One of the greatest religions and philosophies is Taoism, an ancient philosophy initiated in China by the teachings of many sages, the most famous of whom was Lao Tzu. There is so much amazing philosophy in Taoism, but for today, I’ll just look at the concept of reversals, as illustrated in this quote:


From Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (6th century B.C.):
“The sage, putting himself in the background, is always to the fore. Remaining outside, he is always there. Is it not just because he does not strive for any personal end, that all his personal ends are fulfilled?”

The basic principle in the universe according to Taoism is, of course, the Tao. Although it isn’t possible to understand the Tao with discursive thinking (sequential thoughts one after another), we can get at least some idea of what it is by describing it as the source of all being. It is not being itself, and so is nonbeing. It is “the beginning of Heaven and Earth.” There is nothing that is not within the Tao, yet the Tao cannot be described as any particular thing. Thus, it is not correct to call it by any name, because we can only name things that are determinate with certain qualities. For example, we can call a certain creature a dog if it has the nose, ears, tail, etc. characteristic of dogs, but the Tao has no such characteristics. Thus, it is only called the “Tao” as a way of identifying it, though “it” is not really a thing at all. To grasp it fully would mean transcending thought and existence as we know it: becoming one with it and so becoming one with everything in the universe.

One important principle that a potential sage must understand before they are able to achieve such enlightenment the law of reversals. In nature, we see reversals happening all the time: the seasons, going from hot to cold and wet to dry; a thrown stone going to is maximum height then falling to its lowest point on the earth. This also happens in the human world: people and nations rising to a height of power and then collapsing to destruction. Such reversals are all in accordance with the Tao and the laws of the universe.

The knowledge that both times of turmoil and times of bounty will not last can help to bring wisdom when we accept them as facts of life. It will bring us hope in our darkest times, and it will help us remain modest and not given in to hubris in times of triumph. The true sage does not let him or herself be carried away by the events of the world, the “wheel of fortune” that is ever turning and changing the fates of everyone from the lowliest beggar to the most exalted king. Unlike most of the people caught up in striving to attain their own ends, as we saw in the quote, the sage does not strive for any of this. Yet he still attains his personal ends. How is this possible?

Well, how many times have we striven to our utmost to achieve something, fighting our way to our goal, only to fall short? This could be the very problem, the fighting to get it, which is unnatural, rather than flowing along a more natural route that is in accordance with our natures as human beings. Of course, with the constant flux of fortunes due to the laws of the world, it is not possible for anyone, not even a sage, to always get what they want, but it is possible to turn the balance to be successful more often than not. The sage does not want to obtain riches, but to live tranquilly and benefit others. Such objectives are in accordance with the nature of human beings, and so we should not have to fight to get them. If we do not act with artificiality, we can achieve much and not tire ourselves out with unnatural action. This is the idea of “no action” espoused by Taoists: it is not about doing nothing, but doing nothing that is contrary to nature, both human nature and the nature of the world around us.

We are also told: “Diminish a thing and it will increase. Increase a thing and it will diminish.” This may sound paradoxical, but if we think about it in terms of the law of reversals, it makes more sense: when something reaches its extreme, it will head in the other direction. A tree starts as a tiny seed, it progresses to grow upward as it matures, and then when it reaches old age, it becomes weaker and is more prone to decay and destruction by natural events. It will then decompose and the cycle will start again.

When it comes to human beings, what exactly constitutes one’s “limit” is up to interpretation. If, for example, we believe that we are rich and famous and at the pinnacle of our achievements, this arrogance will set a limit in itself: from here, the only place to go is downward. If instead we are humble and do not let ourselves be consumed with greed and arrogance, we will be able to attain more. If we are meek and preserve our strength, we will be able to be strong: if you already think yourself to be a strong person, why would you try to improve? This does not mean that we should be discontent with what we have, but to recognize our own failings and so leave room for improvement. If we don’t think we can improve, we will not, because our mind will set up a barrier to any further improvement. If you believe that something is possible, and if it is in accordance with the laws of the world, it will be. If we have too many desires, we will go against our natures in attempts to fulfill them, and so will easily be discontent.

So by living in accordance with the law of reversals, we can achieve a more tranquil life, taking a step toward understanding the Tao and uniting with it, the ultimate goal of the sage. What may seem like paradoxes are often great truths, such as “The conquest of the world comes invariably from doing nothing.” When we realize that our nature requires only simplicity, we can come closer to achieving a truer source of happiness and fulfillment.



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