An old man is riding through the mountains, plodding his was slowly towards the western frontier. Behind him he leaves the luxurious life of the capital, of walking the halls of power, head held high as others bow before him. By the standards of the world, he had reason to be proud. He was a wise man, a cunning counselor, trusted by the rulers of that age. But he is going to the frontier, and has no intention of coming back.
He reaches the last outpost of civilization just as the sun is setting. It is manned by a single, lonely border guard. There are no threats in this direction, no reason for armed camps or grand fortresses. Just wilderness. So the man at the edge of the world is glad when he sees the man coming from its center, and invites him to stay the night.
Over the course of a humble meal and quiet conversation, the guard comes to recognize the stranger’s immense wisdom, as many others have before. He is amazed at the man’s experience, the great things he has seen, the noble people he has known. He goes to sleep that night puzzled, wondering who this stranger might be.
The next morning, as the old wanderer saddles up and prepares to ride away into the unknown west, it dawns upon the border guard who this man is. Finally recognizing this famed councilor of powerful men, this noble sage who moves in the circles of the great, he asks the man one favor before he departs. Would he leave the world with a summary of his teaching?
Smiling, the old man dismounts and picks up a stick laying nearby. Over the next several hours, he scratches out in the dirt a text of poetic simplicity, of refined elegance and deepest wisdom. Having finished, he bows to the humble border guard, and crosses the frontier, never to be heard from again.
This world-weary sage was one Laozi or Lao Tsu—that is, Master Lao. If he did indeed exist, he lived in the sixth century before Christ, at about the same time the prophet Daniel was carried off to Babylon. That work he scratched into the ground by the border was the great Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, also Romanized as Doadejing. In it, Laozi outlines his philosophy in 81 beautiful, poetic verses, each about the length of a Biblical Psalm.
This philosophy was centered around a single, all-important concept: the Tao. “Tao” literally means “way,” as in a road or path. It can often be found on Hong Kong street signs with no deeper meaning than that. But as a philosophical term, it is much more significant. The Tao is the way the whole cosmos works together, united in a single transcendent plan or system which is greater than any of the individual parts. It is the principle which underlies the behavior of everything in the universe, animate or inanimate, from rain on the mountains, to the flight of the sparrow or the life cycle of a butterfly, to the rise and fall of kingdoms. Not one grain of sand escapes its purpose, and no galaxy is beyond its reach. The Tao encompasses everything.
Attached to this view of the universe in an implicit system of morality, something like natural law in the West. If the universe has its own way, its own set of behavior, men often have a set of intentions contrary to it. We do not pay attention to the way the world is meant to work—the cycles of nature or human behavior, the way apparent opposites work together, or the laws of cause and effect which everything must obey. We have desires, and we rush towards them blindly, fumbling along, disrupting the natural way of things.
Instead, Laozi advocates the principle of wu wei, or sometimes wei wu wei. The English is roughly “action without action.” That is, as things which exist within the Tao, we are assuredly meant to act. However, it is better to act in a way consistent with nature, aware of its underlying principles, rather than fighting against it. Thus we go with the flow of the Tao—we take action, but that action comes from outside us. It is actionless action.
In outlining this philosophy, the Tao Te Ching became a cornerstone of Chinese and East Asian intellectual history. It is something like what Plato’s Republic is to the West, though centuries older. One rough contemporary of Plato, however, was Loazi’s disciple, Zhuangzi.
Zhuangzi—sometimes Romanized as Chuang Tsu, with the second element meaning “Master”—was also a government official, though a minor one. By this time in Chinese history, philosophy had become somewhat more developed, and there were many competing schools. Zhuangzi became a follower of Laozi’s teachings, and authored his own classic as a reflection on these same truths. That classic is often simply called by his name—Zhuangzi.
The Zhuangzi is not a collection of poetic musings, like the Tao Te Ching, but of short stories and anecdotes. These fables are designed to provoke philosophical reflection, asking the reader to consider how limited the merely human perspective is, and how vast the universe. It is the whole Tao we should consider, not merely our own perspective. Of course, many will find this difficult, and it may be that we can only live according to the Tao through some unconscious process or practice, rather than through any apparently easy, conscious effort.
Perhaps it was inevitable than anyone elaborating on Laozi’s philosophy should come across as more skeptical than the original verses. They are a meditation on the Tao itself, while the Zhuangzi often asks us to ponder our own relationship to it. Because that relationship is troubled by human folly, and has to overcome the obstacles of our limited human perspective, the stories can often come across a bit pessimistic. Becoming one with the Tao seems desirable in the Tao Te Ching, and here it appears difficult.
The Zhuangzi also poses more straightforward philosophical problems than its more poetic predecessor. Among them are the famous Butterfly Dream, in which we asked to question how we can distinguish the real world from the dream world—or if there is in fact any difference at all. Where Laozi’s work might find some parallels with Western Stoics, Zhuangzi’s might be more at home with postmodern philosophers.
Five Pecks of Rice
For centuries, Taoism was purely philosophical. It attracted people who, like the founder of the school, sought to escape the troubled world of civilized society to become solitary hermits, at one with nature. Furthermore, its lassaiz-faire, anarchist political tendencies did not exactly promote state sponsorship, or popularity among people who wanted to advance in society. For some time, it seemed merely like an esoteric doctrine suitable only for intellectuals with little ambition. That changed in the second century after Christ.
China’s ancient western frontier lay in the provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi—the former famous in the United States for restaurants bearing its older Romanization, Szechuan. This was mountainous territory, filled with strange and standoffish hill-folk, with centers civilization concentrated in the fertile river valleys. In troubled times, the more heavily populated provinces of eastern China often turned against each other, and the western frontiers were left to fend for themselves.
The Han dynasty, often considered a golden age, had begun two centuries before Christ and was coming to a slow, painful end two centuries after Him. Palace officials began to interfere in imperial decision-making, there were coups to be fought off, and regional rebellions began disrupting formerly smooth administration of the provinces.
Zhang Daoling lived in this twilight era of the Han dynasty. He had grown up reading Taoist works, and received the best education of his day. He was asked repeatedly to serve as a professor in an imperial college, and even as tutor to the Emperor himself. He refused, preferring his life of seclusion and study. This study included a new element in Taoist philosophy—seeking longevity through practices inspired by Taoist wisdom.
In AD 142, Zhang Daoling declared that Laozi had appeared to him in a vision. This phase of world history would soon be ending, he said, to be replaced by another. Those who wished to survive in the next age must separate themselves from the corruption of their times, and join him in pursuing a Taoist path to holiness. This became known as the Way of the Celestial Masters, and it was popular throughout Sichuan and Shaanxi. A firm commitment was expected of new converts, as seen by the requirement that each prospective adherent donate five pecks of rice to the cause.
Though it may be easy to doubt his followers’ claims that he became an immortal, Zhang Daoling certainly lived to an old age. When he died, first his son and then his grandson succeeded him as head of the movement. His grandson, Zhang Lu, was sent by the Han emperor to quell a rebellion in the west. He obeyed, but upon his victory, he established a new state in the Hanzhong valley as a haven for those who followed the Way of the Celestial Masters. This became known as the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion.
This new state, with its devotion to Zhang Daoling’s apocalyptic version of Taoism, seemed to prosper for a time. Each citizen’s name and their stage in the progress towards holiness was recorded. It was understood that those who had progressed to a higher stage could command divine generals in the spiritual war against demonic forces. Lawbreakers were not punished by ordinary means, but expected to confess their crimes, and were told to seek penance through solitary meditation or do good deeds on behalf of the community. What had once seemed an esoteric philosophy had, with the addition of other elements, become the religious and political philosophy by which the community lived.
In the meantime, the Han dynasty had dissolved into three warring kingdoms, each with their own claimant for the imperial throne. This period would last for less than a century, but the epic nature of the events which shaped it have turned the era into a common setting for tales of romance and high adventure in eastern Asian storytelling.
One of the three rulers, a man named Cao Cao, attacked Zhang Lu, driving him from his kingdom. Cornered in eastern Sichuan, Zhang Lu surrendered. After a brief quarter century of independence, Hanzhong was reincorporated into the mainstream of Chinese civilization.
But the Five Pecks of Rice Movement did not end with the fall of its independent kingdom. Zhang Lu was relocated to Cao Cao’s court in the kingdom of Wei. There he used his authority as a religious leader to reinforce the legitimacy of the kingdom of Wei over the other two kingdoms. His followers spread throughout the realm, and by the time China was reunited under the Jin dynasty, Taoism had become mainstream.
Wisdom of the Ages
Not only had it become mainstream, it had also become explicitly religious. Followers now worshiped Laozi and others who had achieved immortality through Taoist teachings and practices. Zhang Daoling’s emphasis on the pursuit of longevity had also brought it in close proximity to a wide variety of shamanistic sects which promised supernatural powers to those with the right knowledge—or those willing to pay them. Though the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi still formed the center of Taoist teachings, other elements had been introduced which had changed it almost beyond recognition.
One of the central texts that defined Taoism in its new, more religious guise was the I Ching. The I Ching was far older than the Tao Te Ching, its origins shrouded in mystery. On its most basic level, it was a divination manual, telling the reader how to determine the right course of action based on the manipulation of certain mystical symbols. On a deeper level, though, it came to be understood as a complex and symbolical explanation of how the cosmos worked—how heaven was reflected on earth, how the five elements interacted, and how yin and yang could be found in every other operation of the universe.
Incorporating the I Ching into Taoism, along with the worship of a new pantheon of immortals, transformed the abstract philosophy into a full-blown religious tradition, distinct from both Buddhism and Confucianism. Much as Plato’s teachings had begun in pure philosophy and ended by inspiring Gnostic heresies and late antique magical systems, so Laozi’s teaching had become something else entirely.
In this form, however, those teaching had gained a wider appeal, and even official imperial support. Multiple times throughout history, Taoism was considered a leading candidate for becoming the official religion of the Chinese state. It influenced the other two major religious traditions as well, and many minor ones, and it was soon understood that a man could not be truly educated, could not be truly cultured, if he was not familiar with the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Thus, despite undergoing great change, their ideas had become an integral the culture of one of humanity’s greatest civilizations.
A Translator’s Puzzle
Christianity is a proselytizing faith. When the West began interacting with China on a regular basis, it would not be long before missionaries came to translate the Bible into Chinese dialects. This did not begin happening on a large scale until the nineteenth century. When it did, translators were often puzzled by words that had a technical meaning in the original Hebrew or Greek for which there might not be a good equivalent in Chinese. One particular problem was found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, And without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, And the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, And the darkness does not comprehend it.”
The casual English reader might be struck by the poetry of the passage, without necessarily finding any difficult words. For the translator familiar with the culture of the early Roman Empire, however, it presents quite the puzzle.
The Greek word for “Word” in this passage does not simply mean “a thing you say.” That would be “lexis,” but here the manuscript says “logos.” Logos does mean “word,” but it is also a technical term from Greek philosophy. It means something like “rational order” or “logical principle.” It is the reason the world acts the way it does, the transcendent plan that guides the functioning of all of nature. With the Stoics in particular, it came to be something divine, a sort of pantheistic deity that was the same as nature itself. For them, it was simultaneously the explanation for why the world behaved the way it did, and a moral guide for those living in it. Not long after Christ, drawing on that Stoic tradition, a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria adapted the logos to his faith. It was the rational principle by which the Biblical God had created the universe.
Confronted with this word, the nineteenth century translators scrambled for something that might have a similar meaning. Clearly a word that just meant “word” would not do. It needed to carry those crucial philosophical connotations which lend John’s words so much weight.. So they chose Tao.
Just like the logos, the Tao was the principle behind all of nature, the thing that explained the way nature behaved. It was the quasi-divine force or plan which directed everything, and which human beings would do well to seek to understand. Though not identical, the two concepts were very clearly similar.
And thus Taoism, Greek philosophy, and the Christian Gospel were united in a single passage of the Chinese Bible: Jesus is the Tao, the Logos. He was in the beginning with God, and was God, and all things were made through him. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men—men who could not comprehend it. Jesus was identified as Laozi’s mysterious Tao, but—perhaps to Zhuangzi’s shock and protest—in human form.
Of course, this does not mean that the translators saw Christianity as just another form of Taoism. The Incarnation alone appears to violate Taoist understandings of reality, as perhaps does the concept of divine revelation in the first place, at least when set against early philosophical Taoism. Furthermore, this single passage in John is qualified by the rest of Scripture, a context which stands apart from, and often perhaps against, much of Taoist tradition. Nevertheless, the way the concepts align, the apparent appropriateness of the word choice, this strange meeting of Eastern and Western concepts—these things are certainly worth thinking about.
The Tao of the Blog
Every so often I have a little crisis trying to figure out what this blog is for. This is not really the place for a serious academic essay, but it’s not the place for mere personal status updates either. I have Facebook for the latter, and am not particularly qualified for the former. If I just want to post links to interesting articles, there’s Twitter. If I had a particular hobby or area of expertise I wanted to share, this might be the place, but I have few which are so readily shareable. What kind of writing does a blog lend itself to?
Blogs do seem well adapted to relatively ephemeral content. A post arises, perhaps it occasions a conversation in the comments, and then it disappears into the archives as other posts arise to take its place. You can search those archives, but people rarely do without good reason.
Blogs are also good places for informal musings. This blog in particular does not belong to any company or institution, but to some random guy in East Texas. Many blogs are like that. Thus they are good places for random people to talk about whatever interests them, without necessarily requiring them to stick to a specific topic, or meet academic or professional standards when it comes to things like sources. This is just some guy talking.
But unlike Facebook or Twitter, blogs are both formatted for longer articles and designed to be read by a wider audience. This promotes guys talking at length about what interests them, in a way that might interest casual passersby.
In accordance with the principle of wu wei—at least, as I understand it—it pays to cut with the grain of the medium. The nature of a blog makes it a great place to take something like the Tao Te Ching or the Zhuangzi chapter by chapter and muse out loud about its meaning, its connections to other classic works and to pop culture, and whatever lessons these things might have for those who read them.
I am not an expert on these books. I have never taken a class on them in particular, or on Taoism in general, or even on Eastern religions. But I do enjoy learning about these things, and if my learning can be to the profit of other casual readers who might be interested in the topic, it is well worth the effort to spruce up my musings and publish them on this blog.
So this introduction to Taoism is more than an interesting story, though I hope has been that. It is an invitation. I am going to start working my way through the Tao Te Ching verse by verse, posting my thoughts here. If you are interested, please read along and comment below. Learning works best in community, and I would find it a blessing if my blog could provide a little of that.