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What is Tao?

What is Tao?

Author: Alan Watts
Rating: 9/10
Last Read: April 2017

Quick Summary:  Alan Watts's short book What is Tao? is an excellent (and quick!) introduction to Taoism and its core philosophies. I immediately followed What is Tao? with the Tao Te Ching and started exploring the I Ching. I find that Taoism and Stoicism are very interesting to study together, and I'm excited to dive further into this new area.

My Highlights

As I sat working on this manuscript my eight-year-old son came up to me and asked, “Papa, what are you working on?” I told him it was a book on the Tao, and began to explain a little bit about it, but without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Oh, you mean what’s behind everything” — and then he headed off. Intuitively and experientially we know what it is, but for most of us the problem arises when we try to explain it. --loc 118

Living close to the earth one sees the wisdom of not interfering with the course of life, and of letting things go their way. This is the wisdom that also tells us not to get in our own way, and to paddle with the current, split wood along the grain, and seek to understand the inner workings of our nature instead of trying to change it. --loc 183

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? --loc 235

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?” --loc 267

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. --loc 278

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. --loc 303

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 living in skillful harmony with the processes of nature instead of trying to push them around. --loc 336

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. --loc 358

There is always something that we don’t know. This is well illustrated by the elusive qualities of energy in 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.” --loc 411

The fundamental sense of it is that the Tao operates of itself. All that is natural operates of itself, and there is nothing standing over it and making it goon. In the same way one’s own body operates of itself. You don’t have to decide when and how you’re going to beat your heart; it just happens. You don’t decide exactly how you are going to breathe; your lungs fill and empty themselves without effort. You don’t determine the structure of your own nervous system or of your bones; they grow all by themselves. --loc 417

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 get outside of nature to be the master of nature. --loc 423

Remember that your heart beats “self-so” — and, if you give it a chance, your mind can function “self-so,” although most of us are afraid to give it a chance. --loc 425

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. --loc 430

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. --loc 433

In Chinese the second principle is called wu wei, and it means literally “not doing,” but would be much better translated to give it the spirit of “not forcing” or “not obstructing.” 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. --loc 436

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 a pun but it isn’t) is the way of non-obstruction or noninterference. This is the preeminently practical Taoist principleof life. --loc 439

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 were 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 is 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. --loc 445

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 it and work is thereby made simple. --loc 457

The truly virtuous person is unobtrusive. It is not that they are affectedly modest; instead they are what they are quite naturally. --loc 475

This is the thing we all admire and envy so much about children. We say that they are naive, that they are unspoiled, that they are artless, and that they are unself-conscious. When you see a little child dancing who has 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 their motion. --loc 479

In all this you will see that there are three stages. There is first what we mightwhat we migh call the natural or the 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. --loc 488

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. --loc 503

The ideal of the hundred-percent 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 gets to us because we fear our own weakness on the inside. --loc 529

The philosophy of the Tao has a basic respect for the balance of nature, and if you are sensitive you don’t upset that balance. Instead you try to find out what it is doing, and go along with it. --loc 544

The second principle, beyond understanding and keeping balance, is not to oppose strength with strength. When you are attacked by the enemy, you do not oppose him. Instead you yield to him, just like the matador yields to the bull, and you use his strength and the principle of balance to bring about his downfall. --loc 556

One reason life seems problematic to us, and one reason why we look to philosophy to try to clear it all up, is that we have been trying to fit the order of the universe to the order of words. And it simply does not work. --loc 577

I have often said that the real basis of Buddhism is not a set of ideas but an experience. This of course is equally true of Taoism as well, which like Buddhism recognizes that experience is altogether something different from words. If you have tasted a certain taste, even the taste of water, you know what it is. But to someone who has not tasted it, it can never be explained in words because it goes far beyond words. --loc 579

The order of the world is very different from the order we create with the rules of our syntax and grammar. The order of the world is extraordinarily complex, while the order of words is relatively simple, and to use the order of words to try to explain life is really as clumsy an operation as trying to drink water with a fork. Our confusion of the order of logic and of words with the order of nature is what makes everything seem so problematic to us. --loc 583

In the process of our upbringing, however, and particularly in our education, our parents and teachers are very careful to teach us not to rely on our spontaneous abilities. We are taught to figure things out, and our first task is to learn the different names for everything. In this way we learn to treat all of the things of the world as separate objects. --loc 613

The sociologist George Herbert Meade called this “the interiorized other.” That is to say, we have a kind of interior picture, a vague sense of who we are, and of what the reaction of other people to us says about who we are. That reaction is almost invariably communicated to us through what other people say and think, but soon we learn to maintain the commentary on our own, and each thought or observation is then compared to the idea we have formed. Therefore this image becomes interiorized — a second self who is commenting all the time upon what the first one is doing — and in any given situation we must either rationalize why a certain behavior is consistent with that image, or forceourselves to change that behavior, or fail to change it and feel guilty for failing. The difficulty with this is that although it is exceedingly important for all purposes of civilized intercourse and personal relationships to be able to make sense of what we are doing, and of what other people are doing, and to be able to talk about it all in words, this nevertheless warps --loc 625

We have all admired the spontaneity and freshness of children, and it is regrettable that as children are brought up they become more and more self-conscious. In this way people often lose their freshness, and more and more human beings seem to be turned into creatures calculated to get in their own way. --loc 633

The kind of question to ask the Book of Changes that would be appropriateunder most circumstances is something like this: “What is the best thing for me in my present state?” We phrase a clear question, and then take the coins and shake them and drop them; according to the way they fall on each toss — heads or tails — we construct a six-line hexagram consisting of a pair of three-line trigrams. --loc 654

THE IMAGE Mountains standing close together: The image of keeping still. Thus the superior man Does not permit his thoughts To go beyond his situation. --loc 725

The heart thinks constantly. This cannot be changed. But the movements of the heart — that is, a man’s thoughts — should restrict themselves to the immediate situation. All thinking that goes beyond this only makes the heart sore. --loc 732

But the symbolism of this answer is simply that sitting so as to keep one’s back still, so that one’s back is not noticed, is self-forgetfulness. And keeping one’s thoughts to the immediate situation suggests the practice of meditation or calmness or quietness. That’s what we’re advised to do. It’s good advice. --loc 738

To someone who believes in this system, however, perhaps a traditional Chinese or Japanese person, it does not seem farfetched at all. They might say to us, “First of all, when you consider the facts that are involved in any particular decision, and calculate all the data, how do you select which facts are most relevant?
“If you are going to enter into a business contract, for instance, perhaps the facts you believe pertain to this contract are the state of your own business, the state of the other person’s business, and the prospects of the market, but you probably would not think about many of the personal matters that might affect the plan. And nevertheless, something that you may never have considered at all may enter into the situation and change it completely. The person you’re going into business with may slip on a banana peel and get seriously injured and become inefficient or even detrimental in the business. How could anyone ever predict such an eventuality by taking a sane and rational assessment of the situation?”
--loc 755

Or perhaps they might say to us, “How do you know when you have collected enough data? After all, the data and the potential problems involved in any particular situation are virtually infinite. What causes you to stop collecting data, or stop gathering information about how to solve a problem? I think you just collect information until you are either tired of collecting it, or until the time comes to act and you have run out of time to collect more data.” --loc 764

And one could present a very convincing argument that because you decide when to stop investigating in a very arbitrary way, this method is just as arbitrary as flipping coins. --loc 767

the same is probably true if we look at any given decision that we may make: The probability is that we will weigh all the information, and in the final moment make our decision based upon our “hunch,” which is really a gut feeling about the situation that has little to do with rational thought. --loc 775

The point of view that underlies the Book of Changes is that instead of trying to understand events as relationships to past causes, it understands events by relation to their present pattern. --loc 811

In the same way, the fundamental philosophy of the Book of Changes and of the Chinese idea of the relationship between events is to understand every event in its present context. We do not understand something by what went before so much as we do by understanding it in terms of what goes with it. So the idea of the Book of Changes is to review through its symbols the total pattern of the moment when the question is asked, and the supposition is that the pattern of this moment governs even the tossing of the coins. --loc 824

In our restlessness we are always tempted to climb every hill and cross every skyline to find out what lies beyond, yet as you get older and wiser it is not just flagging energy but wisdom that teaches you to look at mountains from below, or perhaps just climb them a little way. For at the top you can no longer see the mountain. And beyond, on the other side, there is, perhaps, just another valley like this. --loc 853

Every stream, every road, if followed persistently and meticulously to its end, leads nowhere at all. --loc 868

Any place where we are may be considered the center of the universe. Anywhere that we stand can be considered the destination of our journey. --loc 880

In the end, we must decide what we really want to know about. Do we trust nature, or would we rather try to manage the whole thing? Do we want to be some kind of omnipotent god, in control of it all, or do we want to enjoy it instead? After all, we can’t enjoy what we are anxiously trying to control. --loc 895

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