Taoism is a Chinese philosophy that is one of the major forces in Eastern thought, and it also has fascinated and intrigued the Western world. The word Tao is translated as “The Way.” The Taoist “bible” is the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power), a slim volume of aphorisms and maxims attributed to a philosopher called Lao-Tzu, though, like the gospels of the New Testament, it was compiled by Lao-Tzu's followers after his death.
Lao-Tzu apparently was suspicious of the written word and had seen how, once things were set in stone or on papyrus, they were treated as rigid dogma. And Taoism is anything but rigid. It is a fluid, formless, maddeningly elusive philosophy. But apparently, once you get it, the scales fall off your eyes big time. You were blind, and now you can see.
Little is known about the historical Lao-Tzu, but many legends surround him. One says that he was born of a union between a woman and a shooting star. He gestated in his mother's womb for sixty-two years and sprang to life as a white-haired, wise old-timer. This tells more about the ancient Chinese people's reverence for him than anything else. Lao-Tzu is forever in their minds and hearts as an amiable and insightful old philosopher, wandering down the paths in robes, carrying a staff, and dispensing deep and commonsensical maxims to all who would listen.
Another legend has Lao-Tzu at the end of his life, saddened at how little men have changed despite his years of teaching, hopping upon a water buffalo and heading beyond the Great Wall of China into destiny. Even Lao-Tzu's name is the legendary. It can be translated into English as “the Old Fellow,” or “the Old Boy.” This conveys the lightness of the Tao.
The Tenets of Taoism
Taoists believe that there is an unseen and omnipresent design to the universe that is incomprehensible to the human mind. Only a dim awareness of its existence taunts our psyches. We know it is there, but it is ephemeral and beyond our grasp. The Tao is a timeless and formless unknowable force that governs the cosmos.
The basic tenet of Taoism is the principle of nondoing, which should not be interpreted as a license to procrastinate. Couch potatoes do not rejoice — the Tao is not with you. The Taoist version of doing nothing entails ridding yourself of preconceptions and beliefs that were, if you examine them closely, imposed on you by a counterproductive societal structure and an essential bogus reality. “Be still and know” is a popular Buddhist axiom. “Listen to your heart” would be another way of describing it. Through meditation and other forms of “quiet time,” we can access the Tao. In the unhealthy hustle of the maddening rat race, the Tao cannot be intuited.
Have you ever felt a connection with the world?
Perhaps you experienced an inner peace while you were on a solitary stroll on a windswept beach or on a hike in a forest primeval. If so, you have tasted the elusive Tao.
Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching, the Taoist bible, is written as a series of verses.
Eighty-one sayings comprise about 5,000 words, yet its impact on the world of philosophy is tremendous. It employs numerous paradoxes to explain The Way and the inherent harmony of the universe. Being and nonbeing, difficulty and ease, high and low, long and short are all complementary. The Tao Te Ching rejects materialism as a hindrance to enlightenment and advocates acceptance as the path to inner peace.
The Tao Te Ching includes the famous line, “A journey of thousands starts with a single step.” In other words, keep it simple. Do not be overwhelmed by the demands of your harried modern life. Certainly, these things must be tended to in order to survive, but if you endeavor to rid yourself of stress and strain and simply go with the flow, you can make your life much easier and possibly even gain insight and maybe even a spiritual awakening.
The Art of War
The Art of War is an influential Taoist primer for fighting and winning wars. It is attributed to the enigmatic Sun-Tzu, about whom little is known. It is believed to have been composed sometime between the fifth and third centuries B.C., during a time of tumultuous civil war in ancient China.
This work is as popular today as when it was written. Western minds have embraced it as well. In the hit movie The Rock, Sean Connery plays a British spy (not unlike an old Bond, James Bond) who is illegally imprisoned by the America government. When prison officials come into his cell to compel him to undertake a dangerous mission, the two books we see on his shelf are the complete works of Shakespeare and The Art of War. It is an extremely brief shot, almost subliminal, but it says much about the character, who, as the movie progresses, employs the precepts espoused by Sun-Tzu to survive.
Nowadays, businessmen as well as military types study it. In fact, Asian corporate structure, which resembles the feudal clans of old Japan, and the Japanese motto, “Business is war,” indicate that they take their multinational machinations quite seriously. The Japanese took the principles presented in The Art of War and ran with it.
The Chinese are also entrenched in the philosophy of The Art of War. To them, this is a living document. They are applying its principles twenty-four/seven, and it would behoove both American businesses and military personnel to remain keenly aware of this. In the 1920s, one of the few politicians to read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf was Britain's Winston Churchill. Churchill warned, like a mystic predicting the impending apocalypse, of the dangerous nature of this little corporal with the funny mustache and penchant for guttural, gesticulating speechifying. Hitler announced his intentions to the world years before he came to power. And the world did not listen until it was almost too late.
In the movie Mystery Men, a superhero called the Sphinx trains a ragtag group of nerdish superhero wannabes. He imparts wisdom in the form of cryptic bromides and other forms of paradox, such as “Until you learn to master your rage, your rage will become your master.” One of his students, the volatile Mr. Furious, continually mocks the Sphinx's never-ending collection of clichés. The use of paradoxes is used to comedic effect in the movie, but the Wisdom of the East is replete with paradoxes.
The Art of War is no exception. They may seem as obvious and simple to you as they do to Mr. Furious, but there is an inherent truth in these ancient Chinese secrets, and they are not always apparent until you take the time to mull them over.
The word Tao is translated as “The Way.” The Taoist “bible” is the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power), a slim volume of aphorisms and maxims attributed to a philosopher called Lao-Tzu. Taoists believe that there is an unseen and omnipresent design to the universe. The Tao is a timeless and formless unknowable force that governs the cosmos.
The first and most important paradox is that the best way to win a battle is not to fight one. In other words, the most accomplished warrior is a skilled strategist who can use other means to defeat his opponent. In fact, armed conflict is the last resort and an indication that the warrior is not especially skilled. According to Sun-Tzu, to win without firing a shot, or hacking with a saber, as was the method in those days, is the sign of a warrior of genius.
It is no secret why, despite the multitudinous management and business books on the market, the wisdom of The Art of War is still widely regarded and studied. If you take the notions of “warfare” and “enemy” as metaphors, it reads like a “How to Succeed in Business” manual. Here are a few paraphrased insights that are equally applicable to the contemporary business world as they are to an ancient battlefield.
The true warrior (or CEO):
Makes the opponent angry while remaining calm themselves. Anger clouds the judgment of the adversary.
Plays dumb to create a false sense of superiority on the part of the opponent.
Uses rhetorical “fast talk” to confuse the enemy.
Wins through intimidation.
Is prepared, just like a Boy Scout.
Never lets the enemy know what he's thinking.
Enacts a system of rewards and penalties for his staff.
Knows that if he treats his solders (employees) like family, they will follow him anywhere.
When delegating responsibility, ascertains the strengths and weaknesses of his staff and finds the right person for the right job.
Is always adaptable to any situation.
Knows everything he can about the competition, even going as far as to employ spies and seduce disgruntled members of the opposition with bribes to create double agents.
Exploits the character defects of the opponent.
Knows that when there is grumbling among the troops (negative office gossip), he's in trouble.
Is consistent. He means what he says and says what he means.
Thinks outside the box.
The Art of War, an ancient text that teaches strategy and tactics for military men and political leaders, is still studied today by businessmen. The rules can easily be adapted to apply to corporate wheeling and dealing. After all, the Japanese corporate world still adheres to the martial motto, “Business is war.”
Sound familiar? You have heard these points if you have taken business courses, yet these philosophies were proposed thousands of years ago. The Art of War should be read whether you are negotiating a business deal or a domestic arrangement. It is a practical application of Taoist principles that, rather than scratching your head, baffled by inscrutable Asian mysticism, can serve you well in the real world.