In Taoism, Tao both precedes and encompasses the universe. As with other nondualistic philosophies, all the observable objects in the world - referred to in the Tao Te Ching as 'the named' or 'the ten thousand things' - are considered to be manifestations of Tao, and can only operate within the boundaries of Tao. Tao is, by contrast, often referred to as 'the nameless', because neither it nor its principles can ever be adequately expressed in words. It is conceived, for example, with neither shape nor form, as simultaneously perfectly still and constantly moving, as both larger than the largest thing and smaller than the smallest, because the words that describe shape, movement, size, or other qualities always create dichotomies that are only parts of Tao.
While the Tao cannot be expressed, Taoism holds that it ''can'' be known, and its principles ''can'' be followed. Much of Taoist writing focusses on the value of following the Tao - called Te - and of the ultimate uselessness of trying to understand or control Tao outright. This is often expressed through yin and yang arguments, where every action creates a counter-action as a natural, unavoidable movement within manifestations of the Tao.
Tao is often compared to water: clear, colorless, unremarkable, yet all beings depend on it for life, and even the hardest stone cannot stand in its way forever.
Characteristics of Tao
The primary source of information about Tao is the . The book does not specifically define what the Tao is, on principle. Fundamentally, Tao is undefinable, unlimited, and unnamable.
There was something undefined and complete, existing before Heaven and Earth. How still it was, how formless, standing alone and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere with no danger of being exhausted. It may be regarded as the mother of all things. Truthfully it has no name, but I call it Tao ''''
However, there are characteristics of Tao that are commonly noted and used to describe its functioning, particularly as guidelines for practicing te.
;Tao is undifferentiated:All distinctions are actually relative comparisons bound together by their mutual reference. Thus there is no such thing as 'long' except by comparison to 'short' and vice-versa; there is no such thing as 'being' except by comparison to 'non-being'. Because Tao itself has no shape or size, all comparisons fall within it, so there can never be 'real' differences. Often this is used to suggest a neutral, giving attitude - see TTC chapter 49.
;Tao returns:"Return" is a complex concept: in one sense it is similar to '' - "That with no substance enters there with no space" ; in another it reflects the natural cycles of the world ; in yet a third it implies the natural return to quiescence that is the end result of all action . This concept is often used to argue against forceful action, on the grounds that Tao will flow back, circumvent, and eventually undo any attempts to force it into a particular path.
;Tao is subtle and quiet:The most important aspects of Tao are its unremarkable, unnoticed, everyday workings - "the softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest" . Many places in the Tao Te Ching point out that dramatic, enticing or noteworthy events may catch the eye and assume significance, but that it is the slow, slight, unobserved and continuous movement of the manifestations of Tao that actually accomplish things. In this context, practitioners are cautioned to be unobtrusive, undemanding, and unsophisticated in their actions, and to know when to let go so that the unseen workings of Tao can carry the act to its completion.
;Tao is simultaneously dispassionate and nurturing:Because all beings are manifestations of Tao, Tao - by definition - gives of itself wholly and completely to each. But by the same token, Tao is indifferent to the disposition of mere manifestations. Birth and death and life itself, from the perspective of Tao, are only movements and transformations of form. This is often used to suggest selflessness and detachment to practitioners; compare with the Buddhist notion of anatta .
In terms of western philosophy, the concept of Tao would be considered immanent, but it is a universal immanence that has no strict comparison to the normal use of the term. There is nothing transcendent about Tao, no part of it that is separate from the universe itself except to the extent that Tao precedes the creation of everything. Tao is similar to the notion of karma found in Dharmic faiths, but where karma is usually used as an incitement to acknowledge responsibility for the results of one's actions, Tao has the opposite place: only it completes actions, and our responsibilities lie in understanding and conforming to its nature.
In religious Taoism, Tao is understood in terms of these constituents: Jing 精 corresponding to energy; Qi 氣 or flow of energy; and Shen 神 or the Spirit. Jing Qi Shen 精氣神 constitute the Tao of all that is and are deified in the Three Pure Ones.
Manifestations of Tao
A cursory glance at life on Earth or what we know of the Universe as a whole reveals refined relationships of complexity, chaotic , creativity and sublime organization. The beauty of the unspoiled regions of the world; the harmonious complexity of natural ecosystems, have a ‘just-so’ quality, an integrated wholeness that the ancient Chinese called Tao. Tao is the way of Heaven the resolution of opposites, a way of natural harmony; of Truth, Beauty and Justice. Lao Tzu contrasts this Great Way with the way of human beings:
The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much and give to those who do not have enough. Man’s way is different. He takes from those who do not have enough to give to those who already have too much.
Lao Tzu characterizes the Way of Man as one in which force is applied without the attainment of desired results:
Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao, counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe. For this would only cause resistance. Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed. Lean years follow in the wake of war. Just do what needs to be done. Never take advantage of power…Force is followed by loss of strength. This is not the way of Tao. That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.
Therefore, the origin of humanity's troubles upon the Earth are their having forgotten how to be in the Great Way of the Tao. Remembering the Great Way is a pr?ternatural awareness of one’s deep connection with the entirety of the Universe. This involves the adoption of a mode of ‘non-action’ that is not inaction but rather a harmonisation of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Tao.
Tao abides in non-action yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act they would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form there is no desire. Without desire there is tranquillity. And in this way all things would be at peace.
The greatest virtue is to follow Tao and Tao alone. The Tao is elusive and intangible. Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is image. Oh, it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form. Oh, it is dim and dark, and yet within is essence. This essence is very real, and therein lies faith. From the very beginning til now its name has never been forgotten. Thus I perceive the . How do I know the ways of creation? Because of this.
Lao Tzu also sought to account for the origins of the ‘ten thousand things’ and their manner of growth and development.
All things arise from Tao. They are nourished by Virtue. They are formed from matter. They are shaped by environment. Thus the ten thousand things all respect Tao and honour Virtue. Respect of Tao and honour of Virtue are not demanded. But they are in the nature of things. Therefore all things arise from Tao. By Virtue they are nourished, developed, cared for, sheltered, comforted, grown and protected. Creating without claiming; doing without taking credit; guiding without interfering - this is Primal Virtue.
The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right. The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back. It fulfils its purpose silently and makes no claim. It nourishes the ten thousand things. And yet is not their lord. It has no aim; it is very small. The ten thousand things return to it, yet it is not their lord. It is very great. It does not show its greatness, And is therefore truly great.
Yield and overcome; bend and be straight; empty and be full; wear out and be new; have little and gain; have much and be confused. Therefore wise men embrace the one and set an example to all. Not putting on a display, they shine forth. Not justifying themselves, they are distinguished. Not boasting, they receive recognition. Not bragging, they never falter. They do not quarrel so no one quarrels with them. Therefore the ancients say, "Yield and overcome." Is that an empty saying? Be really whole and all things will come to you.
Tao in the ''Tao Te Ching
Tao is referred to in many ways in the Tao Te Ching. There are different colors of meanings in the various translations of this great work, which, with over 100 translations, is perhaps the most translated Chinese text in the English language. Here is one translation of the first stanza, describing Tao:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
'Nothingness' is the beginning of heaven and earth.
'Oneness' is the mother of everythings.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
The first part of the verse reads thus:
tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao
ming k'o ming fei ch'ang ming
wu ming t'ian ti chih shih
yu ming wan wu chih mu
Of this, the first two lines are often translated by many as:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Mawang Dui text clearly shows that the original form of line 1 was in fact "fei heng tao" instead of "fei ch'ang tao." The change in the character occurred when "heng" became the name of an emperor.
"Ch'ang" may be accurately translated as "constant" or "unchanging," "unvarying," etc. It was deemed a close equivalent to "heng," which may be accurately translated as "eternal."
Some scholars speculate that the ancient Chinese did not have a concept for eternity. In reality, it is quite clear from the I Ching that the ancient Chinese had this concept from at least 5,000 years ago, 25 centuries before the birth of Lao Zi.