Tao (as it is spelled in Wade-Giles transliteration) or Dao (as spelled in pinyin transliteration) has several meanings in Chinese, though as it is used in Taoism (Daoism) it is usually translated as "the Way." It may best be thought of, however, as "the way things are." Confucians are more likely to think of Tao as "the way things should be," and therein lies the most prominent difference in approach of the two systems of thought. The concept of Tao may also be found in Zen Buddhism, and there its meaning is quite similar to Taoism's interpretation, though the ways in which Zen Buddhists and Taoists approach the mystic, unknowable process/principle/energy we call Tao differs. In the central text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), Lao Tzu (Laozi) uses the following description:
The 1970s phrase "go with the flow" is an adequate description of one of Taoism's principal teachings. Although Tao cannot be seen or otherwise sensed or even truly known directly, we often become aware of it by its movement. Fish and water are a helpful metaphor for understanding our relation to Tao:

The fish lives its entire life in water, and one might well imagine that it takes the water through which it moves and which sustains it for granted. At times when it is out of the water, it will not survive long, and it is probably a narrowly escaped death by suffocation that makes the fish notice and appreciate the water. It can travel along the currents in the water to minimize its effort in getting around, though it has to be willing to go where the current is going or expend effort to go some other direction, and perhaps then enter a different current within the water.

Some Taoist scholars will draw a distinction between different manifestations of Tao, calling one the Great Tao or Universal Tao and the other manifestation the worldly tao or the tao of humanity. The worldly tao is part of the Great Tao. Since we can never truly know the Great Tao, our decisions and plans must often be based on our perception of the worldly tao, or the cycles and rules of the material world. Because we can perceive and to a certain extent manipulate the worldly tao, sometimes we focus too much on that particular manifestation of Tao and forget that Tao is also in things much bigger than us and beyond our control, such as natural disasters or political movements. Again, Lao Tzu:

"The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao."

-- from chapter 30, S. Mitchell (tr.)
"The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao."

-- from chapter 30, S. Mitchell (tr.)
TAO
MANOR
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