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IT occasionally happens that a sudden ray of clear and valuable light is thrown upon a long-disputed subject from a source the very existence of which was unsuspected, and the authority of which would certainly never have been allowed. Just as an accident may reveal what generations of scientific men have laboured in vain to discover: just as a rank outsider may win a race, or the dart, shot at a venture, bit the bull's-eye when trained archers have discharged a quiversfull of arrows without success,—so may some happy and spontaneous phrase, falling from one who approaches a topic of interest or difficulty for the first time, fresh and unencumbered by preconceptions or the dissertations of experts, embody in itself the kernel of the enigma, and make the whole thing promptly and for ever plain. And such a service has, I think, been recently rendered to the cause of philosophical research in China. A late able American writer, whose work on "Oriental Religions" is, or ought to be, on the shelf of every reading man, has given to the Confucian school, for the first time, its true designation of Rationalist. Confucius was a Rationalist in every sense; his folsowers are Rationalists; his philosophy was altogether Rationalistic in its scope. The word is just the one we wanted, but which we never found; and its universal acceptation, from henceforth, can be only a matter of time. It is not only for supplying us with a just descriptive epithet for the orthodox philosophy of China, however, that we are indebted to Mr. Johnson. As soon as ever the term Rationalism is recognised as belonging to the system of Confucius, it will fall into deserved desuetude in that sphere where hitherto it has usurped another's right. No word could, in my opinion, be more inappropriate, or more unhappily selected, as applied to the philosophy of Lao Tsze. That the character TAO ### may be properly translated "reason" in certain instances, I do not deny. That it approaches the idea of λογος in the Johannine sense of the word appears generally allowed. For the p. ii rendering of it by "way" there are both etymological and philosophical recommendations which may not be overlooked. But that none of these is the true and actual meaning of the word in its esoteric sense I hope to show in a few words, submitting, at the outset, that no fitter illustration could be offered of the fatality attending servile adherence to a literal system of translation than the rendering, hitherto in force, of Reason. The letter killeth; and in the present instance it has killed all sense and meaning out of the word it was attempting to explain.
The position we take up, therefore, is a very simple one. To put it algebraïcally, TAO is the x or unknown quantity that we have to find. And the first thing to be done is to see what is predicated of this mysterious Thing; how it is described; with what attributes it is credited; where it is to be found; whence it sprang, how it exists, and what its functions are. Then we may find ourselves in a position to discover what it is that answers to these particulars, and profanely to give a name to that which its preachers themselves declared must be for ever nameless.
We are told that it existed before the time which had no beginning had begun. Chuang Tsze says that there never was an epoch when it was not. Lao Tsze affirms that its image existed before God Himself. It is all-pervasive; there is no place where it is not found. It fills the Universe with its grandeur and sublimity; yet it is so subtle that it exists in all its plenitude in the tip of an autumn hair. It causes the sun and moon to revolve in their appointed orbits, and gives life to the most microscopic insect. Formless, it is the source of every form we see; inaudible, it is the source of all the sounds we hear; invisible, it is that which lies behind every external object in the world; inactive, it produces, sustains, and vivifies every phenomenon which exists in all the spheres of being. It is impersonal, passionless; working out its appointed ends with the remorselessness of Fate, yet overflowing in benevolence to all. "What is TAO?" exclaims Huai-nan Tsze. "It is that which supports Heaven and covers Earth; it has no boundaries, no limits; its height cannot be measured, nor its depth fathomed; it enfolds the Universe in its embrace, and confers visibility upon that which of itself is formless. * * It fills all within the Four Points of the Compass; it contains the Yin and Yang; it holds together the Universe and Ages, and supplies the Three Luminaries with light. It is so tenuous and subtle that it pervades everything just as water pervades mire. It is by p. iii TAO that mountains are high and abysses deep; that beasts walk and birds fly; that the sun and moon are bright, and the stars revolve in their courses. * * When the spring-winds blow, the sweet rain falls, and all things live and grow. The feathered ones brood and hatch, the furry ones breed and bear; plants and trees put forth all their glorious exuberance of foliage, birds lay eggs, and animals produce their offspring; no action is visible outwardly, and yet the work is completed. Shadowy and indistinct! it has no form. Indistinct and shadowy! its resources have no end. Hidden and obscure! it reinforces all things out of formlessness. Penetrating and permeating everything! it never acts in vain."
Such are a few of the attributes ascribed to the nameless Principle we are considering. What ideas do they suggest to our mind?—Such, I believe, as cannot be expressed in any single word. Lao Tsze and his successors recognised the fact that for this mysterious entity there can be no name, so they spoke of it as TAO. We in the West have practically arrived at the same conclusion. What is it, that makes flowers grow up and water flow down, which causes the showers to fall and the sun to shine, which guides the stars in their flaming courses, regulates the seasons, endows the butterfly with its radiant hues, gives one man red hair and another black, and, in a word, is the cause of every phenomenon we see, the main-spring of the huge machine of which we form a part? We, too, have failed to find a name for it, and so we call it NATURE.* This, I believe, is the key to early Taoism. Translate TAO, as used in this sense, by our common word Nature, or Principle of Nature, and nine-tenths of the difficulties attending the study of this beautiful philosophy vanish of themselves. Nor is this true only of that phase of Taoism which deals with the physical Universe. The instincts of animals and the workings of the vegetable creation are not any more the endowment of Nature than are the varying dispositions of mankind. The original constitution of every man, then, being the direct gift of Nature—or rather, an actual part of Nature itself—it follows that it should be jealously preserved intact, in all its pristine purity. This is the grand and primary object of Taoism—the preservation of one's p. iv Heaven-implanted nature. And how is this to be accomplished? By imitating the great Mother. Nature never strives; therefore the Sage should guard himself from striving too. Nature is ever passive; therefore the Sage should let things take their course, contenting himself with following in their wake. Ambition, scheming, hatred lust—any attention to external objects of whatever kind—are all so much disordering, or spoliation, of the original nature of man, and should therefore be utterly discarded. Even the active cultivation of virtues, such as benevolence, rectitude, and propriety, is condemned; Nature requires no action to stimulate her growth, and all the Sage has to do is bring himself into perfect conformity with her. All such passions, accomplishments, and attributes, being the result of striving, are called, in the Taoist phrase, the human nature of man, in contradistinction to the heavenly or natural nature with which he is endowed. "Wherefore," says Chuang Tsze, "do not develop this artificial, human, or engrafted nature; but do develop that heavenly nature which is your natural inheritance." In Huai-nan Tsze's "History of Great Light" we have a still more striking passage, in which the difference between the two natures is lucidly explained. Speaking of those happy ones who, by having arrived at a thorough understanding of the Principle of Nature, have reverted to a state of pure repose, he says: "Nourishing their constitutions by tranquillity, and letting their spirits rest in indifference, they enter the Door of Heaven—i.e., Nature. And what is it that is called Heavenly? It is that which is homogeneous, pure, simple, undefiled, upright, luminous, and immaculate, and which has never undergone any mixture or adulteration from the beginning. And what is the Human? It is that which has been adulterated with shrewdness, crookedness, dexterity, hypocrisy, and deceit; wherefore it bends itself in compliance with the world, and is brought into association with the customs of the age. For example: the ox has horns and a divided hoof, while the horse has a dishevelled mane and a complete hoof; this is the Heavenly—or natural. Putting a bit into the horse's mouth and piercing the nose of the ox; this is the Human—or artificial. Those who follow the Heavenly are such as roam in company with Nature; those who follow the Human are such as mix themselves up with the fashions of the world. * * Wherefore," continues the philosopher, "the Sage does not allow the Human to disorder the Heavenly—he p. v suffers no injury to be done to his true nature; nor does he permit Desire to disturb his natural feelings. He acts exactly as he ought, without considering what he shall do beforehand; he is trustworthy, without promising; he obtains all he wants without anxiety, and he brings all his designs to completion without doing anything himself. His Spiritual Palace"—a Taoist euphemism for mind—"being replete with pure sincerity, he assists the Creator Himself in the government of men."
This leads me to the consideration of what may be termed the first development of the Naturalistic theory. In order to bring himself into conformity with Nature, it is imperative that the Sage should remain always and completely passive. This is expressed by the formula wu wei, which may be variously rendered "non-exertion," "not-doing," "inertia," "absolute inaction," or "masterly inactivity." In addition to the idea of undisturbed quiescence it embraces also that of spontaneity and designlessness; so that even the rigid adherence to an inactive policy is robbed of its virtue if it be adopted with intent. The very effort to obtain possession of Nature, says Chuang Tsze, defeats itself, for the simple reason that it is an effort. A man must be passionless as well as motionless; he must be content to leave himself to the influences which surround him, and discard all thoughts of helping on the work; he must banish all desire from his heart; he must concert no schemes and form no plans; he must never anticipate emergencies, but simply mould himself according to any circumstances that may arise. And especially is this of importance in the world of politics. Here the formula wu wei must be translated "non-interference"—that wise and far-sighted policy the world is so slow to learn. The Taoist condemns over-legislation, and justly points to the peddling meddling system of a so-called paternal government as the cause of anarchy and ruin. Never do anything, he says, for the mere sake of doing it; never do anything that is not absolutely necessary; leave the people to develop their own resources, and feel their own way to tranquillity and prosperity. Let Nature work unimpeded, in social and political life as well as in the sphere of physics or of morals; then your subjects will be contented with their lot, and your kingdom free from conspiracies, dissensions, and disaster. Do nothing to disturb their primitive simplicity. Do not seek to replace their rough instruments of labour by complicated machines; p. vi such refinements lead to luxury, to scheming, to ambition, and to discontent; the very exercise of such ingenuity implies a scheming mind; therefore, discourage artificial innovations. The secret of happiness is to be found in quiescence, simplicity, and content; and the only way to attain to these is to bring body, passions, intellect, and will into absolute conformity with Nature.
The descent from these sublime and simple ethics during the Han and succeeding dynasties was fatally rapid. They soon became obscured in a mist of hocus-pocns and imposture, in which idolatry, the prolongation of life, the elixir of immortality and the transmutation of metals played a prominent part. With this degraded phase of Taoism we have nothing whatever to do. It is only sad to reflect how soon and how irrevocably the ancient doctrines of Lao Tsze and his successors fell into desuetude, and have since endured the reproach of their enforced association with a system of superstitious folly. The fine indifference of the old Taoists to life and death, wealth and penury, has given way to sordid avarice and attempts to prolong the existence of the material frame; the pure code of the Naturalistic philosopher has been reversed; his precepts are forgotten, his dignity dishonoured. But the canons of Taoism proper are still open to us, and they are deserving of careful study. The "orthodox" theories of the Rationalist school have surely had an ample share of attention from Western scholars, while the independent doctrines of the rival teachers remained for a long time neglected. And yet the Naturalists are far bolder and more original in thought than the Rationalists; they are trammelled by no slavish reverence for departed kings and exploded platitudes; their minds are free, their theories striking, and their practice pure. It is only regrettable that the extreme obscurity of their style should have laid them open to misrepresentations and misconstructions on the part of members of the Confucianist school, which have brought them into undeserved discredit. This is more particularly referred to on another page. Meantime it must gladden the hearts of all true students to see that some little interest is at last being taken by European writers in the beautiful philosophy of Nature preached by the founder of Taoism; the study of which, I make bold to add, cannot fail to yield rich stores of pleasure to everyone who takes it up, be he scholar, dilettante, or divine.
F. H. B.
* Originally read before the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, on the 21st September, 1880.
* Compare Plänckner and Hardwick, referred to in my Chuang Tsze, page VII. Nature, in the sense of an abstract cause, the initial Principle of life and order; the hypostatic quiddity which underlies all phenomena and of which they are a manifestation only.