Evaluating Taoism and Zen
“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.”
– Marcus Aurelius, (Emperor of Rome, 161-180 AD), Meditations IV, 40.
Of all the world’s great spiritual traditions, Taoism and Zen are most like our own Way of Continuing Creation. In fact, “the Tao” translates into English as the Way, and your author, J.X. Mason, almost named his Book, The Tao of Continuing Creation instead of The Book of Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos. Our book might also have been titled The Zen of Continuing Creation, because Zen largely grew out of Taoism, as we shall see.
Zen, often called Zen Buddhism, has an historical connection to Buddhism. When Buddhism was carried from its origin in India north into China, it combined with China’s indigenous and much older Taoism to form Chan Buddhism. The word “chan” translates to “meditation.” From China, Chan Buddhism was exported to Vietnam, to Korea, and then, in the 13th century, to Japan, where the word “Zen” is a rough pronunciation of “Chan.”
Despite this history, we agree with a number of scholars (including Alan Watts and Ray Grigg, both of whom we will reference in this Essay) who hold that the content of Japanese Zen (and now worldwide Zen) owes far more to its Taoist roots than it does to Buddhism. 1 For this reason, we have combined our discussion of Taoism and Zen into this one Essay, reserving Buddhism for a separate Essay of its own.
Because Taoism is older than Zen, we’ll talk about Taoism first, and take up Zen later in this Essay. Lastly, we’ll list what we see as their strengths and shortcomings, as we do in all our Essays that evaluate various individual religions and spiritual paths.
The Chinese word “Tao” (or “Dao”) means way, path, principle, or the teaching. In Taoism, “Tao” also denotes something that is the source of everything that exists. It is also something that individuals can find immanent in themselves. The Tao is the natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable One. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. 2
Taoism emphasizes naturalness and spontaneity. In large measure, Taoism arose in reaction to the mannered and legalistic formality of Chinese Confucianism in the same era. 3
Taoism is pantheistic, because the Tao is present everywhere. In Western theology, concepts analogous to the Tao are the “flow of the universe,” the “ground of all* being,” and, simply, “Nature.” 4 Practitioners of the Way of Continuing Creation make the argument that The Book of Continuing Creation is a restatement and expansion of the Tao Te Ching that includes scientific knowledge, invention, and progress.
While Taoism is very old (going back at least to the fourth century), and Continuing Creation is very new, they both comprehend that the Creative power of the universe is not a person-like God, but an abstract force, power, or flow. 5.
Moreover, in both Taoism and Continuing Creation, this Flow does not stand outside the Earth in a place called “heaven,” but is intricately woven into the Creative Processes we see all around us. Thus, while God is thought by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to have created the Universe, the Tao grows and evolves with the universe. Both these Wholistic Paths are examples of “process theology,” which we discussed in our Essay, Theological Forerunners to Our Spiritual Path.
Unlike the Abrahamic God (Yahweh Jehovah, Allah) of the three desert religions, the Tao does not issue commandments and does not punish or reward tribes or individual humans. Unlike the desert God, neither the Tao of Taoism nor the Way of Continuing Creation pretends to be purely good (omni-benevolent) because, as we all know, reality contains both good and evil. Yet, Taoist Practice, and our own Practice, do not conduct violent jihad, perform no honor killings, burn no witches at the stake, nor force women to wear suffocating black robes and veils in the heat of the summer sun.
The main difference between Taoism and the Path of Continuing Creation is that the latter benefits from hundreds of years of increasing scientific knowledge, which, among other things, is able to illuminate how the processes of the Tao, the processes of Nature, actually work. In this sense, the Book of Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos can be seen as an expansion and clarification of Taoism. (For more about these processes, see our Essay, The Processes of Evolution – and Their Spiritual Meaning.)
The Secular-Spiritual Path of Taoism (or Daoism) was laid down in two principal texts: The Zhuangzi (476-221 BC) and the Tao Te Ching (from ~320 BC to ~200 BC).
These two seminal works were preceded by the ancient (2700 BCE) I Ching (The Book of Changes, in which Yin (the “male principle) and Yang (the female principle) were combined with the Five Elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth) to make 64 patterns (hexagrams) that were used in fortune telling. 6
The Zhuangzi is a collection of fables and anecdotes by the Chinese Taoist sage, Master Zhuang (also called Zhuangzi, like his book; as well as Zhuang Zhou and Chuang-Tzu). Master Zhuang lived from approximately 369 to 298 BCE 7
Many of the anecdotes in the Zhuangzi attempt to illustrate the falseness of human distinctions between good and bad, life and death, and human versus nature.
One of these anecdotes tells the story of a butterfly who wakes up to be a man named Zhuang Zhou (the author). On reflection, however, it was not clear to Zhuang whether he dreamed the butterfly, or the butterfly dreamed him.
This anecdote illustrates “a view in philosophy known as epistemological skepticism in which it is held that we cannot know anything for certain. There are a number of arguments for why this is the case that have issued from skeptical voices over the thousands of years this has been debated. One of these arguments is known as the ‘dreaming argument’ and was most famously formulated by Rene Descartes in his book, Meditations. The idea is that if I believe that my dreams are real while I am experiencing them, then how can I tell that what I am now experiencing is really real and not just a dream?” 8
In summary, while other ancient Chinese philosophies focus on moral and personal duty, the Zhuangzi promotes “carefree wandering” and becoming “one with the Way.” 9
Unlike the tales of the Zhuangzi, The Way of Continuing Creation in no way rejects reality. We are opposed to a life of aimless wandering. We do not hold with the belief that constructive effort is pointless because in the end, nothing matters. 10
Our Way of participation in the positive Direction of the Cosmos advocates just the opposite: we affirm that reality is real, and our human constructive efforts are critically important in achieving progress… on all fronts that are moral. (See our Essays, Leading an Ethical Life, Leading a Virtuous Life, and Leading a Fulfilled and Happy Life.)
The Tao Te Ching
Fortunately, the other foundational book of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, agrees with us: it is very much about purposeful living and working; but always in a centered, calm, and effective manner. In this view, “aimless wandering” is a meditative tool for resting and rejuvenating the mind and body, before returning to constructive living.
The Tao Te Ching — “The Way and its Power,” or “The Way and its Virtue” – is attributed to Lao Tzu or Laozi, “The Old Master”. The Tao Te Ching is a collection of just 81 very short, poem-like statements (“chapters”) about the nature of reality and how to live life.
There is no historical evidence that the Old Master ever lived, or that he wrote the Tao Te Ching. A number of scholars believe that the little book was written by a collaboration of authors. Legend says that after writing the book, Lao Tzu retired alone into the mountains, never to be heard from again. 11
A good many Chinese symbols can be translated in a number of ways, so translations of the Tao Te Ching into English (or into any other language) vary a good deal. One of the best translations into English is Stephen Mitchell’s, published in 1988, and this Essay takes its quotations from Mitchell’s work.
it is worth quoting the following perceptive passage written in 1957 by the famed scholar Alan W. Watts in his masterful classic, The Way of Zen (a work which I recommend to all readers):
“For us [Westerners] almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we can really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words… In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs – so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.” (emphasis added). [/note] Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, 1957, Vintage Books, Random House, pp 4-5. [/note]
However, today’s Unitarian Universalists, most of whom live in the West, are able to think like Chinese Taoists in that they recognize the reality and power of “direct apprehension of the Whole.” One of their “Six Sources of Spiritual Growth” is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” 12
Analytical thought and precise language (including mathematics) should never take a back seat to wholistic, intuitive comprehension. The two modes of perception and thought are equally important. Reasoned analysis is the method of science and engineering, without which there would be little modern human-agented progress within the Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos. We do not think that Taoism rejected analytic thinking, so much as left it to the province of Confucianism. The Book of Continuing Creation is, among other things, an attempt to unify wholistic and analytical thinking.
Below is a discussion of the main ideas of the Tao Te Ching. Readers will immediately see how much the main ideas of Taoism are very like the main ideas of our own Path of Continuing Creation.
The Concept of Continuing Creation & Taoism
In other Essays in this Book, we have said that the Process of Continuing Creation goes on and on in ever increasing elaboration, as long as the sun can supply energy to the open energy system we call Earth. Chapter 4 (“#4”) and also #34 of the Tao Te Ching read, in part,
The Tao is like a great well:
Used but never used up…
… filled with infinite possibilities…
It is hidden but always present.
The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
Yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
Yet it makes no claim.
In other words, The Tao is immanent. It is similar to saying “Jesus is with us always.” But Taoists do not attempt to “walk with” or “talk to” the Tao as Christians believe they do with Jesus. Instead, Taoists meditate, and attempt to center themselves in the flow of the Tao. The Tao is more like the flow of all Earth’s rivers and streams, or the flow of the sun’s energy through all living things, than it is a personified God such as Jesus.
The Concept of the Tao vs. the Western Concept of God
The Tao is omnipresent; powerful but non-omnipotent; not omni-benevolent; and not omniscient (because The Tao does not sense or care what humans are doing). Why? Because the Tao is not a sentient, communicating “person.” Followers of Continuing Creation agree that the concept of an impersonal flow is a more realistic portrayal of our world and our lives than is a world under the command and control of a person-like (anthropomorphic) God.
According to Taoism, How Was the World (Universe) Created?
To answer this question, we can do best by quoting Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen:
“The important difference between the Tao and the usual idea of God is that whereas God produces the world by making (wei), the Tao produces it by “non-making” (wu-wei) – which is approximately what we [westerners] mean by growing…. Because the natural universe works mainly according to the principles of growth, it would seem quite odd to the Chinese mind to ask how it was made.” 13 However, a serviceable Taoist answer to this “odd” question might be, “The world grows as my garden grows.” Today, of course, we have lengthy answers from the sciences of geology, chemistry, biology, and sociology about how the world grows. For example, see our Essay, The Processes of Evolution — and their spiritual meaning.
The Interplay of Yang and Yin
Information cannot exist without a difference. White cannot be seen without the presence of black (or some other color). Chapter #2 of the Tao Te Ching says, in part:
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
High and low depend on each other.
The ancient symbol of Taoism is the Yin and Yang symbol, in which the two sides of the universe – dark and light, feminine and masculine, negative and positive – swirl around each other in the endless dance of creation. However, the Yin-Yang symbol is also used by Confucianism and by Chinese culture in general.
The Yin-Yang symbol, and its “swirling dance” are, of course, poetic metaphors. They are metaphors for the scientific processes of chemistry, organic chemistry, and evolution. The endless interaction of yin and yang, of light and dark, energy and matter, zeroes and ones, is Taoism’s expression of The Process of Continuing Creation:
“The endless interaction of yin and yang is forever creating new things and transforming the old… The German theologian Paul Tillich famously defined God as the “ground of all being.” The impersonal Tao is that, too, but more fundamentally it is the ground of becoming – the natural process undergirding all generativity and change. This creative transformation is on view in the natural world” – Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One, p. 298.
Note: In our Essay, Patterns of Information – How Creation Works, we talk extensively about how creation arises from the directional elaboration of information; which itself arises from the patterns created by differences.
Align Your life and Your Efforts with Practice of Continuing Creation.
The purpose of life for Practitioners in The Way of Continuing Creation is to align one’s life and efforts with the Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos; or at least of the Earth. A number of Essays in this Book explain that and tell people how to do it: we Create, we Build, and we develop positive relationships with other humans and with the living ecosystems here on Earth.
If we work against the Flow of Continuing Creation, we can get lost in turbulence and spend our energies uselessly. The Tao Te Ching says something highly similar in its Chapters #32 and #45:
If powerful men and women
Could remain centered in the Tao,
All things would be in harmony…
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
And lets the Tao speak for itself.
The Western religions, on the other hand, contend that the world and each and every one of our individual lives follows a detailed “Divine Plan” contained in the mind of God. Thus, followers of those religions like to say, “God has a plan for me.” And then when one of life’s random tragedies happen (disease, flood, etc.) the same people say, “Who can understand the Will of God?” We think this “reasoning” is absurd and fatalistic.
Instead, as Alan Watts writes, a universe which grows does so by growing, and growing without a detailed plan. As we Practitioners of Continuing Creation would say, it grows by the process of evolution, which uses the materials at hand, generating organisms that emerge and survive long enough to reproduce, even though they suffer from “poor design.” In truth, there is no design, and the proof is in our “thoughtlessly organized bodies,” with our tooth decay, bad backs, and constant sufferings from illness and old age. 14
Go with the Flow
To be most effective and most fulfilled, the Book of Continuing Creation tells us to work without stress – “Find the Flow,” or as musicians say, “Be in the Groove.” When a songwriter is “in the groove,” she usually cannot explain how she wrote the song or where it came from. And “as any Little League coach can tell you, a pitcher needs to throw the ball without aiming. He needs to let go.” He needs to be “in the Zone.” In the language of Star Wars, “Use the Force, Luke!”
Similarly, Taoism teaches the central concept of Wei Wu Wei. Written as a trio of the three Chinese characters for “Doing-Not-Doing,” Wei Wu Wei is translated as “doing without anxious striving,” or “acting without anxious stress.” 15
As Stephen Mitchell writes the foreword to his translation of the Tao Te Ching, “[Wei wu wei] is the purest and most effective form of action… the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance. “Nothing is “done” because the doer has wholeheartedly vanished into the deed.” 16 Similarly, Eugen Herrigel tells un in his slim gem of a book, Zen in the Art of Archery, “The archer and the target are one.” 17
The Tao Te Ching expresses it like this, from Chapter #63:
Work without effort….
Confront the difficult
While it is still easy;
Accomplish the great task
By a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
Thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
She stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
Thus problems are no problem for her.
As Stephen Mitchell writes, “The Master has mastery; not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming it.” 18
The Taoist Virtue of “te”
When a Master attains this unworried flow of action, he or she has the virtue of Te (also written as De). Te is, of course the middle word in Tao Te Ching, meaning “The Book of The Way and its Virtue.” As Alan Watts has written,
“When a man has learned to let his mind alone so that it functions in the integrated and spontaneous way that is natural to it, he begins to show the special kind of ”virtue” or “power” called Te. This is not virtue in the current sense of moral rectitude but in the older sense of effectiveness, as when one speaks of the healing virtues of a plant.” 19
In the Tao Te Ching, the flow of water is often invoked as a metaphor for the Tao. Water is flexible, flowing, nurturing – but powerfully carving rock and forming canyons over time. Here is Chapter #78, in part:
Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
Nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
The gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
But few can put it into practice.
Continuing Creation reminds us that in the natural world, synergy can create new wholes that are different from than any of their parts. Here is #11 from the Tao Te Ching, which explains this concept poetically and concretely:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
But it is the center hole
That makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
That holds whatever we want.
In these examples it is the presence of a center-hole, or center-void, that combines with the surrounding wood or clay to produce new things that are greater that than sum of their parts. The wheel and the pot were important new inventions in the pre-history of human civilization.
Another example would be combining copper and tin (sometimes with a bit of phosphorus, manganese, aluminum, or silicon) to create the alloy bronze which was very useful for making swords, spear points, bells, and statues. The invention of bronze ushered in the “Bronze Age” in the near east, circa 3,000 years BCE. (For more about Synergy, See our Essay, The Processes of Evolution – and Their Spiritual Meaning.)
Care for the Earth
The Book of Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos has a long and important chapter called Overpopulation Threatens Continuing Creation that marshals scientific evidence for our global necessity to reverse Climate Change. This is an Essay which should be updated every other year, to reflect new science.
Nevertheless, over 1600 years ago, Lao Tzu already saw the same unfortunate trends in Earth’s health and remarked on it in the Tao Te Ching’s Chapter #39:
In harmony with the Tao,
The sky is clear and spacious,
The earth is solid and full,
All creatures flourish together…
…When man interferes with the Tao,
The sky becomes filthy,
The earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles,
Creatures become extinct.
Taoism even presages the modern Gaia Movement in which Earth’s biosphere is seen as a living unified being; a process-theology elevation of Mother Nature. The Tao Te Ching says this, in Chapter #6:
“Gaia” — Mother Nature
The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
It gives birth to infinite worlds.
It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.
Weavers in Continuing Creation might have a problem with that last line; but that careful reading shows that it says we can use the Tao any way we want, not that we can use Great Mother Earth any way we want!
The Ten Moral Precepts of Taoism
The Ten Precepts of Taoism were outlined in a short text that appears in Dunhuang Manuscripts –Chinese papers from the 5th through 11th centuries discovered in the Mogao Caves early in the 20th century. The Ten precepts are the classical rules of medieval Taoism as applied to practitioners attaining the rank of Disciple of Pure Faith: 20
The One Rule of Taoism is the Tao itself, which is divided into the following Ten Precepts:
- Do not kill but always be mindful of the host of living beings.
- Do not be lascivious or think depraved thoughts.
- Do not steal or receive unrighteous wealth.
- Do not cheat or misrepresent good and evil.
- Do not get intoxicated but always think of pure conduct.
- I will maintain harmony with my ancestors and family and never disregard my kin.
- When I see someone do a good deed, I will support him with joy and delight.
- When I see someone unfortunate, I will support him with dignity to recover good fortune.
- When someone comes to do me harm, I will not harbor thoughts of revenge.
- As long as all beings have not attained the Tao, I will not expect to do so myself.
We present the Moral Precepts of Continuing Creation in our Essay, Leading an Ethical Life. Our moral precepts are remarkably similar to the Taoist precepts listed above.
In fact, the moral principles of all major religions (and secular-spiritual ways) are very much alike. This demonstrates that morals are not handed down by God above, but rather grow organically out of human sociobiology; principally because cooperation among humans gives us competitive advantages in the evolutionary landscape. (We expect to write a separate Essay on this topic, to be called, The Evolution of Cooperation and Morality.)
A shortcoming of all the ancient religions is that they predated three modern developments in Morality: 1) the flowering of human rights in the enlightenment; 2) modern scientific understanding of how the Processes of Continuing Creation work, and 3) modern awareness that Earth’s biosphere as a whole also has “rights.”
Leading a Virtuous Life… and The Tao
The Book of Continuing Creation has a lengthy Essay on Leading a Virtuous Life. In the Tao Te Ching #67, Lao Tzu simply wrote:
“I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These are your greatest treasures.
- Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
- Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are.
- Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.”
Taoist virtue emphasizes the Three Treasures or Three Jewels:
- The virtue of ci — usually translated as compassion,
- The virtue of jian — usually translated as moderation, and
- The virtue bugan wei tianxia xian – usually translated as humility (literally, “not daring to act as first under the heavens”).
And, of course, there is the Taoist virtue Te. But Te, as we mentioned earlier, translates to an older version of the English word “virtue,” the version that means inner sustaining power.
Leading a Fulfilled Life… And The Tao
The Book of Continuing Creation has an Essay titled Leading a Fulfilled and Happy Life, which has sections dealing with Meditation and Mindfulness, as well as a section called “Eight Steps of Daily Growth.”
Chapter #8, #15 and #21 of the Tao Te Ching convey much of our own message, with this simple poetic language:
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous…
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present. [#8]
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
She is present, and can welcome all things…[#15]
The Master keeps her mind
Always with the Tao;
That is what gives her radiance. [#21]
The Tao de Ching shaped Buddhism in China and Zen in Japan and became the most widely translated book after the Bible. 21
After Master Zhuang and Lao Tzu had both passed away, the literature of Taoism grew steadily and was compiled to form of a canon of roughly 1400 texts — the Taozang — which was published at the behest of the Chinese emperor around the year 400. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as a state religion. After the 17th century, however, it fell from favor. 22
Modern Taoism Today
Every widely-practiced religion endures a progression from the philosophical and austere toward anthropomorphic and supernatural popularizations. This happens so that the religion may be “sold” to a wider and less-educated population.
Over time, Taoism adopted a trio of Deities – The Three Pure Ones – who “emanate” from the Tao. One of them, as we might expect, is a supernatural incarnation of Lao Tzu. 23 (After the human man Jesus died, He was also mythologized into “The Son of God.”)
Today, there are whole pantheons of lesser Taoist deities (including figures adopted from Chinese folklore), plus formerly-human immortals (Xian) analogous to Catholic saints. There are also modern Taoist celebrations on special days, sacrifices of food and animals, and prayers. 24
An important element of modern Taoism are its rituals, exercises, and medicinal substances. These aim at aligning oneself spiritually with the cosmic force, at undertaking spiritual journeys, and at improving physical health and thereby extending one’s life. Here are a few of the better-known disciplines: 25
- A modern practice highly influenced by Taoism and now well-known in the West is feng shui (“wind and water”), which prescribes rules for the geographic orientation and floorplan of Chinese homes. One of
the rules says that no internal staircase should descend directly toward a door to the outside.
- A collection of “bio-spiritual” breathing, posture, and movement exercises known as qigong is a mainstay of the Falun Gong sect, which was banned by China in 1999. 26
- Tai chi exercises, a set of highly controlled gestural exercises, coupled with “right breathing” and “correct concentration,” are today practiced all over the world, usually outdoors in the open air. These flowing exercises can be performed by people of all ages and nearly all physical abilities.
Tai chi (or Tai chi Ch’uan), began as a martial arts tradition. Two other Chinese martial arts practices are Bagua Zhang, and Xing Yi Quan. They also embody Taoist principles to a significant extent, and some practitioners consider their art a means of practicing Taoism. 27 The Way of Continuing Creation recommends these largely Taoist exercises because they provide an excellent meditative respite from our daily endeavors, without requiring us to sit perfectly still.
Note: In Taoism, chi (also spelled ch’i or qi) literally means “air” or “breath,” but as a concept it refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. The nature of chi has always been a matter of debate in Chinese thinking. Some believe chi is a separate force from the physical world, while others think chi comes from physical matter. Still others, especially Chinese Buddhists and Taoists, hold that matter arises from chi. The quality, quantity and balance of chi is believed to be essential to maintaining health and achieving a long life. 28
Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism all embrace a humanist philosophy emphasizing moral behavior and perfection of the human mind and spirit. Over the centuries, most modern Chinese people have learned to identify to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. “Like the Hindus, Taoists are forever absorbing rather than repelling new influences.” 29
However, the Tàoshi, “Masters of the Tao”, who dedicate their lives to studying and practicing Taoism (as Buddhist monks do Buddhism), usually take care to note distinction between their tradition and the practices of Chinese folk religion and the various non-Taoist vernacular ritual orders. 30
Taoism has seen a resurgence in recent years, and a great deal of new scholarship has been published.
Taiwan alone now has 10,000 Taoist temples, and 7.5 million people there (33% of the population) identify themselves as Taoists. In Hong Kong and Singapore, the percentages at 14% and 11% respectively. 31
Today, the Taoist tradition is one of the five religious doctrines officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China, along with Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, and Protestantism. 32 This is likely because it teaches acceptance rather than activism, and because it recognizes no messianic deity that people expect to arrive and lead them freedom in a better world. 33
Ancient Taoism and Modern Physics
There are striking parallels between ancient philosophy of Taoism and the modern science of physics. Both embrace a paradoxical nature of reality. In our forthcoming Essay, How Continuing Creation Works – Concepts from Modern Physics, we will discuss the paradoxes of modern physics. For example, a subatomic particle can exist or not exist depending on whether it is being observed. Similarly, light can either be particles (photons) or waves, depending on how one looks at it.
In 1975, the renowned physicist Fritjof Capra published a best-selling book called The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. In Chapter 14 of this book, Capra says that the duality of particle and non-particle is fundamental, because the particle is just a manifestation of a fluctuating field. A field is a region of space in which each point is affected, to some degree, by a force, such as the force of a magnet or the force of Earth’s gravity. Capra offers two quotations about this duality, and we add a third from Wikipedia:
“We may therefore regard matter as being constituted [manifested] by the regions of space in which the field is extremely intense…. There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality.”
— Albert Einstein
“The Great Void cannot but consist of chi; [or ‘qi’ – figuratively meaning life force, or energy flow, in Taoism]. This chi cannot but condense to form all things; and these things cannot but become dispersed so as to form (once more) the Great Void [the Tao]” — Zhang Zai, eleventh-century Taoist philosopher.
“In theoretical physics, quantum field theory (QFT)… treats particles as excited states of the underlying physical field, so these are called “field quanta.” — Wikipedia article on “Quantum Field Theory, ” accessed June, 2020
If we bring all that back down to Earth, and shift our focus to human beings, Taoism says that since reality cannot be captured by analysis, observation, or logic, Taoism’s advice for daily living is to “go with the flow,” “do and then let go,” and to shape rather than try to control.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
And lets the Tao speak for itself.
In other words, although we don’t understand exactly how sub-atomic physics works, we can still successfully use it to successfully invent lasers and “quantum computers.”
Zen, (still called “Zen Buddhism” by many people) is an austere form of meditative Buddhism that grew to be the principal religion in Japan between 1600 and 1868. The shortened one-word version of its name may be due to the fact than Zen draws as much or more from Taoism as it does from Buddhism.
Instead of seeking an escape from life into nirvana, as original Buddhists do, Zen practitioners seek satori – “moments of awakening” — that bring spontaneity and openness to everyday life. This idea makes meditation an important tool for leading a creative and productive life within our own Way of Continuing Creation.
In Zen, there are two basic schools of meditation. Followers of The Soto Zen try to sit idle and think of nothing. You don’t try to follow your breath or to see into the nature of reality. You just try to have an empty mind. This is incredibly difficult to do. For example, if you recognize that you are trying not to think, then you are thinking. One of the results of a completely empty mind can be a sudden powerful insight or creative breakthrough.
Followers of the Rinzai Zen school contemplate short paradoxical statements or questions called koan, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “which came first, the Chicken or the egg?”
The purpose of these puzzles is to disrupt a student’s thinking, so that he confronts the reality of the moment. There are no right answers, but the Zen Master has the student contemplate the koan again and again until the Master sees that the student has risen to a new level of awareness – an awareness of the here-and-now that transcends the mind’s normal processes of comparison and analysis.
The following two-sentence story illustrates what the Rinzai Zen Master is after: A monk asked Master Haryo, “What is the Way?” Haryo said, “An open-eyed man falling into the well.”
The Zen koan try to quicken the plodding process of most Buddhist meditation (including the meditation Soto Zen) by “jerking,” or “awakening” the seeker, into a sudden experience of insight or creativity.
Zen Koan and The Nature of Reality
Like Taoism, Zen emphasizes the underlying unity of apparent contradictions within the universe. In the Zen tradition, novices are trained by directing them to find answers to a number of self-contradictory propositions called koan. These paradoxical riddles are intended to demonstrate the inadequacy of everyday experience and thus provoke enlightenment. Here are three famous examples:
1. The Master was teaching his senior monks at the top of a hill.
At the bottom, a young apprentice was at work: drawing water, chopping wood.
As he worked he strained to hear the Master’s words, but he could not.
Eventually, the senior monks were dismissed and the Master sat alone.
The young apprentice rushed up the hill and pleaded with the Master, saying,
“Master, Master, please teach me the Way to Enlightenment.”
The Master replied, “Here is the Way: Draw water, chop wood.”
2. Master Nan-in served to a visiting university professor inquiring about Zen.
He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow and said, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Nan-in said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations.
How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
3. Master Mohurai said to a young student,
“You can hear the sound of two hands clapping…
Now show me the sound of one hand clapping.”
The student considered this problem.
Over the next months he proposed these answers:
- He played the music of the geishas.
- He dripped water from one hand.
- He made the sound of wind by whipping his hand through the air.
The Master rejected all these answers.
At last, the student told the Master he could find no more sounds to try.
The Master said, “Now you have found the soundless sound of one hand clapping.”
“So long as the conscious intellect is frantically trying to clutch the world in its net of abstractions, and insist that life be bound and fitted to its rigid categories, the mood of Taoism [and Zen] will remain incomprehensible; and the intellect will wear itself out.” — Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, pg. 19.
Direct Awareness and Sudden Awakening in Zen
Taoism and Zen both eschew analysis, dissection, classification, and even naming. As Chapter #1 of the Tao Te Ching says:
The Tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name
In other words, the Tao cannot be captured in words or mathematics; it must be experienced. Similarly, Zen meditation works at experiencing sudden revelations of satori and the unity of all things.
The Whole has so many facets, so many interconnections, that it cannot really be dissected or explained. Why? Because the Whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Too the Western eye, including most Weavers of Continuing Creation, many Zen monks spend too much time and effort in hours of daily meditation, whether on empty-mind or koans. For us, Zen often becomes a means of mental escape from life here on Earth.
We Followers of The Creative Direction recognize that we cannot overtly sense (see, hear, smell, taste, or touch) any of the Four Fundamental Forces (the two nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity). We can directly sense the effects of them, and we know those forces are real, very powerful, and both useful and dangerous. With the apparatus and mathematics of modern science, we can accurately predict the workings of these forces and deploy them in useful technologies.
Therefore, it would be wrong, or at least unworkable, to conclude that there is no objective reality, as Taoism and Zen are wont to do. Instead, we conclude that our explanations and images of objective reality are (as yet) imperfect. What we cannot capture in words, we may capture in mathematics and with technological instruments. But this is often preceded by a sudden “Taoist/Zen” insight. New scientific paradigms often (maybe always) encapsulate the old, as the Theory of Relativity encapsulates Newton’s Laws of physics. While we now say that light can be either a particle or a wave field, perhaps science will find an explanation that explains both these appearances.
The Virtue of Te in Zen
Taoism talks about the power of doing by going with the flow of the Tao (the Tao of Physics, the Tao of Pooh).
Similarly, Zen has inspired recent best-selling books like Zen in the Art of Archery and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which describe how a physical activity can, through mindful practice, become physically and mentally effortless, as our body executes complex and difficult movements without conscious control from the mind. In that process, the physical activity becomes a spiritual experience. Our earlier quote from Alan Watt’s bears repeating at this point.
“When a man has learned to let his mind alone so that is functions in the integrated and spontaneous way that is natural to it, he begins to show the special kind of ‘virtue’ or ‘power’ called Te. This is not virtue in the current [Western] sense of moral rectitude but in the older sense of effectiveness, as when one speaks of the healing virtue of a plant.” — Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 25.
The many arts of Zen are a direct reflection of Te, including ikebana (flower arranging), pottery, calligraphy, and landscape gardening. In all of these arts, one can see a naturalness and spontaneity reminiscent of nature itself. Thus, no ikebana arrangement is symmetrical, but has a tendril or two reaching out in a new direction. No thrown pot is smooth and even but has a flaw of two that imply the pot could have grown from the ground on its own.
A Zen garden has natural balance and flow, but never has a classical French garden’s strict symmetry. In the Zen arts, “superior work has the quality of an accident.” Both Zen and Taoist art show spontaneity and naturalness. Taoism and Zen propose that we each “might become the kind of person who, without intending it, is a source of marvelous accidents.” 34
Zen extends the martial arts of Chinese Taoism to include Japanese ju jitsu and judo, which deflect and turn the force of an attack back upon the attacker. Judo uses the concept of jū yoku gō o seisu – “softness controls hardness.” These weaponless defensive arts are perhaps the last word in “doing without doing,” because they physically defeat an attacker without weapons and usually without life-threatening force. 35
Strengths and Shortcomings of Taoism and Zen
Practitioners in Continuing Creation would say that Taoism and Zen have the following strengths and Shortcomings: (Note: To some extent, this list repeats certain “pros” and “cons” that were mentioned earlier in this Essay.)
Strength of Taoism — The Tao, or The Way; like our own Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Universe, is a powerful, pervasive, and often progressive summation of innumerable interactive systems. The Tao is definitely not a super-being.
Shortcoming of Taoism — However, an unnecessary pantheon of conventional “gods” was eventually tacked on to Taoism, to increase its mass appeal. Lao Tsu, the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, became revered as the principal of this collection of godly “immortals.” The immortals lived on mountain tops or in grottoes. They could supposedly “run great distances at top speeds, disappear, shrink themselves and shape-shift.” To serve the immortals, and to communicate with them, later Taoism evolved priests and monks, along with and temples and monasteries to house them. 36
Strength of both Taoism and Zen – Since they view the universe (world) as growing rather than having been created, they are consistent with the science of evolution, and with the thrust of Continuing Creation.
Shortcoming of both Taoism and Zen — Unlike the Book of Continuing Creation, Taoism and Zen arose too early to be informed about modern science and were therefore unable to describe how the Processes of Creation actually work. This also limits Taoism and Zen’s conceptions of Progress. Nevertheless, there are remarkable parallels between Taoist philosophy and modern physics, which we discussed above.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen – Even though both these spiritual paths arose long before the Earth was threatened by human overpopulation, pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming, they are still able to address the very early evidence of these problems, as we pointed in above when we discussed Tao Te Ching’s Chapter #39.
Shortcoming of both Taoism and Zen — They predated, and therefore are unable to benefit from, three modern developments in Morality: 1) the flowering of human rights in the Enlightenment; 2) modern scientific understanding of how the Processes of Continuing Creation work, and 3) modern awareness that Earth’s biosphere as a whole also has “rights.” Of course, this has been an early shortcoming of all the world’s major religions.
Shortcoming of both Taoism and Zen — In China, issues of human relationship were the province of Confucianism, not Taoism. However, Taoism does advocate a “soft” laissez-faire kind of government, which would likely be conducive to freedom and individuality. The governing Master does not dictate or control, she shapes events as they flow through her hands.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen — Taoism features a fairly standard set of Ten Moral Precepts. And Zen carries through a set of very similar moral tenets from Buddhism.
Strength of Taoism – Although it has a moral code, Taoism admits that the Tao “doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil” (Chapter #5), as does the Process of Continuing Creation.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen — Both Ways detest war but recognize that it is sometimes unavoidable. Zen recognizes the fact of war, which gives rise to Taoist and Zen martial arts. Taoism and Zen recognize that the Way of the World is BOTH good and evil, and not just good as proclaimed by Judeo-Christian religions. The Tao Te Ching’s Chapter 26 says this:
Weapons are the tools of violence…
A decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity
And, if compelled, will use them with the utmost restraint…
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself
Strength of both Taoism and Zen – However, both Taoism and Zen reject the Christian idea of loving your enemies. Taoism and Zen are too rooted in the realities of life for that.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen — Since God is not a super-person, but an abstract Process that has no jealously or anger, Taoism and Zen do not insist that moral failures are also personal affronts (“sins”) to a divine personage.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen – Neither Taoism or Zen have conceptions of Heaven or Hell, where God punishes and rewards human behavior after death. Life is about living…. not about enduring until a Heaven can be reached after death.
Strength of Taoism – Taoism provides practical advice on how to work, how to govern, how to achieve serenity in an active world. The Taoist idea is to “Go with the Flow;” to “Do your Work, and then step back.”
Shortcoming of Zen – Being a practical path, The Tao te Ching has little mention of meditation. In contrast, Zen too strongly emphasizes meditation and gives scant advice about living daily life. While meditation can be an aide to an active and creative life, in Zen monasteries it too often becomes a lifetime search for an elusive sudden “awakening.” In this monasterial mode, Zen seeks a means of mental escape here on Earth; a kind of passive acceptance.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen — Like Christianity, both Taoism and Zen have little use for personal ambition. The Tao Te Ching says that the Master works through the Tao for her people. Creating, not accumulating, is the important thing.
Strength of both Taoism and Zen – Taoism and Zen teach a way to a better future. We can think of this as a two-step process: 1) Align with the Tao, 2) Use the Tao to shape things and events around us. The Tao te Ching applies this to governance; Zen applies this to art and war.
Shortcoming of both Taoism and Zen – Neither Taoism nor Zen (nor Confucianism, for that matter) has much to say about how to raise children. 37 This is true of most Old Religions. Ancient peoples learned how to raise children through folkways. Child-rearing was not treated “scientifically” until Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946.
Shortcoming of both Taoism and Zen — Neither Spiritual Way has much to say about the evils of slavery or the repression of women.
Strength of Zen – Unlike Taoism and most religions and Spiritual Ways, Zen has not been much diluted by commercial popularization for the sake of mass appeal. People seeking personal comfort from adopted idols, or needing favors from them in exchange for offerings, have been able to find those features in modern Taoism or in other the contemporaneous schools of Buddhism.
Strength of Taoism and Zen – They both have a conception of progress in virtue, in spiritual depth, art, and in the achievement of tranquility and wisdom.
Shortcoming of both Taoism and Zen – However, neither Way was able to recognize the possibility of material progress, i.e., in scientific, medical, or economic progress; nor progress in areas of social justice.
Strengths of Taoism and Zen — Neither one places blind faith in a single “sacred book,” nor holds any of its fables, stories, and koans to be literally true.
Strengths of Taoism and Zen — Neither one commands, compels or demands obedience. Neither one favors one tribe or nation over another. Neither Taoism nor Zen inspires wars or hungers for its “own” land. Neither hopes a “messiah” will come to rescue any group. Neither Way is tribal or racist — at least not in their principal texts. Japanese behavior during World War II was cruelly xenophobic toward the Chinese people after their conquest of China, but when in the history of the world has any major religion been able to deter its people from making war?
Weakness of both Taoism and Zen – While neither is Path is apocalyptic, each mostly holds that history and the future are cyclical (yin and yang). The Practice of Continuing Creation, on the other hand, more optimistically maintains that the past has been, and the future will be, progressive over the long run. Even in the most difficult arena of social evolution, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once reminded us that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Life is difficult, and if Taoism or Zen works for you, we have no desire to turn you away from it. But if you seek a different path, or if you have questions, consider our Practice of Nature’s Continuing Creation.
- Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, 1957, Vintage Books, Random House, pp 4-5. See also Ray Grigg, The Tao of Zen, 1994, Alva Press, p. 3.
- Elizabeth Pollard, Clifford Rosenberg, and Robert Tignor, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World – From the Beginnings of Humankind to the Present, Dec 16, 2014, W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-91847-2. p. 164
- Linda Woodhead, Christopher Partridge, & Hiroko Kawanmi, Religions in the Modern World, 2016, Routledge, p.146. ISBN 978-0-415-85880-9.
- Isabelle Robinet, 1992, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, 1992, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-2839-9, p. 1.
- Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, 2004, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-26322-0, p. 61.
- Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, 1957, Vintage Books, pp. 13-14.
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Resource, https://www.iep.utm.edu/zhuangzi/.
- Ray Grigg, The Tao of Zen, 1994, Alva Press, pp. 21-27.
- Roger T. Ames, Roger T. (1998) ed. Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, 1998, State University of New York Press.
- Livia Kohn and Michael Lafargue, eds., Lao-Tzu and the Tao-Te-Ching, 1998, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-3599-1.
- See https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources.
- Alan Watts, Ibid., pp. 16-17.
- Alan Watts, Ibid., pp. 16-17.
- Edward Slingerland, Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, 2007, Oxford University Press, pp. 6-7. ISBN 9780195138993. See also, John Tierney, “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying,” 2014-12-15, The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July, 2020.
- Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, with Foreword and Notes, 1998, Harper and Row, p viii.
- Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, 1953, Pantheon; 1981 Random House.
- Stephen Mitchell, Ibid., p. ix.
- Alan Watts, Ibid. p. 25.
- Livia Kohn, Cosmos & Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Three Pines Press 2004. pp 185-6.
- Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, 2012, Harper One, p. 281.
- Kristopher Schipper, The Taoist Body,1993, University of California Press, p. 19.
- Henri Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, 1981, Translated by Frank A. Kierman, Jr., University of Massachusetts Press, ISBN 0-87023-308-4, p.41. See also, Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, 1992, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-2839-9, p. 63.
- Robert Alan Segal, The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion,’ 2006, Blackwell Publishing, p. 50. ISBN 0-631-23216-8.
- Prothero God Is Not One, Ibid., 282.
- Stephan Prothero, Ibid., p. 282.
- Robert Rousseau, “An Introduction to Chinese Martial Arts Styles.” Retrieved 2017-06-01. See also, Stephen Prothero, Ibid., p. 283.
- “chi,” published Mar 17, 2015, updated Apr 10, 2017, eee.religionfacts.com/chi, rlft.co/1442.
- Stephen Prothero, Ibid., p. 284.
- Livia Kohn and David Harold, Daoist identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, 2002, University of Hawai’i Press. ISBN 9780824824297. OCLC 47893514.
- Stephen Prothero, Ibid., p. 284.
- “Religion in China,” Oct. 11, 2018, Council on Foreign Relations.
- Ian Johnson, “The Rise of the Tao,” The New York Times Magazine, Nov 5, 2020.
- Alan Watts, Ibid.,p. 28.
- Jigoro Kano, Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, 2008, Watson, Brian N. (ed.), Trafford Publishing, pp. 39–40.
- Prothero, Ibid., pp. 303-306.
- Bill Haines, “Confucian Child-rearing,” The Useless Tree: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life, https://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/2011/10/confucian-child-rearing.html#:~:text=Now%2C%20Confucius%20does%20not%20say%20much%20more%20about%20child%2Drearing.&text=Children%20must%20be%20taught%20to,extensively%20because%20they%20do%20it.
If you would like us to email you a PDF version of an Essay, just let us know.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.