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The Subtlety of Water

"One who would know the way must first observe the subtlety of water." Thus begins Taoist wisdom. Taoism is an ancient and living religious philosophy from China. It is a tradition that is both mystical and practical, truthful and obscure. Today I would like to share some of the wisdom of this religious philosophy and acknowledge that I do not know very much about it.

In truth, being ignorant about Taoism is not a fatal flaw. The first words in the Tao te ching, the classic text on Taoism, are "The way that can be spoken is not the true way." By this is meant that the tao, the way of Taoism, is not something that can be completely defined.

This is a somewhat mystical turn of phrase but I understand this on a certain level. In my first ministry I gave a sermon in which I mentioned God. At the coffee hour after the service one of my congregants made his way to me. He was a Humanist and had no use for the word "God." He walked up to me and asked, "What do you mean by the word, ‘God?'" I told him that if I could define God then it wouldn't be God. He left confused. "The way that can be named is not the true way."

This is only the beginning of Taoist thinking. Taoism arose in China about twenty-five hundred years ago. It really became established in the writings of a man named Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu was a philosopher, state archivist and contemporary of the another Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Legend tells that Lao-tzu was a follower of Confucius who became disillusioned with Confucian wisdom and sought a form of religion more in tune with the natural world. Lao-tzu wrote down the religious ideas he received from observing nature in his book, the Tao te ching, loosely translated as "the way and virtue."

Lao-tzu's beliefs spread throughout China at almost the same pace as Confucian philosophy and soon they competed in the forum of ideas. In China four native religions coexist with each other, intermingling and sharing, and, in some cases competing for the minds of people. Those four native religions are Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and animism. Animism is a belief in spirits, ancestor worship, a multitude of deities. If truth were told and one had to label the most commonly found religion in China, that religion would not be the other three that Westerners hear the most about. The most common religion in China is animism with an overlay of the other religious philosophies.

In a sense, the three dominant religious philosophies of China answer different issues. Buddhism seeks to transcend the world. Confucianism seeks to succeed in the world. Taoism seeks to accept the world. Because these views are not necessarily contradictory, individuals tend to turn from one religious view to another, all the while lighting candles or burning incense to the goddess of luck or giving a gift to appease the spirit of a local river or mountain.

The religions of China do appeal to different sectors of society as well. Buddhism historically appealed to merchants. Confucianism appealed to merchants and those in the military and government. Taoism tended to be the religious philosophy of the peasantry. This is a generalization because all the religious philosophies of China overlapped and were interwoven—and they all transcended class barriers. There was, however, only one Chinese emperor who was clearly a Taoist, and he did not last very long on the throne.

So, what is it that Taoists believe? Taoists believe that the natural world is the ultimate revelation of reality. Taoists believe that the natural world reveals polarities of existence and that happiness requires acceptance of these polarities of existence. The polarities of existence are most familiarly represented in the most common Taoist symbol, the yin and the yang, that divided circle of white and black with a spot of white in the black part and a spot of black in the white part. For the Taoists, this yin and yang represents negative and positive energy, the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the good and the evil, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even represented in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland. To the Taoists, this yin and yang, positive and negative represent the natural forces of the universe.

The belief in opposite and equal forces in the universe competing and also being part of the other brings to mind questions of ultimate reality. One of which asks the same of every religious belief namely; How many Taoists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw in the bulb. One not to screw in the bulb.

Taoism is a religious philosophy of coping with the balance of events in life. There is a commonly told story about a Taoist farmer which illustrates the yin and yang and how the Taoists feel about existence. One day the farmer's horse ran away. That evening the farmer's neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, "May be." The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, "May be." And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for his misfortune. He said, "May be." The day after that the conscription officers came to the village and impressed all the young men of the village into the imperial army, but because of his broken leg, the farmer's son was rejected. When the farmer's neighbors came out to say how fortunate everything had turned out, he said, "May be."

This illustrates the great virtue of Taoism: flexibility. Taoists believe that water reveals the way that life should be lived and accepted. Water is a substance which retains its essential integrity yet changes form often. Taoists point out that water is found in the form of liquid, solid and steam or humidity. Water can be mixed with many substances, yet retains its integrity. Now I know that some chemists will wish to argue this point or that, but the reality is that water permeates the surface of this planet. It conforms to the container it is placed in, if adequate in measure. It is present and necessary for all life forms here. Water is a substance which by itself is weak yet all the great mountains will eventually be eroded away by little drops of rain.

Lao tzu writes:

The highest good is like water,
for the good of water is that it nourishes everything without striving.

It occupies the lowest places.

It is thus that the way in the world
is like a river going down the valley to the ocean.

The most gentle thing in the world overrides the most hard.

How do coves and oceans become kings of a hundred rivers?

Because they are good at keeping low—

That is how they are kings of a hundred rivers.

Nothing in the world is weaker than water,

But it has no better in overcoming the hard.

This is the revelation of li, organic order. It is the way that the universe runs according to the Taoists. It is like chaos theory in that the universe does possess randomness. Darwinian Evolution, the belief that all life is derived from pre-existing life through mutation is a revelation of li. For different species to be created depends both upon external factors and random mutation. Random mutation means that something goes wrong or right in the reproductive process and that the result is either a beneficial change for a species or a detrimental one for the individual. Only time will tell. Taoism assumes that yin and yang, the positive and negative in the universe are only part of a dance. They also assume that despite our attempts to understand everything, chaos will always be a factor in existence. Taoism, accordingly, does not believe that the universe has a great purpose.


One of the elements of such a philosophy, I imagine, is that one can accept that in life there is triumph and tragedy, good and bad. For the Taoists, this means that the yin and yang force are in all things. Like the farmer whose neighbors exulted and mourned at his luck, there exists in every situation the possibility that good will come or that bad will also be present. This happens in very real ways in individual human lives. A woman makes a lot of money but the wealth isolates her from her old friends. A corporate executive loses his position and has to take a lesser-paying job. Because he works fewer hours though, he has the opportunity to spend more time with his family. The successful entertainer wins Grammy Awards but that success leads her into isolation and chemical dependency. Or, as Robin Williams once stated, "Cocaine is God's way of saying that you're making too much money."

In other words, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, Taoism suggests that the path of least resistance and attachment to outcomes is the only one which offers balance. This means that in all things is the presence of its opposite. Such a reality is lived out when people win the lottery. Suddenly someone is deluged with millions of dollars. That seems like outrageous good luck. Years ago I read an article about lottery winners. It might be imagined that with so much money that they would be happy. Just the opposite is true. Most lottery winners do not know what to do with their new-found riches and eighty-percent of them have to declare bankruptcy within ten years of winning. Almost all of the lottery winners in the article said that they wished that they had never won and that they could have their old lives back again. Taoists would say that this situation represented lives out of balance.

Taoism holds that such balance is as part of the universe as randomness and chaos. This is just the form that all things conform to. In a passage in the Tao te ching that sounds like something out of Star Wars, Lao-tzu writes:

The great way flows everywhere, to the left and to the right, all things depend upon it to exist, and it does not abandon them. To its accomplishment it lays no claim. It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them.

"But does not lord it over them"—this presents the other side of Taoism. Taoists believe in wu-wei, or inaction. Wu-wei is the ethical aspect of following Taoism. Wu-wei does not mean that someone does not work for a living or that one does not make decisions. Wu-wei is the belief that humans do not control reality. That means that Taoists surrender their egocentric notions that they are really in control of their destinies, that they can meld the universe to fit their needs. In Taoism, the ultimate delusion is that the individual believes that he or she master.

Taoists believe that weakness, with an awareness of humbleness, is actually strength. They believe that flexibility is more to be valued that hardness or steadfastness. This principle is often illustrated by the parable of the pine and the willow trees in heavy snow. The pine branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight of the snow; but the willow branch yields to the weight and the snow drops off. Note that the willow branch is not limp but springy. Wu-wei is thus using intelligence and wisdom to use the appropriate means to respond to existence.

Taoists believe that rules and regulations and great ideals are not the sign of progress as much as they are evidence of decay and degeneration.

Lao-tzu writes:

When the way was lost
there came ideas of humanity and justice.
When knowledge and cleverness arrived,
there came great deceptions.
When familial relations went out of harmony,
there came ideas of good parents and loyal children.
When the nations fell into disorder and misrule,
there came ideas of loyal bureaucrats.

In other words, our ideals often derive from their absence. There is some truth to this.

The ancient Roman philosophy of stoicism, which emphasized personal sacrifice for the common good, arose at a time when ancient Romans were becoming more and more selfish and unwilling to sacrifice personally for the empire.

Taoists also believe that the more that a government or person tries to control others, the more violent the rebellion will be against that control. The greater the freedom, the more the way will be expressed through balance and harmony. Yes, chaos will also ensue, but that is just a natural expression of the universe and is to be accepted as well.

As I reflect upon Taoism I remember a conversation that I had years ago with a friend from Hong Kong. I asked about Taoism in China. He told me that Taoism has a checkered reputation in China. Its belief in loose government put it at odds with almost every Chinese government in the nation's history. Taoism also has the reputation for sexual perversion in China, my friend told me. He grew up Southern Baptist so I sometimes wondered about his opinion on traditional China.

Remember that Chinese society believes in ordered roles for men and women and that includes preventing Western literature about gender roles from entering the country. Though I do not know if China still bans them, the complete works of William Shakespeare were censured for generations because they was considered too racy.

Taoism emphasizes the interplay of masculine and feminine, yin and yang, dancing in a cycle, constantly with each other and opposite. Yet, if just as a spot of the dark is within the light part then there is also a spot of the light within the dark. In every woman's nature there lives also the masculine. In every man's nature there lives also the feminine. For Taoists, balance in one's life and sexuality occurs only when one discovers the inner woman or inner man in one's nature. This means that Taoists in their faith and practice are less conforming to traditional gender roles and more affirming of alternative sexuality. Taoism is the only major world religious philosophy that places importance to the sexual pleasure of women as a mode of creating a better and balanced world. Sometimes it causes me to wonder if Lao-tzu was really a woman in disguise.

Today I have shared with you some of the many aspects of Taoism, the way. All that I said is wrong and incomplete. I do hope though that I have told closely about the nature of the universe, the way of life, the interaction of opposites and given an appropriate history of this religious philosophy. Taoism tells that the way that can be spoken is not the true way. I hope that I have not defined Taoism but rather touched it.

Today I would leave with these words of wisdom from the great Taoist philosopher, Chuang-tzu:

You are trying to pull yourself together, so don't listen with your ears but with your heart; you don't listen with your mind but with your spirit. Let hearing stop with the ears, and the mind stop at thinking. Then the spirit is a void embracing everything, and only the way includes the void. This void is the fasting of the heart.

May our connections enable us to listen to the balance within ourselves, with each other with our planet and with the universe. May we find the way of harmony and listen with our spirits to what the universe tells us. May we learn to apply that wisdom and live lives of true sacredness and extraordinary awareness.

So be it.



The Subtlety of Water
"We Remember What It
   Means to Be Irish"

Fear Itself
Lessons from the Edge
I'm Here to Recruit You
Child Dedication Service
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