Advertise with ATimes!

Search Asia Times

Advanced Search


Part 4: Taoism and modernity
By Henry C K Liu

  • Part 1: The race toward barbarism 
  • Part 2: That old time religion  
  • Part 3: Rule of law vs Confucianism  

    To Taoists, modernity is a meaningless concept because truth is timeless and life goes in circles. In post-modern thinking in the West, much of the awareness that Taoists have entertained for centuries is just now surfacing. Even in military strategy, Sun Tzu's On the Art of War (Sunzi Bingfa), an ancient Taoist military treatise (500 BC), is now much in vogue in this modern age of weapons of mass destruction and remote-controlled precision bombs.

    Historians are uncertain of the historical facts regarding Laozi, founder of Taoism. The name itself casts doubt on Laozi's identity. Ad verbum, it simply means "old sage". Colloquially, the term laozi in modern Chinese has come to mean an arrogant version of "yours truly". The earliest documented information on Laozi appears in the classic Records of the Historian (Shi Ji), written by historian Sima Qian in 108 BC during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). It describes Laozi as a person named Li Er (born around 604 BC) who worked as a librarian in the court of the State of Eastern Zhou (Dong Zhou) during the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu, 770-481 BC).

    Laozi was reported to have met only once the young Confucius (Kongfuzi, 551-479 BC), who was 53 years his junior. If intellectual exchanges took place at that celebrated meeting, Confucius had to be at least in his late 20s, thus placing Laozi in his 80s when the two sages purportedly met. Confucius did not become widely known until 500 BC at the age of 51, which would put Laozi's age at 104 if they met as two intellectual celebrities. No wonder the pundit was called "old sage".

    Laozi is generally accepted as author of the Classic of the Virtuous Path (Daode Jing), although evidence has been uncovered to suggest that it was actually written by others long after his time, albeit based on ideas ascribed to him. The Book of Virtuous Path is written in a style that is both cryptic and enigmatic. The true meanings of its messages are difficult to elucidate definitively. Its main attraction lies in the requirement of active reader participation for receiving the full benefit of its mystic insights. Each reading solicits new levels of insights from the reader depending on his or her experience, mood, mental alertness and preoccupation. It asks questions rather than provides answers. It is a book of revelation with an effect similar to what the Bible has on devoted Christians.

    Zhuangzhou, a Zhou Dynasty skeptic and mystic who lived in 4th century BC, in his classic Zhuangzi expounded on many of Laozi's doctrines with original insight, ingenious construct, incisive witticism and delightful charm. Drawing on Taoist concepts, Zhuangzhou opposed and ridiculed the moral utilitarianism of Confucius.

    Tao or Dao, a Chinese word meaning "way" or "path", delineates an enlightened perception of the mysterious ways of life. The path of life is revealed professedly only through spontaneous insights and creative breakthroughs. The alternating, self-renewing and circular phenomenon of nature such as day following night following day is an illuminating Taoist paradigm. The life-regenerating cycle of the seasons is another example. Taoists believe all in life to be inseparably interrelated. Taoists consider conventional wisdom illusionary. They point out that concepts are merely cognitive extremes of a consciousness continuum. Extremes exist only as contrasting points to give distinctive meanings to the unthinking, but in truth, these extremes are inseparable interdependent polarities. There can be no life without death, no goodness without evil and no happiness without tragedy. Light shines only in darkness. We only know something has been forgotten after we remember it. There is no modernity without tradition. Behind this dualistic illusion, a unifying, primary principle of life endures. It is called Tao.

    To Taoists, the essence of life can be appreciated by observing the flow of water. The word "alive" (huo) in the Chinese language is composed of the root sign representing "water" (shui) and the modifying sign representing "tongue" (she), suggesting that flowing speech is the essence of living. Water, that fluid substance with no shape of its own, is capable of assuming the most intricate shapes of its containers. Any substance with a rigid form becomes prisoner to that form, unable to adopt to changing surroundings. Humans, whose lives are subject to infinite constraints, should attempt to adopt the flexibility of water to accommodate the intricate dimensions of the containers of life. Water, always taking the path of least resistance and most natural flow, seeking rest at the lowest point, preserving a level surface over irregular bottoms, overcoming stubborn obstacles, smoothing rough surfaces and rounding sharp edges of hard materials, provides a Taoist model for an enlightened man's approach to life's imperfections. In moderate amounts, water is a life-giving substance. In excessive amounts, it can be cataclysmic and it can drown life. Like water, life reacts violently and becomes destructive when forced. It can be peaceful and good when guided gently.

    According to Taoist precept, roushu (flexible method) is an approach to be preferred over violent confrontation, which tends to be self-defeating and counterproductive. Meditation and calm contemplation are the means to spiritual liberation. They are the true instruments to man's salvation from obsessive fixations and from illusionary and distracting agitations of the physical senses. To attain without effort is nature's way. To attain with forced effort is an unenlightened man's folly which will always be self-defeating. Judo, the Japanese art of physical combat that seeks to turn the opponent's own strength against himself, is derived from a Tang Taoist fighting style called roushu. The US "war on terror" has yet to understand the effectiveness of roushu, and until it does, it will remain self-defeating. Force produces counterforce. The use of fear as a deterrence operates like a concentric mirror, reflecting fear back on the point of initial radiation.

    Every action reduces the range of one's options. Not taking premature or unnecessary actions keeps all of one's options open, so that the most appropriate action remains available. Actions always elicit reactions. Each action taken provokes reactions from all quarters that, taken together, are always more powerful than the precipitous action itself. It is the ultimate definition of the inescapable law of unintended consequences.

    To follow the dao (path) of life is to go with the natural flow of life and to avoid going against it. The ethical theories of Taoism lean toward passive resistance, believing that evil, by definition, will ultimately destroy even itself without undue interference.

    Yet it would be a mistake to regard Taoism as fatalistic and pessimistic, instead of the ultimate sophistication in optimism that it is. Controlled quantities of the bad can be good. Excessive amounts of the good can be bad. Poison kills. But when handled properly, it can cure diseases. Without poison, there can be no medicine. To employ poison to attack poison is a Taoist principle, which is validated in modern medical the practice of vaccination, the use of antibiotics and chemotherapy treatments.

    Only by not applying effort can one achieve that state in which nothing is not attainable effortlessly (wu-wei ze wu-suo-bu-wei). Every Taoist knows this famous Taoist assertion, although none can fully explain it. Translated, it reads literally: Only by avoiding effort can one achieve that state in which nothing is not attainable effortlessly. This well-known Taoist assertion, the inherent paradox of which defies logic, is still effortlessly driving modern students of Chinese philosophy insane.

    A person's role in modern economic life, when observed with detached insight, illustrates the truth of the famous Taoist dilemma of aiming to be effortless.

    Before one chooses a profession, one has the option of a wide range of endeavors with which to satisfy one's interest and to enable one to be useful in life. One can become a philosopher, an artist, a politician, a teacher, a scientist, a lawyer, a doctor, etc. As soon as one decides to be a lawyer, for example, then one can no longer afford to spend much time on other fields of endeavor, thus greatly narrowing one's options. If, in order to be the best in one's field, one devotes all of one's time and effort to the study of law and nothing else, one ends up being ignorant of other aspects of life. One can therefore end up aimlessly as a useless expert. Thus the exclusive study of law may neutralize one's original purpose which is to lead a useful life by promoting justice. For a specialization to be truly useful, it needs to be defined so inclusively that excessive specialization itself becomes a pitfall to avoid. The corollary: the desire for one's objective will block one's attainment of it. This is so because the distracting impact of one's desire will obscure one's focus on the objective itself.

    It is better not to act unless and until one is certain such action will not foreclose other options, rendering one paralyzed. But fear of action is paralysis itself. Unenlightened persons seek fame and fortune to achieve happiness, only to find that through obsessive seeking of fame and fortune, they destroy the very chance for happiness. They mistakenly regard fame and fortune, superficial trappings of happiness, as happiness itself. They slave after fame and fortune without realizing that it is that very slavery that will rob them of their happiness. Incidentally, "happiness" in the Chinese language is expressed by the term kuai-huo, which literally means "fast-living".

    It is a Taoist axiom that intellectual scholarship and analytical logic can only serve to dissect and categorize information. Knowledge, different from information, is achieved only through knowing. Ultimately, only intuitive understanding can provide wisdom. Truth, while elusive, exists. But it is obscured by search, because purposeful search will inevitably mislead the searcher from truth. By focusing on the purpose, the searcher can only find what he is looking for. How does one know what questions to ask about truth if one does not know what the elusive answers should be? Conversely, if one knows already what the answers should be, why does one need to ask questions? Lewis Carroll's Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) would unknowingly be a Taoist.

    Taoists believe that the dao (path) of life, since it eludes taxonomic definition and intellectual pursuit, can only be intuitively experienced through mystic meditation, by special breathing exercises and sexual techniques to enhance the mind and harmonize the body. They believe that these mind-purifying undertakings, coupled with an ascetic lifestyle and lean diet, would also serve to prolong life. Taoist philosophy is referred to as Xuanxue, literally "mystic learning".

    Taoists consider the duty of a ruler to be that of protecting with minimal interference his subjects from harm, often from themselves, thus avoiding the overriding injury that excessive intervention would bring. A truly wise ruler should act in the way nature's unseen hand gently protects the good, the definition of which is complex and philosophical. The word "governance" (zhi) in Chinese is composed of the root sign of "water" (shui) and the modifying sign of "platform" (tai), suggesting that to govern is similar to preserving stability of a floating platform on water. Excessive and unbalanced interference, even when motivated by good intention, does not always produce good results. Periodic, mild famines may be considered good in the long run because the people will learn lessons from them on the need for grain storage. Excessive prosperity may be considered bad because it leads to wasteful consumption with environmental and spiritual pollution that eventually will destroy the good life. Present-day economists would come to appreciate the desirability of sustainable balanced moderate economic growth over the alternative of fluctuating booms and busts.

    Taoists consider Confucian reliance on the Code of Rites (Liji) to guide socio-political behavior as oppressive and self-defeating. The Code of Rites is the ritual compendium as defined by Confucius to prescribe proper individual behavior in a hierarchical society. Taoists regard blind Confucian penchant for moralistic coercion as misguided. Such coercion neglects the true power of roushu (flexible method). Taoists think that ultimately, great success always leads to great failure because each successful stage makes the next stage more difficult until, by definition, failure inevitably results. To Taoists, the assertion that nothing succeeds like success is false. In truth, nothing fails like success. Success is always the root of future failure.

    Since the only way to avoid the trap of life's vicious circle is to limit one's ambition, why not eliminate ambition entirely? Would that not ensure success in life? But a little ambition is a good thing. Total elimination, even of undesirables, is an extreme solution, and it is therefore self-defeating. Besides, the paradox is that eliminating all goals is itself a goal, thus guaranteeing built-in failure. An example of this is the futility of a compulsive organizer who makes a list of ways to relax. From the traveler's point of view, no matter how many times he changes direction, he always ends up where he is heading. Life is a prison from which one can escape only if one does not try to escape. It is the desire to escape that makes a place a prison, and the desire to return that makes it a home. Home is not where one is, it is where one wants to return.

    Taoism as religion is generally regarded by intellectuals as a corruption of its essence as philosophy. Having evolved originally from a mystic search for truth, Taoism has gradually degenerated into practices of secular alchemy aiming to achieve the transformation of commonplace metals into gold, and to discover cures for diseases and formulae for longevity and secrets to immortality.

    The historical justification for this censorious view of Taoism as religion gone awry comes from Taoist movements such as the Yellow Turbans Disturbance (Huangjin Huo). It is so labeled by the contemptuous Confucian establishment. Beginning around AD 170, shortly before the final collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), roaming bands of disaffected peasants mounted a decade-long disruption of the peace in the provinces. Eventually, in AD 184, exploiting aggravating dislocations caused by floods along lower Yellow River (Huanghe), a messianic mass movement of social revolution developed in areas between modern-day Shandong and Henan provinces.

    Historians call the movement the Yellow Turbans Peasant Rebellion (Huangjin Minbian) because its peasant members identified themselves by wearing yellow turbans around their heads. It was the first major peasant revolt in Chinese history. The leader of the rebellion was Zhang Jiao, chief patriarch of the Taoist sect of the Way of Celestial Peace (Taiping Dao). Zhang Jiao had been an unsuccessful candidate in keju (public examinations) for officialdom. While gathering herbal medicine in the mountainous wilderness, he allegedly met an old sage named the South China Ancient Sage (Nanhua Laoxian) from whom he received the three-volume Celestial Peace Methods (Taiping Yaoshe). A talented propagandist and messianic faith-healer, Zhang Jiao proclaimed himself pope of a new religion based on a synthesis of Huangdi (Yellow Emperor), primeval mythical sovereign, and a deified Laozi, founder of Taoism.

    Huangdi is the ritual appellation adopted by the first monarch in Chinese history, a man named Gongsun, allegedly born on the celestial star Xuanyuan. Legend has it that Huangdi established the first kingdom in history at Youxiong, around Zhengzhou in modern-day Henan province. During his reign, language, costume, architecture, money, measure, medicine and music were professedly invented.

    All Chinese consider themselves descendants of Huangdi. Huang (yellow) is the color of ripe wheat. The concept of "yellow" commands a mythical meaning in Chinese culture, signifying regality, prosperity and civilization, all symbolized by the color of golden harvest.

    The Yellow Turbans, with a theocratic organization of more than 500,000 zealous cadres leading an army of 360,000 at the height of its influence in AD 184, were ruled with supreme power by Zhang Jiao and his two brothers. The three brothers, as the Trinity of Lords of Heaven, Earth and Men respectively, were supported by a hierarchy of militarized clergy. Communal living was practiced with regular public confessions, mass participation in spiritual trances and orgiastic ceremonies in which men and women engaged in prolonged kisses to "balance their vital vapor (luoji)". Diseases were considered consequences of sin and were believed to be curable by healing amulets applied to affected parts of the body and therapeutic charms worn around the neck or waist.

    The Yellow Turbans Rebellion was finally suppressed by renegade army commanders of the falling Han Dynasty who became independent warlords and who kept China fragmented for three more centuries, after AD 220, before Yang Jian reunited the country by founding the Sui Dynasty in 581.

    Near Luoyang, 65 kilometers southeast, in Songshan, epicenter of Chinese Buddhist geo-cosmology, is situated the legendary Shaolin Si (Young Forest Temple). Shaolin Si (aka Shaolin Temple) is the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and the epic cradle of Chinese martial arts. The warring skills of the sengs of Shaolin Si have been famous since the 4th century AD. Even in modern times, tourists from the world over flock to this monastery to visit this center of wushu, the martial art known popularly as gongfu (commonly referred to in English as "kung fu"). Shaolinquan (Shaolin-style Boxing) is the illustrious style of martial arts that traces its origin to Shaolin Si at the time of its founding. Shaolin Si was founded by an Indian prince of Persian-Samarkand roots named Boddhidharma (Da'mo in Chinese) during the Bei Wei Dynasty (Northern Wei, 386-534) in the 4th century. Boddhidharma was the founder of a sect (zong) of Buddhism known as Chan, later known as Zen Buddhism in Japan and the West.

    Chan is a Chinese transfiguration of the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning "contemplation for truth", while Zen is its Japanese pronunciation and Yoga is its equivalent in Sanskrit. Chan precepts assert that intellectual effort, good work, performance of rituals and other traditional Buddhist practices are not only of little inherent merit but also are often hindrances to the quest for true insight into the enlightened meaning of reality. Spiritual salvation can only be found by introspective inquiries into one's inner soul. Purity surpasses all.

    After its import to China from India, Chan Buddhism in Tang China derived an anti-scholastic, anti-textual and anti-exegetical bias from the mystic teachings of Taoism (Dao Jia xuanxue).

    Shortly after his death, Boddhidharma was reportedly seen in person at Mount Cong (Congling) of Songshan by Song Yun, an official of the court of Bei Wei. The disciples of Bodhidharma excavated their master's grave after the miraculous incident, only to find his discarded burial clothes sans body. Something similar happened to a man named Jesus. Ascension to heaven for the pure of soul while alive is an ancient notion in Taoist concepts, although ascension after death is more a Christian notion than a Taoist one. The Virgin Mary is declared by Pope Pius XII's 1950 bull Munificentissimus Deus, as an article of faith, to have been "assumed" directly into heaven in the body. Imperial Prince Jin, a Taoist holy prince, the pious son of Emperor Lin of the ancient Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC) who ruled from 571-546 BC, was reported to have ascended to heaven before death, riding a white crane.

    Chan (Zen) teaching stresses spontaneous oral instructions, Socratic in style, through the use of mystical paradoxes to reach beyond the rigid limits of deductive logic. It also derives from Taoist mystical teaching a love of nature and a preference for the rustic, ascetic life. Simplicity and purity are the highest goals of Chan spiritual attainment. The key concept in Chan philosophy is xu (void). Voidness is the fullest attainment from existence. Nothingness is all and all is nothingness: the ultimate nihilism.

    Chan Buddhism in time split into the Northern and Southern sects, headed respectively by Chenxiu and Hui'neng. Chenxiu and Hui'neng were both disciples of the late Master Hongren, the fifth patriarch after the founder of Chan Buddhism, Boddhidharma (Da'mo) of Songshan. When quizzed by the late Master Hongren at his deathbed, in a test to select the master's successor, about the extent of their respective enlightenment, Chenxiu, the master's protege, proclaimed that his enlightenment was comparable to the sacred banyan tree and his heart was as calm as an alter mirror. To his fellow monk's flowery assertion of having attained an immaculate state of xu, Hui'neng dispassionately proclaimed the famous counter-remark: "Fundamentally, there is no significance in the banyan tree; and there is no magic in a mirror. To be truly enlightened, these material things ought to have no meaning."

    After the death of Master Hongren in 647, Chenxiu went south to Jingzhou, in modern-day Hubei province, leaving their master's legacy at Xiaolin Si in Songshan to his more enlightened fellow seng (Buddhist monk). But Hui'neng, in keeping with true enlightenment, elected to retire farther south with his counter-culture sect to Shaozhou, in modern-day Hunan province, to shun the undesirable pollution of unsolicited celebrity, thus becoming known as the Southern Sect (Nanzong). Headed by Chenxiu, the Northern Sect (Beizong), so named because Hui'neng's sect had gone farther south, placed emphasis on teachings and gradual, incremental enlightenment.

    By contrast, the Southern Sect, headed by Hui'neng, places emphasis on inspiration rather than teaching, and emphasizes insightful flashes in place of gradual understanding for attaining enlightenment. The Southern Sect spread widely in subsequent centuries without organized evangelism.

    After Hui'neng, master of the Southern Sect (Nanzong), settled at Shao Mountain in Shaozhou, legend has it that all the wild tigers and leopards, which previously had roamed the wilderness and menaced the nearby population, miraculously disappeared, causing his reputation of holiness to spread. Modern-day wildlife preservationists would not have found Hui'neng's achievements admirable.

    Chenxiu repeatedly invited Hui'neng to court, but the Master of the Southern Sect, true to his Chan (Zen) principles, declined each time. Chenxiu finally wrote personally to Hui'neng to implore him to come to court, but Hui'neng continued to decline steadfastly and is reported to have said dispassionately to the messenger sent by Chenxiu: "My form is ugly. When the northern soil sees it, I am afraid no respect for my methods would be forthcoming. Besides, my master felt that the Southern Sect and I are of the same destiny. It should be not altered." Hui'neng died without ever going north.

    The Southern Sect of Hui'neng flourished in succeeding centuries while the Northern Sect of Chenxiu, despite imperial sponsorship, withered into a minor, esoteric cult. The history of these two sects illustrates that glory is ephemeral while enlightenment endures.

    Hui'neng's Southern Sect was later divided into Qingyuan (Pure Spring) and Nanyue (South Mount) movements. The Qingyuan movement evolved into three branches, Cao'dong (Cave of Cao), Yunmen (Gate of Cloud) and Fayan (Method's Eye). The Nanyue movement further evolved into two branches: Linji (Reach Charity) and Weiyang (Active Respect).

    Chan (Zen) Buddhism was introduced to Japan by Japanese monks who had visited China, particularly Eisai (1141-1215), who brought back the Linji sect (Rinzai in Japanese) in 1191, and his disciple Dogen (1200-53), who imported the Cao'dong sect (Soto in Japanese) in 1277.

    In Japan, Zen emphasis on personal character and discipline, combined with commitment on worldly activism, became the spiritual ideals of the medieval Samurai class. Zen monasteries such as those in Kyoto and Kamakura became religious, intellectual and artistic centers. Zen Buddhism was suppressed in Japan after the Meiji Restoration (1867-68), when nationalistic Shinto religious movements were officially encouraged. Nevertheless, Zen Buddhism remains the most popular Buddhist sect in Japan today.

    US General Douglas MacArthur compelled Japanese Emperor Hirohito to disavow divinity in the historic 1946 New Year rescript, temporarily dismantling the fundamental foundation of state Shintoism. The deification traditionally implied in the title of Heaven Emperor (Tianhuang), in use since the 7th century by all Japanese monarchs, and the same title originally used by the High Heritage Emperor (Gaozong) of the Tang Dynasty of China, is now forsaken, though the use of the title itself is preserved. To many traditional Japanese, despite intellectual disavowal, the Heaven Emperor is still a godly figure, as the title literally suggests.

    MacArthur also forbade occupied Japan to use public funds for the support of state Shintoism, which had been identified with Japanese militarism. In less than a decade after the defeat of Japan by the Allies, Shintoism experienced a revival in Japan, particularly in right-wing politics, while Rinzai Zen (Linji Chan in Chinese) gained considerable following in the United States after World War II, largely because of the devotion of returning Americans favorably exposed to the ascetic sect.

    Chan Buddhism became influential in China only after the 10th century, together with the other popular Buddhist movement known as the Pure Land (Jingtu) sect, which practiced the invocation of the name of Amita Buddha (Amituofo) as an expression of the acceptance of fate and the rejection of futile secular anxiety. Amita Buddha (Amituofo) was the supreme master of a class of Mahayana deities who supposedly resided in the Western Paradise known as Jingtu (Pure Land). Along with other Mahayana sects, the Jingtu sect believed that any individual, if he or she devoted his or her life to doing good, could become a Boddhisattva, a deity worshipped in Mahayana Buddhism who, having achieved enlightenment, compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others.

    However, the Jingtu sect, with branches named Shandao (Good Way, Jodo in Japanese) and Ci'min (Merciful Union, Shin in Japanese), promised a heavenly salvation in Jingtu, the Western Paradise of Amita Buddha, for the devotee of unshakable faith, which supersedes good works in importance. The true believer could even eat meat, indulge in sexual pleasure and maintain secular families without compromising his holiness, a practice condoned by the Japanese Shin sect for its priests in modern times.

    While in its most vigorous form, Jingtu Buddhism encompasses the ultra-sophistication of the Taoist concept of the necessary function of temptation, the absence of which negates the possibility of virtue, it is also a concept most vulnerable to unprincipled abuse by those less than vigorous in piety and by outright charlatans. For while the ordeal of temptation may provide the opportunity to manifest commitment to holiness, the surrender to temptation itself cannot be proof of having achieved holiness.

    Feodor Dostoyevsky (1812-81) asserted in a fearful warning: "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." To that, Jingtu Buddhists would respond: "Only if God exists everything is permitted." Voltaire was right when he said that if God does not exist, man (both Dostoyevsky and the Jingtu Buddhists) would have to invent him.

    The atheists' denial of the existence of God, maintained with equal disregard for rationality as their believer opponents, is not as dangerous as their corollary claim of God's irrelevance. Atheists would suffer the penalty of being the sure loser of Pascal's wager.

    Blaise Pascal (1632-62), French mathematician, scientist, founder of the theory of probability, and religious philosopher, was an anti-Jesuit Jansenite who, following Antoine Arnauld of the Sorbonne, ran afoul of the Church for his controversial predestinarianism. Pascal argued that while the inadequacy of reason cannot resolve questions of divinity, it is safer to bet on the possibility of the existence of God, because the penalty for error would be minor and the reward of being right would be infinite. Believing in a non-existent God would do us no harm, and believing in an existent God would grant us the grace of heaven. Conversely, denying a non-existing God would win us nothing, while denying an existent God would land us in hell. Pascal offered the world a perfect hedge.

    One could argue, however, that believing in something not true is not harmless, and God, being omnipotent and all-knowing, would sympathize with an intelligent man's honest obligation to reject blind faith, and would discount a calculating faith based on opportunism. So a Cartesian doubt appears an intelligent option for an unknowable question. It led Rene Descartes (1596-1650) to his famous conclusion, cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), which proves the existence of the thinking mind but leaves the question of God not satisfactorily answered. Descartes inverted claim made three centuries earlier by Thomas Aquinas that the experience of God is implied by the general facts of the universe, by claiming that these facts could not be known without a knowledge of God.

    The less-than-satisfactory assertions of both Aquinas and Descartes issued an invitation two centuries later to agnosticism, a term coined by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95), English biologist and educator. Aspects of agnosticism are in fact classic Taoist prepositions, certainly the parts concerning doubts, if not the parts placing faith in rational inquiry and scientific methods. Thomas Huxley, grandfather of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) of Brave New World fame, doubted all things not immediately open to logical analysis and scientific verification, and held up truth as an ideal state, scientific methods as the tools of truth and evolution as the fruit of truth. Ironically, Aldous, the grandson of Thomas, after three generations of conspicuous Huxleyan scientific piety, wrote an earth-shaking novel on the horrors and futility of scientific progress. The Taoist notion of life going in full circles is once again demonstrated in the Huxley saga.

    Confucian scholars throughout the ages remained ambivalent toward Chan Buddhism. Liu Zongyuan (773-819), the neo-Confucian author of a classic apology for feudalism titled Discourse on Feudalism (Fengjian Lun), composed a famous poem titled "Studying Chan Sutra" (Du Chan Jing), expressing his skepticism of Chan mysticism and his admiration for Taoist enlightenment (inadequately translated by this writer):

    Drawing from a well to rinse cold chattering teeth,
    With a pure heart casting off secular trappings;
    Leisurely holding the Buddhist sutra,
    Pacing from the east den while studying.

    The fundamental truth not being understood,
    Absurd claims become society's pursuits;
    Wishing for depth from past writings,
    Can nature be affected by memorizing?

    The garden of the Taoist is placid,
    Green moss links verdant bamboo;
    The sun pierces through the morning mist,
    The green firs appear coated with ointment,
    Insipidly hard to verbalize,
    Sanguine perception replenishes a heart self-gratified.

    Taoist enlightenment is the diametrical opposite of the West's notion of enlightenment as presented during the Age of Reason, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, hailed by Western scholars as the root of modernity.
  • Next: The Enlightenment as modernity

    Henry C K Liu
    is chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group.

    (Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
    Aug 1, 2003

    Click here to be one)

    No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
    Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong