Tzu Jan

Tzu Jan is usually translated “naturalness” or “spontaneity”, but this is rather misleading.

One writer suggests using the phrase ‘that which is naturally so’, meaning the condition that something will be in if it is permitted to exist and develop naturally and without interference or conflict.

The Taoist ideal is to fulfil that which is naturally so, and the way to do this is Wu Wei.

Wu Wei

The method of following the Tao is called Wu Wei. This can be translated as uncontrived action or natural non-intervention.

Wu Wei is sometimes translated as non-action, but this wrongly implies that nothing at all gets done. The Tao Te Ching says:

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

– Tao Te Ching

Wu Wei means living by or going along with the true nature of the world – or at least without obstructing the Tao – letting things take their natural course.

So Taoists live lives of balance and harmony. They find their way through life in the same way that a river flowing through the countryside finds its natural course.

The One

The One is the essence of Tao, the essential energy of life, the possession of which enables things and beings to be truly themselves and in accord with the Tao.

Taoist texts sometimes refer to the Tao as the mother and the One as the son.

Wu and Yu

Wu and Yu are non-being and being, or not-having and having. Wu also implies inexhaustibility or limitlessness. Some writers suggest that Wu can be directly experienced by human beings.


Te is usually translated as virtue, but this translation uses some Confucian ideas and can be confusing.

Another way of looking at te is an awareness of the Tao together with the capabilities that enable a person to follow the Tao.

The world is a spiritual vessel, and one cannot act upon it; one who acts upon it destroys it.  

– Tao Te Ching

This doesn’t stop a person living a proactive life but their activities should fit into the natural pattern of the universe, and therefore need to be completely detached and disinterested and not ego-driven.

Perfect activity leaves no track behind it; perfect speech is like a jade worker whose tool leaves no mark.  

– Tao Te Ching 

This implies that Taoists take an attitude akin to Voltaire’s (satirically intended) doctrine that “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

And certainly pure Taoism requires individuals to live on the basis that the world is working properly, and that they therefore should not interfere with it.

Yin Yang

Yin Yang is the principle of natural and complementary forces, patterns and things that depend on one another and do not make sense on their own.

These may be masculine and feminine, but they could be darkness and light (which is closer to the original meaning of the dark and light sides of a hill), wet and dry or action and inaction.

These are opposites that fit together seamlessly and work in perfect harmony. You can see this by looking at the yin yang symbol.

The yin yang concept is not the same as Western dualism, because the two opposites are not at war, but in harmony.

This can be seen very clearly in the symbol: the dark area contains a spot of light, and vice versa, and the two opposites are intertwined and bound together within the unifying circle.

Yin and yang are not static, the balance ebbs and flows between them – this is implied in the flowing curve where they meet.

The Taoist body

Taoists view the body as a miniature of the universe, filled with the Tao. The parts of the body have their counterparts in physical features of the universe, and:


Ch’i or Qi is the cosmic vital energy that enables beings to survive and links them to the universe as a whole.


Immortality doesn’t mean living for ever in the present physical body.

The idea is that as the Taoist draws closer and closer to nature throughout their life, death is just the final step in achieving complete unity with the universe.

Knowledge and relativity

Human knowledge is always partial and affected by the standpoint of the person claiming that knowledge. There can never be a single true knowledge, merely the aggregate of uncountable different viewpoints.

Because the universe is always changing, so knowledge is always changing.

The closest a human being can get to this is knowledge that is consistent with the Tao. But this is a trap because the Tao that can be known is not the Tao. True knowledge cannot be known – but perhaps it can be understood or lived.