Taoism: Potential Within Passivity

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Taoism: Potential Within Passivity

Taoism is the first major philosophical and religious tradition explored by Peter Marshall, in his book Nature’s Web.  Marshall calls Taoism “the way of nature,”   emphasizing that this is the ideal religion from the perspective of ecological sensibility.  Passivity is a key element of Taoist thought, and is a repeated concept in the primary Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching.  The concept of passivity stresses that the wise person will not attempt to cause change in his world, but will rather be receptive to and allow natural changes to happen, as is the way of nature.  Other Taoist principles concerning government, society, life, and death branch off from this concept.  Marshall considers this religion to be a necessary foundation for an ecologically sound world and way of life, which is why he makes it the foundation of his book.  However, Marshall’s views may not be entirely realistic when we consider the practicality of the philosophy to our modern ecological crisis.
Taoism follows a much different idea of the “chain of being,” than that of the other major religions (i.e. Hinduism, Judeo-Christian, Islam), which is very important in consideration of the ecological sensibility which stems from it.  As opposed to a God-over-man-over-nature view of the world, Taoism states:
Human beings follow the Earth.
Earth follows Heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
The Tao follows the way things are.  (Tao Te Ching, 25)
This is important, for humans are urged by Taoist thought to place themselves below all else, especially the world, but also other people.  The wise person will put another person’s needs before their own.  Within this frame of mind, selfishness must be eliminated in order for life and nature to be in order.  
The passivity that is spoken of in the Tao Te Ching is not to be confused with inactivity or laziness.  I equate it more with the idea of potential energy.  The concept of potential energy asserts that all matter, although at a state of rest, possesses an energy that will be released when the matter is in an active state.  Applying this to Taoism, a person is expected to be receptive to change and ready for it, but must not actively try to cause change.  
Water is often used as the symbol for this passivity, because it causes change and “benefits all things without struggle.” (Tao Te Ching, 8)  It flows without a purpose, but in doing so it does good, because it has no personal needs or desires.  It is also a good symbol, for it is active (i.e. in motion) while at the same time passive (i.e. flowing without purpose).
An empty vessel is another symbol that is often used in this case.  The usefulness of a vessel lies in its emptiness.  It is constantly ready to hold water, if it is needed to do so.  The vessel is always “not-doing” (as is the Tao), yet there is nothing it cannot hold, or do.  It will hold whatever is placed in it, much as the wise person should do for the world whatever is needed from them.  The wise sage should fill spaces that are empty, rather than take from those which are filled.
The Taoist sees the existence of government as both negative and unnecessary.  To live by the ways of nature is to be both spontaneous and passive.  The ideals of government promote structure and control.  It is clear to see how the two oppose one another.  A ruler is not necessarily bad in the eyes of the Taoist.  But a good ruler by Taoist standards is not the same as the modern concept of a ruler – one who controls, asserts power and authority, and makes decisions.  The ideal Taoist ruler is more like a wise sage, who embodies the Tao and allows everything naturally to change.  This figure would probably be more akin to our modern idea of a teacher, educating his subjects, but not controlling them.  Government conflicts with nature, and is therefore in opposition to an ecologically sensible society.  Control is artificial, and power exists only if one believes it does.  Such is expressed in stanza 32 of the Tao Te Ching, where the sage states:
The Tao is always nameless
And even though a sapling might

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