Women of Spirit:
Women’s Wisdom from Taoism

Timothy Conway (Compiler / Editor)

© Copyright 1992, 2017 by Timothy Conway



Wu Kaolin; Fan Yungiao; Tang Guangzhen; Zhou Xuanjing; Sun Bu-er; Ellen Chen.

Wu Kaolin (3rd-4th century CE; China):  

Favor and disgrace are meaningless—

What’s the use of contending?

Drifting clouds do not obstruct the shining moonlight. ...  

My body lives in the city,

But my essence dwells in the mountains ...

The affairs of a puppet play [e.g., worldly life]

Are not to be taken too seriously. (69-70) [1]  


Fan Yunqiao (3rd century; China):  

Clearly the original spirit

Is thoroughly pure

Shatter space to become completely free... (73)  


Tang Guanqzhen (late 12th century; China):  

When you have neither anger nor joy

Your energy is harmonious;

Responding to events, according to situations ...

Mind is naturally quiet.

The bright moon in the azure sky

Is as white as white can be. (80)  


Zhou Xuanjing (late 12th century; China):  

The secret of the receptive

Must be sought in stillness

Within stillness there remains

The potential for action.

If you force empty sitting

Holding dead images in mind,

The tiger runs, the dragon flies—

How can the elixir [of real Life] be given? ...  

The pedestal of awareness

Is steady as a boulder...  

Fish and dragons [supernormal powers of the mind] are lively,

While the waves are still—

There is just the moonlight remaining

In the eternal sky (82)  


Sun Bu-er (12th century; China):  

A springlike autumn’s balmy breeze reaches afar,

The sun [enlightened awareness] shines on the house of a recluse

South of the river

They encourage the December apricots

To burst into bloom:

A simple-hearted person

Faces the simple-hearted flowers.  

Spirit and energy should be clear as night air,

In the soundless is the ultimate pleasure all along.  

Brambles should be cut away,

Removing even the sprouts

Within essence there naturally blooms

A beautiful lotus blossom

One day there will suddenly appear

An image of light;

When you know that,

You yourself are it. (85-88)  


Ellen Chen (1933 ; U.S.):  

[From her commentary on the Tao Te Ching:]  

The Tao Te Ching ... has an altogether different message from those of the religions that supposedly arose in the same epoch [circa 5th century BCE]. Most high religions [e.g., Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Aryan Hinduism] worship a warrior-like supreme being. Tao, however, though prior to God (Ti, ch. 4.3) and giving birth to all beings, is a non-being (ch. 40.2). The Taoist is humble and meek, in imitation of Tao whose mode of operation is weakness (jo, ch. 40.1) and non-contention (pu-cheng, ch. 8.3). ... While other religions exhort their believers to war against and transcend the earthly conditions, the Tao Te Ching regards the earth as the abode of Tao (ch. 25.3). Its central message is the peace of all in the bosom of Tao from which all beings issue and in which all conflicts and struggles dissolve (ch. 4.2). Its vision of peace is grounded in a vision of the ultimate reality as non-being whose passivity and self-abnegation allow all beings to be. ... This vision, born of a religious experience much earlier than that of the high religions, needs to be reinstated if humans are to find their proper place in the universe. (x) [2]  

The vagueness of the person of Lao Tzu [the alleged author of the Tao Te Ching] faithfully reflects his philosophy. While the Confucian aims at establishing his fame and thereby his immortality in the memory of the living, the Taoist goal is to retreat to the source, to lose his identity until he becomes one with the creative principle. (18)  

Of all the ancient classics still extant, the Tao Te Ching alone draws its inspiration from the female principle. ... The Tao Te Ching does not pit the feminine form against the masculine; it appeals to all forms and beings to remember their root in the womb of non-being. (21)

The relationship between Tao and the world in Taoism is much more intimate than the relationship between God and the world in Christianity. In Christianity, the Son was begotten, not made, hence the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son who are indeed of the same substance (consubstantiation). The world was made, not begotten: God and the world do not share the same substance. The Taoist world, however, is indeed begotten by Tao: Tao gives birth to the world as a mother gives birth to her child. Still the Taoist world does not have the same substance as Tao. Tao as mother has no substance, it is nothing (wu). The world begotten by Tao is the very substance or body (shen) of Tao. ... The mother alone is everlasting (chs. 4, 5, 6, and 25). When the child abides by the mother, its life force is also unending. The need to return to and abide by the source is also a familiar theme in Western religious thought. In Neo-Platonism the effect must return to the cause as to its father... This is also [the Christian theologian] Augustine’s notion of a human being in God’s image; he must revert to God if he is to fulfill himself (Soliloquies, I.1.2). But again there is an important difference between Taoism with its mother-child symbolism and Neo-Platonism or its Christian version with its emanation theory. In Taoism the symbol of eternity is the circle or the round in which the beginning is joined to the end; thus the mother gives birth to the child who returns and abides by the mother. In Neo-Platonism the symbol is not the circle in which the end joins the beginning; it is rather a descending scale of being with matter at the end. Matter, being devoid of form, is forever banished from the divine, never to return to the source. (179)  

In high religions... the natural world is no longer fit to be the abode of the holy. To the westerner reared in Christianity, the natural world is ... completely devoid of spiritual value... The needs of the body, which belong to this world, are now spurned as obstacles to salvation. ... Everywhere Christianity triumphs the Christian God, banishing the nature gods from their niches, effects a desacralization of the universe. This desacralization has been generally recognized as necessary before science can conquer. ... Christianity’s desacralization of the natural world was an intermediary stage assisting humans in their passage from magic to science. ... Perhaps world negation is a necessary phase in the religious development of humankind, and in this high religions have not abandoned the deepest secret of religion, which is to assist humans in their struggle for survival. Only now religion’s main task is not survival on earth but to show the way to heaven. The battlefield has moved within. (28-31)  

High religions in general do not shed the warrior syndrome. Religious wars, past and preset, prove that in high religions, as in archaic religions, the concern is with survival. Although the deity is now universal transcending tribal and local divisions, each religion claims to be the exclusive vehicle of salvation and, in the face of other religions, wages unending warfare. (37)

Capitalism and communism are the two most powerful pseudo-religions of the twentieth century. Both are [human-centered and] based on the idea of struggle, and in both humans hold the same stance toward the natural world—our right to exploit and dominate it. (34)  

Religion as the expression of human self-importance, as upholding human solidarity against the world, sets the stage for the wanton destruction and abandonment of the world. ... Humans must be loyal to the earth if they are to be truly loyal to themselves. ... If religion is to be on the side of life today, it must shed its former ideology of domination and conquest to adopt the language of harmony, a harmony not only among all humans, but among all creatures. ... Such a theology ... is the urgent task today. ... There is little theological writing in the West to serve as the foundation for this new theological vision. ... Notwithstanding the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, [f]rom Augustine to Luther Christianity ignores the role of nature in the scheme of human salvation. ...Christian arrogance toward nonhuman creatures, a remnant of Genesis thinking, does not reflect the essence of Christianity. ... The incarnation [of Christ] has been interpreted too long as the exclusive love affair between God and humans; it is time that it is also recognized as a love affair between heaven and earth. The Christian God loves not only humans, for whose sake the Son comes into the world, but also the earth. ... The Christian soul, truly imitating God, must love the earth. (38-9)  

Taoism protests not so much against gods who transcend the world as against humans masquerading as gods. The Tao Te Ching is truly revolutionary in that it insists on carrying out the return process, not only from heaven to earth or God to humans, but also from humanity’s preoccupation with its own power back to its roots in nature, prior to the separation and alienation from nature. (41)  

Other religions command humans to transcend the earth; the Tao Te Ching teaches them to transcend this very urge. ... The religion of the Tao Te Ching is a reversal of the whole religious process of humankind. ... The Tao Te Ching is a religious text of homecoming to the world, born of the love for Tao as the mother and cradle of all beings. (42)  

Peace between humans and nature, and among nations and states, comes from the realization that we all have the same origin, live in one common environment, and share the same destiny. ... The Tao Te Ching shall serve as the credo of this new religion of earth. (42-3)

Tao is the everlasting rhythm of life, the unity of the polarity of non-being and being. (52)  

Even while Tao pours forth to become the world of beings, Tao itself remains the not or non-being. (138)  

While the Everlasting (ch’ang) Tao cannot be said or named, the duality that issues from it can. Non-Being and Being are the primal pair of opposites issuing from the Everlasting Ground. Through them we are again led back to the hidden secrets of Tao. (54)  

The one is the extremely small origin bordering between being and non-being. ... Just as among numbers the number one is the smallest and yet the beginning and foundation of all numbers, the one is Tao, the creative ground, coming forth as the small to become the world, which is the great. The meaning of the one is consistent throughout: It is the humble and small born of the nothingness of Tao to serve as the ground of all beings. The Ho-shang Kung commentary calls the one the child of Tao. ... The one, born of Tao as non-being, is the seed of all beings ... This dynamic, organic, rich, and actively transforming world has its secret and origin in the smallest of all, the one. (151)

Tao “acts without holding onto” [ch. 51.4] means that Tao, being an ever living creativity, does not impede the self-development of the beings it has created. This [idea] is meant to contrast with the human tendency to hold on to what they have accomplished, refusing to let go... [Tao] gives birth without possession, acts without holding on to... Such a conception of the absolute is the complete opposite of the jealous God. Tao and te [the power of nature] are powerful not because they dominate the beings they have produced and nurtured, but because having produced and nurtured them they make no demands on them. (177)  

Tao as the ground, dark (chan), empty (hsü or ch’ung), and non-being (wu), gives rise to beings [via the One] that emerge into the light of existence with determinate features. When these cease to exist they are reabsorbed into the dark ground that, as the ground of what exists, only seems to exist. ... The dark, hidden Urgrund, the mother of all, itself is motherless and fatherless. (63)  

Tao is the presence of the absent, an absence that is ever present. (90)  

Tao alone is the absolute nothingness that penetrates all beings. Beings are able to penetrate other beings only to the extent that they approximate nothing or contain in themselves some degree of nothing. (161)  

As the hidden secret (ao) of all beings Tao is immanent in all beings. A being exists by virtue of containing this hidden secret. The good person is aware that Tao is his treasure. Yet even though the bad person is not with Tao and does not know Tao, it is Tao that protects and preserves him. (199)  

As the extremely small, Tao is invisible, inaudible, and intangible. It is also the extremely small and the extremely great (ch. 41.3). Either way it is beyond our sensual experience. The existence of Tao cannot be verified. Here we move from the phenomenal world of the many to the hidden Tao as one. (89)  

There are two postures a person may take in relation to Tao and the world. He may either view the world in its hidden aspect in Tao, or he may view Tao in its visible aspect as the world. ... The hidden Tao is desireless (ch. 34.3), while the world is the realm of desire. ... To desire is to desire being; it is to belong to the world of being and having. On the other hand, to be desireless, empty of any content in either mind or possession, is not to dwell in the realm of being and having. When one enters the desireless state, one observes the hiddenness of things; when one is in the state of desire, one observes their manifestation. (53)  

The multiplication of sensual desire does not lead to peace and contentment but only disturbs the hearts and minds of the people. (59)  

The Tao Te Ching is not against life’s simple pleasures and teaches no asceticism. The only sensual pleasures frowned upon are those that alienate humans from their oneness with nature. (140)  

A persistent primitivistic them in the text [is] that humans should be contented with the simple pleasures of life (ch. 80) and that the over-stimulation of the senses renders them incapable of functioning smoothly. The Tao Te Ching does not counsel withdrawal from sensual pleasure out of arrogance toward the world. It advocates living out the wholesomeness of one’s natural endowment, not seeking external stimulants that disrupt the life rhythm within. (84)  

The keynote of the Taoist state is contentedness (chih tsu) (chs. 33, 44, and 46), the foundation of happiness. (230)  

Human beings, plagued by desire () and self-awareness (szu), always feel inadequate. They invent moral and civilization-oriented ideals to cover up (wen) their inadequacies (pu-tsu). Morality and civilization in this sense are basically hypocritical. It would be better simply to reduce our self-awareness and desire and return to the simplicity and wholesomeness of nature... (102)  

In Taoism nature needs no disciplining. While Western scientific empiricism is an instrument for human transformation [and degradation] of the world, Taoist religious empiricism results in wu wei, doing nothing to disturb the spontaneous flow of things. (167)  

To move closer to Tao humans need to ... drop their projects one by one until there is nothing for them to do. The proper human role is to respond to the inner dynamism of things and be a part of their flow, not to superimpose on them an order disturbing their pre-established harmony. This is to practice wu-wei, the imitation of Tao. Tao, as chapter 37 says, “is always not doing (wu-wei) and yet nothing is not done.” (170)  

The Taoist views as superfluous all [egocentric] human activity in the world; they cover up the face of the divine already present in the world. ... This fundamental disagreement between Taoism and the Western view is due to two fundamentally different notions of the natural world. The Taoist world is not inert with material things extended out there, as Descartes saw it, but is alive and self-regulating without humans meddling with it... (169)  

The most hidden and passive Tao is the world’s most benevolent force. (157)  

Tao ... brings the blessings of peace and tranquility to all who come to it. (67)  

Although Tao is flavorless, invisible, and inaudible, it is an inexhaustible fountain dispensing safety, peace, and contentment. (140)  

Ching is the peace or tranquility of nature or of the female which begets the motions of life (tung). Nature is ever peaceful and tranquil, yet ever active and productive. (191)  

Tao is the creative principle that gives birth. Te means nature either as a universal power or the power inherent in each individual being. As a universal power te is the resident creativity in the natural world, the presence or providence of the non-appearing Tao in the world of ten thousand beings. (175)  

Te as the state of union with Tao and shih as the state of alienation from Tao mark two existential paths comparable to the Christian states of grace—when the soul is turned to God—and sin—when it is turned away from God. (114)  

Te is the pristine condition of nature unburdened with distinctions between good and evil. Within the moral sphere distinguishing good from evil there can be no resolution of the problem of evil. Only when humans transcend virtue to the level of nature prior to the distinctions between good and evil can they be free from evil. ... To “repay injury with te” [ch. 63.1] means to return injury the way nature returns injury. Nature is not conscious of goodness, nor does it design retaliation. ... Armed with the distinctions between right and wrong humans bear rancor against injuries, but nature bears no rancor. Nature accepts and suffers injury; it also heals injury such that there is no trace of injury left. This must be what Jesus means when he commands us to forgive our enemies. The Christian is called to rise above ordinary morality which bears rancor to imitate the perfection of the Father in heaven. To become as perfect as the Father we must forgive and forget that there has been injury at all. (201)  

The good that repudiates the bad is not better than the bad, since it operates on the principle of exclusion. Only the good that embraces both the good and the bad is truly good. (171)  

The killing of one’s enemies [by the state] is an occasion for mourning, since all come from the same womb of Tao. (133)  

The goodness of the sage, like the goodness of Tao, rejects no one. The character ming, enlightenment or mystical vision, is composed of the sun and the moon and symbolizes the unity of opposites. (123)

The problem of how to live in harmony with others, while maintaining the concept of self, is solved in Confucianism by a clear definition of each individual’s rights and duties according to his or her station in life. ...Taoism solves the problem of the many through a different route. Harmony among the many is attained by dismantling the boundaries separating individuals and by forgetting the self in Tao. Taoism believes that peace resulting from clear territorial demarcations does not lead to long life. The very maintenance of such boundaries and the struggle against violators demand an expenditure of energy which hurries individuals to their death. ...For long life it is better to forget the self. By imitating the selflessness of heaven and earth, the Taoist has no territories to maintain and thus does not conflict with others. (73)

“How does the sage fulfill the self by forgetting the self?” ... The true fulfillment of the self is through fulfilling others. One who forgets the self is like water flowing downward to benefit all, collecting itself only at the lowest point shunned by others. ... To dwell in lowly places shunned by the many is not a Confucian’s choice. Tzu-kung, a disciple of Confucius, said: “A gentleman hates to ‘dwell on low ground.’ He knows that all filth under Heaven tends to accumulate there” (Analects, 19:20). The role of the Taoist sage, on the other hand, is exactly to play the low ground, to receive all the filth under heaven (ch. 78.2). What is called superior goodness here, then, ... does not seek self-aggrandizement but self-donation. (75) 

Perfect goodness neither calculates nor discriminates, it just happens... (76)  

Since heaven presses down one who is puffed up and lifts up one who is depressed, the sage is humble. Like heaven he does not hold on to what he has accomplished. (225)  

The sage abides in the authentic. He does not join in the foray of those who amass wealth and power. Like the creative Goodness which pours out and gives without end, the sage offers himself as a donation to the world. ... Imitating heaven the sage works to fulfill all beings, not to dominate or harm them. (231)  

Taoists ... favor farming as the economic basis for the state. They like to see wealth spread among the people. A splendid court and undue accumulation of wealth by the ruling class signify an empty granary and state treasury. (181)  

The sage is sensitive to the rhythm of the world and follows its contours of change. He takes care not to disrupt the cosmic procession of beings. His job is to dismantle the works of consciousness called overdoing, extravagance, or excess from the viewpoint of a self-regulating nature. (127-8)  

The humane way is one of conscious selection and planning. Tao’s way is pure spontaneity. (66)  

Following spontaneity (tzu jan, ch. 25) ... and reverting the self to its root, the strength of the Taoist comes from abiding by the unending life of the mother (ch. 52). (136)  

[In Taoism,] the central teaching [is] ... non-contention (pu-cheng). The way to fully develop one’s potential is by avoiding the harmful influences that can shorten life, not, therefore, through struggle or warfare [with oneself or others], but through humility and yielding. (110-1)  

Although we cannot help but feel elated when honored and depressed when humiliated, the Tao Te Ching advises that the proper attitude is to receive them as surprises and lose them as surprises. Like the Stoic, the Taoist keeps his inner calm in the face of honors and humiliations. (87)  

In a most mysterious way heaven, without contending ... or hurrying—which are human ways—... plans all in the most perfect manner. ... The Taoist declares his profound admiration and total trust in heaven. Heaven oversees all, thus all is well. (219)  

Tao’s love for the world is a love that saves and preserves. (210)

Tao is not a conscious or intellectual principle. It is Hun-tun or creative Chaos (ch. 25). While knowledge is called kuo, going beyond or transgressing against nature (ch. 64.5), ignorance () is the original and sacred state of things; ... thus to remain in ignorance or return to ignorance is the goal of all beings. ... Two modes of knowing are distinguished, the verbal or spoken and the non-verbal or unspoken. The former describes the consciousness coming out from nature without return while the latter belongs to a reversive consciousness in dynamic union with the unconscious. The sage keeps himself and his people from the kind of knowledge that departs from nature. (205-6)

The knowledge of particular things in the world is not the unitive saving knowledge. Indeed, the more we accumulate knowledge of particulars, the less we know Tao. (167)  

The Chuang-tzu [the second major Taoist text] in chapter 2 enumerates four stages of knowing... The most perfect knowing is unaware that things exist. This is Tao prior to the coming of the world of ten thousand things. Then there is the knowing that things exist but there are as yet no boundaries between them. This is the sate of nature as nameless uncarved wood, when all things are still indistinguishable from one another. The third stage is the knowing that there are boundaries. Here names come to be and natural distinctions are made. ... At this stage the many do not yet war against each other; nature as a multiplicity is still in the unity of Tao and its life process is unending. The last stage is the knowing that distinguishes between the right and the wrong or the good and the evil. At this moment the spontaneity, harmony, and unity of nature are lost. This is the moment when [the sense of] discord and death enter the world. (134)  

The sage returns from knowing to not knowing and thereby does not contract the disease of a consciousness cut off from its root. ... We must not only know that our knowledge is foolishness, but out of this awakening we must embrace our original foolishness full heartedly and so abandon any search for knowledge. The movement from knowing to not knowing restores us to Tao... Knowledge, sharpening the divisions among beings, is sickness. (215-6). 

The distinctions between close relatives... and unrelated persons, between benefit and harm, glory and humiliation ... which operate in the realm of particular beings, count as nothing for one who abides in the source. Like Tao, the [enlightened] ruler/mystic accepts all, blends and harmonizes all. (189)  

The overall message is the importance for [human] consciousness to revert to the unconscious as its source. Only that form of life which is rooted in the source or mother is truly illumined (ming) and long lasting (ch’ang). (178)  

Ch’i—air, breath, or vital force keeping the body alive—is unconscious and spontaneous. The infant is all ch’i but no mind (hsin); thus it is soft and in harmony with all. When the mind is allowed to overpower ch’i, it constricts the flow of the life breath in the body, resulting in early death. The Taoist ruler “empties the minds of his people” (ch. 3). In the Chuang-tzu this is called “fasting the mind,” an important part of a Taoist’s spiritual training. (187)  

The journey begins with the ascent (or descent) from the many to the one with the process of rolling back psychological time whereby he [the sage] becomes again an infant, wiping out the concept of the self that obstructs the vision of the dark [mysterious Tao] and finally leading to the door of the mystical female, the root of heaven and earth (ch. 6.2). ... The Taoist ...becomes one with the archetypal feminine at the foundation of the universe. (81)  

The process of yu-chih, coming to be, and the process of wu-chih, ceasing to be, are the two phases in the reversive movement of all things. In the forward movement we witness the birth of ten thousand things [the universe]; in the return movement we witness their reabsorption into the root (ch. 16.2). The two movements of coming out and return, of appearance and disappearance, of making being and making nothing, complete the circle of Tao. ... Through this process of self-abnegation, the abolition of the particularity in individual beings, individuals attain their usefulness and destiny (yung). The telos of a being is not fulfilled as long as it tarries in being. It is in returning to non-being that being fulfills its destiny. In being’s return to non-being lies the full value of having-been. This is the secret relationship between being and non-being; being in giving out its power and light returns to its dim root in non-being. (ch. 52.3) (83)  

The pole of emptiness (Hsü-chi), the dynamic still point into which the Taoist has withdrawn to contemplate (kuan, ch. 1.3) the life of the round, is the same as the Supreme Ultimate (T’ai-chi) in the I-ching, or the pole of non-being (wu-chi, the Unlimited) in chapter 28.2. (95)

The deepest truth is also the plainest and easiest to know and to carry out, since it is present everywhere. Yet people have so lost touch with the primal truth that they can no longer comprehend or practice it. As a result they look for solutions in the hard and difficult. (214)

Religious Taoism has ... forgotten its ancient roots. Its interest in personal immortality and revolt against perishing is quite alien to the spirit of the Tao Te Ching, which accepts the necessity of perishing and has no teaching on personal immortality. ... Only one who transcends the self can be immortal. (70)  

Death is [often] due to an over-eagerness to live. Thus, the more a person tries to cultivate techniques for long life, the sooner he dies. (174)  

Everything upon perishing withdraws into its root. The whole world returns to Tao as its root, in which the many become the one. From the viewpoint of the Tao Te Ching this withdrawal is not the loss, nor the mere completion, of individual life: it is the individual’s recovery of the everlasting universal life. The individual sheds individuality, which has a beginning and an end, to become one with the universal life process. This reabsorption into the universal life is the life or destiny (ming) of all beings. One who understands this secret, that the return is a return to the source and thereby a recovery of the immortal life in the creative ground, is illumined (ming). (95-6)  

Life and death are opposites that alternate with each other; what has life pushes on toward death so that new life can come to be. Death is therefore just the other side of life. Since life and death accompany and succeed each other, it is better not to worry about the matter. The point is not to dwell on either life or death, but to transcend both to the life of the one... (173)  

When the individual becomes identified with Tao he too becomes everlasting: The loss of the body marks only the loss of the perishable individual. A person who identifies with Tao is one with the life of Tao. (96)  

Though quietude is a winding down of activity, it is not inactivity. Just as non-being is the source of being, the pivot and pole of activity (tung) is quietude (ching). In the root all is quiet, but an intense activity goes on all the time. From the absolute quietude of the still point all things issue forth. Issuing forth they grow silently and profusely. (96)  

The Taoist world consists of spirits, ghosts, ruler, and people, as well as myriad creatures of earth, and ... their natures (te) are mutually implicated. The sage as ruler mediates the smooth functioning of the whole universe. By following Tao and thus not harming the people with his over-ambitious programs, he keeps the harmful powers of the spirits and ghosts in quiescence. ... Spirits and ghosts harm the people only when there are transgressions. When the sage rules the world by Tao there will be no transgressions and no occasions for spirits and ghosts to manifest their harmful powers. ... When Tao prevails in the world, all harm is removed. Beings on different planes of existence will vibrate sympathetically to one another. (195)  

Only that society which is deeply rooted in Tao has a lasting life. (194)