The Tao in Relation to Everything


Angus Charles Graham’s Disputers of the Tao cites that the Argus Pheasant is the legendary Peng.

The Tao is said to be many things. Among such are emptiness, nothingness, spirit, the way, unity, dung and so on and so forth. If you have a clear idea of what the Tao is, then either you are a sage or more understanding need be had by you. Perhaps the Tao can be approximated from infinitely many distinctions, but that directly contradicts the idea of the Tao. For now, let’s define it simply as The Way. In our Taoist musings, we made reference to some God Tao; this is a mistaken (and satirical) view, but it needs clarifying how the Tao clearly relates to us and everything around us.

The Sage and the Tao

I had to re-read Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi, the chapter of making all things equal, which most explicitly deals with our subject matter, so that I could remind myself of what Zhuangzi writes about the Tao. So with this fresh reminder, let’s start with the clear example of how the Tao relates to the sage.

Chapter 1, the chapter of free and easy wandering relates the tale of the unfathomably great fish Kun transforming into the bird Peng who was of the same greatness. Then, Peng flew south with the wind under him. This wind can be thought of as The Way, and Peng can be thought of as a sage. From this story, it’s clear that The Way is what allows the sage to become the sage and continue to be the sage.


Master Tao?

So how does that explain the following passage in Chapter 2?

Vincent Van Gogh's "Landschaft mit Bäumen im Wind"
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Landschaft mit Bäumen im Wind”

“Joy, anger, grief, delight, worry, regret, fickleness, inflexibility, modesty, willfulness, candor, insolence – music from empty holes, mushrooms springing up in dampness, day and night replacing each other before us, and no one knows where they sprout from. Let it be! Let it be! [It is enough that] morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live. Without them we would not exist; without us they would have nothing to take hold of. This comes close to the matter. But I do not know what makes them the way they are. It would seem as though they have some True Master, and yet I find no trace of him. He can act – that is certain. Yet I cannot see his form. He has identity but no form.” (Zhuangzi. trans. Burton Watson)

The Tao and Things

At face-value, I may understand that the Tao is personified as acting as the master of all things and that the Tao may be indeed some God. But it is very likely that Zhuangzi wrote this passage for a rhetorical effect, emphasizing the relationship between things and the Tao. Before this passage, Zhuangzi made reference to the Tao blowing over hollows so that they all make one sound such that each one can be heard, so I take it that those feelings at the beginning are just some of the hollows being heard. The hollows can be thought of as all of nature, given its distinctions, and the wind as the Tao. Given that the united sound of such hollows are produced by the wind, which is to say that the united sound is the unity of the Tao, it can therefore be understood that the Tao establishes the unity in things but man focuses on the parts instead of the whole of nature.

Understanding Notions of Tao

[Insert image of Dung…]

So then what do we make of expressions such as the Tao is in dung or the Tao collects in one’s emptiness or that the sage follows The Way? All of these have a unifying aspect of referring to spirit, which is to say that the Tao is related to the nature of things. (Spirit and the mind are closely related, but the spirit is more metaphysical and it entails the mind.) To form a coherency among these expressions, I think that the most consistent notion of the Tao’s relation to the nature or spirit of things is best thought of as: The constancy of one’s nature gives the capacity for the presentness of the Tao. Think of the movement of a body of water as a non-constant spirit; once it settles, constancy is established which allows for the harmonious action between man and nature, the establishment of the unity of all things, the following of the Tao (all three of these are the same). The Way is followed only if one establishes constancy of mind. Emptiness of mind is achieved (through nondistinction and wu wei), as opposed to fullness of mind (infinite distinction), only if a constant spirit is established; in other words,  if virtue is established, heaven then forms. (Note that the terms virtue and heaven take on different meanings in the translated text of Zhuangzi.) If there’s a constancy in spirit (such is the case for the dung), then one can realize the unity of things, as part of the unity itself. I take it that this is what Zhuangzi means when he says that the Tao “gathers” in the emptiness of the sage’s spirit.

I know that this might be a dense post, but it’s this density that serves the purpose of my not restricting these ideas into too narrow an understanding. In our earlier posts, we said that the Tao is very difficult to talk about and that we’ll refrain from talking about it. Those remarks will still stand, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that discussion on the Tao is off limits. As such, this post will be an exception to our self-imposed rule. If something is confusing or you have some input, then please consider commenting, as this will help everyone understand better. If you like these types of posts, consider following Tao Practiced.


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Julius Ho

I attend the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. Before that, I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and majored in philosophy. I can be considered taoist, and I've been boxing since middle school. I contribute to and

11 thoughts on “The Tao in Relation to Everything”

  1. Seeing how the Zhuangzi relates the Tao to traditional gods worshipped in his time like the Yellow Emperor, the Queen Mother of the West (which he probably popularized since her cult grew so much that it was even persecuted by the time of the Han dynasty), the Yellow River, and Tian (Heaven) as well, I think that Tao can be said to be a kind of god.

    Obviously it is not a god with human as described in different mythologies, but it’s similar to how the Vedas and the Mahabharata describe certain gods like Brahma as “both a non-existing and an existing-non-existing being” (Mahabharata 1.1). It is hard to imagine the Tao not having at least some level of consciousness and personhood considering how the gods emanated from it.

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    1. I don’t mean to have you show me proof or anything but I’d like to see the passage(s) where the Tao is related to these gods. That way I can judge for myself if such comparisons of the Tao are credible or if they should be given weight.
      I want to note also that this blog is about philosophy and not religion. Since we are dealing with philosophical Taoism here, our topics should be treated as such, that is, considering Brahma as you’ve described him (to someone who understands little about Brahma/hinduism) is a disservice to evaluating Taoism as philosophy. With that said, I’m open to such comparisons if they certainly are justifiable.

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      1. Philosophy comes from religion and religion is deeply embedded with philosophy, so it is hard to not make mention of it. For instance, in the case of Indian philosophy, it is practically impossible to not cite religious texts since that’s where Indian philosophy is contained. Even in the case of Taoism, Taoists consider the Zhuangzi a religious and sacred text, or at least something close (with the Tao Te Ching definitely being the equivalent of texts like the Qu’ran for Taoists). Like I said, deities are mentioned in the Zhuangzi, the clearest expression being chapter 6 section 2 and 3 where it says the following:

        “There are those who specially regard Heaven as their father, and they still love It (distant as It is); how much more should they love That which stands out (Superior and Alone)!


        This is the Dao; there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Tai-ji, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old. Shi-wei got It, and by It adjusted heaven and earth. Fu-xi got It, and by It penetrated to the mystery of the maternity of the primary matter. The Wei-dou got It, and from all antiquity has made no eccentric movement. The Sun and Moon got It, and from all antiquity have not intermitted (their bright shining). Kan-pei got It, and by It became lord of Kun-lun. Feng-yi got It, and by It enjoyed himself in the Great River. Jian-wu got It, and by It dwelt on mount Tai. Huang-di got It, and by It ascended the cloudy sky. Zhuan-xu got It, and by It dwelt in the Dark Palace. Yu-jiang got It, and by It was set on the North Pole. Xi Wang-mu [the Queen Mother of the West] got It, and by It had her seat in (the palace of) Shao-guang. No one knows Its beginning; no one knows Its end. Peng Zu got It, and lived on from the time of the lord of Yu to that of the Five Chiefs. Fu Yue got It, and by It became chief minister to Wu-ding, (who thus) in a trice became master of the kingdom. (After his death), Fu Yue mounted to the eastern portion of the Milky Way, where, riding on Sagittarius and Scorpio, he took his place among the stars.”

        All of these figures are gods or demigods that come straight out of the ancient religion practiced in Zhuangzi’s time. Other such gods and mythical beings also appear, like the Peng from the very first chapter, or the god of the Yellow River who has a conversation with the god of the sea in chapter 17.

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    2. Theology and Philosophy are associated with one another, but they do not imply each other, so it is possible to talk about philosophy and make not mention of religion. Since I’m dealing with philosophical Taoism, I treat it as philosophy, deserving justification and rationality, to avoid what others perceive as ‘mysticism.’ The Zhuangzi and the Tao te Ching are different in many respects; one such difference is that religious Taoists, the ones who believe in gods, take little note from the teachings of Zhuangzi, as shown from their worrying about immortality and respect to gods.

      Thanks for citing the passage that you mentioned. Though, I have to say that Chapter six of The Zhuangzi is largely inconsistent with what Zhuangzi writes theretofore, which is not to say that I’ll disregard it but rather that it is likely that some other person that’s not Zhuangzi wrote it and therefore he, like other Taoists, wanted to add notions of religious Taoism in the text. This is what is supported by Burton Watson, the person who translated my version of the Zhuangzi. To address the passage, the notion that gods came from the Tao does not mean that the Tao is itself a god or that it has agency. It is plausible to consider such remarks as rhetorical ones that serve to make a point. Such a point, I think, would be that the Tao is boundless.

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      1. I’d like to know where you get that “religious” Taoists (I’m curious, do you believe there are “philosophical” Christians separate from “religious” Christians?) don’t take much from Zhuangzi. And is chapter 6 really that different from the rest of the text? After all, the first seven Inner Chapters, widely considered to have been written by the hand of Zhuang himself, have many other allusions to gods and mythical beings. There’s the Peng and Kun from the first chapter and the mention of a holy man that rides dragons. Allegorical and rhetorical, but they are there. The Inner Chapters even finish with the story of the killing of Hundun, the deity of the primordial chaos, so the passage I cited is not that incongruent with what Zhuang writes and is not necessarily a later interpolation.

        Finally, the characteristics ascribed to the Tao, even by Zhuangzi, are very much those ascribed to gods. Boundlessness, for instance, has been one of the attributes given to divinity by philosophers throughout history.


      2. By religious Taoists, I refer to those that believe in gods, immortality, and do activities such as worship. Those that have respect and truly care about their gods are the people who do not take in what Zhuangzi says. You seem to know what Zhuangzi teaches, and I think it is agreeable that worshiping is not a part of his philosophy. Religion is faith-based and philosophy is justification-based, so I can imagine certain Christians (Aquinas for example) being both or one and not the other. My goal is not to just repeat what Zhuangzi says, but rather, think it through and find how everything makes sense (gods do not since they have no justification). We may have different definitions for what a god is, because the common definition for a god and the idea of the Tao are not compatible. If a god is boundless, then it would not have the bound of being a god. Previous definitions of the Tao are only approximations, so if I say that the Tao is the Way, then take care not to think that the Tao only is the Way. But when I consider your notion that the Tao is an actual God, it seems that you think it actually only is a God, which has those properties that everyone associated with the Tao. As for Chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi, I judged that it was at least altered by some wannabe Zhuangzi not because of gods being mentioned, but because of the inconsistency therein, as compared to what Zhuangzi wrote theretofore. This suspicion was backed by the translator of the edition of the Zhuangzi that I own.


      3. I have to disagree with some things. For starters, it puzzles me that you say that the definition of God and the Tao are incompatible when even the first translators like James Legge noticed they were equivalent concepts. It seems you believe God is nothing more than a Zeus-like figure who sits in his throne in a cloudy heaven, but that’s not the definition of God given by philosophers throughout history. For instance, the Christian definition can be found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics chapter 12 where you will find many similarities with the Tao such as the lack of a body. Boundlessness is also ascribed to God in the Bible, as in 1 Kings 8:23, and by the Greek philosopher Anaximander with his Apeiron (a Greek term meaning boundless).

        As for religious aspects in the Zhuangzi, the term worship may not be used, but the term follow is, and the Zhuangzi constantly talks about following the Tao and contemplating it. This may not even reflect a lack of worship of the Tao, but rather, the ancient Chinese type of worship. When you also read about other deities in, for instance, the Shijing (the first ancient collection of Chinese poetry) you also don’t see such gods like Shangdi being “worshipped”. I agree that Zhuangzi doesn’t really talk about worshipping the Tao, but I think it would then be wrong to conclude from this that there’s no religious element in Zhuang’s philosophy.

        As for that passage in chapter 6, I did see one book saying that it is not genuinely from Zhuang, but the reasoning that it used (that it’s not as profound as the rest of his thought) is a rather weak argument that is based more on a very subjective judgment than actual textual analysis. I’d like to know what translation you’re using.


      4. Thanks for your input. I will still believe what I believe, and you will too, so this is getting us nowhere. Mind you, I’m not dodging anything, but rather arguing over something like this over the internet instead of a dialogue is ineffective. If you’d like to know more about what my sources are, then I’d refer you to our ‘influencing readings’ page.


    1. Not quite, though they are close. I think of Nature as everything (possibly in the physical world?), and one of the Tao’s definitions is that it is emptiness. What makes it difficult to compare and contrast the two is that the Tao is boundless, and thus, cannot be defined unless it suffices to talk about a quasi-Tao.


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