Taoist teachings had a profound effect on Chinese culture and society. Lao Tzu had written, “Let us have a small country with a few inhabitants,” so “Civilization was ridiculed as primitive and idealized . . . Travel was discouraged as pointless and conducive to idle curiosity” (Smith, 213-214). People strived to be at peace with nature as well as the community and built their temples in ways that helped them blend in with their environment, believing that “At best, human beings do likewise. Their highest achievement is to identify themselves with the Tao and let it work its magic through them” (213).
Chinese art reflected Taoist principles as well. Mountains symbolized grandeur of size and solitude, rivers portrayed stamina, flexibility, and motion. People – though they are not even in much of the pieces – are surrounded by nature while travelling their own journey.
Taoism also brought a bit of religious clash as well to China. Taoist literature often contains dialogues between Confucianists and Taoists that show the latter’s contempt for the former. In the stories, Confucianists “came off as stuffy and pompous” (217), and “the Taoist had small patience with the Confucian approach to them” (214).
The major difference between the two religions was methodology. Confucius present the people with ideal persons and personalities to mimic, admire and emulate, while Lao Tzu taught spontaneous magnanimity. The Taoists saw Confucianism as rigid, overly structured, and thus, superficial. According to Smith, the Taoist “preference for naturalness and simplicity . . . [that] most separated the Taoists from the Confucianists” (214).
“Confucius represents the classical, Lao Tzu the romantic. Confucius stresses social responsibility, Lao Tzu praises spontaneity and naturalness. Confucius’ focus is on the human, Lao Tzu’s on what transcends the human.” (218)
Such were the minor differences that caused a stir between the two schools of thought, but, Smith writes, they really “reflect each other like yin and yang themselves” (218).
Which brings us to the way Taoism has affected our society: the yin/yang symbol. The Taoist was averse to conflict of any kind, but there are obvious dichotomies in the world around us. Taoism moved past this and created a philosophy of reality consistent with their religious worldview. The result, the yin/yang, possesses all dichotomies of everyday life.
“This polarity sums up all of life’s basic oppositions: good/evil, active/passive, positive/negative, light/dark, summer/winter, male/female. But though the halves are in tension, they are not opposed; they complement and balance one another.” (214)
The yin/yang symbol doesn’t just exemplify the Taoist philosophy of reality, but it is believed that “Those who meditate on this profound symbol . . . will find that it affords better access to the world’s secrets than any length of words of discussions” (215). It reveals that “Life does not move onward or upward toward a fixed pinnacle or pole. It bends back upon itself to come, full circle, to the realization that all is one and all is well” (215)
The yin/yang symbol also says something of morality. Notice that “yin” is associated with what is good and male, and “yang” is associated with what is evil and female. According to Taoism, women and evil are on the same end of the spectrum of life, opposite and opposed to men and goodness.
But Smith clears up such a misunderstanding when he writes,
“In the Taoist perspective, even good and evil are not head-on opposites. The West has tended to dichotomize the two, but Taoists are less categorical . . . in the end both find themselves resolved by the circle that surrounds the, the Tao in its eternal wholeness.” (215)
Such a moral philosophy, however, is even more of a problem than the original I pointed out. How can good and evil be resolved as one eternal whole?
“Faithful to its importation, Taoism eschews all sharp dichotomies. No perspective in this relative world can be considered an absolute.” (215)
According to Taoism, then, good and evil are equals. They balance each other. Neither is “absolute,” meaning, really, than none is better than the other – good can’t really be “good” and evil can’t really be “evil,” because such labels would dichotomize, would absolutize the two. In the same way gender differences may be blurred over, and light can find fellowship with darkness. Life and death are “complementing cycles in the Tao’s rhythm” (216). Modern relativism is the result of Taoism’s yin/yang philosophy.
“All values and concepts, then, are ultimately relative to the mind that entertains them.” (215)
If that be the case, my values reject the ones developed by the mind that outlined such a logically (and morally) ridiculous philosophy.
Conclusions on Taoism
At a fundamental level, Taoism teaches that “anywhere, at every time, the Tao is within us” (218). Whether this realization leads to one seeking to expend it through Vitalizing Taoism, exploit it through Religious Taoism, or conserve it through Philosophical Taoism, it teaches that humility and spontaneity are the greatest goods in a world in which good and evil do not exist.
“Taoism spoke to life’s solemn, somber issues. Yet it always retained a quality of lightness verging on gaiety. There is a sophistication, an urbanity, a charm about the perspective that is infectious.” (217)
Yet for all this, it is only that – a perspective. It is a perspective that, by its own standard, can no more be determined true than the perspective that the sky is green or people ought to eat curdled milk three times a day. It is, in fact, merely another self-seeking, self-based, self-fulfilling belief that teaches life’s answers can be found within the self. I, personally, think it more likely a diet of month-old milk would be salubrious.