#6: Master Ni on the Tao

Although Master Ni didn’t refer to himself as a Taoist, he did speak about the Tao. Here are a few quotes from a meditation class that he taught May 21st, 1979.

“Must leave home to be [a] Taoist, but can practice Tao and have [a] family.”

This reveals why he didn’t consider himself a Taoist. To be a traditional Taoist, or Buddhist monk, one must leave the home – possibly to join a monastery to pursue spiritual practices and austerities, or to go on a spiritual quest. In The Journey to the West the five Pilgrims, including Monkey and Tripitaka [the Buddhist monk], leave the home to obtain the Buddhist scriptures in the West. They regularly discuss the necessity of leaving the home. You can’t get there without it.

On the contrary Master Ni raised a family of 7 children and is still married to the same woman some 70 years later. He never joined a monastery or went on a vision quest. However he still practiced the Tao as he took care of his familial obligations. So although he is not a Taoist in the traditional Chinese sense he could be called a Taoist in the modern American sense.

“Tao = prenatal spirit-vitality = the union of essential nature and eternal life.”

This is an interesting equation. He equates the Tao with prenatal energy – hence with life and this world (unlike the Hindu assertion that the world of Maya is all illusion). Further the fact that the energy is prenatal links it to a specific individual (rather than the universe or cosmos). The Tao then is a combination of our essential nature and eternal life. This implies the importance of unlocking our essential nature in order to return to the Tao (the prenatal spirit-vitality). Because each of us is unique, the task of liberating our hidden self is equally unique. No dogmatic solutions or rigid life style restrictions. Further the process of freeing our essential nature is ongoing rather than momentary or permanent. Possibly the eternal life refers to the omnipresent life cycle or the permanent processes that we are all subject to. To practice the Tao is to cultivate our own unique essential nature as it connects to the eternal life forms – possibly unlocking the energy channels so that the chi can flow freely. Practicing the Tao is closer to the process of self-actualization than the state of enlightenment from an insight.

“Tao is right in front of you. Watch your nose. [It is] so easy that people always forget. Tao always in motion. People want something more difficult so [they] forget Tao.”

In a curious way he is connecting up the ever-changing Tao with watching your nose ‘right in front of you’. ‘So easy that people always forget.’ –‘Want something more difficult so forget Tao.’ If you’ve ever watched your nose for any length of time – really watched the light as it reflects off your skin – perhaps with the right eye, then the left eye, then both, then all three views differentiated – some amazingly ordinary things happen. This focus on vision neutralizes thoughts, which alleviates the petty anxieties that plague our lives. Further this turning of the eyes downward connects up one of the primary energy channels – the eye-brain complex to the lower tan tien, just above the navel. Also becoming aware of the Light in the Zoroastrian sense is electrifying. In this context Master Ni’s ‘nose tip, sword tip, toe tip, all in a line’ attains greater significance.

Note also that he says the Tao is always in motion. This is similar, yet slightly different, to the Yogic notion of Maya or prakrti, which is also continually changing. Because the Tao is always in motion the target is continually changing, which necessitates a flexibility of response – a lightness of spirit. Similarly because the material world of prakrti is transient, it is necessary to also be light and unattached to things to preserve peace of mind.

Tao, the Word

Since we’re on the topic of the Tao let us look a little more closely at the word – its Chinese definition and ideogram – to see what they have to reveal about this complex concept. [The following discussion has been excerpted from the Introduction to the Tao of China.]

Tao, the definition

The Chinese word 'Tao' is familiar to the people of the West. This Chinese word-concept has been popularized in books like The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Physics, and even The Tao of Computers. For Westerners it is linked with supernatural concepts like Nature, the Buddha, or even God.

However, to see what it means for the Chinese reading this symbol, let us look at a Chinese/English dictionary. The Concise Chinese English Dictionary provides us with these definitions for Tao = dào:


I. (as a noun)

II. (as a verb)

III. (as a classifier)

1) road, way, path.

1) say, speak, talk

1) [anything in the form of a line]

2) line. 

2) think, suppose

2) [of orders or questions]

3) way, method.


3) course of dish

4) doctrine, principle


5) Taoism, Taoist


The simplified dictionary of the book, Read & Write Chinese, provides us with these definitions:

dào:      road, method, to say

Note that these definitions make no reference to any divine being or elevated state of consciousness.

Further note that the word, dào, which we commonly spell Tao, can be used as a noun, a verb or a unique part of Chinese speech called a classifier, which we’ll deal with later. This multiple use of the word, tao, is not because it is a special word. Many Chinese words are used as verb, adjective, noun, or adverb depending on the context they are used. Chinese words, as a whole, are multi-purpose, being employed in a multiplicity of settings without use of special ending or gender variations.

Also it should be pointed out that these lists of definitions are not really homonyms in the Western sense. While Chinese contains many homonyms, words that sound the same but mean something different, their homonyms have different ideograms. The same ideogram for tao simultaneously means method, purpose, path, and Taoist. The context of the use determines the emphasis but does not eliminate the other meanings. The Chinese are specialists in both/and reasoning rather than the Western either/or mentality. This feature of their language makes their poetry particularly difficult, if not impossible, to translate into the European languages.

Tao, the ideogram

Let us look at the ideogram for Tao to get a better idea of what an ideogram is and to get a better understanding of the underlying meaning of the word ‘Tao’. This ideogram is so widespread throughout Eastern Asia that martial artists from Korea, Japan, and every other country in the area recognize it. Tao is pronounced ‘do’ in Japan and Korea. Thus Ju-do, Aiki-do, Ken-do, and many other martial arts incorporate this word and symbol in their name.

                =                    +         

Tao                       =          Journey          +          Head

The ideogram is made up of distinct parts, each of which has an individual meaning of its own. First, the long extended line that surrounds the interior symbols on the bottom and left represents the concept of journey. This symbol is called a radical or primitive. Radicals are symbols that are regularly used in the formation of more complex ideograms. Because of the inclusion of this radical in the ideogram for Tao, we can guess that the meaning of the ideogram will probably have something to do with the concept of journey, as we already know.

The inner ideogram, the one that is surrounded as a whole by the radical for journey is pronounced shöu. In our Chinese/English Dictionary cited above:

Shöu is translated as I. 1) head; 2) leader, head, chief; II) of a song; III) first.

Roughly speaking the whole ideogram becomes the beginning of a journey, or the leader of a journey, perhaps even the trailhead. As such starting with the exploration of the word Tao is quite appropriate for this Great Work. The Tao is our trailhead for beginning our extended journey through Chinese history.

The inner ideogram has three parts of its own.

                    =              +          +         

                  Leader =       8 directions     Man                Eye


The bottom represents the eye, the middle two lines is the radical for human or man, while the top two antenna looking protuberances are the radical for the number eight. Many times eight represents the eight directions, the primary directions, forward, backward, left, right, and the four diagonals. Hence the eight directions are representative of everywhere. Hence the leader or head looks everywhere, sees everything. Note that this leader sees but does not speak. Some interpret the two antennas as the plumes of a general.

Hence in the ideogram for the Tao we have a beginning of a journey, which is led by a head or chieftain who sees everything. Note that the Tao consists of beginning images, not ending images. We are just starting out on our journey. Hopefully, if we keep our eyes open, we will be able to see everything.

Before leaving this section of the ideogram for Tao, let us add one refinement to its meaning. It has been said that in ancient times the ideogram for the Tao was initially used to designate a mother lode of metallic ore. This ore was discovered by magnetism. Because it only points to the mother lode, it is only the trailhead. Also the magnet that discovers the mother lode only sees, but does not speak. These characteristics are totally in line with the ideogram itself.

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