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                                                 How-To Practice Taoist Ethics

                                               By Robert Waxman                                                  



     This paper discusses the ethical principles of Taoism based on Livia Kohn’s book, Cosmos & Community; The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Throughout this paper, Taoism will be spelled with a ‘T’ instead of a ‘D’ since Taoism is the spelling most commonly used in scholarly books and articles.

     The discussion will include the relationship between the individual and the community, and the relationship between the community and the celestial realms. These relationships are based on adherence to ethical principles that form the basis of these relationships. Taoism places great importance on ethical thinking, speaking and doing. When the individual behaves in an ethical manner, the entire community benefits.

     The basis of Taoism as ‘the natural way of being’ is discussed, and the Ten Precepts of Taoism are examined. Similarities and differences between Taoism’s Ten Precepts and Judaism’s Ten Commandments are explored. Additionally, Eastern and Western ethics relating to religion are reviewed.

     The individual’s intentions and motivations for living an ethical life are discussed, and the Tao Te Ching is cited to offer clarity concerning life’s meaning and purpose. The divine nature of the Tao is reviewed, since everything begins and ends with the Tao. The most important themes in Taoism are identified, and the necessary human characteristics for attaining the Tao are explored. The issue of whether Taoism is a religion or a philosophy of ethics is also discussed. Conclusions are offered to summarize Kohn’s claims about the nature of Taoist ethics, and their effects on the Taoist community.


 In Cosmos and Community; The Ethical Dimension of Daoism by Livia Kohn, the author summarizes the ethical principles of Taoism and the Taoist community. She explains that from childhood, the Taoist learns societal norms in accordance with specific morals, values, behaviors, disciplines, and responsibilities to those in the community (Kohn, 2004, p. 13). The individual, as part of the community, believes that all things exist in harmony with nature. If things go wrong for the individual or the community, it is because of an imbalance between the energies of Yin-Yang. To restore balance, the Taoist must stop trying to control nature. Consequently, all blockages in the natural flow of life are restored when nature is allowed to regain its equilibrium. When the Taoist tries dominating nature, his selfish desires are at work. The consequences of selfish desires may be disastrous to the individual and the community. According to Taoist ethics, all of nature is a manifestation of the Tao, and is therefore sacred. If the Taoist defies these ethical understandings, the community and nature will suffer, and there will be setbacks ( p. 13). Fortunately, these set-backs are temporary, and nature will triumph in the end. However, in the short term, much damage can occur when man forces his will upon nature.

     On an individual level, the Taoist treats ‘the other’ as he wishes to be treated. If ‘the other’ treats the Taoist unjustly, he responds with goodness and compassion. This is the way of the Tao. The most important ethical principle in Taoism is the concept of Wu-Wei, which is defined as either ‘acting naturally’ or as ‘non-action’ (Renard, 2002, p. 377). Wu Wei is not laziness or indifference; it is ‘being itself’ in the flow of the Tao. The ethical belief underlying Wu Wei, is the Taoist principle that people act for the greater good at all times. They believe in acting spontaneously (not impulsively), without struggling or trying to force events to occur. By behaving in this way, they are not reacting to societal or governmental regulations. They are maintaining the highest standards of ethics and moral leadership without allowing outside influences to affect them. The Taoist believes that by acting selflessly, he is carrying out the principle of Wu Wei. Subsequently, he is in harmony with nature, and living life according to the Tao (‘The Path’ or ‘The Way’).    

     Taoism’s approach to ethics is not designed to preach morality or virtue to others. Taoists do not tell others how to live their lives. However, they believe that each person must stop seeing themselves as separate, and become of one mind with the community (Kohn, 2004, p.103). This attitude requires directing one’s attention away from self, and focusing on the welfare of the community. The harmony of the community is of primary importance, because the Taoist believes the community is a microcosm of the cosmos. If the cosmos is unified and balanced, the community should be a reflection of the cosmos. This concept corresponds to the Hermetic axiom - “as above, so below”. It underlines the Taoist’s belief in an essential unity between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

     To achieve unity between ‘cosmos and community’, Kohn emphasizes the importance of having good intentions.  Such intentions are spoken of in Rules and Precepts for Worshipping the Tao (Kohn, 2004, p. 103). She quotes Wayne Teasdale (author of The Mystic Heart), while comparing the Taoist concept of good intentions to the Christian view on this subject. Teasdale posits that “[Good intentions require] the development of an attitude that is concentrated and contemplative” (p.103). Although the Taoist is contemplative at times, he understands that ethical behavior is actively contributing to the well-being of the community. He places a high value on communal and social norms, and the importance of individual moral behavior.

     Here are Taoism’s Ten Precepts which the individual is expected to uphold:

Do not kill but always be mindful of the host of living beings.

Do not be lascivious or think depraved thoughts.

Do not steal or receive unrighteous wealth.

Do not cheat or misrepresent good and evil.

Do not get intoxicated but always think of pure conduct.

I will maintain harmony with my ancestors and family and never disregard my kin.

When I see someone do a good deed, I will support him with joy and delight.

When I see someone unfortunate, I will support him with dignity to recover good fortune.

When someone comes to do me harm, I will not harbor thoughts of revenge.

As long as all beings have not attained the Tao, I will not expect to do so myself.  (Kohn, 2004, p. 184)

According to Kohn, these Ten Precepts are classical rules for the Taoist seeking to attain the rank of  ‘Disciple of Pure Faith’ (2004, p. 184). However, there are also 180 precepts of Lord Lao which provide a comprehensive source of rules for living a good life within the community (p. 184). Interestingly, many of the Ten Precepts are found in other religions.

     Looking to the West, we can find similarities between the Ten Precepts and the Ten Commandments. They both include ethical principles such as, ‘not killing’, ‘not stealing’, ‘honoring parents or family’ and ‘not lying’. However, there are also differences between the Ten Precepts and the Ten Commandments. These include Taoist ethics such as, ‘not having depraved thoughts’, ‘refraining from intoxication’, ‘supporting another who is less fortunate’, ‘supporting another who has done a good deed’, ‘not seeking revenge’, and ‘understanding that all beings must attain the Tao together’. The Ten Commandments, however, speak of three other rules relating to human behavior toward the Hebrew God. These include, ‘having no other gods before me’, ‘having no graven images’, and “not taking God’s name in vain’. Additionally, there are another three commandments not found in the Ten Precepts of Taoism. These are, ‘honoring the Sabbath’, ‘refraining from adultery’, and ‘not coveting neighbor’s possessions’. This comparison supports the notion that Taoism is more concerned with ethical behavior of the individual, than with the individual’s attitude toward their gods. Conversely, the Judaic emphasis is on upholding monotheism, and worshipping the divine nature of The Godhead.

     Although there are four precepts paralleling four commandments, the other six principles point-out the differences between Eastern and Western thought. For example, the second precept warns against ‘having thoughts of depravity’. However, this concept is subjective, and Eastern and Western religions interpret depravity differently (even the three Western religions hold different views on this subject). Depravity is defined differently by families, races, societies, cultures, countries and religions.  Therefore, this type of ethical principle is wide open to interpretation. In Judaism, polytheism could be considered a depraved thought, while in Taoism the worship of multiple gods such as Ma Zu, Shou Lao, Shou Xing (and dozens of lesser gods), are acceptable to the Taoist (Renard, 2002, p. 376). Therefore, in Taoism, polytheism is not a depraved thought.

     The fifth Taoist precept speaks of ‘thinking of pure conduct’. For example, Taoism teaches that pure conduct includes balancing the food energies of Yin and Yang (Lorenz, 2007). However, in Judaism, eating kosher food is considered ‘pure conduct’, as it relates to the manner in which an animal is killed. For the Taoist, the manner in which an animal is killed is not an ethical consideration (as long as the animal is not tortured). As another example, in Judaism, eating pork is prohibited, and adhering to this principle is considered ‘pure conduct’ by religious Jews (Rich, 1995). Conversely, Taoism has no restrictions about eating pork, and is therefore, considered proper conduct (even though vegetarianism is favored).

     The seventh precept speaks of ‘supporting the other with joy and delight’. This Taoist ethic prohibits jealousy and contempt for ‘the other’. It encourages support of the community and celebrates the accomplishments of each member. As each member of the community is supporting ‘the other’, the community itself is acting as one unit. Together, all members of the community progress forward toward attaining the Tao. This precept (number seven) also relates to the tenth precept which says, “As long as all beings have not attained the Tao, I will not expect to do so myself” (Kohn, 2004, p. 185). Therefore, all living beings must support each other in every aspect of life. Both of these precepts help the Taoist focus on the importance of community, and both help him avoid suffering and the struggle for salvation. He realizes he cannot attain the Tao by himself, so his efforts are directed toward lifting the consciousness of the community. The Ten Commandments, however, do not speak of encouraging others or supporting the community. The only hint of this ethic is found in the Tenth Commandment which prohibits ‘coveting of thy neighbor’s possessions or anything of thy neighbors’. So, in a sense, the Tenth Commandment is attempting to stop the individual from feeling envy and jealousy toward others (and hopefully support thy neighbor). By assuming that lack of envy will lead to supporting other members of the community, the Tenth Commandment partially corresponds to the seventh precept, “When I see someone do a good deed, I will support him with joy and delight” (p. 185).

     It is interesting to note that the seventh precept uses language in a positive manner to reinforce ethical conduct, while the Tenth Commandment uses language in a negative manner to deter others from acting unethically:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)

In both the seventh precept and the Tenth Commandment, each culture is trying to eliminate competitive behavior between the individual and ‘the other’. Each culture understands the harmful effects of envy and jealously in a community, and each culture delivers the message of curbing this behavior in different ways. The seventh precept uses uplifting language with a positive tone, while the Tenth Commandment uses authoritarian language with a negative tone. Therefore, Taoism and Judaism use different psychological strategies and linguistic approaches for conveying ethical standards to their communities.

     The ninth precept is at greatest variance with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. This precept says, “When someone comes to do me harm, I will not harbor thoughts of revenge” (Kohn, 2002, p. 184). The message is similar to Christ’s philosophy of ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘loving your enemy’. Gandhi teaches a similar ideology of refraining from action in response to the harmful actions of another. Conversely, the Mosaic doctrine teaches the familiar axiom of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex. 21:23). This is another example of the differences between Taoist and Judaic ethics. In Taoist thought, the Mosaic doctrine is viewed as an unethical principle, because the natural flow of events are being disrupted. The individual seeking revenge is continuing a karmic chain of actions which cause chaos, destruction, and sometimes death. Most Shakespearian tragedies rely on this formula. If Shakespeare’s characters did not react impulsively or violently, the karmic forces propelling the drama would be eliminated (and no tragedies would occur). On a larger scale, if Jews, Christians, and Moslems accepted the Taoist principle of non-action (Wu-Wei), the concept of war would be eliminated. Even the Prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible tries preaching a version of Wu-Wei when he says,

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4).   

Isaiah is attempting to create a new ethic for the Jewish people after many years of war. His statement is in direct contradiction to Mosaic Law, and he is trying to raise the consciousness of the Jewish people. After 700 years of following the ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy, Isaiah realizes this unethical precept is no longer working for the Jewish people. As the Assyrian army invades Israel and destroys it, Isaiah declares that a new ethic of non-action and restraint, is more effective than an impulsive act of war. Unfortunately, for Western countries and Western religions, the “eye for an eye” principle is still being followed today. Taoist ethics could be adopted by the West (especially since Christ taught many of them), but there is a question concerning the relationship between Taoist ethics and Taoist spiritual beliefs.

     According to Mason, Taoist ethics are inseparable from Taoist spirituality (2008). Taoists tend to refrain from action, but will act when they have a moral duty to do so. The Taoist ethic is to wait for events to unfold before taking action. The goal for the individual is to avoid making decisions based on the immediacy of passions and desires. The Taoist is determined to overcome compulsions and promote moral behavior for self-improvement. Most importantly, he wants to improve the quality of life within his community. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu offers ethical and spiritual teachings concerning the development of virtue:

Cultivate the Tao within oneself; and one’s virtue will be perfected. Cultivate it within the household, and one’s virtue will be abundant. Cultivate it within the neighborhood, and one’s virtue will be enduring. Cultivate it within the nation, and one’s virtue will be overflowing. Cultivate it within the entire world, and one’s virtue will be universal. (Tao Te Ching, 54).

     Kohn writes about the connection between virtue, the community and the cosmos. She explains that the Taoist is concerned with resolving inner conflicts; creating ‘good’ karma, and encountering sages and divine beings (2004, p. 109). The final goal is to travel to the heavens and feel the bliss of being in the presence of the gods (p. 109). Taoism speaks of thirty-six heavens which can be experienced through visualization and meditation. They believe in a spiritual hierarchy where divine beings exist at various levels of spiritual development. The teaching of a spiritual hierarchy is also found in other religions in the forms of angels, archangels, demons, rishis, elementals, and deities. The Taoist believes that by perfecting virtue, he and the entire community, will be lifted-up to higher levels of existence. Therefore, each member of the community becomes a cosmic being, living without the struggles and suffering of daily life. This concept of ending suffering is similar to the central goal of two other Eastern religions: Buddhism and Confucianism. 

     Kohn speaks about a connection between Taoism and Confucianism, “They [Taoists] integrated Confucian virtues and demands of social cooperation; popular concepts of reciprocity, karmic retribution and the perfection of virtue” (2004, p.116). She also quotes Kant on the subject of being morally good, “One should be good for its own sake, behaving morally should be the rational thing to do, and morally should not need an exterior motive” (p. 116). Additionally, Kohn discusses the Buddhist influence on Taoism and the Ten Precepts, “Buddhist ethics have been identified as an ethics of intention, as a form of moral determinism, and -especially in its Mahayana form – as a system that promotes altruism over all other considerations (p. 118). Taoism contains a strong Buddhist influence. Taoists and Buddhists believe that karma will either reward or punish people according to their deeds. However, Taoism more than Buddhism, places an emphasis on intention, as well as the action itself  (p. 118).

     Kohn concludes that there are two central themes in Taoism: 1) control over one’s fate along with transcendental freedom and; 2) achieving oneness with heaven and earth (2004, p. 119). She posits that by following the ethical principles of the Tao, the individual avoids all types of unhappy events, sickness and disease, trouble with the law, encounters with demons, and natural disasters (p. 119). Living by the Ten Precepts, the individual is striving to become one with the Tao. The Taoist’s goal is to rise above selfish desires by adopting an attitude of moderation, detachment, humility, and patience. Kohn contends that these modes of ethical behavior are the forces behind self-transformation and spiritual realization.


     In Cosmos and Community; The Ethical Dimension of Taoism, the author presents the ethical foundations of Taoism. She discusses human behavior, moral rules, controlling impulses, progressing toward goodness, and the relationship between the community and the heavens. Kohn’s book places an emphasis on the innate goodness of the cosmos which the Taoist community wants to emulate in the community. Kohn is making an important point by stating that the Tao is inherently good, and has naturally good attributes such as truth, virtue, compassion, justice, harmony, and balance. By taking the position that the Tao has positive attributes, Kohn is saying that the universe has a divine purpose. Her interpretation agrees with the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Locke, Voltaire, Aquinas, Emerson, and almost all the writings of the world’s major religions. However, there also other philosophies such as atheism, nihilism, existentialism, and Marxism which take the opposing view of a universe that has no divine purpose, and therefore, is not inherently good. Therefore, Taoism provides hope, clarity, meaning, and purpose for its followers, while some modern philosophies do not.

     Kohn establishes that Taoism is an ethical instruction-manual for those wanting to live a moral life. She speaks about Buddhism’s influence on Taoism, but does not explain that these influences took place hundreds of years after the establishment of Buddhism. Taoism is at least one hundred years older than Buddhism, so there are no influences from Buddhism in the early days of this religion. Additionally, Kohn does not give enough credit to Lao Tzu for writing the Tao Te Ching, and its possible influence on the development of Buddhism. There is even a possibility that Siddhartha may have read the Tao Te Ching before becoming the Buddha! Since the Tao Te Ching is considered ‘the Bible’ of Taoism, it is surprising that Kohn is not quoting it more often, and using it more effectively. The lack of quotations from the Tao Te Ching diminishes the importance of ancient Taoism, which many scholars acknowledge as the authentic Taoism of Lao Tzu.

      Although Kohn stresses the importance of achieving transcendence, and experiencing oneness with the Godhead, she does not discuss the benefits of mysticism in Taoism. This is a not a major issue, since the thrust of her book is explaining ethics and morals in Taoism. However, she opens the door to discussing mysticism, when she speaks about the relationship between the cosmos and the community. By bringing cosmology into the discussion, Kohn is implying that there is an essential relationship between the mortal and the divine. Consequently, she cannot avoid acknowledging the role of mysticism, transcendence and self-realization as an important aspect of Taoist life. Additionally, once mysticism enters the discussion, a problem arises as to the relationship between the pragmatism (and rationalism) of Taoist ethics, and the metaphysical (and irrational) nature of Taoist mystical practices.

     In the chapter on ‘Community Application’ (and moral rules), Kohn provides details from the 180 Precepts of Lord Lao of the Celestial Masters, and outlines the do’s and don’ts for ethical living. She concentrates on explaining the Ten Precepts, and lists the remaining 170 precepts in the translation section in the second half of the book. This complex moral code is similar to the 613 Mitzvoth in Orthodox Judaism which are designed to regulate every aspect of  Jewish life. However, non-orthodox Jews - like most people – have enough difficulty keeping-up with the Ten Commandments - let alone 603 additional ones! The same situation probably holds true in Taoism. Kohn explains that within the 180 precepts, many are duplications, redundancies, out-dated rules, and ancient superstitious.

     Her explanation of the cosmology of the ‘Great Plan’ is especially interesting because it offers a set of Eight Precepts that connect the cosmos with the community. The ‘Great Plan’ provides a look at original ‘Taoist thought’ without the inclusion of other influences from various religions. Although the ‘Great Plan’ does not focus primarily on Taoist ethics, it establishes the importance of a divine connection between the Tao and the community. Since the Tao is the ideal of spiritual perfection, the Taoist must be a reflection of goodness, truth, compassion and selflessness that the Tao symbolizes. By following the ‘Great Plan’ and the precepts, the Taoist lives an ethical and moral life, and helps his community become one with the Tao. This is the ultimate ethical and spiritual goal for the Taoist and his community.