In Buddhism, buddhas and bodhisattvas are held up as ideal models of human behavior. In Taoism, it is the sage.
Sagehood is the perfected state of being, a state like Buddhahood that is achievable through self-development. And also like Buddahood, sagehood is a way of seeing the world in its harmonious original nature. Sagehood is a the state of being one with all things.
The sage has many other characteristics, some of which are discussed in this passage from the so-called “inner chapters” of Chuang Tzu:
One day Chu Chuai Tzu said to his teacher, Chang Wu Tzu, “I have heard Confucius say that a sage does not get involved in the world. A sage does not seek gain or try to avoid loss. A sage does not seek anything, and does not even cling to the Tao (the Way). A sage does not use words and when speaking has nothing to say. In this way, a sage is able to go far beyond this world of dust. Now, Confucius thinks these are empty and fancy words, yet I feel they are much like the mysterious Tao itself. What do you think?”
Chang Wu Tzu replied, “I think these words would confuse even the Yellow Emperor . . . The sage floats with the sun and moon and joins the universe, embracing it as one great whole. A sage has no use for distinctions and ignores social status. Ordinary men toil and struggle while the sage seems stubborn and dull-witted. To the sage a thousand years is one, the myriad beings of the universe are but one, forming a great whole.
“How do we know that loving life is not a delusion? How do we know that in fearing death we are not like someone who gets lost on the way home like a child?
“Lady Li was the child of a border guard who was taken prisoner by the Duke of Chin. When first captured, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she adjusted to her new surroundings and luxurious new life, she regretted her tears. How can we know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out and hunt. When dreaming we do not now we are dreaming. We may even dream of dreaming a dream. Only when we awaken do we know it was a dream. Only after our great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream.
“And yet fools dream and think they are awake. They pretend to know what is going on, and distinguish between kings and slaves. How stupid! I think both you and Confucius are dreaming. Of course, I am dreaming, too. My words may seem like nonsense, but after ten thousand years, a sage may come along who can explain them and then it will seem like morning.”
It is said that the ancient sages of China traveled the country, sharing knowledge with everyone, never asking for anything in exchange. They established no institutions, religions, schools or temples. They did not bother to give their teachings a name, except to say that what they taught was consistent with the great Tao.
It is also said that these sages understood the nature of dreams and delusions and that they understood that delusions disappear while one sits quietly and recognizes the original nature.