Eastern Mysticism (2)

ICAS –Paramadina 2005

Dr. Abdul Hadi W. M.



The Founders:

Lao Tze (born about BC 570), Chuang Tze (BC 300), Yang Chu (BC 400)

Books of Taoisme: Tao Te Ching (Lao Tze), the Book of Yang Chu and the Book of Chuang Tze.

Tao Te Ching or “The Canon of the Way and of Virtue”. A poetical work, mystical poetry. It consist of a collection of often paradoxical aphorism.

(A) Tao = A Way, a Path, means ‘the way by which people travel, the way of nature and finally the Way of ultimate Reality. It had a limited meaning for Confucius, but to the Chinese mystics, it came not only to refer to the way the whole world of nature operates but to signify the original undifferentiated Reality from which the universe is evolved.

In its transcendental aspect it is the Primal Meaning, the Undvidided Unity, which lies behind all phenomena. The phenomenal world that are we know is seen as a coming- out of Tao into the polar opposites of yang and yin.

Tao Te Ching Book I (On the Principles of Tao):

The Tao that can be told of

Is not the Absolute Tao;

The Names that can be given

Are not Absolute Names.

The Namesless is the origin of Heaven and Earth

The Named is the Mother of All Things


Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion

In order to see the Secret of Life

Oftentimes, one regards life with passion,

In order to see its mabifest results.

These two (the Secret and its manifestastions)

Are (in their nature) the same;

They are given different names,

When they become manifest

They may both be called the Cosmic Mystery (Huan);

Reaching from the Mystery into the Deeper Mystery

Is the Gate to the Secret (miao) of All Life


Hsuan – this word is equivalent of ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism.

Taoism is also known as the Hsuan-hiao or Mystic Religion.

Miao may also be translated as ‘essence’; it means ‘the wonderful’, ‘the ultimate’, ‘the logically unknowable’ or ‘wsoteric truth’.

“The Character of Tao”

Tao is all-pervading (wei)

And its use is inexhaustible!


Like the fountain head of all things,

Its sharp edges rounded off,

Its tangles untied

Its light tempered

Its turmoil submerged,

Yet crystal clear like still water it seems to remain.

I do not know whose Son it is,

An image of what existed before God

Notes: Wei = to act, frequently used in TTC to denote ‘interfere’. Wu wei or inaction practically means non-interference, for it is the exact equvalent of ‘laissez-faire’.

(B) TE = Virtue, character, influences, moral force. The Chinese character consist of three parts: (1) an ideograph mening ‘to go’; (2) another, meaning ‘straight’; and (3) a picturograph ‘the heart’. Put together, these signify motivation by inward rectitude. In the second century’s dictionary Shuo Wen Cheh Tzu, “the outward effect of a man and inward effect of the self”.

Notes: The idea of virtue as a force, moral or otherwise to be present in the usage of Tao Te Ching in this line: “ If the king will proceed according the Way, his virtue will appear” (TTC 67).



Taoism had very strong connections with shamanism. It is because troghthout the long history of Chinese thought there runs what might properly be called a ‘shamanic mode of thinking’ manifesting itself in diverse forms and on various levels in accordance with the particular circumstances of time and place, sometime in a popular, fantastic form, and sometimes in an intellectually refined and logically elaborated form (especially in the world-view of Lao Tze and Chuang Tze). Their thoughts were an example of a particular forms of philosophy which grew out of the personal experience.

The Taoist philosophers where ‘shaman’ on the one hand, as for as concerns the experiential basis of their world-vision, but they were on the other, intellectual thinkers who, not content to remain on the primitiv level of popular shamanism, exercised their intellect in order to elevate and elaborate their original vision into a system of metaphysical vision into a system of metaphysical concepts designed to explain the very structure of Being (Izutsu 1983:361).

Lao Tze, for example, speaks about sheng-jen (the sacred man). It is one of the key concepts of this philosophical world-view. Sheng-jen is a man who has attained to the hghest stage of the intuition of the Tao, to extentd of being completely unified with it. Others called him as the Wise Man, the sage. Etymologically ‘sheng’ means the duty to listen (to the voice of wisdom) and to saya then what one has heard. It hardly as ‘the holy man’, but there is an element of reverence in the expression.

One nice anecdote illustrates how thoroughly the expression has been considered.

A waufarer met a Wise man on day and said to him.

“Sir, are you a Wise Man?”.

Shereupon the Wise Man bowed in thought awhile and then replied,

“If I say that I am a Wise Man, then obviously I am not: but if I say that I am not Wise Man, I shall not be telling the turth”.

The Wise Man is mentioned, as such, sixty times in the text of the poems in such a way that is a fair conjecture that the expression is a euphuism for ‘king’ (Poems 3, 49 and 66). Other poems point to the same conclusions, as does 26, where the ineference is that the Wise Man rules ten thousand chariot.

Chuang Tze speaks of chen-jen or the ‘true man’; cheh-jen or the ‘ultimate man’; or shen-jen or the ‘divine man’, in reality nothing other than a philosophical shaman. It is indicate that behind the a sacred man as the Taoist ideal of the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) there is hidden the image of a shaman, and that under surface the metaphysical world-view of Taoism there is perceivable a shamanic cosmology going back to the most ancient times of the Chinese history.

One of the most typical features of the shamanic mentality is the phenomenon of mythopoiesis. Shamans are by definition men who in their ecstatic archetypal vision perceive things which are totally different from what ordinary people see in their normal states through their sensible ecperiences.

Shamanis tradition in ancient China did produce such a cosmology may called ‘an imaginal cosmology’ (compare its with Ibn `Arabi’s concept of the ‘Alam al-mithal. Lao Tze depics the Way (Tao) as something shadowy and dark, prior to the existence of Heaven and Earth, unknown and unknowable, unpenetrable and untangible to the degrres of only being properly described as Non Being and yet pregnant witho forms, images and things, which lie latent in the midts of its primordial obscurity.

This kind of metaphysics has counter-part in the popular mythopoiec imagination as represented by Sjan Hai Ching (one of the most important source-book for the Chinese mythology), in which it appears in a fantastic form:

Three hundred and fifty miles further to the West there is a mountain called Heaven Mountain. The mountain 0produces much gold and jade. It produces also blue sulphide. And the River Ying takes its rise therefrom and wanders southwetward until it runs into the Valley of Boiling Water. Now in the mountain there lives a Divine Being whose body is like a yellow sack, red as burning fire, who has six legs and four wings. It is strangelu amorphous, having no face, no eyes, but it is very good at singing and dancing. In reality, the Bird is no other than the god Chiang.

(Izutsu 1983: 304)

What has the old book told is about the myth of Chaos, the primordial indifferentiation which preced the beginning of the Chaos. In its original shamanic forms, the figure of chaos as featureless monster look very bizarre, primitive and grotesque. Symbolically it is of profound importance, for the philosophical idea symbolized by its directly touches the core of the reality of being.

Lao Tze and Cuang Tze: For them, the reality of Being is Chaos. But it does’nt mean that the world we live in is simply chaotic and disorderly as an empirical fact. The world we live in, on the contrary, is a world where observe many things that are clearly distinguishable from one another, each having its peculiar name, and each being definitely delineated and dertemined. Everything there has its own place; they nearly ordered in a hierarchy. We live in such world and do perceive our world in such a light.

According to the Taoist philosopher, that precisely is the malady of our reason. The world in its reality is not chaotic. The world, in brief, is not chaotic. It become chaotic, because we cannot make the distinction between the phenomen and the noumena, the world as a dream and the world as an reality. Chuang Tz, for example, considered that the world of phenomen as a dream, a Big Dream. Everything oin the world is a dreamlike mode existence. But ordinary people saw it as a reality.



Taoism is a mystical philosophy. It is a nature philosophy. The Christian Mystic and the Sufi of Islam seeks communion and union with God. The Taoist seeks to become one with Nature, which he calls Tao.

For Confucius the Tao was not a metaphysical concept. For the Taoist it become one. They used the term Tao to the stand for the totality of all things, equivalent to what some Western philosophers have called ‘the absolute’.

The Tao was the basic stuff out of which all things were made. It was simple, formless, desireless, without striving, supremely content. It existed before Heaven and Earth. In the course of the generation of things and institutions, the farther man gets away from this primal state, the less good, and the less happy, he is.

The Tao is like a vessel which, though empty

May be drawn upon endlessly

Anad never needs to be filled

So vast and deep.

That is seems to be

the very ancestor of all things

Immersed in it

The sharpest rdge become smooth

The most difficult problem solved

The most blinding glare diffused

All complexities reduced to simplicity

It ias as calm as eternity itself

I do not know whose child it is

(TTC 4)

(A) The Taoist ideal is simplicity; the goal is to return to the Tao.

The ten thousand things come into being

And I have watched them return

No matter how luxuriantly they florish

Each must go back to the root from which it come.

This returning to the root is called quitness;

It is the fullfilment of one’s destiny.

(B) Basic principle of Taoism is in harmony with, not in rebellion against, the fundamental laws of the universe.

All artificial institutions and all strivings are wrong. That all striving is wrong doesn not mean that all activity is wrong, but that all straining after that which is beyond reach is a mistake.

Chuang Tze says: “Those who understand the conditions of life do not seek to do what life cannot accomplish. Those who understand the contitions of destiny do not seek for that which is beyond the reach of knowledge”.

It is important to recognize that all things are relative.

Lao Tze: “It is only because everyone recognize beauty as beauty that we have the idea of ugliness”.

Chuang Tze: “Although the whole world is tiny in relation to the universe, nevertheless the tip of a hair is by no mean insignificant.”

This relativism is applied to our very existence, so that we read, “and one day there will come the great awakening, when we shall realize that life itself was a great dream.”

Relativism also applied to moral problem.

Chuang Tze: “Concerning the right and the wrong, the ‘thus’ and the ‘not thus’, if the right is indeed right, there is no point in arguing about the fact that it is different from the wrong; if the ‘thus’ is indeed ‘thus’, why dispute about the way in which it is different from the ‘not thus’? Regardless of whether the various arguments actually meet one another or not, let us harmonize them within the all-embracing universe, and let them run their course.”

(C ) Since nothing is certain, it would be ridiculous to become so intent on success that one stove with fanatical zeal to attain it. In fcat, if one tries too hard, he is certain not succeed:

Lao Tze:

If you would not spill the wine

Do not fill the glass too full

If you wish your blade to hold its edge

Do not try to make it over-keen.

If you do not want your house

To be molested by robbers

Do not will it with gold and jade.

So, one should not care for the possession of external things, but achieve self-knowledge and contentment.

Lao Tze:

To understand others is too be be wise

But to understand ne’s self is to be illumined

One who overcomes others is strong

But he overcomes himself is mighty

(D) What then, shall one do? Do nothing, says the Taoist.

Chuang Tze:

“The operations of Heaven and Earth proceed with the most admirable order, yet they never speak. The four seasons observe clear laws, but they do not discuss them. All of nature is regulated by exact principles, but it never explains them… Thus the perfect man does nothing, and the great sage originates nothing; that is to say, they merely contemplate the the universe.”

Notes: ‘Do nothing’ or wu wei, ias a famous injunction of the Taoist.

Wei wu wei. This paradoxical expression is the key to Chinese mystcism. It cannot be translated literally and still render its meaning. Wei is a verb corresponding to the English do or act but sometimes meaning other things. Wei is a negative. Thus, clumsily, wei wu wei is ‘to do without doing’, ‘to act without action’. Put positively, it means to get along as nature does: the world get created, living things grow and pass away without any sign of effort.

Wu wei is man’s part; he is tobe stuff, quiet and passive so that the Way, ultimate Reality, the universe of being, may act through him without let or hindrance. The first wei is then the part of the Way. To use more familiar vocabulary, the idea is to let God to be God in you.

There are three other related expressions with comment: Tzu-jan, P’o and Pu Shih.

a. Tzu-jan. Naturally, of itself; from tzu, self, and jan, n adverbial suffix (ly); what happens of itself, without prompting and there fore spontaneously. This expression may be taken as the positive version of wu wei. In the discussions of the Tao Te Ching, the analogy is always from nature, as if these poets too were saying:

“Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow”

Nature is spontaneous; men should be spontaneous also and it is the Way’s virtue that make them sp, when they yield to it”

b. P’o. A kind of tree and hence a ‘virgin block’ of

wood, untooled, and not articial; raw material

and thence, the natural state of thing:

substance, plain, simple, sincere. Its use is to

urge men to put away the artificial manners of

civilization so that honesty and sincerity may

be possible once again. P’o is also a symbol of

the Way and its Virtue. It is sometimes a

synonym to wu wei and a model of tzu-jan.

c. Pu shih. To be independent, not involved with

things or affairs, aloof. This expression carries

out the meaning of wu wei. The Wise Man

does what he has to do for everything and

everybody but remains independent of them


(E) There are many illustrations in the Taoist books of

the fact that the highest skill operates on an almost unconscious level, and we can all think of illustrations from our own experience. For example: A connoisseur, the moment he sees an object of art, immediately ‘feels’ that it is or is not genuine.

Taoism, like the other form of mysticism, emphasizes

this unconscious, intuitive, spontaneous element.

(F) Thus one’s path should be nonaction and

quietness. Lao Tze tells us that one should should speak as little as possible; this is the way of natrure. Even Heaven and Eart cannot make a rainstorm or a hurricane last long.

True words are not flowery

And flowery words are not true.

The good man does not argue,

And those who argue are not good.

The wise are not learned,

And the learned are not wise.


He never goes outside his door

Yet he is familiar with the whole world

He never looks out of his window,

Yet he fathoms the Way of Heaven

The conclusions of contemplative Taoism is clear. One should care othing for worldly power, position, or honors for the purpose of wordly power, position, or honor’s sake.


Blackney, R. B. (1960) The Way of Life’s Lao Tzu: Wisdom of

Ancient China. New York: The New American Library.

Creel, H. G. (1957). Chinese Thought From Confucius to Mao

Tse-Tung. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.H

Happold, F. C. (1981). Mysticism: A Study and an

Anthology.Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Lin Yu Tang (1958). The Wisdom of China and India. New

York: The Modern Library.

Van Over, Raymond (1973). Chinese Mystics. San Francisco,

London: Harper & Row.

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