Ethics & Morality In Taoist Practice

Feeling Good, Being Good & Natural Goodness

Ant flower petal reflection
In Taoism, the most "virtuous" actions are those that are in spontaneous alignment with the Tao.

In verse 38 of the Daode Jing (translated here by Jonathan Star), Laozi offers us a pithy and profound overview of Taoism’s understanding of ethics and morality:

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without a condition
The highest justice is to see without a preference

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct

Let’s enter into conversation with this passage, line by line ....

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self

The highest virtue (Te/De) is born of wuwei -- spontaneous, non-volitional action that is no more and no less than the functioning of Tao, through a particular human (or non-human) bodymind. Rooted in the wisdom of emptiness, skillful and compassionate action flows freely, in accordance with the rhythms of the natural world, and the various (social, political, interpersonal) contexts in which it arises.

When we’re oriented in this way, qualities such as humility, moderation, equanimity and a sense of wonder and awe in the face of the sheer mystery of it all, tend to arise naturally. Thus we find, particularly in the early Taoist scriptures (viz. the Daode Jing and Zhuangzi), little if any interest in promoting formal codes of virtue/ethics.

When we’re in touch with who we truly are, a natural goodness arises effortlessly.

The addition of societal regulations, from this point of view, is understood as a kind of external-world “add-on” which does little but interfere with this natural process, so always -- regardless of its relative benefits -- contains within it a residue of suffering.

The highest kindness is to give without a condition

Unconditional happiness (born of our alignment with/as Tao) quite naturally begets unconditional kindness and compassion (toward our “selves” as well as “others”).

In the same way that the sun and moon offer their light and warmth/coolness and beauty equally to all beings -- so the Tao, through its functioning virtue (Te), shines benevolently, without discrimination, upon all living beings.

The highest justice is to see without a preference

Our usual habit is to flow from perception/discrimination, i.e. the identification of specific objects within self/world, immediately to a feeling that the identified objects are either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and from there into a dualistic attraction/repulsion/ignore-ance response to the objects. In other words, we are continually defining and redefining our preferences, in a way that at its root is simply an effort to derive and fortify a sense of (permanent, separate) self.

Out of this egoic constriction arise a continual flow of dualistic judgments: likes and dislikes that can in no way claim to be based in an impartial justice -- since their raison d’etre is the fortification of a wholly imaginary (i.e. nonexistent) entity, viz. a separate, independent self.

Clear seeing, and hence a capacity to enact the highest justice (i.e. right action), is “seeing without a preference” -- an impartial allowing of what is arising, free from egoic attraction/repulsion dynamics, which facilitates phenomenal transformations rooted consciously in the wisdom of Tao.

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct

When connection to Tao has been lost, external rules and regulations become necessary -- as tools to bring about a re-member-ance of our True Body. Within the history of Taoism, then, one finds not only a celebration of our natural goodness, but also various codes of conduct -- e.g. the Lingbao Precepts -- as guidelines for moral action, for “being good.”

The various martial arts and qigong forms might also be considered a subcategory -- in relation to this verse -- of “rules of conduct.” They are formal prescriptions: causes and conditions that a practitioner sets into play, within the phenomenal world, in order to “feel good” -- to create energetic alignments in which life-force energy flows in an open and balanced way.

Because mind and energy arise inter-dependently, skillful energetic alignments can support skillful, i.e. “virtuous,” states of mind.

In other words, such practices can function in a way similar to precepts of conduct: bringing us into a close enough resonance with our “natural goodness” that at some point we’re able to enact a kind of phase-shift back into a fully-conscious rooting in/as Tao.

A potential trap, with qigong or martial arts forms, is an attachment to the form itself, or an addiction to the pleasurable “juice” that can be drawn from such practices. So some kind of discernment needs to be cultivated, between endorphin-driven “highs” (or particularly blissful samadhis) -- that, like any phenomenal experience, come and go -- and a perhaps more subtle but continuous current of happiness, peace and joy that is the non-phenomenal “taste” of an authentic alignment in/as Tao.

A related trap has to do with the spiritual power (siddhis) that can, quite naturally, begin to manifest, as ones practice deepens. Here, what’s important to remember is that spiritual power does not necessarily imply spiritual awakening/insight. As certain capacities arise, can we skillfully skirt the temptation to derive a sense of “spiritual ego” from these? And instead, understand them simply as tools for us to utilize, and enjoy -- in service to all living beings; and as one of many potential ways that our exploration, discovery and growth can (selflessly) continue ...

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Reninger, Elizabeth. "Ethics & Morality In Taoist Practice." ThoughtCo, Feb. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/ethics-and-morality-in-taoist-practice-3182335. Reninger, Elizabeth. (2016, February 2). Ethics & Morality In Taoist Practice. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ethics-and-morality-in-taoist-practice-3182335 Reninger, Elizabeth. "Ethics & Morality In Taoist Practice." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ethics-and-morality-in-taoist-practice-3182335 (accessed November 17, 2017).