Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tao and Chi

Taoism, the doctrine of The Way, emphasizes passive influence (like that of a catalyst), while stressing change and indeterminacy over order. It rejects rigid hierarchy, or even interest in assertive dominance. It reveres the extraordinary, for instance in appealing natural forms (mountains, trees, rocks, fossils). Taoism offers no anthropomorphic creator, law-giver or ‘intelligent design’, nor trickster nor devil, but plenty of room for light-heartedness, compassion and experimentation. It’s about power, and even governance, but more in recognition of what is real than in manipulation. For the Taoist, ego is as ephemeral, illusory and meaningless as in Zen Buddhism. To Confucian bureaucrats, Taoism was appallingly subversive and dangerous.
The Tao, both the Way and the Wayfarer, is the eternal path along which all beings travel. It’s everything while also nothing; no being made it; it itself is being. From the Tao spring all things. All things conform to it, and to it all things return. It can be compared to a vast net, which, though its meshes are as wide as the sea, lets nothing through. It’s nowhere, but without looking for it, you may see it. It offers sanctuary where all things can find refuge.
Desire not to desire, the Tao teaches, and leave all things to take their course. For he that humbles himself shall be preserved, much as the reed that bends shall be again made straight. Mighty is he who conquers himself. Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking-place of failure. Gentleness will bring victory to him who attacks and safety to him who defends. Whoever will strive to achieve enduring compassion and tenderness can become even as wise as a small child.
These ideas date back to prehistory, and the emergence of the Chinese as a great race with the defeat of tribal peoples (Miao) of Southern China, antecedents of the T’ai, Yao (Eu-Mien) and Hmong, among others. It was how some wise men of this early great civilization tried to explain things. We may pride ourselves on material accomplishments (things, which may be hastening our demise), but in fundamentally important ways we’ve learned little which might place us intellectually above these (and certain other) early thinkers. Their contributions stand as philosophic rivals to anything else ever presented, though some of their followers, as followers will, have gone a bit, and often more than a bit, off track.
Shen Yen Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, is a patron saint of Taoism. Reputed to have been born about 2700 BCE, he began rule as a child. He’s seen as the patron of technology: classic works on many arcane arts, including alchemy, medicine, sexual techniques, cooking, and dietetics, were all placed under his aegis. He’s credited with introducing wooden houses, carts, boats, the bow and arrow, coinage, writing and defeating Miao (Meo or Maeo) “barbarians” in a great battle, somewhere in what is now Shansi Province. That victory won him leadership of all tribes in the Huang Ho (Yellow River) basin. Huang Di may have led a tribal confederation of central plains Yangshao Neolithic tribes; legend has him ruling an area from the Pacific to today’s Gansu province, south to the Changjiang (Yangtze) River and north into Shanxi and Hebei Provinces.
He’s called the Yellow Emperor for his imperial color: that of Chinese yellow earth. Extravagant tales grew up about him, including that he lived in a magnificent palace in the Kunlun Mountains, with a heavenly door keeper who had the face of a man, the body of a tiger and nine tails. Huang Di’s said to have had a pet bird that helped take care of his clothes and personal effects. His Court introduced writing, coins, bricks, the cart, the boat, the compass, pottery wheel, sericulture, flute, 5 & 12 tone scales, mathematics, medicine and even the house. He developed military discipline, standard measurements, laws of astronomy, and the first calendar used by Chinese people. He gave a name to each family in China. One tale says he invented tea after a leaf fell into his mug of hot water; another that Lei Zu, his wife, taught the people to raise silkworms and weave beautiful silk fabrics. He’s venerated as one of the founders of religious Taoism (Tao Jiao) and the author of the Nei-jing, China’s first medical treatise. Upon death he became an immortal, carried off to Heaven by a dragon, when he was 110 years old. He’s still venerated by many Chinese; ceremonies are still performed in his honor at a pavilion that marks his grave, on cypress-covered Mount Qiaoshan in Huangling County, Shananxi Province, on the road going north from Xi’an.
When the Huang Di had subjected most local leaders, the sole exception remaining was Chiyou of the Miao tribe. The Yellow Emperor met him in battle at Zhuolu, but found Chiyou could create fog, and even cover a five mile area with it! Huang Di couldn’t defeat him, until he designed a compass chariot (a cart with a deity effigy raised above it, which always points south) to keep his army oriented. With it, China was pacified.

Lao-tzu, author of the Tao te Jing, is believed to have been a sage whose instructions elucidate the arts of life, perfection and of government. Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, with whose reign Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s universal history opens, was depicted as a ruler of the Golden Age who, unlike Lao-tzu, was always the disciple, and achieved success because he applied Lao-tzu’s precepts. An unremitting seeker of knowledge, he was thus an ideal ruler.
Shih Huang-di, born 259 BCE, in Ch’in (northwestern China), was another ‘first’ emperor. The only significant member of the Ch’in ‘dynasty’ (221–210/209 BCE), he created the first unified Chinese empire (which collapsed four years after his death), and established a fully centralized administration by abolishing territorial feudal power in the empire. He issued orders for standardization of weights, measures, axle lengths of carts, written language and laws, and built not only a network of roads and canals, but the strong links between fortresses for defense against invasion from the north well-known as the Great Wall. Shih Huang-ti was interested in magic and alchemy and searched for masters in these arts who could provide him with an elixir of immortality. After the failure of such an expedition to islands of the Eastern Sea in 219, the emperor repeatedly summoned magicians to his court.

He ordered some Taoist monks, who ran experimental medical laboratories, to brew a batch of immortality elixir, under pain of death. They took those pains. It was believed that immortal people lived on three Pacific islands, where they drank a concoction that proofed their bodies against time, so the emperor sent a fleet of ships to find the islands and fetch the philter. Many months later, the expedition’s captain returned. As he knew he faced death for failing, he told the emperor he’d actually met an immortal. But the immortal wouldn’t release the philter without the gift of many young people and craftsmen. The emperor complied, and away sailed the same canny captain with 3000 skilled and comely young people. They never returned. Legend claims they colonized Japan.
Confucian scholars strongly condemned the Emperor’s charlatanry; 460 were executed for their opposition. A continuous controversy between the emperor and Confucian scholars who advocated a return to the old feudal order culminated in a great book burning, in 213 BCE. All books not about agriculture, medicine, or prognostication, except historical records of Ch’in and books in the imperial library, were burned. Shih Huang-ti was buried in a gigantic 20-square-mile (52-square-kilometre) tomb hewn out of a mountain. Excavation of it started in 1974; over 10,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers and horses have been dug up: an army for the dead emperor. Most information about Shih Huang-ti’s life derives from the successor Han dynasty, which prized Confucian scholarship (and thus had interest in disparaging him and the Ch’in era). Histories showed him as a villain par excellence: inhuman, uncultivated, and superstitious. Modern historians, though, often prefer to stress the endurance of the bureaucratic and administrative structures he institutionalized, which provided the basis of all subsequent administrations in China.
So, two guys named Huang-di: one, a Taoist, established Chinese dominance over neighboring peoples. The later, a legalist (authoritarian: ‘Punishment produces force, force produces strength, strength produces awe, awe produces virtue.’), made China defensible, well, usually defensible, against outsiders. Their historical significance is unrivaled.

Taoist “masters” now perform exorcisms, faith-healings and occult rituals, having drifted as far from Lao Tzu as the Pope from the Sermon on the Mount. Groups known as Celestial Master Black Hats and Red Turbans perform ceremonies not dissimilar to those of other organized religions. These, though ancient, may not be as profound as its adherents like to believe – the root of the problem being desire for immortality.
Ko Hung (283 – 343 CE) wrote the Baopuzi (‘He Who Holds to Simplicity’), detailing methods to attain immortality… Lao Tzu cautioned against offering advice (“Give up learnedness”), clearly not heeding his own – life and Tao are full of contradictions, opposites, yin & yang dichotomy contradictions… Like no map can depict all, no guide can be sufficiently clear; one must forge for oneself! Advice easy to give when one hasn’t children…
For Taoist priests, paintings imbued with a kind of spiritual life are important, although essential only for certain functions, during which men-folk try to gain some experience of heavenly realms. A Shaman is different – someone through whom supernatural spirits can interact with people. He assists in curing ceremonies by calling ancestral spirits, and has his mentor spirit go to the spirit world to ask the cause of illness. Smoke, candles and offerings are used… a shaman creates charms and performs magic to drive away demons of ill health. Often in curing ceremonies a shaman will go into trance and become possessed by supernatural beings, as part of the healing process.

Lao Tzu wrote:

Whosoever knows how to practice restraint
Does not get into danger
And thus can last forever.
Whosoever cherishes Life
Does not know about Life.
The softest thing on earth
Overtakes the hardest thing on earth.
The non-existent overtakes even that…

An interesting observable, transmittable, verifiable truth is a good thing. No deception, sugar-coating, clinging egotism or inflation/exaggeration, only go-with-the-flow acceptance and the most subtle of influencings. No unseemly, undignified and counter-productive affectations; no greed, embellishments, obfuscation or pretense. What’s not necessary is superfluous, and less often better than more. Violence is seldom, if ever, necessary, nor imposition. Patience, ability to wait and no fear of going without sometimes are necessary emotional accoutrements to the wise. All this, indeed, is hardly taught but by some single school of thought, but is rather the creed of the spiritualist, wherever and whenever.
Taoists teach: One should take care of things that are in need of doing, and then move on to the next thing that needs to be done, without any attachment to the accomplishment. One should not bother doing things other than what needs to be done: one should not spend time bothering with wealth, power, or praise. To deviate from this is only to find obstacles and heartache.
Creating, yet not possessing. Working, yet not taking credit. Work is done, then forgotten. Therefore, it lasts forever. Achieve results, but never glory in them. Achieve results, but never boast, never desire pride. Achieve results, because this is the natural way. There is no greater sin than desire, no curse greater than discontent, no misfortune worse than wanting what one doesn’t have. He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough; meaningful eminence is achieved only in little things.

The Way resembles an empty vessel -
We turn clay to make a vessel,
But it’s the space where there is nothing
On which the vessel’s usefulness depends.
This is called the Mysterious Power.

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Diminish the self and curb the desires!
One who boasts of his own ability has no merit.
To see the small is to have insight.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course;
it cannot be ruled by interfering.
Nothing is more soft and yielding than water,
yet for attacking the solid and the strong, nothing is better.

Knowing ignorance is strength; ignoring knowledge is sickness.

The Taoist sage has no ambitions, therefore he can never fail.
He who never fails always succeeds.
And he who always succeeds is all-powerful.

The Tao grew from ideas held by shamans of the Shang Dynasty (1700 - 1100 BCE); perhaps several teachers collaborated on its primary text, a short, dense book of only 5,250 words - probably the most influential 5,250 words ever written. Although earlier ascetics and hermits such as Shen Tao (who advocated that one ‘abandon knowledge and discard self’) first wrote of ‘Tao,’ only with the 6th century BCE philosopher Lao Tzu (or ‘Elder Sage’ - maybe born Li Erh) did the philosophy of Taoism gain its master teacher. Some scholars believe Li Erh/Lao Tzu was a slightly older contemporary of Confucius (Kung-Fu Tzu, born Chiu Chung-Ni). Others see the Tao Te Ching as a compilation of paradoxical poems written by several Taoists using a pen-name (‘Elder Sage’). This Tao Te Ting, Taoism’s oldest (surviving) scripture, appeared during the Warring States period when China was a chaos of rival kingdoms, between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE. It’s sometimes attributed to Lao Tan, a mythic figure said to have lived 160 or 200 years... Classical Chinese historian Ssuma Chien attributed it to Li Erh, a custodian of imperial archives from the state of Ch’u in southern China, in the present Honan Province. Legend grew that Lao Tzu was keeper of archives at the Imperial Court. At the time, Honan was a fertile, well-watered state; “Its people make little exertion, delight in life, and neglect to store anything.” But war was a prevalent condition, and Li Erh/Lao Tan became disillusioned, saddened that men couldn’t follow the path of natural goodness.
If there was a real Taoist writer named Li Erh, it seems clear he wasn’t interested in fame. “The chief aim of his studies was how to keep himself concealed and remain unknown,” wrote Ssuma Chien. Li Erh presented his ideas in writing only because, as he was heading into retirement, the royal gatekeeper, Yixi (Yin Xi or Yin Hsi), pleaded with him to record them before he disappeared into oblivion. The book may have been written under a pseudonym, but it’s most likely that the Tao Te Ting simply recorded ancient wisdom long passed from masters to disciples. The ideas presented, which propose a way to stop warfare, a realistic path for humanity to follow which could end most conflict, became popular in the 2nd century BCE, during the Han dynasty. A series of commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries, followed, becoming hybridized with Confucianism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions. After a while, books of Tao began demarcating about everything: appropriate systems for greetings, even the proper way to clean one’s house.
The first Taoist authors, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism, developed a notion of the Tao as the origin of all creation, and the force - unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations - that lies behind the functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Tao, and nature, the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue: What is the basis of a stable, unified, enduring social order?
Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of Wu Wei, action through inaction. This means a practice of minimal, particularly non-violent, action, though the Taoist is not precisely a pacifist. He’ll take military action when he hasn’t seen ahead far enough to prevent need for violence in the first place. When violence seems necessary, the Taoist leader fights until he’s achieved his goal, then stops, saddened by the need for bloodshed. To use Wu Wei is to have a kind of Taoist patience - it is to allow things to unfold in their own way, in their own time. This doesn’t imply complete lack of energy expenditure - just recognition of the flow and cycles permeating the world we travel through.
The cardinal concept is that the Tao, the ineffable, eternal, underlying creative reality, is the source, end and connector of all things. ‘Te’ is the manifestation of the Tao within all things: virtue power. To possess the fullness of Te means to be in perfect harmony with one’s original nature. According to Taoism’s next great writer, Chuang-tzu (369 - 286 BCE), an individual in harmony with the Tao blends with the course of Nature’s constant change and embraces the rhythm of life and death. As is accomplished at death, so in life must the individual return to the original purity and simplicity of Tao.

Lao Tzu (or Laozi) simply means “Old Master-teacher” but indicates the most famous of Taoists and Tao Deities. According to legend, he was an older contemporary of Confucius born as an old man of about 82 years, to a minor aristocratic family (conceived by a shooting star). After developing his system of mysticism and philosophy, he rejected society. Riding off to the “uncivilized” west, he was stopped and persuaded to write down his thoughts, thus producing the Tao Te Jing. His success in personal development led to becoming one of Taoism’s most
powerful Deities. Some say he left China through the Hangu Pass in the Zhou period (6th century BCE), went to India and taught Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and that, therefore, the Buddha was a disciple of Laozi.
As Lao Tan or Li Erh, LaoTzu is said to have met Confucius. After they visited, disciples asked Confucius how he might admonish and correct Lao Tzu. “In him I have seen the dragon that rides on the cloudy air,” Confucius replied. After another visit he said, “In the knowledge of the Tao am I any better than a tiny creature in vinegar? A less apocryphal Confucius would have seen Li Erh as a dangerous threat, as his followers saw LaoTzu. Taoism’s stress on spontaneity and harmony with nature too strongly oppose Confucian obsession with duty, form, established custom and filial piety. When Laozi was 80 (two years younger than when he was born?), dispirited and disillusioned, he set out for Tibet, to meditate close to the clouds in his final days. But at the Hank Pass border post, a guard demanded he record his teachings before leaving… It’s been said Lao Tsu believed the language of wisdom to be silence, and that, after writing his book, he never spoke another word.

Zhuangzi is considered the most important Taoist philosopher after Laozi, and the Zhuangzi one of the great classics of world literature. The Zhuangzi, a 3rd century BCE Taoist classic, is a celebration of human creativity - the language lucid, its images darkly brilliant. The ideas are seriously playful. Without question, it’s one of the most challenging achievements of literature. Thematically, the Zhuangzi offers diverse insights into how to develop an appropriate and productive attitude to life. Resourced over the centuries by Chinese artists and intellectuals alike, it’s provoked great commentarial tradition.

Early Taoist sages were often artisans, butchers or woodcarvers. These skilled workers understood the secret of talent and the art of living. To be successful with their skill, they needed inner spiritual concentration, and to be able to put aside concern with externals such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Artistry, like life, follows the creative path of nature, not the values of organized society.
Taoist ideas and images inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life - health, well being, vitality, and longevity. Ancient nature-worship and esoteric arts crept into the tradition, presented as ways of enhancing and prolonging life. Some Taoists began searching for “Isles of the Immortals,” for herbs or chemical compounds that could forestall death, and perhaps even secure immortality. More and more Taoists interested in health and vitality experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, advancing such arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and healthy diet, as well as gymnastics and massage to keep the body youthful and strong.
As the Taoist pantheon developed, it transformed from belief that spirits pervaded nature, both the natural world and the internal world within the human body - all these spirits being, though, but manifestations of the one Tao, and came to mirror the Chinese Imperial bureaucracy in its depictions of Heaven and Hell. The head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the Jade Emperor, who governed spirits, assigned workings of the natural world and administered moral justice. The gods in heaven acted like, and were treated like, officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like, and were treated like, the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world: they were bribed by the people, and ritually arrested by martial forces of the spirit officials. The common populace, who after all had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to keep troubles at bay, and by supplication and bribery to ensure attainment of the blessings of health, progeny, wealth, happiness and longevity.
Taoist priests saw many gods as manifestations of one Tao. They were ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important spirits, and to direct them, through meditation, visualization and ritual, to mutual goals. In meditation, Taoists harmonized, helping reunite gods, aspects of Tao, in the unity of One Tao. But only a few educated lay believers knew much of this complex theological system.

In contrast to the Confucian program of social reform through moral principle, ritual, and governmental regulation, the way of restoration, what Taoists consider the “true way,” consists in the banishment of learned sageliness, of discarding most received wisdom. “Manifest the simple,” urged Lao-tzu, “embrace the primitive; reduce selfishness, have few desires.”
The Tao operates impartially in the universe. Likewise, mankind should disavow assertive, acquisitive action. Taoist life is a life of non-purposive action (wu-wei), but also a life expressing the essence of spontaneity (tzu-jan, “self-so”). Taoist philosophy can be summed up well with a quote from Chuang Tzu: “To regard the fundamental as the essence, to regard things as coarse, to regard accumulation as deficiency, and to dwell quietly alone with the spiritual and the intelligent - herein lie the techniques of Tao of the ancients.”

Chi or Qi (pronounced “chee” and meaning Dragon’s Breath) is Chinese for “the natural energy of the Universe” (though supernatural might be a better word). Tao has been said to be Chi, the smallest (and original) particle of the universe. It has special capacities, and its own rules of movement. It exists everywhere and forms everything - there are no barriers to Tao, in either space or time; it is the inner force which maintains the balance and functioning of everything. ‘Te,’ moral virtue, is the method of proper application of Tao, the expressing process of the character of Tao, and the regulation of all matters in motion. All things in the universe have their orbit, their influence; movement and all activity regulated, everything has a basic norm, which isn’t gravity, but rather, instead, ‘original virtue’: cosmic harmony &/or the power of love.

Luo Chinfeng wrote, “Throughout heaven and earth, from ancient times to the present, everything is a single chi. The chi is originally one, but now moving, now still; now opening, now closing; now ascending, now descending; circulating ceaselessly, accumulation of subtlety becomes manifest; this is the four seasons of warm, cool, cold and hot; this is the generation, growth, gathering and storing of 10,000 things.”

The original Chi, Endlessly repeated
Infinitely diverse, Ceaselessly varies
While remaining the original Chi.

Like any amoeba, or cell even. Thus Chi becomes the a priori prime mover, love, while also its inverse and contra positive – and on into reverence, pride, admiration, yearning, lust, acquisitiveness, contentment, hunger, ecstasy, satisfaction, sacrifice, competitive testing, narcissism… it seems varieties spin on into new forms; love, a force or quality reaching and solidifying, rearranged into differentiating hues, dynamics and other interactive attributes, growing, evolving, stretching, and finding Twin, reflection, yin & yang, change, differentiation, multiplicity of twins...
Chapter 15 of the Tao begins: “Tao gave birth to One, One generates the Two; Two gave birth to Three. The Three generates all the myriad things. All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in their embrace, deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths – the flowing power gives them harmony.”
Yin/Yang: everything contains within its opposite. “Difficult and easy compliment each other… Back and front follow each other.” “The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal.” “Know the glorious; Keep to the lowly.” “Restless movement overcomes cold, but calm generates heat. Peace and stillness are the Norm of the World.”
Some say Taoism views time as cyclical, not linear, and that the Taoist’s ideal society is deeply connected with matriarchy and femininity. The Tao certainly says: Nature should not be exploited by abuse. Nature should be befriended, not conquered. The idea of the “Perfect Man”, that is, one who understands the cyclical and ever changing nature of the Universe, and who acts in accordance with Natural law, is common in Chinese philosophy. The Perfect Man is the quintessential Taoist. This Ideal Person, through the naturalness of his existence, male or female, is self-sufficient, never dependent either on wealth or society.
Simplicity, oneness, and tranquility are said to be Taoism’s 3 jewels, and also known as compassion, moderation (even of moderation!) and humility.


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