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Taoist Texts

Lao-TzuThe literature of Taoism, or that which gathered around what is known as the Tao or Way of Lao Tze, grew and flourished alongside of, though in direct antagonism to, that which is founded upon the criteria and doctrines of Confucius. Lao Tzu was the father of Taoism. In his Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu outlined the basic concept of Tao. Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu were Lao Tzu's most important followers who expounded and expanded the basic principles set forth by Lao Tzu. Together, the sayings of these three sages are the foundations for the philosophy of Tao.

Chuang Tzu was born in the fourth century BC, and held a petty official post. "He wrote," says the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien, "with a view to asperse the Confucian school and to glorify the mysteries of Lao Tzu. . . . His teachings are like an overwhelming flood, which spreads at its own sweet will. Consequently, from rulers and ministers downwards, none could apply them to any definite use."

Here is the key to the triumph of the Tao of Confucius over the Tao of Lao Tzu. The latter was idealistic, the former a practical system for everyday use. And Chuang Tzu was unable to persuade the calculating Chinese nation that by doing nothing, all things would be done. But he bequeathed to posterity a work which, by reason of its marvellous literary beauty, has always held a foremost place. It is also a work of much originality of thought. The writer, it is true, appears chiefly as a disciple insisting upon the principles of a Master. But he has contrived to extend the field, and carry his own speculations into regions never dreamt of by Lao Tzu.

The whole work of Chuang Tzu has not come down to the present, neither can all that now passes under his name be regarded as genuine. Alien hands have added, vainly indeed, many passages and several entire chapters. But a sable robe, says the Chinese proverb, cannot be eked out with dogs' tails. Lin Hsi-chung, a brilliant critic of the seventeenth century, to whose edition all students should turn, has shown with unerring touch where the lion left off and the jackals began.

Han Fei Tzo, who died BC 233, left fifty-five essays of considerable value, partly for the light they throw upon the connection between the genuine sayings of Lao Tzu and the Tao-Ti-Ching, and partly for the quaint illustrations he gives of the meaning of the sayings themselves. He was deeply read in law, and obtained favor in the eyes of the First Emperor; but misrepresentations of rivals brought about his downfall, and he committed suicide in prison. It cannot be imagined that he had before him the Tao-Teh Ching. He deals with many of its best sayings, which may well have come originally from an original teacher, such as Lao Tzu is supposed to have been, but quite at random and not as if he took them from an orderly work. And what is more, portions of his own commentary have actually slipped into the Tao-Ti-Ching as text, showing how this book was pieced together from various sources. Again, he quotes sentences not to be found in the Tao-Te-Ching. He illustrates such a simple saying as "To see small beginnings is clearness of sight," by drawing attention to a man who foresaw, when the tyrant Chou Hsin (who died B.C. 1122) took to ivory chopsticks, that the tide of luxury had set in, to bring licentiousness and cruelty in its train, and to end in downfall and death.

Liu An, a grandson of the founder of the Han dynasty, became Prince of Huai-nan, and it is as Huai-nan Tze, the Philosopher of that ilk, that he is known to the Chinese people. He wrote an esoteric work in twenty-one chapters, besides many exoteric works, such as a treatise on alchemy, none of which are extant. It is fairly certain, however, that alchemy was not known to the Chinese until between two and three centuries later, when it was introduced from the West. As to the book which passes under his name, it is difficult to assign to it any exact date. Like the work of Lieh Tzu, it is interesting enough in itself; and what is more important, it marks the transition of the pure and simple Way of Lao Tzu, etherealised by Chuang Tzu, to the grosser beliefs of later ages in magicians and the elixir of life. Lao Tzu urged his fellow-mortals to guard their vitality by entering into harmony with their environment. Chuang Tzu added a motive, "to pass into the realm of the Infinite and make one's final rest therein." From which it is but a step to immortality and the elixir of life.

The end of this philosopher was a tragic one. He seems to have mixed himself up in some treasonable enterprise, and was driven to commit suicide. Tradition, however, says that he positively discovered the elixir of immortality, and that after drinking of it he rose up to heaven in broad daylight. Also that, in his excitement, he dropped the vessel which had contained this elixir into his courtyard, and that his dogs and poultry sipped up the dregs, and immediately sailed up to heaven after him!

The honor of the first edition really belongs to a volatile spirit of the third century AD, named Hsiang Hsiu. He was probably the founder, at any rate a member, of a small club of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Death, however, interrupted his labours before he had finished his work on Chuang Tzu, and the manuscript was purloined by Kuo Hsiang, a scholar who died AD 312, and with some additions was issued by the latter as his own.

The Taoist scripture is far less the recondite 'Tao Te King' of Laotze than "The Tractate of Actions and their Retributions," an anonymous tract composed about the 11th century AD, which is universally popular. Its 212 brief statements fall into five sections. The first of these declares that happiness follows virtue as misery follows vice; the second states that "spirits in heaven and earth," in "the great Bear constellation' and within "men's person" execute this earthly theodicy by deducting some days from a man's life; the third specifies the virtues man must practice and their reward in making him an "immortal"; the fourth, and by far the longest, names the vices he must shun; while the fifth provides for repentance and enacts a new rule of theodicy. The tract is characteristically Chinese, agreeing with Confucianism in its stress upon morality and in its belief in an earthly theodicy; but its doctrine of the immortals probably originated from Buddhism.

Another popular religious tract, the "Book of Secret Blessings," expresses in 541 words brief moral rules with a flavor equally of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, by all of which indeed it is approved. In subsequent centuries Taoism further adopted from Buddhism its doctrine of hells and it exhibits in its temples realistic figures of the damned under torture.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:22 ZULU