My Chinese Christian friend recently asked me about the notion of grace in Taoism. In Christianity, “grace” means a kind of divine favor. It is also closely tied to gratitude. The believer feels grateful for the divine favor s/he receives. But since the Tao is not a personal god and the notion of ultimate reality in Taoism is not anthropomorphic, I told my friend that the notion of grace does not really apply in Taoism.
I do understand that Western psychologists feel that a sense of gratitude is important for cultivating happiness. After reflecting on what I learned in Taoism, I told my friend that the closest thing to gratitude in Taoism is contentment. A Taoist’s happiness is not based on having his wish granted or his desire gratified. Rather, it is based on the contentment of what he already has. This is perhaps the biggest difference between East and West. The West talks about the pursuit of happiness. The East emphasizes the enjoyment and savoring of what one has.
Chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching is also educational. It reads:
This may be translated as follows:
The Tao birthed them.
Virtue raised them.
Material gives them forms.
The environment establishes them.
Therefore, the myriad things all respect the Tao and cherish Virtue.
The Tao is respected and Virtue is honored
Because the Tao does not command,
And Virtue does not intervene.
They leave the myriad things develop naturally.
Thus, the Tao births them, Virtue raises them,
Grows them and nurtures them.
Perfects them and matures them.
Nurtures them and protects them.
Birth, but does not possess.
Acts, but does not take credit.
Nurtures, but does not dominate.
This is called Subtle Virtue.
The best way to understand this chapter is to compare and contrast it with the Jewish and Christian notions of an anthropomorphic God. There, God takes credit for everything and receives sacrifices and thanks. The Tao, on the other hand, is a blind watchmaker. The Tao does not make any demand from humans at all. It is hidden in the background. That it is silent and humble provides a good role model for the human ruler.
If there is a notion of grace in Taoism at all, it is the grace of the selfless Giving Tree. The Nature is like a kind mother. She gives and never asks anything in return.
Even though the Tao is not a person, giving thanks is still recommendable. The Tao is everywhere, and the natural world includes all things — the Sun, the Moon, the mountains, the forests, the seas and the streams. It also includes the other creatures which are part of our ecosystem or members of our food chain. Further, people are also part of the natural world. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me to give thanks before I eat — to the farmers and other workers whose toil produced the food on my plate. Thus, even without an anthropomorphic God, there are good reasons to give thanks to all the sentient and non-sentient beings who have contributed to our sustenance and livelihood. They are all part of the Tao!
I remember seeing Eric Enstrom’s painting, Grace, one busy day in midtown Manhattan. I was in my forties then, working in the financial sector. I had never seen that painting before. But it was hanging on the wall of an unremarkable pizza shop in the middle of the city. I remember being awestruck when I saw the painting. I virtually dropped everything I was doing so that I could look at it in detail. Something stirred within me. There was a sense of indescribable peace and sacredness.
So, whether one is a theist or not, one can be touched by grace. one can feel thankful towards all there is. If it is a genuine and spontaneous feeling, it will lift one’s spirit.