Entries from the Theosophical Glossary

Lao-tze (Chin.). A great sage, saint and philosopher who preceded Confucius.

Tao (Chin.). The name of the philosophy of Lao-tze.

Tao-teh-king (Chin.). Lit., “The Book of the Perfectibility of Nature” written by the great philosopher Lao-tze. It is a kind of cosmogony which contains all the fundamental tenets of Esoteric Cosmo genesis. Thus he says that in the beginning there was naught but limitless and boundless Space. All that lives and is, was born in it, from the “Principle which exists by Itself, developing Itself from Itself”, i.e., Swabhâvat. As its name is unknown and it essence is unfathomable, philosophers have called it Tao (Anima Mundi), the uncreate, unborn and eternal energy of nature, manifesting periodically. Nature as well as man when it reaches purity will reach rest, and then all become one with Tao, which is the source of all bliss and felicity. As in the Hindu and Buddhistic philosophies, such purity and bliss and immortality can only be reached through the exercise of virtue and the perfect quietude of our worldly spirit; the human mind has to control and finally subdue and even crush the turbulent action of man’s physical nature; and the sooner he reaches the required degree of moral purification, the happier he will feel. (See Annales du Musée Guimet, Vols. XI. and XII.; Etudes sur la Religion des Chinois, by Dr. Groot.) As the famous Sinologist, Pauthier, remarked: “Human Wisdom can never use language more holy and profound”.


Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching


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In his Ocean of Theosophy William Q. Judge speaks of “ancient and honorable China” — ancient it is, for as the Secret Doctrine tells us, the Chinese reached their highest civilization when the fifth Aryan race had hardly appeared in Asia. The original Chinese belong to the seventh sub-race of the Atlantean Race, and from them branched off not only the Malayans, Mongolians and Tibetans, but also Hungarians, Finns and even the Esquimaux. These true Chinamen are of the inland, the aborigines who, in their purity, form the highest and last branch of the fourth Race, whose headquarters are in the province of Fo-kien where H.P.B. reports the existence of a “sacred library” which contains some most ancient Mss. in the Lolo language. The other Chinese are one of the oldest nations of our fifth race, whose latter-day Emperors are the degenerate successors of the Dragons or Initiates who ruled the early races of that fifth humanity. As to China being honorable, who has not heard of the integrity of the Chinese? In such spheres as commerce and politics they have a reputation for honesty and honor worthy of emulation by the modern world. Ancient and honorable China is dying, but her spiritual resources will be inherited by those who evolve out of that branch race.

The wisdom of China comes to us in certain great books, withstanding the ravages of time. In spite of changes and more omissions than interpolations, these texts are not so fragmentary and disconnected as those of Zoroastrianism, examined in previous articles. We are indebted to Confucius for this.

The Chinese divide their eras into three antiquities — the most recent commences with the period of Confucius, who was contemporary with the great Buddha; the second, called the middle antiquity, goes back from Confucius to about 1200 B.C.; while the highest covers a period of 2200 years, commencing with Fu-hsi 5000 years ago. It will not be far wrong to regard Fu-hsi, as the Krishna of China, the opener of its Kali Yuga, first in the line of earthly rulers who “broke up the Primal Unity,” of the preceding age.

Beyond the three antiquities is the “fabulous” and “mythological” era. It covers millions of years. Beginning with the epoch of Pan-ku in whose time “heaven and earth were first separated,” we come to the 12 Tien-hoang, Kings of Heaven, 12 To-hoang, Kings of Earth, and 9 Gin-hoang or Kings’ men, who ruled for some 500,000 years. These 12 Tien-hoang are “the twelve hierarchies of Dhyanis or Angels, with human Faces and Dragon bodies; the dragon standing for Divine Wisdom or Spirit; and they create men by incarnating themselves in seven figures of clay — earth and water — made in the shape of those Tien-hoang, a third allegory.” (S.D. II, 26-7.) Among these mythical beings is one Sui-zan, “The Man of the Burning Speculum,” the Fire-Producer, the Prometheus of China. Superb culture, heavenly knowledge and high civilization are reported in these prehistoric eras. Very scanty is the information about them available to the non-Chinese. These mythical figures, truer than their historical counterparts, remain unknown and unappreciated by the modern world, whose culture is too gross and narrow to grasp the meaning of the cosmic and evolutionary events which they embody.

Fu-hsi, also called Po-hsi, the first Human Ruler of the Chinese people, is even today regarded as a superhuman being. To his credit stands the task of recording the Eight Kwa or Trigrams. In the Yi King, an ancient work “written by generations of Sages” says H.P.B., which the Theosophical Glossary describes as the Kabbalah of China, it is said:

Anciently, when Pao-hsi had come to the rule of all under heaven, looking up, he contemplated the brilliant forms exhibited in the sky, and looking down he surveyed the patterns shown on the earth. He contemplated the ornamental appearances of birds and beasts and the (different) suitabilities of the soil. Near at hand, in his own person, he found things for consideration, and the same at a distance, in things in general. On this he devised the eight trigrams, to show fully the attributes of the spirit-like and intelligent (operations working secretly), and to classify the qualities of the myriads of things.

These eight trigrams are lineal figures of great interest to the student of universal metaphysics and occultism, both of which form such an important part of H.P.B.’s Secret Doctrine. These figures are made up of three lines: the first is made up of three unbroken lines, and is followed by one broken and the remaining unbroken lines, till the eighth is evolved, which is composed of three broken ones. These represent (1) Heaven (2) Still Waters (3) fire (4) Thunder (5) Air (6) Running Waters (7) High land or mountains, and (8) Low land or earth — the eight-fold universe described by the Bhagavad-Gita. Each of these is representative of a material plane and a hierarchy of conscious beings who all play their shadow-game on the illusory eighth, the earth, this man-bearing globe. Therefore, each also has its corresponding virtue. These eight form a circle, the first at the South and the last at the North.

These eight result from Four Hsiang or Emblematic Symbols, which in their turn come from the Two Elementary Forms, and the two from the One, the Great Extreme. James Legge, the well-known Chinese authority asked in 1882: “Who will undertake to say what is meant by ‘the Great Extreme’ which produced the two elementary forms?” The Secret Doctrine did undertake to answer him, and the student will find an explanation in Vol. I, 440-41, and Vol. II, 554.

Further, to the credit of Fu-hsi stands the construction of musical instruments and the spread of the Science of Sociology; he was par excellence the advocate of a pure family life and the dignity of the home. His successor invented agricultural implements, and thus gained for himself the title of “the Divine Labourer.” Yi-King attributes the discovery of Agriculture to “the instruction given to men by celestial genii.” (S.D. II, 374.) Hwang-Ti, the third of the prehistoric, semi-divine emperors was the builder of sacred shrines and libraries. Under his influence arose a regular board of historians, the chief of whom was the reviser and amender of the hieroglyphic writing. Hwang-Ti also regulated the calendar, to which he added the intercalary month. His wife is credited with the invention of the several manipulations in the rearing of silkworms and the making of silk.

All this in the night of time. For thousands of years China has been famous for her discoveries — artesian-wells, compass, glass, gunpowder, paper, printing, porcelain, etc. Much of this knowledge has come down from these mythical periods. Most probably it is to the board of sage historians of the reign of Hwang-Ti that the Chinese owe their habit of preserving records and their custom of maintaining archives. Our knowledge of ancient China comes from certain great books which have been transmitted with faithful care down the generations.

The first of these ancient volumes is the Shu King, which is history with proper chronology, which chronology is based on a very accurate astronomical knowledge; their astronomical sphere is assigned an antiquity of 18,000 years (S.D. I, 658; also II, 620). The book acquired this title in 202 B.C., before which period it was known only as Shu — “the Pencil speaking.” A fourteenth century General Examination of Records and Scholars by Ma Twan-lin says that “the Pencil of the Recorders was busy from the time of Hwang-Ti” which is 2697 B.C. But the Secret Doctrine tells us that it was derived from the “very old Book” referred to in Isis Unveiled. Therefore it contains pointed references to events in the third and the fourth races. (S.D. Vol. II, 280-81; also Vol. II, 372.)

The first two books of the Shu King are regarded as legendary. They deal with the rules of Yaou and of Shun who had to contend against the floods and the deluge. Of Yaou, the ancient book narrates that when he found a handful of his subjects a little discontented, he said. “The fault is mine. I must study to increase my virtue and see wherein I have departed from the Way of Heaven.” And again on hearing some sage advice, thus:

“We come by many branching roads and devious ways to the understanding of wisdom … I perceive that the forest trees are of many sorts and sizes and that those which bear fruit do not put it all forth upon a single branch. I will think upon it.” And this was what he had heard from the Keeper of the Hwa Mountain: “If you have many sons and they be well occupied, what need is there to fear? If you are rich, you can distribute your wealth to others, and then what need is there for care? And if you live a long while and follow the true way, should the empire prosper you will flourish with the rest. But if you live a long while, and the world is filled with wickedness, you have only to retire into obscurity and cultivate your virtue, then when life is done and human ties are severed, you will go to join the gods. And thus transcending the clouds, you will attain the regions of the Supreme; so what occasion is there for decline?”

Of Shun it is written:

Wherever he ploughed the people forgot their landmarks, wherever he fished, the people took in their lines. He made pottery on the banks of the Hwang-Ho that was perfectly smooth and non-porous. He made implements at Show-shan. Wherever he lived for a year, the people formed a community; wherever he lived for two years they built a city; and wherever he resided for three years they erected a capital.

Then came Yu when the chronological accounts begin. Of this ruler H.P.B. writes:

The Emperor Yu the “Great” (2207 B.C.), a pious mystic, is credited with having obtained his occult wisdom and the system of theocracy established by him — for he was the first one to unite in China ecclesiastical power with temporal authority — from Si-dzang. That system was the same as with the old Egyptians and the Chaldees; that which we know to have existed in the Brahmanical period in lndia, and to exist now in Tibet — namely, all the learning, power, the temporal as well as the secret wisdom were concentrated within the hierarchy of the priests and limited to their caste.

Yu was also the inspirer of nine urns with engravings on them which in a later age became the basis of Shan-Hai-King, i.e., Wonders by sea and land by Chung-Ku, B.C. 1818. H.P.B. adds that in the last quarter of the third century of our era Kwoh P’oh wrote a commentary on the same. Besides these historical records of Shu-King there are the Odes (Shi-King) and the Books of Rituals (Li-Chi).

To the Theosophical student of today what is of paramount interest in Chinese literature is the ethical philosophy of this ancient race. Our task is somewhat difficult but we will not lose our way in the labyrinthine maze of records if we keep these landmarks in mind. Three great rivers of religious, philosophic, and mystic tradition empty themselves in the ocean which today is China. Confucianism resulted from the activity of the sage who has played the most important role in Chinese history. He was the resuscitator of the Wisdom of his ancient people. He stitched the loose pages of old records in a coherent volume; he explained the metaphysics of Fu-hsi, of Yaou, of Yu; above all he taught noble ethics equal in rank to those of Jesus and even Gautama. The second is the Tao, the Path that Lao Tze and his school walked and advocated others to tread. The third influence is that of Buddhism, which took root in the Chinese soil in the first century of our era. Like three sacred rivers in a confluence, these meet reaching a profounder depth and become more inspiring. The three rivers lose their different courses and become one in the life of the people. The current gathering force becomes clear of dross and in it the whole past of this great people is mirrored. These rapid and engulfing waters contain for the daring soul an experience not to be met elsewhere in the ocean of worldly knowledge.

The influence of the “Brothers of the Sun”, as the Masters are called in the Chinese literature, has exerted an immemorial influence on the race and its achievements. Says H.P.B.:

The aphorisms in the oldest books of China, moreover, say plainly that the “Dragon” is a human, albeit divine Being. Speaking of the “yellow Dragon,” the chief of the others, the Twan-ying-T’u says: “His wisdom and virtue are unfathomable … he does not go in company and does not live in herds (he is an ascetic). He wanders in the wilds beyond the heavens. He goes and comes, fulfilling the decree (Karma); at the proper seasons if there is perfection he comes forth, if not he remains (invisible).” …. And Kon-fu-tyu is made to say by Lu-lan, “The Dragon feeds in the pure water of Wisdom and sports in the clear waters of life.”

THEOSOPHY, May, 1926


H. P. Blavatsky described Lao Tzu as a God-like being and classed him with Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus, who “united themselves with their Spirits permanently” and “became Gods on earth.” Such Personages are rare and superior to Moses, Pythagoras and Confucius, who “have taken rank in history as demi-gods and leaders of mankind.” Lao Tzu was the resuscitator of Taoism, the practical philosophy and religion of The Way.

Lao Tzu did not invent the Tao; he discovered it — obscured by the weeds of passion and the upas trees of superstition. The ancient and narrow Way of the Heart was lost in the wilderness of China, where a hundred rules of ceremony were observed and, for those who disregarded them — a thousand rules of punishment; but ceremonies failed to control the natures of men and punishments put no stop to treacherous villainies.

Born some fifty years before Confucius, Lao Tzu had to perform pioneering work of an iconoclastic nature — discarding and rejecting books and documents, rituals and sacraments, temporal and religious, non-understandingly believed in by the Chinese to their detriment. The task of Confucius, of codifying the old records for use, became easy and more defined because of the moral courage and spiritual strength which Lao Tzu dispensed by his own strict treading of the Path and his virile exposure of blind beliefs, superstitious practices and hypocritical observance of ritual and ceremony. He, too, preached of the Ancients; in fact, he set the example for Confucius himself; but Lao Tzu’s transmission was of Teh — the Virtue of the Heart. Confucius was able to justify the ancient words as Lao Tzu lived them. Among the masses of China, of the eras subsequent to the one in which these two lived and labored, their respective followers brought divisions, and pitted one teacher against another; Orientalists also fail to see the cooperative force at work in the service rendered by these two Sages. Just as in India the bond subsisting between Gautama-Buddha and Sankar-Acharya is not perceived and their later day followers are inimical, so also in the case of Lao Tzu and Confucius. They did not teach opposing doctrines, but complementing ones, though two differing creeds sprang into existence and persist to this day.

The philosophy of Tao was in existence before Lao Tzu. However degenerated and corrupted, it was there. Hwang Ti (2697 B.C.) is instanced as a seeker of the Tao and was instructed in its mysteries by Kwang Chang-Tze, who practiced Tao (i.e., walked the Path) for 1200 years. The earliest extant treatise of Taoism is Yin Fu Ching — the book about the inner Harmony between the Visible and the Invisible and belongs to this ancient period of Hwang-Ti. This treatise is the Instructions of Kwang-Chang-Tze prepared for his royal pupil. It is a short but profound treatise from which we will extract three verses:

The nature of man is here clever and there stupid; and the one of these qualities may lie hidden in the other. The abuse of the nine apertures is chiefly in the three most important, which may be now in movement and now at rest. When fire arises in wood, the evil, having once begun, is sure to go on to the destruction of the wood. When calamity arises in a State, if thereafter movement ensue, it is sure to go to ruin. When one conducts the work of culture and refining wisely we call him a Sage.

The blind hear well, and the deaf see well. To derive all that is advantageous from the one source is ten times better than the employment of a host; to do this thrice in a day and night is a myriad times better. The mind is quickened to activity by external things, and dies through excessive pursuit of them. The spring of the mind’s activity is in the eyes.

The method of spontaneity proceeds in stillness, and so it was that heaven, earth, and all things were produced. The method of heaven and earth proceeds gently and gradually, and thus it is that the Yin and Yang overcome each other by turns. The one takes the place of the other, and so change and transformation proceed accordingly. Therefore, the sages, knowing that the method of spontaneity can not be resisted, take action accordingly and regulate it for the purpose of culture.

Not only in the writings of his most celebrated disciple, Chwang Tzu (e.g. Book 33), but in the records of Lao Tzu himself, we come across the fact of the existence of Tao in antiquity. From the Tao Teh Ching itself we learn of the ancient treaders of the Paradoxical Way. It speaks of the age of perfect virtue and of the time “when the Great Tao ceased to be observed.” And yet — it makes a pointed reference to the “skilful masters,” not only of the old time, but of all times. Sometimes They become known because people arrive at knowledge; most of the time they remain unknown because people are ignorant. Says Tao Teh Ching:

The skilful masters of the Tao in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute, like those who are afraid of all around them; grave, like a guest in awe of his host; evanescent, like ice that is melting away; unpretentious, like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant, like a valley, and dull, like muddy water.

Who can make the muddy water clear? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full of themselves. It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete

The Virtue-Age is one in which the Path of Virtue is perceived — the sage gains recognition. The rest is the Vulgar-Age. These alternate. Here we gain a deeper perception and a fresh viewpoint of the adage, “when the pupil is ready the Master appears.” The embodied Tao is always in the world; those who recognize the sages usher in the era of knowledge and begin for themselves and the world the cycle of wisdom. The age of Lao Tzu was the age of Buddha, of Pythagoras, of Zoroaster, of Mahavira, of Ezekiel, of Isaiah. To explain the phenomenon of that strikingly remarkable era of great Teachers all over the world in the Way of Lao Tzu would be to say that the vulgar, walking in the Way of Virtue, came to the sages and learnt more of the wisdom; they passed on, off the track of Virtue, forgot the Sages, and fell in the way of vulgarity. In the Vulgar-Age words of wisdom are spoken; in the Virtue-Age, they are lived. As people live Wisdom they meet companions and elders; when they only speak of it they contact passive listeners and child-souls.

The teachings of the Way and Tao existed as words when Lao Tzu incarnated to practice it in life. Here as in the narratives of other Great Lives, psychological and mythical facts have become interwoven; the student of Theosophy will be able to evaluate. In the Taoist traditions there are indications that Lao Tzu practiced Tao in previous incarnations; e.g., as Kwang Chang Tze and as Po-Chang in the eras of Hwang-Ti and of Yao respectively. In the stone tablets of Hsieh Tao-Hang it is said that “from the time of Fu-Hsi down to that of the Chou dynasty, in uninterrupted succession, his person appeared, but with changed names.” Like so many other spiritual sages, he, too, was born of a virgin mother who conceived him at the sight of a meteor — “as beneath the Bear the star shone down.” He was born with a white beard expressive of his hoary wisdom — “all dragon gifts his person graced and like stork’s plumage was his hair.” Around him was “purple air which shone bright.” His surname was Li, and his name R, which means “Ear,” and he was called long-eared, symbolic (as in the case of Buddha) of his capacity to listen to the voice of the silence, or the InnerTao. Details of his life activities are not available, and all that is known is that he spent most of his years in the state of Chou and taught by life more than by lips. He had some connection with the Royal Library of that province. He cultivated the Tao and endeavored to remain concealed and unknown. Very few really came to him, but he accomplished that for which he incarnated. In a touching fragment, affording us an insight, he says:

Alas! the barrenness of the age has not yet reached its limit.

All men are radiant with happiness, as if enjoying a great feast, as if mounted on a tower in spring. I, alone, am still, and give as yet no sign of joy. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled, forlorn as one who has nowhere to lay his head. Other men have plenty, while I, alone, seem to have lost all. I am a man foolish in heart, dull and confused. Other men are full of light; I, alone, seem to be in darkness. Other men are alert; I, alone, am listless. I am unsettled as the ocean, drifting as though I had no stopping-place. All men have their usefulness; I, alone, am stupid and clownish. Lonely though I am, and unlike other men, yet I revere the Foster-Mother, Tao.

My words are very easy to understand, very easy to put into practice; yet the world can neither understand nor practice them.

My words have a clue, my actions have an underlying principle. It is because men do not know the clue that they understand me not.

Those who know me are but few, and on that account my honour is the greater.

Thus the sage wears coarse garments, but carries a jewel in his bosom.

He did not die — he disappeared. He was last heard of at the northwest gate of his land, where the warden Yin Hsi recognized him. “You are about to withdraw from the world. Record for me your instructions.” Then Lao Tzu wrote that which is famous as the Tao Teh Ching, the Classic of the Path of Virtue. In the books of his most celebrated disciple, Chwang Tzu (Book III), there is a reference to the passing of Lao Tzu:

When the Master came, it was at the proper time; when he went away, it was the simple sequence of his coming. Quiet acquiescence in what happens at its proper time, and quietly submitting to its ceasing afford no occasion for grief or for joy. The ancients described death as the loosening of the cord on which the Tao is suspended. What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted, and we know not that it is over and ended.

After the departure of Lao Tzu enormous activity under the general name of Tao took place. As in our own era of H.P.B., half-informed students, failures on the Path of Virtue, moneymakers, soothsayers and frauds, deluded large numbers; on the other hand, his seeds of thought fructified the mind-soil of ardent individuals, though most among them were mere speculators. While Chwang Tzu and Leih Tzu and Went Zu endeavored to keep the original impulse unsullied, many well-meaning persons began interpreting and improving the original teachings, till within a century and a half corruption had set in, and a little later Lao Tzu’s noble doctrine perished — in 213 B.C., the year when books and Mss. were burnt. That fire, perhaps, was the great reaction from the regions of the astral light to the imprints made thereon by the falsifiers of the doctrine who were indiscriminately accepted by the public at large — in theory, and alas! in practice also. There is a striking resemblance between the era of Lao Tzu and our own, if we note two distinct features: (1) H.P.B.’s teachings affect an international world; Lao Tzu touched China only; (2) the events which covered a period of nearly 500 years are being precipitated within a single century.

Taoism is the ancient Wisdom-Religion of Theosophy. The Great Ones of yore, the Original Teachers, are thus described and They, as all Theosophists know, exist today and ever will:

The True men of old could not be fully described by the wisest, nor be led into excess by the most beautiful, nor be forced by the most violent robber. Neither Fu-Hsi nor Hwang-Ti could compel them to be their friends. Death and life are indeed great considerations, but they could make no change in their (true) self; and how much less could rank and emolument do so? Being such, their spirits might pass over the Thai mountain and find it no obstacle to them; they might enter the greatest gulphs, and not be wet by them; they might occupy the lowest and smallest positions without being distressed by them. Theirs was the fullness of heaven and earth; the more that they gave to others, the more they had.

THEOSOPHY, November, 1926


Like the Sanscrit Word Aum, Tao stands for that which is the source, the power, and the form of the manifested universe. It is the Absolute Principle and Deity in Nature; therefore it is Boundless, Immutable, Omnipresent and Eternal on the one hand, and on the other expresses Itself as Life and Day and dissolves Itself into Death and Night. It is Macrocosmical and Microcosmical. Tao is translated differently — the Path, Nature, Reason, Doctrine, etc., but in truth it is untranslatable. Profound tomeshave been produced to explain Aum, and so with Tao. Without an application of the three fundamental propositions of the Secret Doctrine, Tao as expounded in Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu or by his follower, Chawng Tzu, and others, cannot be understood.

What follows will give an outline of the metaphysics and then of the occultism of Tao Teh Ching, the Classic of Tao and Teh or The Way of Virtue. Some Western Orientalists and missionaries have tried to substitute a personal god in translating and expounding Tao. Needless to say that Lao Tzu never taught a personal god; even in the worst days of corruption of his teachings the notion of an extra-cosmic god was never accepted; the Chinese were and are too philosophic for that!

Tao is a metaphysical grandeur; it also is the still small voice in the heart of the sage. Its ethics, its science, its philosophy, is comprehensive exactly as is the case with the imperishable Pravana. Tao Teh Ching and other Taoist volumes have confounded even sympathetic translators and their contents have appeared contradictory. Once again we are able to see how very valuable H.P.B.’s Secret Doctrine proves itself to be in throwing light on these Chinese puzzles; without its aid, to grasp the doctrines of the Tao philosophy would hardly be possible. The latter also reveals the universality of Theosophy, for Theosophical metaphysics, ethics, and rules of conduct are to be found therein.


Tao in its unchanging aspect has no name (32:1). The name which can be uttered is not its eternal name. Without a name it is the Origin of Heaven and Earth. With a name it is the Mother of all things (1:1-2). Tao in the form of existence sprang from Tao in the form of non-existence (40:2). How deep and unfathomable is Tao — the Honoured Ancestor of all things. I know not of whom it is the offspring (4:1-3).


It may be called the Mysterious Feminine. The issuing point of the Mysterious Feminine must be regarded as the Root of the Universe. Subsisting to all eternity, it uses its force without effort (6:1). It must be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. Its name I know not. To designate it I call it Tao. Endeavoring to describe it I call it Great (25:1-2).


Being great it flows forth; thus it becomes remote; having become remote it returns (25:3).


Ceaseless in action, it cannot be named, but returns again to Nothingness (14:2). All things alike go through their processes of activity, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom, each returns to its origin. This returning is what we call Stillness — it may be called a reporting that they have fulfilled their appointed end. This Reversion is an eternal law (16:1).


These two things, the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their origin are one and the same. This sameness is a mystery — the mystery of mysteries. It is the gate of spirituality (1:4).


Tao produced Unity; Unity produced Duality; Duality produced Trinity; and Trinity produced all existing objects. These myriad objects leave Darkness behind and harmonized by the Breath of Abstraction embrace Light (42:1). Tao eludes the sense of sight and is therefore called colourless, of hearing and is therefore called soundless, of touch and is therefore called bodyless. These three qualities can not be apprehended, and hence they must be blended into Unity (14:1). Tao lies hid and cannot be named, yet it has the power of transmitting and perfecting all things (41:3). How impalpable, how vague is the Tao — yet within it there is Form, there is Substance, there is Force or Vital Principle (21:1).


This Vital Principle is the quintessence of Reality and out of it comes Truth (21:1).


Tao is the Great Square with no angles (41:2).


The mightiest manifestations of active force flow solely from Tao (21:1). As soon as Tao proceeds to Action, it becomes namable (32:4). All things are produced by Tao and nourished by its outflowing operation. They receive their forms according to the nature of each and are completed according to the circumstances of their condition. Therefore all things without exception honour the Tao and exalt its outflowing Virtue. Thus Tao produces all things, nourishes them, develops them, perfects them. Production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination — this is its mysterious operation (51:4). Tao is eternally inactive, and yet it leaves nothing undone (37:1).

These few culled teachings from Tao Teh Ching, the only extant fragment, show how very complete must have been the record made by Lao Tzu; on this the Secret Doctrine says:

He is said to have written 930 books on Ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all. His great work, however, the heart of his doctrine, the “Tao-te King,” or the sacred scriptures of the Taosse, has in it, as Stanislas Julien shows, only “about 5,000 words” (Tao-te-King, p. xxvii.), hardly a dozen of pages, yet Professor Max Müller finds that “the text is unintelligible without commentaries, so that Mr. Julien had to consult more than sixty commentators for the purpose of his translation,” the earliest going back as far as the year 163 B.C., not earlier, as we see. During the four centuries and a half that preceded this earliest of the commentators there was ample time to veil the true Laotse doctrine from all but his initiated priests. (Vol. I., p. xxv.).

Tao Teh Ching, however, is more an ethical than a metaphysical treatise. In it Lao Tzu preaches the Path of Spiritual Purity, of Soul Virtue. Its esoteric side lies securely hidden in its paradoxes. It is one of those rare books which possesses the real touch of inner life. There is a hidden force in the statements which creates something in the reflector’s heart, creates silence which speaks its mystery. But the student must not try to hear it with the ears of mind. Hence we might say, using an esoteric expression, that Lao Tzu teaches the Path of the Inner Ray which builds the Lotus of the Heart, the illuminator of the mortal mind, the renovator of the mortal man. Tao Teh Ching deals with that Mystic inner principle, ever-young, ever-silent, ever-natural, ever-invisible though ever in the world. It ever sings for all and yet few seek it. “The great Way is very smooth, but the people love the by-paths” (53:2).

Man is triune — within the earthly man is the heavenly man, within the latter is the face of Tao. Within every man slumbers Tao; in going forth from Tao he came to Heaven, in going forth from Heaven he fell on earth; therefore “man takes his law from earth; the earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from Tao; but the law of Tao is its own Spontaneity” (25:4). This Spontaneity or Naturalness is dual and manifests as the Law of Inversion and the Law of Reversion, Involution and Evolution. When a man is under the dominance of the former he recedes from Tao, he finds himself in an inverted position; when he works with the latter Tao flows unto him and he is one with Tao.

To know the Law of Reversion is to be enlightened. Not to know it is misery and calamity. He who knows that eternal law is liberal-minded. Being that, there is a community of feeling with all things. From this community of feeling comes a Kingliness of character and to be Kingly is to be akin to Heaven. Thus he possesses Tao; and possessed of Tao he endures forever. Though his body perish, yet he suffers no harm (16:2).

The spontaneous manifestation of Tao demands silence and repose: the evils of the man of earth, the virtues of the man of heaven must cease to exist. On the positive side the man has regained the child-state he has lost: “he who has Tao in him is like an infant. The infant’s bones are weak, its sinews are soft, yet its grasp is firm. All day long it will cry without its voice becoming hoarse. This is because the harmony of its bodily system is perfect” (55:1-2). “Temper your sharpness, disentangle your ideas, moderate your brilliancy, live in harmony with your age. This is being in conformity with the principle of Tao. Such a man is impervious alike to favor and disgrace, to benefits and injuries, to honour and contempt. Therefore he is esteemed above all mankind” (56:2-3). It is by moderation that man returns to the normal state of Tao. But this moderation is not between the extremes of earthly evil and heavenly good, but is superior to both. Lao Tzu warns against the spiritual inertia of a good life; he advocates rising above the satvic life of harmony. To be dominated by good is still to be a slave; to dominate both evil and good is to be a Master and therefore the servant of both.

Desire not to desire, and you will not value things difficult to obtain. Learn not to learn and you will revert to a condition which mankind in general has lost (64:4).

All difficult things in the world arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. He who is continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult. Therefore the Sage sees difficulty of things for others even in what seems easy to himself and so never has any difficulties. To act without acting; to conduct affairs without trouble of them; to taste without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great and a few as many; to recompense injury with kindness; — this is the Way of Tao (63:1-3).

Christendom attributes its golden rule to Jesus; but Lao Tzu taught it centuries before Jesus. The spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is fully expressed in Tao Teh Ching.

To those who are good I am good and to those who are not good I am also good — and thus all get to be good. With the sincere I am sincere, and with the insincere I am also sincere — and thus all get to be sincere (49:2).

In no other literature, and certainly in no other single volume is the doctrine of Inaction in Action, including that phase which is known in the West as “resist not evil”, so amply and tellingly expounded as in Taoism and in Tao Teh Ching. To act with detachment, rising above the pairs of opposites, is the Paradoxical Way. The doctrine of Wu-Wei instructs why one must not wish to be rare like jade or common like stone, and how the soft overcomes the hard, the weak the strong.

The heavy is the foundation of the light; repose is the ruler of unrest (26:1-2). He who raises himself on tiptoe cannot stand firm; he who stretches his legs wide apart cannot walk (24:1).

He who devotes himself to the Tao seeks to diminish his doings from day to day. He diminishes and again diminishes, till he arrives at the point of non-action; there is nothing which he does not do (48:1-2).

The best soldiers are not warlike; the best fighters do not lose their temper. The greatest conquerors are those who overcome their enemies without strife. The greatest leaders of men are those who yield place to others. This is called the Virtue of Inaction, the capacity of directing mankind; this is being the compeer of Heaven. It was the highest goal of the Ancients (68:1).

To possess Tao a man must first possess the Three Precious Things: “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize — (1) gentleness; (2) frugality; (3) humility. Be gentle and you can be bold. Be frugal and you can be liberal. Avoid pushing yourself to the front and you can become a leader among men” (67:2-3).

The control of our lower nature through a contemplation on our higher is taught:

Colour’s five hues from eyes their sight will take; Music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make; the flavours five deprive the mouth of taste.

Racing and hunting make the mind mad; craving for rare and strange objects corrupts the moral nature. Therefore the Sage seeks to satisfy the belly and not the eye (12:1-2).

The five colours are reported to be Black, Red, Green, White and Yellow; the five notes of the Chinese musical scale; the five tastes are Salt, Bitter, Sour, Acrid and Sweet. “In satisfying the belly one nourishes himself; in gratifying the eyes he makes a slave of himself,” says the well-known commentator Wang Pi of the third century, A.D. This is regarded as ingenious by Legge, but there is more than ingeniousness: what Wang Pi tried to convey is that those experiences which build the spiritual body are preferable to sense activities which sharpen the corpus. At least thus we heard from a holy man of China.

Much is written on the conduct of Government, on the waging of war, but Lao Tzu, like Jesus, spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and like Krishna advocated the destruction of evil in ourselves. Yet there are some remarkable utterances on the art of government:

As restrictions and prohibitions are multiplied the people grow poorer. When the people are skilled in many cunning arts, strange are the objects of luxury that appear. The greater the number of laws and enactments the more thieves and robbers there will be (57:2-3). He who respects the state as his own person is fit to govern it. He who loves the state as his own body is fit to be entrusted with it (13:3).

The above will suffice to show how the Ancient Landmarks of Tao Teh Ching inspire the modern Theosophist, although a great corruption overtook the movement of Lao Tzu, and today this cult is saturated with superstition and fraud. The true teachings of Tao and Teh, though in fragments, survive; and so do the real Taoists, unknown to the world but to whom the world is not unknown. To them the world owes a debt of gratitude for the great service they silently render.

THEOSOPHY, December, 1926


What Mencius was to Confucius, that Lieh Tzu and Chwang Tzu were to Lao Tzu. Lieh Tzu endeavored to draw together the conflicting elements which were becoming active among the respective followers of the two sages. Therefore he spoke respectfully of Confucius though he employed the phraseology of Lao Tzu; while he advocated the practice of the Tao, he venerated Confucius as a sage and evinced a reverential esteem for the Confucian method of looking up to the Ancients. To Lieh Tzu’s credit stands a very deep metaphysical system; but he is better known as a narrator of parables. “Nearly all the Taoist writers are fond of parables and allegorical tales, but in none of them is this branch of literature brought to such perfection as in Lieh Tzu,” writes Lionel Giles to whom we owe a debt; for, unlike his father, Herbert Giles, to him Lieh Tzu is a living authority and not a myth created by Chwang Tzu. There has been a dispute as to the very existence of Lieh Tzu; but sinologists of today are more inclined to regard Lieh Tzu as an actual eminent teacher than those of a former generation; to the Chinese mind his existence was never a matter of grave doubt. This, however, must be added — great interpolations have occurred and many minor and even trifling students, mostly posers as Taoists, have tried to father their own personal lore on Lieh Tzu.

Very little is known of Lieh Yu-Kou, which was the full name of Lieh Tzu; he lived in the fourth century B.C. Of him Chwang Tzu speaks with respect and awe, thus:

He could ride upon the wind, and travel whithersoever he wished, staying away as long as fifteen days. Among mortals who attain happiness, such a man is rare. Yet although Lieh Tzu was able to dispense with walking, he was still dependent upon something. But had he been charioted upon the eternal fitness of Heaven and Earth, driving before him the elements as his team while roaming through the realms of For-Ever, — upon what, then, would he have had to depend?

Thus it has been said, “The perfect man ignores self; the divine man ignores action; the true Sage ignores reputation.

He was a student-practitioner of Lao Tzu’s philosophy; the name of his actual physical teacher is not known but in stories two individuals stand out as Lieh Tzu’s instructors — Hu Tzu and Po Hun. The ways they helped and taught Lieh Tzu are so significantly Theosophical that we will summarize the incidents.

Lieh Tzu was infatuated with the wonder-tricks of Chi Han who knew all about birth and death, gain and loss, and even prophesying. The people feared him. Returning after a visit Lieh Tzu spake to his instructor, Hu Tzu: “I used to look upon your Tao as perfect but now I have found something better–” –“So far you have learnt from me the ornamentals without the essentials and you think you know all about it. Without cocks in your poultry-yard, what sort of eggs do the hens lay? Try to force Tao down people’s throats and you will expose yourself. Let me show myself to your magician.”

So Lieh Tzu brought Chi Han and the magician prophesied: “I see but wet ashes; he can not live more than ten days.” Lieh Tzu later heard from his teacher, “I showed myself just as the earth shows us its outward form, motionless and still; I merely prevented him from seeing my pent-up energy of Tao. Now go and bring him again.”

And Chi Han came to visit Hu Tzu again. “It is lucky for your teacher,” he reported to Lieh Tzu, “that he met me. He will recover; anyway his recuperative powers aided him.” His preceptor told Lieh Tzu; “I showed myself as Heaven shows itself in all its dispassionate grandeur, letting a little energy run out of my heels. Well, try him again.”

Next day a third interview took place — “Your teacher is never the same and his physiognomy speaks nought. Get him to be regular and I will examine him again.” Hu Tzu on hearing this smilingly said, “I showed myself to him just now in a state of harmony and equipoise. Where the Man-Fish disports itself — is the Abyss. Where Water is at Rest — is the Abyss. Where Water is in Motion — is the Abyss. The Abyss is nine-fold and I have shown but three.”

Once again Chi Han accompanied Lieh Tzu to the presence of Hu Tzu. But the magician looked confused, terrified and fled. “Pursue him!” ordered Hu Tzu, and Lieh Tzu ran after him, failed to overtake him and returned. “I showed myself to him just now as Tao was before It became. I was to him as a great blank existing of itself.”

Upon this Lieh Tzu stood convinced that he had not yet learnt the real doctrine and so set to work in earnest, and for three years did not leave his home. He did cooking for his wife; he fed the pigs just as if he were feeding men. He discarded the artificial and reverted to the Natural.

Here is the tale about Lieh Tzu’s second instructor:

Lieh Tzu played the master and tried to teach archery to Po Hun. He gave the exhibition of how he could let the arrows fly with a cup of water placed on his elbow, and standing like a statue. “Bravo! but–” said Po Hun, “that is the shooting of an archer, but not of one who is above passion. Mount with me to the edge of a precipice.” They went and Po Hun approached it backward until his feet one-fifth of their length overhung the chasm. He beckoned Lieh Tzu, but he was prostrate on the ground with fear-sweat all over him. Then he was taught — “The perfect man soars to the blue sky above, or dives down to the yellow springs below, or traverses the eight ends of the great compass, without a change in countenance or unevenness in breathing. You are terrified. Your internal economy is defective. You have no Tao.” And so Lieh Tzu began his practices again.

These two anecdotes show the psychic tendency of Lieh Tzu in his early days. Of this second instructor Po Hun another story is narrated, to draw the moral that a disciple must appear as nothing in the eyes of men.

Lieh Tzu went to Po Hun and said: “I am afraid. Out of ten restaurants at which I ate five would take no payment. It means that the truth within not being duly assimilated a certain brightness is visible externally and to conquer man’s hearts by force of the external is not wise. If a poor restaurant-keeper is tempted to do thus, who knows but a prince would be tempted to reward me with a post. That is what I was afraid of.” “Your Inner Lights are good, but if you don’t look out the world will gather round you.” Shortly afterwards Po Hun went to visit Lieh Tzu and lo! he had a large number of visitors. He stood there awhile, resting on his staff. Then without a word he departed. Hearing of this Lieh Tzu ran after Po Hun and cried: “Master, now that you have come will you not give me medicine?” “It is all over! I told you that the world would gather around you. It is not that you can make people gather around you; you cannot prevent them from doing so. What use of further instruction? Exerting influence thus unduly, you are influenced in turn. You distrust your natural constitution. Those who associate with you do not admonish you. Their small words are poison. You perceive it not; you understand it not. Alas! The clever toil on, and the wise are sad. Those without ability seek for nothing-ness; with full bellies idly they wander about; they are drifting boats, not knowing whither they are bound.”

Perchance it was to cure this early psychic tendency that Lieh Tzu studied metaphysical propositions and universal fundamentals, and later in life taught them. We will give a few culled flowers from the garden of Lieh Tzu, but in doing so would like the reader to remember that there are giant trees and bushes besides, and these flowers are only on some amongst them:


The inspired men of old regarded the Yin and the Yang as the cause of the sum total of Heaven and Earth. But that which has substance is engendered from that which is devoid of substance. Hence we say, there is a great Principle of Change, a great Origin, a great Beginning, a great Primordial Simplicity. In the great Change substance is not yet manifest. In the great Origin lies the beginning of substance. In the great Beginning lies the beginning of material form. In the great Simplicity lies the beginning of essential qualities. When substance, form and essential qualities are still indistinguishably blended together it is called Chaos. Chaos meansthat all things are chaotically intermixed and not yet separated from one another. The purer and lighter elements, tending upwards, made the Heavens; the grosser and heavier elements, tending downwards, made the Earth. Substance, harmoniously proportioned, become Man; and, Heaven and Earth containing thus a spiritual element, all things were evolved and produced.

To the beginning and end of things there is no precise limit. Beginning may be end, and end may be beginning. But beyond infinity there must again exist non-infinity, and within the unlimited again that which is not unlimited. It is this consideration — that infinity must be succeeded by non-infinity, and the unlimited by the not-unlimited — that enables me to apprehend the infinity and unlimited extent of space, but does not allow me to conceive of its being finite and limited.

The lesser is always enclosed by a greater, without ever reaching an end. Heaven and earth, which enclose the myriad objects of creation, are themselves enclosed in some outer shell or sphere. Enclosing heaven and earth and the myriad objects within them, this outer shell is infinite and immeasurable.


On one hand, there is life, and on the other, there is that which produces life; there is form, and there is that which imparts form; there is sound, and there is that which causes sound; there is colour, and there is that which causes colour; there is taste, and there is that which causes taste.

Evolution is never-ending. But who can perceive the secret processes of Heaven and Earth? Thus, things that are diminished here are augmented there; things that are made whole in one place suffer loss in another. Diminution and augmentation, fullness and decay are the constant accompaniments of life and death. They alternate in continuous succession, and we are not conscious of any interval. The whole body of spiritual substance progresses without a pause; the whole body of material substance suffers decay without intermission. But we do not perceive the process of completion, nor do we perceive the process of decay. Man, likewise, from birth to old age becomes something different every day in face and form, in wisdom and in conduct … Though imperceptible while it is going on, it may be verified afterwards if we wait.


The spiritual element in man is allotted to him by Heaven, his corporeal frame by Earth. The part that belongs to Heaven is ethereal and dispersive, the part that belongs to Earth is dense and tending to conglomeration.When the spirit parts from the body, each of these elements returns to its proper place. That is why disembodied spirits are called kuei, which means “returning,” that is, returning to their true dwelling place.

There may be similarity in understanding without similarity in outward form. There may also be similarity in form without similarity in understanding. The Sage embraces similarity of understanding and pays no regard to similarity of form. The world in general is attracted by similarity of form, but remains indifferent to similarity of understanding. Those creatures that resemble them in shape they love and consort with; those that differ from them in shape they fear and keep at a distance. The creature that has a long skeleton, hands differently shaped from the feet, hair on its head, and an even set of teeth in its jaws, and walks erect, is called a man. But it does not follow that a man may not have the mind of a brute. Even though this be the case, other men will still recognize him as one of their own species in virtue of his outward form.

Between his birth and his latter end, man passes through four chief stages of development: — infancy, adolescence, old age and death. In infancy, the vital force is concentrated, the will is simple, and the general harmony of the system is perfect. External objects produce no injurious impression, and to the moral nature nothing can be added. In adolescence, the animal passions are wildly exuberant, the heart is filled with rising desires and preoccupations. The man is open to attack by the objects of sense, and thus his moral nature becomes enfeebled. In old age, his desires and preoccupations have lost their keenness, and the bodily frame seeks for repose. External objects no longer hold the first place in his regard. In this state, though not attaining to the perfection of infancy, he is already different from what he was in adolescence.


A dream is the meeting of minds; an event in our waking consciousness is the coming together of sensible substances. Hence our feelings by day and our dreams by night are the meetings of mind with mind and of substance with substance. It follows that if we can concentrate the mind in abstraction, our feelings and our dreams will vanish of themselves. With those who rely on their waking perceptions you cannot argue. Those who put faith in dreams do not understand the alternating processes of evolution. “The pure men of old passed their waking existence in self-oblivion, and slept without dreams.” How can this be dismissed as an empty phrase?


The intelligence of animals is innate, even as that of man. Their common desire is for propagation of life, but their instincts are not derived from any human source. There is pairing between the male and the female, and mutual attachment between the mother and her young. They shun the open plain and keep to the mountainous parts; they flee the cold and make for warmth; when they settle, they gather in flocks; when they travel, they preserve a fixed order. The young ones are stationed in the middle, the stronger ones place themselves on the outside. They show one another the way to the drinking-places, and call to their fellows when there is food. In the earliest ages, they dwelt and moved about in company with man. It was not until the age of emperors and kings that they began to be afraid and broke away into scattered bands.


Li (spirit of exertion) and Ming (spirit of destiny) work conjointly. The husbandman takes his measures according to the season, the trader occupies himself with gain, the craftsman strives to master his art, the official pursues power. Here we have the operation of human forces.

But the husbandman has seasons of rain and seasons of drought, the trader meets with gains and losses, the craftsman experiences both failure and success, the official finds opportunities or the reverse. Here we see theworking of Destiny.

When the body is bent its shadow is crooked; when upright the shadow is straight. Likewise, contraction and extension are not inherent in the Subject, but take place in obedience to causes. Holding this theory of consequents is to be at home in the antecedent. Therefore if speech is sweet, the echo will be sweet. Hence the saying, “Heed your words, and they will meet with harmonious response; heed your actions, and they will find agreeable accord.” Therefore the Sage observes the issue in order to know the origin, scrutinizes the past to know the future. The standard of conduct lies with one’s own self. You will find no instance of preservation or destruction, fullness or decay, which has not obeyed the supreme Law of Causality. Those who excel in beauty become vain, those who excel in strength become violent; for Causality ceases where Balance is.


The source of life is death; but that which produces life never comes to an end. The origin of form is matter; but that which imparts form has no material existence. The genesis of sound lies in the sense of hearing; but that which causes sound is never audible to the ear. The source of colour is vision; but that which produces colour never manifests itself to the eye. The origin of taste lies in the palate; but that which causes taste is never perceived by that sense. All these phenomena are functions of the principle of Inaction (Wu Wei). To be at will either bright or obscure, soft or hard, short or long, round or square, alive or dead, hot or cold, buoyant or sinking, treble or bass, present or absent, black or white, sweet or bitter, fetid or fragrant: — this it is to be devoid of knowledge, yet all-knowing, destitute of power, yet all-powerful.

The man who did more to popularize Lao Tzu’s doctrine of Tao was Chwang Tzu, who followed Lieh Tzu and in whose writings references to our author are to be found. The study of Taoism can not be complete without some knowledge of Chwang Tzu’s teachings. After him came the corruption and the downfall of pure Taoism, and so to a summary and examination of Chwang Tzu’s books we must turn to bring our study of Tao-Theosophy to a close.

THEOSOPHY, February, 1927


Lao Tzu is austere and serene; Confucius is the ritualist in life; but now we approach Chwang Tzu — the breaker of idols, the advocate not only of serene but of joyous living. Regarding Lao Tzu as his Master, he practised the austerities of the straight and narrow path of Tao; but unlike his great predecessor he was an active propagandist and labored incessantly to teach so that many may live the higher life.

His title “The True Man of Nan-Hua” shows the deep reverence in which he is held by the Chinese. His writings are known as “The Divine Classic of Nan Hua.” Nan Hua was his birth place, and living in the fourth century B.C. he was a contemporary of Mencius. His poet soul gives his writing the graceful touch so pleasing to his students, the touch that produces a sparkling quality of pure joy, non-sensuous, and on contacting it, argument and even reason subside into silence. The wealth of illustrations in innumerable anecdotes and episodes does not make the reiteration of his principles boring but on the contrary it continuously enlightens the varied aspects of those fundamentals. A celebrated commentator of the Second Century, B.C., says, “His teachings were like an overwhelming flood, which spreads at its own sweet will.” His thirty-three books are generally classified thus: I to VII the esoteric, VIII to XXII the exoteric, and XXIII to XXXIII miscellaneous. Thus Chwang Tzu is a voluminous writer and where Lao Tzu would speak a terse but telling aphorism, he narrates an anecdote and adorns it with imagery.

A great change came over the world of thought after the passing of Lao Tzu. The influence of the great Buddha was steadily permeating all Asia and Chwang Tzu distinctly shows the impress of this influence on his consciousness. In the period between the death of Lao Tzu and the birth of Chwang Tzu both the Buddha and Sankar Acharya had resuscitated Theosophy, and the echoes of Their teachings unmistakably resound in those of Chwang Tzu; this accounts for the more detailed development of Lao Tzu’s teachings and the becoming exoteric of that which was esoteric previously. Because of this, his Tao appears different from the Tao of Lao Tzu; but in reality the introduction of the expression Tien Tao, the Divine Way or the Heavenly Way, was formulated by Chwang Tzu as a protest against the degradation in which the Lao Tzu’s doctrine of Spontaneity was falling. Some pseudo-Taoists were preaching, and indulging in the belief that lust can be killed out if gratified, and spontaneity consisted in free indulgence. To emphasize the ethical aspect without discarding the metaphysical, Chwang Tzu spoke of Tien Tao and Tao; but these two like the Macro- and the Micro-Cosmos are related in identity. With this short introduction, we will let Chwang Tzu speak his own words on the different topics of interest to the student of Theosophy.


The ultimate end is the Heavenly Tao. It is manifested in the laws of nature. It is the hidden spring. At the beginning, It was. This, however, is inexplicable. It is unknowable. But from the unknowable we reach the known.

We are embraced in the obliterating unity of the Heavenly Tao. There is perfect adaptation to whatever may eventuate; and so we complete our allotted span. But what is it to be embraced in the obliterating unity of the Heavenly Tao? Take no heed of time, nor right and wrong. But passing into the realm of the Infinite, take your final rest therein.

Knowledge of the great ONE, of the great Negative, of the great Nomenclature, of the great Uniformity, of the great Space, of the great Truth, of the great Law — this is perfection. The great ONE is omnipresent. The great Negative is omnipotent. The great Nomenclature is all-inclusive. The great Uniformity is all-assimilative. The great Space is all receptive. The great Truth is all-exacting. The great Law is all-binding.

Speech is not mere breath. It is differentiated by meaning. Take away that, and you cannot say whether it is speech or not. Can you even distinguish it from the chirping of young birds? But how can TAO be so obscured that we speak of it as true and false? And how can speech be so obscured that it admits the idea of contraries? How can TAO go away and yet not remain? How can speech exist and yet be impossible?

TAO is obscured by our want of grasp. Speech is obscured by the gloss of this world. Hence the affirmatives and negatives of the Confucian and Mihist Schools, each denying what the other affirmed, and affirming what the other denied. But he who would reconcile affirmative with negative, and negative with affirmative, must do so by the light of nature.

There is nothing which is not objective: there is nothing which is not subjective. But it is impossible to start from the objective. Only from subjective knowledge is it possible to proceed to objective knowledge. Hence it has been said, “The objective emanates from the subjective; the subjective is consequent upon the objective. This is the Alternation Theory.” Nevertheless, when one is born, the other dies. When one is possible, the other is impossible. When one is affirmative, the other is negative. Which being the case, the true sage rejects all distinctions of this and that. He takes his refuge in the Heavenly Tao, and places himself in subjective relation with all things.

When subjective and objective are both without their correlates, that is the very axis of TAO. And when that axis passes through the centre at which all Infinities converge, positive and negative alike blend into an infinite ONE. Hence it has been said that there is nothing like the light of nature. TAO operates, and given results follow. Things receive names and are what they are. They achieve this by their natural affinity for what they are and their natural antagonism to what they are not. For all things have their own particular constitutions and potentialities. Nothing can exist without these.

To place oneself in subjective relation with externals, without consciousness of their objectivity — this is TAO. But to wear out one’s intellect in an obstinate adherence to the individuality of things, not recognizing the fact that all things are ONE, this is called Three in the Morning. What is Three in the Morning? A keeper of monkeys said with regard to their rations of chestnuts that each monkey was to have three in the morning and four at night. But at this the monkeys were very angry, so the keeper said that they might havefour in the morning and three at night, with which arrangement they were all well pleased. The actual number of the chestnuts remained the same, but there was an adaptation to the likes and dislikes of those concerned. Such is the principle of putting oneself into subjective relation with externals. Wherefore the true Sage, while regarding contraries as identical, adapts himself to the laws of Heaven. This is called following two courses at once.

Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting-point. Existence without limitation is Space. Continuity without starting-point is Time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of the Heavenly Tao.

This Portal is Non-Existence. All things sprang from Non-Existence. Existence could not make existence existence. It must have proceeded from Non-Existence, and Non-Existence and Nothing are ONE. Herein is the abiding place of the Sage.

Nature is no other than a man’s parents. (The term “Nature” stands here as a rendering of Yin and Yang, the Positive and Negative Principles of Chinese cosmogony, from whose interaction the visible universe results.) If she bid me die quickly, and I demur, then I am an unfilial son. She can do me no wrong. TAO gives me this form, this toil in manhood, this repose in old age, this rest in death. And surely that which is such a kind arbiter of my life is the best arbiter of my death.

Your body is not your own. It is the delegated image of Tao. Your life is not your own. It is the delegated harmony of Tao. Your individuality is not your own. It is the delegated adaptability of Tao. Your posterity is not your own. You move, but know not how. You are at rest, but you know not why. You taste, but know not the cause. These are the operations of Tao’s laws. How then should you get TAO so as to have it for your own?


A man’s knowledge is limited; but it is upon what he does not know that he depends to extend his knowledge to the apprehension of the Heavenly Tao.

A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker. How much less in the case of greatness? And if doing great things is not enough to secure greatness, how much less shall it secure virtue? In point of greatness, there is nothing to be compared with the universe. Yet what does the universe seek in order to be great? He who understands greatness in this sense, seeks nothing, loses nothing, rejects nothing, never suffers injury from without. He takes refuge in his own inexhaustibility. He finds safety in accordance with his nature. This is the essence of true greatness.

Great knowledge embraces the whole: small knowledge, a part only. Great speech is universal: small speech is particular.

The best language is that which is not spoken, the best form of action is that which is without deeds. Spread out your knowledge and it will be found to be shallow.

Now the transmission of messages of good- or ill-will is the hardest thing possible. Messages of good-will are sure to be overdone with fine phrases; messages of ill-will with harsh ones. In each case the result is exaggeration, and a consequent failure to carry conviction, for which the envoy suffers. Therefore it was said, “Confine yourself to simple statements of fact, shorn of all superfluous expression of feeling, and your risk will be small.”

Small knowledge has not the compass of great knowledge any more than a short year has the length of a long year. How can we tell that this is so? The mushroom of a morning knows not the alternation of day and night. The chrysalis knows not the alternation of spring and autumn. Theirs are short years.

You don’t ask a blind man’s opinion of a picture, nor do you invite a deaf man to a concert. And blindness and deafness are not physical only. There is blindness and deafness of the mind.

You cannot speak of ocean to a well-frog, the creature of a narrower sphere. You cannot speak of ice to a summer insect, the creature of a season. You cannot speak of Tao to a pedagogue: his scope is too restricted. But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.


The man of complete virtue remains blankly passive as regards what goes on around him. He is as originally by nature, and his knowledge extends to the supernatural. Thus, his virtue expands his heart, which goes forth to all who come to take refuge therein. Without TAO, form cannot be endued with life. Without virtue, life cannot be endued with intelligence. To preserve one’s form, live out one’s life, establish one’s virtue, and realize TAO — is not this complete virtue? Issuing forth spontaneously, moving without premeditation, all things following in his wake — such is the man of complete virtue! He can see where all is dark. He can hear where all is still. In the darkness he alone can see light. In the stillness he alone can detect harmony. He can sink to the lowest depths of materialism. To the highest heights of spirituality he can soar. This because he stands in due relation to all things. Though a mere abstraction, he can minister to their wants, and ever and anon receive them into rest — the great, the small, the long, the short, for ever without end.

The man of perfect virtue, in repose has no thoughts, in action no anxiety. He recognizes no right, nor wrong, nor good, nor bad. Within the Four Seas, when all profit — that is his pleasure; when all share — that is his repose. Men cling to him as children who have lost their mothers; they rally round him as wayfarers who have missed their road. He has wealth and to spare, but he knows not whence it comes. He has food and drink more than sufficient, but knows not who provides it. Such is a man of virtue.

The birth of the Sage is the will of the Heavenly Tao; his death is but a modification of existence. In repose, he shares the passivity of the Yin; in action, the energy of the Yang. He will have nothing to do with happiness, and so has nothing to do with misfortune. He must be urged ere he will move. He must be compelled ere he will arise. Ignoring the future and the past, he resigns himself to the laws of Tao. Therefore no calamity comes upon him, nothing injures him, no man is against him, no spirit punishes him. He floats through life to rest in death. He has no anxieties; he makes no plans. His honor does not make him illustrious. His good faith reflects no credit upon himself. His sleep is dreamless, his awaking without pain. His spirituality is pure, and his soul vigorous. Thus unconditioned and in repose he is a partaker of the virtue of Tao. Sorrow and happiness are the heresies of virtue; joy and anger lead astray from TAO; love and hate cause the loss of virtue. The heart unconscious of sorrow and happiness, that is perfect virtue. ONE, without change, that is perfect repose. Without any obstruction, that is the perfection of the unconditioned. Holding no relations with the external world, that is perfection of the negative state. Without blemish of any kind, that is the perfection of purity.

The sea does not reject the streams which flow eastward into it. Therefore it is immeasurably great. The true Sage folds the universe in his bosom.

THEOSOPHY, March, 1927


After the passing of Chwang Tzu, Theosophy began to disappear from China. Its passage through corruption, superstition, to wrong practices and sense life brought the degradation whose nature was such that the advent of Buddhist missionaries and their preachings failed to make a wide-spread impress. Even today Buddhism is not the popular religion of the Chinese. If the pure doctrines of Lao Tzu and Confucius had been in vogue in the first century of the Christian era when the Buddhist Mission reached China, we would have had a magnificent expression of Theosophy the equal of which the world of Asia had not witnessed for a long time indeed. Corrupted Taoism and Confucianism corrupted the Buddhistic teachings; but in China as elsewhere the Kali-Yuga was running its course, and the darkness has been deepening.

One of the effects of the Mission of H.P.B. was the revival of interest in the Soul-satisfying philosophy of the Aryans. She did for the whole race what Lao Tzu and Confucius attempted for the Chinese. It was their effort to bring to their people Aryan culture which surrounded them. China had to be influenced Theosophically and Aryanization of that Atlantean remnant was undertaken by the Great Lodge of Masters through the instrumentality of Lao Tzu and Confucius. Their Theosophy has not been practised in China yet, just as the teachings of Jesus remain to be practised in Christendom, though we are past the first quarter of its twentieth century. Political and historical events are shadows of spiritual and manasic ones of the world of Souls. Also it is true that the life incidents of a Messenger’s Incarnation are but miniature pictures of the future story of the people for whom He came. Our humanity can not understand the import of H.P.B.’s incarnation, just as Christendom has not even begun to decipher the meaning of the life and mission of Jesus. So also China will grasp the significance of the triple effort through Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism in decades yet unborn. Intuitive students of the Wisdom-Religion perceive, albeit dimly, the lines along which China’s redemption would come. Out of the present turmoil and conflict a new era is bound to open — the Aryan era for China; but, whether it will be the misunderstood, materialistic and commercial Aryanism which is so much to the fore among us or whether the era will be that which William Q. Judge designated as that of Western Occultism remains to be seen. Those who have at heart the welfare and triumph of the Theosophical Movement would naturally desire to see the manifestation of the second.

In this closing article on Chinese Theosophical Landmarks we will ponder over three stories embodying teachings which will help us wherever our lives are spent, for they contain the Message of that which is designated Western Occultism. Also, they contain the basic principles of guidance in the individual and corporate life of the China of tomorrow. If the Chinese shape their political and social life according to these teachings, which are practical, a great China will arise as honourable as of yore; the alternative they face is that of Egypt — the old is dead and the new is foreign to its soil, culture and tradition, presaging years of conflict followed by national purgation through suffering and humiliation.


In the Shu King, the Book of History (Book VIII.), is recorded the story of the humble king Wu-Ting (1324-1264 B.C.) who sought and found a real guide for the affairs of his state. Likewise should modern China seek out from the silences untouched by our civilization a philosopher-friend who will spiritualize politics following the great Pao-hsi who, looking up, contemplated the brilliant forms of the firmament and, looking down, traced them on earth. Here is the narrative:

Wu-Ting mourned for his father in twilight obscurity for the space of three years. At the end of that time he still refused to speak, so that his ministers and officers were dismayed and perplexed, and came to him, saying: “Knowledge and intelligence are necessary to the administration of the law. Refusing to speak, your ministers and subjects are left in ignorance of your will.”

The King then made use of a writing to announce his will: “Since I was called to the rule of the empire my mind has been distressed lest my virtue and capacity should be unequal to the task. On this account I did not speak. But I would have it known that while I was meditating on the Tao I dreamed that Heaven conferred on me an excellent minister, one who might speak for me.”

The King then described his appearance as he had perceived it in his vision, and commanded that a portrait should be made of him and a thorough search conducted throughout the country. And this being done, it was found that one named Yueh, who was employed in making the dam in the wilderness at Fuh-yen, alone answered to the description. Him they brought to court and presented to the Emperor, who addressed him, saying: “Come now, Yueh! But do you instruct my mind, as if in making of wine you were the ferment of sugar, or in the making of good soup you might be the salt and prunes! Endeavour to embellish my mind, and then I shall be capable of fulfilling your instructions.”

Yueh bowed low, and said: “O King! men seek to extend their information that they may establish their affairs. But do you apply yourself to the understanding of the Ancient Traditions, and you will meet with success. For a man of affairs not to understand the ancient methods and yet to be capable of perpetuating his generation is a thing of which Yueh never yet heard !”

Then Wu-Ting appointed him to act as Prime Minister, and placing him before the host of of officers, commanded him, saying: “Do you continually impart your instructions to me, so that I may continue in virtue. If I am blunt as metal, I will use you for my grindstone. If I desire to navigate waters, you shall be the oar of my boat. If the year be one of great drought, I will use you as a copious rain. Unfold your mind, therefore, and refresh my heart. If physic be not strong enough, the disease will not be cured. Thus will myriads of people find rest!”

Yueh answered and said: “As wood following the carpenter’s line is rendered straight, so a prince by following good advice becomes a sage. Heaven alone is omniscient, but a wise ruler may attempt its portrayal.

“Speech can involve one in disgrace, and the use of weapons may lead to war. One should be careful in the use of these things. The robes of office are kept in a chest until required, and even so, the sword of justice should only be unsheathed after a careful examination of the offender. The adjustment of irregularities rests with those in office. It is not the knowledge of a thing but the doing of it that is difficult. Be studious, of humble intentions, and try to maintain timely effort. Consider the end and aim of your study while you are continually engaged in it, and the means will present itself without effort. Take your example from the perfection of former kings. Do not esteem yourself highly and so commit a folly. Only that in which one abides contentedly is his proper vocation, and that only will succeed.”


The materialistic attitude makes men vandals; our civilization robs Nature in the most heedless fashion — polluting limpid rivers, disfiguring lakes, destroying trees, spoiling the velvety slopes of hills and dales. Verily we are thieves who enjoy what has been given unto us by Nature and offer nought in return, and so sin mightily. This teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is strikingly imparted by Lieh Tzu, and if China is to free herself from the ills of a thieving and despoiling civilization she will have to practise the lesson of the following story:

Mr. Kuo of the Ch’i State was very rich, while Mr. Hsiang of the Sung State was very poor. The latter travelled from Sung to Ch’i and asked the other for the secret of his prosperity. Mr. Kuo said: “It is because I am a good thief; the first year I began to be a thief I had just enough. The second year I had ample. The third year I reaped a great harvest. And, in course of time, I found myself the owner of whole villages and districts.”

Mr. Hsiang was overjoyed. He began the robber life, he climbed over walls and broke into houses, grabbing everything he could lay hands upon. But before long his thefts brought him into trouble, and he was stripped even of what he had previously possessed.

Thinking that Mr. Kuo had basely deceived him, Hsiang went to him with a bitter complaint. “Tell me,” said Mr. Kuo, “how did you set about being a thief?” On learning from Mr. Hsiang what had happened he cried out: “Alas and alack! You have been brought to this pass because you went the wrong way to work. Now let me put you on the right track. We all know that Heaven has its seasons, and that earth has its riches. Well, the things that I steal are the riches of Heaven and earth, each in their season — the fertilizing rain-water from the clouds, and the natural products of mountain and meadow-land. Thus I grow my grain and ripen my crops, build my walls and construct my tenements. From the dry land I steal winged and four-footed game, from the rivers I steal fish and turtles. There is nothing that I do not steal. For corn and grain, clay and wood, birds and beasts, fishes and turtles are all products of Nature. How can I claim them as mine? Yet, stealing in this way I bring on myself no retribution. Gold, jade, and precious stone, corn, silk stuffs, and all manner of riches are simply appropriated by men. How can Providence be said to give them away? Yet if we commit a crime in stealing them, who is there to resent it?”

Mr. Hsiang, in a state of great perplexity, and fearing to be led astray a second time by Mr. Kuo, went off to consult Tung Kuo, a man of learning. Tung Kuo said to him: “Are you not already a thief in respect to your own body? You are stealing the harmony of the Yin and the Yang in order to keep alive and to maintain your bodily form. How much more, then, are you a thief with regard to external possessions! Assuredly, Heavenand earth cannot be dissociated from the myriad objects of Nature. To claim any one of these as your own betokens confusion of thought. Mr. Kuo’s theftsare carried out in a spirit of justice, and therefore bring no retribution. But your thefts were carried out in a spirit of self-seeking and therefore landed you in trouble. Those who take possession of property, whether public or private, are thieves. Those who abstain from taking property, public or private, are also thieves. The great principle of Heaven and earth is to treat public property as such and private property as such. Knowing this principle, which of us is a thief, and at the same time which of us is not a thief?”


We live in the Dark Age whose soul-energy is competition. Men are learning spiritual facts through suffering which they survive and out-grow. But we have fallen into the delusion of pinning ourselves to our labors and works in such manner that the inner lessons they are capable of teaching are missed. Thus we go through innumerable experiences without garnering Wisdom from them. Chwang Tzu taught that it is not what we do but how we do it which makes for real growth. Not to desist from actions but perform them in a way so that every deed yields its full quota of knowledge and experience is the method of the Tao. To practice Tao is to labor in one’s own field by a particular mode and no profession is so mean that its votary is unable to practise it. In his third book Chwang Tzu instances the butcher who devoted himself to Tao:

Prince Hui’s cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect harmony — rhythmical like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, simultaneous like the chords of the Ching Shou.

“Well done!” cried the Prince; “yours is skill indeed.”

“Sire,” replied the cook, “I have always devoted myself to Tao. It is better than skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me simply whole bullocks. After three years’ practice I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. When my senses bid me stop, but my mind urges me on, I fall back upon eternal principles. I follow such openings or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not attempt to cut through joints: still less through large bones.

“A good cook changes his chopper once a year — because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month — because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. By these means the interstice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.

“Nevertheless, when I come upon a hard part where the blade meets with a difficulty, I am all caution. I fix my eye on it. I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper, and stand up, and look around, and pause, until with an air of triumph I wipe my chopper and put it carefully away.”

“Bravo!” cried the Prince. “From the words of this cook I have learnt about the nourishment of life.”

These three characters lived in and breathed forth Tao — though one was a statesman, another a farmer, and the third a cook. To go back to Ancient Principles, to recognize the Unity of Nature, and to practise Skill in Action, these are the three ways of the Inner Life — the Path of Knowledge, Gnyan Marga; of Devotion, Bhakti Marga, and of Action, Karma Marga. But above all the triple way is unmanifest, and though difficult is not impossible for corporeal beings to tread. The Path-Tao proceeds from within outward and never is seen without. To turn inwards so that man may know the without, and loving it sacrifice for it, was Lao-Tzu’s practical message — true for China and the world today as in 600 B.C. Chwang Tzu attributes the following to his Master:

If the Tao could be presented to another, men would all present it to their rulers; if it could be served up to others, men would serve it up to their parents; if it could be told to others, men would all tell it to their brothers; if it could be given to others, men would give it to their sons and grandsons. The reason why it cannot be transmitted is no other but this — that if, within, there be not the presiding principle, it will not remain there, and if, outwardly, there be not the correct obedience, it will not be carried out. When that which is given out from the mind in possession of it is not received by the mind without, the sage will not give it out; and when, entering in from without, there is no power in the receiving mind to entertain it, the sage will not permit it to lie hid there.

To seek for that Hidden Way enshrined in the heart of man is to be a Taoist, a Theosophist. There in the Hall of Self abides the Ancient of Days, to whom Chwang Tzu sang his exhortation, thus:

O My Exemplar!
Thou who destroyest all things and dost
not account it cruelty;
Thou who benefittest all time, and dost
not account it charity;
Thou who art older than antiquity and
dost not account it age;
Thou who supportest the universe, shaping
the many forms therein, and dost
not account it skill;
This is the Bliss of Tao.

THEOSOPHY, April, 1927

Articles from Sunrise Magazine


Discovering the Tao Teh Ching
Renovation Follows Renovation Without Cease
The Wisdom of Emptiness
The Three Noble Teachers of Ancient China

Discovering the Tao Teh Ching

Lao-tzu’s Tao Teh Ching sat on the bookshelf for many years before it was finally dusted off and read. After only the first chapter I began chastising myself for not having done so sooner. The poetic blend of inspiring spiritual ideas and everyday practical philosophy quickly moved me to a more serious study of this great work.

Tao that can be expressed is not Everlasting Tao. / The Name that can be named is not the Everlasting Name. / The Name, in Its inner aspect, is Life-spring of Heaven and Earth. / The Name, in its outer aspect, is Mother of all created things. / Therefore: —

To perceive the mystery of Life, desire always to reach the innermost. / To perceive the limitations of things, desire always to possess them. / These two aspects of Life are One. / In their outcome they become different in Name but in their depth they are One. / In a depth, still deeper yet, is the Door of many mysteries.

(All quotations are from Tao Teh King, Isabella Mears’ translation)

Embodied within these stanzas of the opening chapter are three concepts which are expressed throughout the remainder of the Tao The Ching’s 81 brief chapters. They are Tao, Teh, and Wu.

There is an interplay between these ideas, infilling the pages with the activity of life: its coming forth, a blossoming into full activity, and a return to its root. The relationship of these themes with one another gives the Tao Teh Ching its scope and breadth, and in order to better understand the work as a whole I found it helpful to consider these three concepts independently.

The Chinese language lends itself to philosophical expression quite effortlessly in that it does not rigidly define its terms in any restricted fashion. Chinese writing has evolved from a pictographic, as opposed to an alphabetic, origin. All the characters, or words, are structured upon 214 fundamental elements known as radicals, and used somewhat similarly to letters. These radicals can stand alone as ideas in and of themselves. Therefore, if we disassemble a complex character into its component parts, we can sometimes find a very interesting collection of ideas that can help us appreciate the concept as a whole. The character Tao is made up of two basic parts; one, which means going on, moving, or progression, and the other, understood as head or intelligence. Combined, this character could be read, “progressive intelligence.” Tao is popularly translated as the Way, which as an English word appropriately has the double meaning of “path” and “method.” Most often, however, it is left in the untranslated form of Tao.

While Tao is comparable to the highest deities of the world’s great religions and mythologies, it is especially unlike the Christian concept of God. There is no anthropomorphizing of Tao in the text, yet it is an entirely approachable, comforting, and universal idea.

Great Tao flows everywhere, / It extends to the left and to the right. / All beings receive It in order to live and to be free. / It works out perfectness in them although It possesses not a Name. / It protects them with love and sustains them, but does not claim to be Ruler of their actions. — ch. 34

One very good method for furthering our understanding of any philosophy is to compare new findings with ideas that are already familiar to us. Students of religious texts or philosophies will recognize some quite striking parallels between these verses and those found in other traditions. One of particular interest has to do with Tao, which creates yet remains apart from its creation or, as mentioned above, “sustains them but is not ruler of their actions.” We can find this idea practically verbatim in the ninth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita; likewise in the Vishnu Purana; “He, though one with all beings, is beyond and separate from material nature (Prakriti), from its products, from proper ties, from imperfections” (Bk. 6, ch. 5).

Taken independently, any of these sources of ancient truth expresses itself profoundly and suggestively, but when they are coalesced into one study, our comprehension is greatly increased. The nature and method of creation, the purpose of being, and a sense of divine impersonality, are just a few thoughts that arise in our minds as a result of this single inquiry into the nature of Tao. In chapter 51 we read: “It gives them Life, but does not possess them. / It gives them activity, but does not depend on them. / It urges them to grow, but does not rule them.” Tao governs its creations not with threats and fear, but with the knowledge that all life is infused with its life, and that the expression of life is mutually beneficial for the enlightened and unenlightened alike.

It is a common feature of philosophical terms to represent more than a single idea. Such is the case with the concept of Teh. Teh is usually translated as “virtue,” often, however, with apologies because the word seems inadequate to convey the richness of ideas embodied within this concept. One of the radicals which make up the character is transliterated as hsin. It represents a variety of ideas, all interesting and pertinent to our subject. It can stand for the “physical heart, also, the seat of the mind, therefore intelligence,” and is understood metaphorically as “the moral heart or nature” (Herbert A. Giles, Chinese-English Dictionary). In chapter 38 we find a distinction made between “high Teh” and “low Teh,” (Ellen M. Chen, The Tao Te Ching, Paragon House, 1989, pp. 145-9) which lends a clue to the broader meaning of this term. High Teh, as we read it in the text, would seem to represent that pure, harmonious spiritual quality present in both man and nature, similar to the principle of buddhi in the Hindu philosophy, while low Teh is that which is understood as virtue on the human level. The one connotes true knowing and wisdom, while the other depicts the qualities of faith, goodness, and the living of a moral life. Through the activities of low Teh then, we grow to the wisdom of high Teh and from there onwards to the perfect knowledge and pure spirit of Tao. This transcendence is not an uncommon theme in philosophic and religious thought. The pathway of evolution, from our material towards our spiritual natures, works conversely, however, during the process of involution or creation.

The Tao Teh Ching, in its terse style, gives its account of this process of manifestation in the first lines of the opening chapter. Teh, “the moral heart or nature,” is here presented as “the Name in its outer aspect, Mother of all created things.” Teh is the extension of Tao and functions as intermediary between that generative pure spirit and those beings who have need of existence in the material realms. In chapter 42 the phenomenon of duality from unity speaks to the emergence of the Teh principle and depicts its role in this process of creation.

In Tao is Unity of Life, / In Unity is Duality of Life, / In Duality is Trinity of Life, / In Trinity all beings have Life.

The relationship of Tao and Teh is one of the most popular themes in religious and mythological traditions. Their qualities are usually portrayed through the roles of the masculine and feminine principles in nature. There are many examples to be found of this Father Time (eternity) and Mother Nature (manifestation) pairing: Brahma and Prakriti in the Hindu, Odin and Frigga in Norse mythology, and the Egyptian Osiris and Isis, to name a few. It is interesting to see how the one idea of Teh, that of virtue, derives its meaning from the other aspect of Teh: that of a nurturing mother giving birth and life to her children has always been representative of moral values.

The meaning of Wu is undeniably a pivotal theme in this philosophy and perhaps the most misunderstood. Wu is defined as “not,” in the sense of “without,” but there is no doubt that when it is used in the Tao Teh Ching its meaning is far more significant. There are many other terms in Chinese that express the negative, and interestingly, with each word there is listed a character giving the opposite meaning, similar to an antonym. The opposite idea for Wu is Yu, “to have, to possess.” We find the word Yu in the Tao Teh Ching representing a desire for earthly possessions, ignorance, and the least noble of human traits. With this thought in mind our definition of Wu has now developed from simply “not,” as “without,” to, in its philosophic sense, “to possess not earthly desires,” or be unaffected by the attributes of the lower self. If we break down the character into its component parts, further insights are unveiled as we define each of the radicals. The radicals of the character for Wu mean respectively:

“Man” (Giles)
“An inward, spiritual love for mankind” (Giles)
The number ten, symbolic of “spirit entering into matter” (Mears, Intro.)
The Trinity, in which “all beings have Life” (Mears, ch.42)
“Fire or flame” (Giles), implying intelligent self-awareness

Wu, while most often used in connection with another word in order to color its meaning, is also used alone as an idea in its own right. A profound example is given in chapter eleven (italics added):

Thirty spokes surround one nave, the usefulness of the wheel is always in that empty innermost [wu].
You fashion clay to make a bowl, the usefulness of the bowl is always in that empty innermost [wu].
You cut out doors and windows to make a house, their usefulness to a house is always in their empty space [wu].
Therefore profit comes from external form, but usefulness comes from the empty innermost.

Wu is most popularly known in its relation to the word Wei. The phrase Wu Wei has unfortunately been interpreted literally as taking no action, with overtones of taking no responsibility. The deeper meaning, however, as it is used in its philosophical context, could not be more contrary to this. The character Wei means “to do, to make, or to cause,” often translated “to act.” If we incorporate our expanded definition of Wu together with Wei, the phrase takes on the more meaningful message, “possess not the action.” In chapters 3 and 63 we read Wei Wu Wei, act but do not possess the act, or “act through the activity of the inner life.” However stated, the emphasis is clearly on taking action:

That is why the self-controlled man makes it his business to dwell in the Inner Life; / he teaches, not by words, but by actions; / he brings all beings into action, he does not refuse them; / he gives them life, but does not possess them; / he acts, but looks not for reward; / he works out perfectness, but claims no credit. — ch.2

This principle of Wu Wei permeates all strata of life. Even Tao manifests through Wu Wei, acting yet remaining unattached to the fruits of action. Just as we should perform our duties without attachment to the outcome, so too does the great all-pervading force conduct its miracle of life. If Tao were to take no action the universe and all life would not be. Tao, happily however, does take action, giving all life evolutionary purpose, free will, and the responsibility of self-determination.

In the third chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita we find this simple line: “All creatures act according to their natures; what, then, will restraint effect?” The great sages have always exhorted us to act, but to take action based on the most benevolent and unselfish of motives, for just as a dam can retard the flow of a mighty river, we can subdue the impetus of our evolution by the practice of no-action.

It is a rare thing to find an entire philosophy expressed in so few words. The Chinese language being a very concise one, especially as applied in the Tao Teh Ching, has the dual quality of being refreshingly direct and profoundly subtle. Because of its economy of words, this ancient classic has maintained its integrity down through the ages, rendering itself to us in an inspiringly modern way. In the end we perceive Lao-tzu’s message as a highly mystical one. It is perhaps on this level that we can best identify with it, for it reaches us out of our shared antiquity, that timeless past of ageless being.

— Mark Davidson, Sunrise magazine, October/November 1990

Renovation Follows Renovation Without Cease

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:

  • Ch’u Ta-Kai, Tao Te Ching, forward by Dr. Lionel Giles, Fourth Ed., The Buddhist Society London, 1945.
  • The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, The Writings of Chuang Tzu, trans. James Legge, vol. 39, The Sacred Books of the East, Dover Publications, 1962.
  • Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Do Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, Grove Press, undated but probably 1948.
  • The Wisdom of Laotse, trans. and ed. Lin Yutang, The Modern Library, Random House, 1948.

For The I Ching, see:

  • The I Ching — The Book of Changes, translated and annotated by James Legge, Dover Publications, 1963.
  • The I Ching or Book of Changes, trans. Richard Wilhelm, two volumes, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951.

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.”

— Robert Rensselaer, Sunrise magazine, November, 1976

The Wisdom of Emptiness

Understanding “emptiness” is presented in Buddhism as the culmination of religious training. It is attained through the systematic practice of the perfect virtues, including the deepest kind of meditation, which leads to the enlightenment of supreme wisdom. When this practice is perfected, one gains insight into emptiness as the ultimate nature of existence.

The philosophy behind this insight is based on a fundamental idea in Mahayana Buddhism: all things are devoid of any independent lasting essence. They are impermanent and illusory; essentially, they are empty. This does not mean they do not exist — rather it means that our dualistic perception of them is an illusion. We find this also in theosophical teachings:

From the moment when manifestation begins, it acts dualistically, that is to say that everything in nature from that point onwards is crossed by pairs of opposites . . . and that all these things are essentially mayic or illusory . . . The imperfect mind does not see perfect truth. 1

In effect, all imperfect minds see an illusory world, so everything that exists in that illusory world is empty.

Yet what would a perfect mind see? According to the T’ien T’ai School of Buddhism, a fully enlightened mind would see “Three Levels of Truth”: the Truth of Emptiness, the Truth of Phenomena, and the Truth of the Middle Way. The first truth is the realization that all phenomena are empty of reality. The second truth reveals that all phenomena fully exist, but their existence is dependent and temporary. The third truth embraces the other two in a “mutual identity”: emptiness and phenomena are one. The truth of mutual identity is so pervasive that all parts of the whole interpenetrate each other. The entire universe is “immanent in a single instant of thought.” All phenomena are expressions of Universal Mind, “and each manifestation is the Mind in its totality.” 2

We find the same idea in Zen Buddhism in the “Five Degrees of Realization.” When the mind is first enlightened, it sees the Many within the One — awareness is dominated by phenomena, but these are perceived as intimate expressions of the universal Self. The second degree sees the One within the Many — the mind is intimate with the one true nature of all things. During the third realization, awareness of body and mind “drop away” and there is only Emptiness. Here one realizes an even deeper enlightenment — Emptiness is now the Fullness of nature, and “every object is perceived at its highest degree of uniqueness.” After this the mind is ready to embrace the One and the Many without any distinction — Emptiness and Fullness interpenetrate each other so completely that one has the “perfect inner freedom” to work with nature. 3

In many schools of thought, these visions of emptiness and fullness are experienced only through the most rigorous practice of meditation, which makes them seem unattainable in ordinary life. But there is a way to the “wisdom of emptiness” that we can access at any time — through our natural self-forgetfulness. When we are totally absorbed in something we love, we empty ourselves of judgments and distinctions, and we are filled with what is happening. When we let go of how we want things to be and follow the will of nature, we are one with the flow of life. When the mind is completely open, empty of all separateness, life itself enlightens us with wisdom.

This is actually part of the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching — “The Book of the Way and Its Power.” The Tao is the Intelligence of the universe, the way nature works to bring things into being through every level of manifestation: from Emptiness to Fullness, from the One to the Many. It is the work that goes on before things take on physical form, as they are prefigured on the inner planes — increasingly ethereal levels of “infinite profundity.” 4 When we trust this universal Intelligence, when we open ourselves to what is happening outwardly, we begin to sense this “Inner Life,” and “we are more and more brought into the depths of its mystery.” 5

It is here that we realize the power of the Tao. We sense the formation of events before they happen, and we know the Inner must be supported before the Outer can come into balance. We understand how balance is achieved, how opposing forces need to interact to find a way to come together — and we let this process take its natural course. But most of all, we let the Tao work through us to deeply influence those around us — not through our words or actions, but by an open-hearted attitude that supports the way their lives are unfolding — and this helps to awaken the Inner Life within them.

Such is the wisdom of the Tao, which comes from forgetting our own will and trusting the will of nature. But how much of it is common experience? All of us have moments when we pour ourselves into something we love — a favorite pastime or a skillful job, a piece of music or a work of art, or simply caring for those who are close to us. At these special times we have a sense of “emptiness”: we are filled with what we love, we are one with what is happening, and without thinking we know what to do. As long as it lasts, even if it is only an instant — the Intelligence of life is acting through us.

The problem for most of us is that this oneness doesn’t last. We always get distracted. But the sage who wrote the Tao Te Ching does teach us a way to keep the power of the Tao alive: “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” 6 This does not seem like a very deep teaching, nor does it offer anything special to practice. How can these “treasures” be so great? How can they compare to the system of practicing the Buddhist virtues, the rigorous meditation training, the Three Levels of Truth, or the Five Degrees of Realization?

As with any spiritual discipline, it depends on how we use it. If its teachings are used to give us a sense of being better than others, we are actually reinforcing our sense of separateness. Any teaching that prevents this can indeed be called “great” — and this is the virtue of the Three Treasures. Being simple, patient, and compassionate gives us no reason to think we are superior. The mind in this discipline cannot withdraw into sophisticated abstractions — it needs to explore simplicity, patience, and compassion in everyday life, to study them in human relationships and in the workings of nature.

Studying the “treasures” in this way is the key to sustaining self-forgetfulness. It continually purges the mind of dead-letter judgments, so it can be filled with the living truth. There is nothing simpler than this kind of emptiness — everyone can use it to “return to the source of being.” 7 Flowing from this source is the Inner Life, and there is nothing more patient — it gives us the wisdom “to remain behind” until all has been fulfilled. And when we embrace both the Inner and the Outer, there is nothing more compassionate — it is “the love that protects and nurtures” the entire living process. 8

Is this experience different from religious enlightenment, or is it only a matter of degree? What would happen if we cultivated “self-forgetfulness” as a universal way of life? Could this kind of “everyday emptiness” give us the most sublime insight into the nature of existence? Ultimately, all spiritual teachings can be studied in our ordinary lives. Whatever they teach — no matter how lofty — is always reflected in human nature and in nature as a whole. The more we explore these “everyday mysteries,” the more they come alive in everything around us. They empty the mind and fill the heart, and life itself becomes a meditation. Simple things become fascinating. Waiting and watching become sublime. Fellow-feeling becomes sacred. And a common act of kindness is the Intelligence of the universe.


1. G. de Purucker, Occult Glossary, 1996, p. 104.

2. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, trans./comp. Wing-tsit Chan, 1963, pp. 396-7.

3. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment, ed./comp./trans. Philip Kapleau, 1966, pp. 330-1.

4. Tao Te Ching, trans. Ch’u Ta-Kao, 1959, ch. 1.

5. Tao Teh King, trans. Isabella Mears, 1983, ch. 1 note.

6. Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell, 1988, ch. 67.

7. Ibid.

8. The Tao Te Ching, trans. Ellen Chen, 1989, ch. 67, note 2.

— Jim Belderis, Sunrise magazine, October/November 1999

The Three Noble Teachers of Ancient China

The following impromptu address was given during a long trip on a Chinese Cargo Liner. Each Sunday morning there was a short religious service during which one or another of the passengers spoke.

On our way back to the United States it seemed wise, as all the officers and crew were Chinese, to dedicate one service to Oriental religions, since all aboard had by then spent some time in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, where they had visited ancient temples, shrines and monuments.

Because the talk was limited to fifteen minutes and had to be prepared in a few short days, no ideas were thoroughly explored. However, it was so well received that the captain requested that it be mimeographed and given to the passengers as well as translated for the Taiwanese crew members, many of whom were young and had never visited mainland China. — I.P.R.

Today I speak of China in the past tense, not because I feel that its greatness is irretrievably gone, but because my memories of the beloved country and its people are recalled from a period of more than forty years.

The uniqueness of China’s civilization was that it endured through thousands of years. Other nations, such as Rome, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Greece rose to prominence, were powerful for a time and then sank into political oblivion, while China, though frequently disturbed by dissensions from within and invasions from without, remained a monument to the endurance and stability of its national and cultural tradition. As a nation is only as strong as the philosophy it lives by, it might be of interest to speak about the three main sources of religious inspiration that influenced China during those centuries of greatness.

Rather recently I saw a Chinese picture of unknown origin showing three elderly sages, each armed with a long-handled spoon, tasting vinegar which is boiling in a large pot over the fire. The first is Confucius who said that vinegar is sour; next to him, the merry-faced one is Lao-tzu who announced that to him the vinegar was sweet. Finally there is the Buddha who claimed that the brew was neither sweet nor sour: it was vinegar.

Confucius and Lao-tzu were 6th century B.C. Chinese contemporaries. Buddhism was imported from India in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is almost impossible to consider any one of these three ways of life without including the other two, as all are parts of the one tradition. Eastern philosophy has, in general, concentrated on the regeneration of the individual through his own efforts; it was never necessary to become old and disillusioned before seeking one’s particular spiritual path. A young person possessed and cherished that desire as an inborn blessing from his youthful training. The longevity of the Chinese nation may be due, in part, to its development of tranquillity, and to its cultivation of relaxation.

I have known a businessman who, when granted a well-earned holiday, retired to his favorite temple, there to sit in meditation, listen to the steady chanting of the sutras, and to eat the sparse plant food of the religious order. To him this was a proper vacation from work. As one’s favorite temple was very apt to be high up on some lonely hill, one could there feel the smallness of man and the tremendous vastness of all nature. Many Chinese artists have caught that sense of man’s relation to the universe — their pictures show the tops of great mountains wreathed in passing clouds, trees, perhaps a temple, and far below a man, hardly more than a tiny speck on the road. Thus we find Eastern man considering himself as part of nature, and not as an outside intelligence trying to dominate and control natural phenomena.

Confucius and Lao-tzu have been likened to the two sides of a coin: completely different, and yet each contributing to a perfect whole. Confucius became concerned over the tendency of the Chinese of that period to depart from the ancient traditions and loyalties that had served so long to hold the nation together. It was an era of change and revolt — there may even have been a hippie movement afoot. His philosophy was not, then, a new one; he wished to bring the people back to the old way of life, the old morals. For years Confucianism was a reform movement , until it finally became the state religion during the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 221). The Analects of Confucius are forceful and austere: he preached good manners in family and state, respect for elders and those who governed; in other words, he wanted law and order. During his lifetime he had many adherents. He still has.

Equally popular, though a rather vague, mysterious teacher, was Lao-tzu. On this trip through the Orient we have seen in the antique shops as well as in the Museum in Taipei, wood-carvings of the funny little bearded fellow mounted precariously on an animal, sort of a cross between a horse (or a donkey) and a water buffalo. Many bronze incense burners take this form; this is a representation of Lao-tzu.

Lao-tzu’s religion is called Tao. It is difficult to translate a word which expresses an idea for which the Western world has no equivalent thought. Tao is the source of life, that which makes all things alive. Then, too, Tao has been translated as the Path, if by the Path one conceives of a Divine Source, within which all lives and moves and progresses. About 600 B.C. Lao-tzu was teaching the theory that there is no dead matter; everything from the tiniest atom to the greatest intellect is part of one evolving life stream — and this stream of living is Tao.

Lao-tzu was a man of few words. He left us only one very short piece of writing called the Tao Teh Ching. These few words he wrote down at the urgent request of his disciples; when his teaching was finished, he rode away on his strange animal, out through the Gates of China into the Gobi Desert to find for himself the eternal Tao. The Tao Teh Ching always has been, and is today, one of the world’s most mystical and thought-provoking pieces of literature.

From the Tao Teh Ching we learn that in the beginning was the All — Tao. The One, separating, became a duad — two; these combining, produced a third: that is, spirit descended into matter and from the combination produced intelligence. But the three are really one. This mystery is a concept familiar to all peoples from earliest times; it was held in Greece and in many lands and during many eras. In Egypt, it was personified as Osiris, Isis and Horus; and in Christianity it is, of course, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; or, as the Eastern Orthodox Church states it, the Father, Holy Spirit and Son.

While in Japan, if any of us went to an exhibit of flower arrangement — I mean the formal type, not just the pretty decorative kind — we will have found this idea of the three-in-one. Formal Ikebana started as decoration on the altars of the ancient temples: always the tall stem denotes Heaven, or spirit; the lower branch is Earth, or matter, the two being connected, fulfilled, rounded out by Man, or intellect. The Lord said: “let there be light,” and spirit descended into matter and through this union was born Man or the intelligently evolving entity. Although every bit of matter is to some extent informed by spirit — that’s what being alive is — no being other than man that we know of can choose a Path, a Way of Life. We have many, many lives during which time we learn, mostly by trial and error, but always through the strength of our desire to know.

Each one of the great religious teachers of the world, coming as they did at different times, in various places, tried to explain his own particular notion and method of attainment in a manner that would be most helpful to those who listened to him. Christians will understand that in 600 B.C. in China it wasn’t necessary to say “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”: there wasn’t any Caesar. In Israel, a conquered country, one could learn to “turn the other cheek” once he knew the Kingdom of Heaven was within each one, and no amount of slapping around could effect the inner peace that one builds for oneself.

The forceful morality of the Confucian teaching had a lasting effect on Old China, the China that cherished the ancestors and the traditions. On the other hand, the vagueness of Taoism is such that it went through many changes — as most religions do. We find stories of sages who float with the clouds from mountain top to mountain top; we find methods of fortunetelling, fairy tales and sorcery. Taoism went through a phase similar to that which Western Christianity experienced during its period of alchemy, witchcraft and religious charms that had super-physical powers. These are the barnacles that attach themselves to any philosophical ship; they may slow it up a bit, but it is still seaworthy. When we truly want to know about a religion we seek the words of the Teacher — not what someone says that inspired being must have meant.

The third vinegar taster was the Buddha.

I think we all know the beautiful story of the radiant young Prince Gautama who, on viewing for the first time in his protected life misery, sickness and death, renounced his kingdom, his wealth, his family, in order to find answers to such conditions. He discovered the wise men of India had no intellectual solutions to problems of welfare, so he went to the sadhus and was instructed in discipline through long hours of yoga. After he had nearly starved to death practicing his austerities, he decided that it was not by torturing the body that one attained spiritual insight. Finally, he sought within himself, by making quiet in meditation both mind and emotions, and eventually beneath the famous Bo tree he reached enlightenment. He then set forth to spend the rest of his life instructing all who would listen. So great was the truth that he had found, that the world still listens.

All over China one saw the calm, almost expressionless face of the meditating Buddha on the thousands of figures, some huge in strength and composure, some broken and battered and through the careless ages overgrown with weeds; some tiny and jeweled, and some primitive in form and carved in wood, held sacred generation after generation by one family. All these depicted one visage, one idea, one inspiration, that of a Being who rises above that which physically seems to be — the great illusion — to a state untainted by physical, emotional or mental reaction to worldly circumstances.

The late Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations, once wrote a short fable: “Once upon a time, there was a crown so heavy that it could only be worn by one who remained completely oblivious to its glitter.” (Markings, p. 64.) This is a Buddhist thought.

The power of Buddhism has, at times, been diluted, suppressed, divided, but in the long run it retains its authority through an almost majestic suggestiveness. One writer has likened it to a drop of mercury: it can be broken up into several small droplets, but once the separating barriers are down, all parts run back together into a perfect wholeness.

At a time in history when only scholars could read and write, it was necessary to teach by word of mouth and by symbols. We found these symbols in the many old Buddhist temples we visited, in China as well as in Japan.

The central Buddha on the altar is often flanked on either side by an aspect denoting the all-inclusiveness of the Buddha experience: on the left may be a representation of Divine Wisdom, on the right the Kuan Yin symbolizing all-compassion. These are representations of an idea. If the beautiful Kuan Yin statue sometimes has many arms, it is because it must be known that the Great Compassion reaches out in all directions to encompass all that lives. If the statue has many heads, Divine Love sees and hears in every direction of the universe. The fact that we may find these representations of Divinity not to our Western taste, in no way detracts from the legitimate value of their teaching quality for the time in which they were created.

Everything in life depends on certain acceptances. Truth, to be understood, must be within the experience pattern of the individual, otherwise it is not his truth — not then, at least. Today we are involved in a world of physical science, but this science, too, depends on acceptance. It depends on the belief in an immutable universe, the principles of which are never changing, the elements of which are always constant, and the laws of which are so exact that if man can come to understand them in their entirety he can work miracles. These are the acceptances the science of our day has had to agree to. Just as surely as the universe comes out of a great mystery, so science has had to accept that mystery, thereby acknowledging that it does exist. It is this mystery at its source that the religions of the West would penetrate.

In the Orient there was a profound acceptance, much insight, and a trained ability to be quiet, to be still, in order to discover through self-effort that which one had, in many cases, already accepted. I think that inner calmness is so generally lacking these days that people hardly realize that one can create it within oneself, any time, any place not, however, without suitable practice, self-training and discipline, and a desire to attain. The various methods employed to secure this calm inner strength were practiced in old China, as suggested by the Three Noble Teachers and their disciples. To each the vinegar tasted uniquely, but if one gazed down into the boiling liquid, through the almost blinding illusion of steam and vapor, one knew that all came from the one great mysterious source.

— By Ida Perrine Ryder, Sunrise magazine, August-September 1972

Articles from The Theosophical Forum


The Chinese have the oldest and the finest civilisation extant, not excepting that of India. Compared with them we in the West are in many ways, as they were wont to describe us, ignorant barbarians. They have produced the greatest art in history, not excepting that of Greece. To-day, reluctantly, and only in defence of their very right to exist, they have produced an army which is unbeaten and may prove invincible. After the war, they will form one of the four Great Powers responsible for the re-organisation of mankind. What, then, is the fount of life from which have sprung this civilisation, this exquisite art and this unconquerable spirit on the field of war?

The answer is a religion-philosophy unique in its complexity, its range and in what, for want of a better term, I call its “infusion” in the national life. It is composed of three of the seven great religions of mankind, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and three of the other four have played their part in its creation. Hinduism has influenced the Chinese through Mahayana Buddhism; Christianity, of the Nestorian variety, was widespread in the vital period of the T’ang Dynasty, and there are millions of Chinese converts to Islam. It is true that the outward forms of all these faiths have suffered at the hands of time, but the spirit of Confucius is at the heart of the Chinese army’s morale; if Taoism has to some extent degenerated into necromancy and traffic with the spirit world it has nevertheless provided the soil in which the seed of Buddhism has flowered into Zen, that mysticism of the will which is the bravest path to Reality yet used by man; and if Chinese Buddhism has too far become a series of “services” appropriate at birth, marriage and death, yet there is in progress a widespread revival of true Buddhism fostered by the mighty figure of the Ven. Tai Hsiiu.

These three ingredients of the religion of China are not merely mixed but complementary. All men need a philosophy, secondly, a way of life, and that indefinable third factor, wings, that lifting power of the mystic’s vision, the joy of expansion which comes, paradoxically enough, in self-surrender, and which manifests alike in the quiet humility by which alone we possess everything, and in the spontaneity and laughter of the child. And these requirements are to be found in what the Chinese themselves have called the Tripod, a religion standing on three legs. Ancient tablets show the figures of the three Founders side by side; modern societies study the three philosophies dispassionately, and have even attempted to formulate, in the doctrine of the “triple ego,” a set of principles acceptable to all. Nor do the Chinese choose or let their parents choose to which of the three religions they shall belong exclusively. One Chinese student, when I asked him to which religion he belonged, replied: “All three,” and added: “And in my private shrine I have a crucifix as well.” Why not? All men are different, and “the ways to the One are as many as the lives of men.” Though the great religions have all built highways to Reality, every man must some day make a path for himself and tread it to the end.

Before we can understand the compound religion of China we must understand the Chinese character. The Chinese, like ourselves, are intensely practical, and therefore suspicious of all abstractions and abstract ways of thought. They are, like ourselves, extremely individual following the Buddha’s dying exhortation — “Work out your own salvation with diligence.” They are experts in relationship, content with their own station in life whatever it may be, and insistent on observing the right relationship with all above and below them. As such they are a religious-minded people, for religion is the adjustment of the particular to the universal, the living of the right relationship between man, nature and THAT. If, on the other hand, by religion be meant the worship in collective form of a personal God, then the Chinese are no more religious than the English, of whom, so the Bishop of Durham says, “only 5 per cent, have any connection with organized religion.”

The Chinese are artists all, lovers of the beautiful in all its forms, perhaps the only nation since the Greeks who have made of beauty a religion in itself. They are a friendly, simple people, ever in love with life. In the terms of modern psychology they have learnt in the passing of unnumbered centuries to “sit loose to life,” at terms with the unconscious. Hence, moving on the rhythm of life, as a people they know not death. Always they follow a Golden Mean, despising all extremes, with what may be described as a short swing of the pendulum between the “opposites.” As Confucians, their creed is “Do as you would be done by’; as Taoists, “Be humble and you remain entire”; as Buddhists they are followers of the Middle Way which leads to the heart’s enlightenment.

In England we are apt to date our history from the time of Christ. In China there was a well-developed monotheism and a high degree of art and culture by at least 2000 b. c. As the representative on earth of Tai, the Supreme Ruler, there was a Priest-King, who was the “Son of Heaven.” Below him came the feudal lords, and then the countless heads of families, who looked to their sons to afford them the same reverence and respect which they afforded to their fathers, their lords, their king and so the Heaven of which he was but regent upon earth. Thus there was a continuum of creation, reverenced as such, which, far from “ancestor worship” in the popular sense of the term, is another example of the Chinese love of right relationship.

By the 6th century b. c. the country was torn with civil war, and men were already dreaming of the “Golden Age” of the first Emperors when at least a man might sleep in his home without fear for the morrow. At such a crisis there appeared in China two of the greatest men the world has produced, Confucius and Lao-Tzu. At the same time there appeared in India Gotama the Buddha, whose teaching was to reach China in the first century a. d. and blend with the existing two religions as never before or since have three religions blended into one. Further West, Plato was teaching in Greece, and part of his philosophy concerned the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In China, Confucius taught the Good Life; Taoism and Buddhism told men of the True, but China needed no one to teach the religion of the Beautiful. The Chinese sense of values has always been in favor of the aesthetic rather than the utilitarian, stressing the value of creativeness over the thing created. In Confucianism, for example, the emphasis is on being and doing good; in Taoism on seeking and realizing Tao; in Buddhism on the actual treading of the Middle Way. Once more it is the right adjustment or the sense of right relationship which has religious value. The thing created or the act done is of comparative unimportance. The Chinese approach to life, in other words, is largely subjective; hence the saying, “Fulfilment is deception.” The Western approach is objective; hence the proverb, “the end justifies the means.” It follows that anything is important to the Chinese mind which is itself creative, its importance lying in its creativeness. Thus ceremonial is valued not for what it produces but what it is. Courtesy is itself an expression of the creativeness of the individual mind. Right conduct to one’s neighbor is an end in itself, and even drinking tea may become a ceremony expressing the same spirit of creation as in other lands may manifest in using a machine. In no way is this better shown than in the Chinese attitude to war. War is a struggle for results which, however obtained, justify the effort expended on obtaining them. But results, say the Chinese, are never worth fighting for. Why fight for land and booty? When won, they have no abiding value to the individual, and the very men you fight may be your allies in some political reshuffle in a few years” time!

Such were the main ingredients of the Chinese character even in the 6th century b. c. when, in a country torn with civil war, there appeared Confucius (Kung Fu-Tze), the greatest name in China. Yet the Master Kung was not a pioneer of thought, not, in the ordinary sense a religious man, and certainly not a World Teacher as were the Buddha and the Christ. He was, on the other hand, the first Chinese of whom we have knowledge to found a school of thought, and he certainly codified a great deal of the literature and traditions of the past into a noble system of social reform through the example of right living. Fearless in the pursuit of truth, utterly sincere with himself and all men, loyal to all, his teaching roused the best in the Chinese character. First, he said, reform yourself. “The Master said: The man of honour makes demands on himself; the man without a sense of honour makes demands on others.” For him the reform of the country — the “new order” as we should say, to follow the years of bitter fighting — depended on the reform by himself of the individual. To this end, he insisted, first gain knowledge as handed down by the great minds of the past, but regulate the use of this knowledge by the inner rule of li, good form, and common sense. Then, and the order must be noted, acquire some measure of self-control and self-discipline. Only then should the self-trained “gentleman” apply his mind and energies to the “social service” of his fellow men. In this way, all teaching and ultimately all government was a matter of “gentlemen,” in the sense of trained and disciplined individuals, setting an example to those they taught or governed, and thus in the end to all men.

Hence the great stress on ethics, the science of social relationships, and indeed the teaching of Confucius has been described as a code of ethics raised to the status of a religion. Loyalty to oneself and goodwill to one’s neighbours were the two basic principles of the teaching, sometimes summed up in the word “reciprocity,” though I prefer the far more graceful, “Do as you would be done by.”

Such a teaching had an instant appeal to the Chinese mind. Here were no metaphysics, no abstract, far ideals. Develop your own character, and practice right relations with your family, your neighbours and the state. Here was a tangible philosophy which summarised their own convictions. But is it a religion? If by religion be meant the worship of a God, the answer is “No.” But Confucius, like his greater contemporary, the Buddha, was silent on ultimates. He built a framework of right living, and it is not his fault that the Chinese later made this framework into a cage. The Master emphasised the Golden Mean in all behaviour, the practice of a right adjustment, hence harmonious relationship to the father of one’s family, one’s overlord, one’s Emperor and so to Heaven. This is a way in the world and not a way of escape from the world. As the Master said: “The way is not far removed from men. If a man pursues a way which removes him from men, he cannot be in the Way.”

The Way is a way of commonsense, of compromise when necessary. Hence the delicious doctrine of “saving face” by which all parties may withdraw from an embarrassing situation without loss of dignity. All things are regarded as of equal value in the sense that to the superior man what matters is the handling of and attitude to facts rather than the facts themselves. All ritual and courtesy, and the Master’s life was full of both, were methods of handling facts and circumstances, so that their significance and not their nature might be emphasised. Facts and circumstances are of little value; what matters is their significance. Hence the delighted observation of a Chinese gentleman to Mrs. Adams Beck, the well-known author of The Story of Oriental Philosophy. “In the West you think it important to reach a place in sixty minutes rather than in sixty hours. In China we consider that what matters is what you do when you get there.”

Mencius, the most famous follower of Confucius, had less, perhaps, of his nobility and his profound humility, but he had more “human-heartedness,” more love of the common people, and he certainly developed the doctrine of right for right’s sake, without thought of a reward, here or hereafter. But even a developed and expanded Confucianism could only satisfy half the Chinese mind, and it is one of the remarkable coincidences, if there be such a thing, of the history of religion that there should have appeared in China, contemporary with Confucius, another Sage whose teaching was an exact antithesis.

Lao-Tze was also a transmitter, but whereas Confucius had concentrated on the Tao of man, his older contemporary was primarily concerned with the Tao of Heaven. As we shall see, it was left for Buddhism to provide the necessary link between the two.

Compared with the teaching of the Master Kung, the song of Lao-Tze was as a bird singing in the misty first half-light of dawn compared with the tramp of weary feet upon a long high road. Taoism, the philosophy-religion compiled from the teaching of Lao-Tze, rests on three fundamental principles or concepts, Tao, Teh and Wu-wei, all of which are untranslatable. Of Tao, the Taoist conception of the Absolute, nothing can be truly said. For “the Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.” Yet only in India did the intellect climb higher in its flight to the Absolute, and only in Zen Buddhism has the mind of man discovered and blazed a Way which goes “beyond the intellect” to the final Namelessness.

“As a fish wants water, man wants Tao.” Yet Tao is not God, not a spiritual essence, not anything which words or even thought can in any way describe. Tao is not this or that, or this and that; it IS. Seek and you will not find it, for it is the boots on the feet of the seeker, the eyes with which he seeks. As is written in the classic of Taoism, the Tao-Teh King, “There is a thing inherent and natural which existed before heaven and earth. Motionless and fathomless it stands alone, and never changes. It pervades everywhere and never becomes exhausted. It may be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. I do not know its name. If I am forced to give it a name I call it Tao. . . . When one looks at it one cannot see it; when one listens to it one cannot hear it. But when one uses it, it is inexhaustible.”

The second Taoist term which must be understood is Teh, as untranslatable as Tao. It is not “virtue,” but a way of life lived in the rhythm of Tao, Tao in action, as it were. It calls for a genuine humility of mind — “be humble, and you will remain entire’; for a mental and if possible a physical simplicity of life, for riches, power and position can never add to Tao; for a corresponding poverty of desire, for a man’s true wealth is measured by the absence of his personal desire. The genuine Taoist has no personal ambition, and, “because the Sage does not compete no one competes with him”! These qualities lead to a still keener love of life, a love of beauty — “the face of Tao,” and a love of nature — “the manifestation of Tao,” which is almost unique in the field of religion. To the Taoist Chinese, nature is a fellow pilgrim on the Way. As the famous Chinese poet, Li-Po, exclaimed, “We never grow weary of each other, the mountain and I.” And the pilgrimage of life, of every form of life, is a way of return — for “Returning is the motion of Tao,” returning home.

Wu-wei, which may be described as the technique of Tao, can no more bear translation than Tao or Teh. It is not a quietism, nor the doctrine of laissez faire; still less is it doing nothing. It is a fluid attitude of mind incapable of snaring in a net of words. It has been said, “Man stands in his own shadow and complains of the lack of light.” If that means nothing to you, let me put it another way. Get rid of the self and the Tao can enter in. Men build windows in a wall, but it is the hole in the wall which is of value; they make bowls and pots, but the value of the pot is the space in the middle. Hence the doctrine of the “Void,” which applies these analogies to the mind of man. When the mind is a vacuum of self, the Tao flows in; when filled with his own importance man is empty indeed. “The soft and the weak overcome the hard and the strong,” a spiritual principle which is the basis of the science of Judo, or Ju-jitsu. Just as in this form of wrestling the winner uses his opponent’s force to defeat him, so the same science of winning by giving way may be applied to the mind. The Taoist never gets in another’s way, nor even in his own. When the force of circumstance, or time, or another’s enmity assails him, he is just not there! For “Tao is ever inactive, and yet there is nothing that it cannot do.” In this subtle use of force to its undoing there is an element of using time, of timing every act with a sixth sense of its own. From this point of view it is “the doctrine of the right opportunity, of acting on the inevitable hour.” It is in one way the “action in inaction” of the Bhagavad Gita, or more accurately action by inaction, a motion of will applied to circumstance in which the act is as nearly possible motiveless. Where there is no self in the act there is no recoil, that is to say, no need for Karma, the law of moral cause and effect, to produce a reaction on the doer as an effect of the deed he does. Hence the saying, “the perfect act has no result.” In brief, nature abhors a vacuum, and where the self is emptied out, the Tao flows in. “To him that hath not shall be given. . . . Die, if you would live!”

Lao-Tze’s most famous follower was the philosopher-wit, Chu-ang-Tze, whose elaborations and commentaries on the Tao Teh King have made him virtually the founder of Taoism as a religion-philosophy. Much of his brilliant writing is spent in satires on the teachings of Confucius from his own Master’s point of view, and he was quite determined to avoid the cage of convention in which he regarded all Confucians as having locked themselves. When a deputation arrived to invite him to be Prime Minister of the state of Chu, he is said to have asked, “I hear that in your Prince’s private shrine there is a sacred tortoise which has been dead three thousand years. Do you suppose that it prefers to be venerated in death, or would it rather be wagging its tail in the mud alive?” “Surely the latter,” was the polite reply. “Then away with you,” said Chuang-Tze, “and leave me to wag mine!”

This great philosopher and writer expanded the teachings of his Master, and illustrated them with a wealth of delightful stories and analogies, many of which hinted at the One beyond the “opposites.” To him the “opposites,” the countless antitheses of life, were only relatively real, and equally unreal. Why, then, fight about them? One of his most famous stories was of a keeper of monkeys who was wont to feed them four nuts in the morning and three at night. At this they violently objected. Wherefore he changed the order and gave them three in the morning and four at night. With this the monkeys were well content!

Chuang-Tze attacked Confucius” axiom of charity and duty to one’s neighbour. Charity, he pointed out, begins when Tao is lost, and deliberately to cultivate a virtue is to arouse its opposite. Where there is love there must in a relative world be hate. Why, then, choose one of the pairs of opposites? Moving in the rhythm of Tao, learn to be right and you will unfailingly do right. Don’t strive to be good. Let Tao, which orders all things, occupy your heart and you will be good naturally. In other words, cease interfering with the rhythm of nature by the efforts of your personal self, and Tao will take command.

From this it will be seen that though not always complimentary to each other, Confucianism and Taoism were remarkably complementary. Obvious comparisons of Stoic and Epicurean, Puritan and Cavalier, Classic and Romantic spring to the mind, and though analogies are never safe to press too far, the complementary nature of these pairs of opposites applies. Confucius cultivated, note that word, respectability and propriety. Lao-Tze was spontaneous and irrational. The former’s ideals were precise and attainable; the latter’s vague and all but unattainable. Mr. Lin Yutang has compared the relative points of view in terms of modern life. “A modern Confucian would take the city-licensed, pasteurized grade-A milk: a Taoist would take fresh milk from the milkman’s pail. For while your health officers can protect your milk from typhoid germs they cannot protect it from the rats of civilization!”

Of course, the two had much in common. Both sought Tao, but whereas the Master Kung was mainly concerned with the Tao of man, Lao-Tze followed the Tao of Heaven. Both sought Tao by adjustment through behaviour, but the former looked to the right behaviour of man to man and the latter of man to nature and to Heaven. Yet here again is another of the pairs of opposites, and the Chinese genius has learnt to unite them in a higher third. Surely Tao is for the inner, and the ethics of Confucius for the outer man?

For a thousand years these two great Teachers were reverenced, and their teachings studied and applied through the length and breadth of China, until, in the first century a. d. there arrived as a potential rival the teaching of Gotama, the Buddha. At first the Chinese were suspicious of such metaphysical doctrines, and still more of an Order which, with its rule of celibacy, struck at the root of their family life. But Confucian scholars soon learnt to appreciate the scholarship of the Indian visitors, and used their methods to improve their own presentation of Confucian ideals. Taoists seem to have welcomed the new teaching as an improvement on their own philosophy, and to a large extent were later absorbed by Buddhism.

The relationship of Buddhism to the two indigenous teachings seems to lie in the fact that Buddhism provided three factors needed by but largely absent from the other two. In the first place it provided a link between the moral code of Confucius and the spiritual heights of Taoism, a ladder as it were from earth to Heaven, at once a sanction for the Confucian self-discipline and an application of Taoist ideals. In other words it served as a Middle Way between the two existing philosophies of life. Secondly, by introducing the twin doctrine of Karma and Rebirth, the individual was seen as a pilgrim coming from a distant past and moving by his own initiative towards a distant but definite goal. Hence a practical guide to the Way, with knowledge of its nature, purpose, and its goal. Thirdly, and perhaps arising from the other two, there was more light thrown on the nature of life after death, the interim period between two lives, and of the nature of the enlightenment, the fruit of self-reliance and self-discipline, which awaits each pilgrim at the journey’s end.

The Buddhist viewpoint stimulated Chinese art to new activity, and it is agreed that Buddhism has been the greatest single factor in producing the incomparable art of China and Japan. The Buddhist teaching “Look within — thou art Buddha!” applied to all living things, implies that man and nature and Heaven are in essence One, and this sense of mystical unity affected not only art. It served to improve the position in society of Chinese women, assuaged to some extent the element of cruelty which is a defect in the Chinese character and, with its element of devotion, produced for the first time what might be called a religion in the ordinary sense of the term.

The Chinese appreciated Buddhist tolerance of conflicting points of view. For if all phenomena are viewed as illusion, of only comparative reality, it is clearly foolish to fight about opinions, or even to argue that any point of view is absolutely right or wrong. Hence the thousand “devices” used by the different sects of Buddhism to arouse in the individual his dormant enlightenment. All symbols, argues the Buddhist, ever inclined to be over-tolerant, and all Ways to enlightenment are admissible if they are of help to someone. For knowledge on earth is at the best comparative, and only in true enlightenment can any man be said to know the Truth, as distinct from knowing “about it and about.”

This attitude of mind alone explains the enormous range of Mahayana Buddhism, the “greater vehicle” of salvation, as distinct from Hinayana, the teaching of the Buddha as handed down in the Southern School. It is certainly difficult to understand how doctrines as different as those of the Pure Land sects on the one hand, and of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism on the other can spring from a common stem. Yet the Mahayana is like a wheel. From a central hub have radiated spokes in all directions, each developing some aspect of the Message of the All-Enlightened One. It follows that spokes of development that have moved in opposite directions have little in common by the time they have reached the vast circumference, but of all the schools of Buddhism there is none greater than the Dhyana in China known as Ch’an, and in Japan by the term best known to the Western world, Zen. The Ch’an, or “Sudden” school of Buddhism in China was founded by Bodhidharma, who came to China from India in 520 a. d. The legend runs that the secret of Zen was taught by the Buddha to his nearest disciples, and handed on by them from Patriarch to Patriarch until Bodhidharma brought it to China, and thus became the first Chinese Patriarch. However that may be, it soon became the leading Buddhist School, and uses what is at once the most earthly or human and the most exalted or god-like method of attaining enlightenment. Its approach is violent, strenuous and unique. First train the intellect to carry consciousness as high as the intellect can go. Then, having reached the limit of the thinking mind, standing upon the utmost pinnacle of human thought, leap into the unknown, thrusting away irrevocably the ladder of thought by which you climbed. Till now the mind has learnt increasingly “about it and about.” Now for the first time it must have the courage to KNOW.

How? There are no words in answer. “Lead the life if ye would know the doctrine.” Even “Buddhas do but point the Way.” C. G. Jung, the leader of Western psychologists, has written of religion as a protection from religious experience, as a sometimes necessary screen between the aspiring mind and the direct knowledge of truth which it is not yet strong enough to stand. He who would know, who must know even if he forfeit life for it, must develop the strength to face the naked truth without the robes of ritual and symbol that hide the flame from his enquiring eyes. Destroy all symbols, cry the Masters of Zen, smash the screen which hides the flame! Yet waste no time in seeking the flame. “The Light is within thee,” said the Egyptian Hierophants, “Let the Light shine!” Don’t study music — sing! Don’t study ways of living — LIVE! A Zen Master said to a pupil, “You say “I live.” I say “I live,” but when you say “I live” there is still a distinction between the “I” and the “live.” I live!” Don’t stop to argue, still less to understand. Don’t stop for anything. Walk on!

So fettered are we in the West with the clumsy process of conceptual thought that we laugh at the strange, exotic methods of the Zen Masters. Yet they have one aim in view, to break into the cage of the disciple’s mind and free the joy of life, the love and the light of enlightenment which dwell within. Anything is used which tends to that utterly desirable and yet elusive end. One means is the koan, the word or phrase whose meaning can never be found by the intellect yet which, as a pebble in the mouth, is carried about in the mind by day and night until, in a deathless moment, a flash of enlightenment comes, and the first step on the final path is attained. Sometimes the mundo, a form of question and answer, nonsense to the uninitiated listener, is used by the Master. And nonsense it is, non-sense because beyond the feeble substitute for knowledge we here call sense. Sometimes a physical blow will shatter the mental barrier, sometimes a shout, or a joke — or silence! For words, which can never describe Tao, can never speak of true enlightenment. Most of what can be said has been said by Dr. Suzuki in his various volumes on Zen, but all of this is only a “finger pointing the Way.” The rest is silence, for it has been said, and truly said, that “Zen has nothing to say!”

So much for a lightning survey of a vast subject, the religion of China, one of the greatest nations on this earth to-day. From one point of view it is complete in itself; from another, it is the religion of the East as distinct from that of the West. But East and West are only another of the pairs of opposites. The antithesis is partly that between depth and breadth, a striving to allign oneself with the powers of nature and heaven, or the will to dominate the powers and forms of nature till they bow to the human will. But these are complementary ways of the Way, the narrow Way that leads in the end to the heart’s enlightenment. And even as none can truly find enlightenment for himself “until the last blade of grass has entered into Buddhahood,” so there is no nation that is complete unto itself. In brief, “only the world entire can save the world entire.”

Christmas Humphreys, The Theosophical Forum, February 1944. Reprinted from The Middle Way, July-August, 1943.

The Meaning of Tao


Biography of Lao Tzu

Recommended Reading

The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993

Lao Tzu and Taoism, Max Kaltenmark, translated by Roger Greaves, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969)

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