‘What Is Tao?’ is a short summation of Alan Watts’ thoughts on Taoism. In it, he writes: “When we say what things are, we always contrast them with something else.”
In the words of Lao Tzu:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Watts writes that he prefers not to translate the word Tao, because it “is a sort of nonsense syllable, indicating the mystery that we can never understand — the unity that underlies the opposites. In our deepest intuition we know that there is some sort of unity underlying these various opposites because we find that we can’t separate one from the other.”
Opposites are inseparable
Long before Buddhism came to China, Watts writes that Lao Tzu had revealed to the Chinese that you cannot characterize reality or life itself as either being or non-being, as either form or emptiness, or by any pair of opposites that you might think of. As he said: “When all the world knows goodness to be good, there is already evil.”
“Because of the inseparability of opposites, you realise they always go together, and this hints at some kind of unity that underlies them,” says Watts.
There is a kind of rhythmic intelligence that ebbs and flows like tides. Notice the symbolism of light and dark — imagine looking at a mountain. You do not find a mountain with only one side, the two sides must always go together.
Khair (good) and Sharr (misfortune, evil) are from Allah (swt)
The sixth pillar of iman (belief) is belief in qadr, and specifically that both khair and sharr are from God. Hence the affirmation: wa bil qadari kharihi wa sharrihi minallahi ta’ala.
Good and bad, profit and loss, and all contrasts are from God Himself. Khair and sharr are like an ebb and flow, they are woven together.
“We created everything by qadar [according to a measure].” (54:49)
Be in flow, be at peace with what is
Life is a series of continuous changes.
Watts writes that is better for us not to resist them; resistance only creates sorrow and agitation. Let things flow and be in the flow of what is.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong. — Lao Tzu
Echoing very much the famous quote attributed to Mevlana Rumi, “if you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”
Imagine yourself driving to the office, writes Watts. All the traffic lights are against you. This irritates you, and because of your irritation you become tense and uptight in your way of handling things, and this leads to mistakes. It could lead to being so furious that you then go fast and get stopped, and so on.
“It is this way of battering against life, as it were, that ties it up in knots. And so, the secret in Taoism is to get out of one’s way, and to learn that this pushing ourselves, instead of making us more efficient, actually interferes with everything we set about to do.”
All that is is from Source in Islam
As Muslims, we know that what may at first appear to be good may not be good in its outcome. The nature of Reality resides only with God. Therefore our own understanding is limited, and our perception of what may be good and evil may be misleading.
Consider the verse in Surah Baqarah (2:216) “but it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you love a thing which is bad for you. But God knows, and you know not.”
No good or bad can be created or generated, it is set and our role is to be in flow and remembrance of God. “No calamity strikes except by God’s permission” (64:11)
We use the good-or-bad dichotomy to categorize nearly everything in our lives but the Taoist — and Islamic — way show us that this is a false distinction. The Taoists would say that labelling things this way causes psychic pain, and obfuscate from the fact that good things come out of seemingly bad things, and vice versa.
Accepting the qadar of Allah and saying ‘alhamdulillah’ allows us to be at ease with what is, which is very simply, that what is bad leads to good leads to bad leads to good, ad infinitum.
Focus on Source, all else is noise
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asked archangel Jibrail (Gabriel), “What is tawakkul?” And he replied, “Cognizance that the creation of Allah can neither cause harm or yield benefit; neither can it grant nor withhold a bounty; one must sever all expectations from the creation of Allah. When a person becomes such, he shall never work for anyone other than Allah and shall never hope and expect from anyone other than Him, and this is the reality of tawakkul.”