Tao versus Transcendentalism
This short essay tries to explain why China rather than India is likely to be the world’s next most influential nation. Various economic, social and ideological factors may be at play, but we should start with the “great divide” between China and India: China imported Buddhism but India did not import the Chinese notion of Tao.
“Eastern” thought is varied and complex. But when discussing Tao, the sequence and context are unambiguous: First there was Tao, then the I Ching, then Tao-inspired Confucianism, then Buddhism, and then the Taoist religion, instituted by Chinese thinkers concerned the Chinese would lose sight of Tao.
Lao Tzu, presumed author of the Tao Teh Ching, explained the nature of Tao more than 2000 years ago: "There was something unmoving, unchanging, all-pervading, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of Tao.” Lao Tzu admits this “something” is unknowable and he doesn’t project vistas of the transcendental found in Indian religions. But he does point at Tao’s “constituent parts” – Heaven and Earth.
Heaven and Earth is code for the binary opposites the Chinese identified as being at the heart of the universe, and by extension human nature. They codified this binary universe with the eight trigrams denoting gradation of generic classes of Heaven (“plus”) and Earth (“minus”). The eight trigrams formed the basis of the I Ching.
Ancient Chinese sages made it an art, if not a science, to identify every conceivable opposite in nature, both concrete and abstract. They reasoned that nature being a binary phenomenon they would do well to apply this very same principle to their everyday lives in order to “insert” themselves in the binary universe with the least amount of friction.
Qi and Ki
Lao Tzu explained how to identify binary opposites: “While clay is used to make a vase, in what there isn’t lies it use.” “Difficult and easy accomplish each other. Long and short define each other.” Chuang Tzu, after Lao Tzu, explained how to apply the binary principle to come to terms with human disagreement, in his case the discord between Confucianists and Mohists but still applicable today: “If you wish to affirm what they [either side] deny and deny what they affirm, the best means Illumination.”
In Tao, binary opposites are defined by a mutual tension. This makes them complimentary. The Chinese call this tension qi or chi (ki in Japanese and khi in Korea). The Japanese use the Chinese character for ki in words like aikido and denki, the latter having the modern meaning of electricity. Tao can be seen as a prescientific recognition of (electro)magnetism. One of its most refined human expressions is the Japanese tea ceremony, essentially a “ki ceremony.” It is the art of “being there without being there” - without disturbing the equilibrium created by the settings.
Tao and global consciousness
A large part of humanity has already developed a level of “global consciousness” through cultural cross-fertilization. Broadly stated, Europe impacted global consciousness through science, East Asia through aesthetics, India through spiritual practices, and Africa through the soul of its music. Having been “exported,” these cultural developments are often reimported after having been modified abroad. The West embraced Japanese “application technology” in the 1980s that greatly impacted the global economy, many Indians have embraced modern Western approaches to meditation techniques and yoga, and African musicians now play “World music.”
Take nearly any issue confronting humanity today to realize they are binary opposites: rich and poor, human and environment, male and female, progressive and conservative, socialist and capitalists, rights and responsibilities, etc. Reconciling opposites is second nature for people born and raised in Tao-imbued cultures, even if mostly subconsciously. The I Ching, the "Bible” of Tao, is a psychological tool to reconcile opposites in the mind. Marysol Sterling Gonzalez, in her book I Ching and Transpersonal Psychology (1995), referred to the I Ching as a “psychological computer.”
Ethics and aesthetics
Art historian George Rowley (1949) juxtaposed the Western, Indian and Chinese outlook on life and concluded: “The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art.” If not logical in the Western context, the Chinese insistence on reconcile opposites leads to aesthetics playing a big role in life.
For people imbued with a Tao-inspired worldview, ethics and aesthetics are abstractly related. If something is beautiful, it cannot be bad. Kenji Ekuan, prominent industrial designer in Post-War Japan, personified this ingrained belief. Ekuan was groomed to become a Buddhist priest but when he saw the destruction of Hiroshima in 1945, he decided to become a designer and devote his life to creating beauty. The ethical response was an aesthetic response.
If the latter seems overly anecdotal, there can be little doubt that reconciling opposites in the broadest sense of the word – human and nature, rights and responsibilities, the personal and the collective – is the theme of our time. Tao suggests that reconciling opposites precedes transcendentalism.
This essay was extracted from my book The Corridor of Space and other writings.