By Rachel Marie Mohr
In the fifteenth year of my life, a great wall of nothing crashed down on my lungs, and I decided to kill myself. I walked out of my high school, down the hill towards the country town below. It was an Oregon autumn, and cold rain slithered down my shoulder blades. I remember I wore boots that day, but the deep puddles penetrated to my frozen toes anyway.
Halfway through town, I paused in front of a café, the Harmony Bakery. It was established the same year I was born, a constant and familiar presence in my childhood. I battled between despair and hunger, and decided to step inside for a last meal. In a seat by the door, I shivered as water droplets rolled down over me to drip on the floor, stirred only by the periodic draft of the door opening.
And it was there, in that seat by the door, that I found the beginning of the thread of the Way, and I became a Taoist.
As in all aspects of human existence – politics, gender relations, and cultural values – the definition of “religion” is determined by the majority. Whether or not a particular idea or philosophy is recognized as a valid religion depends on its adherence to the generally-accepted model of faith. Approximately 75 percent of Earth’s six billion people are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish. Though these faiths differ (and often violently), they recognize one another as true “religions,” because they share a few common views: the existence of a deity (or deities) who watches over mankind with varying degrees of kindness, the notion of a supreme truth expressed by that deity, and the exclusive possession of supreme truth by that deity’s followers. This common chain of belief is shared by many faiths, however large or small, and each of its links seemingly lead into one another with natural logic for billions of people.
It is not surprising, then, that Taoism is often discounted by Western and Eastern thinkers alike as merely a moral philosophy, since it defies each of the three mandates above. Taoism is at once faith and anti-faith: parting company with the accepted classifications, it embraces a new meaning of “religion” — one without a specific deity, definable truth, or dogmatic belief.
Children of an Indifferent God
It took me three years to discover the name of my religion. I took a class on East Asian traditions, and spent half the semester learning Confucian principles. Then, in a little snippet at the end, we covered Taoism. I understand the reason for this class format: try explaining the concept of a religion without god, truth, or dogma to an audience of college students weaned on Christianity. (I tried it myself once, and met with overwhelming frustration.) But I read the Tao-Te Ching, and got the basics.
And the more I read, the more I recognized it in my own experience. Three years earlier, I had sat in a café and felt the presence of the thing my book told me was Tao. It enfolded me into everything else, and when I closed my eyes in class I imagined that I could feel the weariness of the student sitting next to me. Even the walls seemed familiar, curving around in a great circle until the entire lecture hall was an extension of my own mind.
The first break Taoism makes with the standard model of religion is the lack of an all-powerful creator of the world to whom prayers or offerings are directed. Christians pray to Jesus Christ, Islams to Allah, and in return for their devotion, the appeased god grants protection, comfort, and other forms of divine aid. This reciprocal relationship of worship and assistance can turn sour. Those who do not worship properly, who choose a different god, or who simply deny the existence of any god, incur wrath from the scorned holy being. The crucial points here are the granting of an individual personality and consciousness to the almighty spirit, and the degree of concern which that spirit shows for the affairs of man. Usually represented as a father or mother figure, the spirit creates the world and mankind as a personal project, and many followers of many religions claim to be the ‘children’ of a particular god, owing their god gratitude for life and livelihood.
Both Christians and Muslims assert that “salvation,” the concept of mankind’s rescue from the pain and uncertainty of their natural lives, can only be achieved via devotion to their respective gods. In the New Testament, the Gospel of John declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Qu’ran makes a similar assertion, saying, “If you are careful of your duty to Allah, he will grant you a distinction and do away with your evils and forgive you; and Allah is the lord of mighty grace.” From both of these quotations we can draw a clear understanding of the subservience man supposedly owes to the one true god, and the willingness of that god to grant benevolence if and when the proper veneration is received.
Taoism, on the other hand, makes no such claims. In fact, the Tao-Te Ching (the book upon which Taoism is based) disavows the existence of any caring, watchful figure to whom Taoists owe their obedience. This introduces a delicate point of separation between the two visions of the supposed Supreme Being: instead of a sentient guardian like Christ, Allah, the plethora of Hindu gods, or the Jewish Yahweh, Taoists believe in a kind of singular life force. Lao-Tzu calls this force “the Tao” (or “the Way”), a nebulous force without consciousness, personality, or even form, described in chapter 21 of the Tao-Te Ching: “As for the nature of Tao – it’s shapeless and formless.” Even the impersonal, non-human term, “it,” used to refer to the Tao, implies its lack of human definitions. In stark contrast to this, virtually all other religions create some physical manifestation of their supreme being, often represented visually by way of statues, drawings or paintings, such as that of the gray-bearded man on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Tao, however, eternally remains a blank cloud of uncertain dimensions and unknowable traits.
Just as its form is indistinct, so is its personality, or lack thereof. The Tao-Te Ching speaks of the Tao simply as energy which gives birth to everything, but which is also indifferent to all things: “Heaven and Earth are not humane. / They regard the ten thousand things [the entire world] as straw dogs.” One could hardly hope to have his prayers answered by such a supreme being. The Tao’s indifference should not be confused as coldness, however, as it simply has no consciousness, and did not set out to create the world, or mankind. Each of the things in the world simply came into existence of its own accord as natural products of the Tao’s boundless energy. Therefore, Taoism offers no recognizable Other, no celestial creature who provides aid in times of need.
Taoism’s lack of a specific celestial figure endowed with identifiable qualities creates a vacuum in the minds of Christians, Muslims, and other believers whose religions are ruled by an identifiable deity. They often equate Taoism with atheism, a disbelief or outright denial of the existence of God or gods. Since the common notion of God usually endows him or her with emotions, features, and even a human prefix, Taoists are atheists in the eyes of many and this casts doubt on the validity of Taoism as an actual religion. Atheism is typically represented as the opposing force of religion, denying all beliefs. However, I would contend that the general concept of god accepted by Christians and the like is too narrow. Atheists could by no means call themselves Taoists, after all: while the Tao is clearly not a typical god, it is also not the absence of a god. Taoism, therefore, embraces a “god” unlike any other.
A Believer in Doubt
I believe in faith, that it is essential to us. Without faith we all read the same page of text again and again. Alone, it is meaningless. But if we believe that our page is part of a larger book, then we imagine what came before, and what will come after our selection. And though we may never read those pages, this belief provides us with meaning.
I believe in doubt, and never insist that my views are absolutely correct. How can I? I haven’t read the whole book yet.
I believe in the co-existence of opposites.
Given that most religions believe in the existence of a sentient, concerned god, it follows that most also believe the deity in question has attempted to contact mankind. Theoretically, this is for the purpose of imparting the world’s meaning, for establishing a moral and behavioral code, and for setting guidelines for proper worship. Since these supreme beings are usually benevolent and willing to provide guidance, it makes sense for myths of heavenly communication to exist. Numerous religions possess a religious text or even multiple ones which they claim the Almighty instructed them to write. Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Apostles and the New Testament, Mohammed and the Qu’ran are all examples of divinely-inspired volumes upon which their respective faiths are based. The Supreme Being granted their texts, and thus they are accepted beyond question – every word is irrefutable, though their readers may be more or less free to argue about interpretations.
However, one thing that everyone in each of these religions can agree upon is the existence of ultimate truth, and the attainability of that truth via man’s strict adherence to the codes and worship of a particular god. Here, too, Taoism stands in the minority. Admittedly, Taoism is based upon a specific volume, the Tao-Te Ching. Because the Tao does not follow the typical celestial model, neither does the text of its adherents. Instead of resolutely claiming to transmit absolute truth as reported by a divine voice, the Tao-Te Ching provides the opinion of a single author (or authors) dubbed “Lao-Tzu” by subsequent generations. Lao-Tzu fully acknowledges the possibility of flaws and doubt within his own words – even the name “Tao” is an arbitrary title, as Lao-Tzu writes in chapter 25:
There was something formed out of chaos,
That was born before Heaven and Earth.
I do not yet know its name:
I “style” it “Tao.”
Why this admission of doubt? Most religious texts seek to eliminate ambiguity in an effort to promote unity and reassure their followers with absolutism. After all, it’s difficult to trust one’s spiritual self to a doctrine of uncertainty. But that is exactly what Taoism thrives upon. Lao-Tzu’s central contention is the inability of man to perceive truth in its entirety. The minds of men are flawed, he explains, bound to false perceptions and unable to see past the opposing distinctions that define our existence to the Infinite Tao, and the truth it holds.
We look at it but do not see it;
We name this “the minute.”
We listen to it but do not hear it;
We name this “the rarefied.”
We touch it but do not hold it;
We name this “the level and smooth.”
These three cannot be examined to the limit.
Therefore, ultimate truth does exist under Taoism, though it remains unattainable by man. Unlike most other religions, which demand complete and unquestioning belief of its followers, Taoism asks us to simultaneously believe in the teachings of Lao-Tzu and to accept and embrace the possibility of doubt. Taoism does not, however, deny the existence of ultimate truth, which sharply distinguishes it from atheism and non-religion. Under Taoism, this truth can only be found through communion with the Tao, that nebulous non-sentient god which lives in all things. This belief separates Taoism from moral philosophies, like that of Socrates, which seek truth through thought and reason.
The entirety of Lao-Tzu’s work, then, can be read as what it is: the record of one mortal man attempting to explain his beliefs. It does not claim to be the physical realization of the world’s meaning, but only a suggestion of how to start down the path towards that goal.
Faith Without Dogma
I made a movie recently in my film class. It was about that day, when I was fifteen. I thought I was ready, that enough time had passed for me to speak of it objectively. I was wrong. It tore my heart open again, and sent me wandering through the streets of Los Angeles at night.
My movie asked for a reason, a simple, concrete reason for my continued life. I thought I could find one, thought I could put it on tape and save it for my own memory. So for six months I turned myself inside out, traced the ends of all my veins and nerve endings, but to no avail.
And then I remembered that Lao-Tzu teaches us that Truth is unknowable. I do not know the reasons for my own life, and I will not, until I die.
In the dictionary “dogma” is considered interchangeable with “faith.” This definition shows just how closely the majority of religious beliefs are bound to exclusivity and segregation. The First Commandment declares “I am the lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me… for I, the lord thy God, am a jealous god.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is recorded as calling his father “the only true god.” The Qu’ran submits its own claim for sole possession of truth in one of the Four Pillars of Islam: there is only one god and Mohammed is his prophet. Most people across the globe believe that their respective religion is absolutely right and that everyone else’s is absolutely wrong. Those who happen to choose a ‘wrong’ religion reject ‘the one true god’ and are condemned to various spiritual punishments such as Hell, which is conceptualized in many forms by various religions.
There is no Hell in Taoism. Whether the readers of Tao-Te Ching choose to agree with Lao-Tzu is a matter of personal choice: Lao-Tzu warns of the difficulties and pains a non-Taoist life can inflict upon oneself and upon the world, but he makes no mention of eternal damnation or of a revenge enacted upon non-believers. Here, then, is the ultimate departure from the accepted formula of religious conviction and the chief point which leads most people to discount Taoism as a “real” religion. By believing in the relativity of truth, perception, and the entire world as I described above, Taoism essentially declares that every idea produced by mankind, including Taoism itself, is subject to our limited perceptions and is therefore probably flawed in some sense. The inability of man to comprehend the ultimate truth simultaneously invalidates and re-validates all religious views, since Taoism is counted among human thought and is therefore somehow imperfect. Lao-Tzu teaches that there is neither a deliberate god nor determined truth transmitted from that god, and that since Taoism lacks the supposed blessing of a higher power to corroborate its views, it can hardly claim that anyone else’s religion is entirely inaccurate. Without the claim of exclusive validation from a supreme being, Taoism is labeled by many as a “moral philosophy,” not as a religion.
But why should faith require dogma? Why must we live in a world of such rigid, inflexible dichotomy, declaring arbitrarily that anything not “right” must be “wrong,” that anything not “absolute truth” must be “absolute lies?” This kind of thinking belongs to the majority, to the approximate 75 percent of believers who determinedly claim sole ownership of truth. The Tao-Te Ching alleges no unique heavenly author who wrote only the Tao-Te Ching and who scorns all other holy documents. Taoism never brands non-believers “infidels” or “sinners,” or speaks of punishment for those who do not follow the Tao. In other words, Taoists never claim to be absolutely “right.” In the ferocious dichotomy which belongs to 75 percent of the world, Taoism refuses to take a place, and is thereby granted none. It exists beyond the dichotomy, beyond the oppositional distinctions, accepting a definition of religion different from dogmatic belief. It rejects the endless assertions of right versus wrong, truth versus lies.
Instead, Taoism accepts maybe.
When I was fifteen, I almost killed myself. But then I didn’t.
I believe in the oneness of things. I believe that when we die, the killer and the victim, the opposing soldiers, the billionaire and the beggar, return to each other and are One. I believe that in the last moment before death we look back on our lives and wonder what all that was about.
I believe in disparity, that nothing in this life is the same and ever can or should be. Everyone holds his own separate visions of the truth, even though the words seem the same. No one defines love the same way. Our eyes see different shades of blue in the same shirt. Our ears hear different melodies in the same song. We perceive the world in such ways that cannot ever be fully reconciled in this life. But there are those who are closer to the Tao, who accept all things as they come, not because ‘Things Happen for a Reason,’ but because ‘Things Happen.’
To those who suggest that Taoism is not a religion, well, I agree that it is a religion like no other. For five years it guided my life. In dark moments, I repeat the words of Lao-Tzu, recorded in the Tao-Te Ching. I remember, in the midst of my deepest sorrows, that there can be no joy without pain. These things – pleasure and pain – are the yin and the yang, and must co-exist to give each other meaning. I remember, when a poor man begs for money, that once we were One, and will be again. The Tao is the source of all things, and all things return to it. And when confusion fills me, causing me to question even my decision to live, I remember that unquestionable truth waits for us all in the end, and I am comforted by these things.
Is this any less valid a religion than Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or the rest? Should I declare war on someone who doesn’t share my faith? Should I stand in the street and tell children they are evil if they don’t read the Tao-Te Ching? Would that make Taoism a religion?
My intent is not to attack any other religion, or to say that Taoism is definitively better than other faiths. If Osama Bin Laden were Taoist, would September 11th have happened? Probably. People seem to enjoy hating each other: if they didn’t have differing religious beliefs, they would find a different excuse.
I don’t want to convert the entire world. But I want to believe in my religion, even if I’m the only one who does. After all, what is religion for? It binds people together, but isn’t that incidental? For me, religion is a series of internal conversations. And my language of choice is the language of Taoism.
About the Author:
Rachel Mohr is a work in progress. She hails from Estacada, Oregon, and is a junior double majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures and Cinema-Television Critical Studies. After graduation, she would like to become someone else.