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The Taoist View of Nature

From the Tao-tê Ching:

              The ways of men are conditioned by those of Heaven,
              The ways of Heaven by those of the Tao,
              And the Tao came into being by itself.

The Tao is the fundamental basis of all being; the principle of the universe and also the pattern for human behaviour, giving order and motion to all creation.  In the Taoist view, man and nature are comprised of the same flow of energy (chi), which is ceaseless, but constantly changing.  Change is an important part of the Taoist view of reality.  Man, however, has somehow become detached from this reality.  Life flows by itself in a ceaseless wave of spontaneity, and the aim of Taoism is the return to the original oneness with this spontaneous reality.  This is achieved by placing trust in intuitive knowledge and in the contemplation of nature.  This latter does not imply only passive meditation of nature’s mystical aspects, but living a life that is finely tuned to the Tao, and in this way, partaking in the immortal flow.

The Taoist view of the universe was set out by Tsou Yen from the academy of Chi-gate.  He based his theories on the two universal principles of yin and yang.  Yin, meaning ‘shadow’, encompasses the dark, the female and the passive elements, whereas yang means ‘light’, and is represented in the opposite elements.  The contrasting elements are not, however, antagonistic to each other.  They characterize the phenomenal world and Tao, the core of reality, unites them, creating an harmonious balance utilizing five moving elements known as ‘wu-hsing’ (the five elements being  wood (mu), fire (huo), earth (tu), metal (jin), and water (shui).

The balance and harmony of yin and yang are reflected in the Chinese view of the rhythmic cycle of nature.  Yang represents Heaven, originating at the winter solstice and yin, born at the summer solstice, represents Earth.  Together they form a whole and they are mirrored in the seasons, the calendar, and in the life-cycle of man, which has the same sequence of seasons as nature.

From an early belief in a water spirit, or earth goddess, who gave birth to all things and to which all things returned at death, grew the concept of a silent and unmoving base from which heaven and earth and all existence and movement arose.  This concept defies description, encompassing, as it must, all its contrasting elements; ‘something formless, yet complete, that existed before Heaven and Earth…dependent on nothing…unchanging’.  ‘Tao’ is a convenient by-name for this, its true name being unknown.

An harmonious blend of the contrasting elements of yin and yang is necessary to all life.  Because rest and serenity came before movement and action, the yin element, being related to passivity, is thought to have pre-eminence over the yang.  This is reflected in the Taoist view of nature and in man.  The yin element, which encompasses the Earth, the female, the dark and the lowly, is the element of the valley.  According to the Tao-tê Ching, valleys are ‘nearer to Tao’ than hills, since the passive, female element is more open to access to the Tao.  Water, because ‘it does not scramble but is content with the places that all men disdain’ (thus being content with the lowest place), is nearest to the Tao and therefore considered the highest good.  As is to be expected, these contrasts are also mirrored in human actions: ‘the soft and the weak sit on high’.  Pity, frugality and a retiring disposition are the most desirable qualities in men, and are likely to express themselves in such attitudes as non-interference in the affairs of others, and in not showing off one’s knowledge.  Existence means clinging to the yang, so the Taoist seeker must turn to the yin, which is the hidden and limitless source of life.

The flow of energy (or ‘Chi’) that moves through all things has been likened to the essence or soul.  In man, it is the life-breath he receives at birth and is the motivating power of the senses.  The weather is heaven’s chi and the essences of plants and drugs are theirs.  The Taoists believe that this chi could and should be nurtured – that it can be obtained and stored in the body.  Rituals of diet and breathing exercises purify the body and build up its store of chi, replacing the body’s destructible elements with indestructible ones, and thus prolonging life.

But the first step on the way to the Tao is in reaching a state of harmony with nature.  This is achieved by the proper direction of the power, or force that animates all things in their primal spontaneity.  The force, representing the active part of the Tao, is known as tê.  It is the guide to human conduct and is manifest in actual existence.  It is the uniting force of the Tao, the Tao having given birth to existence, and the tê rearing it.  To act in harmony with nature therefore means acting according to the individual’s true nature, and such action (‘wu-wei’) should be spontaneous, or ‘uncontrived’.

Although the Tao could not be called a conscious god because of its nature of spontaneity, the Taoists accept the ancient view that Heaven can see and hear as people do, and that it feels an active concern for the well-being of the people. The Taoist philosopher, Mo Ti claimed: ‘Heaven loves all the people in the world.’  Such a concept is not easy to grasp, being in direct contrast to the Judao-Christian view that has always fostered a sense of awe and fear of a supreme power.  But bearing this in mind, the Taoist quest for oneness with nature and immortality loses its aspect of presumptuousness or folly.  The Taoist goal, in fact, would seem to be a desire for reaffirmation of natural order.  The poet, T’ao Ch’ien wrote:

              Just surrender to the cycle of things
              Give yourself to the waves of the
              Great Change,
              Neither happy nor yet afraid,
              And when it is time to go, then
              Simply go,
              Without any unnecessary fuss.

This shows the poet’s sense of the poetic beauty of nature as well as his desire to achieve oneness with it by passive acceptance and mystical contemplation.

This acceptance of the universal laws of nature and desire for attunement with them has manifested itself not only in Taoist poetry, but also in landscape painting, where the reverence of nature’s beauty of form is clearly depicted.

But passive contemplation of nature alone is not enough.  Human existence is a limited condition and to transcend it, the mysteries of nature must be penetrated and its secrets stolen.  Many plants and minerals are thought to have magical properties and the mountain air, the morning mist, and the sun’s rays are all looked on as possessing life-prolonging properties that can be inhaled or absorbed.  It is believed that the earth will eventually yield the elixir of life and other wonder drugs that will confer the ability to walk on or beneath water, enable flight, avert disasters and transform base materials into precious ones.

Through ritual exercises and the securing of favourable omens, good fortune can be courted and disasters averted.  The course of subsequent incarnations can similarly be affected, as the Taoists embrace the theory of transmigration.

In examining the Taoist view of nature, one is faced with a barrier of paradoxes and concepts that almost defy logical examination.  Real understanding must be intuitive and therefore based more on experience than reading.  As the Tao- tê Ching states:

              My words are very easy to understand and very
              easy to put into practice.  Yet no one under heaven
              understands them, no one puts them into practice.

Sources Used and/or Suggested Further Reading:

Waley A. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Routledge (2005)
Waley A (Translator) , The Way and its Power, Martino Fine Books (2016)
Tomlin EWF, Eastern Philosophers: An Introduction (1968)

Free Online Reading:

Great Thoughts Treasury (Tao Yuan-ming)
Tao-tê Ching

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