Existence is formed by near infinite interrelating aggregates. These aggregates are ephemeral. There is no essence to the existence, only aggregates. Taoism uniquely recognizes this differently from both Vedanta and Buddhism. Taoism reflects the ephemeral dynamics of these aggregates by maintaining a paradoxical and abstract poetic approach. Taoism recognizes the fluidity of aggregates and does not attempt to capture it categorically. This is in stark contrast with the West which is highly categorical. A central Taoist teaching that attempts to convey this insight is Wu Wei. This concept permeates the subjective as well as existence, and reverberates throughout multiple perspectives due to its profundity.
In the Tao Te Ching one will immediately notice the passivity of the passages. The qualities of water, reservation, and stillness are repeated. At first glance this can appear to advocate apathy and neglectful passivity. Of course this is a severe misinterpretation. Western values are commonly active, egoistic, grabbing, and controlling. Taoism reverses these values such as possessing by letting go, to act without effort, to direct by being still. A common analogy is relating the moon to the ocean. The moon simply is and its gravitational pull causes the waves in the ocean. This does not require a special effort from the moon, it is not an active effort, the presence alone is strong enough to cause ocean tides. According to Taoism, so too is the one who is natural and still, and so too is there a control without effort. The active values of the West prefers resistance, struggle, and gain. Taoism teaches this only brings confusion, strife, and stress. It could be said the Western approach is the lesser, and the Taoist approach a higher, but even such distinction would be contrary to what the Tao is or is not. The role of reason in Eastern thought is primarily instrumental. Taoism, Buddhism, and Sanatana Dharma acknowledge the vital function of reason and logic, but it also acknowledges the limitations. Similar to what is found in the work of Nagarjuna, the Tao Te Ching utilizes paradoxes to convey wisdom. Using an example phrase “possessing by letting go” is to achieve a suspension of duality in logic. The opposite is achieved by the opposite. According to reason this does not compute, and that is the limitation of language and reason. The Tao Te Ching attempts to go beyond language to make statements about non-categorical existence, or experiential reality itself. Taoism has been wrongly criticized as being overly relativistic concerning knowledge and morality. As stated reason is correctly seen as limited, and this includes the individual’s understanding of worldly matters. As individuals we have biases, predispositions, conditioning, and situational contexts that strongly affect our reasoning and conclusions. The naïve realism commonly found in the West, its obsession with objective empiricism, is tempered in the East by accepting our limited and fragile capacities. The mind/body and emotion/thought dichotomies are not enforced. One flows into the other and are inseparable. Reason is not dismissed of course, it is honestly appraised rather than dramatically exaggerated.
A Taoist practice which utilizes the paradoxical approach is wu-wei, which roughly translated means ‘without effort’ or ‘not doing’. Variations of wu-wei can be found through Eastern thought including both Buddhism and Vedic teachings. In Buddhism it could be said there is doing but there is no doer, there is suffering but there is no sufferer. Taoism does not explicitly address if there is an absolute self or agreement with the doctrine of anatta, though pragmatically the two can be identical in practice regarding wu-wei. This can be seen in Vedic teachings in which one is to ‘act without attachment to results’, again similar to wu-wei in that there is action without effort ie attachment. It can be formulated that wu-wei is to act without attachment and to act without attachment is to act without effort. This concept can be furthered to encapsulate existence as a whole. Ephemeral aggregates constitutes existence, each aggregate is defined in relation to the next aggregate thus there is no essence, only temporary interrelations. Such is what we call the self, which is properly understood only a sense of self. This sense of self is the doer behind the doing, or in Taoist context, acting with effort which is to struggle. The realization that this sense of self is only temporary and ephemeral aggregates allows one to act without effort, for there ceases to be a bogging sense of self, therefore there is only doing and no doer. In practice this long winded explanation is unnecessary, there is simply doing. In the subjective, the experiential, a lack of sense of self gives way to the whole of existence as it is, non-conceptual and non-categorical. A sense of self is a closed consciousness that mistakes the passing ephemeral for a permanent self. Fluidity is hindered by this attempt to freeze what is passing. When a sense of self is absent there is open consciousness, a realization that existence is fluent and passing. Oneself, or lack of oneself, is as much a part of this passing fluidity as the rest of existence. There is no separation of this and that, each is interrelated and without interrelation an object or subject would cease to occur.
Eastern thought is especially known for its monistic teachings, rather than the duality found in Abrahamic religions of the West. In Vedic teachings there have been multiple schools of thought that differ in its description of the divine and existence itself. The most popular are the Advaita, which means non-dual, and has become the most prominent. There is also Dvaita which is strict dualism, and Vishvishtadvaita, which is roughly advaita with qualifications or rather qualified monism. Taoism is difficult to categorize and categorization is antithetic to Taoism, though it seems its approach to existence would place it within the Vishvishadvaita perspective. The Tao is the mother of a thousand things is acknowledgment of the non-dual one as well as the attributes it manifests as which is the world we exist in. Numerically speaking it can be represented as 2=1, but even this is not far enough as it assigns essence to this monism. For Taoism as well as Buddhism it would be more accurately represented as 2=0. From the unspoken Tao comes forth infinite attributes and variations, but the two are not separate despite our perception and its appearance. Vedic teachings as well as Buddhism caution becoming entangled in the illusion of appearances. Taoism differs in that it confirms attributes and does not dismiss them negatively, at the same time the practice of wu-wei is implicitly non-attachment. Whether applied at the personal level or applied to the whole of existence, wu-wei permeates throughout. It also resonates with the Buddhist concept of sunyata, or emptiness. As there is no doer behind the doing, there is no essence separate from interrelation of aggregates.
From ancient philosophy to modern there has existed a paragon figure of supreme wisdom, be it called a philosopher king or a sage. The definition of this higher individual has varied depending on culture and period. Such a sage is a paragon of wu-wei, of effortless excellence in sync with the natural order or Tao. A point of contention between these perspectives are the role such a sage is to play in society. The most famous are the philosopher kings spoke of by Plato. These rulers have transcended the sense of self, embodied virtue, and have completely grasped the transcendent Forms. Needless to say the philosopher kings are heavily mythological and far more stringent than a sage spoken of in Taoism. Although the difference between the two seems less stark when the Indian concept of the chakravarti, or the wheel turning king. The chakravarti is a king perfectly in sync with the Dharma, and rules his kingdom by justice not force. In Taoism the best ruler is one who rules by not ruling, and does not actively impose the will on the governed. Much like the moon, the tides occur naturally without forceful imposing. The best ruler or Sage is the paragon of wu-wei, and much like the planets revolve around the Sun effortlessly, so too does society rotate effortlessly and without strife around a Sage that does not impose. From a Western perspective this is a bizarre and nonsensical approach to governing. Perhaps it could be said this seemingly paradoxical approach is the higher minded and virtuous approach to governing.
In modern philosophy we-wei, anatta, and criticism of conventional morality has been taken in unique directions. The two chosen to focus on is Nietzsche and Deleuze, both of which subscribe to process philosophy, also known as the ontology of becoming. In the work of Nietzsche the doer and doing is compared to a lightning flash. There is no lightning separate from the flash, just as there is no doer separate from the deed. How this particular detail plays into Nietzsche’s overall work is beyond the scope of this paper. The ends according to Nietzsche and according to Taoism certainly differ, nonetheless both subscribe to what is later called process philosophy in the West, which is directly similar if not identical to wu-wei and the doctrine of anatta in the East. Applying this constancy of becoming, or process, to morality in general renders similar results. In Taoism there is no absolute morality, and it would be a severe error to mistake it for the opposing relativism. Taoism is unique in that its understanding of morality is both situational and unspoken. It may seem unsatisfying in contrast to Western values, but the Taoist approach is again experiential rather than preached. One who practices wu-wei, doing without a doer, is natural and what is natural is virtuous. This is not the Natural Law taught by Aristotle or in Christian doctrine. This natural is what occurs when there is a lack of strife and lack of opposing tension. Taoism does not teach a strict conventional morality, rather understands the constant fluidity of existence, this includes morality. Again in process philosopher we also see this dismissal of absolutes in preference for constancy. Nietzsche is a severe critic of absolute morality and has also been mistaken for a relativist. Indeed, Nietzsche acknowledges the plurality of perspectives, but does not hold all perspectives in equal regard. Nietzsche holds that existence is in constant fluctuation, a constant becoming rather than a static absolute, and morality is no exception to this. Confidently it can be said that while Taoism perceives existence as fluent water, Nietzsche in the vein of Heraclitus perceives existence as fluent fire.
Another major name in process philosophy is Deleuze and Guattari, both of which have written extensively on Nietzsche. Their most famous concept is describing existence and knowledge as a rhizome, or rhizomatic. Deleuze dismisses the hierarchical and linear approach to comprehending existence and knowledge, and instead posits a non-linear and ever expansive network of aggregates. Deleuze rejects what he dubs the arborescent, which are strict binaries and absolutes. In Taoism opposites, or binaries, are played against one another to ascertain a state of non-duality. In Taoism morality is a constant fluctuation in sync with the natural, not transcendent absolutes. Tao is referred to as the mother of ten thousand things, and this non-linear and vast interconnectedness would be rhizomatic according to Deleuzian philosophy. Regarding a doer behind the doing, Deleuze posits interrelated aggregates, though he emphasizes how desire driven each aggregate is which constitute the sense of self. Indeed existence is rhizomatic and dynamic. Taoism successfully uses paradoxes to go past the Deleuzian dubbed arborescent thinking. The important function of discourse is a post-structural approach to the interrelated aggregates found in Taoism and Buddhism. According to Deleuze and his contemporaries, the sense of self we identify with is a discursive product, it only arises through our use of language. As Taoism teaches, one attribute is defined by the next, even seemingly opposites define one another, and this plays a central role in post-structural thought. The constant process of interrelation is what gives rise to the sense of self and other similar identities, be it discursively (post-structural) or metaphysically (Taoism). The practice of wu-wei disentangles rigid categorizations such as the sense of self, as well as other rigid mental categorizations about reality. This is identical to non-conceptual awareness that is found in Zen and other forms of Buddhism. It is doubtless the late modern philosophers mentioned were heavily influenced by Eastern thought, although they differed greatly in goals, and unfortunately often times failed where Eastern thought has succeeded.
At first glance it appears wu-wei is only one teaching of many, when in actuality it permeates throughout Taoism and other Eastern teachings at a micro and macro level. There is no doer behind the doing, there is no essence separate from interrelation, and stillness is the most dynamic. Taoism is one Eastern approach out of many, though it can be argued that it is the most unique.