"The Tao is that from which one cannot deviate; that which one can deviate is not the Tao."...
The Chinese, and Taoist, term which we translate as "nature" is tzu-jan, meaning the spontaneous, that which is so of itself. We might call it the automatic or automotive were it not that these words are associated with mechanisms and artifacts which are not truly "so" of themselves. Nature as tzu-jan might be taken to mean that everything grows and operates independently, on it's own, and to be the meaning of the verse:
(As I) sit quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes and grass grows of itself.
Bit it is basic to the taoist view of the world that every thing-event (shih or wu) is what it is only in relation to all others. The earth, and every tiniest thing upon it, inevitably "goes-with" the sun, moon, and stars. It needs them just as much as it needs, and consists of, it's own elements. Conversely, the sun would not be light without eyes, nor would the universe "exist" without consciousness-- and vis versa. This is the principle of "mutual arising" (hsian sheng) which is explained in the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching.
The principle is that if everything is allowed to go it's own way the harmony of the universe will be established, since every process in the world can "do it's own thing" only in relation to all others. The political analogy is Kropotkin's anarchism-- the theory that if people are left alone to do as they please, to follow their nature and discover what truly pleases them, a social order will emerge of itself. Individuality is inseparable from community. In other words, the order of nature is not a forced order; it is not the result of laws and commandments which beings are compelled to obey by external violence, for in the Taoist view there really is no obdurately external world. My inside arises mutually with my outside, and though the two may differ they cannot be separated.
Thus every thing's "own way" is the "own way" of the universe, of the Tao. Because of the mutual interdependence of all beings, they will harmonize if left alone and not forced into conformity with some arbitrary, artificial, and abstract notion of order, and this harmony will emerge tzu-jan, of itself, without external compulsion. No organization, in the political and commercial sense of the word, is organic. Organizations, in this sense, are based on the following of linear rules and laws imposed from above- that is,of strung-out, serial, one-thing-at-a-time sequences of words and signs which can never grasp the complexity of nature, although nature is only "complex" in relation to the impossible task of translating it into these linear signs. Outside the human world, the order of nature goes along without consulting books-- but our human fear is that the Tao which cannot be described, the order which cannot be put into books, is chaos.
If tao signifies the order and course of nature, the question is, then, what kind of order? Lao-Tzu (ch. 25) does indeed use the term- hun-- obscure, chaotic, turgid-- for the state of the Tao before heaven and earth arose, but I do not think that this can mean chaos in the sense of mess and disorder such as we see when things formerly organized are broken up. It has rather the sense of hsuan, of that deep, dark, and mysterious prior to any distinction between order and disorder-- that is, before any classification and naming of the features of the world.
The unnamed is heaven and earth's origin;
Naming is the mother of ten thousand things.
Whenever there is no desire (or, intention),
one beholds the mystery;
Whenever there is desire, one beholds the manifestations.
These two have the same point of departure
but differ (because of) the naming.
Their identity is hsuan-
hsuan beyond hsuan, all mystery's gate.
The "chaos" of hsuan is the nature of the world before any distinctions have been marked out and named, the wiggly Rorschach blot of nature. But as soon as even one distinction has been made, as between yin and yang or 0 and 1, all that we call the laws or principles of mathematics, physics, and biology follow of necessity, as has been demonstrated in the calculus system of G. Spencer Brown(1). But this necessity does not appear to be a compulsion or force outside the system itself. In other words, the order of the Tao is not an obedience to anything else. As Chuang-Tzu says, "It exists by and through itself"; it is sui generis (self-generating), tzu-jan (of itself so), and has the property of that forgotten attribute of God called aseity-- that which is a (by) se (itself). But in the case of the Tao the form of it's order is not only free from any external necessity; also, it does not impose its rule on the universe, as if the Tao and the universe were separate entities. In short, the order of the Tao is not law.
The Chinese word- tse comes closer than any other to what we mean by positive law-- to the laying down and following of written rules and lists of what may and may not be done, to going by the book. Thus we read in the Huai Nan Tzu book:
The Tao of Heaven operates mysteriously [hsuan]
and secretly; it has no fixed shape; it follows no
definite rules [wu-tse]; it is so great that you can never
come to the end of it; it is so deep that you can never
But though the Tao is wu-tse (nonlaw), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly but not defined by the book because it has too many dimensions and too many variables. This kind of order is the principle of li, a word which has the original sense of such patterns as the markings in jade or the grain in wood.
Li may therefore be understood as organic order, as distinct from mechanical or legal order, both of which go by the book. Li is the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand.....
...But the Tao is not considered the boss and creator of our organic universe. It may reign but it does not rule. It is the pattern of things but not the enforced law. Thus we read in the Han Fei Tzu book (early 3rd century):
Tao is that whereby all things are so, and with which all principles agree. Principles (li) are the markings (wen) of completed things. Tao is that whereby all things become complete. Therefore it is said that Tao is what gives principles. When things have their principles, the one (thing) cannot be the other. . . . All things have each their own different principle, whereas Tao brings the principles of all things into single agreement. Therefore it can be both one and another, and is not one thing only.
This is, again, analogous to Kropotkin's anarchy. If each thing follows its own li it will harmonize with all other things following theirs, not by reason of rule imposed from above but by their mutual resonance (ying) and interdependence.
The Taoists are saying, then, that seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other....
...Just as every point on the surface of a sphere may be seen as the center of the surface, so every organ of the body and every being in the cosmos may be seen as its center and ruler.
This is like the Hindu-Buddhist principle of karma- that everything which happens to you is your own action or doing. Thus in many states of mystical experience or cosmic consciousness the difference between what you do and what happens to you, the voluntary and the involuntary, seems to disappear. This feeling may be interpreted as the sense that everything is voluntary- that the whole universe is your own action and will. But this can easily flip into the sense that everything is involuntary. The individual and the will are nothing, and everything that might be called "I" is as much beyond control as the spinning of the Earth in its orbit. But from the Taoist standpoint these two views fall short. They are polar ways of seeing the same truth: that there is no ruler and nothing ruled. What goes on simply happens of itself (tzu-jan) without either push or pull, since every push is also a pull and every pull and push, as in using a steering wheel. This is, then, a transactional view of the world, for as there is no buying without selling, and vice versa, there is no environment without organisms, and vice versa. This is, again the principle of "mutual arising" (hsiang sheng). As the universe produces our consciousness, our consciousness evokes the universe; and this realization transcends and closes the debate between materialists and idealists (or mentalists), determinists and free-willers, who represent the yin and yang of philosophical opinion...
Furthermore, to concieve the Tao as an unconscious energy is as much off the point as to conceive it as a personal ruler or God. But if, as is the case, the Tao is simply inconceivable, what is the use of having the word and of saying anything at all about it? Simply because we know intuitively that there is a dimension of ourselves and of nature which eludes because it is too close, too general and too all-embracing to be singled out as a particular object. This dimension is the ground of all the astonishing forms and experiences of which we are aware. Because we are aware, it cannot be unconscious, although we are not conscious of it- as of an external thing. Thus we can give it a name but cannot make any definitive statement about it- as we saw to be the case with whatever it is that is named "electricity". Our only way of apprehending it is by watching the processes and patterns of nature, and by the meditative discipline of allowing our minds to become quiet so as to have vivid awareness of "what is" without verbal comment.
The baby looks at things all day without squinting and staring; that is because his eyes are not focused on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going, and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself with the surroundings and goes along with them. These are the principles of mental hygiene.
[excerpt from Alan Watts,, Tao: The Watercourse Way]