The Tao Te Ching: Key Book in Taoism

Topics: Taoism

The Tao Te Ching is an important piece of the religious culture within Taoism. Many works of literature have come from inspiration caused by the Tao Te Ching, one of the oldest pieces of foundational Taoist belief. Through the folk novel Monkey, essential Taoist principles are represented through the characters of the book, but do not always represent the Tao itself. The Jade Emperor possesses qualities like that of the essence of the Tao, and the enlightenment surrounding it. The Patriarch Subodhi shows characteristics of how Tao guides and leads disciples of the religion rather than simple instructions.

Mortal and immortal characters in the novel suggest different attitudes towards Taoism and its teachings. The immortal ones however, can be less Taoist than their mortal counterparts. By analyzing the characteristics of the Jade Emperor, the Patriarch, and the Taoist Immortals in relation to the Tao Te Ching, one can better measure how their individual qualities compare.

The Tao is not solely a god or spirit but a message or guide for people to follow.

The Patriarch Subodhi, in the book A Folk Novel of China: Monkey, possesses clear indications of Taoist influence. He is originally sought by Monkey for his immortality and teachings. Shown initially however are signs of partial behavior from the Patriarch, stating, “‘Go away!’ shouted the Patriarch. ‘I know the people there. They’re a tricky, humbugging set. It’s no good one of them supposing he’s going to achieve Enlightenment.’” (Ch’eng-en, 18) In comparison to the imagery of the Tao found in the Tao Te Ching, this shows that there are in fact flaws among the Taoist based characters in Monkey.

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A major flaw found here is that the Patriarch is too hasty in deciding the validation of Monkey’s desires. The figures depicted do have some undesirable traits but it is done so to allow the reader a more relatable experience while reading. The Patriarch is overall one of the most representative of the Taoist theology.

A great example of how the Patriarch’s teachings compliment the teaching of the Tao Te Ching can be found in early Chapter 2 of Monkey. Monkey is under the impression he is an accomplished learner and the Patriarch extends options of teachings to him. Though dismissed by Monkey, the Patriarch implores that he understand the notion of Quietism and its teachings. This concept mimics basic Taoist qualities, “‘What does that consist of?’ asked Monkey. ‘Low diet,’ said the Patriarch, ‘inactivity, meditation, restraint of word and deed, yoga practised prostrate or standing.’” (Monkey, 21) The most basic sense of Quietism is the requards of letting things be the way that they should (Oxford). In this ideology there is little need to resist anything or try to change one’s surroundings; things are just the way they are. The Tao Te Ching repeats this concept throughout many if not all of its stanzas. The Tao is generalized for its lack of manipulation and the acceptance of one’s environment, both of which hold true as well for the Patriarchs teachings.

The Jade Emperor encapsulates many qualities of the Tao, especially in reference to the text Tao Te Ching. It is said within traditional Chinese folklore that the Jade Emperor is the leader of the heavens and is also said so in Monkey. There is fluidity between the Jade Emperor in both texts, however there is also discontinuation with the relationship of the Emperor to the core of Taoism itself. The Jade Emperor is said to have control over the heavens and earth very much like the way that the Tao is the divine governing spirit in all areas of life and death. However it can be argued that because the Yama is waiting to take mortal souls to the underworld that the Jade Emperor depicted in the novel may only be one half of the Tao. The most important distinction between how the Tao is represented in the Tao Te Ching compared to the novel is how the Emperor has exercised examples of being foolish and selfish. The Tao, “doesn’t try to force issues” because “For every force there is a counterforce.” (Tzu, 30) Furthermore, the Tao explicitly states that those that are one with the Tao, “understand that the universe is forever out of control”. (Tzu, 30) In the beginning of chapter five, the Emperor orders Monkey to put all of his attention in protecting the Peach Garden. This is not only demanding but in poor judgement seeing as in Chinese tradition monkeys are known to be peach eaters instead of banana eaters. (Shen Yun) It is understood that the beings of this novel are also found repeatedly in Chinese culture, however they can represent ideas from specific religious concepts.

Being the Tao is the almighty spirit addressing both good and evil, the Emperor cannot encompass the Tao entirely but rather only some aspect of it. Taoism takes into accounting everything in existence, not just altruistic qualities alone. The combination of both Yama and the Emperor in the novel would provide a more accurate or completed representation of the Tao within the Tao Te Ching. The Jade Emperor alone has far too many humanistic qualities, including being too demanding or punishing, that draw him further from being Taoist completely. To be an enlightened master in the eyes of the Tao, one must be wise and impartial to most things in the world.

The concluding Taoist figures, found in the novel of Monkey, are the Immortals; more specifically the Tiger Strength Immortal, Ram Strength Immortal, and the Deer Strength Immortal. They are thought to be very wise and powerful, which is not entirely true. Tzu stated, “Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier”. After the group met the disciples of said Immortals there was a lacking of Taoist qualities found in the Tao Te Ching. When the drought occured Buddhists and Taoist made prayers to each of their Gods respectively. The Taoists prayers were answered with a flood and the Buddhists prayers unanswered. Taoist Immortals from that point forward insisted Buddhists pay labor for the debt of their false beliefs, a punishment even someone such as Monkey could understand is unfair. The crew even assembled a ruse in order to free the Buddhists from their torment. In chapter 23 during the face off of power between the Taoists and the Buddhists, neither the King nor the Immortals showed true reverence for one another. The Taoists were resentful in Monkey’s abilities at the same time very competitive. The King sided with the three Immortals originally for the single fact that they saved the city from lack of rain. The true Taoist way would be understanding of the effort put forth by both Buddhists and Taoists because “Every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao.” (Tzu, 51)

The Taoist individuals in A Folk Novel of China: Monkey can be often times the least representative of the Taoist way. Evidently the four main characters possess the most revered qualities, especially at the end of the book. The Immortal beings were highly irreverent towards the Buddhists and Monkey’s group. In addition, the Patriarch makes uncalculated conclusions which is very unlike the Tao and the ruler of the heavens himself is far more resembling of a ruler than a leader. In contrast to these statements, they do possess Taoist qualities in which they can use to better their relationship with the Tao. Just the same as Monkey found his reverence, these characters can find their path as well.

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The Tao Te Ching: Key Book in Taoism. (2022, Apr 28). Retrieved from

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