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The Ways of Tao

09 Jan 2020

Everything you can see, smell or touch is mysteriously well behaved. Why this is so is science's great puzzle and open to endless speculation.

Why, for instance, don’t atoms fly apart? They remain internally ordered and fiercely resist dismemberment. Science describes this tendency as ‘strong force’, but doesn’t know what it actually is. Why do atoms neatly bond to create substances like iron or salt?

What is gavity and how does it turn space junk into perfectly spherical planets, moons and stars? By what mysterious pattern do the different substances in our cells cooperate to create life? Why do the organs in our body coordinate to produce a sentient creature?

The reason, according to the teachings of Tao, is li.

In the West, our puzzlement over the magical dance of matter stems from a binary tradition inherited from Plato – mind/body, good/evil, heaven/earth, us/the rest of nature. This duality underpins both Judeo-Christian belief and modern science.

We took things apart to see how they worked and built a civilization on the power this knowledge gave us. But somewhere on the journey we lost the insight to explain the organising principle that held it all together.

We subcontracted it to God, which was a way of saying we didn't know. And that view has permitted great damage to nature.

Taoism, which emerged during the Chinese Song dynasty over 2 000 years ago, saw the world as being composed of qi – all matter and energy in the universe – and li – the ever-moving, ever-present patterns that flow through and organise everything. Systems can remain stable while physical matter comprising them changes. If qi is the water, li is the wave. One cannot exist without the other.

Where Western culture was driven by a desire to understand natural laws and take control of nature, the Taoists sought to discover the pattens that connect. Harmonising with nature’s li was their greatest goal.

During the Song dynasty, the Chinese worked out how to calculate true north and invented the odometer, hydrology, advanced mathematics, cartography, moveable type printing, structural engineering, archeology, gunpowder and soy sauce – all within the context of careful, non-exploitative harmony with the earth’s systems. The Song dynasty was eventually crushed by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in 1279.

If we need a set of principles to live by in a time of climate collapse and biodiversity meltdown, we could do well to dust off the ancient ways of Tao.

About the Author:


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.