Sunday, February 24, 2013

Different faces of Tao

Today when we talk about Tao, we will look into Tao Te Ching to try to find out its meaning. In chapter one of Tao Te Ching, Laozi said,

Tao that can be explained is not Tao
A name can be given is not the unnameable

Tao is unnameable and undefinable, yet, when we go through classic Chinese texts of Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism, we often find the phrase "Tao is being attained (or comprehended)" 得道。And an author of such phrase seemed to have satisfied with himself on his own good understanding and his own internal good feeling. He understood or had attained Tao, but others didn't. How come?  I mean how come people with different philosophies all said they attained the same Tao? The only conclusion that we can draw is that people of different religious, spiritual or philosophical orientation held different interpretations of the unnameable Tao.

In Christianity, the final truth is that there is a loving God (in Judaism, God is somewhat wrathful). In classical Chinese mentality, the final truth is not God, but is Tao, subject to different interpretations. What then is the difference between God and Tao?

When Mateo Ricci came to China to preach Christianity in the sixteenth/seventeenth century (Ming Dynasty), he tried to package Christianity as in congruence with the then ruling religion: neo-confucianism. He even tried to equate Christian God with Tao. But of course it is far from the truth, whereas Christian (and Jewish) God has consciousness, Tao does not.

In chapter five of Tao Te Ching, Laozi said,

Heaven and Earth follow no moral rules
treating everything as hay dog

As some Chinese opponents of Ricci (these opponents were men of Letters and high-ranking government officials many of them owed their high-places to success in open exam on Confucian classics organized by the Emperor)  argued that Heaven and Earth (and Tao) would be too busy to care about individual human beings. There is no consciousness but inherent rules or logic that operational results would indicate whether one was following Tao's inherent rules or logic. That was the position of the neo-Confucianism, being called The study of inherent rules (理學), not without a reason.

What then was the morality of the neo-Confucians who were opposing to Christian morality of one Mateo Ricci and other missionaries of that period?

The neo-Confucisans maintained that the inherent logic of Tao was that everyone should adhere strictly (to the letter) to the hierarchy that was laid down by the administration, with filial piety, ancestors worship, following rules appropriate to one's position, and believe that the emperor had a mandate from Heaven being the main components. Their view was totally materialistic without an afterlife to care about (though ancestors worship was supposed to be beneficial to the current life). How then could one be expected to internalize rules of morality if fear of punishment from the Divine was not part of the package? It was by filial pressure. If a person did not act morally, he would endanger his extended family; in severe cases, like rebellion, the persecution would sometimes be extended to a whole village. Not to mention such persecution would be carried over the future generations!

With the downfall of the last Dynasty (Qing), China began to integrate with the modern world in its philosophical outlook. The rigid hierarchy was dismantled, and rigid filial piety rules were scorned upon as "no brainer's obedience to one's emperor and one's head of family" (愚忠愚孝). Neo-confucianism is considered dead in modern Chinese mentality, to be laughed upon in TV dramas rather than as serious rules to be followed.

The meaning of Tao is now limited Taoism and Buddhism. I shall tackle their different meanings with a future post.

In the mean time, those who are interested to study the interesting debates between Mateo Ricci and his fellow missionaries on one side and the neo-Confucians of the Ming & Qing Dynasty on the other side can refer to an excellent study by Jacques Gernet (Professor of Chinese Intellectual and Social History, College de France, Paris): China and the Christian Impact.


  1. Great post, Paul. I would recommend "Disputers of the Tao" by AC Graham for a view of how the ancient Chinese disagreed on the meaning of the Dao.


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