SHADOWS

TAOISM: NATURE AND HUMAN ACTION AS SPONTANEOUS EMERGENCE

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. As a plant emerges from hiding within the seed beneath the earth andCopyright © 2000, Tanya Ziniewicz erupts upward toward the light of the sun, reaches maturity, flowers, dies, and returns to the earth, so all things natural are continually in a process of coming to be and passing away, prospering and declining, appearing and disappearing, rising and falling, emerging and returning. The Way of nature is a way of emerging and returning. Tao is the path, the course, the way all things happen, including both advance and decline, growth and diminishment. Tao is the way of pulsation, the eternal path of alternation between flow and ebb, opening and closing; it is the pendulum swing between being and nothing, growth and decay, living and dying, activity and passivity, motion and rest.

2. At the same time as Tao is the law of change, it is also the sum total of all that changes; it is the space-time continuum of beings that change; it is the beings themselves. Furthermore, it is equally the non-being, the pregnant emptiness, out of which beings arise. Tao is a two-sided coin: one side is non-being, always surprisingly ready in creative quietude to give birth to beings and to receive them when they return to non-being. The other side is being itself -- a continuum of almost endless natural variety of manifest forms.

3. Things come to be in nature the way an infant is born of its mother, through non-action (wu-wei), a natural flowing and emergence from their source. Wu-wei does not mean "doing nothing"; it means doing without forcing, without consciously acting according to predetermined notions or plans. Wu-wei means unforced, spontaneous, natural action. Nature does not make, does not "form" things (as a craftsman forms material into a predetermined shape -- a shape dictated by a mental or physical blueprint or go-by). In similar fashion, the Taoist does not form or make his character according to some artificial standard, but allows his true nature to emerge. The Taoist, unlike the Confucian, does not consciously cultivate his character, does not "form" his nature according to moral principles or li. Likewise, the Taoist artist does not manipulate or form his material, but lets the art-work emerge from the basic nature of the medium -- as the Western sculptor Michelangelo assisted in the emergence of the form from the marble, as a midwife assists at birth. Artists are, in a sense, midwives of nature. Out of the pregnant emptiness of the silk or rice paper, forms are allowed to emerge. In a similar way, poems are born, not made; they rise unraised from hidden wellsprings. Without explanation, they begin to be.

4. The two basic sides or "polarities" within being are the yang -- the active or "male" principle -- and the yin -- the passive or female principle. On the active side are heaven, light, activity, and form. On the passive side are earth, darkness, passivity, and formlessness. But, whereas in Western culture, the female or the receptive (passive) have been downplayed, in Taoism, both yang and yin complement each other, flow into each other in forever equal importance. According to Taoism, yang and yin, activity and passivity, cannot exist without one another; they interdepend or depend on one another. Simply stated, creation is the result of the interaction of positive and negative energy, form and formlessness, being and emptiness. In a similar way, for both Confucianism and for Taoism, balance or equilibrium -- a powerful readiness between thrusting forward and holding back -- is the pivot point of all action.

5. For Confucianism, action begins in balance, but with emphasis on the active principle, on Heaven. Heaven or the active principle is primarily responsible for what happens. One must take charge, do something, work out human relations, rectify one's character, establish others while establishing oneself. The receptive is always necessary, but the active is primary. For Confucians, there is a time to act and a time to refrain from acting, a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking, a time to move forward and a time to hold back; but one needs to act. Nature needs to be cultivated and polished. Unformed human nature is good; but consciously formed and "disciplined" or refined human nature is even better.

6. For Taoism, "action" begins in balance, but with emphasis on the receptive, on earth or yin. The receptive "acts without acting" (wu-wei or non-deliberate action). The Taoist does not rush ahead according to some "principle." He waits, readies himself, and lets his deeds emerge spontaneously and naturally. From a standpoint of equilibrium, his actions flow naturally; as day flows from night, as spring bursts from winter, so the acts and words of the Taoist flow from his character. He does not make them happen; he quiets his nature so that they can happen of themselves. As beings emerge from quiet formless potentiality in nature, so natural actions manifest themselves from the tranquil and pregnant emptiness of the Taoist.

7. The Taoists stress noninterference Too much activity interferes with the creative process; too much planning kills spontaneity. One must not interfere; one must assist but stand back and wait. Both non-human and human nature are ruined by too much interference. One must trust non-human and human nature; if left alone, it will flourish. Too much education warps character. Too much cultivation destroys the land. Too much government corrupts the people. Too much "moral training" turns the people into robbers and brigands. One must recover one's original balance; one must attune oneself with the perfect equilibrium of the Tao. One must avoid extremes.

8. The up and down path of the Tao can also be called the principle of reversion. Eventually, any state of being reverts or turns into or returns to its opposite. Any extreme is a turning point, a threshold, a limit. When a thing has reached its limit, it changes into its opposite. As summer progresses and the days grow longer, while the nights grow shorter, finally there comes the longest day. With its arrival, the reverse process begins. The path between non-being and being is a two-way path. Yet, although individual beings come and go, nature stays. Why? Because it does not itself go too far; it does not allow one extreme to stay at the expense of the other. There are disasters within nature, but nature lasts because it steers between extremes; it is the axis, the pivot point, within extremes. It goes about its business with subtle, hidden balance. Tao is the right equilibrium, the point of tension between opposites. It is like the right point of tension in a bow that is drawn neither too tight nor too loose. If you sharpen a blade too little, it will not cut. If you sharpen a blade too much, it becomes dull (loses its edge). (One might also think of the child who keeps over sharpening his pencil and ends up with a tiny stub).

9. One has a sense of a constant pulsating within nature, a kind of "inhaling" and "exhaling" of beings. Each being runs its individual course of emergence and withdrawal relative to and in equilibrium with the emergence-withdrawal of all other beings. The life-death process of each being is intimately connected to the life-death process of all other beings. The Tao is the natural "law" that guides each and all-together.

10. The wise person is guided by nature. He knows that the secret of nature's continuance is its unpretentious, low-key, unforced mode of acting (wu-wei, non-action). The wise person imitates this naturalness. He is not pushy, aggressive, or violent. He does not "make things happen." He does not seek excessive pleasure, for it reverts to pain. He does not seek great wealth, for it reverts to impoverishment. He does not seek political power or fame, for it too reverts. He does not even strive to be a Confucian chun- tzu. Getting what you want is sometimes more to be feared than not getting it. Opposites forever interfuse and change into one another. As day changes to night, so self-exalted ones are humbled.

11. The wise person assents to the relativity of opposites, that things lead to their reversal, that the death of a thing is intimately tied to its life. He accepts this and is careful not to complain. He accepts the impermanence of his life. Only nature as a whole is permanent. In all humility, he sees his own course within the context of nature which contains innumerable comings and goings. He is at home in this universe; he accepts and revers his place within it. His joy is the joy of imitating the mild, subtle, indirect, gentle, quiet, non-violent, non-interfering, non-forcing, non-deliberate, non-artificial, non-selfish way of the universe. This way is both hidden and obvious in every occurrence: the frail bird perched on the fragile twig, the river flowing in whispers effortlessly following the way of least resistance, the man pulling his cart of firewood along the winding path, the woman asking the permission of the earth before she begins to hoe. The Taoist takes his clue, not from man, but from nature. The universe is complex in its manifestations, but simple in its manner.

12. Just before he died, Henry David Thoreau was asked if he wished to make his peace with God. Thoreau answered, "I didn't know we had ever quarreled." In the same way, like a fish in the water, the sage swims in Tao. He is attached to all and everything. He has no quarrel with nature, does not dispute the way nature operates. He does not compete with nature, does not attack it, does not exploit it. He is simply, non-self-consciously a willing part of the whole process. He doesn't think of himself as apart from it or alienated from it. He is neither possessive nor grasping. Because nothing is his, everything is his. The whole earth is his to behold, to love, to understand, to be kin to. Because the universe is enough for him, he does not need wealth, honor, or property. The joyfully unpretentious woodcutter is the richest man on earth. Laying claim to nothing, he lets all things be. Intending nothing, he acts perfectly. Unconsciously, he imitates the "unproductive" creativity of the universe.

13. Good parents understand that emergence doesn't end with birth. As children grow into adulthood, the danger is that parents will try to make them into some predetermined shape, to mold them in their own image perhaps. They must be guided and corrected, but not forced into being what they are not. In the same way, we tend to force many natural beings into frameworks we have constructed. We tend to take the things of nature -- which often puzzle and inconvenience us -- and make them into artificial products that we can more easily understand and be comfortable with. Natural forms are never exactly geometrical; there are no straight lines in nature. We rework the natural according to our geometric blueprints and forms and concepts so that we can understand it. Why can we better understand the artificial? Because, made in accordance with our forms, it then more nearly conforms to our forms. And yet, the elusive mystery persists, as a wooden desk may still manifest the winding growth of the tree -- though the life that made it grow in the first place is gone. In a similar way, human nature, with its many windings and impenetrable richness, like the uncarved block, is fashioned into an artificial moral nature. Taking moral principles and structures, we cut away and carve up and reshape and straighten human nature until it more closely resembles our predetermined notion of what a human being should be. But the violence done to the nature produces the opposite of what was intended. With morality, we get immorality. There is a story of a man of the province of Sung who became impatient because his crops were not growing fast enough. During the night, he went out and pulled on the plants to make them grow faster. In the morning they were all dead. One must go back to the uncarved block. The simple yet complicated secret of the universe can be found therein.

14. A form is like a fence. A definition (or a name) is like a "fencing in," a compartmentalization, an explanation that encloses. Labels or names can imprison, if we take them too seriously, if we erroneously believe them to be absolute. We use these forms and fences and frameworks to rework nature, not knowing that nature, in all its subtlety, cannot be so confined. In a similar way, we mistake our definitions of nature for nature itself.

15. One example of fencing is private property. The earth is. We build a fence on top of it. We hold a piece of paper called a deed or title. We begin to believe that the fences and the pieces of paper really cut up the earth, that they separate a part of the earth from the rest of the earth, that this piece of land is really separate, our own. It belongs to us. Does it really? Do I own the plot anymore than the bird who steals a worm from it? Who owns that tree? Would the squirrel even bother to contest my ownership? If I walk in the woods, even hop a fence that displays a no-trespassing sign, and intuit my fundamental connectedness with the life of the trees therein -- not bothering to explain their mystery, only loving them -- who owns the trees? Is it I or the man many miles away who thinks of profit margins from real estate sales or lumber milling? If a man sees dollars or lumber when he should be seeing the tree, does he really understand the tree? If a man sees good or bad, useful or useless, when he should be seeing human nature, does he really see the person? Or is human nature, like the earth, much more than the labels or fences thought to contain it?

16. Thus, the Taoist does not impose forms or make claims upon the world. He lets forms emerge from the formless, both in the earth he loves and in the life he lives. The Taoist is not aggressive. He is tranquil, silent, constantly ready to act and speak. But his actions and words proceed from a heart attuned with the silent and powerful reserve of the eternal Tao. As nature goes about its business, steadily and without drawing attention to itself, quietly and gently, so the Taoist does what he does quietly and without show; without commotion, he gets things done; without "moral principles," he does what is right. Without blueprints, he creates -- or rather, he lets himself be the instrument through which nature creates.

Final Reflections:

17. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus used the word physis. This is the root of our word "physics." Its meaning for Heraclitus was "emerging nature," being coming out of hiding and manifesting itself in manifold forms, like the sun arising from the horizon at dawn and revealing a whole new world, a fresh new day, to the human souls alert enough and awake enough to appreciate its significance. According to Heraclitus, the hidden meaning or logos of the universe was revealed to the brightly lit soul of the thinker. Heraclitus, like the Taoists, spoke of the relativity and the complementarity of opposites. He also spoke of fire as a metaphor for the lighting up of the world, the manifesting of beings out of their hidden dark source. For Heraclitus, light and dark, day and night, life and death, all had their place, were all part of the ascending and descending path of nature.

18. Plato, after Socrates, spoke of the eidos, the hidden form or structure of beings. This invisible form becomes visible only to the intuitive conscious mind -- nous. When we have learned to intuit these unchanging forms, especially the form of dike or justice, we can use this form or "blueprint" of justice as a go-by or model by which we can consciously reconstruct or form our souls as well as society as a whole. Like the craftsman, who makes a good pair of shoes because he knows in advance what a good shoe is like, so the moral idealist sees in advance the form of justice and forms himself and society in accordance with it. In a similar fashion, Confucius speaks of looking at a finished ax-handle in order to make another ax-handle. According to Confucius, one observes the "gentleman" or chun-tzu and copies his conduct in rectifying one's own or other's character.

19. Heraclitus is the Laotse of Greek philosophy. Plato is its Confucius. But in the West, the genuine message of Heraclitus was forgotten, and Plato's thought became the cornerstone. In this way, the appreciation of nature as "unexplained" emergence from creative tension was lost. Craftsmanship became the dominant model, not only for guiding ethics and politics, but even for understanding nature itself. The model was a fence that did not fit. But Westerners fell in love with their fences and out of love with nature. Forms are perfect; nature is imperfect. The straight lines and perfect triangles of the mind and the ironclad reasoning of logic are superior to the curves and subtleties of nature. Canals are better than rivers. Rivers wind and turn inexplicably. Even human behavior should be more like geometry than "leaves of grass," more like canals than rivers. The direct is better than the indirect. The straight is better than the curved. The absolute and immediate is better than the relative and the gradual. Active manipulation of non-human and human nature is better than reverent non-interference and "letting-be." Technology is better than the "uncarved block."

20. In the Middle Ages, nature was seen as the result of divine craftsmanship, as a divine artificial product. Questions about creation were not questions about emergence or growth, but questions such as, "Who made it?" The universe exhibits beautiful order, form, and design. This form or design must be the result of making, of actively working upon and shaping raw material, of craftsmanship, since making is the only way, we have come to believe, that formed things can appear. Modern Westerners believe that matter cannot in itself have the urge or power or energy to give birth to form, that form cannot come out of the formless by itself. Nor do Westerners, in general, share the Taoist's trust in the pregnant emptiness of nature. For Westerners, emptiness is merely the lack of being; it is not the "mother" of being. In the same way, Westerners believe that emptiness in the soul or self-lessness is a deficiency, a hollow that must be filled up with all sorts of self-fulfilling material. One must lead a "full life," fill the canvas -- as it were. From the Western point of view, it is hard to tolerate "non-being," even harder to trust it: Humility is not a source of strength; it is sheer folly or weakness. One must become something "definite"; one must make indefinite trees into definite products. But the Taoist believes otherwise. Emptiness is the source, not the absence, of all being. The indefinite is the "root" of the definite. Humility is the source of strength. A few Westerners have shared this view. In their view, aggression (against persons and against the earth) is an extreme and imbalanced position that reverts to its opposite (extinction). In their view, self-aggrandizement leads to self-destruction, as surely as standing on tiptoes is followed by a fall.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Discuss the ineffable Tao.

2. Explain the meaning of wu-wei.

3. How is Taoism like and unlike Confucianism?

4. What are yang and yin?

5. What is meant by non-interference?

6. Explain the principle of reversion.

7. Explain the attitude of the Taoist sage.

8. What is the meaning of the "uncarved block"? How does the Western view of the natural and the artificial differ from that of Taoism?

9. Explain the difference between "forming nature" and "letting nature emerge."

10. Compare Western "activism" with Taoistic "passivity."

11. Explain the meaning of emptiness from a Western as well as a Taoistic point of view. What do you believe is the significance of "empty spaces" in Chinese painting?

12. To whom in Chinese philosophy may Plato be compared? Explain. How may Plato be regarded as the initiator of the Western technological attitude?

13. Discuss Taoism in terms of attachment and detachment.


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.