History of religion

The enigmatic sage

(Published in Grail World 14/1999)

Among the three great Asiatic founders of religions - Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tse - one received special attention in the West: Lao-Tse (Lao ‑ zi, Lao Tan). The Taoteking (Dao ‑ de ‑ jing) attributed to him has been translated into European languages several times. No less a person than Martin Heidegger (1889-976) worked on a translation together with a Chinese, and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) wrote commentaries on Taoist writings. GrailWelt editor Siegfried HAGL summarizes what is known about the "enigmatic sage".

Who Was Lao Tzu?

Little is known historically of the great Chinese sage; However, there are many legends surrounding the life of the Lao-Tse, similar to the reports about Buddha, some of which contradict each other. The only official account of the life of Lao-Tse does not appear until centuries after his work in the Chinese historian Sima Quian (Ssu ‑ ma Ch'ien, approx. 145-90 BC). Accordingly, Lao-Tse (= the "old master") had the name Li ‑ Erl, the age name Eo ‑ Yang and the taboo name Dan. Under the rule of the Zhou dynasty, he held the office of archivist at the court in the 6th century BC. According to these reports, Lao-Tze was founded in 571 BC. Born in Kuxien in the state of Chu (today's Henan Province), he was about 20 years older than Confucius.

Some religious scholars consider this information to be incorrect and assume that Lao-Tse did not live until the 3rd century BC, as such an early development of "Taoteking" is improbable in intellectual history.

In Sima Quian's “historical records” (Shih ‑ chi) one of the most cited statements about the life of Lao-Tse appears, which also inspired Bert Brecht to write his ballad:
“Lao-Tzu spent most of his life in Chou. Foreseeing the city's decline, he left it and came to the border. The border guard Yin-Hi said to him: The Lord wants to withdraw, may I ask the Lord to write me a book? ' Then Lao-Tse wrote a book in two parts, containing more than 5,000 words, in which he dealt with the terms "the way" (Tao) and "the power" (Te). Then he left. Nobody knows where he died. " (5, p. 358)

"But let's not only praise the wise
Whose name is emblazoned on the book!
Because one must first wrest his wisdom from the wise man,
That's why the customs officer should also be thanked:
He demanded it from him. "
From the "Legend of the origin of the book Taoteking on the path of Lao-Tse into emigration" by Bertold Brecht (1898-1956).

Many scholars have questioned these few historical dates, and there remains room for conjecture and legend. The existence of the above-mentioned book is indubitable, regardless of when and by whom it was written. As Taoteking (Dao ‑ de ‑ jing) it is one of the most translated books in Chinese literature, of which German translations are also available in every major library.

The Taoteking

To us Westerners, Taoteking is usually only accessible in translations, which are all the more difficult as the original is ancient Chinese texts, the exact meaning of which is not always clear even for Chinese scholars, and the interpretations of the ancient traditions are correspondingly contradictory. A central term for Lao-Tse is the Tao (Dao), and at the beginning of Taoteking there is a famous play on words, which in its contradiction leads to the Asian method of conveying truths:
"A writable Tao would not be the eternal Tao,
A name that can be named would not be the eternal name. " (4, p. 103).

The first verse of the text already says that what is to be conveyed cannot be described. The author deliberately expresses himself unclear, even makes contradicting statements in order not to give the thinking too many fixed points that could be used to suppress feelings that are better suited to absorbing spiritual knowledge. The millennia-old tradition of the West in philosophical and theological speculations has a hard time with the open and therefore ambiguous, sometimes illogical statements that are used in Asia when dealing with higher insights.

Tao literally means "way". It is often interpreted as the original principle, elemental force, from which all being and all things emerge:
“There is a being, completely perfected, even before heaven and earth existed. It stands alone, quiet and empty, and does not change. It turns in circles and never gets tired. It can be seen as the mother of the world. I don't know his name, so I call it (hence simply) Tao. " (2, p. 53).

Regarding the origin of the Tao, Lao-Tse says that he does not know who it came from. However, it appears more originally than the gods, has already existed before heaven and earth and is to be regarded as the mother of the world. So would the Tao in Lao-Tse be the effect of the living laws of creation, the working of God's will? In the words of the Lao-Tse, which are not easy to understand, the occidental seeker of God will even sense a recognition of the only God through whom all created things came into being.

In the West it is generally assumed that the knowledge of the only God is due to Moses and the people of Israel. However, regardless of this, there are also echoes of this knowledge of God in other peoples - from the ancient Egyptians to Indian myths - so that one can also trust ancient China and its sage Lao-Tse with corresponding insights.

A second important term in Taoteking is the Te (De):
“Tao creates things, Te maintains them.
The world of things forms it, power completes it.
So there is none among the ten thousand beings who do not respect Tao and value Te.
Respect Tao and value Te - nobody gave the order, and it will forever happen by itself. " (4, p. 106).

This text is usually interpreted in such a way that Te is understood to mean the work of the Tao in the world. Tao and Te - creating and sustaining power - therefore work together. But unfortunately not always as it would be natural and right: Conceived by the Tao, the young, tender life is still completely subject to the effectiveness of the Tao. As you grow up, however, an increasing proportion of life of your own takes effect, which more and more suppresses the influence of the Tao:
“When people begin to live they are tender and weak, when they die they are tough and strong. When the ten thousand beings, plants and trees begin to live, they are tender and soft; when they die, they are withered and rigid. Therefore that which is hard and strong is a companion of death and that which is soft is a companion of life. " (2, p. 54).

So the Tao works in every person. According to Taoist doctrine, with increasing age, people develop ever greater activity, which removes them more and more from their true roots. Above all, it is selfish drives that cut people off from the Tao. In Taoism, the way back to the sources of its existence is liberation from all desires. Uninterrupted activity leads to ruin, so the motto is: Don't act! This inaction by the Taoist means switching off human activity, reflecting on inner values so that the Tao can develop in people.

Consequently, Lao-Tse thinks little of comprehensible knowledge and the imparting of earthly knowledge; he advocates an unpretentious life. His ideal for earthly life are small states that work together modestly and peacefully, without rivalries or even wars and without personal ambition. Man should also not intervene in the ways of nature.

You have to see this ideal of peaceful life against the background of the epoch: Lao-Tse lived at the time of the "Warring States" (481-221 BC), while China was a chaos of rival and fighting small states brought a chain of suffering and hardship upon their citizens. As a counter-reaction, there was almost inevitably a lesson that renounced not only the war, but also envy, ambition and all the other vices that repeatedly gave rise to self-destructive arguments. Last but not least, parallels to Buddhism can be found: Buddha's “eight-part path” also wants to lead to liberation from desires, to the dissolution of earthly ties.

Lao-Tse and Confucius

According to tradition, the "old masters" and Confucius, who was two decades younger than him, met in person, and Zhuangzi reports in the 4th century BC about a presumably fictitious dialogue between the two opponents.

  • LAOTSE strives for internalization, turns away from the world and its gears and preaches looking upwards.
  • CONFUCIUS builds on intelligible thinking and above all gives his students earthly rules of conduct without dealing with the transcendent, the hereafter, the divine, which he himself says he cannot grasp with his own means.

According to tradition, Lao-Tze draws Confucius' attention to the futility of his path; Knowing full well that humanity cannot be morally uplifted through understanding efforts and doctrines directed towards earthly well-being, and predicts its failure. But neither Confucius nor the royal court in which the meeting is said to have taken place allow themselves to be dissuaded from their earthly goals by the words of the “old master”.

It was and is no different in China than anywhere else in the world: The path of internalization, of spiritual striving, is known, but it is left to individuals, medieval mystics or so-called "saints". Thinking towards the outside, looking for solutions to daily problems without finding their true causes, is closer to most people who strive for material success and do not strive for spiritual and spiritual development, whose value, especially for life on earth, is not is recognized.

Lao-Tze said: “When the highest human species hears the Tao (truth), they strive to live according to it. When the mediocre hear the Tao, they seem to notice and yet not notice. When the lower class of people hears of the Tao, they burst into laughter. Because if the Tao weren't laughed at, it wouldn't be the Tao. " (3, p. 14).

The volume “Lao-Tse - Life and Work of the Trailblazer in China”, published by the Grail Message Foundation, is particularly suited to illuminating the spiritual contrasts between the teachings of Lao-Tse and Confucius.

Taoism today

Taoism has undergone many changes since Lao-Tse. From a more philosophically oriented religious doctrine it became a strongly esoteric movement that even wanted to overcome the phenomena of physical decay such as old age, illness and death through alchemy and meditation in the Middle Ages.
End-time expectations of a “New Kingdom of the Chosen” emerged, just as many manifestations of other religions were practiced in Taoism (monasticism, celibacy of the priests, hermitism, etc.). Confrontations with Buddhism, to which Taoism is close in some respects, did not fail to materialize in the 13th century, for example.

Taoism has always been a typical Chinese religion, which, in addition to the motherland, is found primarily in Chinese settlement areas (e.g. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia) but also in Korea. There Taoism could outlast the Cultural Revolution, which made practically all religious practice in Red China impossible. Today there are Taoists and renovated Taoist temples again in the People's Republic of China, and the old traditions are being maintained. Due to their long history and extensive literary tradition, the Taoists refrain from being referred to as "shamans" who deal primarily with esotericism, but rather see Taoism as a high religion.

Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism get on well in Asia today; In the understanding of many Chinese, they even merge and complement each other, so that religiously oriented Chinese often feel that they belong to all three systems at the same time. One speaks of the "three ways that have one goal" or says that the three religious directions are like "three legs of a tripod vessel".

The classics of Taoism
Taoteking (Dao-de-jing):
It is the classical work ascribed to the Lao-Tse. Today it is of the opinion that the scriptures undoubtedly come from the "period of the warring states" (Zhan ‑ guo ‑ period, 421-221 BC), and probably not only has one author. The basic work may come from Lao-Tse, supplemented and expanded by text passages added later. Its content is difficult to translate into other languages, and individual translations differ accordingly.
The book Zhuangzi (Tschuang-Tse):
The second most important representative of the Taoist school is Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang), who lived in the 4th century BC, about 100 years later as Lao-Tse. The thoughts of the Zhuangzi are based on the teachings of the Lao-Tse, but bring differentiation and expansion. For Zhuangzi, too, the Tao is the focus as the all-encompassing primal force, the all-inclusive principle through which the universe came into being.

Asians are less inclined to religious fanaticism or even to religious wars, which does not have to mean that they take their religious teachings less seriously than other peoples.

But today people meditate on the essence of the Tao as they did two and a half millennia ago:
"The Tao is a hollow vessel,
And its use is inexhaustible!
Like the fountainhead of all things
Its edges rounded,
His snares loosened
His light dimmed
His vertebra submerged,
It still seems to remain dark like deep water.
I don't know whose son it is
A picture of what existed before as God. " (3, p. 56).

(1) Glasenapp, Prof. Dr. Helmuth v .: "The non-Christian religions", Fischer, Frankfurt aM, 1957.
(2) Ladstätter / Linhart: "China and Japan", Carl Ueberreuter, Vienna, 1983.
(3) Lin Yutang: “The wisdom of Lao-Tse”, Fischer, Frankfurt aM, 1955.
(4) Moritz, Ralf: "The Philosophy in Old China", German Science Publishing House, Berlin, 1990.
(5) Tworuschka, Monika and Udo: “Religions of the World”, Orbis Verlag, Munich, 1996.