Philosophy of Taoism or Daoism
The Philosophy of Taoism ( Daoism ), from a Western Perspective
(An extract From Tai Chi Chuan and the Code of Life by Graham Horwood)
Chinese Thought and History
Tao or DAO means “path” or “way” in Chinese. The characters for the term depict the symbols for a head and for walking—signifying a conscious journey. The original adherents of this philosophy were therefore known as the Tao Chia, “Followers of the Way.” For the most part they were shamans and hermits living in remote, mountainous areas in and around the central lands of ancient China, which was at this time an unstable alliance of separate states headed by individual rulers. Taoism evolved from a faction of these hermits known as the “Naturalists,” who perceived Nature as bound by laws of opposites. This view of the natural order led to the yin-yang theories and their offshoots, arising around 3000 bc. One of these offshoots of early Taoism was the system of trigrams at the heart of the I Ching, which was itself conceived by Fu Hsi a century later.
Fu Hsi’s trigrams were originally only pictograms. The twelfth-century bc King Wen (progenitor of the Chou Dynasty, 1150–249 bc) added the judgments while he was imprisoned by a rival ruler. Wen’s son, the Duke of Chou, authored the text on the individual lines. This evolution continued with Confucius, who added commentaries on sections of the oracle: the Image, the Decision, and the Analects.
According to legend, Confucius was privileged to discuss the Tao with one of the most important patriarchs of Taoism, Lao Tzu. At the time (seventh century bc), Lao Tzu was the curator of the Chou Dynasty archives. The only testament to Lao Tzu’s enigmatic existence is his profound “five thousand word text,” better known as the Tao Te Ching. This work stands alongside the I Ching and Confucius’ writings as some of the most significant examples of early Chinese philosophy.
As already mentioned, Taoist doctrine evolved by observing the play of opposites in Nature, source not only of the yin-yang theory but also of such concepts as the existence of Tao as a macrocosm of its microcosmic counterpart, the human being. The law of opposing yet complementary forces evolved into medicine, social mores, strategies for war, farming, science, and so forth.
The early Chinese philosophers also considered that the most appropriate way to deal with situations was through the practice of Wu Wei, “non-action,” a paradoxical method where events are allowed to unfold according to their own natural harmony. This is not indolence, but a practice which allows the unconscious forces of Nature to have their say. It is the “look-before-you-leap” condition, which permits the ego time to assess all the relevant factors prior to action. Thus, Wu Wei is a method of ensuring a balanced outcome to any situation.
Following the development of Taoism and yin-yang theory, religious beliefs in China remained virtually unchanged for two millennia, albeit interpreted to suit the bias of the various dynasties. These included the indigenous Chinese rulers of the despotic Ming period (1368–1644) and the later emperors from Manchuria and Mongolia. All of those who ruled China in this period adhered to varying concepts of Taoism or Buddhism, whichever seemed appropriate at the time for personal or political reasons. Some scholars have made the argument that Buddhism is a derivative of classical Taoism, a theory borne out by the early Chinese tendency to see little difference between the two religions.
There is an obvious similarity in the goals of the religions: for instance, achieving the Tao for a Taoist was the same as achieving Nirvana for the Buddhists. Over the centuries these two systems of worship remained interlinked, in large part due to their shared goals and philosophical view of the workings of the universe. One well known combination is Chan or Zen Buddhism, a religion and philosophy that contains all the paradoxes of Taoism intermingled with the teachings of the Buddha.
Formal Taoism, as it developed in later times, was an age away from the simple yet deeply enlightening thoughts and writings of Lao Tzu and his most famous devotee, Chang Tzu (fourth century bc). The more modern, ritualistic form of Taoism appeared in Jianxi Province near Shanghai, on Mao Shan Mountain. This enclave, established on the 400-meter high peak, came to be considered one of the main centers of Taoism. However, with time the school’s teachings became burdened with unnecessary icons and doctrine, going ultimately against the writings of early Taoism. Lao Tzu was even deified by these latter-day Taoists of Mao Shan, possibly moved to this extreme by their increasing sense of self-importance.
Ironically, this core principle of yin and yang led to the decline of Taoism. The cosmic law of opposites—such as day turning into night—inevitably caused the initially simple but deep essence of Taoist thought to evolve into complicated and shallow rituals.
This deviation also gave rise to plenty of Taoist charlatans who attempted, fruitlessly, to turn cinnabar (the chief ore of mercury) into gold, not realizing that the goal of true alchemy was to convert the essence of matter into spirit. This transformation can be more readily understood when we recognize cinnabar and gold as metaphors for the human and spiritual elements within the alchemical process. The psychic center (point CV6 in acupuncture and acupressure—just below the navel on the conception vessel) is called the Tan Tien, which means “field of cinnabar.” As mentioned in the Introduction, the Tan Tien is the storage area of chi, where it is converted into spirit by the proper application of Taoist alchemy.
Notwithstanding the work of disreputable practitioners, an esoteric Taoism flourished, discretely, in more remote areas of China. There, the traditions remained distinct from ritual Taoism, which became established in provinces such as Fukien (Fujian) on the south east coast, later spreading across the sea to Taiwan.
After 300 years of relative peace during the native rule of the Ming dynasty, China was overrun by the Manchus from the north, creating the Ching Dynasty (1644-1912), which staggered through three centuries of cultural decadence. The Ching finally lost its grip on the country around the time of the final Boxer Rebellion in the first decade of the twentieth century. The unfortunate final monarch of the Manchus—later known by his western name, “Henry” Puyi—reigned, as an infant, for only three years before he was deposed in 1909. This was the “Last Emperor” of the ancient Chinese dynastic order.
During the dramatic changes China saw in the twentieth century—from an imperial rule to Maoist communism—various factions fought for domination over this vast country. Along with many free thinkers and intellectuals, many religions were repressed, thanks to their real or imagined threat to the imposed status quo. This institutional paranoia (always the hallmark of totalitarian regimes) drove many philosophers, free thinkers, and scientists underground in the period leading up to the middle of the twentieth century.
Before the Manchus, the provinces of China had enjoyed varying degrees of religious and political freedom, as well as openness toward artistic expression. This situation held through the centuries, allowing Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, some Christianity, and even pockets of Chinese Judaism, to coexist and cross-fertilize. By the seventeenth century, the last emperors of the Ching Dynasty were struggling to maintain control, so they adopted a draconian form of Confucianism, with enforced mores of austere parental and social obedience. This austerity was also adopted, albeit in new clothes, under Mao’s banner of Chinese communism in 1949.
Over the centuries, Taoist reasoning was informed by its intensive, prolonged study of Nature and its forces, giving rise to the simple yet dynamic principles that can apply to any situation or culture, whether human or inanimate.
The archetypal law of yin-yang is still valid today. This universal principle was conceived from the Taoist precept that existence and matter was formed from
• Chaos, Hun Dun, a state of undifferentiated opposites, which existed in a “pre-Heaven” state.
Chaos manifested through the many planes of existence until it became
• Nothingness, Wu Chi, a state “contained within something”.
This “nothingness” evolved into the opposite forces of yin and yang, as symbolized by
• the Grand Terminus, Tai Chi Tu (Fig.4.).
When the energy was activated and separated at this point, it became the manifestation of reality as we know it. At this level, movement separates the forces of yin and yang energy, whereas stillness brings them together. This movement creates the expansive phase of creation manifested through the Wu Hsing (the five stages of change), and the Pa Qua (the eight forms of yin and yang).
Finally, this matrix evolves into the metaphoric “Ten Thousand Things” of creation.
The thirteen precepts contained in Wu Hsing and Pa Qua became the basis for Taoist alchemy, whose schools include Chi Kung and Tai Chi Chuan. Chi Kung teaches “movement in stillness,” whereas Tai Chi teaches “stillness in movement”; each reflects the simultaneous separation and merging of yin and yang energy, in the form of chi. These systems incorporate internal breathing techniques to effect their results, and, when fully understood and integrated into a person’s regimen, lead in the same direction as the arcane process of transmuting the essence of matter into spirit. It was this process that was said to produce the Taoist elixir of immortality. In this way, the process culminated in the adept’s return to the state of “something” in juxtaposition to the “Great Nothing,” thus achieving the essential Tao. (Fig.4). The “original” Yang Style Tai Chi form is modeled on this process.
Does this process have a parallel in western science? In fact, it does: since all matter is a relative “weaving” of the electromagnetic field (i.e., yin-yang and chi), it can be observed that the various pitches and densities of energy create the material world. This view is an accepted part of the “western” quantum field theory, which recognizes the same phenomenon in natural forces, albeit from a different perspective. The chaos that predetermines all existence is equivalent to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious. This is how the properly trained mind can interfere with matter . . . although this has led to some trivial side shows, such as spoon bending, as well as dangerous consequences, such as unintentionally disturbing one’s balance of health. More devastatingly, careless playing with such powers has manifested as collective epidemics, such as war and so-called natural disasters. (Remember the story of the rainmaker found in the Introduction.)
Alchemy and Opposition
There was plenty of hocus pocus surrounding Taoism in its early days. The gold seekers gave rise inevitably to an unscrupulous breed of pseudo-Taoists who were encouraged by materialistic patrons. These opportunists did not realize that the treasure to be sought was not the yellow metal, but the well-being of all. Blind to such noble pursuits, they toiled in search of the “aurum non vulgi”—“uncommon gold”—that so captivated their alchemical counterparts in the West; both groups suffered the same fate, misleading the greedy with their mystical “get-rich-quick” schemes.
Just as China had sacred texts and teachings open to all sorts of misinterpretation through the ages, similar superstitions developed around the Christian Bible; most western social mores and laws are derived from this source, often taking its arcane language too literally or misreading key passages. But when interpreted symbolically, a deeper significance becomes evident within the biblical texts.
The division of “light” and “darkness,” along with the differentiation between all parts of the universe, appear as the first event in both Taoism and in the Judeo-Christian traditions found in the Bible. For example, in Genesis, the first five verses inform us that
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moved upon the face of the waters. And God said let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”
Compare this description with that of the Taoists given above: a chaos of matter leads to division into opposites, after which all subsequent creation can be enacted.
If we look more carefully at the underlying message of the Bible, it is asserting a similar teaching to the Taoist concept of creation. The word genesis means “beginning” or “birth,” a concept evident in both traditions, as it posits a source from which to be born. The creative principle is seen to produce something from nothing, whether it is called the void from which is created heaven and earth, or “the nothing with something around it,” the Wu Chi. The lightness and the darkness, day and night, mirror yin and yang. The following seven days of the Biblical creation myth parallel the Taoist image of yin and yang becoming the Ten Thousand Things. In the original Hebrew texts of the Torah—the so-called “Five Books of Moses”—the archetypal symbolism is so profound that a numerically based science was derived from it to express the meanings contained within the books; known as gematria, this is the foundation of modern numerology.
Generally speaking, then, if we take a fresh look at the religious traditions that have adopted the principle of opposites into their teaching, it becomes easier to see the archetypal basis of all such seemingly diverse cultures. With the understanding that the ultimate source is the collective unconscious, we can recognize that each civilization has interpreted the law of harmonious opposition in its own language and cultural context. This Jungian approach to the texts and traditions demonstrates that all creation myths and/or scientific traditions are kindred on a very deep level.
Carl Jung established his empirical science of the collective unconscious on his own, before his disagreement and break with Sigmund Freud in 1912. The straw that broke the camel’s back, in this case, was Freud’s insistence on his dogmatic interpretation of the subconscious and dreams. Freud was convinced that dreams were solely the repressed contents of the mind, in the form of all manner of sexual taboos, and that they were triggered by trauma related to those taboos. For Jung, this principle was too rigid. He was aware that dreams, visions and hunches were also autonomous, being the source and inspiration for consciousness. Jung called Freud’s subconscious the “personal unconscious,” presenting the deeper, objective stronghold of the archetypes as the collective unconscious.
The Tai Chi Tu, meaning “ancient icon” or “painting,” is also referred to in Chinese as the “double fish diagram,” resembling two fishes swimming around head to tail (ˆ). This symbolism resembles that of western astrology, and is especially relevant in the Christian tradition of an Age of Pisces, “the Aion of the Fishes.” The preceding 2,000 years were the “Aion of the Ram or Lamb.” Hence, Christ is often represented as the sacrificial Lamb of God; also the shepherd of men, perhaps leading mankind out of the old epoch and into the new. In some Christian mystical traditions, Jesus was also the Fisher King, who appears in the Medieval legends of the Grail.
The first thousand years of the Aion of Pisces correlates with the yang, “Christ” era, which is followed by the yin epoch of the “Anti-Christ.” The doomsday scenarios predicted by the likes of St. John, in the book of Revelation, and the sixteenth-century prophet Nostradamus are based on the assumption that there will be a conjunction of opposites occurring on or about the end of the millennium. This goes a long way to explain the recent predictions of “Armageddon,” echoed by many other cultures throughout the world, as the two fishes meet to round off the Piscean Age.
In his own prediction concerning the future conjunction, Jung optimistically stated that the fishes would not crash together, but would just miss each other. At the same time, there would be destructive effects—evident today in the form of regional wars, chemical pollution, climate change etc.—heralding a more noble age.
The Number and Name of Creation
The yin-yang theory becomes apparent with the rise of quantum physics, which adopted the same concept of matter (yang), emanating from anti-matter (yin). Astrophysics adopts this principle with “black holes” (yin) playing the role of the tomb and womb for universes of matter (yang); this includes the scientific “creation” theory of our own universe in the “Big Bang.” One of the founding fathers of quantum physics, Nils Bohr, even had the yin-yang symbol engraved into his coat of arms, still visible today in his house, which is now a museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.
These universal archetypes were manifested by the Chinese psyche in the form of the I Ching, the source of Taoist alchemy and Tai Chi Chuan. But it is not a coincidence that there are thirteen postures in Tai Chi Chuan, just as thirteen is an archetypal number found elsewhere in world mysticism.
The “unlucky” number 13 derives its negative associations in the West from Christianity: the twelve guests at the Last Supper represent the twelve months of the year or twelve signs of the Zodiac. The thirteenth member of the supper, Christ, represents the redemption of the other twelve by personal sacrifice, thereupon giving rise to rebirth. The superstitions surrounding the number thirteen are actually grounded in the fear of the sacrifice of intellect, incorporated in the painful—though necessary—journey of self-knowledge. This is why Christmas is celebrated in the twelfth month of the year, at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.
Numbers have played a role in nearly all the world’s advanced societies, and are almost always linked to the conception of “divine order.” In the ancient Hebrew tradition of gematria we find an alchemical method for adding numbers. Based ultimately on the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, gematria presents a method for interpreting Hebrew scriptures in order to unlock their hidden meaning. At the core of this practice lie the numeric equivalents of the Hebrew name for God, transliterated as Yod He Vau He or Jehovah, also known as the “tetragrammaton” (Greek for “the four letters”). Gematria matches letters with specific numbers, which in turn are given specific meanings based on their association with other words possessing the same number. Applying this interpretation to the tetragrammaton, we find that it can be expressed as the number 8, representing a “double quarternity.” Jehovah, then, can be shown to mean “as above so below,” indicating that matter is a mirror image of the Creator.
Back to the number thirteen: when the numerals in thirteen (1+3) are added together, it yields four. This is the end number of the sequence of 1-2-3-4, which when added together (1+2+3+4) equals ten. The number ten exemplifies completion, composed of the number 1—representing matter (yang)—and 0—creative force (yin).
The German mathematician and philosopher, Gotfried Wilhelm Leibniz, identified this numeric correlation in the West as early as the seventeenth century. The accepted father of binary arithmetic, Leibniz can also be called the progenitor of modern computing, since his system, using the concept of association between zero and one as the basis for calculus, was put to use in the development of computer languages and processes. The zero and one represent the positive and negative polarities—a concept also found in the Taoist archetypal principles of yin and yang. This should not be surprising, when we learn some of the source materials the philosopher was using: around 1698, Leibniz communicated with a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Joachim Bouvet, who had spent many years in China. Among the subjects of their correspondence was the text of the I Ching. It was not long after that Leibniz laid down his binary theories of number.
At around the same time, Sir Isaac Newton claimed to have developed his differential calculus, his “method of fluxions” for finding rates of change of varying quantities. This caused a dispute between the two geniuses that would last for many years: who was the true inventor of calculus? An interesting conjecture that might help solve this puzzle is that both men had studied Kabbalah, whose mystical roots are found in a body of works going back to the second century ad. Taken as a whole, the books expounding on the Kabbalah are a sort of “Hebrew Book of Changes,” particularly where the tetragrammaton and “naming of God” come into play. Consultation of this mystical corpus of learning may have given both mathematicians access to the collective unconscious, which is fundamentally the source of all inspiration.
Katia Walter, a modern author on this subject, points out an interesting correspondence in her book, Tao of Chaos. Ms. Walter explains that there are fifty-five “dots” forming the legendary Ho Tu Map (Fig. 5), a source of the I Ching, paralleling the fifty-five atoms in the hydrogen bonded base pairs of DNA. Represented numerically, and interpreted in terms of gematria, this reads:
55 — 5 + 5 = 10
The true significance of this figure is grasped when we understand that the Ho Tu Map is the basis for the Wu Hsing, the principle employed in Feng Shui and Chinese geomancy, both of which are linked to the 13 “postures” of Tai Chi Chuan (these are examined in detail in Chapter 4).
All these interesting correspondences only reinforce Jung’s hypothesis that number regulates both psyche and matter. He also speculated that one day, his inner science would meet the outer science, since both examine the same thing from different perspectives. Unified field theory—the concept that the universe was once comprised of a single kind of matter/energy—brings Jung’s (and the Taoists’) philosophy full circle.
Unification has traditionally been associated, archetypically, with the number 4. This numeral exemplifies wholeness, as witnessed in the four elements of Greek philosophy, the circled cross, mandalas, the four base codons of DNA, the four possible combinations of the yin-yang lines, the four cardinal points of the compass, the four seasons, the four winds, the four horseman of the Apocalypse (who incidentally denote the shift to the Christian aion), the four archangels, and so on.
Independently, Jung developed a method of diagnosis based on the four functions, which he felt were needed for a person to orient themselves (a singular person cannot orient a plural) successfully within consciousness. He discovered this to be a useful method of describing the psychological “type” of an individual. For example, if a male has a dominant “thinking” function, then his opposite lowest or most unconscious function will be “feeling.” This lower and opposite function is personified by a man’s female soul, which Jung called the anima. Similarly if a woman has an upper thinking function, she will have a lower feeling function, which in her case will be connected to her masculine soul, called the animus.
The schema (in Fig. 6) belongs to a male “thinking” type, which is seconded by “intuition,” followed by its opposite “sensation” as his third, and “feeling” as the lowest. Jung went on to observe—not only in himself but also in his thousands of students and patients—that if the four functions were made fully conscious, the result was a more fully realized person. Then, a quintessential fifth element would arise in the form of a rebirth. This created an association with an inner truth, in a form Jung dubbed the Self, a Western version of the state of being one with the Tao.
Briefly, the four functions can be described as follows:
• sensation uses the senses to tell us that something exists
• thinking informs us about what we are sensing (wrong it informs us what a thing or object is “quote from Jung”))
• feeling advises us whether the thing is good or bad
• intuition speculates about the thing’s origin, as well as its past and future use to us
When intuition, the mystical function, is uppermost or integrated into consciousness, it becomes a method of perception within the unconscious, which takes the form of seeing or sensing the potential of the unconscious; this potential can include gazing into the future. This phenomenon, long employed by mystics and prophets, is much also valued in the international trading markets, where forecasters may earn seven-figure sums for their predictive abilities. Such “internal seeing” is possible because the unconscious exists in a time-space void, where past, present, and future are undifferentiated. “Intuition” of this kind can occur in all manner of folk, from time to time. When the four functions are made fully conscious and are used equally, a balanced, psychic mandala of wholeness is created.
Early, esoteric Taoism was uncluttered by icons, its students having adhered to the philosophy’s natural principles, including its numerical base. Taoism also gave birth to many sciences, producing the magnetic compass, porcelain, glass, the astrolabe, metal alloys, fireworks, rocketry, acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Feng Shui . . . and, if we hold that Newton and Leibniz were influenced by teachings imported from China, then we should include discoveries such as binary mathematics, quantum mechanics, computers, and so forth as equally beholden to the Taoist legacy.
Tending the Waters of the Unconscious
Despite humanity’s storehouse of historical experience and wisdom, it seems to be a failing of human nature to prioritize the quest for material gratification. The outside world alone draws people’s desires, when there is so much more that is overlooked within. This much neglected, inner medium has been a source of inspiration, conscious or not, for scientists, musicians, artists, and world leaders since human consciousness began. We have now left behind the Age of Pisces, and have entered the Age of Aquarius, as symbolized by a human being holding a vessel filled with water.
The very idea of “the Water Carrier,” who tends his jar and its contents carefully, hints at the containing and refinement of this age’s outpouring of knowledge from the unconscious, so that it isn’t spilled or used improperly. Water is often a metaphor for the unconscious in dreams, folklore, and religions; we see this association in such forms as holy water, mermaid lore, stories of drowning, the moon and the tides, and the practice of baptism, among many others. In light of this association, alchemical water—that is, the essence of the unconscious—has now to be contained within the vessel of the psyche. The process can be achieved through the increased awareness of the autonomous, unruly nature of the human psyche. In other words, mankind must give birth to and thereby contain the dark side of the creative force.
Both Chinese and Western alchemy have the goal of “squaring the circle,” which means to encompass the yin circle of the unconscious with the square yang of consciousness. In the words of the Sir George Ripley, a Medieval alchemist who was also the canon of Bridlington Abbey:
“when thou hast made the quadrangle round, then the secret is found.”
Tai Chi Books
The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan: Way to Rejuvenation, by Jou Tsung Hwa.
Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, edited by Douglas Wile.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen: Questions and Answers on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, by Chen Wei Ming.
The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, by Benjamin Pang Lo.
Complementary Health Books
Key to Health: With Cures from East to West by Graham Horwood
The I Ching, or, Book of Changes (Bollingen Series XIX) (Bollingen Series (General)), translated by Richard Wilhelm.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C.G. Jung.
The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life, translated by Richard Wilhelm.
Man and His Symbols, conceived and edited by C.G. Jung.
Lao Tse. Tao Te Ching, Penguin Classics
Read Blue Eye by Tracy Elner..
A book dedicated to Graham Horwood