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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Tao Te Ching

The most important classic (ching) of philosophical Taoism; transliterated as Dao De Jing in modern pinyin. Its reputed author is someone called Lao Tzu, who is supposed to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE), though there are questions as to whether such a person actually existed. It is a popular book among many Western readers and has been translated into English more times than any other book except that classic of Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita. Although it is mentioned twice in Helena P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, it has been generally neglected by early theosophical authors. In more recent times, it has been discovered and studied enthusiastically by theosophists.

It is a short book, written mostly in verse. Unlike any other early Chinese classic, it contains no references to people or historical events. That has led scholars to assume that it is an ancient work. But on the other hand, the later Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (4th cent. BCE) has no quotations from the text at all, which has led scholars to assume that it must have been written after he died. And Lieh Tzu (3rd cent. BCE) quotes only one passage — which he attributes to a different source. One possible way of reconciling this contradiction is to say that the text was compiled during the 3rd cent. BCE from sayings of a Laoist (i.e., “ancient”) School, the head of which was called Lao Tzu (literally “Old Philosopher” or “Old Sage”). That would make Lao Tzu a title (like Prime Minister or Pope), rather than a proper name.

There are several different versions of the text, but all contain about 5,000 Chinese characters. It is traditionally divided into 81 “chapters,” which are further organized into two sections, one dealing with tao (literally “way”) and one dealing with te (usually translated “virtue,” but conveying the idea of moral force). For many centuries the version of the text used was the one arranged by the neo-Taoist philosopher Wang Pi (226-249), who put the tao section (chapters 1-37) first and the te section (chapters 38-81) second. In 1973 two copies of the text were discovered in a tomb near the village of Ma Wang-tui. A dated inventory slip in the tomb indicates that they were buried on April 4, 168 BCE, though the two copies can be dated on internal evidence anywhere from 25 to 40 (or more) years earlier. Since the Tao Te Ching can be dated on the basis of both internal and external evidence between 286 and 240 BCE, these two copies must have been made very close to the time the original text was compiled. In both, many characters are missing due to deterioration of the silk upon which they were written, but overall neither differs significantly in ideas from the Wang Pi text. The main difference is that they put the tesection first and the tao section second. There are also some minor differences in the order and division of the 81 chapters.

Like all other early Chinese philosophical writings, the main emphasis of the Tao Te Ching is the recommendation of a method or way (tao) by which society should be governed. In other words, it is socio-political philosophy. But unlike other such systems (Confucian, Mohist, Legalist), it grounds its socio-political philosophy in a profound metaphysics. It is this latter aspect which has been of most interest to theosophists, although its rather atypical, but very insightful, recommendations for interpersonal relations ought also to be of interest.

Philosophical Taoism is a naturalism. Its basic premise is that Nature is impersonal and mysterious (hsuan). In the Tao Te Ching it is also depicted as unitary: one coherent, interrelated ground of being, such that it cannot be delineated or described in language, but can only be apprehended in a desire-free, transcendental, unitive experience (cf. ch. 2) — clearly a theosophical idea. But, although essentially unitive, Nature manifests in a dual aspect. These two aspects are indicated, in chapter 42, by the familiar terms yang (more frequently called T’ien or Heaven in the text) and yin (more frequently called Ti or Earth). But a closer reading of chapter 42 also shows that the two are but different aspects of a more fundamental energy termed ch’i, often translated “breath.” All of this is reminiscent of passages in The Secret Doctrine in which the “One Absolute Reality” (or “Rootless Root” or “Be-ness”) is said to have two aspects, “Abstract Space” and “Abstract Motion,” the latter also called “The Great Breath.”

The Tao Te Ching further mentions a trinitarian aspect to Nature. The manifested One gives rise to Two, which gives rise to Three, which, in turn, gives rise to the manifested universe, called metaphorically in Chinese “the ten thousand things” (cf. chap. 42). Such a trinitarian aspect of the creative, manifesting side of Nature is a common theme in several of the world’s religions as well as in The Secret Doctrine. The ineffability of this Trinity is expressed in chapter 14 by the terms i (invisible, elusive, evanescent, formless), hsi (inaudible, rarified), and wei (intangible, infinitesimal, subtle). That seemed to some early scholars to parallel the yodhe, and vau or YHV of the Hebrew Jehovah or the isha, and va of the Hindu Isvara. But since Taoism is naturalistic, not theistic, these parallels are more probably a linguistic coincidence; the parallel is explicitly rejected as a “false analogy” by HPB (SD I:472). Nature is also said to act in a cyclic manner (cf. chap. 25), another basic theosophical concept.

The socio-political and interpersonal philosophy of the Tao Te Ching is based on the notion that to be ultimately successful any human methodology (tao) must be consistent with the way (tao) of Nature. In fact, the text frequently criticizes Confucius’ methodology, which was based on a conscious development of humaneness (jen), righteousness (yi), and wisdom (hsih) derived from a study of past history, filiality (hsiao), etc. Chapter 18 explicitly states that when those qualities have to be nurtured, it means that the proper Way has been abandoned! Instead, the Tao Te Ching recommends (chap. 67) three qualities: compassion, frugality, and humility. But one cannot become self-consciously compassionate or humble, for that produces a state of egoism (cf. chap. 38). So, the text recommends a practice of emptiness, a practice reminiscent of Patañjali’s form of yoga (see Raja Yoga). It involves ridding oneself of one’s preconceptions (cf. chap. 49; also 4, 5, 6, 11, etc.). This is because it is the way Nature works to accomplish its creative purposes (cf. chaps. 4 and 5). All this is summed up in the paradoxical recommendation to take no action (wu wei). This sounds like quietism, which would be entirely inconsistent with the rest of the text. What wu wei means is taking no (wu) self-conscious, pre-planned, aggressive action (wei), but rather acting naturally, un-self-consciously, spontaneously, the way Nature does. That, in turn, means getting rid of our tendency to make distinctions and judgments about others, to categorize them as “good” and “bad” (cf. chap. 49 which states literally, “Good man, I good him / Not-good man, I good him too / Accomplishes good”; see also chap. 2). It also means acting without any wish to take credit for our action — and doing this so skillfully and un-self-consciously that the people will think they did it themselves (cf. last line of chap. 17).

There is much more of interest to theosophists in this little, often cryptic, book. Perhaps the one recommendation which seems incompatible with theosophy is its ideal of society as static, where citizens are content to stay at home in their little villages with no interest in the wider world (cf. chaps. 12 and 80). This sounds at odds with the kind of dynamic universe suggested in chapters 1, 16, and 40 and inconsistent with theosophy’s belief in evolution toward perfection, involving ever greater interaction between peoples of all races, religions, and cultures. But that is a minor aspect of this remarkable little text.

R.W.B.

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