Book: The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion
Author: C. Spurgeon Medhurst

The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion By C. Spurgeon Medhurst

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 143
Publication Date: 1905

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There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of translations of the Tao te Ching, the root sacred text of Taoism, one of the three traditional religions of China. This one, written by an ex-missionary who appears to have had Theosophical leanings, includes extensive notes on similarities with other religions, primarily Christianity, but also Buddhism and Hinduism. This gives a new way of looking at this multi-faceted text, which has always had appeal to mystics of all persuasions.

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Carlyle somewhere compares religion to an "everlasting lode-star, that beams the brighter in the heavens the darker here on earth grows the night around him," and it is doubtful whether but for the degeneracy of his time we should ever have received this most precious fragment from antiquity, known as the Tao-teh-king. Lao-tzu, alias Lao-chün, alias Lao-tan (born B. C. 604), was one of those God-instructed souls who, having mastered "the fortuitous in life," stepped out from the shadow of the temporal into the clear, serene atmosphere of the Divine.

A keeper of the records in the capital of the state of Chou, he retired from office and from the ken of mankind because he saw how corrupt society had become, rendering all real spirituality impossible. Rather than become tainted by what he felt unable to change, he put aside earthly ambition and retired from the world. The historian says of him: "No one knows where he died." Before leaving the haunts of men, however, he wrote the Tao-teh-king, at the request of his friend, the Custom House Officer at the frontier. This man's name was Yin-hsi, a name which deserves to be recorded.

I have already referred to Confucius's opinion of his famous contemporary. There is no proof that they met more than once, the interviews between the two which embellish the works of Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu's chief disciple, being the inventions of the active brain of that clever writer, and intended to bring the system of Confucianism into ridicule. It is the beginning of a breach which should never have been made.

The Tao-teh-king, or, "A Scripture of the Eternal and Its Characteristics," was first adopted as a "canon" A. D. 666, at which date the Emperor Kao Tsung of the T’ang dynasty gave Lao-tzu the posthumous title, "The Supreme Monarch of the Profoundest Mystery." Later rulers added to his honors, and legend relates wonderful tales concerning him. His mother is said to have given birth to him B. C. 1321, bringing him forth from her left side as she sat under a plum tree (the name of the family was Li, or Plum). He is said to have been then an old man, having remained for eighty years in his mother's womb. Hence his designation, Lao-tzu, or "Old Boy." By others he is called Lao-chün, or "Ancient Sire," or Lao-tan, "the venerable Long Lobed," big lobes being considered a mark of virtue. Later Taoist writings have been ascribed to him, the compositions commencing "The Most Supreme Master saith," or "The Supreme One saith," but there is no proof that Lao-tzu wrote anything besides the Tao-teh-king. The other scriptures of the same school all bear its impress written largely across their pages.

In the "Trinity of Tranquillity" of modern Taoism, which bears no more relation to the Taoism of Lao-tzu than do the rigid Institutes of Calvin to the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, Lao-tzu occupies the first place. Modern Taoism is a system of alchemy and polytheism which regards the soul and the body as identical in substance, and maintains that by physical discipline their dissolution may be prevented. Lao-tzu, indeed, hinted at the possibility of obtaining an ascendancy over matter, and to such hints in the Tao-teh-king, and to the Confucian Yi-king, the science of alchemy, which may be described as the germ of the modern evolutionary theory, probably owes its birth. Born in China, alchemy traveled to Europe via Arabia. The vocabularies of the older Eastern and the later Western schools are in many instances similar, and the ends and methods of both appear the same. Lao-tzu, however, was no alchemist, and for this he is satirized by the famous Chinese poet, Pei-chu-yi (A. D. 772-846). He is ever speaking of the Tao and its energies, says the poet; throughout his five thousand words (the Tao-teh-king contains 5,320 characters) he says naught of transmutations or genii, but only prates about reaching heaven. The old mystic was indeed incapable of conceiving anything but the purest spirituality, whereas his more materialistic successors have made his slight hints at the powers of occultism the foundations of a scheme for mastering the protean powers of transmutation, which, whatever may be said of their European confrères, would, as far as it is possible to form an opinion, seem to have objects which can only be described as selfish.

The other two members of the Trinity of which Lao-tzu is now the chief are the mythical P’an-ku, the First Being brought into existence by cosmogonical evolution, whose breath became the wind; whose voice is the thunder; whose left eye is the sun; whose right eye is the moon, etc.; and Yü Huang Shang-ti, a magician named Chang, who raced another magician, named Lu, up to heaven. Both rode dragons, and Chang won. Some Western scholars think that Lao-tzu also is a myth, a mere creation of the imagination. The materials for an exhaustive examination of the matter are not at hand, but no Chinaman has ever doubted that the Tao-teh-king was the genuine production of a genuine sage named Lao-tan or Lao-tzu, and written just before he left China forever, through the Han-ku Pass.

It may be added that the Tao-teh-king is the only Taoist book which the Chinese Buddhists esteem. They relate a legend to the effect that one of the Buddhist Emperors of China, in order to test the relative divinity of the two religions, ordered each sect to pile their books on an altar and burn them. The Buddhist scriptures would not burn, but the Taoist writings quickly flamed up at the application of the torch. Much alarmed, the Taoist priests in attendance tried to snatch their precious manuscripts from the fire, but they only pulled out one, the Tao-teh-king.