Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine. Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.
-Tao Te Ching
Taoism is an ancient Chinese religion (~2400 BP) from the time when Chinese civilization picked up speed (and violence, during the Warring States Period) and became all-encompassing. Influenced by the earlier School of Naturalists (also called “School of Yin-Yang”), Taoism is a belief system firmly rooted in Nature. The Tao (which translates as “the Way” / “the Path”) is basically just an abstract term for the workings of Nature in the cosmic scale, making Tao-ism (literally “the way of the Way”, or “the path of the Path”) the course of Nature. Interference with the Tao is interference with the course of Nature. One of the main principles of Taoism is “wu wai” (lit. “do nothing”, meaning “non-action”), which emphasizes returning to an organic state of things, letting go of control, reversing domestication, and allowing Nature to guide us. It is applicable to each and every aspect of life, and especially so when we interact with our environment, as for example when we do gardening – Japanese organic farmer Masanobu Fukuoka developed his method of “do-nothing farming” from this fundamental concept.
Further, Taoism provides probably one the first recorded critiques of civilization.
Taoist texts make it clear that they value the time before civilization and make it their goal to return to this state of harmony. Contemporary philosopher Deng Ming Dao wrote an excellent explanation in his 1983 book ‘The Wandering Taoist’:
“Humanity, in the time long before recorded history, was part of the natural equilibrium and lived in harmony with the cosmic flow. There was no Tao-ism. Since humanity was not separate from Tao, a doctrine was unnecessary. But the instant human beings in their vanity set themselves apart, they distanced themselves from the Way. Distinction and consciousness emerged. Methods then had to be invented by the sages to reintegrate humanity, to obliterate the consciousness of the human being as a separate entity, and to return to the equilibrium of the way. Civilization was the crystallization of human vanity. Taoism has therefore existed since the beginning of civilization.”
A frank and honest description of ‘life before civilization’ comes from the writings of one of the earliest and most influential Taoists, Chuang Tzu:
“In the days of perfect nature, men were quiet in their movements and serene in their looks. At that time, there were no paths over mountains, no boats or bridges over waters. All things were produced each in its natural district. Birds and beasts multiplied; trees and shrubs thrived. […] For in the days of perfect nature, man lived together with birds and beasts, and there was no distinction of their kind. Who could know of the distinctions between gentlemen and common people?”
Elsewhere he writes:
“At this era the Yin and Yang were harmonious and peaceful, and ghosts and deamons did no mischief, the four seasons were properly proportioned, the myriad creatures were unharmed, all that lived escaped untimely death. Even if men did have knowledge, they had nothing to use it on. It is this that is called being in utmost oneness. At this era things were done by nobody, and were constantly so of themselves.”
Taoism acknowledges the destructive tendencies inherent to civilization (like the increasing social inequality mentioned in the quoted paragraph above) and even foresees abstract phenomena like anthropogenic climate change over a thousand years before it happens, as seen in this text from the “Outer Chapters” of Chuang Tzu (also called Zhuangzi):
“Thus, above, the splendor of the heavenly bodies is dimmed; below, the power of land and water is burned up, while in between the influence of the four seasons is upset.” [emphasis added]
The early Taoists were one of many groups who have tried to covet the unbroken thread which connects human beings with the rest of the cosmos, the thread which civilized life tries so desperately to cut and bury beneath layers of ego, fear, and artifice.
Taoism sees everything as interconnected and related to each other, and everything as having the same origin (a notion that science later confirmed with the ‘Big Bang Theory’).
A simplified way to explain a “Creation Myth” from a Taoist perspective would be as follows. In the beginning, there was only the one Tao, sitting forever in infinite endlessness. The Tao grew tired of this, dividing itself again and again, playing hide-and-seek with its various manifestations, until it became the “ten thousand things”, an ancient Chinese expression which means something like “everything there is” or “the myriad things”. This means if I interact with you (or with any part of my environment), we are both earthly and transient manifestations of one and the same thing, the immortal Tao.
Whatever I do to you (or to my environment), I do to myself, for we are but different parts of the same whole.
A holistic, Deep Ecology-like view of Nature is encouraged by Chuang Tzu in the following metaphor:
“Rather than use a horse to show that ‘a horse is not a horse’ use what is not a horse. Heaven and earth are the one meaning, the ten thousand things [the myriad/many things] are the one horse.”
What this means is that if someone with a reductionist, modern, “scientific” mindset insists that, for example, a horse is a horse (nothing more and nothing less), you might answer, “Is it not also the grass, the river, and the wind?”, for without grass to eat, water to drink and air to breathe there would obviously be no way for a horse to exist.
Thus, Taoism is a wholesome, truthful, informed, and poetic way to look at the world, and Taoist writings are full of wisdom and inspiration.