The Way
The Science of the Essence

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Defining the Tao

Lao Tzu began Tao Te Ching by saying that 'the Tao' cannot be defined and that any definition is incomplete. Words cannot extend to reality. This is a very logical statement.
After all, you cannot eat the word 'bread'. Nor could another person share your experience/taste of bread through words alone.


Reality is tangible. It has substance. As soon as you try to capture reality verbally you fail. Words are too limited. Thoughts are incomplete. Reality is far too vast.
The word is not the thing.

The answer is that there are no answers. All questions are wrong. Struggling with wrong questions will never give right answers. Finding right answers misses the Tao.

 (Lao Tzu)

The Way

People commonly translate 'the Tao' to mean the Way. The danger with this translation is that 'way' can mean more than one thing:

  1. Path/road/route

  2. Nature/how/essence/character

Invariably, people interpret 'way' to mean the first option, when in reality it might well be closer to the second.
Neither definition can be considered entirely accurate, but at least the second definition is speaking about a characteristic rather than a route.


It is tempting to see reality in terms of paths and destinies, but this is simply not a Taoist approach. Taoism is not about following a leader.
It advocates going wherever the wind blows you, where your nature inclines you to go or perhaps not going anywhere at all.


Lao Tzu said that you can know the whole world without leaving your room. What was he talking about? Awareness, insight, wisdom.
You do not need to go anywhere else to learn the workings of your own mind or the subtle relationships of your body.

Lao Tzu describes the universe as an infinitely complex totality that the rational mind cannot grasp.

(John Lash)


Truth does not lie on a path, or at the end of a path. The truth is all around you in every moment of everyday. It is right in front of you.  Every sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, detail, nuance, facet.
Reality is truth. Not what you think, but instead what is. If you walk a thousand miles, do you imagine that this reality, this truth will somehow have changed?

Words do not extend to reality

The words 'the Tao' and 'Taoism' are only words and have no especial significance in themselves. They are used in order to establish context, but that is all.


Taoism does not require you to believe in anything. If you look at the Tao in terms of a conventional religion, then you will be immediately confused.
It is not about anything. It does not worship anything. It does not ask anything of you. You are not required to preach or promote anything.
There are no special costumes. There are no holy scriptures or holy books. See where the confusion can lie? If somebody offers to show you the Way, decline their offer.

Way beyond seeing

Taoism sprang from the observation of what is. From watching reality and understanding its character; the how, the Way, the essence. Reality is not something that you can record and replay later.
It is something you are immersed in at all times. This approach is very different to our modern world of labelling, categorising and symbolising. The label does not denote understanding.
The word 'bread' tells us virtually nothing about bread itself.

Beyond conditioning

The heart of Taoism lies in the raw immediacy of the here and now. Taoism is about seeing what is in front of you. This sounds so simple but is so very, very hard.
We have been conditioned from birth to perceive the world a certain way. Our minds are utterly enslaved by our education, our upbringing, history, media, business, society and our parents.
Can we break free?

What is the point?

Taoism may sound like a lot of work for no obvious gain. This is not true. A heightened degree of awareness will enable you to attune yourself with the world around you.
You will find greater harmony in your life and the ability to interact more honestly and openly with other people.
Your brain will work faster, read situations more accurately and you can respond more effectively.


Taoism and it's offshoot Zen encourage the individual to be fully present in the here and now. To live now. There is no tomorrow. And there is no yesterday.


Many arts have sought to embrace the Tao. Often these have been Japanese disciplines: Zen, gardening, tea ceremony, flower arranging, archery...
China's principle contribution has been some wonderful books and tai chi.

Without gazing out a window,
the Way of the world can be seen.
Without stepping beyond a door,
the Way of the Tao can be followed.

The Way does not get closer
by searching farther.

 (Lao Tzu)

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Page created 18 July 1995
Last updated 04 May 2023