Friday, May 11, 2007

Have You Waxed Your Philosophy Today?

I'm waxing philosophic today. (What the hell does that mean anyway, "waxing philosophic"? Well, I know what it means, but where did it come from and how does it make sense?). One of the guys I work with asked me yesterday if I was LDS (being in Utah one gets asked that question frequently) and I said no, I was atheist. Today he asked me if I believed in "all those energies" - you know, the weird energy thingies that godless heathens sometimes believe in. I told him that I kind of dabbled with Taoism but was mostly an Existentialist. Not surprisingly, he asked me what that meant. I explained it to him as best I could; existentialism is kind of a tricky and controvertial little philosophy even within the existential community and my major exposure to it has been a few plays by Sarte, Camus and Beckett.

From a shit happens perspective, Taoism says "shit happens", Existentialism says: "Shit doesn't happen, shit IS"

That conversation got me thinking that existentialism and taoism don't really go very well together. I occured to me that you may not really be able to do both; an existential taoist? Seems a little far fetched. Based on my limited exposure and what I learned today on wikipedia (mostly just refreshing my memory about the two ideas really) I will now attempt to desipher whether or not the two can work together without totally cancelling each other out.

Existentialism (really over simplified) is based on the idea that human existance is fundamental and inexplicable. A big motto of this thought is "existence precedes essence" which essentially means that there is no predefined meaning of life, people just exist, and any meaning that we find is there because we (humans) ascribe it, we define our essence through our actions, reactions, our life. We are "thrown" into existence and we simply exist until we come up with some definition of ourself. We live in a universe that is random, irrational and totally indiffernt to us. According to Sarte, rationality is "bad faith" - it is an attempt to impose structure on the structureless universe. As far a God goes there are three ideas: God is dead, belief in God is a personal choice based on faith, experience and/or observation, and Agnostic Existentialism. The last one is the one I like. It doesn't claim to know anything about the "greater picture" - about God or the grand scheme of things or whoever it is that throws us into existence or whether any of those things actually exist. Whatever the greater picture is, it's far beyond human comprehension so it's futile and useless to try to figure it out.

Enough of that, let's move on to Taoism.

I'm going to simplify Taoism even more than I did Existentialism. There are several reasons for this, one is that "Taoism" coveres a whole shit-load of philosophies, religions and interpretations there of. Second reason is my understanding of Taoism comes mostly from a religion survey class I took which really just covered the basics. I like understanding (in a limited way) Taoism like this because it really leaves the whole thing flexable and open to interpretation. The third reason is that this blog is long enough already and there simply isn't time to dive deep into the Tao.

Let's pretend that Taoism is pretty much the sum of it's parts; looking at it this way makes it easier to look at it in relation to existentialism. The parts are (more or less) Tao, De, Wu Wei, and Pu.

Tao is a concept that is really difficult to explain. Actually it's impossible- those who know the Tao don't know the true Tao (or something like that). As much as I would love to be cryptic and leave it at that, Tao is (big surprise here) a major component of Taoism and really needs to be sort of understood. Tao is the flow of the universe - it's the influence that keeps everything balanced and in order. It's kind of like "the force" in Star Wars or Chi in feng shui. It is also "the way" or the path you must follow to find the Tao. It's beyond human comprehension to fully understand what Tao is; that's not just me saying so, that is part of the definition of Tao.

Part number two: De can be literally translated as "virtue" but its meaning is different than the typical western definition. De is essentially following the Tao (as in "the way" more than as the universal force). Being virtuous by Taoist standards means doing the right thing for the right reason. De means you return someone's wallet not because you want the reward but because it is the right thing to do and in harmony with the Tao.

Wu Wei is sort of related to De. Translated it means "without action." A big part of Taoism is also "Wei Wu Wei" which means "action without action" - I dare you to try to wrap your head around that. Wu Wei doesn't mean (as the translation would imply) that you should sit around and do nothing. It means that you shouldn't fight the Tao; you shouldn't exert your will on the universe. Let's pretend the Tao is a stream, Wu Wei would be like a stick floating down the stream - it's moving and "acting" but not fighting the current. Not Wu Wei would be a big old rock in the stream which would eventually be worn away into dust.

Finally, let's talk about Pu. Pu means "simplicity" and is the true nature of the mind. Have you ever had a moment when playing an intrument or playing a sport where you're so into what you're doing that your mind is kind of blank and everything just comes together but the second you start thinking about what you're doing (really start paying attention) it all falls apart? That moment of blankness is Pu- at that moment you are one with the Tao. It's awareness without definitions, lables, knowledge or experience.

Now comes the fun part! How can Taoism and Existentialism work together? There are some bits of Taoism that work pretty easily; Pu, for example is more or less just existing without any ascribed meaning. When you are one with the Tao, you simple ARE. The Tao itself goes quite nicely with the "greater picture" Agnostic Existentialism. Of course, you run into a big problem when you look at the part of the Tao that orders the universe. A truly random, irrational universe cannot have Tao, especially since Tao is all about balance. Ah, there's the rub. Taoism is a way of structualising the random universe; this is a problem. Another problem is that Taoism is essentialy giving a pre-existence meaning to life; we exist to follow the Tao. I could then argue that the Tao isn't there to follow until we define it or create it or chose it as an essence.

At this point, I'm a bit flummuxed. I don't really know that anything I just wrote actually makes sense. I would like to point out to any readers that I really don't know what I'm talking about. This blog has been me just thinking aloud (in a typing sort of way). I think I'm going to simply continue to exist and if I happen to follow the Tao along the way, good for me!


Anonymous said...

We aren't here to follow the Tao. I think that's where you got mixed up. If we are here to follow the Tao than that would mean that you and and Tao a different. Taoism isn't dualistic. Taoism is in everything. It gives life to things but doesn't control or have a "say" in what order things come in. So order is anything but Taoism. Taoism is random action at the best time they can be done. Not action at a specific place or time when the Tao thinks it's ready for it. Tao is in you and everyone, so it basically means, to be yourself, is the beginning of understanding of Tao that you will never fully accomplish in this life. Tao isn't there even if we do define it. The more you try to go with the Tao, the further away you become from it. It is there, but it isn't there at the same time. The only reason it is called Tao is because we as humans cannot grasp it in a better way or explain it other than words. Tao isn't the meaning of life, it is life, existence and non-existence. The meaning of life is how you live it and what you make of it. This is Taoism. I don't know if I even made sense there.

Cassie the Great said...

You made quite a bit of sense. Or at least as much sense as it is possible to make when talking about the Tao. I very much understand what you are saying, and agree with it as well. It's just a very difficult concept to articulate. I obviously did a poor job of it. I guess what I was getting at when I said that the Tao was "the way" was more the literal translation of the Chinese character. It helps me understand it better for some odd reason. I certainly didn't mean to make it out to be synonymous with Fate or something like that.

alias pail said...

this was a nice entry. i guess in your debate on where tao and existentialism cross and don't: i guess i'd say the tao te ching doesn't really paint a irrational universe image. it's more about that the universe sees you as impartial, as "straw dogs." and that's okay. it's just what it is. the universe is mysterious, but in taosim, i feel like it's the teacher. is an irrational universe as in existentialism, supposed to be an irresponsible universe? like it's a negative connotation?

Cassie the Great said...

The existential universe isn't negative or positive. It just is. It's completely indifferent. It is just there doing it's thing, neither rational or irrational. The only connotation it ever has is whatever we, as individuals or as a group of something existing within it, choose to give it.

Anonymous said...

Existentialism = As Is
Taoism = The Way Things Are

...I have often found many similarities between Taoism and Existentialism, except for Kiekegard... then again I dont really like his take on philosophy in the first place. All too often Nihilism and Existentialism get confused; However I find Existentialsm and Taoism quite interchangeable when you look at it in terms of core values.

Cassie The Great said...

Since I wrote this I've learned more about both philosophies. The deeper I get into each, the more compatible they become. I almost feel like I should write a follow up blog or something.

Bob Klass said...

To me, both philosophies lead to the emphasis on self. Neither should you try to serve some purpose that isn't consistent with yourself nor should you try to influence anything but yourself. I agree with your conclusion that they are compatible.

Cassie The Great said...

I hear what you're saying, Bob. I think that's true, but I would add the caveat that they do not encourage selfishness. The self-ness that these two philosophies lead to has more to do with your own attitude toward things and how you react and take things. Taoism especially encourages you to be true to yourself in a way that does not take away from the life/joy/experience of others. I'm thinking of the Vinegar Tasters painting now - Laozi embraces the experience where the other two philosophers don't. Laozi's focus on himself does not influence the reaction of Confucious or Budda, but it does allow him to experience life in a totally different (and better) way.