26A. The Lao Tzu: Cultivating Feminine Energy

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The Feminine in Taoism

The importance of the mother-son relationship between Mother Li and Lao Tzu symbolizes the significance of the feminine in Taoism. It could even be argued that one of the unique aspects of Taoist philosophy is that it employs the woman, not the man, as a metaphor for living. In contrast, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all look to man, whether god or human, as an exemplary metaphor of our relationship to the universe. This does not mean that Taoism values women more highly than men, just some of their characteristics.

The dichotomy between the 2 gender perspectives could be generalized to a few polarities – domination vs. cultivation – aggression vs. fertility. To avoid over-generalizing the woman metaphor in Taoism, let us look at some specific examples from the Lao Tzu to refine our understanding.

The modern version of the Tao te Ching consists of 81 numbered song-poems of varying length. Composed in a primarily oral culture, Taoist practitioners were probably meant to memorize and recite the verses, as most people couldn’t read1. Indeed, this practice continues into current times. The Master provides aspiring Taoists with a verse from the Tao te Ching that they commit to memory, presumably to facilitate understanding.

The Tao te Ching frequently likens the Tao to the female/mother, not the male/father.

“The valley and the female, like the infant and water, are Lao Tzu’s favorite symbols for Tao.”2

Here are a few examples.

1. “As the origin of heaven-and earth [the Tao] is nameless.
As ‘the Mother’ of all things [the Tao] is nameable.”3

25. “It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.

Man follows the ways of Earth,
Earth follows the ways of Heaven,
Heaven follows the ways of Tao,
Tao follows its own way.”4

According to the Lao Tzu, the Tao, as mother, gives birth to the universe, both heaven and earth. Further the universe follows the ways of Tao, rather than vice-versa. What are some of the other feminine characteristics of the Tao?

6. “The valley spirit not dying
is called the mysterious female.
The opening of the mysterious female
is called the root of heaven and earth.
Continuous, on the brink of existence,
to put it into practice don’t force it.”5

Song-poem #6 of the Tao te Ching speaks about the ‘valley spirit’, the ‘mysterious female’, and ‘her opening’, which is ‘the root of heaven and earth’.

When analyzing the text, many commentators emphasize the link between the ‘valley spirit’ and the potentiality of emptiness. This is entirely appropriate in the Taoist context.  Many verses of the Tao te Ching refer to the notion of ‘useful emptiness’. For instance, the ‘useful’ part of a bowl or a room is their emptiness, not the container.

However, the verse seems to have some relatively obvious sexual connotations. The ‘mysterious opening’ that is unique to women could easily be the vagina. Impregnated, this ‘mysterious opening’ gives birth to life. Metaphorically, the opening could be associated with the generative power that gives birth to both heaven and earth.

How do we tap into this enormous vitality? The last line of the song-poem reveals the answer. “To put it into practice, don’t force it.”

The fifth line suggests that the mysterious or profound energy that creates something from nothing is on the verge of existence. In fact, force drives it away, presumably because it is so delicate. Finesse and sensitivity are instead required to tap into these potentials.

In terms of sexual imagery, subtlety and sensitivity must be employed to awaken the woman’s erotic energy that might lead to pregnancy and birth. Her 'mysterious opening' cannot be forced open. Rape is not an acceptable strategy. Gentleness and responsiveness are required to tap into a woman’s enormous sexual energies.

 In terms of the Tao, it can’t be forced open, i.e. dominated in a military fashion with the biggest guns, the biggest cock. Instead the female body, the metaphor for the Tao, must be coaxed, stroked, and cultivated. Nothing instantaneous. No instant understanding. No force. Instead a gradual process of awakening.

The sexual metaphor behind Song-Poem #6 provides a deeper understanding about how to tap into the generative potentials of the Tao. The process is likened to the subtle sexual approach by which the woman become moist with desire, not the military process of how to win a battle or conquer another country.

The Lao Tzu’s sexual metaphor reveals much about the Taoist perspective. The Tao must be cultivated, not dominated. The process takes time and is not instantaneous. The Tao is generative, not static. It is a process, not a state or an event. Further the verse concerns fertility, rather than possession. Instead of being unique to the time period, these features characterize the enduring millennia-long tradition of Taoism.

Xiang’er commentary on the Lao Tzu #6

An early Taoist text called Xiang’er illustrates the importance of the sexual metaphor. It was probably written between 190 to 215 CE by a member of the Celestial Masters, an early Taoist organization. The work is a commentary on the Lao Tzu. Let’s see what it says about Song-poem #6, that we just discussed.

‘The gate of the mysterious female is called the root of heaven and earth.’

“The ‘feminine’ refers to the earth. Women are patterned after it. The vagina is the ‘gate,’ the comptroller of life and death. It is the very crux [of existence] and thus is called ‘the root’. The penis is also called ‘the root.’”

‘Desiring that one’s spirits do not die – this is called the mysterious feminine.’

“Gu [valley] means desire. Essence [jing] congeals to form spirits. … If a man wishes to congeal his essence he should mentally pattern himself on earth and be like a woman. He should not work to give himself priority.”6

This Taoist organization looked at sex as a metaphor for the proper life. Sex between men and women gives rise to an embryo that eventually becomes a child. Man’s essence, his sperm, is the vital seed that is implanted in the woman to initiate this process. Essence [jing] is associated with our sexual energy. For the man, jing is likened to sperm.

Taoists employ this process as a metaphor for the spiritual quest. Instead of creating a live embryo, they want to create a spiritual embryo. To achieve this end, it is necessary to cultivate internal feminine energies in conjunction with the masculine. However, we should not work to give our masculine energies priority. The male and especially the female essences are both required for the proper result. Taoists were presumably able to join male and female energies to create a spiritual embryo, which when cultivated generated spiritual transformation, or even immortality.

As Song Poem #28 reveals, humility, not aggression, is a crucial feature of the feminine energy.

“Know the male, keep the female;
be humble toward the world.
Be humble to the world, and eternal power never leaves,
returning again to innocence.”7

When the Heavenly Masters and many Taoists that followed referred to these passages, they were probably thinking of the woman in the act of sex. In contrast to the man, the woman does not lose her vital juices when she has orgasm. Instead of ejaculating sperm in a manly fashion, men were counseled to retain their sexual energies like a woman. In this way, Taoists employ sperm retention as a method of achieving spiritual immortality.

For those of us who want to cultivate creative energies to generate a work of art of whatever variety, this process could be reinterpreted to mean that we must cultivate receptive energy (associated with Earth and the feminine) as well as aggressive energy (associated with Heaven and the masculine). Instead of attempting to be in deliberate, conscious control (the masculine) of the creative process, we must be sensitive to what arises naturally and spontaneously from our internal garden (the feminine). In other words, we must cultivate fertility rather than dominating it. Regardless of how the passages are interpreted, it is evident that the Lao Tzu counsels us to nurture our inner essence, i.e. our generative powers/fertility, via our feminine energies in order to maximize our Life’s potentials.

Could the Taoist Cultivation Metaphor derive from the Neolithic Fertility Culture?

What does this unique mindset reveal about the origination of Taoist beliefs? The cultivation metaphor derives from an agricultural, not militaristic, perspective. Further, the Tao te Ching regularly suggests that the practitioner cultivate feminine energies rather than masculine. For instance:

28. “Know the male yet preserving the female is essential for all under heaven.”

Another translation: 28. “You should make the male as the female. If you know the essential and keep still your essence and spirits, you will achieve the essential here below heaven.” 8

61. “The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness.”

“The passages in question [from the Tao te Ching] seem to imply that what is wrong with our normal attitudes and behavior is their excessive ‘masculinity’. … The Tao te Ching clearly warns that males who follow attitudes and behavior that is characterized as ‘masculine’ will bring disaster to themselves and those around them. The Tao te Ching, in its full form, even advocates ‘feminine behavior’ for rulers.”9

This emphasis upon ‘feminine’ energies suggests that the roots of Taoist thought precede the militaristic Bronze Age and instead lie in the fertility cults of Neolithic/Paleolithic. However, this statement requires qualification. As mentioned, Taoism did not have a founder, like Christianity, Islam or Buddhism; nor did it have a Bible, like Judaism. Instead China’s Taoism, like India’s Hinduism, is a matrix of beliefs and practices that emerged from multiple sources.

Indeed, 21st century scholarship has revealed that the Tao te Ching has at least 3 levels of accretion. Like the West’s Bible and India’s Mahabharata, the Tao te Ching seems to have multiple authors and was compiled over centuries. While some of the song-poems could have been composed as early as the 3rd century BCE, it probably did not reach its present form until the 5th century CE – an 800-year process. Stated more accurately, one of Taoism’s branches probably sourced from the egalitarian fertility cults that preceded the patriarchy of the Bronze Age. What does this mean?

Taoism: Female Fertility over Male Militarism

Fertility Culture of the Paleolithic and Neolithic seemed to be Egalitarian

The fertility cultures that flourished during the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras of our human species were fairly egalitarian. (For more see the treatise, Prehistoric Cultural Ages.) Men and women are presented relatively equally in both gravesites and artistic renditions from these cultures. Further, this so-called fertility culture seems to have also been relatively peaceful - especially compared to what followed.

Peaceful Trade-based Cultures emphasize Fertility rather than Warfare

The archaeological evidence, although sparse, seems fairly definitive. In general, the small population hubs were centrally, rather than defensively, located. Seemingly based in trade, their towns were conveniently located in valleys to maximize commercial potentials, rather than on hilltops to maximize military advantages. Further the art doesn’t glorify warriors, battles or weaponry and instead portrays people interacting in a seemingly harmonious, perhaps even ceremonial, fashion. Finally fertility, rather than warfare, seems to be the focus of the society. Female fertility figures, pregnant with life, abound. Weaponry is minimal.

Egalitarian with emphasis upon feminine values

Despite the emphasis upon ‘feminine’ values, women were not elevated over men in importance. Both sexes are given equivalent treatment in the representations that are left behind. Further, slavery seemed rare.

Bronze Age Warrior Cultures enslave Agrarian Population and institute Male War God

This situation changed with the following Bronze Age. Invading military cultures enslaved the indigenous agrarian societies. In many cases, they imposed the male sky gods of war upon the community at the expense of the local fertility goddesses. Under this perspective, the ‘one god’ theme was simply a pragmatic strategy for eliminating the competition. “Only worship me, the Male Sky god of war.”

Militaristic Patriarchal Hierarchies replace Artistic Fertility Egalitarian Societies

These Bronze Age cultures were militaristic, patriarchal hierarchies. Women’s rights plummeted from equal participant to the status of chattel – merely the man’s property. The rise of endemic warfare between competing militaristic cultures led by warrior-kings led inevitably to the elevation of the Warrior over the Artist – military prowess over the creative process for pragmatic reasons.

Fertility Goddesses & Values go underground.

Due to suppression combined with a shift in values due to increasing militarism, the fertility goddesses and their religious values went underground. Although frequently censored, especially by the monotheistic religions of the West, these fertility goddesses frequently emerged as a significant feature of the Sky God religions. The Mother Mary is a prominent example of this process.

Paleolithic Fertility vs. Bronze Age Militarism Perspectives continue to compete

Significant characteristics of both the Paleolithic fertility cultures and the Bronze Age military cultures have persisted into modern times. Further, these dual and competing perspectives show no signs of abating. One side glorifies war and aggressive military values. The other side honors and strives towards peace so that both Business and Art can flourish. The 2 value systems continue to compete on many fronts - politically, culturally and religiously.

Taoism reflects Feminine Fertility Perspective

The traditional and continuing essence of Taoism seems to epitomize (or at least reflect) the practices, perspectives and beliefs of the preceding fertility cultures. There are many reasons for this conclusion. 1) Taoists venerate the woman along with her body, not merely for beauty, but as an actual metaphor for the Tao – that which provides Life with meaning and vitality. 2) Taoist religious organizations have generally worked for peace. 3) They also have been non-dogmatic and inclusive, rather than dogmatic and exclusive. No excommunication, witch-hunts, policy purifications or Crusades within Taoist communities. Instead all are welcome. Because of these features, Taoism has become an umbrella religion that aims at peace and tranquility, the foundation of equality, freedom and justice.

Taoism: Non-dogmatic Practice-based Perspective

Taoists have embraced a non-dogmatic, practice–based perspective. They tend to emphasize body alignment over beliefs. Their prime books, the Lao Tzu and especially the Chuang Tzu attack the abstractions of the verbal reality. The Chuang Tzu in particular stresses the importance of escaping the bondage of the world of words in order to the experience true freedom – the ability to wander on faraway, as-you-like-it paths.

The Chinese tend to associate the Body and Earth with the Woman or the feminine, while they associate the Mind and Heaven with the Man or the masculine. As evidence, the most masculine hexagram, i.e. composed of all yang lines, in the Book of Changes is labeled Heaven or the Creative, while the most feminine hexagram, i.e. all yin lines, is called Earth or the Receptive. Taoists definitely stress the Body/Earth/Woman complex over the Ideas/Heaven/Man complex. For instance, the Lao Tzu says to Empty the Mind and Fill the Body.

This analysis suggests that Taoism, at least some of its many branches, employs the woman as a spiritual metaphor. The deliberate cultivation of feminine energy seems to be a unique feature of Taoism amongst the world’s major religions. Certain Taoist organizations not only employ female fertility as a metaphor, they also treat women with respect, i.e. on equal footing with men. As evidence, Taoism is the only Chinese philosophy that includes women amongst its writers. Further it is the only Chinese religion that has women priests.

These pages are meant to illuminate the exemplary features of Taoism that should be emulated and cultivated, if we are to combat the prevalent militaristic Bronze Age perspective that dominates the planet.


1 Russell Kirkland, p. 131, Taoism: The enduring tradition, Routledge, 2004

2 Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 110, Princeton University Press, 1963

3 John Wu, Lao Tzu, p. 3, Saint John’s University Press, 1961

4 Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 144.

5 Cleary, The Essential Tao, Harper San Francisco, 1991, p. 11

6 Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, University of California Press. 1997, p. 83

7 Cleary, The Essential Tao, p. 26

8 Bokenkamp, p. 124

9 Kirkland, p. 128


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