I am beginning to study Taoism, and I am reading "Leih-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living" translated by Eva Wong. In "Part One. The gifts of Heaven: About the Nature of the Tao and the Origin of Things" (see pg. 9), it reads

Humanity is a product of the interaction of yin and yang energies, and, like all living things, we go through the cycle of birth, growth, and death. Thus, birth and death are natural occurrences and should not be fought against. Because we owe our existence to the Tao, we do not possess our bodies, nor do we have any control over our destiny. All things come and go naturally. What must come will come without our help, and what must go will leave no matter how hard we try to prevent it. This is the Way of the Tao. Only those who understand it can be free from the anxieties of birth, growth, and death [emphasis mine].

Is Taoism a deterministic philosophy?

If this is not the case, then how are we to understand the above quote? It suggests that we do not "have any control over our destiny." and that "What must come will come without our help, and what must go will leave no matter how hard we try to prevent it", for "This is the Way of the Tao.".

If Taoism is a deterministic philosophy, then how are we to understand karma? To my mind it doesn't make sense to attribute either positive or negative karma to actions that have been predetermined and in which we have no choice.

2 Answers 2


I would argue that the author you have cited has, whether intentionally or not, oversimplified the Taoist meaning of wei-wu-wei, hence part of the confusion. Her language makes the whole concept fatalistic, which it is not...nor is Taoism. Nor is Taoism deterministic. David Loy in his book Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy states in Chapter 3, Nondual Action:

Such nondual action requires that there be no differentiation between agent and act; in other words, no awareness of an agent as distinct from its actions. This chapter explores what that might mean. The first section argues that the Taoist paradox of wei-wu-wei (the action of inaction) is a description of such nondual action. It is highly significant that the same paradox is found in two other nondualistic traditions, clearly enunciated in the Bhagavad-gita and more fully developed in the Buddhist account of the Bodhisattva's path. Comparing these we discover that the difference between dualistic and nondualistic action involves intention. The mental process of intending a result from an action devalues that act into a means and functions as a superimposition that bifurcates the nondual "psychic body" into a mind inhabiting a body, "a ghost in a machine." The second section supports this by demonstrating that the bifurcating role of intentionality is one of the crucial claims of in the first chapter of of the Tao Te Ching; that chapter is explicated in detail.

and further:

Nondual action has just been defined as action in which there is no awareness by an agent, the subject that is usually believed to do the action, of being distinct from an objective action that is done. Chapter 2 gave us a occasion to notice that nondual experience tends to be described in one of two ways; wither the subject incorporates the object, or vice-versa. In the present case the first alternative amounts to denying any action is performed. It can hardly be coincidence that we find precisely this claim in the wei-wu-wei of Taoism. Weo-wu-wei is the central paradox of Taoism and as a concept is second in importance only to the Tao itself, which incorporates it...

and further on in the same chapter:

...for Nietzsche, intention and the will in general are epiphenomena and not the true cause of of an action.

Such a denial of volition (by no means uncommon) is usually understood to imply determinism, but the concept of nondual action suggests an alternative that escapes the usual dilemma of freedom versus determinism. THe usual formualations of that problem are dualistic in presupposing a conscious subject whose actions either are completely determined by a causal chain (the strongest causal influence reaps the effect) or are free from the causal chain (or rather free from complete determinination, since totally uncaused, random choice does not seem to provide freedom in any meaningful sense). Both alternatives assume the existence of a conscious self distinct from its actions and existent outside the causal chain, although its actions may be totally determined by external causes. But the nondualist claim that there is no self does not imply unimpeded determinism, for if there is no subject then there are also no "objective" causal factors. The deterministic view implies a self helpless before causal influences that struggle among themselves to see which is strongest, rather like medieval knights competing to see who will win the hapless lady; but if there no hapless consciousness here then the situation must be understood differently. Hobbes said that "liberty or freedom signifies properly the absense of opposition" and that captures our common-sense notion of freedom from. This means that the concept of freedom is dualistic in two senses. Free is dependent upon its opposite, becoming the negation of unfree, and moreover that opposite is dualistic in the sense that one thing constrains another. If there is no "other" to be opposed, as in nondualistic experience, such dualistic concepts do not apply. In later chapters I argue that the nondualistic denial of self (as in Buddhism) is equivalent to asserting that there is only the Self (as in Vedanta). We would normally infer that the former implies complete determinism, the latter absolute freedom. However, if the universe is a whole (Brahman, Tao, Vijnaprmatrata, etc.) and if, as Hua Yen Buddhism develops in its original image of Indra's Net, each particular is not isolated but contains the whole universe that acts--or rather, is the action. And if we accept that the universe is self-caused, then its acts freely whenever anything is done. Thus, from the nondualistic perspective, complete determinism turns out to be equivalent to absolute freedom.

The very old Astavakra Samhita says - He who considers himself free is free indeed, and he who considers himself bound remains bound. 'As one thinks, so one becomes' is a popular saying in this world and it is quite true.

Karma is a theory in Hinduism and Buddhism; although the elements of it might be derived from Taoist philosophy, I am not aware of its development as an element of Taoism.

  • Thank you so much for your deep response. So you would argue that she has translated the text in a way that obfuscates the original meaning? Can you please recommend that any sources for someone interested in Taoism? For example, translations of the Tao Te Ching or expository texts? Oct 21, 2020 at 0:45
  • For what it is worth, this is pretty close to what I already believe. I come from a Christian tradition in which freedom is understood as the degree to which one flourishes according to their nature. According to that tradition, we are all endowed with a divine nature and this nature is obscured when we make decisions out of ignorance or foolishness. Jesus tells us "whoever sins is a slave to sin", and "whoever the son sets free, is free indeed". Oct 21, 2020 at 0:50
  • I'd like to add the example of a little boy trying to hasten the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly. But in the act of opening the cacoon he kills the butterfly. Some things will unfold by themselves, and the wisest thing is to patiently wait (doing not doing).
    – Boondoggle
    Mar 30, 2021 at 18:07

First, the daoist canon is not a uniform beast. The original text was Laozi's daodejing, Liezi and Zhuangzi wrote a generation or two later (as best anyone can tell), and they all had somewhat different takes on the nature of the dao and humankind's relationship to it. The latter two were a bit more jaded than the first — a bit less optimistic about life — but still...

Casting daoism as deterministic is a bit misleading. Daoism is naturalistic, but it doesn't presume that nature has only one course. A stream might naturally flow towards low ground, but there are many different low grounds for it to flow towards, and many different paths by which it might flow to each. Further, humankind (being what we are) can redirect the energy of that flow: siphoning off water to grow a crop or supply a village; using a water wheel to grind grain. We get ourselves into trouble when we work against nature rather than working with nature, because nature is ultimately far more powerful than we are. But when we work with nature we can apply some part of that incalculable power to our own ends.

So yes, in a sense we have no control over destiny. We don't make cows produce milk or bees produce honey; we can't make ourselves be born or stop ourselves from dying. But we can gather flocks and make beehives, aiding nature to produce the milk and honey we want; we can gather the plants that make medicines which make babies healthier and illnesses milder. We have latitude within the system to change course, and what we really need is the insight to know when our egos are trying to do too much, or the wrong thing, or whatever might go against the flow of human and worldly nature.

The concept of 'karma' comes from a different philosophical system, so one must be wary making comparisons, but I think it's perfectly possible to see karma as the outcome of our interactions with the dao. When we run against the natural flow, or when we try to push our control of it too far, we risk that flow escaping our grasp and running wild. Everything we tried to structure goes against us in unpredictable and unpleasant ways. But I wouldn't take that analogy too literally.

  • The old saw, 'Simple is often best', certainly holds here in Ted's answer. The simplicity in the analogies and tying them to the flow of the Tao makes the crux of the matter easy to grasp and to retain in mind for further reflection. Thanks Mr. Wrigley! For a more fulsome but not necessarily more accessible treatment of the 'Tao te Ching', see Academia.edu, 'A Spinozistic Tao re Ching'.
    – user37981
    Oct 20, 2020 at 3:19

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