Updated: Jan 6, 2020
Taoism is the English term for a combined philosophy and associated behavioral practices which are thought to have originated in China long ago. At its core is the concept of the “Tao”. Tao is hard to translate cross-culturally, but is often thought of as “the way”, “nature”, or “universal truth”. I tend to think of the Tao as the “whole”, including all mystery and paradox.
Several things have always impressed me about Taoism. One is its historic confounding of institutionalization. I can think of no more influential human ideology (due, if for no other reason, to it having been developed in heavily populated Asia, so long ago) that has so defied its use by despots and other oppressors. Although Taoist culture has been in constant existence from at least 1000 B.C. (perhaps, the oldest, organized mode of thought, possibly originating thousands of years earlier), a true, Taoist “church” has never risen to gain any major political prominence, nor has there been a “Taoist State” (aside from those which come to us from pre-literate, utopian myth). In short, Taoism has been remarkably useless as a tool of manipulation. It has never lent itself to crusade, or proved particularly useful to any form of large-scale social movements.
What is most impressive about Taoism to me though, is that unlike other philosophies, religions, or beha, one is warned against falling under the limiting spell of Taoism! “The Tao will be your prison” is a notable Taoist admonition, coming right out of some of the oldest and most revered, Taoist texts.
The ultimate wisdom of Taoism is, I believe, contained in the paraphrase, “The Tao that can be articulated is not necessarily the eternal Tao”. This is close to the common translation from the Tao Te Ching, Taoism’s seminal text, by the mythical Lao Tse, who is credited with the quote. In my opinion, all popular English translations of this passage (at least the hundreds I have found) contain two, fundamental errors.
First, by choosing the word “spoken”, “told”, “walked” or some other word, not confined to the physical realm, instead of my chosen word, “articulated”, the scope of the idea is greatly limited. By using “articulated” I believe one more accurately communicates the limitless nature of the idea at hand. That is, when we speak of the “articulated” Tao, we are not only referring to what can be perceived through our senses or communicated to others, but also what may emerge in and may exist only within ourselves, through our subjective experience.
Most importantly however, all translations I’ve found omit the word “necessarily”. I think this may be a Buddhist and/or Western adulteration of the original idea, but not being a qualified scholar, I really cannot say. In any case, I believe the omission of “necessarily” fundamentally degrades the phrase’s value. In the absence of “necessarily”, we have a definitive statement of the limit of human experience, and implicitly, a definitive rejection of the possibility of limitless, human experience. That satisfies the western, atomistic paradigm. More insidiously though, it suggests a deference to the “alternative”, “wise”, “eastern-wisdom”, side of the atomism/holism debate, and so the natural/extra-natural, physical/spiritual, reason/intuition debates, by “humbly acknowledging” that reason can never provide an ultimate understanding. But, omitting the word “necessarily” does more than just acknowledge the possibility of rational limitation - it absolutely confirms it. This, I believe, fundamentally distorts truly holistic, (presumedly) Taoist wisdom.
It seems to me, that if one is to truly embrace holism, one must allow for both the possibility that human experience may never fully comprehend all reality, and the possibility that it may—that the “Tao that can be articulated may be the eternal Tao” after all. To distinguish the form of holism I am describing from the form I have found published and coined in all other English sources, we use my proprietary term Wholeism.
In other words, if we accept the assertion that we really can’t know for sure what’s eternal and what’s not; that it seems no one is omniscient, then maybe what we articulate is eternal after all. Right? To deny this possibility is, in my mind, to reject an essential principle of WED, i.e. the human tendency to identify patterns and construct solutions (translated as WED’s first Core Value, “Following”) succumbing to the very understandable existential anxiety which renders mystery and paradox so generally intolerable to the Western mind. All other systems of thought that I have encountered, aside from my personal interpretation of Taoism and perhaps some Native American philosophies, despite their stated understanding of, and comfort with the mysterious and paradoxical nature of life, display to various degrees, in their words and rituals, a rejection of mystery and paradox. This includes Buddhism, and what is commonly called Taoism.
If I’ve explained all this clearly, perhaps you can understand why I find my translated (Taoist?) phrase, “The Tao that can be articulated is not necessarily the eternal Tao”, the most profound and perfectly articulated human thought possible.
“The Tao that can be articulated is not necessarily the eternal Tao.”