Welcome to The Path of Water

This site is dedicated to exploring the Tao and Philosophical Taoism; and how it relates to everyday modern life in the 21st Century. It also includes posts relating to how I feel Taoism can provide insights for dealing with the problems of everyday living.

The process of writing out my thoughts helps me to explore what I believe and why, so these posts will probably develop over time. I hope that you'll find this site interesting and, for those of you new to the Tao and Taoism, I hope that it can provide you with a first step on the path to a rich spiritual life. If you want to post comments relating to a post or the site as a whole I'd be grateful as all feedback is helpful.

Enjoy your visit - In Tao - Woody

Who would follow the Way must go beyond words.
Who would know the world must go beyond names. *

No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. **

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


I've just joined a new Taoism discussion list. It's hosted on the Unitarian Universalist "Church of the Larger Fellowship" site (for more on this see the following post). One of the first posts asked about Taoism's view on the existence of Evil and what it tells us about dealing with people who are destructive or intend to cause harm. Answering this question has probably been the most difficult post to write, requiring a lot of thought, and I'm not completely sure about everything in my answer. For what it's worth, the following is the answer I arrived at...

From a Taoist perspective Evil doesn't exist - it's just an excuse we use to distance ourselves from human actions which we find abhorrent. By saying "it's evil", "he's evil", "she's evil" etc, what we are really saying is that they must be evil or being influenced by evil because there's no way we would ever act like that. Of course the reality is that the potential for such actions lies within all of us.

So if we are all capable of truly "evil" acts, why are they relatively rare? Followers of monotheistic religions often claim that it is because of the moral guidance that they offer, yet people that don't follow those religions seem no more likely to commit such acts, and in fact some of the worst cases of genocide have taken place in countries with a strong monotheistic tradition (e.g. Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur).

Taoism gives a different answer. We each have something called our "Te", which is our "inner nature", our bit of the Tao. Taoism teaches that the closer we are to being in harmony with our Te, the more in balance we are with the whole of existence. The further we move from our Te, the greater the stresses and pressures we are subject to. Chaos theory demonstrates that a complex system that is stressed has the potential for wildly extreme behaviour. Think of a pan of water boiling - when first the heat is applied patterns form as convection occurs, neat patterns of small bubbles start rising to the surface, and then at some point the amount of energy in the system hits a point at which it starts to wildly boil without any obvious order. People are the same, except instead of heat, it is the distance from harmony with the Te that is the driving force. That is the source of "evil."

In the case of some sexual crimes this distancing can easily be seen. The perpetrators are those who for some reason have become distanced from naturally expressing their sexuality - possibly because of attempting to conform to religious or social "norms", psychological problems resulting from parental relations, or due to being abused themselves. They have become so distanced from their Te that their sexuality becomes distorted and tangled with issues of power and self-worth, with pressure building until it finds an outlet.This doesn't excuse their actions, but understanding the source is a lot more useful than attributing the actions to some nebulous concept of "evil."

So what does Taoism teach us about dealing with "evil?" Taoism has a long history of supporting acts to defend the self or the defenceless but it offers no easy answers. It does however provide guidance which we can use to try to navigate our way through the problems we encounter. To explain these I'll talk about violence, but the principles can be applied to any situation.

In anything taken to the extreme there is the root of its opposite. So if you meet violence with enough violence, peace can occur - possibly because all the participants are sick of the carnage or dead - but if the violence is not in harmony with our Te, we might bring peace through violence but move ourselves further from our Te, increasing the stresses and maybe making us act as badly as those we were trying to stop.

To balance one action you can apply the opposite. So to combat violence you can use passive resistance. Gandhi used such tactics against the military power of the British Empire and won. By employing the opposite he took away the power of the violent. However, excessive passivity in itself can lead to violence, and perhaps events in India after independence can be seen as partly the result of this?

Taoism advocates finding the middle way. In Tai Chi the aim is to use your opponent's energy to defeat himself. Through a careful balance of force and passivity the energy is drained from the opponent and he is unable to attack any more - the heat under the pan is turned down, at least for a while. In everyday life the same techniques can be applied.

Back to the original question "how to deal with other's 'toxic' auras and behaviour?.....since others sometimes actively seek out to harm you or people close to you?"....A Taoist wouldn't seek to "defeat" or "fix" such people, but rather would try to use a mix of intuition, intellect, guile, distraction, force and passivity to negate the effects of their actions and to reduce the energy driving it - for instance an angry person shouting and bullying loses energy rapidly when encountering somebody who seems calm, polite, controlled and unflustered.


Kelley said...

I have grown up as a christian, studied at the under-graduate and graduate levels Christian theology, history etc. Of late I have grown weary of much of my own tradition, mainly the narrowness. I must say that I found in your blog article an explanation of evil that makes the more real sense to me than all the explanations of my own tradition. I am becoming an avid reader of your blog and I am learning much. Thanks

Woody said...

Thanks for the kind words Kelley. Please bear in mind however that I'm just feeling my way through this & I claim no exceptional insight. We all have all that we need to be our own guides through life, so if my posts say one thing but you feel that something different is true you are probably correct, at least for yourself.



Peter Schogol said...

Woody, while I understand, appreciate, and for the most part agree with your undestanding of what constitutes the behavior we call "evil," I don't agree that evil is in the mind of the beholder, or that passive resistance always works.

When asked about resistance to the Nazis, Gandhi argued that the Jews should have prepared en masse to sacrifice their lives in nonviolence in order to "[arouse] the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence."

I find this dangerously naive.

Nazis, the Serbs who raped Bosnia, the Arabs who raped Darfur, weren't just far removed from their "te." They were, by any standard that values "good," bad.

Very bad. Evil in fact.

One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is because I need the moral values of prophetic religion to balance the amorality of natural religion.

I hope you can see how and why I differ.

Best to you

Woody said...

Hi Peter & thanks for your comments.

Firstly I'd say that if you understand what I've said to be advocating passive resistance then I've failed to make myself clear. Sometimes force is the answer, sometimes passivity, but most commonly a delicately balanced combination of the two is what is required.

The perspective of attributing characteristics such as good and evil to peoples actions is IMHO the naive approach. Within everybody is the potential for such acts, something made clear in many psychological experiments, and I believe that it is through this understanding that the devastating outcomes of "evil" behaviour can be addressed and possibly prevented or minimised.

As for "moral values of prophetic religion (balancing) the amorality of natural religion" - the moral values of prophetic religions have been around for thousands of years without having any obvious impact on the existence of "evil." Indeed if you look at the greatest horrors in history I'd argue that the majority were either perpetrated by the followers and/or have their origins in the beliefs of prophetic religions - something that certainly is true in the examples you cite.

I hope this provides some clarification