Three Taoist approaches to te

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The little word "Te" in the title Tao Te Ching is usually translated "virtue" or "power." Virtue is a good translation if it is understood in the old sense of the word, as in the healing "virtue" of certain plants, medicines, practices, etc. There are occasions where te seems to translate well as virtue in the sense of goodness, but do not confuse it with the moralistic sense in which we think of virtue in the West. Te is the Tao at work, so te is goodness inasmuch as person of te is adept at living in harmony with the dynamic flow of Tao in the world. Indeed, goodness in this sense has nothing to do with societal conventions of goodness (Taoists decry conventional "goodness" as too contrived, shallow, or complicated), and has everything to do with living in understanding of and harmony with the Way (Tao). The character's typical translations include: power, virtue, success, effectiveness, integrity, and goodness. So "virtue" or te as goodness here must be seen in light of these other translations; what is good is living by the supreme effectiveness of harmony with the powers of the natural universe and unity with the unnamable, ungraspable reality underlying the universe. The title Tao Te Ching might be translated "The Classic Book (Ching) of the Way (Tao) and It's Power (Te)." In his book "The Way and Its Power," Arthur Waley quotes a description of Te:

It is close at hand, stands indeed at our very side; yet is intangible, a thing that by reaching for cannot be got. Remote it seems as the furthest limit of the Infinite. yet it is not far off; everyday we use its power. For the Way of the Vital Spirit fills our whole frames, yet man cannot keep track of it. It goes, yet has not departed. It comes, yet is not here. It is muted, makes no note that can be heard, yet of a sudden we find that it is there in the mind. It is dim and dark, showing no outward form, yet in a great stream it flowed into us at our birth.

Three Taoisms and Their Approaches to Te

The Taoist's desire to live life by the power (te) of the Tao has developed into three currents within the stream of Taoism. The first is commonly called "Philosophical Taoism," which is reflected in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, the writings of Chuang-Tzu, and Lieh-Tzu. Philosophical Taoism is reflective, usually meditative, and involves some vitalizing programs to conserve Tao's power as it flows through human beings. In the philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching, and Chuang-Tzu, the emphasis is on conserving te by using it efficiently.

A second current of Taoism might be called "vitalizing Taoism" because it seeks to increase or augment the supply of the Tao's power which it finds in the life-force, or ch'i, through three means: movement, matter, and mind. In this stream you will find ch'i increasing training programs based on movement (Tai Ch'i Chuan, Kung-Fu exercises, etc.) which also worked as ch'i unblocking practices. Acupuncture was developed for the same reasons. Matter has vital energy as well, so Taoists developed the pharmacopoeia of the use of herbs to increase this vital power bodily, and experimented (sometimes fatally!) to find elixirs of immortality. Air is the most rarified matter and thus we find the famous Taoist breathing techniques to rejuvenate health and energize the body. Thirdly, the mind itself becomes important for the free flow of Tao's power. Here we find the contemplatives and hermits who developed Taoist meditation. Huston Smith summarizes well: "This practice involved shutting out distractions and emptying the mind to the point where the power of the Tao might bypass bodily filters and enter the self directly." Some call the practice Taoist yoga because of its similarity to the raja yoga of India. The Taoist yogis had a peculiar point of departure from their Indian counterparts: they believed that the yogi could accumulate enough ch'i through meditation that it could be "transmitted psychically to a community to enhance its vitality and harmonize its affairs" (Smith).

This brings us near the third stream of Taoism and its approach to the power of the Tao. It can be called "religious Taoism" because it is more organized than the other two and its approach to te is as vicarious power through a Taoist priesthood. Where philosophical Taoism sought to conserve and manage power, and vitalizing Taoism sought to increase the supply of this power, a third approach was still needed. The first two took time which not everybody had and practices which not everyone could perform consistently. There were still villages of work-a-day people who needed help, plagues to be stopped, malevolent ghosts to be dealt with, rains to be induced, etc. And this is where the priests helped. They used their understanding of the flow of ch'i to correct situations (think Feng-shui here), and used their store of power for those who were not adept in the correct manipulation forces. This became what some call "Church Taoism" - the folk religion of China with its shamanistic priests, rituals, and vicariously empowering practices.

There are a few other terms in Chinese that need to be understood in order to better understand the meaning of Tao. These terms are "Li" - which we translate as "organic pattern", "Tzu-jan" which we translate as "that which is so of itself", and "Wu wei" which is translated as "without effort" or perhaps better stated "without forcing."

Before we get started on these terms let us also share that Lao Tzu stated "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." It cannot be put into words, we can generalize but the part can never understand the whole. We can only describe that which we have experienced, and since we cannot experience the entire cosmos, we do not have words or symbols for it. In the ancient scriptures of most all religions of the world, there was no word for what we now so readily call God, Brahman,  Allah, Buddha, Tao, or whatever symbol we choose to use to describe that which we do not know. In fact some scriptures wrote in letters or symbols that made no sense in order to get that exact message across. Sadly somewhere along the line it was decided to put names to this and it is here that many of our troubles began. God versus Tao, Buddha, Allah, Brahman, etc.

With that said, let us go into these three Taoist terms and see what we can learn about Taoism.


Alan Watts described three basic philosophical ideas of nature. The western mechanical view of nature which stems from ancient Greek science as well as from the Bible in which God made a man out of clay and breathed the breath of life into him. Viewpoints that everything in nature was "made", as man was made of clay. So we in the west generally have a mechanical view toward nature, that all things in nature are "made" of something other than itself and that each has a function or reason for being. Our very language is rooted in this viewpoint. What is quite interesting is that western mans' scientific quest to find out exactly what everything is made of has led us to some amazing discoveries, which seem to point towards what many people in various parts of the world have known for thousands of years.

The second philosophical viewpoint toward nature is that of the Hindu tradition, where nature is a drama. Brahman
(The Supreme Being) is basically bored, the principle being that if you had full control over everything it would be a lot of fun for a while but you would soon become extremely tired, lonely and bored, you would know absolutely everything that was going to happen... there would be no surprises, no fun. So, for fun, Brahman cycles through periods of time (Kalpas), one of which he falls into a deep sleep and dreams. In these dreams he is playing the parts of all things in nature, including you and I. He does this to live in the myriad of unknowns and surprises, thoroughly convinced that everything is real (not his dream). So this viewpoint takes the stance that everything is Brahman playing out a drama. Brahman is playing out all the parts, wearing all the masks. Nothing is to be taken seriously, because it is all just a play, a drama put on by Brahman. This is a circular cycle that goes on and on and on, never ending.

The third viewpoint of nature, and the one we will discuss at length here, is from the Chinese, who use the word Li, to describe nature as organic pattern, translated as the markings in jade, the grain in wood, and the fiber in muscle. All of it is just infinitely beautiful, flowing in all sorts of complicated patterns. There is an order to it, but you cannot put your finger on it. It simply cannot be measured or put into words or symbols. When you look at a cloud, it is not a cube, nor is it circular. It has no specific order to it that we can describe and yet it is perfect. Look at a tree, a mountain, or the foam on water when it hits the shoreline, even the stars; all amazingly beautiful, in all kinds of wild and crazy patterns. All of it has an order to it that we simply cannot measure or describe. This is Li - organic pattern.

The Tao is not something different from nature, the birds, the bees, the trees, or ourselves. The Tao is the way all that behaves. So the basic Chinese idea of the universe is that it is an organism. You cannot find the controlling center of it, because there isn't any. Everything is a system of interrelated components, all interdependent on the other. Like bees and flowers; you will not find bees where there are no flowers, nor flowers where there are no bees or other insects that do their equivalent. Therefore though they look very different, they are in fact inseparable. They arise mutually. There is no cause and effect as we study with such veracity here in the west. Light and dark, high and low, sound and silence - all are only experienced in terms of their polar opposites.

This complete system of interdependence is Tao.


This brings us to a Chinese term, tzu-jan, which we also translate as nature. Not a class of things as we in the west classify nature, but rather an entire point of view. It means literally, that which is so of itself. Our word for it might be spontaneity. Like your heart beat, or controlling your body temperature, and replacing the millions of cells in your body each day, it does all of this by itself. Nothing has to be controlled, it simply is.  In western religions we take comfort in a higher being, a controller, a maker, but how many of us have asked the question "well who watches God?", who guards the guards? Oh, you say God doesn't need to be watched, well then why does all of this? This is tzu-jan - "that which is so of itself."

wu wei

The third term we'd like to discuss is wu wei - without effort, without forcing. Huston Smith describes wu wei as "creative quietude" and "pure effectiveness", which he describes as the most efficient and natural way of acting.  The person of wu wei operates in the naturalness, suppleness, and spontaneity of the flow of Tao, not forcing, not self-consciously "achieving" things.  It can also be translated as "not doing" or "do-nothingness", yet is the supreme activity, arising naturally when the deepest levels of the self are in tune with Tao.

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