Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Parting of the Way

"As to the sage, no one will know whether he existed or not."   --- Lao Tsu

The book, The Parting of the Way, by Holmes Welch, is a short examination of the Tao and its historical development. Today many would find that the Tao, and Zen Buddhism, especially, are quite similar.

In fact today many practitioners of Zen are also observant of some practices of Taoism. Of its founder, Lao Tzu, believed to be also the writer of the Tao Ti Ching, Confucius remarked, " I have seen... But when it comes to the dragon, I am unable to conceive how he [Lao Tzu] can soar into the sky riding upon the winds and clouds. Today I have seen Lao Tzu, and can only liken him to a dragon." Taoism is an important part of Chinese spiritual understanding for multitudes over a span of more than a thousand years.

In fact, some suppose that the principle text of the Tao, the Tao Ti Ching, is the most translated Eastern religious text; others have remarked upon its ethos to the Christian story. Welch writes, "In recent years there has been a growing interest [in the West]in Buddhism, especially in Zen," owing much to Taoism in its development as a distinct denomination within the practice of Buddhism.

Some have proposed that the Tao Ti Ching was a "manual" fashioned for the practitioner of tso-wang, an early form of yoga practiced in China. This text is not to be a manual on breathing practices leading to trance, yet it gives allusion to the Taoist practice of meditative trance. Ultimately the impact of the Tao Ti Ching, according to Welch, lies in the demonstration of how such power that "trance states give over the material world, and also how such trance states can be the basis for the metaphysical realm.

'In Trance, the ruler returns to the roots of his nature, perceives the Unity of the Universe, the non-existence of absolutes, and the non-existence of contraries. One must be empty of desire to achieve trance, and the Power that it gives. "How does this Power work? It makes possible to act without action, to bring things about without interfering, to act by bypassing the contraries of every event.
Those who try by other means--by [exterior imposition of] morality, by fear or punishment-- only spoil what they do as fast as they do it." Welch writes that different language translations have inserted their ideas into the work, some more mystical.

On the other hand, translators such as Northrup, says Welch are metaphysical. Northrup was interested in comparing the Asian texts with religious texts of the West. Some call this "comparative religion," with an interest to learn both the sameness and uniqueness of humankind universal.

Northrup believed that all Asian religions are founded on the Aesthetic component of mental functioning. Reality in this way is directly sensed, experienced, unlike the west which tends towards intellectual exploration. In this view, by experience, it is then possible to paint ones' experience from the inside, viewing the outside.

Later Taoism developed ideas of immortality. From Buddhism, the Chinese also developed a concept of the soul. While the Buddha himself did not historically believe in a "soul" as is supposed in western thought, anatta reduced persons to five "heaps of matter" which included interior aspects of the human person.

As to the personality, classically the Chinese view
is that a personality is composed of those anatta aspects as a composite. At death part of one ascended to heaven, part descended below and part, the life breath, simply faded away, not to return.

The schools of Buddhism which historically became most practiced in China were those schools that taught and believed in an immortality of the soul. Immortality to these practitioners had to be both physical and metaphysical. Gradually both these ideas were adopted by the Taoists.

These ideas came into place after the Han dynasty. Over time, historical Taoism developed a strong theocracy to administer to the social hierarchy of the faith, and of everyday matters of the people. The historical wizard-shaman of the Tao was born in this time. In contrast to the corruption of the Imperial court, the Taoist structure rapidly came to be seen as more stable, more helpful, and more beneficial to the people. Its practice in the early period spread wildly.

Yet Lao Tsu did not urge his values on anyone;
however, he said that, "everyone under heaven says our Way is greatly like folly." He also, while not urging his views upon others, noted that while they are "good and right," if we do not follow them, we invite disaster.

In the time of the Song or Sung dynasty, the Jade emperor came into great importance among the people. This was a time of strife and war with invaders from the north. The Jade emperor was a god believed to be with a vast court containing many persons and complex rituals. Once a year it was thought, that all the gods came to pay court to the Jade emperor, giving homage and accounts of their administration. If they did well, they received rewards, if not, they were punished.

The deities were many, and as diverse as those gods of the sun, the moon, the neither worlds, the hearth, etc. Since the time of the Sung or Song dynasty hence, the pantheon of Taoist deities has been relatively stable with a concept of heaven and hell included in the theology as well.

The Tao today continues to share with Buddhism deities such as Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy, Kuan Ti, god of war. Few persons are exclusively Taoist or Buddhist in much of China today. Sharing its patrimony with other religions of China, Tao values are: honesty, kindness to all creatures, speak truthfully, do not gossip or slander others; be not boastful or hypocritical, do not take bribes, nor covet another's possessions, nor his wife; respect the elders. This is consistent with the simple mind, the Confucian teachings, and many Buddhist denominations.

Truly, any or all of these values mentioned here
could be placed in a Christian Sunday sermon as well, without notice. They function as core human values. We are, it seems, more alike than we are different.

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