Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophical tradition that has existed since the 5th century BCE.
It is a combination of spiritual healing, meditation and traditional Chinese medicine that attempts to answer some of our deepest existential questions.
Why are we here? What is our purpose? Taoist scribes found that these questions could begin to be answered by observing the natural world.
In their study of nature, Taoist scribes understood that the universe has a natural rhythm.
Planets orbit stars and seasons change with amazing regularity. Sunrise and sunset can be predicted many years into the future.
Animals also live their lives in a predictable manner. Their primary concern is maintaining the cycle of life and death through reproduction.
All living and non-living beings have a purpose — even if the being in question is unaware of it.
Christianity attributes these rhythms to the whims of a divine creator.
Taoism, on the other hand, suggests that these rhythms are intertwined and powered by self-sustaining forces.
These forces are all-encompassing. They might propel stars across the night sky, allow fish to breathe underwater, or give squirrels the foresight to collect acorns.
Harmony in the universe is determined by the intelligence of its constituent parts. The stars, the planets, the squirrels and so forth.
Here, the word intelligence describes the ability of a constituent part to go with the flow. To carry out its intended purpose.
All living and non-living beings have a purpose — even if the being in question is unaware of it.
An elephant doesn’t attempt to mate with a lion, because the purpose of an elephant is to mate with other elephants.
And even if the Earth could decide that it wanted to orbit the sun a little more slowly, this would upset the harmony of everything else.
Of course, the Earth, as majestic as it is, does not have the capacity for conscious thought. Thus, it cannot contravene the harmony of the universe.
What about people?
People do possess conscious thought, however.
As a result, people make decisions that are unharmonious. They make decisions that go against the flow of the universe.
This begs the question, how does a person with free will become harmonious with the universe? Indeed, how do we make sound decisions and play our roles with purpose?
To be harmonious, we must have a framework with which to understand the nature of all things and our place among them.
A framework that can be understood by first defining the concept of Tao.
Tao translates as the Way or the Path, and encompasses the natural laws that govern the universe and the forces that power them.
Tao is realised and the Way is walked when we exist harmoniously with these laws.
The fish that breathes underwater and does fishy things is in alignment with Tao. It has a purpose and everything it needs to carry out that purpose.
Of course, people are now more complex. We have built modern societies that have taken us away from our hunter-gatherer roots.
Since we no longer maintain that connection with the natural world, our Path must be walked more consciously.
But taking any old path will not do. We must align our actions with the actions of the natural world. Then and only then can we become harmonious with the universe.
One of the best ways that we can do this is through non-judgement.
Notions of good and bad do exist in Taoism, but not as separate entities.
Good and bad exist in the context of negative (yin) and positive (yang) forces that compete with and also complement each other.
When we are judgemental, we ignore the interconnected, free-flowing nature of these forces.
We can lament a cheetah killing a gazelle, or celebrate the gazelle becoming nourishment for the litter of cheetah cubs.
There is good and bad in every situation. Judgement is a futile effort.
Once we understand Tao and how it applies to us, how do we go about being in the real world?
Taoism is based on a holistic approach to being in the universe, rather than an approach to doing.
In the Historical Dictionary of Taoism, author Julian F. Pas notes that te “is the inner and out power bestowed on each being by Tao, or all the qualities for action inherent in the nature of each being, which gives each being a way to maintain itself, to grow and flourish.”
Translated more literally as power or strength, te is one of the fundamental concepts of Taoism.
Western notions of power and strength are often associated with domination, inflexibility and self-centredness.
But in Taoism, te is the power and strength of each constituent part of the universe by virtue of it simply existing.
Through existing, these parts gain the strength of te by carrying out their respective purposes to a high level.
Squirrels and the sun
Scientists have observed that squirrels bury and then rebury acorns in caches in the fall.
This behaviour is thought to confuse potential acorn thieves and maintain a fresh working memory of each cache location.
Nevertheless, there are sometimes so many caches that the squirrels forget where they are buried.
Undiscovered caches remain in the ground and sprout new oak trees, providing food for subsequent generations of squirrels.
Of course, the squirrel is unaware that future generations will profit from its forgetfulness.
The Earth is similarly unaware that its tilted rotational axis causes the seasonal changes that spur the squirrel into action.
Through a purposeful and harmonious existence, the Earth and the squirrel attain power and strength.
Purpose for conscious beings
While it is easy to understand that the Earth’s purpose is to rotate and make trips around the sun, our purpose as conscious beings are less clear.
Remember, our purpose is our inherent power or strength in alignment with Tao.
But conscious beings are rarely content with existing and being part of a larger system which they have no control over. We have jobs and dreams and houses and a BMW we are trying to save for.
With our capacity for free will, we believe that we can improve on or manipulate our existence.
That we can somehow make a peacock’s feathers more beautiful.
But existence and existence alone is the key to finding our purpose! We only have to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Purpose for photographers
Each photographer will walk a slightly different Way. Most, however, will strive for meaningful photography.
Finding their style. Expressing emotion. Dignifying the ordinary. It all points back to meaning.
Meaningful photography is often associated with mastery. Something elusive that we might stumble upon after 20 years of hard graft.
However, Taoism dictates that meaning is purpose and purpose is synonymous with existence.
We strive for the distant goal of mastery when meaning was right under our noses the whole time.
Meaning is not the same as mastery. Mastery is achieved in a linear fashion and is quantifiable. Meaning is non-linear, omnipresent and somewhat intangible.
Meaning is going with the flow.
Henri-Cartier Bresson likened meaning to a poetic experience.
His words speak of an intangible communion between the photographer and the landscape.
One could say that Cartier-Bresson was an inseparable part of the universe, acting in accord with his nature (purpose) and flourishing in the process. In this way, he became the physical embodiment of te – in alignment with himself and with the universe.
Of course, we have to be open to going with the flow. Power and strength will not materialise by merely being in a creative environment.
In going with the flow, writer Rory Mackay suggests we become like water:
Like water, we have to be fluid and take the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance being the Way, or Tao.
When we become like water, we align ourselves with the natural rhythms of the universe.
We allow moments to materialise and present themselves to us, instead of actively seeking them out.
But how does a photographer become like water in practice?
In answering that question, we need to back up a little bit.
Taoism and photography
When we first enter the brilliant world of photography, our default setting is often gear acquisition.
We can also be rigid in our photographic thinking. We imitate the work of others and we visit the same locations that everyone else does.
We believe that we can only make great images at certain times of the day. We follow rules and techniques to the tee.
We download entire workflows and slap them on our images without so much of a thought as to why.
Taoism calls this rigidity and slave-like adherence to procedure Little Understanding, and it can persist well beyond the beginner stage.
Photographers with Little Understanding are the imitators. But it’s not imitation with the intention of learning something.
Rather, it is mindless imitation akin to walking someone else’s path.
Photographers with Little Understanding are the elephants trying to mate with lions, seemingly unaware that they’ll fail spectacularly.
Such photographers are said to have constricted awareness. They are not aware of, much less open to, images that don’t fit their stringent criteria.
They are not aligned with Tao. They are choosing, consciously or otherwise, to go against the flow.
They are also highly judgemental. This overlook is the best overlook. That scene can’t be shot after 10 am on a Wednesday.
They attempt to choose the good over the bad. To create, in their eyes, a harmonious environment for them to operate in.
But harmony is not achieved by reasoned choice – recall that Taoism is not concerned with dualistic distinction.
When a photographer chooses disharmony, they are by extension relinquishing harmony.
They discount the power and strength of the universe and in so doing, become disconnected and weak.
After some time, we develop the ability to go beyond the postcard shots. We don’t shuffle toward the Grand Canyon overlook with 20 other photographers.
We’re off-trail somewhere, delighted at finding a stand of ancient bristlecone pines.
We may have had an idea that bristlecone pines were in the area. But we were, in our wanderings, happy to photograph whatever took our fancy.
In this sense, we were responding to a scene holistically and spontaneously – a sign that we have progressed to Great Understanding.
While photographers with Little Understanding try to bend the scene to their will, those with Great Understanding accept the scene as it is presented to them.
They are flexible to any compositions or moments of inspiration that may result. They don’t need to stand in certain places to feel good about themselves.
As a result, they are said to have unconstricted awareness.
They intuitively understand that they are a cog in a beautiful, ever-changing universe. A tiny cog, but a cog nonetheless.
These photographers don’t operate with a scarcity mindset if a great moment is missed.
Why? They understand the nature of a bountiful universe and that another moment is just around the corner.
Sagehood – every photographer’s dream
The most adept photographers will have a blend of Little Understanding and Great Understanding.
The photographer who is a stickler for rules and technique might know the exposure triangle like the back of their hand. But without spontaneity, their photographs will lack soul and creativity.
The spontaneous photographer will be free, flexible and unencumbered. But a lack of technique makes translating their free spirit into a photograph difficult.
Characteristics of the Sage
In the West, we tend to think of a sage as someone with a high level of wisdom and knowledge.
In Taoism, wisdom transcends knowledge. It reflects a profound understanding of life and how the Sage relates to the universe.
Characteristics of sagehood vary, depending on the Sage quoted and the translation used. They include qualities such as acceptance, resourcefulness, spontaneity, non-attachment and receptivity.
An oft-quoted piece is the concept of the three treasures by Taoist Sage Lao Tzu:
Let’s look at each of the three treasures in more detail and their relevance to photography.
Simplicity is expressed through thoughts and actions.
Simplicity is also about intuition. About rekindling that sense of joy and wonder that came so easily to us in childhood. We can achieve this by tapping into the inherent power of Tao.
Simple thoughts make room for spontaneity. You have a clear mind that is free from expectation, anticipation and judgement.
With a blank canvas, your interactions with the universe determine what sort of images you make.
Since you are free from limiting thoughts, you are not limited in your photography. You embrace novel ideas, subjects, or locations.
You don’t complicate your work with an excessive reliance on gear or process.
You understand that in simplicity, there is clarity of purpose and competence of technique.
Simplicity is about savouring the joy of living. The photographer who combines a joy of living with even a modest technical capability is a very good photographer indeed.
The Chinese say that patience and mulberry leaves will make a silk gown. And while you might not be interested in dressmaking, patience is a highly advantageous skill in photography.
A lack of patience can often result in missing the shot. Impatience often stems from a compulsion to control. To intentionally choose to take the path of most resistance and ignore our Tao.
We might curse the clouds for a gloomy beach sunset after we’ve waited all day for good light to appear.
But our impatience and compulsive need to control constricts our awareness. We are completely oblivious to the moody, ethereal photographs that could have been made in the forest directly behind us.
Patience, of course, extends to people too. Patient people are not simply tolerant of themselves or others. They are resourceful, flexible and non-judgemental.
They are not perturbed by temporary difficulties. A patient photographer understands that most images don’t present themselves on silver platters.
They take the scenic route home from work, even though it takes them longer to get home.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they are unhurried. They choose spontaneity over rigidity and trust that the universe will provide.
When photography is viewed as more than just a means to an end, creativity has a chance to thrive.
Compassion is the glue that holds the three treasures together. There are times when we won’t practice simplicity and patience.
We’ll attempt to dominate and control a location. We’ll get angry and feel violated when a photographer criticises our work. We’ll smash a filter on the ground and berate ourselves for clumsiness.
During good times, we find it easy to love ourselves. But self-compassion is particularly important during the bad times.
When we lose the Way or the sense of Tao, compassion is the compass that gets us pointing in the right direction.
Self-compassion helps us reconcile that fact we are as much a part of the universe as the universe is of us. If we love the universe through simplicity and patience, we must love ourselves by extension.
In loving ourselves, we love our photography and have no qualms with sharing our work, an extension of ourselves, with others.
Compassion then extends outwards, in the form of empathy and kindness.
To help people out and be of service to them. To volunteer at your local camera club or to empower a friend or colleague who is struggling to walk their own Path.
Far from being uncomfortable bedfellows, Taoism and photography are both attentive and holistic studies of the present, ever-changing moment.
We discovered that Tao is a central principle that governs powerful and purposeful natural rhythms of the universe. By choosing to be a part of this natural rhythm, we become powerful also and embody te.
But when photographers try to impose control over these natural rhythms, they grasp for connection instead of allowing the universe to present the connections to them.
They go against the flow by swimming upstream, expelling lots of energy in the process.
Since we cannot exert energy indefinitely, a far wiser strategy is to catch the Tao train and let it take us where it may. To align ourselves and our existence with the universe and carry out our purpose.
The attainment of wisdom over knowledge, to some extent, levels the playing field for photographers. Wisdom and meaning give you direction and fulfilment in your photography. They are ideals that you can strive for each and every time you have the camera in hand.
The wisdom of the Taoist Sage also grants us the capacity for patience, compassion and simplicity. Like purpose and meaning, these are not virtues that we necessarily ought to seek out.
For as long as we choose to exist harmoniously with this infinitely beautiful universe, we have everything that we’ll ever need.