The story of the Old One and the Gatekeeper told in Part One may be just that – a story. Or it may be the truth, turned into legend. Classical Chinese history places Lao Tzu as a 6th century BC contemporary of Confucius, and there are reliable records of their meetings. They were said to have great respect for each other’s work.
But, beyond his book, very little is known about the mysterious sage Lao Tzu, other than he was an imperial archivist in the outgoing Zhou dynasty in the 6th century BC.
In contrast, the story of Confucius is set (by himself) in a well-documented historical milieu. His heroes are the legendary figures of the past. In comparison with Lao Tzu who left no historical basis of his own existence, The Analects, compiled by Confucius’ disciples after his death, presents twenty volumes of work that weave their teacher’s life into China’s history.
Lao Tzu, the author of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) had no interest in such temporal things… he had other matters on his mind and in his heart. His quest was what we would now call a mystical one, and that is the reason I embarked on this difficult project – to put forward some hopefully helpful comparisons between the Book of the Way and modern mysticism. Lao Tzu is credited as being the father of Daoism, but scholars of philosophy find little similarity between his provocative and enigmatic writings and the animistic religion of present-day Daoism.
In terms of spirituality, Chinese antiquity focuses on the two great teachers Confucius and Lao Tzu. Our first posts will look at the work of the latter. Later, we will consider the part that the I Ching (Book of Changes) played and continues to play in the transmission of ancient oriental wisdom. Confucius did not create the I Ching, which was already an old and established system of divination when Lao Tzu wrote his book in the sixth century BC, but it was said he drew heavily on its for his own philosophy.
A detailed consideration of the life and work of Confucius is beyond the scope of this series of posts.
The two books: the Book of the Way and the older Book of Changes were not related and were different in their intentions. Confucius did not write the Book of Changes – I Ching – but it is considered to be far more Confucian than the Book of the Way written by Lao Tzu. There is a tendency in the west to consider the two traditions as related or even the same. But they are different.
However, the mixture of wisdom from the two sources informed Chinese thought and life for hundreds of years to such an extent that later extrapolations of meaning carry the flavour of both. The spirit of Confucianism was focussed on effective and moral behaviour, and good government. The spirit of Lao Tzu’s teachings was to step aside from traditional explanations of the world and look at it in an entirely different and radical way.
Lao Tzu was a spiritual revolutionary – though he sought no notoriety – and, in my opinion, was more similar to the much later mystical Sufis than any of his contemporaries. Tradition says he left China heading west, and is believed to have settled in India. There is no suggestion that he was instrumental in the establishment of Buddhism, which sprang from that region at the same time, but there are certain similarities of approach in how the two systems see our relationship with the world.
Nothing in Lao Tzu’s work suggests that he wanted himself to be remembered, but everything in his work is aimed at the retention of the thoughts, ideas and practices put forward in the 81 aphorisms of the Book of the Way – a set of wisdom texts that were to be consulted as such, and not used as the basis for divination in the way the I Ching was.
Richard Wilhelm, one of the most famous translators and interpreters of China’s ancient traditions, divides Lao Tzu’s translated work into three sections based on the the sage’s naming of the book, itself.
Dao De Jing translates, literally as Way-Life-Meaning
The three divisions are: The Way and The Life and then their combination, the Meaning. As a prelude we might consider two of the core considerations of the work: the nature of our relationship with the world; and, by inference, the nature of duality.
Lao Tzu’s work begins by instructing us in the nature of consciousness and the nature of its inherent duality. These are necessarily subjective, as we each gain insight from the aphorisms appropriate to our understanding at the time:
The universe is undivided.
Only our way of perceiving it is divided.
Such division is necessary for us to come into the world and see it because we are of the world.
We are the world seeing itself and are capable of gradually realising our true relationship with it.
The societies into which we are born may resist our attempts to do this; and insist that we adopt the ruling dogma. This can be the hardest of tasks.
The diagram – my own – illustrates these points in terms of the establishment of duality. The universe – the whole – establishes ‘existence’: a field within which there will first be chaos. There is a purpose in the manifestation of the universe and this is served by the establishment of order over chaos. Mankind’s intelligence is expected to play its part in this task. S/he has been given a brain in order to use it in service to the universal cause, this is the primary belonging that should be borne in mind.
Mankind has been given a heart so that sympathy will be felt and become a motivator to assist others
We belong to this quest, not to our self-aggrandisment.
The One therefore divides itself, as seen from below. To itself it is whole and undivided; but chaos must now be mastered with order, with symbolic ‘light’.
The children of the One exist at their own levels, but they are also of the One and seen from above are undivided; that is, they carry the seed of greatness within them, a seed designed to germinate in the spirit of service to the group quest.
A ‘child’ looking back up at the universe sees only duality: it and the world. To see beyond this requires the intervention of the spark of the One within the child. There are certain conditions under which this will be favourable.
To be continued…
6 May 2020
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.