Lao Tzu: the Tao of Reality.


Lao Tzu: the Tao of Reality.
A history of pantheism by Paul Harrison.

There is a thing, formless yet complete. Before heaven and earth it existed. We do not know its name, but we call it Tao. It is the Mystery of Mysteries.

The Tao te Ching is the oldest scripture of Taoism. It was composed during the warring states period when China descended into a chaos of rival kingdoms, some time between the sixth and the fourth or third centuries BC. It was supposedly written by Lao Tan, a possibly mythical figure, said to have lived till he was 160 or 200 years old.

The classical Chinese historian Ssuma Chien says the work was by Li Erh, a custodian of imperial archives from the state of Ch'u in southern China, in the present province of Honan. This was a fertile, well-watered state."Its people make little exertion, delight in life, and neglect to store anything."

Li Erh was no seeker after fame."The chief aim of his studies was how to keep himself concealed and remain unknown."says Ssuma Chien. Li Erh wrote his ideas only because, as he was heading into retirement, the royal gatekeeper pleaded with him to record his ideas before he disappeared into oblivion. He may have written the book under the pseudonym Lao Tan to avoid attention.

A brutally honest personal confession in the Tao te Ching [chapter 20] suggests that he was not always happy with his reclusive way of life and personality:

I alone am inert, showing no sign of desires,
like an infant that has not yet smiled.
Wearied, indeed, I seem to be without a home.
The multitude all possess more than enough,
I alone seem to have lost all ...
Common folks are indeed brilliant;
I alone seem to be in the dark.

The book of Chuang Tzu pays tribute to his character: "Men all seek the first. He alone sought the last. He said: "Accept the world's refuse."Men all seek happiness. He alone sought completion in adaptation ... He was always generous and tolerant towards things." [Chuang Tzu, chapter 33]

The Tao te Ching is a short, dense book of only 5,250 words - probably the most influential 5,250 words ever written. Its ideas became very popular under the Han dynasty in the second century BC.

Lao Tan/Li Erh was even said to have met Confucius. After one visit Confucius' disciples asked him how he was able to correct and admonish Lao Tzu."In him I have seen the dragon that rides on the cloudy air," replied Confucius."My mouth fell open and I was unable to shut it; how could I admonish and correct Lao Tan?"After another crushing visit he admitted: "In the knowledge of the Tao am I any better than a tiny creature in vinegar?"A final episode shows him becoming virtually a disciple of Lao Tzu.

These accounts are, of course, Taoist propaganda. In reality Confucius would have regarded Lao Tzu as a dangerous threat to established custom and filial piety. The Tao te Ching contains not a single word about either of these central Confucian concepts. Indeed by stressing spontaneity and harmony with nature, it represents a rebellion against Confucian obsession with form and duty.

But Taoism did alter the course of Confucianism, leading to the synthesis of neo-Confucianism in thinkers like Chang Tsai. It also moulded the shape of East Asian Buddhism, giving Buddhism a much less negative stance to the world.

Was Lao Tan/Li Erh a pantheist? His description of the reality of the Tao is of a mysterious, numinous unity underlying and sustaining all things. It is inaccessible to normal thought, language or perception. While he never calls the Tao a God, and rejects the idea that it is personal or concerned with humans, he clearly views it in the same light of awe and respect as believers view their Gods. Since the Tao is omnipresent and sustains everything, the Tao te Ching is clearly espousing a materialist form of pantheism.

The Tao te Ching does not fall into the trap of Buddhism, assuming that because there is an underlying unity the diversity of the world is an illusion and there is only"emptiness."It recognizes both being and non-being as complementary. Non-being defines being as dark outlines light. Being and diversity emanate from non-being.

Lao Tan/Li Erh also believed that human happiness consisted in understanding and living and acting in harmony with this underlying Reality. This means following a simple, frugal and peaceful way of life, not seeking after wealth, power or fame. Unlike the Chuang Tzu he is not an advocate of total withdrawal from public action. But he stresses the need for taking minimal action. He prefers non-violence over violence, softness over hardness, water over sharpened swords. He is a clear pre-cursor of both Jesus and Gandhi.

In government his philosophy makes him in certain ways Machiavellian and laissez-faire. Kings should not encourage learning, wisdom or virtue. They should fill their people's bellies and keep their minds empty. A happy country would be one where people could hear dogs barking in the next village, yet would have no desire to go there.

There are also repeated suggestions through the text that the sage can achieve long life and escape death. This gave rise to a much less philosophical aspect of later Taoism: the pursuit of everlasting life, not in heaven but on this earth, but through physical immortality, and by often magical means.

There are dozens of translations of the Tao te Ching, many of them radically different from one another. Unless otherwise indicated, the texts below are from Wing-Tsit Chan in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1969. Additional biographical material from Fung-Yu Lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, trs Derk Bodde, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1952, and James Legge, The Texts of Taoism, Sacred Books of the East vol 40, Dover, New York, 1962.

Lao Tzu: the Tao of Reality.
A history of pantheism by Paul Harrison.





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