Commusings: Three Principles of the Tao by Alan Watts

Apr 29, 2023

Dear Commune Community,

Our essay today is contributed posthumously by the great British philosopher Alan Watts. There is no greater influence on my understanding (and enjoyment) of the universe than Mr. Watts. I am not alone.

Born in Chiselhurst, England, in 1915, Watts moved to California in 1950 and became a central figure (along with his colleagues Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley) in the counterculture of the following decades. The widely circulated audio recordings of his lectures introduced a generation of Americans to the concepts of Eastern religions. I’ve listened to them hundreds upon hundreds of times. His inimitable charm and humor underwritten by his Received Pronunciation accent is nothing less than addictive. 

Commune has had the extraordinary opportunity to work with his son, Mark, to mine the vaults of Alan’s content library to create a new course.

Watts adored wordplay and etymologies, and his lectures unpacking Eastern aesthetic concepts are some of my favorites. Paths of Liberation is a compendium of masterfully illustrated excerpts from these lectures exploring the spiritual vocabulary of Japanese Zen aesthetics, Buddhism and the Tao.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.” I habitually feel this way when listening to Watts. While I am enamored with his cogitations, I often get carried away simply by the sound of him. And I am quite sure that he’d appreciate that — as he often spoke, ironically, about the ineffectiveness of words. For Watts, life was something to be experienced. I hope you enjoy.

Here at [email protected] and waxing and waning on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,

• • •

Three Principles of the Tao by Alan Watts

Excerpted from Tao for Now an upcoming collection of edited talks by the Alan Watts Organization


What we are discussing here is the form of Chinese philosophy called Taoism — the philosophy of the Tao, or of the Way of Nature. And this philosophy originates from some period in Chinese history between 600 and 400 BC, and has had an enormous influence on the course of Chinese culture. 

Taoism is attributed to a person by the name of Lao-tzu, which literally translated, means "the old boy." And he was supposed to have been a librarian at the Imperial Court who got tired of the sort of snob life of court, and disappeared into the mountains. But before he was allowed to go, the guardian of the gate stopped him and said, "Sir, you are such a wise man that you cannot go off without leaving us some of your wisdom." And so he stayed in the guardhouse and wrote a short pithy book called the Tao Te Ching. Ching, in Chinese, means a “classic,” “book,” or “scripture.”

The best translation easily available is by Lin Yutang, from The Modern Library, and it’s called The Wisdom of Lao-tzu. And in this book, he translates whole sections of Chuang-tzu, as a kind of commentary on the earlier text. Chuang-tzu is the most humorous philosopher that ever lived. He is full of anecdotes and wonderful illustrations and has the most amusing way of explaining his own philosophy by parodying it. 

 For example, he has a passage where he says:

One night I dreamt I was a butterfly, but now I'm confused because now I've woken up and I don't know whether I am a man who dreamt I was a butterfly or whether I'm a butterfly who's dreaming that I'm a man.

And then again, he has an amusing passage where he says: 

When a drunk man falls out of a cart, although he may suffer, he does not die. Because his spirit is in a state of security, he does not suffer from contact with objective existences. If such security may be got from wine, how much more may be obtained from the Tao?

Let me go on with a summary of three principles of this philosophy. The first is the Tao itself. There is no definition for it. It’s called “the Way,” or “the course of things.” It is what everything basically is — what you are. And it cannot be defined, and should not be defined — in just the same way that you have no need to bite your own teeth, or to touch the tip of this finger with this finger, or to look into your own eyes. It is basic to everything — eternal; it’s what there is; it’s the which for which there is no whicher. 

But it would be wrong to translate Tao as “God," because the word God has associations this word does not have. The word God has an association with monarchy. And the Taoist conception of the world and the Taoist attitude to politics is not monarchical — it is strictly democratic. So that’s the first principle — Tao is the course of nature.

The second principle is mutual arising. That is to say, that all the great contrasts of life — black and white, positive and negative (or as the Chinese call it, yang and yin), self and other, long and short — are not, as it were, things in conflict; they are like the north and south pole of a magnet: they go together. And from this arises the fundamental point that you as self are one life with everything you call “other”; your inside goes together with everything outside you, and you interdepend — you constitute one life. And it is not that the external world, or the environment, is conceived as something that determines you, that pushes you around; nor, on the other hand, that you are something that pushes around your environment; you are a single movement — a single life.

However, through a hallucination of upbringing, education, and all kinds of things, we don’t feel this. We come to feel, instead, as separate centers of awareness and action in the middle of a world that is not ourselves. And so there develops a hostile attitude, expressed in such phrases as “the conquest of nature.” Some people think, for example, of the artist as a person who beats his material into submission, who takes a piece of marble and clobbers it until it does what he wants it to do. But this is not the Chinese conception of man.

Man is seen in Chinese philosophy – in Taoism in particular – as part of nature or one with nature; and therefore, art is a skillful work of nature. The artist cooperates with nature in the same way as the sailor of a sailboat cooperates with the wind. And so this process of cooperation is, in Taoist philosophy, called wu-wei. It means, essentially, “not interfering” — not acting in such a way as to go against the grain of things. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean passivity; it means acting in accordance with the course, in accordance with the Tao, the Way. 

Now then, I mentioned that the word Tao should not be translated as God or be associated with the idea of God as we have it in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian theology. The reason is that the model on which the idea of God is based is the model of the great kings of the ancient Near East: the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Shahs or Khans of Persia, and people like Hammurabi of the Chaldean culture — the great law-givers and tyrants. The title of God in, say, the Old Testament is the “King of kings,” and the “Lord of lords”; and therefore, everybody in relation to God is in the position of being a subject to a king, or perhaps, a child to an authoritarian father. Now, of course, this symbolism in sophisticated Christian theology is not intended to be taken literally. A sophisticated Christian is not required to believe that God is the cosmic male parent.

But symbolism has a tremendous force: it influences the way we think, and feel, and behave far more powerfully than abstract ideas. You may consider God to be “necessary being,” in the phrase of Saint Thomas Aquinas, or as that “circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,” to use Saint Bonaventure’s phrase, but at the same time you may still say the Our Father prayer and go to church and take part in the courtly rituals where, for example, an important cathedral is called a basilica, which is from the Greek vasiliás (i.e., a king). 

Of course, in the Protestant churches, the pattern is not the court of the king; the pattern is a courtroom, and the minister wears the same robes as a judge. It’s still a political model though, and that has a great influence on people. 

However, in this Chinese philosophy of the Tao, the Tao is not considered as the boss. There is a passage in the Tao Te Ching where Lao-tzu says: 

The great Tao flows everywhere,
both to the left and to the right,
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them.

And when merits are accomplished,
it lays no claim to them.

In other words, the attitude of the Tao — supposing we could personify it — would be to bring things into order by letting them go their own way. Now, the Tao Te Ching you must remember, is a manual written for the guidance of rulers, and explains how the emperor should conduct himself in order to be a beloved ruler. And the message is man, get lost; conceal yourself; don’t stand above the people; don’t make them aware of your weight oppressing them — stand below; behave like water, because water seeks the low level, which men ordinarily avoid.

So the Taoist ruler would, in our language, be something like the chief of the sanitation department, who is an unknown official, but a very important one. He doesn’t ride in great carriages and processions with crowds turning out to cheer. He is a completely humble official who performs an extraordinarily useful task and regards himself as the servant of the people. Hence, you know, one of the titles of the Pope is “the servant of the servants of God.” And of course, this was one part of the Gospel where Jesus washes his disciples' feet and explains that he is among them — as one who serves. 

But this doesn’t somehow fit in with the other imagery of the royal master: “Christ, our royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see his banners go!” And in Milton's “Paradise Lost,” long before there was any trouble with Satan, Milton describes the angelic host of heaven with all their banners and spears and military arrangements. What were they afraid of? Who were they out to attack? The minute you do that, you stir up trouble.

And so, Lao-tzu explains in his book that the moment you have weapons, there is going to be war; the moment you have valuables, there are going to be thieves. And so there is a funny idea underlying Taoism, which you might say is a version of the Golden Age, that once upon a time, everybody followed the Tao naturally; and nobody ever talked about the necessity of virtue – of loving your neighbor, of filial piety, of anything like that – because it was all done naturally. But when it fell apart for some reason or other, then, arose the laws. So he says, “When the great Tao lost, there came duty to man and right conduct.” When there was trouble in the kingdom, one heard of good administrators and loyal ministers because of course, “When everyone in the world knows goodness to be good, there is already evil.” 

Now, what are we to make of this? Are they meaning literally that once upon a time there was a Golden Age when human beings lived in a natural, happy state, and didn’t have governments and taxes and armies? Well, we don’t know. It may be harking back to some sort of infancy memory of life in the womb.

One of the key differences between the Chinese concept of the Tao — or you might almost call it the non-concept — and the idea of God in the West is that Western thought feels that the universe, if and to the extent that it is orderly at all, has to be ruled. The Chinese feel, on the other hand, that things are best ruled by trusting them, which really isn’t ruling.

• • •

Alan Watts was a British-American philosopher, best-selling author, and prolific speaker. Famous for his research on comparative religion, Watts is best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophies for a Western audience.

Print and digital versions of Tao for Now will be published this spring. To receive updates on the book’s launch date, we encourage you to sign up for the newsletter at

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