The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion, by C. Spurgeon Medhurst, , at sacred-texts.com
Carlyle somewhere compares religion to an "everlasting lode-star, that beams the brighter in the heavens the darker here on earth grows the night around him," and it is doubtful whether but for the degeneracy of his time we should ever have received this most precious fragment from antiquity, known as the Tao-teh-king. Lao-tzu, alias Lao-chün, alias Lao-tan (born B. C. 604), was one of those God-instructed souls who, having mastered "the fortuitous in life," stepped out from the shadow of the temporal into the clear, serene atmosphere of the Divine.
A keeper of the records in the capital of the state of Chou, he retired from office and from the ken of mankind because he saw how corrupt society had become, rendering all real spirituality impossible. Rather than become tainted by what he felt unable to change, he put aside earthly ambition and retired from the world. The historian says of him: "No one knows where he died." Before leaving the haunts of men, however, he wrote the Tao-teh-king, at the request of his friend, the Custom House Officer at the frontier. This man's name was Yin-hsi, a name which deserves to be recorded.
I have already referred to Confucius's opinion of his famous contemporary. There is no proof that they met more than once, the interviews between the two which embellish the works of Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu's chief disciple, being the inventions of the active brain of that clever writer, and intended to bring the system of Confucianism into ridicule. It is the beginning of a breach which should never have been made.
The Tao-teh-king, or, "A Scripture of the Eternal and Its Characteristics," was first adopted as a "canon" A. D. 666, at which date the Emperor Kao Tsung of the T’ang dynasty gave Lao-tzu the posthumous title, "The Supreme Monarch of the Profoundest Mystery." Later rulers added to his honors, and legend relates wonderful tales concerning him. His mother is said to have given birth to him B. C. 1321, bringing him forth from her left side as she sat under a plum tree (the name of the family was Li, or Plum). He is said to have been then an old man, having remained for eighty years in his mother's womb. Hence his designation, Lao-tzu,
or "Old Boy." By others he is called Lao-chün, or "Ancient Sire," or Lao-tan, "the venerable Long Lobed," big lobes being considered a mark of virtue. Later Taoist writings have been ascribed to him, the compositions commencing "The Most Supreme Master saith," or "The Supreme One saith," but there is no proof that Lao-tzu wrote anything besides the Tao-teh-king. The other scriptures of the same school all bear its impress written largely across their pages.
In the "Trinity of Tranquillity" of modern Taoism, which bears no more relation to the Taoism of Lao-tzu than do the rigid Institutes of Calvin to the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, Lao-tzu occupies the first place. Modern Taoism is a system of alchemy and polytheism which regards the soul and the body as identical in substance, and maintains that by physical discipline their dissolution may be prevented. Lao-tzu, indeed, hinted at the possibility of obtaining an ascendancy over matter, and to such hints in the Tao-teh-king, and to the Confucian Yi-king, the science of alchemy, which may be described as the germ of the modern evolutionary theory, probably owes its birth. Born in China, alchemy traveled to Europe via Arabia. * The vocabularies of the older Eastern and the later Western schools are in many instances similar, and the ends and methods of both appear the same. Lao-tzu, however, was no alchemist, and for this he is satirized by the famous Chinese poet, Pei-chu-yi (A. D. 772-846). He is ever speaking of the Tao and its energies, says the poet; throughout his five thousand words (the Tao-teh-king contains 5,320 characters) he says naught of transmutations or genii, but only prates about reaching heaven. The old mystic was indeed incapable of conceiving anything but the purest spirituality, whereas his more materialistic successors have made his slight hints at the powers of occultism the foundations of a scheme for mastering the protean powers of transmutation, which, whatever may be said of their European confrères, would, as far as it is possible to form an opinion, seem to have objects which can only be described as selfish.
The other two members of the Trinity of which Lao-tzu is now the chief are the mythical P’an-ku, the First Being brought into existence by cosmogonical evolution, whose
breath became the wind; whose voice is the thunder; whose left eye is the sun; whose right eye is the moon, etc.; and Yü Huang Shang-ti, a magician named Chang, who raced another magician, named Lu, up to heaven. Both rode dragons, and Chang won. Some Western scholars think that Lao-tzu also is a myth, a mere creation of the imagination. The materials for an exhaustive examination of the matter are not at hand, but no Chinaman has ever doubted that the Tao-teh-king was the genuine production of a genuine sage named Lao-tan or Lao-tzu, and written just before he left China forever, through the Han-ku Pass.
It may be added that the Tao-teh-king is the only Taoist book which the Chinese Buddhists esteem. They relate a legend to the effect that one of the Buddhist Emperors of China, in order to test the relative divinity of the two religions, ordered each sect to pile their books on an altar and burn them. The Buddhist scriptures would not burn, but the Taoist writings quickly flamed up at the application of the torch. Much alarmed, the Taoist priests in attendance tried to snatch their precious manuscripts from the fire, but they only pulled out one, the Tao-teh-king.
Elsewhere I have written * that "at about the time when Lao-tzu lived a wave of spiritual enlightenment appears to have swept over the world. Especially in Asia was there a general movement towards higher and clearer thought. In Hindostan and in Persia, as well as in China, religious revolutions were in progress. The exact date of Lao's birth, like most of the facts of his life, is shrouded in obscurity, but most generally received opinion is that he first saw the light during the early part of the sixth century before Christ. Dr. Ernest Faber alone gives an earlier date. Confucius was born 550 B. C., Pythagoras forty or fifty years earlier. Thales, the first of the seven wise men of Greece, was born in 639 or 636 B. C., and two or three years later, Solon. The reformation in Iran, or ancient Persia, connected with the name of Zoroaster or Zerduscht, was probably contemporaneous. Buddha arose in India a little later, and the Hebrew prophets of the captivity enriched the same age."
This brief introduction, which might easily have been expanded into a volume, may well be closed with a few appreciations of Lao-tzu from some of the many Oriental scholars who have studied his pages.
Victor von Strauss says of Lao-tzu's work that it Contains "a grasp of thought, a height of contemplation, a purity of conception in the things of God, such as we seek in vain anywhere in pre-Christian time, except in the Jewish Scriptures."
Says Dr. Paul Carus: "Lao Tsze was one of the greatest men that ever trod our earth." "One of the most remarkable thinkers of mankind." "The Tao-Teh-King is an indispensable book, and no one who is interested in religion can afford to leave it unread."
"The plan of the Tao Teh King," says Dr. Edkins, "is to begin with the absolute and to unfold in obscure language, so as to do something to teach in broad outlines and with a few touches the mystery of the universe." "He is," says the doctor, "the greatest of Chinese philosophers." (Vide "Ancient Symbolism," by J. Edkins, D.D.)
Rev. John Chalmers, A.M., D.D., shows in his introduction to his translation of Lao-tzu's work that the philosopher "penetrated about as deeply into the mystery of the universe as the famous German metaphysician" Schelling, while M. Abel-Remusàt contends that the doctrines commonly attributed to Pythagoras, Plato, and their disciples, are to be found in Lao-tzu.
Georg von der Gabelentz, of Leipzig, describes the Tao-teh-king as "one of the most eminent masterpieces of Chinese literature, one of the profoundest philosophical books the world has ever produced, and one the authenticity of which has been least contested in his fatherland and even in the circle of European sinologues."
Mr. Samuel Johnson, in his Oriental Religions (pp. 862-865), writes of the Tao-teh-king in the following strain: "It is a book of wonderful ethical and spiritual simplicity, and deals neither in speculative cosmogony nor in popular superstitions.… It is in practical earnest, and speaks from the heart and to the heart. Its religion resembles that of Fenelon or Thomas à Kempis, combined with a perceptive rationality of which they were not masters."
The above opinion of Mr. Johnson's is quoted in Dr. William's Middle Kingdom (Vol. ii, p. 211). Dr. Williams, who has himself a less high opinion of Lao-tzu's worth, says, nevertheless, that Lao-tzu is "no more responsible for the subsequent organization and vagaries of the sects of Taoism down to the present time than the New Testament is for the legends of monkery or the absurdities of mystics."
Dr. James Legge agrees. "The Taoism of the present day," writes this eminent scholar, "is a system of the wildest polytheism. The science and religion of the West will meet from it a most determined opposition. The 'Venerable Philosopher' himself would not have welcomed them. The shrieking of our steam engines, the bustle of our commerce, and the onward march of our various enterprises would have nearly driven him mad; but he ought not to bear the obloquy of being the founder of the Taoist religion."
With this I take farewell of our ancient teacher, China's grandest Old Man, of whom his countrymen have never shown themselves worthy. Nevertheless, as Mr. Ball says in Things Chinese (p. 671): "In this Lao-tsz, the founder of Taoism, we have one of those men whose writings, life, and reputed actions have exerted an untold influence on the course of human life in this world, but of whom the world, during his lifetime, took so little account that all that is authentically known about him may be summed up in a few lines."
May this renewed effort to increase the range of the Old Chinese Mystic's influence, distribute to others some of the quiet peace which the study of his work has brought to the translator.
Peace be to all Beings.
C. Spurgeon Medhurst.
xvi:* Vid. The China Review, Vol. vii, p. 242, "Alchemy in China." Also S. D. ii, 807. The Chinese doubtless brought the tradition from Atlantis.
xvii:* The Chinese Recorder, vol. xxx, p. 542.