Tao (道, Pinyin Dào ) is a metaphysical concept found in Taoism, Confucianism, and more generally in ancient Chinese philosophy. While the character itself translates as "way," "path," or "route," or sometimes more loosely as "doctrine" or "principle," it is used philosophically to signify the fundamental or true nature of the world. The concept of Tao differs from conventional (western) ontology, however; it is an active and holistic conception of the world, rather than a static, atomistic one.
In Taoism, Tao both precedes and encompasses the universe. As with other nondualistic philosophies, all the observable objects in the world - referred to in the Tao Te Ching as 'the named' or 'the ten thousand things' - are considered to be manifestations of Tao, and can only operate within the boundaries of Tao. Tao is, by contrast, often referred to as 'the nameless', because neither it nor its principles can ever be adequately expressed in words. It is conceived, for example, with neither shape nor form, as simultaneously perfectly still and constantly moving, as both larger than the largest thing and smaller than the smallest, because the words that describe shape, movement, size, or other qualities always create dichotomies, and Tao is always a unity.
While the Tao cannot be expressed, Taoism holds that it can be known, and its principles can be followed. Much of Taoist writing focusses on the value of following the Tao - called Te (virtue) - and of the ultimate uselessness of trying to understand or control Tao outright. This is often expressed through yin and yang arguments, where every action creates a counter-action as a natural, unavoidable movement within manifestations of the Tao.
Tao is often compared to water: clear, colorless, unremarkable, yet all beings depend on it for life, and even the hardest stone cannot stand in its way forever.
There was something undefined and complete, existing before Heaven and Earth. How still it was, how formless, standing alone and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere with no danger of being exhausted. It may be regarded as the mother of all things. Truthfully it has no name, but I call it Tao (TTC, chapter 25)However, there are characteristics of Tao that are commonly noted and used to describe its functioning, particularly as guidelines for practicing te.Tao is undifferentiated:All distinctions are actually relative comparisons bound together by their mutual reference. Thus (chapter 2) there is no such thing as 'long' except by comparison to 'short' and vice-versa; there is no such thing as 'being' except by comparison to 'non-being'. Because Tao itself has no shape or size, all comparisons fall within it, so there can never be 'real' differences. Often this is used to suggest a neutral, giving attitude - see TTC chapter 49.Tao returns:"Return" is a complex concept: in one sense it is similar to 'nature abhors a vacuum' - "That with no substance enters there with no space" (TTC chapter 43); in another it reflects the natural cycles of the world (changing of the seasons, births of new generations); in yet a third it implies the natural return to quiescence that is the end result of all action (TTC chapter 14). This concept is often used to argue against forceful action, on the grounds that Tao (and its manifestations) will flow back, circumvent, and eventually undo any attempts to force it into a particular path.Tao is subtle and quiet:The most important aspects of Tao are its unremarkable, unnoticed, everyday workings - "the softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest" (TTC chapter 43). Many places in the Tao Te Ching point out that dramatic, enticing or noteworthy events may catch the eye and assume significance, but that it is the slow, slight, unobserved and continuous movement of the manifestations of Tao that actually accomplish things. In this context, practitioners are cautioned to be unobtrusive, undemanding, and unsophisticated in their actions, and to know when to let go so that the unseen workings of Tao can carry the act to its completion.Tao is simultaneously dispassionate and nurturing:Because all beings are manifestations of Tao, Tao - by definition - gives of itself wholly and completely to each. But by the same token, Tao is indifferent to the disposition of mere manifestations. Birth and death and life itself, from the perspective of Tao, are only movements and transformations of form. This is often used to suggest selflessness and detachment to practitioners; compare with the Buddhist notion of anatta (no-self).
In terms of western philosophy, the concept of Tao would be considered immanent, but it is a universal immanence that has no strict comparison to the normal (western) use of the term. There is nothing transcendent about Tao, no part of it that is separate from the universe itself except to the extent that Tao precedes the creation of everything. Tao is similar to the notion of karma found in Dharmic faiths, but where karma is usually used as an incitement to acknowledge responsibility for the results of one's actions, Tao has the opposite place: only it completes actions, and our responsibilities lie in understanding and conforming to its nature.
In religious Taoism, Tao is understood in terms of these constituents: Jing 精 corresponding to energy; Qi 氣 or flow of energy; and Shen 神 or the Spirit. The triad Jing Qi Shen 精氣神 constitutes the Tao of all that is, and are represented as deities in the Three Pure Ones.
The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much and give to those who do not have enough. Man’s way is different. He takes from those who do not have enough to give to those who already have too much. (verse 77. Tr. Gia Fu Feng)and it consistently suggests that it is beneficial to cease trying to force the world into a given form and let the natural process of the Tao manage things:
Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao, counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe. For this would only cause resistance. Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed. Lean years follow in the wake of war. Just do what needs to be done. Never take advantage of power… Force is followed by loss of strength. This is not the way of Tao. That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end. (verse 30. tr. Gia Fu Feng)
Tao abides in non-action yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act they would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form there is no desire. Without desire there is tranquillity. And in this way all things would be at peace. (verse 37. tr. Gia Fu Feng)
It is useful to note that in taoist thought, Te (virtue) is not a property of people or a quality to be attained, the way that virtue is often conceived of in Western thought. Virtue is instead the natural state of Tao:
All things arise from Tao. They are nourished by Virtue. They are formed from matter. They are shaped by environment. Thus the ten thousand things all respect Tao and honour Virtue. Respect of Tao and honour of Virtue are not demanded. But they are in the nature of things. Therefore all things arise from Tao. By Virtue they are nourished, developed, cared for, sheltered, comforted, grown and protected. Creating without claiming; doing without taking credit; guiding without interfering - this is Primal Virtue. (verse 51. tr. ibid )It is not achieved through action or intent, but by allowing it to be supplied.
Any understanding the concept of Tao is complicated by the age of the philosophy, and the myriad problems that causes in translating and interpreting the text. There are over 100 translations of the work into English alone, with significant differences in emphasis, insight, and even the basic structure of the document. What is known is that current version is significantly shorter than the original document, that the original document was structured in longer passages than the 81 short chapters conventionally used, and that commentary by later users has been blended with the original text. This can be seen even in the famous first lines of the text:
tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao
ming k'o ming fei ch'ang ming
First, the recently discovered Mawang Dui text suggests that that the character "ch'ang" ('constant' or 'unchanging') was initially the character "heng" ('eternal'). The change is thought to have been made for political reasons: 'heng' was the name of an intermediate emperor, and using an emperor's name in other contexts was prohibited. Further, characters in Chinese often have multiple semi-related meanings which can only be distinguished in context. Tao, as noted above, can be translated as 'way', 'path', 'doctrine', 'principle', and etc. However, the text itself is elliptical and enigmatic making proper context difficult to determine. Translated literally, the above passage reads something like:
Way wayed not eternal/unchanging way
Name named not eternal/unchanging name
Translators, thus, are forced beyond simple translation into interpretation, if only to create sentences that sound correct in English. Add that the original text clearly had strong political and social elements, while most modern interpreters are primarily interested in the spiritual and metaphysical aspects, and the opaqueness of the concept becomes understandable.
Discussion of the metaphysical aspects of Tao are largely confined to its first book - generally taken to be the first 37 chapters - and vary between lyric depictions of tao as ineffable and indescribable, and encouragements to approach the tao through observation and emulation rather than description or any intellectual formulation. See, for instance, chapter 15 which says (Mitchell translation):
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
and chapter 25
The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.