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Tao: The Pathless Way

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Although there are hundreds of deities in the Taoist pantheon, with Tai-shang Lao-chun -- the deified Laozi -- at the top, Taoism’s ultimate principle, named as Tao, is decidedly non-theistic, pointing to a realm beyond any specific form.

The literal translation of Tao is “way” or “path.” It is associated with a life of simplicity, quietude and harmony, both in relation to the natural world, as well as in our interactions with social/political institutions. Being a man or woman “of the Tao” means being attuned to cycles of change; being consciously aware of our place within the web of Life; and acting in the world according to the principles of wu wei – naturalness, ease and spontaneity.

Taoist Cosmology

In terms of Taoist cosmology, Tao is the realm that is the source of “the 10,000 things,” i.e. all of manifestation, though itself is transcendent of any particular “thing.” To have experiential access to the Tao, in a stable and continuous way - a feat achieved in large part through the practice of Inner Alchemy - is to be an Immortal, a Buddha, an Awakened One.

Tao In Relation to Other Spiritual Traditions

What “Tao” points to is similar to what “Buddha” or “Buddha-nature,” or “Dharmakaya,” or “Primordial Wisdom” points to in Buddhism; what “God” points to in (contemplative forms of) Christianity; what “Self” or “Pure Consciousness” points to in Advaita Vedanta; what “Brahman” points to in Hinduism; and what “Allah” points to in Islam and Sufism.

Contemporary Usage

In contemporary usage, to say “the Tao of {insert here pretty much anything you like: physics, golfing, tea, Pooh}” implies a way of “doing” that is infused with something beyond our usual egoic patterns – a source of greater power, ease or inspiration. It is being “in the groove” or “in the zone” – a conduit for spiritual energy.

Wei Wu Wei, one of the most profound and innovative 20th-century interpreters of Taoism and Buddhism, has this to say about Tao, in his amazing little book, “All Else Is Bondage”:

Tao, the pathless Way, has a gateless Gate which, just as the Equator separates the Northern from the Southern hemisphere, illusorily separates and unites the phenomenal and the noumenal, samsara and nirvana. It is the open road of escape from solitary confinement in the dungeon of individuality. It is the way of reintegration in this-which-we-are, and it is pure as-it-isness.
Suggested reading: Wei Wu Wei. All Else Is Bondage. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. Compare Prices
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