I walked into a bookshop and looked at the religion and spirituality section, and there before me were two scriptures from the East: the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, so I bought them and read them. Out of the two the Tao Te Ching spoke to me the most, and I soon became enthusiastic about its philosophy.
One allegorical painting, The Vinegar Tasters, depicts China’s three main philosophies and their reactions to life: Confusianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucius, the Buddha and Lao-Tzu are standing around a vinegar pot and they have each stuck their finger in the pot, taken a taste and are left with different expressions on their faces. Confucius has a sour look, seeing life as out of harmony with Heaven and thus needing the proper rules and institutions to regulate it. The Buddha has a bitter look, seeing life as something we suffer (First Noble Truth: “Life is suffering”) and from which we should seek liberation. Lao-Tzu has a happy look because he realised that vinegar (or life) is as it should be, and it is our meddling in it that causes problems for us. The taste of vinegar is not pleasant, but that is as it should be; it is vinegar being vinegar!
Here was a philosophy that affirmed that life and nature are fundamentally good, and not something we should control or seek liberation from, which really clicked with my Pagan and Gaian sensibilities.
There is a principle of harmony and unity at work in nature, called the Tao, or Way. It is not one particular way, it is the Way of All Things, of Heaven and Earth and the “ten thousand things,” so it cannot be constricted or encapsulated by any one belief or thought system, which are all partial and limited.
Each being has its own contact with the Tao, called Te meaning virtue, the inborn nature of each being that has its source in the Tao. A mountain has its Te, as do the stars, as do ants, as does a rock, as does a flu virus, as does a water molecule, as do human beings! All things have their own Te, which is, by nature, in harmony with the Tao. If we are in harmony with our own Te, we are in harmony with the Tao, and if we are in harmony with the Tao then we are in harmony with the Te of All Things. No need for control, no need for liberation. All things can happen “Self-so”, if we let them.
But I cannot now say this is my philosophy, because this is something that is “done without doing”, a concept known as wu-wei. It has become a non-philosophy for me, because it is something achieved without contrived effort, it is something we are born with and not something we can achieve, it is something we simply are – if only we would let ourselves! What is the Uncarved Block? It is the form of the block in its naturalness before human hands took it and shaped it, it is the tree in its natural state. This is the Uncarved Block. Wu-wei is simply letting the Uncarved Block be what it is, a tree in its natural state.
In considering wu-wei, Taoism is not a system that can be applied like other philosophies, it cannot be thought out, planned or systemised, because it represents Nature as it is. Its goal is Harmony with Nature, except that Nature is Harmony, and so it is impossible to achieve with the usual goal-driven manner of thinking. It already exists. But even the goal-driven conscious ego has its own Te, its own function in the nature of things. It is not a matter of denying this ego, to stop it interfering but to observe nature (including the Nature within the human mind) and learning from and applying its principles, and let Nature transform our way of thinking.
We can plan, scheme, manage, invent and have goals and expectations, because that is simply the nature of the conscious mind, and how we evolved, but we can do it in harmony with nature. The conscious mind can consider itself as one function within the wholeness of the human psyche, and the human being can consider itself as one part of how Nature functions, instead of somehow separate from, better than or above it.