The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion, by C. Spurgeon Medhurst, , at sacred-texts.com
"In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him." The Spirit of God is confined to no sect, religion, race nor creed. Wherever hearts are still and aspirations pure the vision may dawn, the voice of inspiration be heard. God has spoken to man in many languages, and the translator of the present work was supported throughout what was often an arduous task by the belief that the Tao-teh-king is a message from above. Like all ancient writings, it may have suffered at the hands of time, but as I have endeavored to show in my notes and comments on the text, the teaching is one which the inner consciousness of all ages has recognized as The Truth. Though Lao-tzu's accent is his own, it is easily seen to be but a dialect of the universal tongue. "And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall recline with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven."
Many are the editions of the Tao-teh-king (vid. the list at the end of this book), but has Lao-tzu ever really been translated? If I have in any measure succeeded where others have failed it is because I have built on their labors. The Chinese is difficult, and mistakes are perhaps inevitable, but I have taken pains to reduce these to a minimum, and with the utmost care have consulted in detail the works of Legge, Balfour, Giles, Carus, Kingsmill, Maclagan, Old and von Strauss during the whole of my preliminary labors. Although unable to agree with any of these gentlemen in their interpretations, to all I am indebted for guidance and suggestions while working my way through the terse obscurity of the Chinese. In the course of my researches I have consulted nearly an equal number of native commentaries, but my chief claim to having come nearer to Lao-tzu's meaning than my predecessors is the fact that it requires a mystic to understand a mystic, and although I dare not venture to number myself with the mystics, I may confess that long before I dreamed of being presumptuous enough to endeavor to translate Lao-tzu into my own tongue, I was accustomed to carry his writing with me on my itineraries as a sort of spiritual vade mecum. My present rendering of the ancient
philosopher is not so much a specimen of scholarship as the humble offering of a disciple. The difficulties which lie across the pathway of anyone attempting such a work may be illustrated by a quotation from Dr. Legge's preface to the Yi King (Sacred Books of the East), Vol. xvi: "The written characters of the Chinese," writes this eminent scholar, "are not representations of words, but symbols of ideas, … the combination of them in composition is not a representation of what the writer would say, but of what he thinks. It is vain, therefore, for a translator to attempt a literal version.… In the study of a Chinese classical book there is not so much an interpretation of the characters employed by the writer as a participation of his thoughts—there is a seeing of mind to mind." In this last sentence the Doctor has unconsciously explained why he so signally failed in his efforts to render Lao-tzu into English. Prof. Legge, one of the foremost Chinese scholars of his day, was wholly Confucianist in his sympathies, and it is a pity that so faulty a translation as is his version of the Tao-teh-king should have obtained the prominence and importance which it derives from its inclusion in that monumental series, "The Sacred Books of the East."
It only remains for me to add in this connection that I have made no attempt to accomplish the impossible and reproduce the measured rhythm of the original, but have contented myself with rendering the whole into as clear and concise English as I could command, without reference to the regulated cadences in which a large part of the Chinese has been written. Neither have I considered it worth while entering into any technical defense of my renderings. Such would only have been of interest to sinologues, and sinologues will have no use for such a work as the present little book.
In his "Remains of Lao-tzu," Prof. Giles has endeavored to prove that there is very little of the real Lao-tzu in the essay which goes under his name. Though perhaps few scholars would follow Mr. Giles in all his slashing criticisms—the learned doctor lacks all the qualities necessary for the understanding of a mystical work—it may be admitted that the shadowy and broken progression in the development of the basic ideas of the Tao-teh-king, together with the seemingly needless repetitions, suggest that what we have are but the higher peaks of a submerged continent, not the entire
map of the old Mystic's scheme. The thought of the book is a buried thought, the connections of its sentences spiritual rather than grammatical. Divided into two parts, Part I may be described as "metaphysical," Part II as "moral," but the division is rough and not accurate. Were such a liberty allowable, it would be comparatively easy to rearrange the sections into a more orderly sequence than that which they now occupy. Perhaps the index in front may do something to remedy the existing irregularities of the text, while the bibliography, the most complete that has been published, will inform the student where he can find whatever is known of ancient Taoism, unless indeed he is able to search for himself the enormous mass of Chinese literature dealing with the topic.
In dealing with the Tao-teh-king, it is hardly possible to avoid some reference to the sister religion, Confucianism, as it sprang from the same soil and from among the same people. Both Lao-tzu and Confucius appeal to pre-existing authorities. Before their day the two systems probably formed one ideal plan for life; since then, however, there has been a growing tendency to separate the practical ethics of the one from the metaphysical mysticism of the other. Yet many devout Confucianists study Lao-tzu's classic with deep interest, but privately, and as those who read heretical works.
Lao-tzu, like Buddha, would extirpate desire; Confucius, like the Stoics, would ignore it. The asceticism of Lao-tzu is matched by the self-sufficiency of Confucius, and each agrees that the desire which ends in self is an evil. As regards cosmogony, it is interesting to note that while the practical Confucianist has a metaphysical explanation for the origin of the universe, the metaphysical Lao-tzu is content to put forward his TAO as an explanation of the whole, without attempting to say how anything came to be.
As for Lao-tzu's Tao, which is as untranslatable as the algebraic x, and which von Strauss, in the thirty-third section of his introduction to the Tao-teh-king, compares to the Sanskrit Buddhi, it may be said that it has much in common
with the Primeval Fire or Aether of Heracleitus. The properties of mind and matter may be attributed to both; both become transformed into the elements; and in both the elements vanish into the primordial All, though Lao-tzu, of course, gives us nothing like the theologic-cosmogonical system of the Greek.
Lao-tzu presents us with the Tao under two aspects—the undifferentiated Nameless, and the differentiated Universal Life, in this agreeing with the Bhagavad Gita, in which we read: "There are two Purushas in this world, the destructible and the indestructible; the destructible (is) all beings, the unchanging (is) called the indestructible." (xv-16.) Again, as in the Confucian cosmogony, THE Absolute or The Unlimited is always behind The Great Extreme from whose vibrations everything sprang, so there lies behind the Tao, which is nameable, the Tao which cannot be named.
Notwithstanding Lao-tzu's reverence for the mysterious, he never sacrifices Man to the Divine. On the contrary, throughout the Tao-teh-king, the individuality of the True Man is emphasized in every possible way. The goal of humanity is only possible by complete union with the Tao—the Ultimate Unity of the Universe. If the Tao-teh-king teaches anything it certainly teaches this. Thus, like all religions in all ages, Lao-tzu points to Yoga or union, as the summum bonum of existence. The Perfected Men, or The Sages, are those who have attained to this great good. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, so neither can ye; except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches."
The weakest part of Lao-tzu's teachings may perhaps be thought to be his utopian conceptions of a model State. Like Plato, he seems to have thought that "until kings are philosophers, or philosophers are kings, cities will never cease from ill," and not only like Plato does he appear to consider the study of economics, law, or finance as unnecessary qualifications for a legislator, but he requires no education for the citizens of his ideal republic. Spirituality rather
than political economy is to be the basis of this strange kingdom. Its appeals are not made to men's hopes and fears, but to the calm passionlessness of their higher natures. Its controlling force is not militarism, but spiritual culture. Both rulers and people obtain all they require by the abstract contemplation of an abstract good. Everything is reduced to the purest simplicity. In many respects Lao-tzu's completed society corresponds to the "natural and spiritual theocracy" which Saint Martin of Tours describes in his "Lettre a un ami sur La Revolution Française."
Lao-tzu loves paradox, and his sayings are frequently as paradoxical as the Sayings in the Gospels. In his extreme assertions as to what constitutes a perfect State he is endeavoring to show that righteousness alone exalteth a nation, and that whatever clouds the nation's conceptions of this is worse than valueless. The student must never forget that Lao-tzu, being a mystic, is no more susceptible to literal interpretation when he deals with the concrete than is the word of Jesus, "Cast not your pearls before swine." No absolute rule of conduct is conveyed by this expression, yet who does not perfectly understand its meaning? So with Lao-tzu's politics; they are physical illustrations of spiritual truths. Lao-tzu's only concern is that the government shall give free development to the individual spiritual life of each citizen in the State; this secured, an autocracy might equal a democracy. A passage in Epictetus illustrates Lao-tzu's position: "Do this, do not this, or I will cast thee into prison—this is not a rule for reasoning beings. But—'As Zeus has ordered so do thou act; but if thou dost not thou shalt suffer loss and hurt.' What hurt? None other than this—not to have done what it behooved thee to do. Thou shalt lose faith, piety, decency—look for no greater injury than these." So Lao-tzu reduces life to the utmost simplicity, that nothing may interfere with the contemplation of the Tao. The never absent presence of this Perfect Ideal in the mind will be enough to keep the people from trespassing either in thought, speech or action. Such an accomplishment is better than all that the finest civilizations offer.
Here again we may observe the difference between Lao-tzu and his contemporary, Confucius. Both were politicians, but while Confucius would regulate the State by extra rules of conduct, multiplied until they covered every department
of life, Lao-tzu sought the same end by the purification of the inner being. Little wonder that when Confucius, whose field of vision was almost entirely objective, visited Lao-tzu, who was almost as much concerned with the subjective, he returned bewildered, and said to his disciples—I quote Dr. Carus’s translation of the Chinese historian's record: "I know that the birds can fly; I know that the fishes can swim; I know that the wild animals can run. For the running, one could make nooses; for the swimming, one could make nets; for the flying, one could make arrows. As to the dragon, I cannot know how he can bestride wind and clouds when he heavenwards rises. To-day I saw Lao-Tze. Is he perhaps like the dragon?" Others, like Confucius, may be inclined to ask the same question, but "he that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
It must not, however, be supposed that Lao-tzu's system is non-ethical and impractical. On the contrary, in his doctrine of non-attachment, or non-action, the old mystic supplies us with the very essence of all morality. He holds that nature provides a perfect example in her inactive activity. The vegetable kingdom is Lao-tzu's ideal, and though it is not a point made in the Tao-teh-king, I may perhaps be pardoned a digression in order to show the appropriateness of sitting at the feet of Dame Nature, and learning from her as she works in her vast garden. Unless man's fussiness interferes with her plans, Nature mingles her plants and her shrubs in the wildest and most inextricable manner. Left to follow her own devices, as in the jungle, Nature so arranges her plantation that nothing is separate; each plant lives in the close embrace of its neighbor—a holy fraternity, a fitting symbol of the oneness in diversity which characterizes mankind when viewed from the highest planes. Only as the presence of man drives God further from his universe does this sacred fellowship between all sorts of plants and herbage come to an end. In the cultivated garden everything is in order, everything is separate. It is not this, however, which so much interests Lao-tzu as the quiet detachment of vegetable life. It plants without seeking the fruit; it never mars by its effort to accomplish; everything is left to develop according to its own nature. Here Lao-tzu has an echo in Emerson. In his essay
on "Spiritual Laws," the philosopher of Concord writes: "Action and inaction are alike. One piece of the tree is cut for the weathercock, and one for the sleeper of a bridge; the virtue of the wood is apparent in both." Well will it be for this restless, weary, discontented age if it comprehend this message of action in non-action and non-action in action which comes to it out of the dim past, from the great Loess plains of Northwest China.
Said a greater than Lao-tzu: "So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth; and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he knoweth not how." "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; which indeed is less than all seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the heaven come and lodge in the branches thereof." "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened." There is a striking similarity between these sayings of Jesus and the teaching of the Tao-teh-king. Lao-tzu's doctrine of non-attachment, or non-action, found its loftiest expression on the cross on Calvary.
This, then, is the word which this ancient writing has for the world—a life of sensation is a life of instability, a life of non-accomplishment. Until the "final facts of consciousness" are understood, true peace is impossible, but when these are known, detachment from action for the sake of action will be the result. "If any man love the world (is attached to the sensuous) the love of the Father is not in him." So says the Christian mystic, John. He who has not attained to non-attachment or non-action is a stranger to the power of the Tao; this is the cry of the Chinese mystic, Lao-tzu.
Victor von Strauss summarizes Lao-tzu's teaching thus: "Man's moral worth consists of what he has, not of what he does; it has respect not only to what he is in himself, but to his influence on others. It is what a man is which makes his acts good, and not the deeds which make the man. The higher the moral worth of the man the less he values his own acts, and the less likely is he to seek justification through his works. In this way he influences his fellows, not so much
through what he does as through what he is; not so much through his speech as through his conduct"—(Wandel.) "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness." Confucius represents the James, Lao-tzu the Paul. of Christian theology.