I. The Impersonality of Dao
Ancient Chinese religious beliefs were not strikingly different from others current in the world at that time. The universe was thought to be ruled by an omnipotent being, Shang Di, who was anthropomorphic in character. In fact, Shang Di was so human-like that his heaven served as the model for the earthly imperial system.
A rigid hierarchical world existed where serfs sacrificed labour and produce to their lords, who in turn sacrificed to the emperor, who finally made obeisance via offerings to Shang Di. The entire kingdom was seen as a family, being grounded in the four basic social classes and five elemental relationships.
This being so, it is easy to understand the readiness with which all subsequent Chinese dynasties adopted the imperial-Confucian system (with, needless to say, whatever liberal distortions the exigencies of the time required).
Shang Di, then, is the Chinese counterpart to the Grecian Zeus, or the Old Testament Yahweh : a supreme, yet humanish god, sitting on high bestowing boons on the obedient and hurling thunderbolts and calamities on the unrepentant. This early conception of the ultimate power obviously finds its model in the human nuclear family; it has been discussed at length by Freud in Totem and Taboo.
The division of this cosmology was into three interacting parts: Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. By Heaven was meant the ruling force of the universe (i.e., Shang Di) ; Earth meant all observable terrestrial and celestial activity. Shang Di (Heaven) influenced Earth, which in turn, via natural phenomenon, instructed Humanity. The key points here are 1) the connection of the various parts, and 2) that it is through the mediation of Earth that Heaven’s will is known.
There is some similarity between this scheme and that conceived in the Mosaic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam) where also a division into divine, earthly, and human spheres is posited. Of absolutely crucial difference however is that in the ancient Chinese view humanity is not inherently separate from or superior to the natural world. Rather, humanity is simply a part of the natural system. Furthermore, nowhere in the ancient Chinese legends is man given sovereign dominance over the earth by Shang Di ; man is meant to be in harmony with, not to control and reshape, the world of which he is a part.
Of course, this is a radically different conception than that espoused by the orthodox Mosaic traditions. Here man is seen as existing outside (in a metaphysical sense) the natural environment (indeed, it is this very belief which is the cause behind much of the anti-evolutionary movement), and is granted dominion over all the earth and its creatures (Genesis, 1:26).
This basic anthropomorphic idea of divinity, then, combined with feudal court ritual and folk superstition, is the earliest form of Chinese religion we known of. The origins of these beliefs stretch back at least to 1500 BC (early Shang times) and held firm sway in China until about 500 BC. It was at this time that the Dao De Jing was written.
It is in this brief document of only about 5000 ideograms that the first major statement in Chinese thought is found regarding a non-anthropomorphic creative force. In the philosophical history of any people this stage of development is a milestone, in that it represents the beginning of a non-egotistical view of the universe. In other words, it recognizes that humanity is not necessarily the ultimate flower of creation, but rather only a part of it.
Religious thinking prior to this level may be characterized, in a psychological sense, as infantile in nature. What does the new-born recognize as existing beyond itself? Nothing. Indeed, child psychology tells us that the new-born cannot even distinguish between itself and objects in the immediate environment, taking all experience to be a part of itself. It is only after several weeks of maturation that the situation of self and other-than-self becomes known. In the psychoanalytic scheme this is seen as moving from the primal, undifferentiated id-based experience to the nascent development of the ego, the basis of adult life.
It will be instructive at this point to make some general comments about how this course of development has been viewed East and West. In the East, not since the ancient times being considered, no major religious or philosophical thinker has given the idea of an anthropomorphic god serious consideration (n.b., I speak here of “serious”, as distinctly opposed to “popular”); rather, the entire tradition speaks of impersonal forces. How different the situation in the Western World! From Mosaic times right down to the present day our religions continue in the “concrete” (as opposed to abstract) mode ~ a kind of Greek humanism gone far astray.
To all but the most superficial reflection, this humanizing of the Ultimate brings an insurmountable host of problems. The twists and turns to somehow make all this “reasonable” to the Western mind is a story in itself. To the common Easterner however this “dilemma” has presented but little difficulty. The cultures, languages, and psychologies of the East apparently allow the simultaneous entertainment of mutually opposing ideas. For example, a piece of paper may be white, black, and both and neither. In short, everything is relative.
The Western mind, common or superior, allows little such ambiguity, what with its analytic bent. Since the time of Aristotle, until very recently, Western theology, philosophy, and psychology have used a rather limited view of “reality” ; in short, that which is is objectively describable, analyzable, and classifiable. Period.
Just two of time-consuming problems which have resulted from this heavy-handed, literal interpretation of the Ultimate are 1) attempts at explaining Yahweh’s radical shift of character from Old Testament God of Wrath to the New Testament God of Mercy, and 2) the problem of Jesus’ “humanness”, i.e., was Jesus, as son of God, wholly god merely condescending to humanity in His assumption of human form, or was he actually part human and only part god? (Though not necessarily apparent to the “unschooled” eye, these matters, we are told, have implications regarding the Passion and Resurrection of Christ). Such-like topics find no counterpart in Eastern religion or philosophy.
My essential point, then, is that an anthropomorphic conception of the divine power is philosophically is of a lower, more basic level than that of a non-human, indeed, non-conceivable, creative force. If this is so, then, it is also apparent that the Eastern world, very early on, reached a level of spiritual maturity which the West has yet to attain. Indeed, the great C.G. Jung has remarked that we often even lack the basic concepts from which to proceed into the study of these philosophies.
The development in the East, then, has primarily been within the spiritual realm. Necessarily, the number of individuals who have directly benefited from this progress has been small; for all humanity this particular path is narrow, treacherous, and long, thereby excluding all but the most dedicated.
The West has struck out in an entirely different direction, seeking not the spiritual but the physical, looking not so much inward as outward. The undisputed forte of the West, then, as all the world is now forced to acknowledge, is physical science. The advantages therefrom are practical and concrete ; the use, if not understanding, being readily accessible to all. The effect of modern American and European technology upon the world at large is by now beyond any form of dispute. This transformation has certainly included several potent evils (e.g., weapons of mass destruction, over-population, pollution), but most would agree that the net result has been to the good (at least so far…).
It can be seen then that both East and West have developed lopsidedly; the one with a mature spiritual philosophy utilized by the few, the other with a practical technology extending to the masses. Over the last several decades, as a result of international trade and cultural exchange (again the result of Western science), both sides have become aware of their respective deficiencies and are now beginning to seek answers from the other side.
II. The Non-Cognizability of Dao
And so, in the early 6th century BC an ultimate creative force of non-anthropomorphic character was alluded to in the Dao De Jing. This force, termed Dao, is the fundamental basis, the heart, of all Daoist thought. It is a difficult, high-level philosophical concept which, in reality, can never be reached or comprehended via words, cognition, or any form of intellectualization – it can however be experienced. Words and such-like makeshifts can serve as pointers to Dao, but they can never express Dao. One does not learn to swim through discussion ~ it’s learned by getting in the water. An examination of the Chinese ideograph may help to make this clearer. (I would here like to adopt the convention of using Dao, capitalized, to indicate the philosophical concept, whereas dao, lower-case, to refer to the Chinese ideogram.)
The Dao De Jing opens with the lines,
The Dao that can be expressed
is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named,
is not the eternal name.
And so we must realize from the beginning that any expression of Dao is but an exceedingly poor copy of what it represents; the thing-itself being beyond the human categories of time, space, and causality.
Thus the Dao De Jing opens with a statement within which a warning is contained : the words in this little text, and the ideas to which they refer, are not Dao, but merely are about Dao. Do not take my words or images for the real thing , for they are not, cautions Laozi. I use them merely to point to Dao ~ which you must experience for yourself.
The Chinese ideogram which read dao, has just this meaning of leading , directing or going to something. Dalu is a road, dadao a highway, and didao is the verb “to tunnel”. Beyond these concrete usages this ideogram is also used in a great number of constructions such as zhidao, which is the verb “to know”.
Now that we have some general idea of the sense of dao, let’s proceed further by breaking the character down into its component parts for closer scrutiny. Just as some English words may be split into their constituent elements to clarify their meaning (e.g., inactive), so too some (but certainly not all) Chinese ideograms are amenable to this process of division ; dao has three parts.
The central section of the character dao is the representation of a human eye which is open; this is meant to indicate an aware person. The left portion of the character is meant to depict travel or motion, here implying “to walk”. In connection with this, the top indicates the horizon.
Putting all this together, we have the idea of an aware person walking toward a destination. Philosophically, this is meant to connote the individual’s journey on the road of life. There are three points of significance in this.
First, the person is alone (i.e., not a member of a group). From the time of the first Daoist writer, Yang Zhu, the accent of this philosophy has been on the individual, not on the society. This is, of course, at variance with the mores of traditional Chinese (in fact all Asian) cultures; here emphasis has always been, and continues to be, on familial and societal structure. Daoism however tends rather in the direction of all truth being of an individual nature.
Secondly, the person is aware. The Daoist is constantly mindful of the dictates (past, present, and future) of his or her situation. This does not mean that he or she agrees with these circumstances or necessities, but rather seeks to move with the underlying principles directing these events and thus be able to harmonize with the situation to best effect.
Lastly, and this is in connection with the second point, that both a goal and a means to achieve this (i.e, sagehood and the way of the Dao) are essential parts of the Daoist’s lifestyle. In chapter 13 of The Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius writes, “In archery we have something like the Way of the superior man. When the archer misses the centre of the target, he turns around and seeks for the cause of the failure in himself”.
But, indeed, who can say truly what is the purpose of life?
And so we are lead to the fact Dao is simply a convenient way of connoting what cannot be denoted. In short, what is beyond expression, being accessible only (so all the mystical doctrines inform us) through direct individual insight.
All of this is certainly difficult enough for the Western mind to accept, but these problems extend to an entirely new depth of perplexity when the amoral nature of Dao is introduced.
What can this possibly mean?, asks the incredulous reader. Surely, any conception of the supreme power, whatever that conception might be, must inherently contain within it the attributes of righteousness and mercy.
But, I ask you, why must it? To assume that the universe is in anyway especially designed with humanity’s concerns in mind is, to the Daoist, nothing more than a (further) demonstration of human conceit and folly.
We need , at this point, to attempt, as much as possible, to disentangle ourselves from our traditional Western mores which place humanity at the centre of a universe which is presided over by a loving god. Next, we need to seriously question ourselves as to what morality is, and where do we obtain this information from.
Many an intelligent Westerner has been able to shed the external rituals and dogmatic beliefs inculcated into us by our Greco-Roman, Mosaic, and democratic traditions. Yet still, in the great majority of case, this hacking away at form in search of substance is largely intellectual in nature, leaving the understructure of emotion untouched.
An interesting example of this is the belief of many Americans that their own personalities and attitudes are the result of their own volition ; i.e., that their personalities are formed via autonomous, individual choice. In other words, they view themselves as essentially free-standing structures within the universe ; unique in that they are largely exempt from such influences as biology, locality, culture, and family. Taken within the parameters of science however the foregoing is naive beyond description.
And so, in spite of the obvious fact that above belief flies in the face of commonly acknowledged tenets of science (which, as mentioned, is one of he fortes of our culture), people persist with it. I now ask why?
Simply, because we have been indoctrinated by our culture to believe. Yes, indoctrinated – for make no mistake, this is the primary function of culture. The individual must be molded (or shaped, to wax Skinnerian) in order to fit to the needs of the society of which he or she is a part. It is only by this process of conditioning that the group members function as a successful unit.
Daoism, and indeed all branches of the Perennial Philosophy group, seeks to move beyond the cultural confines and experience the world in its “suchness” ; i.e., without the distorting, though often comforting, crutch bias. Mencius, quoting Confucius, says “I know how it is that the path of the Mean is not walked on: The knowing go beyond it, and the stupid do not come up to it.” (The Doctrine of the Mean, Ch.3).
The ancient Greek Heraclitus wrote, “For god all things are good, but men have taken some things as unjust, others as just,”. Zhuangzi expressed essentially the same idea.
These philosophers stood on the high-ground of truth ~ a summit from which the temporal and spatial manifestations of our experience lose their significance as they meld into the One.
III. Non-beginning and Beginning
We will now explore the basic theoretical foundation of Daoism, wuji and daiji. From this pair of relatively simple concepts springs every major position in Daoist thought ; in short, these two ideas form the bedrock of this philosophy.
Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a landmark in Western philosophy in that it definitively demonstrates that the existence of god (if such there be) cannot be proved by any spatio-temporal means (though this essential fact and indeed the basic tenets of this highly important work are, for the most part, misunderstood , or slyly ignored, by a great many current philosophers and theologians). The ancient Daoists , though in a non-analytical form, also adhered to this basic proposition. To both the Daoists and Kant, then, it is apparent human knowledge is grounded in our experiences of space and time. The ultimate source of all creation however lies outside or beyond the confines of human-conceived time-space. In short, human comprehension is limited, inherently and irrevocably, whereas the ultimate is infinite.
Three basic metaphysical questions thus arise: 1) Being limited, is it possible that we can have any concept of the infinite at all?, 2) If this is possible, by what means can we expand or increase our knowledge of this sort?, and 3) What is the connection between the infinite and the finite? (i.e, how and why did creation come into being?).
The first question is indeed a morass: the definitions, premises, and assumptions one uses in any rational inquiry (this holds in general for all science, but particularly for philosophy) will to a large extent determine the directions and even possible outcomes of the investigation. Here we have a prime example of the limitation of human thought.
Atheist and nihilist doctrines would simply deny that there is any god to know and that any ideas we have about such things are mere folly. Furthermore, the nihilist group would attempt to demonstrate the pointless, meaningless nature of existence itself. Next, we have the agnostics who, while not denying the possibility of an ultimate creative force, would firmly deny our ability to know any thing of this phenomenon.
It would be arrogant to the point of foolhardiness to simply reject out-of-hand the profound thought which has gone into the various atheistic, nihilistic, and agnostic systems. And so it is only with great care, perhaps even trepidation, that we may even proceed to the second question (assuming, as it does, not only the existence of an omnipotent being or force but also our ability to understand something of this power). In connection with these points the reader might investigate Ockham’s Razor as well as the Stratonician Presumption..
Keeping these qualifications in mind then, we may modify our two questions to the following: 1) how may we increase our awareness of the ultimate, and, 2) what is our association with it? These queries, on the whole, constitute what was, is , and will be the double-edged problem for religions and metaphysical philosophies. Perhaps an apt metaphor is the Excalibur : deep and strongly buried in a massive mound of rock, exposed blade dazzlingly and wickedly bright, and, in this case, absolutely lacking any handle on which to gain purchase.
The answer that Daoism gives is the wuji and daiji (Being and Non-being); the primal pair of interdependent opposites.
As noted, the early Daoists recognized quite well the futility of attempting to encompass the infinite within the finite bounds of human cognition. Thus our first concept, that from which all else arises, is simply called wuji ~ Non-being.
Again I must emphasize that this is just a convenient name for that which is essentially unnameable.
The use of this term is merely a means to allow a groping mind a place to begin its effort. Of course, the label applied (wuji) is arbitrary in that we designate this as the center of the circle, whereas , in actuality, the circle is all-encompassing and thus has no circumference.
And so, daiji (Being), the physical world , are said to result from wuji (Non-being). How can this logically be? And, furthermore, what exactly is Non-being? The answer is, naturally, that it cannot logically be, and therefore we can never know (i.e., cognize) precisely what wuji is.
The individual must apprehend it intuitively. It is seen (via the third eye) in the cycling of Nature, in what is called the Reversal of Dao: everything on reaching its zenith then begins its decline. Extreme conditions of all types lead to their opposites – this is an absolutely unchangeable law of Nature.
This being so, it is as far as the rational mind can venture , here it must stop. All further progress is completely blocked, anything more only a mirage within a dream. It is now time for the logical, conscious mind to relinquish command to the core, the utter essence of the individual ~ and experience what wuji is. Laozi writes, “Whence do I know the nature of things? Just through them.”
It is important no to polarize the concepts of wuji and daiji, as if they were opposites somehow contending with one another. One of the great truths of Daoism is that so-called opposites do not truly work against each other at all, but rather interact, and are thus interdependent. Can you imagine up without down? Does the concept “male” have any meaning without its counterpart “female”? As far as the human psyche is concerned, all physical phenomenon inherently contain within them their opposites.
Thus, wuji is the Daoist name for that which is beyond all categories (i.e., time, space, and causality). It is Being in-and-of itself, completely independent of all limitations; in short, the Kantian ding-an-sich. It neither is nor is-not, it is rather outside all conception. Daiji, conversely, represents not existence itself but the primal pair, yin-yang, through the interaction of which all existence results.
The interplay of wuji and daiji, bring about all creation. Out of Non-being Being comes, and back into Non-being Being returns. This endless cycle, in full career all about us all the time, awaits direct apprehension by a mind unclouded by duality.
This duality of non-duality (!), or interdependency of (seeming) opposites finds its traditional Chinese expression in the famous yin-yang symbol. This profound symbol, being archetypical in nature, has several levels of “meaning” ; I would like to indicate here only several of the more basic ones.
First, the symbol is shown in a state of absolute equilibrium. This is however a condescension on the part of the originators of the yin-yang diagram to 1) aid in superficial comprehension (for, as we have seen, none of this can actually be known), and 2) to emphasize a certain point regarding potentiality.
Comprehension is hopefully assisted by showing all aspects of the daiji at apex in full stop, or just about to being reversal where either the yin or the yang will begin to ascend. In the physical world however this moment of change is very difficult to detect. The onset of winter is just one of any number of examples of natural time-processes which, while in-themselves are constant and uninterrupted, have of necessity been subjected to arbitrary human divisions.
Nothing is, everything is becoming, Heraclitus tells us. Everything, always, is in the process of changef. This naturally fluid state of the universe has not been well accepted in the Western world. We prefer to divide, and thus conquer, reality. This modus operandi was bequeathed to us by Aristotle. As an aid to comprehension and a means of mastering the physical environment it has served us eminently well , but as James Joyce indicates in the last chapter of Ulysses it is not even the way our own minds function.
The second vital point to realize about the daiji is that the white, yang, half contains within it a small black dot, and the black, yin, section holds a white dot : this is potentiality. Every condition, no matter how pure or extreme it may seem, is thus demonstrated to contain within it the potential and future certainty of change into its opposite. This is the “reversal of Dao”.
And so, the daiji is shown at perfect mid-point, so subtle a moment as to elude any human apprehension, and, additionally, motionless. Both of these conditions are impossible ~ and thus again serve to emphasize the Middle Way.
It is only the Middle Way, the central, non-extreme course that endures ~ allowing the completion of the cycle. All things that begin must end; all things that have life must experience death. This is the normal, unalterable situation of existence ~ but the Daoist seeks, like the moon, to move through all the phases of the process, omitting none, and thus attaining fulfillment.
IV. Dao and De
We have examined some of the overall, or macro, phenomenon represented in Daoism. Now we will turn our attention to how these forces find expression in the individual. Our concern in this section will be to understand the relationship, or connection, between the wuji /daiji, on the one hand, and individual instances of existence, on the other. In short, we seek the Way the metaphor clothes the mundane. Germane to this examination will be the sharply contrasting views found in the mainstream Western traditions.
As stated (page 3), the Western traditions have emphasized the difference and separateness of god and humanity, whereas the East has focused on the oneness of creator and creation. Now, to you average Westerner this oneness, harmony and the like, while having a pleasant sound to it, obviously rings false. What can it mean to say that the divine and common are one in the same? This seems to degrade the former while over-valuing the latter.
The resistance of the Western mind to accepting this notion is all the more curious when the usual, and monumental, egocentricism is considered. And yet that resistance is assuredly there, focusing on the division and plurality of life. It very well may be that this entire cultural trend is ultimately traceable to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic emphasis on the Fall from the Paradise.
What has lead Western theology and philosophy totally astray in this matter, once again, is the Aristotelian emphasis on analysis and classification. Again, the Western mind dwells on the manifestation of existence, while the Eastern mind seeks to trace the underlying thread connecting all.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was the first Western philosopher to incorporate Eastern elements (namely Hinduism) into his metaphysical theory. As his work is the leading philosophical example of the Perennial tradition in the West it will be useful for us to compare a few of his central ideas with those of Daoism.
According to Schopenhauer the world is divided, so far as human perception is concerned, into Will and Representation. Will is the underlying, non-anthropomorphic, non-ethical creative principle from which all proceeds. It is not only the motive force within humans and animals, but also includes all natural phenomenon such as wind and gravitation. Representation, on the other hand, is the human mind’s experience, or perception, of the Will; our knowledge is knowledge not of the Will itself, but rather of fragmentary and temporary forms expressing some level or degree of the Will. Cognition is forced into this mode of operation due to its very essence, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (i.e., time, space, and causality).
Thus, it is easy to see that Schopenhauer’s Will has a close connection with the Daoist wuji/daiji theory. Both Will and wuji/daiji are outside the Principle of Sufficient Reason (called Maya, or the Veil of Delusion, in Hinduism and Buddhism), and are at once subject to nothing and the source of the manifold. Representation however falls within the realm of Maya, the mechanism of thought, and is simply termed existence, or “the ten thousand things” in Daoism. Furthermore, as every natural object and event in Schopenhauer’s system is powered by Will, so too in Daoist thought all things move out of their inherent connection with Dao.
Many a reader will clam to be following this explanation and yet here somehow go wrong-headedly on to equate Will and wuji/daiji with the idea of the individual soul. This completely misses the point, but the assumptions in traditional Western thought is a natural enough blunder.
All the systems of philosophy being here discussed, and indeed the entire Perennial tradition, deny the existence of individual, separate, and eternal soul. This is done for two reasons. First, the total concept of the individual soul is nothing but a further function of Maya. Second, a multitude of souls, being distinct, autonomous entities, yields plurality, not unity, of Will.
As this entire discussion hinges upon an understanding of Maya, it will be useful to explore this concept a little more thoroughly in its original Hindu and Buddhist form.
One of the six major branches of Hindu philosophy is Sankhya (literally “counting” or “listing”),the founding of which is attributed to the ancient sage Kapila (c.600BC). As may be surmised from its name, Sankhya, this profound Indian system seeks to delineate the various layers of the human psycho-physical organism. By this division, this peeling away, an understanding of the parts and their expression as a whole and, most importantly, an experience of what comprises the core of the individual is sought.
This subtle, erudite system of psycho-physical delimitation is no simplistic form of dualism, as, for example, proposed by Descartes. We have here instead the earliest, if not finest, complete analysis of all aspects of the human organism.
Sitting in meditation, attention turned inward focusing on the breath (the nexus between the gross physical matter of the body and the more refined psycho-spiritual layers), what is the first thing one notices? Certainly not bliss or even any form of quietude, but rather the nagging of the body. Immediately its incessant complaints and demands begin: I’m tired; I’m hungry; I don’t like sitting here. Finally, though with much effort, the body may be stilled – though, make no mistake, this minor feat alone may take months of concentrated effort. But these are far from the novices only problems. The mind, all the while in “disconcert” with the body’s chicanery, has its own version of these antics : Did I lock the car? What time is my meeting tomorrow? I remember in the third grade…
Such foolishness! It sounds a simple task : clear the mind, count the breath; and yet so difficult to accomplish! The upper or superficial layers of the human organism are the mind-body complex ~ and they will struggle with all their resources for you full attention. Whether screaming like a petulant child, whispering like a lover, or lecturing like a school teacher, the message is always the same: Pay attention to me! Indeed this is natural, for without due attention to them we would not survive at all. But when these needs are met, the cry for notice does not cease! For the mind-body enough is never enough; a deeper layer must make this decision and then enforce its will on the body. Indeed, Odysseus has come home.
These outermost layers are divided by Sankhya into 24 distinct levels called tattvas (literally “suchnesses”), each successive layer moving deeper to the core of the human organism. We find precursors to Locke’s materialism and Watson’s behaviorism in this ancient philosophy ~ and much more.
And so, when these sheaths of consciousness have been plumbed to their depths, what is it that one finds? What mysterium tremendum is confronted? Simply…Nothing. Silence.
The identity of Self with body has dropped away, the correspondence of mind with ego has also vanished. What then was that ego, that separate self, that has now been shed like a coat? And what now remains?
What was thought of as the permanent, stable, perhaps even eternal, ego, the cherished individual personality, has been found to be nothing more than a temporary and superficial covering! The very thought causes the Western mind to quake in fear ~ for to it nothing more exists than ego.
Daosim, like all branches of the Perennial tree, however, recognize this to be the end ~ and the beginning.
Image credits: [Aydin Tokmak]
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