The ultimate reality in Taoism is the Tao, or Way. Broadly defined, the Tao is the mysterious natural order of the universe. But paradoxically, what the sages have most often said about the Tao is that nothing can be said about it. As the Tao Te Ching puts it:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant Way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant Name.
The nameless was at the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery –
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
The Tao-Te Ching goes on to say the Tao is
something formlessly fashioned, that existed before Heaven and Earth….Its name we do not know; Tao is the byname we give it. Were I forced to say to what class of things it belongs I should call it Immense.
In Chinese thinking, to give something a name (ming) is to assign it a place in the universe. This cannot be done with the Tao, as it pervades and encompasses all.
The Tao has no characteristics, yet it is not nothingness. In fact, it is better understood as “everythingness,” as it contains within itself all potential characteristics. It encompasses both Being (yu) and Non-Being (wu). “In its mode of being Unseen, we will see its mysteries; in the mode of the Seen, we will see its boundaries.”
The Tao encompasses all opposite and complementary forces, which are collectively referred to as yin and yang. As represented in the familiar Great Polarity symbol, yin and yang are interdependent and contain within themselves the seed of the other. Yin is associated with darkness, femininity, passivity and water, while yang is light, masculinity, activity and air. Yin and yang are always in perfect balance within the Tao. The goal of the Taoist, therefore, is to keep these opposites in balance within his or her own life.
The Tao is further characterized by tzu-jan, which is difficult to translate directly but is usually rendered “spontaneity” or “self-so.” The self-so is unconditioned and uninfluenced; it is nothing other than itself.
This, in turn, is the ideal of the sage-ruler in the Tao Te Ching. He does not strive, he does not intervene, but acts in such a way that “everyone throughout the country says, ‘It happened of its own accord’ (tzu-jan).”
- “Taoism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
- John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).