Lao-Tze Founds Taoism

Ancient Period, Feature

A Major Spiritual Influence in Asia

It is difficult to apprehend without a special effort that China was enjoying its Golden Age when Noah was building his Ark to escape the threatened destruction of the world by flood. But it is a fact that ancient Chinese records contain accounts of a great flood round about the year 2349 B.C., the date Old Testament scholars ascribe to Noah’s flood, that necessitated extensive engineering works in China, which was completed by the Great Yu, the co-ruler of the emperor-sage Shun, and founder of the Hsia Dynasty, twelve hundred-odd years before the siege of Troy and sixteen hundred years before the founding of Rome.

Nothing definite is known about the origin of the Chinese. In the oldest authentic records, they already appear as a more or less civilized agricultural people, settled in the valley of the Yellow River and surrounded by savage tribes. The early Chinese emperors of whom we hear were doubtless legendary, but the name of each is associated with some new discovery or invention, so that they may be regarded as symbolic figures indicating successive stages in the growth of Chinese civilization. Thus Sui-Jen is the Chinese Prometheus, the Fire-producer; Fuhsiis, the Animal-subduer, who taught his people to train animals for domestic purposes; Shen-Nung is the Divine Husbandman, who taught the art of cultivation and the use of herbs as medicines.

Though their physical characteristics tend to make them a race of short men of small muscular development, their mental qualities are of a high order. In practical ability and shrewd common sense, they have few equals among the Asiatic peoples, and as skilled artisans and traders, they are probably without rival in the world. But while their faculty of memory is highly developed they cannot be termed strong in logic and abstract reasoning. To make up for the latter they appear to possess an intuition that cannot be described in concrete terms, but which leads them to an awareness of philosophical truths. By this “intuitive awareness” they have developed three great philosophies, Confucianism, Taoism , and Foism (or Chinese Buddhism) which have had a tremendous impact upon the whole of the Orient from the days of their inception to more than two thousand five hundred years ago until the present time.

Of these three philosophies Confucianism is by far the most prevalent and popular. Before the advent of Communism in China, it was the only religion recognized by the Chinese State; the others were merely tolerated.

Its founder K’ung Fu-tse, Jesuit missionaries later gave him the name Confucius, was born in 551 B.C. of good family. He married at the age of nineteen and is known to have had one son and one daughter. Early in life he was appointed to important positions of state. In 527 B.C. his mother died, and following the Chinese custom, he retired from public life until the years of mourning were over.

He spent this time in arduous study and deep meditation, and from 530 B.C. until 501, he devoted himself to teaching, gathering about him a band of disciples and giving much time to collecting, editing and publishing the ancient writings of his country. In 501 he was appointed governor of his native state of Lu, and later chief criminal judge; but disgusted with the way in which his country was governed, he resigned and spent more than a dozen years wandering about the land. In 484 B.C., on the invitation of the ruler, he returned to his native province and remained there until his death in 479 B.C. During this time he produced his only original work, The Book of Spring and autumn.

Correct in outward moral behaviour and punctilious about religious observances, however little he believed in their implications, he was, nevertheless, a man lacking in sympathy, love and the other gentler graces of character, which counted little in his ethics. Despite this, he succeeded in inspiring in his disciples confidence, respect and even affection.

Now, shortly after he had begun his teaching, Confucius, according to tradition, paid a visit to the historian of the archives of Chou, by name Lao-tze, and according to the Records of the Historian (the earliest general history of China, written at the beginning of the first century B.C.) he asked Lao-tze “to instruct him in the rites”.

That Confucius the philosopher should seek this interview must be accepted as a firm indication that by this time Lao-tze had achieved a considerable reputation also as a philosopher and teacher. The meeting was not altogether a felicitous one, for, by the same source we are told: “Lao-tze said, ‘What you speak of concerns merely the words left by people who have rotted along with their bones. Furthermore, when a gentleman is in sympathy with the times he rides abroad in a carriage, but when the times are against him, he drifts with the wind… Rid yourself of your arrogance and your lustfulness, your ingratiating manners and your excessive ambition. These are all detrimental to your person. This is all I have to say to you’

“On leaving, Confucius told his disciples, 1 know a bird can fly, a fish can swim, and an animal can run. For that which runs a net can be made, for that which swims a line can be made, for that which flies a corded arrow can be made. But the dragon’s ascent to heaven on the wind and the clouds is something beyond my knowledge. To-day I have seen Lao-tze who is perhaps like a dragon.

In contrast with the details we have of Confucius’s life, apart from this meeting with him, very little is known about Lao-tze’s life. Indeed, only one other fact is recorded: that at a very advanced age, some say he. Lived to be over a hundred and sixty, when he saw Chou going into a decline, he left the city and disappeared for ever through the north gate of the province. But at the request of the Keeper of the Gate, before he passed through he wrote “two books setting out the meaning of the Way of Virtue, in some five thousand characters”, and these he bequeathed to the world.

There are some scholars and historians who do not believe that Lao-tze was an historical character. It is their contention that Taoism, the philosophy supposedly developed by Lao-tze, has somehow sprung from ideas formulated by a number of unidentified “schools of thought” which mushroomed at the time of Confucius, the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy. In support of this theory, they educe the “sacred” books of Taoism known as the Tao-Te-King, the Canon of Reason and Virtue (sometimes called simply the Lao-tze), pointing out the tenuousness of the links binding a large number of the thoughts expressed in it and maintaining from this that the work in its present form was compiled by a series of editors; that it is in fact an anthology.

Nevertheless, Taoism had begun to exert a wide general influence on men’s thought by the time that Confucius began to teach. The scholars just mentioned explain the tradition of the meeting of Confucius with Lao-tze as a parable drawing attention to the fact that the Confucian doctrines are opposed to many of the Taoist doctrines.

Put briefly, Confucius taught that ethics are based on altruism. His golden rule was, “Do not to others what you do not wish them to do to you”. He laid great stress on the duty of every man to cultivate his best qualities and suppress the bad. Knowledge he held to be the key to virtue. If men know what is wrong and the evil it causes, they will avoid it. The means by which virtue is to be cultivated are the study of poetry, the study of music, and the study of ceremonial, or manners.

In his political doctrines he held that the State is supreme. There is, he taught, at the heart of things a fixed order which must be found in the words of the wise men of old, as treasured in the Nine Classics, the books of wisdom.

Lao-tze, on the other hand, taught that the universe is based upon a formative principle: Tao, the Way, from which all reality, Te, is derived. This metaphysical concept of a First Cause, lacking personality or consciousness, was not an original idea of Lao-tze’s, but was of ancient origin in China. Up to this time, however, it had only been expressed in vague terms, and the Tao-Te-King gave it a coherence which had been lacking before.

On the other hand, it is not at all easy, especially for the “Western mind, with its emphasis in all its considerations of philosophy based on logic, to apprehend this laconic main concept of Taoism. The fact that it rivalled Confucianism in the land of its birth underscores the reference made earlier to the Chinese weakness in logic and abstract reasoning which is more than compensated for by intuitive awareness, which permits the Chinese mind to reconcile seemingly contradictory thoughts.

This characteristic is present in the very opening stanzas of the Lao-tze:

The Way that can be told
Is not the constant Way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery
The gateway of the manifold secrets.

The first great principle of Taoism is the relativity of all attributes. Nothing is in itself either long or short; it is only longer or shorter than something else. All opposites, even life and death, thus merge. Not to be in rebellion against the fundamental laws of the universe in which Tao, the Way, is embodied, is the first step in Taoist discipline.

The abstract expression of the Tao is developed from this concrete expression. In the abstract Tao represents the universal cosmic energy which supports the visible order, or nature. When it is impersonal, this cosmic energy may be termed as being, and is to be found always everywhere. When it has qualities of spontaneity and operates all the time in a regular manner aiming to achieve the greatest good for all beings, it may be termed as becoming. The yin and the yang, the male and the female, the positive and negative, principles, spring from the Tao. It was the interaction of the yin and the yang which created the heaven and the earth, which, in turn, produced all beings, thus indicating that the human order springs from what may be termed eternal energy.

In its political aspects Taoism represents the very converse of Confucianism. It rejects, for example, all forms of centralized government and encourages the highest degree of democratic self-government. Militarism is also unequivocally condemned, while the impassive acceptance of all experience is given the highest measure of approbation.

Advocating frugality and simplicity, and, in its rejection of the Confucian view of education, putting forward instead the ideal of preserving the innocence of mankind rather than keeping it in ignorance, it is in the metaphysical aspect that Taoism can be accepted as a mystic religion. How deeply this tenet impressed itself on its Chinese adherents can be judged by the latters’ genuine contentment in situations which, by any standards, are the least comfortable; and also by their esteeming culture above all other things: “If I have two pennies I spend one on bread and the other on a flower that I may contemplate its beauty.”

However, Taoism and Confucianism clashed most strongly in their ethical conceptions. Whereas the heart of Confucian ethics is represented by justice, love, the reverence of wisdom and sincerity, these very virtues are considered by Taoism as the primary disruptive influences in the simple life in the Way, since they produce distracting contraries which blemish the purity of life.

The first followers of the Way were practical mystics who hoped to bring about the ideal of social order by the closest possible adherence to the Tao. They were concerned with “this world”, and they sought to achieve their aim in three stages. The first was purgation, the ridding of the individual of selfishness and self-seeking; the second was the shedding by the individual of his individuality through the distraction of the contraries, by which union with the Tao was achieved; and the third was the acquisition of power which permitted the individual to merge with the Way and thus escape the limitations of time and space.

The early mystics practised breathing and went without food for long periods. By these means they hoped to achieve a long life here and a future life in the Taoist paradise.

With the passage of time other Taoist philosophers have had a considerable influence on the reformulation of the doctrines. The most prominent and brilliant of these later thinkers was Chuang-tze, who, in the fourth century B.C., brought Taoism into line with orthodoxy by regarding the Tien, Heaven, as the First Cause, and Tao as the Divine Manifestation.

Long before the advent of our era there had been grafted on to the old speculative Taoism a mass of superstition, which was derived partly from primitive shamanism, a form of spirit worship in which the shaman denotes the medicine-man whose soothsaying and exorcising are aided by ancestral ghosts, and partly from the alchemy, with its search for the elixir and the philosopher’s stone, which had reached China from the Greek garrisons of the Hindu Kush.

Of this later Taoism, Chang Tao-lin, a sorcerer of the first century A.D., is regarded as the first exponent. Indeed, he is looked upon as the founder of Taoism as a religion, as opposed to a philosophy. From Chang are reputed to have descended the line of so-called Taoist Popes, numbering sixty-two in all.

At about the same time Buddhism began to pervade China. In A.D. 61 the Emperor Ming-ti, as the result of a dream, sent messengers to India for Buddhist teachers and books. Two monks returned laden with images and scriptures of the Mahayana School of Buddhism. But the teachings of the Enlightened One were not well received. The almost complementary Confucian and Taoist ideals filled the minds of the cultured levels of society, and both, being indigenous, combined to cold-shoulder the alien ideas exposed by the two monks. Three centuries were to pass before Buddhism joined Taoism and Confucianism to form the famous tripod of Chinese religion.

Up to this time Indian Buddhism was still merely a study for the intelligentsia, for its writings had not yet been translated into the vulgar tongue. This latter work was undertaken by an Indian Buddhist, Bodhidhama, whose brilliant mind made short shrift of the prevailing speculative thought and salvation by faith. It would appear that, without having any intention of doing so, Bodhidhama founded a School which within a few hundred years rivalled Foisrn, and which by the end of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1644) was paramount.

Since one of the most remarkable features of Buddhism wherever it is found and of whatever School has been its ability to assimilate existing religions in any country into which it has been introduced, Bodhidhama’s School, known as Ch’an, was greatly influenced by Confucianism and particularly by Taoism. Since Ch’an was developed into the Zen Buddhism of Japan, Taoism may be held to have influenced one of the most virile Schools of Buddhism ever to exist.

At the time of its greatest influence Taoism supplied not only a way of individual life, but also an art of ruling. That the king is not himself an administrator but should rule through the wise men whom his virtues attract to his court, was a view held by Taoists and Confucians alike, it was in fact their point of greatest contact but the Taoists carried the idea much further and laid great stress on wu-wei, “inactivity”, as the hall-mark of the truly enlightened ruler. Wu-wei is a kind of transcendental laissez-faire based on the idea that in human affairs as well as in nature, there is an automatic order which works so long as it is not interfered with.

The influence which Taoism exerted on Asia, and particularly on China, has been rivalled only by that exerted by Buddhism. In fact, it would be possible to argue that because of the contribution it made to Buddhism its influence has been the greater. This influence has remained right down to modern times, at least up to the arrival of Communism in China.

Its great appeal to ordinary people was that its primitive animism, with its promise of an after-life, could be easily apprehended; and as this assurance of survival was what most men found they needed in order to overcome the fear arising out of ignorance of what really happens after death, its teaching was most acceptable. By pointing out the way by which men might reasonably expect to survive after death, Taoism provided the comfort for which men’s souls yearned. Such comfort in the earthly existence was bound to have a profound effect on their development as human beings, and consequently upon their history. Herein lies the true significance of Taoism.