While Lao-tzu and his followers were concerned mainly with the practical task of improving life on earth, the Neo-Taoist (Huang-Lao) School focused more on the metaphysical and religious aspects of Taoism. In the first century B. C. E. , Taoist philosophy had given way to Confucianism for the most part. In Confucian society, relationships between parents and children, governments and citizens, husbands and wives, etc. were strictly defined by static rules to maintain the social order, keep the peace, and cement traditions.
While Confucians believed that people were innately good; they also believed they were very similar to one another before the period of cultural conditioning children undergo as they grow up. Unlike the Taoists, they like to adapt the natural world to humans rather than the other way around working against the flow. Even so, Taoist thought still endured. Huai-Nan Tzu was responsible for ushering in the later era of Neo-Taoism. Like many mythological texts, he writes about the creation and evolution of the world; the emergence of being from non-being.
The process of this most important development was—according to the writing of Huai-Nan Tzu—effortless. “At the time before that beginning, the material force of Heaven began to descend and that of Earth began to ascend. Yin and yang interacted and united, competing leisurely to expand in the universe”(Chan, 306). While he supports the doctrine of wu-wei, this narrative is a sharp departure from the ancient’s practical approach to life and its attendant problems. Huai-Nan Tzu’s treatise takes on the tone of scripture rather than a practical guide for living.
However, it does concur with his predecessors and successors that skillful effortless action is the basis of all that is or ever will be. Among the eminent sages, there was also a negative form of Taoism. The “virtue of laziness” doctrine many are familiar with originated from the Lieh-tzu, a Taoist classic that not only condemned artificial action, but also went above and beyond to encapsulate all forms of effort. This text glorified hedonism and self-preservation, “What is life for? What pleasure is there? For beauty and abundance, that is all.
For music and sex, that is all”(Chan, 310). The Lieh-tzu also warned that any form of striving was useless, “Life, death, worthiness, stupidity, honor, and humble station are not of their own making”(Chan, 311). The New Taoism, like many of its philosophical contemporaries, concerned itself with abstractions, cosmogony and metaphysics rather than earthly matters such as ethics, politics, work, and commerce. They focused on divination tools such as the I Ching (Book of Changes), comprehending the true nature of the Tao, the nameless, and reinterpreting the ancient sages (Chan, 314-335).
In modern times, the concept of “the flow state” was thoroughly examined by artists, writers, athletes, psychologists, and other people seeking to improve their productivity. Mozart was rumored to describe his composition experience as taking dictation from a higher source. His prolific career was truly effortless; no struggle over musical progression, chords, or cadences. While such artistic virtuosity is certainly admirable, people start to wonder if wu-wei can be applied outside of the realms of creative endeavors and martial arts.
According to modern philosopher Derek Lin, “Wu-wei is all about approaching oneness with the flow of reality. The flow is omnipresent; it exists everywhere and everywhen. The flow is present when we conduct social interactions with other people; it is just as present when we undertake any kind of activity… such as exercise, for example. ” The Taoists, especially in the positive schools, define wu-wei as the basis of all existence, not simply a condition of one’s livelihood or kung-fu training.
As Taoist philosophy spreads around the world, the concept of effortless action will eventually influence a larger number of professionals, artists, hobbyists, and students alike. Should the governments of the world adopt Lao-tzu’s philosophy, the implications for the world would be radical. As most people are used to abdicating power and responsibility to a state, instituting a limited government, or outright anarchy will reign. Even so, Lao-tzu is certain that when left to its own devices the world can capably govern itself (57).