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How to Overcome Without Fighting: An Introduction to the Taoist Approach to Conflict Resolution

How to Overcome Without Fighting: An Introduction to the Taoist Approach to Conflict Resolution

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How to Overcome Without Fighting: An Introduction to the TaoistApproach to Conflict Resolution
Key Sun
School of Social WorkUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignAbstract
This article discusses the pertinence of philosophical Tao-ism to psychological research by examining the Taoistideas about conflict resolution in human interaction.According to Taoism, the ultimate goals of people consistof realizing harmony with one another and achieving con-sonance with nature. People can attain interpersonal har-mony by understanding the significance of Tao and howhuman behavior is regulated by the interaction of threesystems at the universal, interpersonal, and intrapersonallevels.
The significance of the issue
Taoism, along with Confucianism, is one of the two major nativephilosophical traditions that have shaped and permeated Chinese cul-ture, and all Asian cultures affected by China (e.g., Japan, Korea, andVietnam) for more than 2,000 years. In addition to its profound impacton the Eastern sciences, medicine, literature, and arts, philosophicalTaoism has immensely influenced people's understanding about inter-personal actions and perceptions.Some scholars in the West have explored the implications of Taoismfor psychological research. For example, Taoism has been construed asa work of metaphysical psychology, delineating how the fundamentalforces of the cosmos itself are mirrored in our own individual innerstructure (Needleman, 1989). There have been some attempts to applyTaoist thought to psychotherapy (Ehrlich, 1986), holistic therapy(Kelly & McFarlane, 1991), and discussion of the self-actualization the-ories of Rogers and Maslow (Chang & Page, 1991).The psychological (in particular the social psychological) research inthe West, however, has paid little attention to Taoist thought concern-ing social interactions and perceptions, which postulates that one ofthe two paramount goals for human beings involves achieving har-mony with one another (in addition to achieving consonance with
 
162
Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psy. Vol. 15, No. 2, 1995
nature) by following Taoist axioms. The quintessential ideas of Taoismcan be regarded as guidelines for conflict resolution in the two types ofrelationships.This paper intends to explore the pertinence of Taoist ideas to socialbehavior by examining three issues: (1) the meanings of Tao and Teand the three systems that regulate interpersonal actions and percep-tions, (2) the causes of interpersonal conflicts, and (3) how to employTaoist nonaction to change a target person's actions or perceptions inan interpersonal conflict situation.
The Taoist texts
1
The primary Taoist ideas discussed in this article are derived fromtwo main Taoist texts:
Tao Te Ching
and
The Art of War. Tao Te Ching
is taken as the accumulated wisdom through three centuries (6th-4thcenturies B.C.) rather than the work of Lao Tzu alone (Xu, 1991).Although
The Art of War
was written about 2,400 years ago by a Chi-nese military philosopher, Sun Tzu, it has become one of the mosthighly appreciated strategic texts in today's business world. The twobooks are linked in that
Tao Te Ching
can be viewed as a manuscriptaddressing human behavior at the metaphysical level, whereas
the Artof
War
may be perceived as a practical guidebook dealing with humaninteraction (Li, 1985). It should be noted, however, only these twophilosophers' ideas about conflict resolution are examined in this arti-cle and it does not intend to give a comprehensive review of all relatedTaoist thoughts. For example, although Chuang Tzu's (369 B.C.-268B.C.) teaching was traditionally treated as a significant part of Taoistliterature (Mair, 1983), the current discussion includes no elaborationson Chuang Tzu, because some scholars believe that his rumination pri-marily dwells on absolute spiritual freedom and his visions abouthuman interaction seem to digress from those of Lao Tzu (see Xu,1991). The debate about the similarities and differences between thetwo Taoists is too complicated to address in this essay.
The three systems that regulate social interaction
Taoism views social actions and perceptions as regulated by theinteraction of three systems at the universal, interpersonal andintrapersonal levels. Each of the systems consists of an opposite
and
corresponding pair.First, the operation of the highest system involves the antithesis andharmony between "Tao" and "Te." Traditionally, most scholars viewthe term "Tao" as synonymous with the "path" or the "way," anddefine the term "Te" as "virtue" or "integrity." This author, however,argues that the more appropriate meaning of Tao is the "alternatives,"which refer to the eternal, ultimate reality (Lao Tzu, Chap. 16 & 25),
 
How to Overcome Without Fighting: An Introduction 163
or all alternative relations or patterns governing the operation of theuniverse and people's interaction with nature and with one another.This novel interpretation of Tao is preferred by this author for threereasons. It is consonant with the term's original meanings in Chineselanguage. In addition to the "path" or the "way," the term Tao alsoconnotes "choice(s)," "connection(s)," "method(s)," among others.The new translation can embrace, rather than reject, the meanings ofthe other interpretations. In addition, like other classificatory nounsof Chinese, "Tao" is both a plural and a singular noun (Henson, 1983).Furthermore, this translation can better epitomize the profuse Taoistnotions, which include two intrinsically related themes. The first one is"Reversal is the movement ofTao"(Lao Tzu, Chap. 40). For example,the development and transformation of the universe can be character-ized as the two complementary, interdependent phases of Yin andYang, alternating in space and time. The other Taoist central ideamaintains that "Weakness is the usage of Tao" (Lao Tzu, Chap. 40).The best embodiment of this axiom is water. People may obtain thecognizance of Tao by contemplating water. The highest good is likewater, not only because water is good at benefiting the myriad crea-tures, but also because water, which is nurturing, soft, weak and flexi-ble,can vanquish hard and strong obstacles by selecting alternatives toreach its goals. As water does not compete, nobody can compete withit (Lao Tzu, Chap. 8 & 78).The term "Te," on the other hand, may be best viewed as the aware-ness of Tao or the alternative relations and as the manners that arecongruous with the knowledge. The greatest Te is to follow Tao (LaoTzu, Chap. 21) both in the process of perception and in the course ofinteraction. When people perceive the world and others, they shoulddiscern all alternatives concerning an entity, "Know the white, butkeep the black," "know honor, yet keep disgrace" (Lao Tzu, Chap. 28).The conduct in human interaction listed by Lao Tzu as exemplifying Teinclude bearing yet not possessing, working yet not taking credit, lead-ing yet not dominating, creating without claiming, and guiding withoutinterfering (Lao Tzu, Chap. 10 & 51). In particular, the supreme Teinvolves the comprehension of how "the soft and weak surmount thehard and strong" (Lao Tzu, Chap. 36) and how impediments can beovercome through yielding (Lao Tzu, Chap. 22).In other words, Tao and Te represent the objective and the subjec-tive dimensions of the universe, respectively. People who understandand conform to Tao possess Te.Understanding the universal system has three implications for com-prehending social actions: (1) Everything in the universe, includingpeople's cognition and actions, is constantly involved in changing anddevelopmental processes, interacting with one another. (2) Differentactions result from the actor's different amounts of Te, or the under-

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