The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be defined is not the unchanging name.
Non-existence is called the antecedent of Heaven and Earth;
Existence is the Mother of all things. . . These two are
The same in source and become different when manifested.
Tao begets One; one begets two; two begets three; three
Begets all things.
All things are backed by the Shade (yin) and faced by the
Light (yang), and harmonized by the Immaterial Breath (ch'i) . . .
Great, it (Tao) passes on (in constant flow). Passing on,
It becomes remote. Having become remote, it returns (to
What was there at the Beginning).
Thus begins and continues the Tao-te-ching, the well-known Taoist classic of the sixth century BC attributed to Lao-tzu. Some scholars doubt that he ever lived; but this was a fashion that began among the pedantic critics of China's seventeenth century Manchu dynasty. The first century BC historian, Ssema-ch'ien, tells us that Lao-tzu came from an old, cultivated family, and for many years served as a Keeper of the Imperial Archives of the Chou rulers at their capital city. He was an older contemporary of Confucius. Seeing that the Chou regime was becoming degenerate, Lao-tzu retired while in middle life, though he probably lived to a grand old age, possibly over ninety, and left a large progeny of grandchildren. He is shown departing westward toward the great snowy ranges of the Central Asian plateau. At the western Pass the official in charge, Yin Hsi, also a Taoist, asked him to write a book before he left, the terse Tao-te-ching, of little more than five thousand words, was the result.
Lao-tzu then disappeared but is believed to have been reborn periodically in later generations in China. The "Way of Tao," the subject of his book, is in its origins lost in the mists of China's prehistory. Tradition maintains it was taught by Fu Hsi and Huang Ti, two of five legendary "True Men" said to have composed China's initial ruling dynasty. The Tao-te-ching, which can be rendered as "The Regenerative Potency of The Way," is the most translated of all Chinese writings. Nevertheless, a collection of Taoist studies, made as long ago as 1445 AD, alone contains 1,464 individual works. We are told that no Westerner, and probably no Oriental, has ever read them in their entirety. The full range of Taoist philosophy is still relatively unknown to the West.
Taoism indisputably expresses the most characteristic spiritual vision of the Chinese genius. All the great schools and cults that have flourished in that country — Buddhist, Mohist, Confucian, even the contemporary Maoism — have been influenced by Taiost thought. Chinese art and esthetics are, par excellence, exponents of it. The folk-religion of the populace, revolving around divination, medicine, magic and everyday ceremonies, was derived from it. It forms the basis of the distinctive Chinese method of attaining yoga or union of the human with the cosmic consciousness (cf. Philip Rawson and Lazslo Legeza, Tao, The Eastern Philosophy of Time and Change, passim).
The core of Taoist thought comprises in truth the esoteric tradition which has continually welled up within China's long cultural history. It has always been that extra-official line of thought and practice privately maintained by great numbers of her thinkers and scholars despite whatever official philosophy may have been promulgated or enforced by this or that king or emperor during the country's periodic eras of turbulence. It therefore is the most authentic source of information about the cosmology of this great Oriental people, their own story of cosmic beginnings and creation. The verses from the Tao-te-ching appearing at the beginning of this article summarize the Taoist conception of those beginnings and of the progressive development of all things that the universe contains. How may we understand their import?
To begin with, there are two Taos, two Ones. Once this is seen and kept in mind, much that has perplexed readers of the Tao-te-ching becomes clearer. The first Tao is that formless, still, changeless, eternal, inexhaustible Great Something — the Umanifest from which all manifestation springs. It can be equated with the THAT, the original unnamed essence of the Hindu Rishis. Some Taoist authors call it the "self-existent," the "Naturalness," the "what-is-so-of-itself " From it the Tao that can be named — the existent or manifest Tao — is begotten. This second One is known as "the Mother of the ten thousand things, i.e., of all creation. From this creative Tao spring up the Two — the yin and yang or "dark" and "light" aspects of manifestation that bipolarity observed throughout the range of being, which we in our culture are accustomed to term "matter" and "spirit," or — in a different context — substance and energy. This Two becomes Three by begetting ch'i: life-consciousness, The agent of manifested Tao, ch'i is the energic intellgence that pervades and directs the evolution of yin-yang. It has been identified with abstract humanity in the sense of mind (the distinctive human attribute here on earth) which mediates between matter and spirit and is in one aspect their child. Yin-yang is regarded as the divine mother-father of humanity and all sentient creatures. Yang, whose symbol is the circle, is called "Heaven" and associated with the sun. Yin, symbolized by the square, is equated with "Earth" as a principle, and with the moon.
In Taoism this duality of spirit and matter (again employing our words for it) is inseparable. Neither aspect is 'evil' or 'good' and neither can be divorced from the other: all opposites are blended, all contrasts harmonized. The aim of the Taoist philosopher was attainment not of "spirit," but of perfect balance between the two complementary; principles of being; thus there was no dualism present in his thought. For him the Tao, what we would call Divinity, is ever-present in every particle or point of the changing bipolar stream of the manifested universe.
The Great Tao is continually flowing forth into such manifestation and then returning to its primal unconditioned or "Self-so" state. Therefore Taoism includes a cyclical conception of the universe in which an outbreathing from the Great Tao produces "the ten thousand things." When the limit of any such evolution is reached, be this of individual creatures, worlds or universes themselves, there ensues an inbreathing of all that particular creation back to the unmanifest state. Yang and yin, in yet another dimension of meaning, refer respectively to the expansive and the contractive aspects of this eternal process, whose diastole-systole is conceived as constant in operation. The full dynamism of this philosophy is brought out in the I Ching or Book of Regeneration, where it is said:
Renovation follows renovation and birth succeeding birth without cease is Change . . . Lofty is the Change! . . . Forever changing and moving, it circulates through the six illimitable directions. — quoted in Philosophy of Life, Dr. Chen Li-Fu, pp. 19, 22.
A great Taoist student, the Prince of Huai Nan, writing toward the end of the second century BC, applied this cyclical conception to humanity itself:
If man undergoes a myriad transformations without end, dying and coming to renewed life, this is a source of joy that cannot be expressed. Decay and resurrection are triumphant sources of joy. — Tao: The Great Luminant, essays from Huai Nan Tzu, with introductory articles, notes, analyses by Evan Morgan, Ch'eng-Wen Publishing Co., p. 33.
When a human being has finally gained firsthand knowledge of Tao, he preserves his unity after death "and is not dispersed into 7 parts as is commonly said." (ibid., p.257, note 31) He has "returned to the Root" or, as a Western mystic might put it, has achieved a conscious alliance with the divinity in the heart.
From the transcendental, noumenal trinity of creative Tao spring Yin and Yang as the ensuing fourfold emanation (The Four Phenomena). Together these compose a seven-folding that, according to modern theosophy, is characteristic of all manifestation, be the units universes, worlds, men or atoms. The Taoist trinity can be identified with the theosophical conception of three higher or "formless" worlds of being, and "the four phenomena" with four lower planes or "worlds of form." (H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:200.) The Chinese method of analyzing the subject of transformation in time through the four lower or phenomenal planes of being is carried out in terms of the eight and sixty-four trigrams. Each trigram represents a profound interweaving of changing relationships between yang and yin (cf. Tao, The Eastern Philosophy of Time and Change, p. 15.) — that is, of proportional relations of spirit and matter active in any given phase. As such, then, at the cosmological level the trigrams concern the evolution of energies and substances (the "ten thousand things") through the various planes or phases of cycles of manifestation. For in Chinese spiritual philosophy space and time were and are regarded as essential factors of the evolution of Creative Tao during its periods of activity or expansion, and it has withdrawn into the formlessness and silence of No-being, the Great Tao.
Of the many annotated translations of the Tao Te Ching, the following four are among the best:
For The I Ching, see:
Attention of the reader is called to the remark of Tan Tai (the translator of Dr. Chen's work) that while Legge and others call the I Ching the Book of Changes, it should be named the Book of Regeneration. Tan says the word i or Yih means something more than changes, as indicated in a passage in the classic itself: "the perpetual reproduction and regeneration of all things."
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)
Sunrise Back Issues Menu