Taoism, Minus the Nonsense
A beautiful ontology, brilliant semiotics, and practical ethics. Also sex magic.
Minus the Nonsense is a series on valuable ideas that have been tainted by magical thinking. We’ll try to distill the good parts—the parts compatible with a scientific worldview—from the woo. Past subjects include Jungian Psychology. Future subjects will include Karma, Panpsychism, and Enlightenment.
Taoism is a cornerstone of Eastern philosophy. Its founder, Laozi, holds a role analogous to Socrates or Aristotle; texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi show a sophisticated understanding of how language, culture, and reality intertwine.
But much like the (roughly contemporaneous) ideas of Greek philosophy, Taoism grew out of an enchanted worldview. Over two millennia it has evolved into a strange mixture of philosophy, cosmology, alchemy, meditation, sex magic, and alternative medicine. The New Age movement’s adoption and distortion of Taoist ideas only complicates the situation.
Much like Christianity, contemporary Taoism bears only a surface-level resemblance to its foundational texts. Let’s see what we can learn by looking at the source.
This essay participates in a hallowed Western tradition: appropriating Eastern religious concepts. My goal isn’t to educate the reader about Taoism, but to point to interesting ideas using Taoism as a lens. In the process, I’m going divorce some of its deepest insights from their cultural and historical context. Take this as a preemptive apology to any practicing Taoists or Taoist scholars out there.
The Eternal Tao
The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.
—Opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, as rendered1 by Ursula K. Le Guin
Tao sits at the root of the Taoist universe. Though it’s often translated as “way”, there’s no English equivalent—even in Chinese it has a variety of meanings. For now, it’s best to let this word sit vacuous, devoid of a referent. Better to infer its meaning through exposure.
This is a common practice in Taoist discourse. The philosophers call these goblet words, named after a wine vessel which tips over when full, and stands upright when empty. Attaching a single concrete meaning to any word is an easy way to get lost when reading Taoist texts.
Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?
—the Zhuangzi, as translated by Burton Watson
For Western students of philosophy, this is jarring, even offensive—we expect philosophers to define their terms with rigor, ideally by putting a glossary in the first chapter. But Taoist philosophy looks and feels more like poetry or fiction, where double meanings and ambiguity serve rather than detract from the author’s intentions.
It’d be a mistake to dismiss Taoism because it doesn’t play by our rules. The Taoists are deeply skeptical of language and attuned to its inadequacies—it should be no surprise to find this ambivalence reflected in their style of communication.
And as the verse above states, the inadequacy of language is particularly severe when it comes to Tao.
Nothing can be said about the Tao. The second you attach a description to it, you’ve left something out. If you call it big, you deny its smallness; if you call it important, you deny its triviality2.
If this seems evasive, I like to translate the verse above as:
Nothing can be said about everything.
This formulation is a little easier to swallow—sentences like “everything is big” or “everything is important” are plainly false.
“Everything” is a pretty poor translation of Tao though. Tao is is more like a verb-y version of “everything”, the all-process. My favorite image of Tao is the Hamiltonian of the universe3.
But again, treat Tao as a goblet word. Know that it sits at the root of Taoist ontology and let its exact definition remain vague. If you start to feel like you have a solid understanding of what Tao is, shake your head and empty your cup.
Yin and Yang
So nothing can be said about everything. Should we leave it at that?
A Taoist master would probably say yes, toss their copy of the Tao Te Ching in a lake, and admire its sinking with meditative absorption. But we have to contend with mundane reality, with “the ten thousand things” that appear around us. And fortunately Taoism offers a framework for doing so.
Taoism grants us a foothold by cutting Tao in half.
Taoism splits the universe into yin and yang. I could give you typical translations of these words, but once again it’s better to leave them vacuous, and to intuit their meanings through exposure.
Heaven [yang] and earth [yin]4
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.
—Second stanza of the Tao Te Ching
Every concept is divided into one of these two categories, usually in pairs of opposites. Light is yang and darkness is yin; activity is yang and passivity is yin; up is yang and down is yin; odd numbers are yang and evens are yin; the sun is yang and the moon is yin.
(Importantly, masculinity is yang while femininity is yin. We’ll talk about the implications of this below, and how feminists like Le Guin handled it. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a fun mnemonic: if you struggle to remember which is yin and which is yang, I like to note that yang rhymes with “wang” or “dong”, depending how you say it.)
Dividing the ineffable Tao into yin and yang gives us conceptual categories we can work with. In contrast with Tao, yin and yang are hyper-describable.
The great insight of Taoism is that the division of Tao into yin and yang is not real. It’s useful, but it’s a useful fiction.
By extension, this applies to every concept, to all ten thousand things.
We use words like “light” and “masculine” and “up” with the sense that they exist in some tangible, separate sense. But none of these yang words can exist without its yin partner. There can’t be “up” without “down” or “light” without “dark”; if there weren’t any men, we wouldn’t just be a single-sex species—we’d be sexless. There’d be no need to distinguish “woman” from “person”.
Everybody on earth knowing
that beauty is beautiful
that goodness is good
For being and non-being
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short
shape each other;
high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make the music together;
before and after
follow each other.
—Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching
What exists out there, independent of humanity and its concepts, is a continuum, an undifferentiated whole. With words, we cut the continuum in half and name both ends differently, giving us the sense that they’re separate. “Name is the mother of the ten thousand things.”
But we’re not actually cutting anything. The words delude us into thinking one thing is actually two.
…the sage debates but does not discriminate. So those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see...If the Way is made clear, it is not the Way. If discriminations are put into words, they do not suffice.
But there’s an even deeper sense of non-duality in Taoism: things not only pair with their opposite—they contain their opposite. Le Guin calls this “one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe.”
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
—Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching
The interplay of yin and yang in all things is integral to the Taoist worldview. So much so that it’s encoded in Taoism’s most recognizable symbol: the yin-yang pictured above. The yin koi has a yang eye, and vice versa—the opposites not only stand side by side, they’re intermixed.
The easiest way for me to illustrate this is through gender.
As noted above, Taoism puts masculinity in the yang (wang!) bucket, and femininity in the yin bucket. A facile reading of this is flatly sexist—it literally labels men as superior and women as inferior. But with a full understanding of non-duality, we get a picture much closer to contemporary gender attitudes.
Throughout Taoist literature, it’s made clear that every person has both yin and yang aspects. The highest goal is to balance these two energies. Mature men and women are neither yin nor yang—they hold the two in balance. The enlightened Taoist is gender-fluid5.
We might say that immature men tend to be yang-heavy, and immature women yin-heavy. This isn’t always the case—there are plenty of tomboys and effeminate men who buck the trend. But no matter how stereotypically feminine or masculine a person is, the great insight of Taoism is that they’re still connected to the opposing force, and capable of moving towards balance.
And according to Taoism, that’s exactly what we should be doing.
Get out of the Wei
There’s a paradox at the heart of most religions. According to Christianity, people are created by a perfect God, but they’re inclined to sin; in Buddhism all beings have Buddha-nature, but they’re inclined toward ignorance. Nature is perfect, but somehow humanity—a product of nature—mars the perfection.
Taoism is no different. The Tao itself is eternal and unperturbed, but people, places, and even whole nations can “fall out” of the Tao—usually by becoming fixated on some particular ideal or goal.
In the degradation of the great way
come benevolence and righteousness.
With the exaltation of learning and prudence
comes immense hypocrisy.
The disordered family
is full of dutiful children and parents.
The disordered society
is full of loyal patriots.
—Chapter 18 of the Tao Te Ching
When we become wildly imbalanced towards one side of yin and yang—usually towards yang—we invite disaster. Much of the Tao Te Ching encourages us to embrace yin.
Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.
Right words sound wrong.
—Chapter 78 of the Tao Te Ching
Tao itself is often analogized with water or a river. I like to picture something that’s fallen “out” of the Tao as an eddy in that river—a disturbance which causes the water to break from the current, or even to push momentarily upstream.
Given how easy it is to lose the Tao, and how disastrous the consequences are, Taoist texts are full of advice on how to stay on the path.
Taoist morality doesn’t resemble that of a typical religion, in that it doesn’t really outlaw or promote specific behaviors—it seems assumed that good behavior will follow naturally from aligning with the Tao. But there are a few core values, like simple living (pu), spontaneity (ziran), and effortlessness (wu wei).
This last one is particularly important, given how frequently we lose ourselves in yang striving.
Over and over Lao Tzu says wei wu wei: Do not do. Doing not-doing. To act without acting. Action by inaction. You do nothing, yet it gets done…
It’s not a statement susceptible to logical interpretation, or even to a syntactical translation into English; but it’s a concept that transforms thought radically, that changes minds. The whole book is both an explanation and a demonstration of it.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, commentary on the Tao Te Ching
I can’t help but start this section off with the Zhuangzi. This book is delightfully, deliberately absurd. Master Zhuang’s closest Western relative is probably Lewis Carroll. Here’s a sample:
There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.
The book is full of nonsense and wordplay. It’s wildly entertaining even in English, where I’m sure half the humor is missing. But much like Carroll’s work, its whimsy shouldn’t mislead us into thinking it’s trivial—the book demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of philosophy.
You’re probably familiar with this parable:
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he were Zhuang Zhou who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly, there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.
While the Zhuangzi is full of magic and wonder, it’s clear that the author is using nonsense to make a point.
Qi is literally translated as “breath”, but represents something more fundamental—a flow of vital energy through the body. It’s been analogized with the Hindu concept of prana and (with a bit more of a stretch) the Christian concept of Holy Spirit.
This is the best way I can define my own understanding of qi: the common factor underlying the activity of your respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems.
There’s no place for qi in Western medicine, and it’s widely seen as pseudoscience. This hasn’t stopped some from trying to “prove” its existence.
To some degree, this is a semantic problem—what a qigong expert might point to as qi, his physician will call his pulse or tingling digital nerves. Qi stands for a wide range of body rhythms which Western medicine has developed a detailed taxonomy for. And the Western taxonomy is much better at curing illness.
That said, the subjective, felt presence of qi is undeniable—qi-like sensations have been reported by contemplatives from a wide range of cultures. And while medical professionals might not have much use for them, the skillful manipulation of those sensations can create a deeper sense of well-being and alleviate depression.
So while we shouldn’t treat qi as objectively real, it can be a useful concept. A goblet word, if you will.
Taoist medicine developed a vast, intricate system for discussing and improving physical health. It resembles some early prototypes of Western medicine, including the Ancient Greek concept of the four humors. Major concepts include hun and po (the yang and yin elements in the body) and the meridians of acupuncture (which are channels for the flow of qi).
While Taoist medical concepts certainly led to a lot of nutty superstitions and behaviors (as we’ll see below), they mostly focus on things like breathing exercises, diet, and physical movement. Taken as a supplement to—and not a replacement for—Western medicine, Taoist medicine is probably mostly harmless.
Externally, the goal was the same as in Europe: to synthesize gold from base metals. The Taoists believed that eating this gold would confer immortality. The methodology was similar too: a highly esoteric set of instructions for burning, distilling, and condensing various substances, transmitted via an oral tradition and obscurantist texts.
Internal alchemy was focused on the proper circulation of qi, with the goal of prolonging life, or ensuring an eternal life after death. It mainly consists of breathing and meditation exercises, which many still find helpful today6.
Over millennia, Taoist masters have become wrapped in mythos. Laozi is said to have become immortal or a god.
Both the Zhuangzi and the Liezi (a lesser-known, but foundational Taoist text) mention xian, humans who have superpowers or immortality. They seem to use xian in a metaphorical way, but later texts begin to take the idea literally. One claims that the author of the Liezi “could ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill”; another xian supposedly rides a flying dragon.
There’s an implication that any student who trains hard enough can become a xian and attain these powers. Big if true.
One of the strangest branches of Taoist medicine is focused on sex. It’s easy to see why heterosexual sex is an important symbol for Taoists: it’s a literal joining of yin and yang, a reuniting of heaven and earth.
It’s thought that sex is a way to transmute jing into qi, thereby restoring your life force. Methods vary—there’s a focus on semen retention, but some see retrograde ejaculation as nourishing. Some texts describe sex as symbiotic; others as a battle between man and woman, with a lot of fretting about how to retain your own power while absorbing your partner’s (a common tactic is to selfishly make your partner orgasm before you do).
Unsurprisingly, things got out of hand—as we like to say here, mixing sex and religion is dangerous. Some Taoist authors refer to their multiple female partners as cooking vessels, or even “the enemy”. One major text recommends sleeping with many virgins, particularly premenstrual 14-year-olds, as a way of attaining immortality.
I hope we can all agree this is nonsense.
The Way You Can Go
The truth is one and the same everywhere and I must say that Taoism is one of the most perfect formulations of it I ever became acquainted with.
—C. G. Jung
Taoism’s power lies in its skeptical attitude towards reason and language. It understands precisely what gets lost when we carve up the world into discrete, nameable chunks.
But then it proceeded to carve up the world and get lost in the chunks.
We should doubt any positive assertion made in the name of Taoism, whether it’s as simple as “the circulation of qi is important for health” or as ludicrous as “eating synthesized gold will make you immortal”. Even abstract notions like “the way you can go isn’t the real way” should be met with suspicion.
Doing so doesn’t weaken Taoism—it merely takes Taoism on its own terms.
When it comes to concrete problems of morality, logic, or health, we should lean on purpose-built models. Even in fields like semiotics or epistemology, where Taoism has made large contributions, we should fall back to domain-specific philosophies.
Taoism is best seen as a meta-philosophy. It can’t give us any concrete answers, and the answers it does give are—by its own rules—vague and untrustworthy. But it can help us escape from the narrow-mindedness that always comes with specialization. Taoism shows us, over and over, that every useful system of thought is blind to at least half the world.
Taoism won’t help you prevent cancer or change your oil. But it can help you move through life with grace and spontaneity. The moment we become too invested in one line of thinking, or begin to feel certain that we’ve uncovered the capital-t Truth, Taoism reminds us:
Empty your cup.
To call Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching a translation would be misleading—she knew little Chinese. But Le Guin has an uncommon intuition for Taoist philosophy and her work has been praised by Taoist scholars. For the interested, her rendition contains diligent notes about her sources and word choices.
See also Via Negativa, a Christian theological concept that’s incredibly similar to the first verse of the Tao Te Ching.
A Hamiltonian is a mathematical expression that encapsulates all the dynamics of a physical system. Once you’ve written down the Hamiltonian, you can plug it into some general purpose mathematical machinery and know precisely how the system will evolve over time.
With this image, the first verse can be rephrased as a physically meaningful (and plausible) assertion:
The Hamiltonian of the universe cannot be written down.
To be clear, yin and yang aren’t mentioned explicitly in this verse (they’re mentioned only once in the Tao Te Ching). But heaven and earth are a fundamental yang/yin pairing.
In a loose sense of the word “gender-fluid”, obviously. See also: the Animx in Jungian Psychology, Minus the Nonsense.