Monday, December 13, 2010


The antique works of the Chinese tradition—the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Chuang Tzu—are collections of the sayings attributed to the eponymous wise men. If anthology is their principle of composition, there is good reason to suspect that sayings and commentaries coming from later in the traditions came to be included in the growing text.

The Lao Tzu, also known as the Tao Te Ching, is no exception. Like the other ancient texts, it, too, was written in its various iterations on such materials as paper, silk, and strips of bamboo.

The Tao Te Ching, like The Laws of Manu, is a mix of cosmogonic myth and instruction in correct living, with this difference: the Chinese classic contains several cosmogonies:

The world had a beginning
And this beginning could be the mother of the world.

The way begets one; one begets two; two begets three; three begets the myriad creatures.

There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it “the way.”

Hence the way is great; heaven is great; earth is great; and the king is also great. Within the realm there are four things that are great, and the king counts as one.

Then, having set forth this last hierarchy, the writer concludes:

Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.

Now, if we indeed model ourselves on earth, it follows that we also model ourselves on both “the Way” and “that which is naturally so.” The world has a structure, and in order to achieve liberation, we must attune ourselves, both to that structure and to the nature of things.

Reading this Chinese classic in its entirety, we come to see that the vision behind it prescribes the behavior not just of the individual, but of the empire as well. The ruler of this utopian empire is the individual king, who must also be a sage, one who blends himself into the quietude of the cosmos.

“The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects,” says the sage.

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