She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.
Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it,
there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it,
there is nothing to hear.
When you use it,
it is inexhaustible.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 35, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
What is the appeal of philosophical Taoism? That seems like a legitimate question.
The Tao isn’t something that we experience with our senses. That much is certain. Your eyes can afford you all the beauty of nature surrounding you. But you will never find the Tao by looking for it. Your ears know how to appreciate the delightful sounds of music. But if you listen for the Tao, there is nothing to hear. With our noses we can take in all the aroma of good cooking. But we can’t sniff out the Tao. And that good cooking that we have been smelling, tastes as wonderful as our noses hinted at. Meanwhile, words that point to the Tao, seem monotonous and without flavor. So what is the appeal? Well, it sure isn’t to our senses.
And yet, and yet, Lao Tzu says the Tao is something that can be perceived. When we are centered in the Tao, we can perceive the universal harmony. To me it is like something that you will never perceive by trying to perceive it. The Tao kind of sneaks up on you. You realize it when you aren’t expecting to. Maybe only when you aren’t expecting to.
You are just going about your day, just like any other day. But today is different from any other day. And you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly it is that makes today different. You just know that it all makes sense to you. Though your senses might be telling you a completely different thing.
I know when I am centered in the Tao. And I know when I have strayed from the center of the Tao. It isn’t that the world looks, or sounds, or smells, or tastes, or feels any different. But when, in spite of the pain and suffering that I and others around me may be experiencing, I can perceive the universal harmony, and I have peace in my heart; then I know I am centered in the Tao.
It is then that I can put the Tao to good use. It is then that the appeal of philosophical Taoism makes perfect sense to me. In perfect harmony with the Tao, I can use the Tao to see, truly see, the way things are. I can use the Tao to relieve the pain and suffering of all those around me.
There is a lot of pain and suffering. And that is the appeal of philosophical Taoism to me. Because as we use it, we find it to be inexhaustible.