Lao-Tzu and the Tao


Lao Tzu was a Government Archivist and contemporary of Confucius, who lived about 400 BC. He is revered as the historical founder of Taoism, which is a major world religion that is currently observed by around 2 billion people world-wide. Although it is rather likely that the core concepts of Taoism go back much further in time than that of Lao Tzu and were developed thousands of years earlier, possibly as far back as the late Neolithic or early bronze-age period, Lao Tzu is justly respected as the person who systemised these concepts into an organised and coherent philosophical system, that can still be understood from his writings. In these writings Lao Tzu sets out the foundation philosophy of Taoism that represents a natural and ecological system, which promotes the concept of health and prosperity through the awareness and observance of natural cosmic cycles.

Lao Tzu states in his book the “Tao Te Jing” or the “Classic of the Tao”, that all things in the cosmos are governed by an immutable law, the “Tao”. In his book the Tao is represented as containing within itself “the quintessence of the truth of the universe” (the terms cosmos and universe are used interchangeably here). As a natural philosophy that is based on human interaction with their environment, one would expect Taoism to be quite different to the Cartesian/Newtonian cause and effect principles that are a part of modern science. And in this, one is not left disappointed.

Principles of Taoism

In Taoism the universe originated from two major qualities, the Tao – or Law – and Qi – or Energy. Qi flows between opposite cosmic polarities, namely Yin – a dark, negative and feminine pole – and Yang – a light, positive and masculine pole. The quality of Yin and Yang is always relative and never absolute, as such the Yin in one system may represent the Yang of the next system, and vice versa. There are two “major” extremities of Yin and Yang in the universe which manifest as the Earth below and as Heaven above. Qi is considered to flow at all levels of the cosmos in cyclic patterns, from Yang to Yin and back again. This movement of Qi manifests as ethereal matter as well as physical matter and underlies all existence, including that of living things and inanimate physical objects. Taoism considers that when the flow of Qi is balanced, order and harmony on Earth and in Heaven are preserved. Conversely, any disturbance in this balance has the potential to unleash chaos and disaster, which can only be corrected by the removal of the disruption and the re-establishment of stability. Thus the interaction of the Tao, Qi, Yin and Yang results in the manifestation of all things and maintains all things.

Man is seen in Taoism to occupy a place in the Centre, “between Heaven and Earth.” Man therefore manifests both the qualities of Heaven and those of Earth, qualities that are manifest in relationships and correspondences such as the 12 zodiac signs, through which the Heavenly flow of Qi courses and the 12 meridians, the “ethereal” vessels through which Qi courses in humans. Another such a relationship is the system of the 5 elements or Wu Xing, which is seen to represent the control mechanism of the cosmic “Law”, as well as a control system on a human physical level, which is able to “regulate” the interaction between organs.

Of course the above is a great simplification of what is in effect a complex philosophical system. For example, time is regarded as the outcome of the heavenly flow of Qi.  There are therefore complex rhythms that arise from Taoist philosophy that involve the apparent movement of the sky and the heavenly bodies, including the Sun, Moon and planets. In this system the 5 elements become duplicated into the 10 Heavenly Stems and the 12 zodiac signs become the 12 Earthly Branches, which together provide 2 cycles of 60 days. These are not only important in the calculation of time, but are a part of the acupuncture point selection system used by practitioners of classical Chinese medicine.

The Tao Te Jing.

Below are given excerpts from the Tao Te Jing together with commentaries.

The Tao 

The Tao begets the One,
The One begets the two,
The two begets the three and
The three begets the ten thousand things.
All things are backed by the shade,
Faced by the light,
And harmonised by the immaterial breath.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Jing. Chpt.42.

In the opening lines of the classic the Tao Te Jing, we are informed that:

The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao,
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

For centuries scholars, philosophers and sages have studied the Tao Te Jing by means of images, symbols and characters in an attempt to put into words its abstract concepts. Even in this age of quantum physics, providing a clear and intelligible insight into the Tao Te Jing’s description of a “way of being that is essentially non-being”, remains a challenge.

Nevertheless we will attempt here to provide some insight into this profound philosophy.

The Tao Te Jing refers to the Tao as “the Way”. It therefore not only tells us the story of the beginning of time and the cosmos, the origin of everything, but also provides a model for life as it represents the path that one can and should follow. Thus the Tao is the natural universal law of all things that manifests on all levels of existence.

Thus the Tao is not just the ultimate complexity of the universe, but also points to a way of life of the utmost simplicity, that represents a personal existence that is both natural and spontaneous. Thus the Tao is conceived as the ONE and only way of being, of existing, of absolute realisation and of wholeness. The Tao is the eternal law that resides in the interaction between substance and function. It is “the great primal beginning of all that exists”. (Wilhelm. tr.I Ching

The early Chinese philosophers, in their efforts to understand the concept of primal origin, used the concept of “that which precedes the first” or “Wa-Qi” as the starting point of their contemplations. “Wa-Qi” is symbolically represented by a circle. It was this concept, the pre-primal, that was then incorporated into the concept of the “primal origin”, which is represented by the character of the ridgepole or “Tai-Qi”, because the ridgepole divides the cosmic circle into two equal halves, that of light and that of darkness – Yang and the Yin, which flow as the essence of wholeness from that “primal origin”. This not only reveals the Tao as the “backbone” of all creation, but also how “the One begets the two”.

Thus light and darkness are both joined to one another and also kept apart by a line, the “Tai-Qi”. This simple line or ridgepole carries the symbolism of oneness; a oneness that is achieved by the union of Yin and Yang. The line itself represents oneness, but because it separates two poles, it also implies duality because it suggests the existence of an above and a below, a left and a right and a front and a rear. The line or ridgepole therefore reveals the duality of the cosmos, that is the universal natural law of two opposing but equal forces that are always in a state of tension, that maintains an eternal ebb and flow. It reveals the Two, the Yin and the Yang, the alternating but complementary primal states of being. Through this state of tension, Yin and Yang manifest as the essence of the natural cycles of complex phenomena such as day and night, and summer and winter; all these cyclic phenomena are therefore in turn subject to the universal natural law, the Tao.

The elements of Yin and Yang is the essence of oneness that exists within each human being. “Yin exists within Yang”; “Yang exists within Yin”. (Thie, 1987. Pg.17.) An imbalance of Yin and Yang in the human body is considered to be the cause of disharmony and disease. Additionally, the organs of the body are, like the cosmos, divided into two opposing but complementary camps of organs, the solid organs, or Zang organs, which are considered to be Yin in nature and the hollow or Fu organs, which are Yang in nature. The energy of the body flows between these two opposing poles of Yin and Yang along ethereal energy channels known as meridians. A meridian is either Yin or Yang, depending on the organ with which it is associated.

The rationale behind this concept may be understood as follows: if the body assumes a standing posture with the arms extended upwards, energy in the Yin meridians flows upwards to its opposite Yang pole which is “heaven”, while energy in the Yang meridians flows downwards to its opposite Yin pole, which is the earth. “Yang energy flows from the Sun and Yang meridians run from the fingers to the face to the feet. Yin energy, from the earth, flows from the feet to the torso and from the torso along the inside (Yin side) of the arms to the fingertips.” (Thie. 1987.Pg.18.)

The world of being arises from Yin and Yang, which represent the alternating complementary primal states of existence. The forces of Yin and Yang bring about a continuous but seamless transformation which changes energy from one polarity into another and thus generates a flow of vital energy and being, which is called Qi. This is what is meant by the line: “the two beget the three”. Through the tension generated in Qi by its Yin and Yang duality, Qi creates all forms in the universe, both living and non-living. Qi is therefore not just found in all things, it is everything, because all things are composed of Qi (energy) and matter is simply congealed Qi. In the human body Qi is perceived to flow as energy along the meridian and thus provides the life force, which gives vitality and harmony to the body’s overall functions. Qi therefore is the harmonising flow of life, the “immaterial breath” that is central to the optimum performance and thus the well-being of the human body.

Qi is light in its purest form of manifestation. The light brings to fullness the reality of matter, as light is the natural agent that makes all things visible. Qi also generates solid physical substances, because Qi is the essence of all that is. Qi as an energy flows as a result of the tension between the opposite qualities of the primal forces Yin and Yang, but the manifestation of Qi is also perceived in terms of the Wu

Xing, the five stages of change or five elements: Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood.

Each of the five elements is generated by a different level of tension between Yin and Yang. This results in each element having its own particular characteristics or qualities. The elements Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood represent the concept of the manifest natural universe. These same five elements are seen as making us what we are – human.

Each human being, indeed everything in this universe, is seen as having its own unique nature that originates from its individual Yin and Yang tensions; this generates the individual character or essence of being that is one’s “true Qi”. Qi therefore not only denotes one’s energy flow, it also denotes one’s individual energy patterns, that manifest as the centeredness with which one is endowed at one’s origin.

The Tao Te Jing states that: “the three beget the ten thousand things.” Here the forces of Yin and Yang generate the manifest energy Qi under the universal law of the Tao and thus produce all that is, everything, the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things refers to the myriad things in the manifest universe that have “ten thousand” forms, each of which differs from the other, with none of them being exactly the same. In the final analysis however, the ten thousand things are one, as they are all Qi, all created by the forces of Yin and Yang and are all subject to the Tao. The Tao Te Jing therefore presents a unity and harmony in the totality of being between the ten thousand things and thus between all existential matter.

“Carry the Yin and embrace the Yang and through the blending of the material force (Qi) achieve harmony” (Wang Pi. 1979 pg.128).

The Tao sets in motion and maintains the interplay of all forces, thus bringing about the harmony and oneness that is achieved through non-being.

“All things are backed by the shade, Faced by the light. And harmonised by the immaterial breath.”

As we have seen, Qi represents the “immaterial breath” which brings about the oneness of all things, while the essence of all things consists of the two principal powers of nature, Yin and Yang, which manifest in light and darkness, and through the firm and the yielding. Yin and Yang are the two polar forces of the universe, the positive and the negative, which are in continuous and perpetual interplay of cyclic motion; they generate through this motion their mutual state of tension, which in turn creates Qi, the potential that achieves unity and harmony in all that exists.

This presents a universe that is continually being regenerated through the constant renewal of the state of tension between the polar forces Yin and Yang, and that is ever coming to harmony and wholeness through the linking of forces that is provided by Qi, the immaterial breath.

Thus the Lao Tzu shows us that everything in life is subject to the universal law of the Tao and that the primal powers of Yin and Yang perpetually interact to give rise to Qi, which enables the cycle of becoming to continue without interruption.

“If one is sensitive to the influence of the Tao, which manifests as the purpose or direction within the energy of life, one is, by accepting and rejoicing in its depth and truth, able to live the mystery of life. One then becomes aware of the existence of the Tao in all of life, and thus is able, through receptivity and openness, to live out the Tao which is within all things.” (Bush, 1977. pg. 30)

“The Tao is life, and life is a mixture of being and non-being,
…for that is the original quality of life.” (Bush, 1977. pg. 28)

Lao Tzu reminds us still:
“People think the Tao is foolishness because it lacks definition.
But the Tao lacks definition because it is infinite.
If the Tao could be defined it would be small and not great.”


Taoist philosophy has a sense of “rightness” about it that satisfies our yearning for answers about the purpose and nature of the universe, life in general and our individual existence in particular. It is therefore not surprising that it has been meditated upon for centuries by Eastern scholars and mystics, and explored by many Western thinkers. In addition, the deep abstraction of the core concepts of Taoism defy logical analysis, unlike the beliefs that underpin most other religious philosophies. This is the reason why the Age of Enlightenment in the West and the division between religion and science never came about in the East, at least not until very recently. It also explains why by 1100 A.D., after rising to become the most advanced world civilisation, time simply stood still in the East and little progress was made for over 700 years or more. True, a few snippets of progress were added over that time, but these were mostly imported from the West, while real progress was firmly resisted by the insular attitudes of the Eastern rulers and their governments. This stuck science and technology for centuries at level that was somewhat equal to that of the late Middle Ages in the West. Thus the philosophy that once caused Eastern civilisation to become the most advanced culture, turned it into a backwater, while Western science and technology overtook it in art, and every aspect of technology, science and medicine. This has of course been turned around over the last one hundred years or so, first in Japan, then in Korea and finally in China. The enormous progress that has been made in these countries since that time clearly shows that its people never lacked talent, but were simply held back by an all-pervading philosophy that promoted the avoidance of change. It also provides the warning that only inquiring and open minds can ever be a receptacle for progress and that philosophy alone should never be allowed to set an unquestionable standard of what is right and true.

We are on the threshold of a new age, one where one where science is opening up the power of self determination to our species, an age where we will be able to move away from the likelihood that we are just a blip in the evolutionary record, and open up a future in which mankind will be able to choose its own destiny as a species. In that future we will still need religion and philosophy, as this is the only thing that can anchor us in time and space and provide us with a sense of relevance as regards our existence and our place in the natural world. But we will need to examine all religion and philosophy in the clear light scientific knowledge. That which can withstand that scrutiny will continue to enrich humanity into the far distant future, but that which does not must be discarded; nature does not allow a species to stand still, we either progress or perish; it is our choice.


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