The Wisdom of the Taoist Mystics by David Howard Smith

For as long as humans have thought deeply about existence there has been an intuition that there must be some universal principle of natural order.

This would be a background reality to which even the gods as imagined in human culture would be subject. It has been conceived as the Indian Vedic ‘Rta’ and ‘Dharma’, the Zoroastrian ‘Asha’ and the Egyptian ‘Maat’. In Greek pagan thought it was ‘Moira’ or ‘Ananke’. ( In The New Testament we find reference to ‘λόγος’ (‘logos’). The enigmatic phrase in John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ speaks of an underlying imperative to everything. An inscription of this verse, in Latin, adorns the entrance to my College (image below).

Immanuel Kant ( argued that there are limits to human knowledge in his 1781 work ‘The Critique of Pure Reason‘. Sketching these limits he argued that there must, nevertheless, be a ‘ding an sich’ (a ‘something in itself’) which eludes all possible forms of apprehension. Arthur Schopenhauer was thinking along these lines in the 19th century when he argued for an underlying ‘Will’ (Cf. and There has also been a long and distinguished tradition within religion called ‘apophatic theology’, or ‘the via negativa’ ( This has always stressed the ineffability of God.  The crucial point about such a reality is that it is not arrived at, nor can it be captured or formulated by, rational thought. So we are in the realm of mystical experience. Contemplation trumps reason in this realm.

In ancient Chinese religion, the Taoist mystics ( referred to this reality as ‘Tao’. David Howard Smith has put together a superb collection of sayings and stories from this tradition in 1980. Central texts are offered from Lao-tzu ( and Chuang-Tzu ( He explains in the introduction:  “Taoists believed that the whole cosmos is spirit-fraught, and that there is a spiritual dimension to man himself. Yet few saw reason to believe in a creative, purposive God. The whole universe — gods, spirits, men, living creatures, even the inanimate fields, rocks, hills and streams — were all seen as part of an ever-changing process at the heart of which lay some principle of unity, so hidden and mysterious that its secrets could not be penetrated by human reason or intellect. To seek and find that mysterious principle, to discover it within one’s most inmost being, to observe its workings in the great universe outside, and to become utterly engulfed in its serenity and quietude came to be the supreme goal of the Taoist mystics. Apprehending it to be ineffable, impalpable and nameless, they nevertheless gave it the name Tao.”

Chuang-tzu, who lived in the fourth century BC, was caught up in the changes and transitions of life. Since everything is temporary, it makes no sense to be attached to things. And in Lao-Tzu’ Tao Te Ching, we see the many mysteries of life are not to be ‘solved’ but to be deepened. Smith writes of this view: “The whole universe is essentially One, and the wise man realizes his own indissoluble unity with the whole. By reaching down into the Tao of his own nature he hopes to attain a perfect oneness with the principle of all life and movement. In such tranquillity nothing can ever disturb the spirit which realizes that joy and sorrow, life and death, are but incidental to the marvellous ordering of things, and are no more significant than night and day.”

To plumb the depth of your own Tao, enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.

96 pages in Sheldon Press

First published 1980

ISBN  978-0859693165

To follow up and interest in mysticism begin with the balanced and informative article in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Available at the link Four books helped me understand mysticism (in so far at that is possible). Reach for any of the following:

  1. Staal, Frits, 1973, Exploring Mysticism, London: Penguin (
  2. Underhill, Evelyn, 1945, Mysticism, A study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, London: Methuen. (
  3. Zaehner, R. C., 1961, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, New York: Oxford University Press. (
  4. O’Neal, David, 2005, Meister Eckhardt, from whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings, and Sayings (

In addition, Steven T. Katz has edited a useful collection of original material in Comparative Mysticism, An Anthology of Original Sources, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. ( This is worth having on your own shelves.

Best wishes for the long journey.

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In Principio Erat Verbum
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