Related: Taoism and the Dialog of Civilizations, July 3
Much of the literature I’m using here is in German – not only when referring to Wolfgang Bauer or Karl Jaspers who wrote in German themselves.
For example, Lin Yutang wrote his “The Wisdom of Laotse” in English, for a North American readership. Nevertheless, I’m using a German edition of his writings. The same is true for Thomas Cleary’s “The Tao of Politics”. Therefore, some of my sources are farther away from the original than what they would need to be, but then, this is a blog and it must not consume but some of my pasttime.
As for two of the Taoist classics – Laozi and Zhuangzi -, I will mostly refer to them like if they were real people. I understand that they didn’t necessarily exist as individuals. But from childhood, I’ve been used to think of them as real people – people who actually never died.
Karl Jaspers, in “The Great Philosophers”, found that the only way to describe the Tao was to tell what it is not. Before the “ten-thousand things” which are everything we can see or be aware of, including ourselves, there is the immeasurable void, the negative, the non-existent. The void creates the things which exist, and it acts like a bellow while doing so.
One could say that the “Tao” exhales when making the world.
Both Buddhism and Taoism are metaphysical in their own ways, and Buddhism, as sinisized as its “Chinese edition” may be, came from abroad. It seems remarkable that both Buddhism and Taoism, according to legends, had to be quested for, while Confucius set off and promoted his ideas. Buddhism, so Chinese folklore and literature say, was fetched from “the West”, i. e. India. Chinese “delegation” led by a monk named Xuanzang (玄奘), and with the immortal monkey king Sun Wukong (孫悟空) as a delegation member, took a long, dangerous, but also highly entertaining journey to India – a road full of adventures.
I’ll try to describe how Taoism – probably the only great Chinese philosophy which went beyond what we can see and directly describe – has served as a bridge between Chinese and Western experience and thought. I’m almost taking it for granted that it did so, but don’t expect a smoking gun here. Still there is plenty of evidence in the parallels and references from the West to the East. Wolfgang Bauer, in “The Will to act and the Revolutionary Role of the Village”, in: “China and the Hope for Happiness – Paradises, Utopias, Ideals in China’s History of Thought”, described such cross references between imported Marxist thought and traditional Taoist ideas.1)
Obviously, serving as a bridge to an outside world wasn’t a Taoist “plan”. China and the world were one – from a Chinese perspective. The world had its center, and its barbarian territories, but this one world only ceased to exist when the barbarians forgot themselves and kicked the doors in.
Taoism explains the world, and how it comes into being. It usually doesn’t attach much importance to human or civilizational relations, or even criticizes such relations as an apostization from the Tao. But as Taoism looks behind differing civilizational statements, it is something one world may relate to as easily as different worlds.
Laozi – if he was an existing individual rather than a collection of aphorisms from different or unknown authors – had his wisdom recorded only when he left the civilized world behind him. But on the border between the center and the barbarian territories, what he left for the records was still wisdom based on Chinese experience. Taoism is a transcending, but genuinely Chinese system of thought.
I’ll only touch on Western philosophy where it seems to show commonalities with Taoism, or where it gained substantial influence on Chinese life. As for Taoism itself, I’d like to look into its potential role in China’s present tense, and its future role.
1.1. The Classics
There are differing opinions on when the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi were written. Wolfgang Bauer believed that the older chapters of the Zhuangzi book were written during the fifth or fourth century B.C., that the Dao De Jing is from the mid- or late fourth century B.C., and that at least some further chapters were added to the Zhuangzi only during the second century B.C..2) If Laozi and Zhuangzi were real people or only names to these written collections is also unclear. Zhuangzi is written in prose; the Dao De Jing, at least partly, is lyrical.
A third classic, the Huainanzi, was compiled during the second century B.C..3)
1.2. How Taoism sees the World
It could be seen as a problem: people who consider themselves spiritual, will probably describe Taoism as something spiritual, too, be it in philosophical or religious ways. People with no or little sense for spiritual matters may reject the idea that Taoism was meant to be spiritual.
We can probably leave this problem aside – the old Taoists may have either laughed or frowned at such an argument, as it would look unnatural and arbitrary to them. The Tao is the Tao. Philosophy, religion, materialism or spirituality are the ways of a man who spends his life on – in vain – trying to “cultivate” society and on counting beans.
But when discussing Taoism, when exploring it, or when translating its works, people will use certain terms according to their own ideas. A Jesuit translating and interpreting Taoist classics will use other terms than a Marxist colleague. It’s hard to be a real Taoist when you want to talk Taoism.
For sure, the old Taoists were quite indifferent about the things we perceive and between which we can see a difference: a deer is no horse, a man is no butterfly, etc.. Material manifestations are here, but we would try to look behind the manifestations: the root of the world, or, as faithful interpreters may say, the “Divine”.4) Taoism is about what drives all the material manifestations. Physicists had called the idea into question that everything we could see or perceive was merely material, Lin Yutang wrote in the 1940s: they had come to the atom from substance, and to the electron from the atom – but what was driving the electron?5)
The root of the world is comprehensive. Everything material is only its manifestation or creation. An old Taoist – who’d be as metaphysical as can be – wants to see what transcends the material or physical objects. Laozi calls it “Tao” and at the same time refuses to label the real Tao with a name at all. The Tao includes everything, all the opposites, too, even what exists, and what doesn’t.
But Laozi has decided to talk about the Tao after all, and that requires language, i.e. a name: “And I refer to it as ‘Tao'”.6)
Obviously, the capacity of language, the tool of man, who is one of the ten-thousand things himself, is limited. Therefore, Laozi reduces his talk to parables and aphorisms, based on a pattern: “The Nameless is the origin of heaven and earth, the Named is the mother of all things.”7)
Jaspers refers to the Nameless as the “Non-Existent”.8 ) So the world comes from the Tao which can be named, or from what exists, and this existence in turn comes from what doesn’t exist. This “process of becoming [the] world”, as Jaspers puts it, can’t be attributed to a certain point in time: [Laozi] apparently doesn’t see a linear world process with a sequence of clear-cut, constituting or catastrophic events. Rather, one would see in it a timeless, eternal presence of being. Hints to a world process in his descriptions may need to be perceived as everlasting action.9)
The Tao is “before the world, and therefore before all differentiation”10) One could say just as well that it is underneath the world.11) Laozi also emphasizes the Tao’s cyclical pattern: “The things of this world come from the existent, and the existent comes from the non-existent.”12) “Return is the action of the Tao”, and the Dao De Jing‘s sixteenth chapter states that “The ten-thousand things take shape and rise to act, but I’m watching how they return to rest”. Everything comes from the non-existent, exists in this world for a limited period and then returns to its original condition.13)
It seems that nothing more can be said about the Tao’s effect. In its 81 chapters, the Dao De Jing offers a variety of imagination and comparisons to point out this effect.
To be continued.
1) Probably only available in German. Wolfgang Bauer: Der Wille zur Tat und die revolutionaere Rolle des Dorfes, in China und die Hoffnung auf Glueck – Paradiese, Utopien, Idealvorstellungen in der Geistesgeschichte Chinas, Munich 1989, first published in 1974, p. 512.
5) Lin Yutang:22
7) Lin Yutang:41, first book (quoting Laozi, chapter 1, “About the Absolute Tao”)
8 ) Jaspers:905
9) Jaspers:904 –
“[Laozi] scheint keinen zeitlichen Weltprozess mit einer Folge einschneidender, gruendender oder katastrophaler Ereignisse zu kennen. Eher wuerde man aus ihm eine zeitlose ewige Gegenwart des Seins entnehmen. Was bei ihm vorkommt, ist vielleicht als ein immerwaehrendes Geschehen aufzufassen…”
11) Lin Yutang:64
12) Lin Yutang:151, fourth book (quoting Laozi, chapter 40, “About the Principle of Return”)
13) Lin Yutang:85
Bauer, Wolfgang: China und die Hoffnung auf Glück – Paradiese, Utopien, Idealvorstellungen in der Geistesgeschichte Chinas, Munich 1989, first published in 1974
Cleary, Thomas (editor): Das Tao der Politik (The Tao of Politics), translated by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Bern, Munich, Vienna, 1991
Jaspers, Karl: Die großen Philosophen, Vol. 1, Munich, published in 1957, 1988, 1991
Lin, Yutang (editor): Die Weisheit des Laotse, Frankfurt a. M. 1955, translated by Gerolf Coudenhove (The Wisdom of Laotse, 1948)
Weischedel, Wilhelm: Die philosophische Hintertreppe – 34 große Philosophen in Alltag und Denken, Munich 1975