Newsletter - January 2022
Four Principles of Taoism
Our minds like lists, especially numbered ones – at least, my mind does. Many religions provide us with numbered lists. Christianity has its ten commandments, Buddhism has an Eightfold Path and its Four Noble Truths, Hinduism has its Five Principles and Ten Disciplines. And Taoism often gets summarized into Four Principles.
In this newsletter, I’ll list these Four Principles and we’ll see how they’re rooted in the Tao Te Ching. Before we start, however, it’s worth noting that Lao Tzu never said “These are the four principles.” He also never said anything about “Taoism” as a religion, or as anything else for that matter. So with that disclaimer, as it were, let’s take a look at these four principles and see what their messages might be.
Simplicity, patience, compassion. (I know, you’re likely thinking that’s three things not one.)
Going with the flow
1. Simplicity, patience, compassion. “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures” (chapter 67). “The simplest pattern is the clearest” (chapter 65). “In thinking, keep to the simple” (chapter 8). “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” (chapter 15). “The Master views the parts with compassion, because he understands the whole” (chapter 39). I think the message is that we’re the ones who create needless complexity, and become impatient when the world does not meet our desires or expectations. In the same vein, compassion is responding to the world where it’s coming from, not from wherever it is that we happen to be coming from.
2. Going with the flow. “All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea” (chapter 32). “The great Tao flows everywhere” (chapter 34). “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” (chapter 48). Note, this is not to suggest we should “do nothing.” It’s a reference to the concept of wu wei, also called uncontrived action, or effortless action, or action which does not interfere with the natural unfolding of the Tao. It’s what happens when we allow our actions to be centered in the timeless flow of the Tao, rather than centered in ourselves and our desires of the moment.
3. Letting go. “Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled” (chapter 7). “Let go of fixed plans and concepts” (chapter 57). “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to” (chapter 74). “If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go” (chapter 24). “Nothing is impossible for him. Because he has let go, he can care for the people’s welfare as a mother cares for her child” (chapter 59). For me, the message is around listening, responding, and then letting go – rather than trying to force fit our idea of what we think the world “should” look like. In particular, it’s when we let go of our self that we discover we’re “perfectly fulfilled.”
4. Harmony. “In harmony with the Tao, the sky is clear and spacious, the earth is solid and full, all creatures flourish together” (chapter 39). “If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony” (chapter 32). “She who is centered in the Tao can go where she wishes, without danger. She perceives the universal harmony, even amid great pain, because she has found peace in her heart” (chapter 35). “He who is in harmony with the Tao is like a newborn child” (chapter 55). I think the message here is that harmony is the natural order of things, and it is chasing our desires that typically upsets the balance.
So, our quick review of the “four principles of Taoism” shows they can all be rooted in the Tao Te Ching. Hopefully, this review has been interesting. But now I’ll ask the tough question. So what? Was this just an academic exercise? Or can we use what we’ve just done here to make a practical difference to how we live our everyday lives? I’d like to think the answers are no and yes. Perhaps we can even use the four principles as we head into a new year.
Personally, I don’t think the numbers matter too much. At the start of this newsletter I referred to different religions having ten commandments, or an eightfold path, or five principles, or four noble truths. If we want three of something then there’s a Trinity, two of something then there’s a yin and yang, one of something then there’s the Tao. And I mean this with no disrespect. However, in every case, I don’t think it matters how many things there are – what matters is how we let them affect us.
So, how do we let the “four principles of Taoism” affect us? Here’s my answer. I would guess that for most of us the journey of our life has twists and turns along the way. At times, we may feel we know where we are and where we’re going. At other times, we may feel we’ve hit a roadblock or may feel totally lost. It’s when we feel lost, or uncertain, or simply wanting some guidance, that lists of principles or commandments come in handy. They’re there all the time, of course, but we tend not to reach for them when things are going well.
In this respect, perhaps short lists are like compasses which remind us where north is, and longer lists simply have more detail like road signs and guide posts. Some religions even have very long lists which will step you through every day of the calendar year. For me, these “four principles of Taoism” are at a useful level of detail – not too little and not too much. They’re handy when you’re lost. They’re also handy when you want to check whatever you have in mind before you start on some course of action. If I had to pick just one of these four principles, I’d pick “simplicity, patience, compassion.”
Is there a list of principles or truths that works for you? If you hit a bumpy patch on your journey, what do you turn to for guidance? As we start a new year, do you think it's useful to have a list that reminds where to look if needed?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)