An Analysis of the Tao

An Analysis of the Tao :

There is no single definition of Taoism in the Tao de Ching. The reader realizes that she will not find one in the text after seeing the first sentence. By saying that whatever can be described of the Tao is not the true Tao, its author, Lao-tzu, establishes his first premise: the Tao is a force beyond human explanation. However this assumption does not mean that he can't attempt to describe it. Using the literary tools of contradiction, parallel structure, and metaphor, Lao-tzu discusses the Tao in language regular people can understand.


In the beginning the Tao gave birth to both good and evil (Ch 5) and along with that came all of the other pairs. In Chapter 36 Lao-tzu discusses action and reaction,

"If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given."

This excerpt ties into the statement in Chapter 30 that for every force there is a counter force which is applicable to political situations. For example, if a ruler noticed an uprising of disgruntled subjects, it would be wise of her to let them organize, or expand, and state their grievances as a whole before she individually addressed their complaints.

Lao-tzu also uses contradiction in Ch 22,

"If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become strait,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die..."

In other words, if a person wants to succeed she must first understand the opposition. This strategy is used often in war. In order to predict what the enemy will do next, one can think like the enemy, be the enemy. Another way to understand this contradiction is by applying it to modern day life. In many cases those who are most against drinking are former alcoholics. They have, in a sense, gone straight from being crooked, been reborn from having died.

In Ch 45 Lao-tzu uses contradiction to discuss human nature,

"True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present."

People are always in seeking of more. Everything must be bigger, better, newer. We need to look closer at life because even when shown fantastic splendor, humans have a tendency to ask "is that all?". When Lao-tzu says that "true fullness seems empty" he is referring to the fact that people hardly ever notice what they have until it is gone. When something is gone, that is when people realize how "full" their lives were before.

Parallel Structure

In Ch 41 Lao-tzu uses parallel structure to describe the Tao.

"When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao."
Parallel structure is a method of repetition after which a conclusion is stated. In this case Lao-tzu describes how a superior, average and foolish man take to the Tao, and then, how the Tao is defined. In the same way that the superior man must embody the Tao, the foolish man must laugh at it. This is one example of the duality of the Tao- it needs both good and bad aspects to exist.

Another instance in which Lao-tzu uses parallel structure is to explain non-being in Chapter 11,

"We join spokes together in a wheel
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use."

Although in our daily lives we focus on what is, what is not is of more importance. This is another comment on human nature. People tend to overlook what they have, and focus on what they don't have. Like the hole that makes the wheel move, this struggle for what is lacking, i.e. non-being, is what causes people to strive for improvement.

Adjectives and Metaphors

One of the most effective ways Lao-tzu explains the Tao is through metaphor. As contrasted to bare adjectives, metaphors explain abstract concepts by relating them to everyday objects. For example, "It is serene, Empty, Solitary, Unchanging, Infinite, Eternally present" in Ch 25 doesn't really help explain the Tao. However in Ch 4 he says, "The Tao is like a well: used but never used up." And in Ch 5, "The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable." These metaphors say essentially the same thing as the description in Ch 25 but they are much easier to comprehend. If the Tao is like a well it is restorative and replenishing. One must work at the Tao to get its rewards just as a person must lift the bucket to the top of the well in order to drink the water. If the Tao is like a bellows, then when it is not used it is vacant, dead. But when in action, the bellows produces powerful currents of air as the Tao produces powerful guidance.

Lao-tzu has taken these abstract concepts such as nothingness and infinity and analyzed them in terms of things people understand (i.e. well, bellows...). In Ch 32 he goes on to explain, "The Tao can't be perceived. Smaller than an electron, it contains uncountable galaxies....All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea." Lao-tzu makes the Tao seem so much greater than the reader by explaining that it contains galaxies, but then goes on to connect the reader with it saying that everyone is drawn to the Tao like rivers to the sea.

The common man

It is important to Lao-tzu to make the people understand the Tao because the Tao is for all. This is why he attempts to state its principles in a fairly straightforward manner. He appreciated the common man and after spending so much time on explaining the Tao, he uses it to tell the people how to live.

Often times, to do this, Lao-tzu offers examples of how the ancient Masters conducted themselves. In Ch 15,

"They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water."

With these similes he explains that as a Taoist the reader should be cautious and kind, flexible and open, observant and straightforward.

He does not accept honor or glory as values. Unlike many other philosophies/religions where the ideal person should be an example to others, Taoism focuses on the individual herself. Also unlike many other philosophies which view the commoner as a dullard, Taoism looks upon a moderate person favorably,

"The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind..." (Ch. 59)

In Ch 39, "He doesn't glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as a stone."

This concept of the ideal moderate is mentioned a number of times. In Ch 9 Lao-tzu admonishes extremism, "Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. A Taoist is not someone who is driven by hopes for the respect and admiration of her people, but rather wants to be humble and normal.

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