Like the Sanskrit Word Aum, Tao stands for that which is the source, the power, and the form of the manifested universe. It is the Absolute Principle and Deity in Nature; therefore it is Boundless, Immutable, Omnipresent and Eternal on the one hand, and on the other expresses Itself as Life and Day and dissolves Itself into Death and Night. It is Macrocosmical and Microcosmical. Tao is translated differently — the Path, Nature, Reason, Doctrine, etc., but in truth it is untranslatable. Profound tomeshave been produced to explain Aum, and so with Tao. Without an application of the three fundamental propositions of the Secret Doctrine, Tao as expounded in Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu or by his follower, Chawng Tzu, and others, cannot be understood.
What follows will give an outline of the metaphysics and then of the occultism of Tao Teh Ching, the Classic of Tao and Teh or The Way of Virtue. Some Western Orientalists and missionaries have tried to substitute a personal god in translating and expounding Tao. Needless to say that Lao Tzu never taught a personal god; even in the worst days of corruption of his teachings the notion of an extra-cosmic god was never accepted; the Chinese were and are too philosophic for that!
Tao is a metaphysical grandeur; it also is the still small voice in the heart of the sage. Its ethics, its science, its philosophy, is comprehensive exactly as is the case with the imperishable Pravana. Tao Teh Ching and other Taoist volumes have confounded even sympathetic translators and their contents have appeared contradictory. Once again we are able to see how very valuable H.P.B.’s Secret Doctrine proves itself to be in throwing light on these Chinese puzzles; without its aid, to grasp the doctrines of the Tao philosophy would hardly be possible. The latter also reveals the universality of Theosophy, for Theosophical metaphysics, ethics, and rules of conduct are to be found therein.
Tao is the Absolute
Tao in its unchanging aspect has no name (32:1). The name which can be uttered is not its eternal name. Without a name it is the Origin of Heaven and Earth. With a name it is the Mother of all things (1:1-2). Tao in the form of existence sprang from Tao in the form of non-existence (40:2). How deep and unfathomable is Tao—the Honoured Ancestor of all things. I know not of whom it is the offspring (4:1-3).
Tao—the Manifesting One Life
It may be called the Mysterious Feminine. The issuing point of the Mysterious Feminine must be regarded as the Root of the Universe. Subsisting to all eternity, it uses its force without effort (6:1). It must be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. Its name I know not. To designate it I call it Tao. Endeavoring to describe it I call it Great (25:1-2).
Involution and Evolution
Being great it flows forth; thus it becomes remote; having become remote it returns (25:3).
Manifestation and Pralaya
Ceaseless in action, it cannot be named, but returns again to Nothingness (14:2). All things alike go through their processes of activity, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom, each returns to its origin. This returning is what we call Stillness — it may be called a reporting that they have fulfilled their appointed end. This Reversion is an eternal law (16:1).
Spirit-Matter is One
These two things, the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their origin are one and the same. This sameness is a mystery — the mystery of mysteries. It is the gate of spirituality (1:4).
The Primeval Triune Differentation
Tao produced Unity; Unity produced Duality; Duality produced Trinity; and Trinity produced all existing objects. These myriad objects leave Darkness behind and harmonized by the Breath of Abstraction embrace Light (42:1). Tao eludes the sense of sight and is therefore called colourless, of hearing and is therefore called soundless, of touch and is therefore called bodyless. These three qualities can not be apprehended, and hence they must be blended into Unity (14:1). Tao lies hid and cannot be named, yet it has the power of transmitting and perfecting all things (41:3). How impalpable, how vague is the Tao — yet within it there is Form, there is Substance, there is Force or Vital Principle (21:1).
This Vital Principle is the quintessence of Reality and out of it comes Truth (21:1).
Tao is the Great Square with no angles (41:2).
The mightiest manifestations of active force flow solely from Tao (21:1). As soon as Tao proceeds to Action, it becomes namable (32:4). All things are produced by Tao and nourished by its outflowing operation. They receive their forms according to the nature of each and are completed according to the circumstances of their condition. Therefore all things without exception honour the Tao and exalt its outflowing Virtue. Thus Tao produces all things, nourishes them, develops them, perfects them. Production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination — this is its mysterious operation (51:4). Tao is eternally inactive, and yet it leaves nothing undone (37:1).
These few culled teachings from Tao Teh Ching, the only extant fragment, show how very complete must have been the record made by Lao Tzu; on this the Secret Doctrine says:
He is said to have written 930 books on Ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all. His great work, however, the heart of his doctrine, the “Tao-te King,” or the sacred scriptures of the Taosse, has in it, as Stanislas Julien shows, only “about 5,000 words” (Tao-te-King, p. xxvii.), hardly a dozen of pages, yet Professor Max Müller finds that “the text is unintelligible without commentaries, so that Mr. Julien had to consult more than sixty commentators for the purpose of his translation,” the earliest going back as far as the year 163 B.C., not earlier, as we see. During the four centuries and a half that preceded this earliest of the commentators there was ample time to veil the true Laotse doctrine from all but his initiated priests. (Vol. I., p. xxv.).
Tao Teh Ching, however, is more an ethical than a metaphysical treatise. In it Lao Tzu preaches the Path of Spiritual Purity, of Soul Virtue. Its esoteric side lies securely hidden in its paradoxes. It is one of those rare books which possesses the real touch of inner life. There is a hidden force in the statements which creates something in the reflector’s heart, creates silence which speaks its mystery. But the student must not try to hear it with the ears of mind. Hence we might say, using an esoteric expression, that Lao Tzu teaches the Path of the Inner Ray which builds the Lotus of the Heart, the illuminator of the mortal mind, the renovator of the mortal man. Tao Teh Ching deals with that Mystic inner principle, ever-young, ever-silent, ever-natural, ever-invisible though ever in the world. It ever sings for all and yet few seek it. “The great Way is very smooth, but the people love the by-paths” (53:2).
Man is triune — within the earthly man is the heavenly man, within the latter is the face of Tao. Within every man slumbers Tao; in going forth from Tao he came to Heaven, in going forth from Heaven he fell on earth; therefore “man takes his law from earth; the earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from Tao; but the law of Tao is its own Spontaneity” (25:4). This Spontaneity or Naturalness is dual and manifests as the Law of Inversion and the Law of Reversion, Involution and Evolution. When a man is under the dominance of the former he recedes from Tao, he finds himself in an inverted position; when he works with the latter Tao flows unto him and he is one with Tao.
To know the Law of Reversion is to be enlightened. Not to know it is misery and calamity. He who knows that eternal law is liberal-minded. Being that, there is a community of feeling with all things. From this community of feeling comes a Kingliness of character and to be Kingly is to be akin to Heaven. Thus he possesses Tao; and possessed of Tao he endures forever. Though his body perish, yet he suffers no harm (16:2).
The spontaneous manifestation of Tao demands silence and repose: the evils of the man of earth, the virtues of the man of heaven must cease to exist. On the positive side the man has regained the child-state he has lost: “he who has Tao in him is like an infant. The infant’s bones are weak, its sinews are soft, yet its grasp is firm. All day long it will cry without its voice becoming hoarse. This is because the harmony of its bodily system is perfect” (55:1-2). “Temper your sharpness, disentangle your ideas, moderate your brilliancy, live in harmony with your age. This is being in conformity with the principle of Tao. Such a man is impervious alike to favor and disgrace, to benefits and injuries, to honour and contempt. Therefore he is esteemed above all mankind” (56:2-3). It is by moderation that man returns to the normal state of Tao. But this moderation is not between the extremes of earthly evil and heavenly good, but is superior to both. Lao Tzu warns against the spiritual inertia of a good life; he advocates rising above the satvic life of harmony. To be dominated by good is still to be a slave; to dominate both evil and good is to be a Master and therefore the servant of both.
Desire not to desire, and you will not value things difficult to obtain. Learn not to learn and you will revert to a condition which mankind in general has lost (64:4).
All difficult things in the world arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. He who is continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult. Therefore the Sage sees difficulty of things for others even in what seems easy to himself and so never has any difficulties. To act without acting; to conduct affairs without trouble of them; to taste without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great and a few as many; to recompense injury with kindness; — this is the Way of Tao (63:1-3).
Christendom attributes its golden rule to Jesus; but Lao Tzu taught it centuries before Jesus. The spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is fully expressed in Tao Teh Ching.
To those who are good I am good and to those who are not good I am also good — and thus all get to be good. With the sincere I am sincere, and with the insincere I am also sincere — and thus all get to be sincere (49:2).
In no other literature, and certainly in no other single volume is the doctrine of Inaction in Action, including that phase which is known in the West as “resist not evil”, so amply and tellingly expounded as in Taoism and in Tao Teh Ching. To act with detachment, rising above the pairs of opposites, is the Paradoxical Way. The doctrine of Wu-Wei instructs why one must not wish to be rare like jade or common like stone, and how the soft overcomes the hard, the weak the strong.
The heavy is the foundation of the light; repose is the ruler of unrest (26:1-2). He who raises himself on tiptoe cannot stand firm; he who stretches his legs wide apart cannot walk (24:1).
He who devotes himself to the Tao seeks to diminish his doings from day to day. He diminishes and again diminishes, till he arrives at the point of non-action; there is nothing which he does not do (48:1-2).
The best soldiers are not warlike; the best fighters do not lose their temper. The greatest conquerors are those who overcome their enemies without strife. The greatest leaders of men are those who yield place to others. This is called the Virtue of Inaction, the capacity of directing mankind; this is being the compeer of Heaven. It was the highest goal of the Ancients (68:1).
To possess Tao a man must first possess the Three Precious Things: “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize — (1) gentleness; (2) frugality; (3) humility. Be gentle and you can be bold. Be frugal and you can be liberal. Avoid pushing yourself to the front and you can become a leader among men” (67:2-3).
The control of our lower nature through a contemplation on our higher is taught:
Colour’s five hues from eyes their sight will take; Music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make; the flavours five deprive the mouth of taste.
Racing and hunting make the mind mad; craving for rare and strange objects corrupts the moral nature. Therefore the Sage seeks to satisfy the belly and not the eye (12:1-2).
The five colours are reported to be Black, Red, Green, White and Yellow; the five notes of the Chinese musical scale; the five tastes are Salt, Bitter, Sour, Acrid and Sweet. “In satisfying the belly one nourishes himself; in gratifying the eyes he makes a slave of himself,” says the well-known commentator Wang Pi of the third century, A.D. This is regarded as ingenious by Legge, but there is more than ingeniousness: what Wang Pi tried to convey is that those experiences which build the spiritual body are preferable to sense activities which sharpen the corpus. At least thus we heard from a holy man of China.
Much is written on the conduct of Government, on the waging of war, but Lao Tzu, like Jesus, spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and like Krishna advocated the destruction of evil in ourselves. Yet there are some remarkable utterances on the art of government:
As restrictions and prohibitions are multiplied the people grow poorer. When the people are skilled in many cunning arts, strange are the objects of luxury that appear. The greater the number of laws and enactments the more thieves and robbers there will be (57:2-3). He who respects the state as his own person is fit to govern it. He who loves the state as his own body is fit to be entrusted with it (13:3).
The above will suffice to show how the Ancient Landmarks of Tao Teh Ching inspire the modern Theosophist, although a great corruption overtook the movement of Lao Tzu, and today this cult is saturated with superstition and fraud. The true teachings of Tao and Teh, though in fragments, survive; and so do the real Taoists, unknown to the world but to whom the world is not unknown. To them the world owes a debt of gratitude for the great service they silently render.