What do you say?

It seems that natural curiosity drives people to want to discover the beliefs of the people they know. Inevitably the people I know ask me what I believe in or what religion I am. When this comes up what to you say?

In my experience when I tell someone I am a Taoist I know that I will have to spend some time explaining what Taoism is in a nutshell. Some people just dismiss it as something weird while others ask me why I am not religious. My thoughts are that I support other people's religious beliefs because ultimately we are working towards the same goal, I just find that religion is a convoluted path towards the same end result. It is a shame that most of the religious people I encounter are intolerant of the idea that one can live their life by a philosophy and not a religion.

Anyone else have some experiences or insight they want to share on this subject?


  • Religion in reality, as opposed to the ideal, is political. Religious ideals are ideal 'worlds' that people aspire too, or use to judge other people by. Religions are like a shared tribal scent that let those of the shared religion (tribe) know who is on their side.

    It is this tribal bonding nature of religion that guarantees the "intolerance" you notice. It could hardly be any other way, realistically speaking.That is one of its main purposes: to delineate one tribe (group of people) from another.

    Of course, in modern times (the last 1000 years or so I suppose) there is also secular politics which serves this purpose as well, especially since the advent of 'democracy' and the decline of Kings.

    The bottom line: People instinctively need 'ammunition' for which to judge others and gauge who is 'good' and who is 'bad' (or: right or wrong, intelligent or dumb, beautiful or ugly, and so on). Religion is just another means to accomplish that.

    I think you're making a mistake I made for years (and often still do until I catch myself ). You are judging humanity by its own standards. That is a no win, always end in hypocrisy, situation.
  • It is always powerful to inject history into the discussion. The historical perspective that religions were at least in part created with by political motivation sounds right to me. You can still see signs of this in the world - some places are more overt than others. For example, in my experience living in Mexico (this was a few years ago) I noticed national flags decorating the altars in catholic churches. For this reason I always stumble my words when explaining to someone that I practice the tao. As you say, I practice a philosophy not a religion and "the tao that can be told is not the true tao." So often I wind up sounding like a baffoon when explaining that I am a tao practitioner. These days I usually settle for saying that essentially it is no different than Buddhism; it is to cultivate and follow one's true nature.
  • edited January 2011
    These days I usually settle for saying that essentially it is no different than Buddhism; it is to cultivate and follow one's true nature

    And Buddhism, at least as far as his 4 truths are concerned, is easily explained. Although, I'm always awed by the difficulty many have in understanding its simple obvious truth. I expect it is simply that it says what they don't wish to hear. Also, I find we can't really understand what we don't already know intuitively. That's probably another way to say the same thing.

    As far as explaining the taoist view: Now I usually say at its core, the taoist view sees words, names, language, and thinking as utterly unreliable ways of knowing. There are more references to this angle than most any other as these chapters (among others) show 1,2,3,4, 5,10,14,15,16,19,20,23,32,56,71,81.

    I usually point out the disclaimer with which the Tao Te Ching begins "the tao that can me spoken of is not the constant tao". Saying how this is what truly sets the taoist view apart from all others (as far as I know) is also pretty straight forward.
  • I have been having the same problem. I spent my christmas holiday trying to elucidate the ideas of the Tao Te Ching to my family and friends, and I found the more I talked about it, the more confused the listeners became. I found myself talking round in circles, always coming back on myself and contradicting myself. It really isn't something one can explain using words.

    Side note: Is there a Taoism joke in Fight Club on this point? Obviously the film has Taoist undertones. Now, the first rule of Fight Club is, You do not talk about Fight Club, yes? And I wonder if this is a nod to Lao Tzu. One could translate the first lines of the TTC as, "The first rule of Tao Club is, you do not talk about Tao Club".

    It just tickled me, that's all. You think it was intentional?
  • We place entirely to much faith in word and names. I see this as a core thing the Tao Te Ching attempts to point out throughout its few pages. I'm not sure it succeeds however. The main reason for this failure is, as I've come to realize, we can't truly understand what we don't already know. No amount of explanation (words) can overcome this barrier. Our own agenda, desires, fears, needs, limit what we are capable of truly knowing. Thus, we come to know slowly, through time, as we leave those fears and need behind.

    So, it is not so much that one 'shouldn't talk about 'it'. It is more that words don't work. More significant than what is said, is how it is interpreted by the listener. Misunderstanding is the rule, not the exception. In a way, the only ones who will truly understand what you are saying are those who already know (whether or not they can put it into words). Kind of ironic, eh? :-?
  • We place entirely to much faith in word and names

    Interesting use of the word faith there. I can't believe it has been almost a year since I put this post up and then all of a sudden there is a flurry of responses. needless to say a lot has changed since then. I have found that for me it is easier to simply state that I am an atheist when asked. As Carl has pointed out, unless you have a lot of time to talk to someone about what Taoism is there will be no quick explanation that will appease someone who doesn't know anything about Taoism. People know what an atheist is and I feel that I don't owe anyone a justification as to why I am atheist so we can generally move on to another conversation. I suppose this may be taking the path of least resistance but it seems to me that this is something that the Tao Te Ching teaches anyway.
  • Yes, how time zoooms by! To me that is a sign that I'm happy. When I'm in pain time drags on.

    How about saying you are a cynic in the classical Greek sense. I see that as much closer to taoist than atheist. Atheist and the theist are complementary and ironically the same. Even closer would be to refer to oneself as a impartialist, or perhaps an imparital cynic.

    Woe to him who wilfully innovates
    While ignorant of the constant,
    But should one act from knowledge of the constant
    One's action will lead to impartiality

    From Wikipedia: Cynicism (Greek: κυνισμός), in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics (Greek: Κυνικοί, Latin: Cynici). Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society. Many of these thoughts were later absorbed into Stoicism.
  • Time has indeed flown by. Great job, great life, and a new son this past October. I could want for nothing more.

    I suppose I choose to say I am an atheist for a few reasons.

    1) As Wikipedia defines it, an Atheist is one who rejects the belief in the existence of deities or specifically the belief that no deities exist. Where Theism is the belief that at least one deity exists.

    2) I definitely do not believe that there is such a thing as a deity and feel that, at the core, this label fits.

    3) Most importantly I think that all of the suggestions you made, while good one in their own right, lead to a further explanation. If i tell someone "I am a cynic in the classic Greek sense" I then have to explain to said person what that actually means. By stating I am an Atheist the assumption is that I am not a religious person.

    Makes for a much shorter conversation on the matter.
  • As long as we continue to identify ourselves within a conceptually constructed framework of I am a Taoist, I am a Buddhist, I am an atheist, we are still just reinforcing an egoic sense of self, albeit how strongly deconstructive the ideas may be. I suppose it is necessary, I recall the phrase something along the lines of...

    a raft is needed to cross the river, after which it is discarded.
  • Congratulations!

    I see your point!

    In similar situations, I often toss out outrageous taoistic views, which tends to cut the conversation short for anyone not wanting to venture 'outside the box', so to speak (which is most everyone). I'm such a bore. Although, I may be heading in your direction. I grow weary with time. :-)
  • I think ultimately all one can do in this situation is pick that path that they feel most comfortable with. Some people welcome the opportunity to talk about Taoism. I personally feel that if I am one who doesn't appreciate someone pushing their beliefs on me then I would choose the path that would ensure that I don't do the same in return.

    I also am one who is willing to talk about Taoism if someone is looking for information.. I don't want it to seem as if I am ashamed of my beliefs.
  • Hey mr minor, Long time long time.

    It is all just for social interaction purposes. (That's why I like to use the lower case spelling, 'taoist'.) I regard words (descriptions, ideas) as essentially serving the same purpose that odors do in dogs. Their reality lies in how they facilitate the social process (like smell does in dogs), not in actual truth or meaning conveyed. Words hoodwink awareness. :roll:
  • yes long time! I didn't mean to sound dismissive. "Words hoodwink awareness." I like that one!
  • edited March 2011
    Discussing tao with people who have never heard of it can be like trying to push water up hill, I try to keep it simple I generally say I am trying to become all I can be through self analysis it‘s a bit like (cognitive behaviour therapy) explaining it‘s psychological not religious
    or it might just be the odour of a riverdog di think (sometimes)
  • my reply to "what religion are you?" is invariably:

    'religion' is a political framework built around and meant to control 'faith'...i am not big on religion, but i am a taoist by faith.
  • I have always said I believe in being and that is enough for me. How high or low people want to go is to their own choice. Taoism is a perspective of this I believe.

    Honestly in describing the Tao, and confusing people more and more, sounds like a chapter from the TTC. Or, it is possible you are confused. Einstein said that "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Either way, I am sure there is more we can elucidate in understanding, and a simpler way of sharing our practices.

    The real question you might want to ask yourself before you go into a full in depth definition is what are they asking. Listen to what it is they are asking and the answer is clear. Are they asking for a title, then being is enough, are they asking or ramifications, or stultifying aspects, or are they earnest, is it for you, for them, or to understand, grow. You can not teach something to someone who is not interested in listening. Do what is there before you, don't worry about what you should say, just listen to what is part of the conversation, and how it feels.

    I would agree that religion is political, as politics is simply a body on individual beliefs.

    I have never had trouble explaining tao to people. I just teach them from the things they already know, already do, and then explain that this is an extension of that. I taught my friend to meditate from how they bike ride, i feel that the tao is always there, and we all are part of it, and often touch it in personal ways. We just are not always aware of it, or comprehending. It is like pointing out that the air is around us, or fresh, to those who have learned to ignore it.

    I never agreed with the idea that titles define us. We are using words here which are all symbols. I believe like the raft we use them to explain an idea, more often to point around the idea so that we may imply the actual meaning. Either way, the terms neither imply singularity nor congruity, they merely are a statement of situation and perspective in a period of time. It is a bit akin to the ascetic who gets rid of things because they are as equally attached to the idea of the things as when they got them. If they did not matter, then they would be simply static.
  • edited April 2013
    Einstein said that "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
    I agree with Einstein when we're talking about 'solids' that lend themselves to rational explanation (i.e. words). When attempting to explain Nothing, we run into problems.

    How do you explain Nothing with Something. Nothing is the base upon which Something manifests itself, or as chapter 40 puts it: Having is born in nothing. (or D.C.Lau' translated it: The myriad creatures in the world are born from Something, and Something from Nothing.)

    This is why words fail and why science, at its best, can only address the objective tip of reality's iceberg. Of course, that pretty much goes for any attempt to crack the mystery, including religion.

    If it was crackable, it would not be the mystery, or as chapter 67 say, Under heaven, all say my way is great resembling nothing. (or as D.C.Lau's,translated it: If it resembled anything, it would, long before now, have become small.)
  • I admire what metis wrote.

    I do not share the apparent despise Carl has to words. Similar to metis, I think they are just symbols, never meant to contain exact meanings of things, but useful as hints and lead-ons. They are good for some things, and bad for others. You would not blame chopsticks because you cannot eat soup with them.

    Mastery of Lao Tzu is in using words ambiguously, overloading their usual meanings. This way, he creates polyphony of meanings which interact as voices in a Bach's fuge.

    This way, the words lose their usual meanings, and become a form of art that talks of beauty, the language of Tao.
Sign In or Register to comment.