What is the difference between Taoism & Zen?
Not so long ago I wrote an article about Zen (Zen, The Inner Child & The Perfect Cup of Tea). Before doing so I did a bit of research and read a few books to understand more about the subject. I found these fascinating which hopefully came across in the article and more importantly found that the idea of Zen practice can be applied in some of my own everyday life and activities – in particular when I want to achieve something (an outcome) and through a Zen-like approach may be able to do that better when I detach myself more from the outcome (and focus more on the process instead).
Having learnt so much about Zen, and knowing very little about Taoism, I wanted to start exploring Taoism a little as on the face of it, the two concepts are very similar (and a quick internet search shows that they are often compared or confused with each other).
Nobody Ever Says ‘Be More Tao’
I believe that the general philosophy of ‘Zen’ is more widely understood than Tao or the philosophy of Taoism.
Zen has become adopted as a widely used term across the world, both in marketing ad in every day language. For example I’ve heard plenty of times people saying things along the lines of ‘you need to chill out, be more Zen’ or ‘it was really Zen’, but I have never heard anyone using any derivation of Tao or Taoism in the same manner.
What is Taoism?
So what is Taoism exactly?
As far as I can tell from some limited research, Taoism is a philosophy which is all about being ‘at one’ with nature – being at one with the Tao – where the Tao, which literally means the way but is described via various sources to mean the natural way of things, the flow of the universe and – not to get too deep – something that is the beginning of all things and also the way in which all things pursue their course, something which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable.
So for a high level understanding I’d say that ‘being at one with nature’ is a good way to look at the main goal of Taoism. This also means not doing anything which is not at one with nature or that is against nature.
That was Zen, This is Tao
In case you didn’t notice that is a play on words from the English expression ‘That was then, this is now’ (well, I thought it was funny).
So what is the difference between Zen & Taoism?
The main difference seems to be in what these two words describe, Zen is more of an approach or a path, a practice or a way of attaining something. You can have a Zen approach (Zen Mastery) to a given activity which may use a lot of similar language and feelings that a Taoist would use, such as being at one with nature, the process, yourself etc or being mindful, not focusing on the outcome or destination. Despite the similarities, Taoism is different in that it is more of a philosophy or religion.
I see this as Zen being an approach with a key tenet of that being where you put your focus – in the moment, on the process not the outcome, quieting the mind and within that having some ‘oneness’ with the process/activity in question – which can be explored in more detail via the concept of Zanshin and definitely has a lot of similarities with Taoism.
I see Taoism as being a philosophy which is all about being at one with the Tao (the way, nature, the universe), about accepting, about resisting the urge to limit or define things but instead accepting things as they are, accepting the Tao you are trying to be at one with, and even yourself as being indefinable because both things are ever fluid.
Three men fall into a river after the bridge they were walking on collapsed. You guessed it, a Buddhist, a Zen Practitioner, and a Taoist. 🙂
Floating down the river, the Buddhist looks about him and decides through much effort to swim to the shore and leave the river. Ignoring the discomfort of his situation (cold water, burning muscles, etc.) he swims to shore and watches the other two float away, content that he finally made it out of his nasty predicament.
The Zen Practitioner looks about him and decides that he is in the river now, and if he waits, he will eventually drift to shore where he can leave the river. He learns to embrace the cold and ignore the fear of rocks and rapids, and eventually he comes to a stop and climbs out, happy in the knowledge that he has escaped the river and all its peril.
The Taoist looks about him and decides that since the bridge he was walking on collapsed, he is now floating in a river, naturally… So he decides to wait and see what will happen next, confident that whatever happens is part of the natural process of the Tao.
More on The Indefinable Nature of Tao
I’m not going to go further than that in terms of definition because, after some research I’ve seen written in several places that the philosophy of Taoism is to accept the Tao as indefinable.
So then it’s little wonder that to many people, a confusing aspect of Taoism is its definition.
Taoism starts by teaching that “The Tao” is indefinable. It then follows up by teaching that each person can discover the Tao on their terms. A teaching like this can be very hard to grasp when most people desire very concrete definitions in their own life.
So it seems we have been let of the hook from trying to pin down a more exact definition of Tao as we’ve been told it’s indefinable. For me the alignment with Nature is a good start and we can argue Nature itself is indefinable as it is ever changing – but it is a useful reference for understanding.
For an understanding of what Taoism is, therefore, we can look at it as more than just a philosophy or religion as many sources describe it but also as a system of beliefs, attitudes and practices all of which are aimed at alignment to the Tao, to nature and living naturally, to accepting oneself and living to a person’s nature.
The path to understanding Taoism therefore includes accepting oneself. In fact, perhaps that is the main essence of it. Living life and discovering who you are, and who you are in relation to the natural universe around you is all about aligning yourself to the Tao, the way. Your nature – as with nature itself – is ever changing and is always the same. This sounds like a contradiction but like a lot of these concepts (and again, similar with Zen & Zanshin), the contradiction is deliberate and there to provoke exploration but also acceptance. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn to accept your nature.
Evolution of Taoism & Zen
Of course this article and the other one I wrote doesn’t even scratch the surface of either of these fascinating subjects.
This article was just me wanting to have a brief look at what Taoism is and how it relates to what I learned about Zen. Hopefully I did that, at least I’m satisfied that I now have a high level understanding (and hopefully anyone reading this does too) of what Taoism is all about and what the main similarities but also the main differences are between Taoism and Zen.
Taoism teaches a person to flow with life.
Over the years, like Zen, Taoism has become many things to many people. Hundreds of variations exist in both practices and it’s little wonder that there are cross-overs and confusion.
Interestingly though, the idea that Taoism and Zen (which though these days often more associated with Japan, also originated, like Taoism in China, originally called ‘Chan’) were cross-fertilized is a common misunderstanding. Taoism and Chan have separate histories at their origins.
Keep in mind that Taoism is so old that its complete history can not be traced through written records. It is instead a tradition whose wisdom has been passed down verbally from master to student over the generations.
One of the most famous publications describing Taoism which is still popular today is the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu (The old master). The book is a series of poems consisting of over 80 very short chapters.
Some aspects of Taoism I didn’t explore in more detail here are the concepts of Wu-Wei (effortless action), Naturalness (though this one is pretty self-explanatory: ‘To attain Naturalness, one has to identify with the Tao’), The Three Treasures or ‘Wushu’ (the Five Arts).
Final Thoughts – Some Taoist Tips
Taoism teaches a person to live in their heart.
Here are some tips I’ve picked up from reading a bit more about the subject which will help a person live as a Taoist.
- Be true to yourself and your own true nature.
- To anyone unwilling to accept you as you are, no action is required.
- Let others be themselves as you remain yourself.
- Connect to the world as you wish to be treated (very similar to the Christian concept of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you).
- Own nothing. See yourself as merely a passing custodian of things outside of your nature.
I can’t help observing that to adopt a Taoist approach to life seems to suggest or at least sit very well with a lot of things that we have explored on this website: that a love and respect for nature is a good thing. Nothing is wiser than nature. Live in the moment (mindfulness). Make things as simple as they can be. Enjoy the journey (relates very strongly to Zen and Buddhism). Live life to the full, explore, experiment and learn. Taoism has no plans. Taoism is based on following your gut feelings and trusting your instincts.
The pause in a breath – that can be very powerful indeed.