast in these two forms of expression arises as a result of the sensation that the human being is not someone who stands apart from nature and looks at it from the outside, but instead is an integral part of it. Instead of dominating nature, human beings fit right into it and feel perfectly at home.


[4] In the West our attitude is strangely different, and we constantly use a phrase that sounds peculiar indeed in the ears of a Chinese person: We speak of “the conquest of nature” or “the conquest of space,” and of the “conquest” of great mountains like Everest. And one might very well ask us, “What on Earth is the matter with you? Why must you feel as if you are in a fight with your environment all the time? Aren’t you grateful to the mountain that it lifted you up as you climbed to the top of it? Aren’t you grateful to space that it opens itself up for you so you can travel right through it? Why do you even think of getting into a fight with it?”


[5] Indeed, it is this domineering feeling that underlies the way we use technology. We use the powers of electricity and the strength of steel to carry on a battle with our external world, and instead of trying to live with the curvature of the land we flatten it with bulldozers, and constantly try to beat our surroundings into submission. The problem is that we have been brought up in a religious and philosophical tradition that, to a great extent, has taught us to mistrust the nature that surrounds us, and to mistrust ourselves as well. We have inherited a doctrine of original sin, which tells us not to be too friendly, and to be very cautious of our own human nature. It has taught us that as reasoning and willing beings we should be suspect of our animal and instinctual nature.


[6] In one sense this is all very well, for we have indeed achieved great technological advances through harnessing the powers of nature. If we carry this effort beyond a certain point, however, our manipulations interfere with the very course of nature, and this gets us into serious trouble indeed. As a result of our interference we are experiencing today what we could call the “law of diminishing returns.” For example, we want to go faster and faster everywhere we go, and so we attempt to obliterate the distance between ourselves and the place we are trying to reach. But as the result of this attempt to minimize the span of the Earth between these points, two things begin to happen.


[7] First, all places that become closer and closer to each other by the use of jet planes tend to become the same place. The faster you can get from Los Angeles to Hawaii, the more Hawaii becomes exactly like Los Angeles. This is why the tourists keep asking, “Has it been spoiled yet?” What they are really asking is, “Is it just like home?”


[8] Second, if we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must arrive, this thinking begins to cut out all that makes a point worth having. It is as if instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I gave you just the two tiny ends of the banana— and that would not be, in any sense, a satisfactory meal. But as we fight our environment in our tendency to get rid of the limitations of time and space, and try to make the world a more convenient place to live, this is exactly what happens.


[9] For a much better understanding of our place in nature, we can look to the great religions and philosophies that blossomed and took deep root in the consciousness of so much of the population throughout Asia and the Far East . . . They would say of a person who cannot trust his own basic nature, “If you cannot trust your own nature, how can you trust your own mistrusting of it? How do you know that your mistrust is not wrong as well?” If you do not trust your own nature, you become as tangled up as anyone can be.


[10] Their idea of nature is that which happens of itself so, and that is a process which is not fundamentally under our control. By definition it is that which is happening all on its own, just as our breathing is happening all on its own, and just as our heart is beating all on its own— and the fundamental wisdom behind Taoist philosophy is that this “self-so” process is to be trusted.


[11] Taoist thought is generally attributed to Lao-tzu, who is thought to have lived somewhere around 400 B.C.E., and to Chuang-tse, who lived from 369 to 286 B.C.E. Taoism is known to us as the uniquely Chinese way of thought, living, and liberation, although its roots certainly lie in shamanic traditions common to much of northeastern Asia, and probably to North America as well. In its final form, however, it is so similar to Buddhism that Taoist terms are often used to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese. Once Buddhism was imported to China, Taoism so completely permeated Mahayana Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular that the philosophies of these schools are often indistinguishable . . .


[12] The teachings of Lao-tzu and of Chuang-tse must not be confused, incidentally, with the Taoist cult of alchemy and magic preoccupied with life extension— that is Taoist only in name, not in practice . . . Although Taoism proper has never become an organized religion, it has attracted the curiosity of scholars and philosopher of the Far East for more than 2000 years. Taoism regards the entire natural world as the operation of the Tao, a process that defies intellectual comprehension. The experience of the Tao cannot be obtained through any preordained method, although those who seek it often cultivate inner calm through the silent contemplation of nature. Taoists understand the practice of wu-wei, the attribute of not forcing or grasping, and recognize that human nature like all nature is tzu-jan, or “of-itself-so.” 


[13] So there is something about ourselves that we can never get at, that we can never define in just the same way you cannot bite your own teeth, you cannot hear your own ears, and you cannot make you own hand catch hold of itself. So therefore you must let go and trust the goings-on of your humanness. Confucius was the first to say that he would rather trust human passions and instincts than trust human ideas about what is right, for like the Taoists he realized that we have to allow all living things to look after themselves.

The World and Its Opposites

[14] When we say what things are, we always contrast them with something else, and when we try to talk about the whole universe about all that there is we find we really have no words for it. It is “one what?” All of this “one what?” Is represented by the symbol of the great circle. But in order to think about life, we have to make comparisons, and so we split it into and derive from the circle the symbol of the Yang and the Yin, the positive and the negative. We see this symbol over and over on Chinese pottery, and today on everything from jewelry to T-shirts. Traditionally, this emblem is one of the basic symbols of the philosophy of Taoism. It is the symbol of the Yang, or the mail, and the Yin, the female, of the positive and the negative, the yes and the no, the light and the dark. We always have to divide the world into opposites or categories in order to be able to think about it.



15] In the literary tradition of Taoism, the legendary Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu is often referred to as a contemporary of Confucius. According to some accounts, Lao-Tzu was supposed to have been a court librarian who wearied of the insincerity and intrigue of court life and decided to leave the city and go off and live in the mountains. But before he left, the guardian of the gate is said to have stopped him and said,

“Sir, I cannot let you go until you write down something of your wisdom.”


[16] And it is said that he sat down in the guardhouse and recorded the book known as the Tao Te Ching, the book of Tao and Te, of the Way and its power. The core of Lao-Tzu’s written philosophy deals with the art of getting out of one’s own way, learning how to act without forcing conclusions, and skillful living in harmony with the processes of nature instead of trying to push them around. Lao-Tzu didn’t say very much about the meaning of Tao; instead, he simply offered his advice . . .


[17] Taoist thought remains among the most accessible of the world’s great religious philosophies, and is perhaps the only one to retain a sense of humor. My favorite picture of Lao-Tzu is by the master Sengai, and it shows him in the sort of disheveled and informal style that is so characteristic of Taoist humor, and was later assimilated in Zen Buddhism. This playfulness is one of the most delightful characteristics of the whole of Taoist philosophy and, as a result, I know of no other philosophical works besides those of Lao-Tzu and his successor Chuang-Tse, that are so eminently readable. Of all the great sages of the world, they alone have a sense of the enjoyment of life just as it comes . . .


[18] Long before Buddhism came to China in about 60 CE, Lao-Tus’s philosophy had revealed to the Chinese that you cannot characterize reality, or life itself, as either being or nonbeing, as either form or emptiness, or by any pair of opposites that you might think of. As he said, “When all the world knows goodness to be good, evil has already arisen.”


[19] We do not know what any of these things are except by contrast with their opposite. For example, it is difficult to see a figure unless there is a contrasting background. Were there is no background to the figure, the figure would vanish, which is the principle of camouflage. Because of the inseparability of opposites, therefore, you realize that they always go together, and this hints at some kind of unity that underlies them.




Tzu-Jan: “By Itself So”

[20] There is always something that we don’t know. This is well illustrated by the elusive qualities of energy and physics: we cannot really define energy, but we can work with it, and this is the case with the Tao. The Tao works by itself. Its nature is to be, as is said in Chinese, tzu-jan, that which is “of itself,” “by itself,” or “itself so.” Tzu-jan is almost what we mean when we say that something is automatic, or that something happens automatically. We sometimes translate this expression in English as “nature,” as when we talk about the nature of the mountains, the birds, of plants, of animals. That sort of nature in Chinese would be tzu-jan.


[21] The fundamental sense of the term is that the Tao operates of itself. All that is natural operates of itself, and there is nothing standing over it and making it go on. In the same way one’s own body operates of itself. You don’t have to decide when and how you’re going to eat your heart; it just happens. You don’t decide exactly how you are going to breathe; your lungs fill an empty themselves without effort, without intention. You don’t determine the structure of your own nervous system or of your bones; they grow all by themselves.


[22] So the Tao goes a long of itself. And since there is always a basic element of life that cannot be defined in the same way the Tao cannot be defined it cannot be controlled. Lao-Tzu would go on to say that since man is an integral part of the natural universe, he cannot hope to control it as if it were an object quite separate from himself. You can’t go outside of nature and be the master of nature. Remember that your heart beats “self-so” and, if you give it a chance, your mind can function “self-so,” though most of us are afraid to give it a chance.


Wu-Wei: “Not Forcing”

[23] Whenever we have the feeling of being able to dominate ourselves, master ourselves, or become the lords of nature, what happens is that we do not really succeed in getting outside of nature or of ourselves at all. Instead we have forced our way of seeing these things to conform to an illusion that makes us think they are controlled objects, and in doing this we invariably set up a conflict inside the system. We soon find that the tension between our idea of things and things as they are puts us out of accord with the way of things.


[24] For this reason you might say that not-forcing (or Wu-wei) is the second principle of the Tao the spontaneous or of-itself-so activity (Tzu-jan) being the first. In Chinese the second principle, again, is called Wu-wei, and it means literally “not doing,” but it is much better translated to give it the spirit of “not forcing” or “not obstructing,” or “non-interference.” In reference to the Tao it is the sense that the activity of nature is not self-obstructive. It all works together as a unity and does not, as it were, split apart from itself to do something to itself. Wu-wei is also applied to human activity, and refers to a person who does not get in his or her own way. One does not stand in one’s own light while working, and so the way of Wu-Wei (this sounds like upon but it isn’t) is the way of non-obstruction or non-interference. This is the preeminently practical Taoist principle of life.


[25] What I mean by forcing yourself is something like this: When children in school are supposed to be paying attention to the teacher, their thoughts will go wandering all over the place, and the teacher will soon get angry and say, “Pay attention.” And the children will wrapped her legs around the legs of the chair, and they will stare at the teacher and try to look frightfully intelligent. But what happens was expressed very well in a cartoon I saw the other day: A small boy is standing and looking at his teacher and saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you’re saying because I was listening so hard.” In other words, when we try to be loving, or to be virtuous, or to be sincere, we actually think about trying to do it in the same way the child was trying to listen, tightening up his muscles and trying to look intelligent as he thought about paying attention. But he wasn’t thinking about what the teacher was saying, and therefore he wasn’t really listening at all. This is a perfect example of what is meant by blocking yourself or getting in your own light.


[26] To offer another illustration: suppose you were cutting wood. If you go against the way the tree grew, that is to say against the grain of the wood, the wood is very difficult to cut. If you go with the green, however, it splits easily. Or again, in sawing wood, some people are in a great hurry to get on with sawing and they try and power right through the piece. But what happens? When you turn the board over you see the back edge of the wood is full of splinters, and you find that you are rather tired as well. Any skilled carpenter will tell you, “Let the salt do the work, let the teeth do the cutting.” And you find that by going at it quite easily, and just allowing the blade to glide back and forth, the wood is easily cut. As our own proverb says, “Easy does it.” And Wu-Wei means easy does it. Look out for the grain of things, the way of things. Move in accord with that way and work is thereby made simple.



Te : Virtue─ Skill in Living

[27] In one book the philosopher Chuang-tse tells a wonderful story about a butcher who was able to keep the same chopper for twenty years because he was always careful to let the blade fall on the interstices between the bones. And so in this way he never wore it out. Once again we see that the person who learns the kind of activity which is, shall we say, in accord with the Tao, is said to possess virtue. The peculiar Chinese sense of virtue is called Te, but it is not virtue in quite our ordinary sense of being good. Te  is like our word virtue when it is used more in the sense of the healing virtues of a plant. When we use the word virtue in this way it really designates an extraordinary kind of skill at living. In his book Lao-Tzu says that the superior kind of virtue is not conscious of itself is virtue, and thus is really virtue. But the inferior kind of virtue is so anxious to be virtuous that it loses its virtue altogether.


[28] We often come upon the kind of person who is self-consciously virtuous, who has, you might say, too much virtue. These are the sorts of people who are a perpetual challenge to all their friends, and when you are in their presence you feel they are so good that you don’t know quite what to say. And so you are always, as it were, sitting on the edge of your chair and feeling a bit uncomfortable in their presence. In a Taoist way of speaking, this kind of person stinks of virtue, and doesn’t really have any virtue at all. The truly virtuous person is unobtrusive. It is not that they affect modesty; instead they are what they are quite naturally. Lao- Tzu says that the greatest intelligence appears to be stupidity, the greatest eloquence sounds like a stammer, and the greatest brightness appears as if it were dull. And of course this is a kind of paradoxical way of saying that true virtue, Te, is the living of human life in such a fashion as to not get its own way.


[29] This is the thing we all admire and envy so much about children. We say that they are naïve, that they are unspoiled, that they are artless, and that they are un-self-conscious when you see a little child dancing who is not yet learned to dance before an audience, you can see the child dancing all by itself, and there is a kind of completeness and genuine integrity to her motion. When the child then sees that parents or teachers are watching, and learned that they may approve or disapprove, the child begins to watch itself while dancing. All at once the dancing becomes stiff, and then becomes artful, or worse, artificial, and the spirit of the child’s dance is lost. But if the child happened to go on studying dance, it is only after years and years that, as an accomplished artist, the dancer regains the naïveté and the naturalness of their original dance. But when the naturalness is regained it is not just simple, we could say embryonic, naturalness of the child, completely uncultivated and untutored. Instead it is a new kind of naturalness that takes into itself and carries with itself years and years of technique, no-how, and experience.


[30] In all this you will see that there are three stages. There is first what we might call the natural or childlike stage of life in which self-consciousness has not yet arisen. Then there comes a middle stage, which we might call one’s awkward age, in which one learns to become self-conscious. And finally the two are integrated in the rediscovered innocence of a liberated person. Of course there is a tremendous advantage in this, because one must ask, if you are enjoying life without knowing that you are enjoying it, are you really enjoying it? In here, of course, consciousness offers an enormous advantage. But there is also a disadvantage, even in danger, in developing, because as consciousness grows, and as we begin to know how to look at ourselves and beyond ourselves, we may start over and over again, and cause much interference with ourselves. This is when we begin to get in our own light.


[31] You know how it is when you get in your own light or getting your own way─ when it becomes desperately essential that you hurry to catch a train or a plane, for example, instead of your muscles being relaxed and ready to run, your anxiety about not getting there in time immediately stiffens you up and you start stumbling over everything. It is the same sort of thing on those days when everything goes absolutely wrong. First of all, when you’re driving to the office, all the traffic lights are against you. Of course this irritates you, and because of your irritation you become more tense and more uptight in your way of handling things, and this leads to mistakes. It could lead to being so furious and going so fast that the police stop you, and so on and so forth. Is this way of battering against life, as it were, that ties it up in knots. And so, the secret in Taoism is to get out of one’s own way, and to learn that this pushing ourselves, instead of making us more efficient, actually interferes with everything we set about to do . . .


The Strength of Weakness

[32] Lao-Tzu writes about the philosophy of the strength of weakness. It is a strange thing, I think, how it is that men in the West who do not realize how much softness is strength. One of his favorite analogies was water. He spoke of water is the weakest of all things in the world, and yet there is nothing to be compared to it in overcoming what is hard and strong. You can cut water with a knife and it lets the knife go right through, it water alone cut the Grand Canyon out of solid rock. Lao-Tzu also said that while being a man, one should retain a certain essential feminine element, and that he who does this will become a channel for the whole world. The ideal of the 100% tough guy, the rigid, rugged fellow with muscles like steel, is really a model for weakness. We probably assume this sort of tough exterior will work as a hard shell to protect ourselves─ but so much of what we fear from the outside gifts to us because we fear our own is on the inside. What happens if an engineer builds a completely rigid bridge? If, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge or the George Washington Bridge did not sway in the wind, and if they had no give, and no yielding, they would come crashing down. And so you can always be sure that when a man pretends to be 100% male on the outside, he is in doubt of his manhood somewhere on the inside. If he cannot allow himself to be weak, he cannot allow himself to experience what is really his greatest strength. This is so not only for human beings, but for all living things.