I am teaching a Chinese history class for local students, introducing them to Taoist literature — Tao Te Ching, Zhuangzi, Taiping jing — and I realized: I’m a Taoist at heart. In my twenties, I learned many of my fundamental beliefs from reading Lao Tsu.
Now, decades later, I believe the Taoist teachings help me avoid feeling depressed about the state of the world. Taoists trust the natural process of things. Taoism and modern deep ecology share a perspective about the world, how life works, what is important, and what constitutes effective action.
The “Lao Tzu” or “Tao Te Ching” (道德经, see note below on translations and spelling] appears to have been compiled between 600 and 300 BC. Legend tells that the “author,” scholar Lao Tzu (meaning “elder”), frustrated with society’s corruption, left his home and career in south-central China to complete his life in contemplation. A mountain Pass Keeper allegedly begged Lao Tsu to record his philosophy before he vanished, which he did in little more than a thousand characters, known today as the Tao Te Ching or “Virtuous Way Classic.”
石濤 tao te ching, courtesy of the Library of Palace Museum
This venerable book had me with the first line: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” a humble beginning, reflected in 1931 by scientist Alfred Korzybski, who recognized: "The map is not the territory.” The opening stanza ends with a comparison of the “manifestations” that we see around us as opposed to the “mystery” behind it all. Such an unpretentious world view that starts with mystery appeals to me, and provides a good place to begin understanding ecology and activism.
Taoism and action
A central tenet of Taoism is “wu wie,” roughly meaning “doing-not-doing” or “non-contrary” action. The wise do not rush into action or take action to achieve prestige, but only act in accord with nature, a concept similar to Gandhi’s nonviolent action, or “ahimsa." In Taoism, action in harmony with nature leads to shen ling, “divine efficacy,” an effectiveness that runs much deeper than fleeting political gains.
The Zhuangzi, written about the same time as the Tao Te Ching, states: “If you want to nourish a bird, you should let it live any way it chooses… right action should be founded on what is suitable. The wise leave wisdom to the ants, learn from the fishes, and leave willfulness to the sheep.”
Yuan Taoist Temple mural
Like modern indigenous teachings, Taoists taught that life remains rooted in place, living gracefully, with respect, accepting a reciprocal relationship with the ecosystem in which one’s life remains embedded. To embody the meaning of the Tao, one must pay attention to the details of the local and immediate context before taking action. The “environment” is not something outside of us that needs to be fixed and certainly not “managed” by human ingenuity.
Like Taoism, ecology implies a radical restructuring of human-centred society and our relationship to the wild world beyond human constructs. Genuine solutions to our ecological crisis are not the types of solutions promoted by modern society — mechanical, profitable, politically expedient — but will be solutions that challenge the very foundations of economic, political, scientific, and intellectual convention.
At the end of the fourth century CE (approximately year 3,000 in the Chinese calendar) as imperial princes fought among themselves, Taoist Bao Jingyan wrote a short treatise, “Neither Lord Nor Subject,” blaming poverty and violence on social hierarchy, on the powerful, who manipulate the weak for private gain. Fashionable society, he warned, “goes against the true nature of things … harming creatures to supply frivolous adornments.” He invoked a simpler era, when “all creatures lived together in mystic unity … enjoying plentiful supplies of food … their behavior not ostentatious.” Problems began, according to Bao, when people forgot the ways of nature, accumulated private property, and exalted themselves above others.
Taoism and Deep Ecology
“Deep ecology,” as first articulated by Arne Naess, shares with Taoism a direct communion with nature. Both start with an environmental ethic, in which the human world remains entirely embedded in an ecological context. Effective action appears as practical engagement with a sense of sacredness in the natural world, a “divine efficacy.”
Arne Naess’s original “Eight Principles” of deep ecology reflect Taoist ideas: All life forms have inherent value; diversity itself contributes to the realization of these values; humans have no right to reduce this diversity; the growth of human population and dominance are not necessarily a benefit; human interference with the non-human world is excessive; social policies must therefore change; we must learn to appreciate the quality of life, not more consumption; and those who understand these principles have a right and obligation to take appropriate action.
The central theme, however, of both Taoism and deep ecology is “Self-realisation” that expands the personal identity to include all life. The “self” does not stop at the skin, and certainly not with the private ego, but includes the entire ecosystem. As Australian ethicist Warwick Fox explains, there is “no firm ontological divide between the human and non-human realms.” English anthropologist and ecologist Gregory Bateson stated this even more simply: “All divisions are arbitrary.” We make distinctions so that we can communicate, but in reality, all manifestations are connected. We talk about a “tree,” “soil,” and “atmosphere,” but ecologically these parts flow through each other in a dynamic, whole, living system.
Amazon rainforest, Brazil, 2012
In Deep Ecology and Taoism, the ego, or isolated self is a socially-reinforced delusion. When we merge our identity with the greater “Self,” the organic whole, then compassion for all living beings comes naturally. When we achieve this deeper self-realisation, as Naess pointed out, we remain connected, and no moralising is needed to protect all of life, “just as we don’t need morals to breathe.”
The modern self tends to remain isolated from nature, fragmented. Taoism and Deep Ecology take a holistic perspective. All beings have inherent value, not defined by usefulness to humans. “Mainstream environmentalists,” says zoologist Dr. Stephan Harding, “still see nature as a machine that we need to repair.” In Taoism, indigenous cultures, and in genuine ecology, humanity exists in relationship with the other manifestations of evolution. Nature is not a thing, but a dynamic process of which humans remain an organic part. Comfortable, conciliatory environmentalism can overlook this larger sense of “Self,” adopt an anthropocentric view of the world, and fail to challenge the economic status quo that leads to ecological decline.
Ursula Le Guin crafted a good rendering of the Tao Te Ching, using simple, direct language:
… do the work and let it go:
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay. [v. 3]
“I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader,” Le Guin told interviewer Maria Popova, “not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul... It is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.”
Bird feather in the Arctic, 2012
“Modesty is a very unfashionable word,” Le Guin told Brenda Peterson, “partly because it was demanded of women and not of men, which is why a lot of womankind flinch when you say ‘modesty.’ But when you degender it, it really is a lovely characteristic… Lao Tzu … makes mystery itself a woman. This is profound .. the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine … so refreshing and empowering.”
People who treated the body politic
as gently as their own body
would be worthy to govern the commonwealth. [Verse 13]
“Gandhi was not a Taoist. Yet – despite his enormous activism and his probably enormous ego – I can fit him into Lao Tzu’s world, because Gandhi struck at the root. He struck at inequality. He wanted the society to make itself better. He did it by the most modest means, because he refused violence.”
‘Lao Tzu didn’t have a god. The Tao is really an action rather than a person … a guide toward not trying to be in control … do the next thing because that’s the next thing to be done. It’s simply a sense of duty and responsibility,” Le Guin says. “Lao Tzu is very relevant at a time like ours. We’re in one of those yin-yang movements, and the yang is so extreme, but it will do what all extremes do; it will suddenly turn into the opposite.”
Self-satisfied people do no good,
self-promoters never grow up. [v. 24]
The modern ecology movement grew from simple observations that the technological, war-making, consumer, and financial growth society undermined the natural ecosystems that support us. Life can be a struggle, but life is not all competition. In an ecosystem, everything coexists and cooperates in a matrix of complex relationships and feedback loops. There exists a natural reciprocity among beings. Taoist ecological awareness is modest, not controlling, not managing everything.
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things
and does not strive.
Taoism teaches a larger self-realization as primal for effective action, beyond the anthropocentric attitude, and even beyond the idea of “stewardship.” A genuine, deep ecological approach radically subverts social apathy with this duty to a larger realm. This passage from stanza 13 of the Tao te Ching, expands the Golden Rule, found in all spiritual traditions — treat others as you wish to be treated — to include all beings:
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.
Resources and Links:
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng (馮家福, 1919–1985) and Jane English (1942–), with an updated translation by J. English, Vintage Books, 1989; text on line at Terebess Asia. This is my favourite translation because of the simple language. The Ursula Le Guin translation is excellent: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way. English renderings of Chinese characters and spelling to render pronunciation remain challenging. English “Daoism” and “Taoism” are interchangeable attempts to render various dialects of the original. Keep in mind: “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” There are 120 English versions, at Terebess Asia; and a parallel comparison of three Tao Te Ching translations by James Legge (1891), D T. Susuki (1913), and Dwight Goddard (1919), with a guide to the original Chinese characters. Ursula Le Guin’s interview about her renderings at Brainpickings.
Interpretation of 道 (“Tao” or “Dao”): Shuowen Jiezi dictionary
Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, Edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan, Harvard Univ. Press.
Daoism and Ecology, James Miller: Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
Taoism and Deep Ecology: “The Intersection of Taoism, Deep Ecology and Praxis,” Jarrod Hyam, Oregon State University: SIEU .
Arne Naess: “The deep ecological movement: Some philosophical aspects,” Philosophical inquiry, 1986, v. 8, No 1-2
“Neither Lord nor Subject,” by Bao Jingyan, trans. by Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme, Yale University Press, 1964. “Libertarianism.org”]
“The deep ecology movement: a western Daoism?”: Tom Levitt, China Dialogue.
Stephan Harding, Center For Humans & Nature.
I Ching, trans. by Richard Wilhelm, Cary Baynes, 1950, NY, Princeton University Press.
Cold Mountain, 100 poems by Tang poet Han-shan, Trans. by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, NY, 1970, first edition; versions on Alibris.