I'm continually trying to find a way to make my understanding of the Tao and Taoism more accessible. I haven't got there yet, but as part of this process I've written a response to a post on the Atheist Nexus questioning whether somebody could be an atheist and a Taoist at the same time. FWIW my response follows - the bits in orange are excerpt from the original poster's entry...
People get hung up on the Tao - imagining that it is some esoteric mystical something far away or out of sight. In fact it is mundane, routine, common & everywhere. The roots of Taoism are in the observation of nature and, while some Taoist religious traditions may adopt a mystical or god-like interpretation, Taoism is basically a set of observations about the world around us and what they can tell us about how we can live our lives. Note: how we can NOT how we should live our lives.
Taoism states that everything in the world is believed to be a manifestation of the Tao and are restricted, in a sense, by the Tao....The Tao is unity (whatever that means...
A simple way to envisage it is...
There is something which for convenience we call "the Tao" which has certain properties.
Part of the Tao we call "the Universe" and it has some, but not all, of the properties of the Tao
Part of the Universe we call "the Earth" and it has some, but not all, of the properties of the Universe
Part of the Earth we call "Me" and I have some, but not all, of the properties of the Earth.
...still not happy? ...Think about your big toe.
It is part of the unity you call "you" - yet it can also be thought of as a separate thing called "a big toe."
the tao is described as being indescribable (doesn't that sound familiar to something other theists say about their God?)
The Tao is not indescribable, it is just impossible to completely describe. Any description is just a poor approximation capturing only some of its true nature, and the description is not the same as the thing itself. This is easy to demonstrate with an example...
Think of a nice yellow painted HB graphite pencil. Now describe it completely
Obviously you can talk about it's colour, length, width, and weight. You can talk about he paint on its sides, the type of wood it is made from, how pointy it is, does it have an eraser, where the graphite came from, and who made the pencil. You can describe all the different uses for the pencil - writing, drawing, poking holes in things...
Have you described it completely yet?
What about the design & the designer of the pencil? What about the culture that produced the designer? What about the evolution of mankind that produced the pencil designer's culture? What about the evolution of the tree that provides the wood? What about the origin of the Carbon in the graphite? What about the subtle changes occurring in the pencil due to variations in temperature & pressure, or decay over time? What about the origin and evolution of the universe in which the pencil exists?
To fully describe the pencil you need to describe everything in the entire Universe from the dawn to the end of time, otherwise all you have achieved is an approximation. Then of course you'd have to repeat the above for all different cultures and languages on earth because language and culture can accommodate subtle differences in understanding and meaning. Once you've done that you'd then need to describe it from the perspective of a dog, or a bird, or the subtle gravitational effects the pencil's mass exerts on a distant Sun and its impact on any alien life. Even if this could be achieved it would still be an approximation because at the sub-atomic level it becomes difficult to describe things except through probability.
Assuming it were somehow possible to compile a complete description in all ways of the pencil - could you write with the description? Could you draw a picture with it? All you would have would be a description not the physical pencil.
So the Tao that can be described is not the real Tao - it is just a collection of words that goes some way to give an approximate description of the real Tao.