What is the “Tao”?
Since ancient times, countless scholars and commentators have endeavoured to define “Tao” from the perspective of philosophy and ideology in order to explore the very essence of what it means to be human. However, few have been able to the put the truth of “Tao” into the practice of mindfulness.
In this paper, I shall share my experiences of the last four decades and in so doing explain how I have applied ‘the system’ of Tao to solve the doubts and challenges faced by many hundreds and thousands of people from all walks of life.
The very essence of “Tao” is harmony. This is to say that “Tao” is a vast and intricate instrument or intelligence, that enables heaven, earth and humanity to work in balance with each other. To fully understand Tao, one has to understand the truth of the existence of Tao, how it was forged and the role it plays for humankind. It is imperative for us to recognise the relationship between Tao and the natural order of the universe. Lao Tse, the ancient Chinese philosopher and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote:
Man takes Earth as his model; Earth takes Heaven as its model; Heaven takes Tao as its model; Tao takes what is natural as its model.
Through this insight we can observe how Tao regulates everything in the world, heaven and earth – all the activities of every living being, all faiths, science, human development, governments and organizations, all of which are deeply embedded in the holistic ecological system.
Due to the intricacy of Taoism, Lao Tse wrote, “Tao that can be described is not universal and eternal Tao.” During the past 3,000 years of human civilization, no invention or high-tech computing tool has been able to fathom and describe the true condition of the Tao and so therefore we can only conclude that Tao can only be manifested by true enlightenment.
It may be argued that in today’s flourishing scientific and technological era, there should be sufficient logical systems-thinking for us to understand “Tao”. However, with an array of philosophies, religions and scientific theories there is a great deal of confusion leading to improper explorations into the truth of Tao.
By way of a visual metaphor, let us imagine a group of people have taken a tour around the perimeter of a house that they have never visited before. They are then asked to describe the interior of the house to a gathered audience. The audience, having listened to the subjective descriptions would then on recounting give presumptuous statements which certainly do not describe the actual, the real. One can safely argue this for they have not entered into the house, but only seen parts of the house from different windows. They have certainly not lived in the house; hence, they are not seeing the truth, and certainly not experiencing the truth. Metaphorically, Lao Tse lives in the house, but is unable to express lucidly, so he waits for the ones approaching the door and tells them how to open the door, so they can be in the house and experience it for themselves.
This sounds easy but is actually extremely hard, for one tends to be trapped by one’s own learning and experiences in life. We usually think, as we look at a mountain, this is just a mountain, is it not? But until we climb the mountain and are standing on its summit, we will not realize that our understandings and feelings about the mountain differ so much, for now we are on the summit we can see afar! Philosophers and writers can express distinct views from their personal experience of climbing a mountain, but what does the existence of this mountain exactly mean to the entire world? And what that of a river, a forest, a lake, a bird, our very own beings live on this earth in different states? Have we discovered that every being tries to keep a balanced state of harmonious symbiosis under the operation of Tao? Tao is the macro system which regulates the symbiosis between humans and nature. Once the system is breached, the entire ecological cycle will be ruptured, leading to the loss of equilibrium of harmonious symbiosis, and therefore the world is thrown into chaos. Finally, the force of Tao will have to restore the unbalanced state. The instability of the earth’s core and crust that we encounter at the moment, including the extreme meteorological movements, are the response of Tao in order to restore harmony.
Harmony from the perspective of Tao
In order to address “harmony” from the perspective of Tao, one needs to talk about symbiosis as well. From the surface, harmony and symbiosis is one single concept. But if we only focus on harmony without taking symbiosis into deep consideration, then a state of harmony will not occur. This is because harmony, as a perfect realm, is “empty,” and symbiosis is “full” and pragmatic. Symbiosis is achievable through appropriate deliberate arrangements. The mutual generation and restraint between the five elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water – described by Taoists explains the principles of symbiosis between us, and between humankind and nature. When humanity violates these principles, the force of the Tao will be triggered to make compulsory corrections, and human society, being the culprit of destruction, will inevitably face the ruin of itself.
It must be noted that preceding heaven, earth and humanity, is the simulation of nature, which is not the real nature of the universe. This is the reason why Lao Tse puts nature on top of Tao in “Tao takes what is natural as its model.” In these words, Lao Tse intended to explain that the micro universe of “Heaven, Earth and Man” under the operation of the system of the Tao is the simulation created by humans of higher civilization (so called God), while the real nature above Tao has always been there, including the unknown force of Chaos, boundless precincts, the superposition of dimensions, the ceaseless generation and vanishing of time (or no time) and countless living species and life phenomena. Thus, we need to work hard to evolve, to adapt to the uncontrollable changes in the natural environment, and potential threats to survival posed by other stronger species.
As a result, the “natural selection” theory derived from an emphasis on evolution, strongly dominates the long-term development of human civilization. But if the human species, its universal natural selection, are unable to live in harmony, won’t the strength of the entire human race be debilitated, causing greater survival crises? Hence, human beings, in this simulated environment, need to undertake tempering from competition for survival on one hand, and learn to live in harmony on the other. This requires sufficient knowledge and practice of Tao and profound reflection on self-evolution for a balanced growth of both the ability to survive and to coexist in harmony. Otherwise, global development will end up with the strong pillaging the weak, the victor becoming the king, and then the natural ecology is destroyed, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, and human civilization inevitably walks into the abyss of extinction – with no chance to ‘turn back’.
It can be argued that the human species is insignificant within real nature, despite the fact that we are designed to be the absolute subject in the simulated nature that is governed the Tao, for we have the free will to proactively respond to Tao.
An Awareness of Tao
As a result of the macro Tao system, many derivatives are continuously created with their own regulations. Among them, the most influential and oldest is ‘folk’ belief. The origin of every folk religion comes from men worshiping the manifestation of life sources, including the respect for different forms of lives and spirits coexisting in different spaces. Furthermore, various religions are forged in order to contact the God who is the source of human life. As a result, religions are transformative education systems, which guide humanity to be in contact with the origin of a certain life system, receive edification, understand the truth of the universal presence and evolve successfully through the elevation of wisdom.
Education starts with awareness, in effect switching on the connector between one’s sensory consciousness and the Tao – we call this “enlightenment.” Next, we must identify the corresponding channel, and via the dialogue within this channel receive needed messages, inspirations and energy about Tao.
Buddhists say: “Buddha is in my heart” and other practitioners say: “listen to the inner voice.” In essence they mean the same. The key is that such messages come from two fundamental sources. One is the information stored in the Tao system, (in today’s society we might refer it to the Tao’s ‘big data’!) and another are the teachings from the high dimension energies of derivative systems (such as teachers, guardians, mentors and families).
The social function of religion is to teach us to unlock the connector between self-consciousness and Tao, learn from it in order to catalyse the evolution and elevation of humankind. All understandings and reverence for God, all scientific research and innovation, rationalization of philosophies, explosive artistic creativity and so much more are the most natural phenomenon in the operation of Tao. As a result, by living mindful lives, we keep learning and improving, so that we can be proficient at working with Tao. As our access to its information expands, we can correct our inherent weaknesses and bad habits. The goal is to pursue a life of peaceful coexistence. We call this the cultivation and practice of Tao.
As our awareness and consciousness grows, we feel and experience sorrow and compassion for the sufferings of all beings under threat of survival. This is the core value of religions. Such a state is only present when there is connection with Tao, which is beyond scientific or speculative thinking. Compassion does not materialise by an ideology or knowledge, it manifests itself by a raised consciousness so that hearts are moved and minds are enlightened.
The Tao system records the intellectual information of all human civilization and continues to add and modify accordingly in order to sustain humanity. When it figures out that human conflicts will escalate causing severe disequilibrium to the verge of humankind destroying the Earth, the balance mechanism of Tao will activate the force of nature to stop the catastrophic actions. It seems that with our current level of consciousness, the best humankind can do, is to fully commit to a programme of post-disaster rebuilding. This is because the common mindset is to count on luck rather than acting in an appropriate and timely manner.
In addition to acquiring and applying Tao at all times by correctly understanding the existence and acting force of the Tao system, it is crucial to gather enough like-minded people together and take collective and collaborative action. It will only be through this collective and organised action that probable harm might be minimized and future restoration maximized.
The collective power of everyone’s consciousness could indeed flow through the frequency of the Tao channel. If compassion and unconditional love emerges and flows, not only man’s inhumanity to man can be stopped, but the harms of natural disaster can be reduced and the work of restoration can be implemented with greater success.
Regrettably, although many people work hard and in various ways to enter through the Tao gateway through various channels or frequencies (theoretical study, meditation, mantra and chanting), they are lost in their own belief and their own ego without being totally open to mindfulness. And so inevitably they remain outside the door. One can therefore predict what happens with the attempts to live and learn the Tao. When a wise mentor activates the connection for someone, they encounter wonderful feelings and inspirations, but these feelings dissipate very quickly. The reason is that people do not continue practicing and correcting themselves in awareness. If the mentor does not provide guidance when they are puzzled, the connection to Tao will not last. Thus, learning Tao has to come after “enlightenment,” with sustained cultivation and practice of Tao. There is a Chinese saying: “A master teaches the trade, but the apprentice’s skill is self-made.”
Even when a person is at one with Tao, persisting practice is needed because the universe is constantly and infinitely changing. Only through continuous learning can a life force evolve. In brief, human lives on Earth are governed by the flow of Tao through various stages of training, tests, growth or elimination, thriving or degenerating in the simulated universe. Every life system under Tao has its own unique cultivation: inspiration by different faiths, experiments of different regimes, education by different mindsets, edification by different cultures. Such cultivation is needed to develop resilience in life in order to adapt to the survival challenges in the constantly changing environment. This is the task and meaning that Tao gives us. However, adaptation does not mean inaction or letting nature take its course or inaction. It commands a path of compassion, love and mercy. This is the true essence of Tao and Harmony.
Tao does not just belong to a nation state but to all of humanity. Tao belongs to every being, every life form in the space between the three realms – heaven, earth and humankind – and the entire human race with its rich and different DNA. The operation of the greatest Tao extends to middle systems, micro systems and individual lives, including those which can or cannot not be comprehended by science. No matter what attitude you take to acknowledge or deny it, Tao is an endless state until the devastation caused by humanity is so grave that the mechanism ‘reboots’ itself.
Tao is the operator of the multidimensional three realms – its flow is unceasing. It is the generator of inspirational creativity that we witness in art and literature. It is kindness and love that is borderless and transcends wars, prejudice and hatred. In the three realms where Tao operates, humankind is the subject, other species are of supporting role of the human training program, forming part of the ecological cycle. However, the consciousness of every creature flows.
Every nation, every civilization and belief, has its own distinct origin and management system, but all are subject to the governance of Tao. Chinese Tao civilization is a derivative of the Great Tao. As a result, it would be a misunderstanding if we only see Tao as an exploration of particular philosophies, as an ideology and attitude, because Tao is the generator of all cultures and creativity. In order to fully understand Tao, one needs to find the door, open the door, step into the house, and live within it. Opening the door of Tao means switching on the connector between the individual being and the instrument or intelligence of Tao. After entering the door, one has to search for the answer and continue to profoundly understand the meaning of the answer. It is imperative to always be vigilant of one’s thoughts, habits and potentials in order to understand, improve oneself and maximize our potentials, so that our lives can continue to evolve and optimize our resilience in the universe. Only by using Tao can the true value to humankind be delivered.
The objective existence of Tao is unique and absolute. Nevertheless, personal subjective thinking and behaviour is free and open. One’s life can act freely within the regulation of Tao. Hence, the evolution or degeneration of humanity is up to us to decide – the choice of path is ours, the path, the way. This is the survival task humanity is facing at the moment. Whatever the religion or school, there will be no correct perception without understanding the truth of Tao. Consequently, opinions and actions diverge, conflicts emerge instead of solutions, because without living in Tao one is unable to acquire an holistic view. And thus, identifying the crux and the cure is impossible.
It is easier being a prophet outside the house, because then you can give answers from your perspective. However, it is hard for someone in the house to explain the whole picture as no one will comprehend and trust you. That is why Lao Tse could only embrace an attitude of natural inaction and respond randomly.
Living in Tao
In every Tao practice, I have also witnessed the authenticity and versatility of the messages I receive. Human nature allows our hearts and behaviour to change freely. Every flow of consciousness will also produce different group effects. When the positive collective force enlarges, human society evolves. When this does not happen, human society will show corruption, conflicts and chaos. Therefore, the operation of Tao is planned with inherent changes. It is a pre-set pattern with occasional settings outside the pattern. Therefore, humans are able to bring forth proactive influence, or be accomplished, or they may be destroyed.
By ‘Living in Tao’ for 40 years, I have learnt much from human nature. Having solved many thousands of ‘issues,’ I have been able to arrive at an answer for our future. The evolution of the world civilization depends on the evolution of humanity, but whether humanity can successfully evolve depends on receiving the right education. That right education is nothing less or more than “Living in Tao”.
In order to live in Tao, one needs to practice the connection between one’s own system or intelligence and the Tao system or intelligence. The self-learning lies in two keys – one is to have a calm and pure heart; the other is to be compassionate. Through meditation, involving deep breathing into the abdomen and the guiding of consciousness, the energy of the universe and Earth’s centre can be drawn and gathered in the abdomen and from there spread to the whole body. One’s consciousness will then enter a state of stillness and emptiness, a state between sleep and awake, where one can feel the channel and connection with the Tao. It is in this state that one begins to ask questions and receive responses from the Tao system, akin to “listening to your inner voice.” Surely one would best have a mentor, as they will be able to check if you are in the right state and frequency, and prevent you from going around in circles and then giving up, or taking a detour because your mind is primed with conscious desire. Since a wise mentor is hard to seek and self-pursuit is full of obstacles, in my personal experience, the best way is to be “compassionate” and allow divine consciousness to connect with you through the Tao system.
However, God rewards hard work. Even if the mentor leads the way, the practice depends on the individual. The transformation destiny must depend on one’s diligent effort, and only then can one gradually achieve the state of unity between humankind and heaven.
According to Lao Tse, the person who lives in Tao is certainly a person of “Compassion, Simplicity, Modesty and Comity.” And Lao Tse compared Tao to water. Water nourishes all things, but stays in the lower stream; water is so soft that it contains everything, yet it is indestructible.
In people’s inner or subjective lives, Tao may seem to be indifferent to fame and wealth, but value life. In the objective environment, however, it is the unity of opposites (Yin and Yang, good and evil, strong and weak, beauty and ugliness, virtual and real…) that matters; if you lose one, the other cannot exist. The question is, how do we look at the contradiction of things and mutually transform them? Aside from “natural inaction,” one should also add more love. This I believe is the essence of the Tao of harmony.
Finally, I would like to add this. An obvious starting point for the practice of the Tao is to fully develop a system of organic agriculture and circular economy towns. An eco-community is the smallest unit (including self-sufficient food, public welfare – utilities, waste management, medical care, low carbon and environmentally friendly, wind and quake proof and so on) where residents’ awareness can be cultivated. This is not only helpful in sustaining cultures but will contribute to the future of human civilization.
Christopher Chuang is the co-founder and chairman of Aurora Borealis Foundation. Since 1980, he has been setting up independent charity organizations, and opening up trade and cultural exchanges between China and South East Asian countries. He also founded Beijing Sustainable Development Committee in 2005, which later co-established the Hanwang Forum together with the Municipality of Deyang (which had been severely impacted by the 2008 earthquake). Christopher Chuang is active today in dialoguing with top thinkers, politicians, scientists, and social entrepreneurs, in his aspiration to build an international alliance of sages and a “think-and-do-tank”that transcends national and commercial interests.
Photograph: Llee Wu