Asia Online (TAO)
Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tzu
English interpretation by
John R. Mabry, PhD
More English versions
GOD AS NATURE SEES GOD
A Christian Reading of the Tao Te Ching
Rev. John R. Mabry, M.A.
Copywrite 1994 by Element Books
The following is the Introduction and several selected poems from my translation of the Tao Te Ching. The complete text, along with eight chapters of commentary on the spiritual convergence of Christianity and Taoism in the same style as the Introduction is available at all fine booksellers, published in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand by Element Books.
At a used book store several years ago, I purchased a copy of Raymond M. Smullyan's book The Tao is Silent on a whim. I had heard of the Tao, and was intrigued by the little information I had. I had not heard of the Tao Te Ching, but I soon gained respect for Taoism's philosophy as Smullyan interpreted it. Halfway through the book a friend came for a visit and saw it. His jaw dropped open and he looked at me in an odd way. "Are you...into the Tao?" he said tentatively. "Well," I replied, "I like what I"ve read."
"Have you read the Tao Te Ching?"
"No, but I wa..." Before I could finish he dashed out of the house and slammed the door. I contemplated this peculiar behavior and wondered if perhaps I had overlooked a manic tendency in my friend. I certainly hoped he wouldn't hurt himself. Before I could finish my musings, the door had swung wide open once again. My friend hovered in the frame with a crazed look, clutching an enormous dog-eared trade paperback.
"This," he said, panting, pressing the book to my chest, "is the holy word of God."
"You don't say," I returned, flipping through the treasured tome. It was Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English"s translation, beautifully illustrated with Chinese calligraphy and Ms. English's stunning nature photography. "Can I borrow it?" I asked.
He chewed his lip a moment and I had my first glimpse of how terribly important this book really was to him. "I would really love to read through it. It"s not long. I'll get it back to you soon. Promise." I lied. From the first few chapters I was entranced with the book"s simplicity and awesome profundity, and living with it has seriously affected my life, both spiritually and socially. And this is not an uncommon phenomenon, either. Again and again I have watched people who were profoundly touched evolve toward spiritual maturity.
What is the Tao Te Ching?
The Tao Te Ching is a book of Chinese philosophical poetry, written sometime between the seventh and the fourth centuries B.C.E. According to tradition it was written by a quiet librarian named Lao Tzu, which in Chinese can mean, curiously enough, either Old Man or Old Child. Lao Tzu was said to be a contemporary of Confucius, although many years his senior, and the legend of their ideological rivalry is very popular. It is said that both their reputations traveled before them, so when they met face-to-face Lao Tzu was anything but impressed. He sternly rebuked Confucius for his arrogance, greed and ambition. When the audience was over, Confucius is recorded as saying:
"I understand how birds can fly, how fishes can swim, and how four-footed beasts can run. Those that run can be snared, those that swim may be caught with hook and line, those that fly may be shot with arrows. But when it comes to the dragon, I am unable to conceive how he can soar into the sky riding upon the wind and clouds. Today I have seen Lao Tzu and can only liken him to a dragon."
Scholars nowadays doubt the historicity of the person Lao Tzu and many believe the book to be a composite work collected by an early Taoist school. This is not universally accepted, though, and once one begins to explore this issue one finds oneself buried up to the neck with the same source and textual criticisms that surround Moses and the Pentateuch. In the end, it is equally irrelevant. Whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible or not, does not change the fact that we have this text in our hands and we must, to the best of our abilities and according to the measure of our faith, deal with it. Ultimately, considerations of authorship seem negligible compared to the impact of these words on my lived experience.
It is the same with Lao Tzu. And it will certainly do us no harm to assume his historicity and make reference to him as our sole author. The arguments are endless and, as with much religious speculation, pointless, serving only to feed division and constant digressions.
What is Taoism?
This is the simplest of questions, and as a typical example of Taoist paradox, almost impossible to answer; mostly because there are many answers. When Thomas Merton was asked, he replied that the only correct answer is: "I don't know."2 Alan Watts, in his excellent book Tao: The Watercourse Way offers a simple and sufficient definition: Taoism is "the way of man"s cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world." That"s it. There is nothing inherently spiritual about it. There is nothing in Taoism that relies on some form of divine revelation, nothing that any sensitive human being could not learn by simply observing nature. And that is part of its magic: its simplicity. Lao Tzu was not a man to be impressed by political status or educational degrees. To him, maids or stable boys who were true to their own instincts were the noblest sorts of creatures.
Taoism is not a fixed or solid tradition. There are many versions of Taoism; for instance, there is popular Taoism as practiced today which is a highly developed shamanistic religion like many native religions. There is also what Huston Smith calls Esoteric Taoism, which merged with Buddhism over a thousand years ago and evolved into the Ch'an school of Buddhism, known in Japan as Zen. Esoteric Taoism no longer exists as a living, practiced religion separate from Zen or Ch'an. What we are left with, then, is Philosophical Taoism, which is as close as we are likely to get to "original Taoism." It is with this that we are primarily concerned here.
Taoism does not rest on a particular set of scriptures which it considers inspired, but more on a way of looking at the universe suggested by the ancient mystics in their poetry. The most important of these are Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu and of course the Tao Te Ching. According to legend, Chuang Tzu was a disciple of Lao Tzu, and his works, in a very different style, serve to clarify and augment Lao Tzu's teachings, although at times they seem contradictory. We should not balk at this, though, for often Lao Tzu's own words are blatantly at odds and this is typical of the Taoist spirit: "True words seem paradoxical."
If I seem to be evasive on this, it is not intentional. It is just that Taoism is a terribly slippery subject about which little can be said with universal certainty. Philosophic Taoism holds no dogma, has no organizational structure, no priesthood or clergy, no scripture as such, no creedal formulas or anything else that resemble religious trappings for us.
It is partly for this reason that Taoism is so attractive. It is, in a way, a very non-threatening philosophy to people of other faith traditions because it imposes no doctrine or even metaphysics which could in any way irreconcilably clash with the doctrines that peoples of various faith traditions, Christianity included, might hold.
Why should Christians bother to study Taoism?
Throughout her history, the European Church has ignored and often persecuted other faith traditions that lacked Christianity's political power. When contact was made, the Church's standard response was to convert practitioners by all means necessary, and not infrequently, these means included violence. In medieval Europe, during a period of a hundred years the Holy Inquisition murdered 9 million women, worshippers of the Earth as the Great Mother, accusing them of Satanic witchcraft. Upon Cortez' arrival in the Western hemisphere the Native population of what is now South America was literally massacred, going from 80,000 to 10,000 in a period of just ten years. Fortunately we have, though only in this last century, found less destructive methods of coping with these strangers in our midst. We are no longer isolated from the world at large and the strategies of the past will no longer suffice us. Our present strategies, though less messy, have not yet become very mature. Now, this oppression manifests in our words, continuing to perpetuate a tradition of misinformation that invites no real understanding and allows for little compassion. If we are going to live together as a global community, we must discover not only tolerance but respect and understanding. For there is no respect without the will to understand. Ignorance today is consciously and unconcsiously erected between adherents of various faith traditions, and these are walls which, if we are going to survive peacefully, must come down.
People are not Hindus because they have been ignorant of the Gospel. A person's choice to become or remain a Hindu can be made intelligently even if Christianity has been honestly explored as a valid faith. And this person's conviction may very well have been made carefully, consciously, and with pure intention. Few Christian leaders are willing to trust their flocks to valid investigation of other faith traditions. If any faith is valid, if it really holds water, what have we to fear? And think of how much we stand to gain as a result of our considerations; a community where the integrity of the person and the tradition is respected and celebrated, where religious prejudice is only a receding memory and the dream of freedom of religion can finally begin to really bloom. We must not deceive ourselves that we have achieved religious freedom. This is only going to come about by compassion and a true willingness to understand and communicate.
Where do we start?
We start by creating open hearts. We start by listening first and talking second. Then we can begin effective dialog. Fortunately, there has been a great interest in interfaith dialog in the last fifty years, and we need to begin to see this as vitally important to the living out of our faith and to the future of our planet.
Indian theologian Amarjit Singh Sethi writes that he sees four objectives for interfaith dialogue:
A shared quest for intellectual clarity and understanding.
An encounter on the level of a common humanity.
A shared involvement in the secular community.
A common quest for ultimate reality, or God.3
The first objective, an intellectual understanding, can be very revealing and even painful for us, for it will require us to begin to see ourselves from the viewpoint of other faith traditions, and it will most certainly entail a vision of the Church as a very human, and often corrupt institution. We will also find, as we share our faiths, that we have much to learn from one another. One thing that the Western traditions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) can learn from the East is living peacefully with religious plurality. Hinduism and Buddhism have co-existed for hundreds of years in a spirit of harmony and respect. They also have much to learn from us in the way of historical analysis of faith traditions and their religious evolutions.
Another benefit of dialogue is the discovery of how very much we have in common. Mythologists such as Joseph Campbell have devoted their lives to the comparative study of the mythological heritage of diverse cultures. What results from this is an almost spooky commonality of symbols and images from the most disparate parts of the globe: the creation, the flood, the concept of "the chosen people," the myth of the dying god and his eventual resurrection to life. (It was the dying god myth in fact that convinced C.S. Lewis of Christianity's truth, the other myths being shadows and reflections of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all of these myths were played out upon the stage of history.)
Let us not also forget the many things the great faith traditions share in common: themes in our scriptures, the existence of monastic communities and the practice of using prayer beads as an aid to memory, and so on. One of the rewards that comes from dialogue happens when you come to understand "the meaning that an alien symbol has had for an alien community, you may discover therein a meaning--of life, of the universe, of man's destiny, or whatever--that was in your own heritage all along but that previously you personally had not seen."4 This kind of discovery can usher in radical renewal for the person as well as the community of faith.
Isn't it dangerous to go changing things?
It's dangerous not to! A conscious and critical examination of one's faith reveals how very much our traditions have evolved over the centuries. Like anything else in the field of human endevor, the Christian tradition is not a fixed set of intellectual propositions unbuffeted by the winds of time and political upheaval, but an ever fluid, ever evolving organism clustered around a nucleus of a few ideological convictions that has moved and changed and grown in accordance with the situational needs, and crisis, of its people.
A fine example of how a tradition can evolve is found in the Judaic notions of the afterlife. For most of the Old Testament period all souls went to Sheol, the place of the dead, which was not much speculated upon until late in this tradition's development. For the Jews, the afterlife was not important, it was a mystery left in God's hands. What mattered was the Now. How well a person followed God in this life was what was important. Only much later did the Jews develop the concept of Abraham's bosom, and not until the last two centuries before Christ did the ideas of Heaven and resurrection appear in Judaic writings.
Many of the theological concepts we inherited from the Jews are not even Hebraic in origin, but were borrowed and adapted from neighboring religions. For instance, not until the Jews were exiled to Persia do we see a hierarchical structure of angel- and demonology. These were exclusively Persian concepts until the Jews augmented their own theology with them, and subsequently bequeathed them to us. John S. Dunne shows us that
In the Bible we have scriptures of different cultural epoches side by side, each characterized by a different philosophy of life and death and by a different name for God. There is the patriarchal epoch when God was called El and men looked to him for posterity; then there is the subsequent era when he was called Yahweh and men looked to him for the land; and then there is the time when Jesus called him Abba and men looked to him for a kingdom"5
It is fairly easy for Christians to see the evolution of Judaism and the transition from it to Christianity, but we have a tough time with that kind of theological fluctuation after the first century. Why is this? Has the evolution of our theology remained stagnant? Hardly! Why have we such trouble conceiving of the Holy Spirit's continued ministry and progressive revelation to the Church in our experiences through time? Have we not encountered God and have we not grown? What have we to fear? The truth is that, although it might be true that God has not changed, human notions of what God is have never ceased changing. Even within the strictest denominations, where everything is concretely defined, you will find as many distictive theologies as you will members: no two conceptions of God are alike. And everyone's idea of God has a ligitimate place in the history of humankind's conception of the Divine.
As scholars such as W.C. Smith have asserted, it is important that we see ourselves not just as part of the history of Christianity, but as part of the total, global history of religion. It is one history, each culture seeking out the divine, each tradition a thread woven together to make a glorious tapestry we call the history of humanity's religion. For religion, in whatever form it is found, is the living and vital relation of humanity to the Divine, no matter how Divinity may be conceived. Teilhard de Chardin has written,
Religion is not a strictly individual crisis-- or choice, or intuition--but represents the long disclosure of God's being through the collective experience of the whole of humanity... God bent over the now intelligent mirror of Earth to impress on it the first marks of beauty.6
It is imperative that we extend our theological feelers and really explore. For this is one of the most important challenges that Christendom faces today, and as our globe grows smaller, it's urgency will most certainly increase. We need truly creative approaches, and we should not be afraid to explore new areas. Remember that every significant theological advance in Western religious history was initially scorned by the orthodox as heresy. This should not deter us, for we shall be in the company of such heretics as Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Liberation theologians. And let us remember that the Holy Spirit breathes on us at every moment and has been with us since Pentecost. We should not be afraid, but bold; for our mission is the Gospel of Peace. We should not be afraid to make mistakes, either, for we can trust the Spirit to show us our errors.
The holy man of our time, it seems, is not a figure like Gotama [Buddha] or Jesus or Mohammed, a man who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insight to his own. Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.7
I ask the reader now to enter with me into the text of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. By reading this before going on to the discussions that follow, you will be able to imbibe much of the Tao Te Ching"s deeper meanings. As Thomas Merton has eloquently expressed:
What wisdom Asia teaches! "Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion." Asia. "It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we who need to discover it."8
1. Holmes Welch, Taoism: The Parting of the Way (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 1-2.
2. Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), p. 73.
3. Murray Stein, Robert L. Moore, ed., Jung's Challenge to Contemporary Religion (Wilmitte: Chiron Publications, 1987), p. 8.
4. W.C. Smith, Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), p. 90.
5. John S. Dunne, The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), p. 127.
6. Blanche Marie Gallagher, ed., Meditations with Teilhard de Chardin (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1988), p.120.
7. Dunne, p. ix.
8. Stone, Hart and Laughlin, eds. The Asain Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1975), p. 233-236.