Writings of Nichiren Shōnin: Doctrine 2, pp. 30-32

Kaimoku-shō or Liberation from Blindness, pp. 7-10

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, pp. 220-221

When Confucius passed away in 479 BCE, China had entered the time that would afterwards be known as Warring States period (480 – 222 BCE) during which the strongest of the remaining feudal kingdoms battled to see who would be able to establish a new dynasty that would unite China. As we saw in the last chapter, this period ended with the rise and fall of the Ch’in dynasty and the ascendancy of the Han dynasty. During the Warring States period there were many itinerant philosophers and would-be statesmen who went from kingdom to kingdom searching for royal patronage. These wandering philosophers gave rise to what has been referred to as “one hundred schools of thought” and each offered a method or way (Ch. tao) whereby their patrons could become “a sage within and a king without.” By following the way of these itinerant philosopher-statesmen the ruler would be able to achieve both inner peace and practical success in realizing their worldly ambitions. Of these so-called “hundred schools,” six are now remembered: the Confucianists, Legalists, Naturalists (a.k.a. the Yin Yang school), Mohists, Terminologists (a.k.a. the Logicians), and Taoists.

Confucianism, Legalism, and the Naturalists have already been discussed. The Mohists were the followers of Mo-tzu (fl. 479-438) who taught a doctrine of universal love, utilitarian ethics, austere living, and non-aggression (though the Mohists were known to assist in the defense of feudal states that were under attack). Mo-tzu also gave a much more explicitly theistic interpretation to the Will of Heaven than his rivals. Mo-tzu’s puritanical lifestyle and high ideals were never embraced by the mainstream of Chinese thought, and so Mohism as an active school of thought disappeared after the 3rd century BCE, eclipsed by the Han dynasty synthesis of Confucian pragmatism, Legalist authoritarianism, and Naturalist cosmology.

The Terminologists were a group of Chinese thinkers who were particularly interested in how to make sure that words match the realities that they refer to. This got them into issues involving semantics, logic, and even metaphysics. They would become famous, or perhaps infamous, for their debating skills. They were also notorious for their paradoxes and confounding rhetoric. The Terminologists subscribed to the ideal of universal love that the Mohists did, and the followers of Mo-tzu also developed their own system of logic to defend their teachings. One of the Terminologists, Hui Shih (380-305 BCE?), was a debating partner and good friend of the Taoist sage Chuang-tzu, who will be introduced below. Like the Mohists, the Terminologists also disappeared as an active school after the 3rd century BCE, as Chinese thinkers opted for the less abstract approach of Confucianism and the more mystical and intuitive approach of Taoism.

Taoism achieved much greater success and is still very much alive today as a philosophy, a religion, and a system for promoting health and longevity through various regimens of diet and exercise. Taoism is such a broad, multifaceted, and amorphous movement that it is hard to decide where even to begin. In fact, the major text of philosophical Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, warns us that, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (Chan, p. 166)

Nevertheless, if one is to talk about Taoism at all it is probably best to start with the Tao Te Ching, whose title can be translated as the Classic of the Way and Its Virtue. The Tao Te Ching is also called the Lao-tzu, after the name of its legendary author. Legend holds that Lao-tzu (the name means “Old Master”) was a native of the southern state of Ch’u in present Honan province and that he was a librarian in the imperial archives and also a soothsayer. Lao-tzu may have been the heir of a long legacy of southern Chinese shamanistic traditions. There is a story that in 518 BCE Confucius called upon him to inquire about the rites. Several versions of this story can be found in the Chuang-tzu. Lao-tzu later retired from the world and so journeyed past the western frontier, riding off into the sunset as it were. Before he left, the gatekeeper requested that he write a book for him. Lao-tzu responded to the request by writing the Tao Te Ching. This story, while charming, has no credibility among textual scholars and the Tao Te Ching is believed to be the work of many hands that was probably compiled into its present form of 81 short chapters of prose and verse during the 4th century BCE. The Tao Te Ching is now one of the most beloved and popular works of wisdom literature in the world and has been translated countless times in many languages.

Though many believe that the Tao Te Ching teaches a philosophy of peaceful withdrawal from the world of affairs, it is actually intended to be a book of advice for rulers, so that they may preside over a peaceful and happy kingdom. The Tao Te Ching points to a life of non-attachment, contentment, simplicity, humility, receptivity, openness, tranquility, and a laissez-faire approach to governing. On the other hand, it also teaches that the ruler should keep his people free of cleverness and ambition as well, for if the people are simple-minded and content with their lot then they will not create trouble for each other, the rulers, or other countries. The ruler should learn the art of “acting without acting” (Ch. wu-wei, lit. not-acting) by refraining from forcing things or acting in an intrusive way. By not interfering with the natural flow of life things will proceed smoothly and efficiently according to their natural rhythms. The ruler should also “think without thinking” (Ch. wu-hsin, lit. no-mind) by meeting life in a direct and unmediated way instead of relying on secondhand knowledge or theories about how things are or should be. The best way to live is to return to what is natural and authentic. The cultivation of the Confucian virtues is seen as a pretense that arises when authentic natural virtue has been lost. In the Tao Te Ching, the Tao is no longer simply a way or a method for people to follow for worldly success. The Tao of the Tao Te Ching is the formless, empty, and nameless One that is the source of all that is. The Te of the Tao Te Ching is the cosmic virtue of returning to the Tao and uniting with its uncontrived natural benevolence.

The second great philosophical work of Taoism is the Chuang-tzu, likewise named after its legendary author. Chuang-tzu (369 – 286 BCE) was a native of the state of Meng, on the present border between Shantung and Honan provinces. For a time he was an official at a place called the “Lacquer Garden” and then became a hermit. The text called the Chuang-tzu is a compilation of humorous and paradoxical anecdotes and essays in 33 chapters, of which perhaps only the first seven chapters (the so called “Inner Chapters”) are thought to actually be the work of Chuang-tzu himself.

Unlike the Tao Te Ching, the Chuang-tzu is not primarily a book of advice for a feudal ruler (though such can be found in it as well). It is the Chuang-tzu that more often than not praises the life of total withdrawal from society. Commenting on Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, Neo-Confucian scholar Chu Hsi (1130-1200) said, “Lao Tzu still wanted to do something, but Chuang Tzu did not want to do anything at all. He even said that he knew what to do but just did not want to do it.” (Ibid, p. 178) Indeed, unlike Confucius and his followers who were always seeking some position whereby they could apply their methods, Chuang-tzu refused such a position when it was offered to him:

Chuang Tzu was one day fishing in the Pu River when the King of Chu dispatched two senior officials to visit him with a message. The message said, ‘I would like to trouble you to administer my lands.’

Chuang Tzu kept a firm grip on his fishing rod and said, ‘I hear that in Chu there is a sacred tortoise which died three thousand years ago. The King keeps this in his ancestral temple, wrapped and enclosed. Tell me, would this tortoise have wanted to die and leave his shell to be venerated? Or would he rather have lived and continued to crawl about in the mud?’

The two senior officials said, ‘It would rather have lived and continued to crawl about in the mud.’

Chuang Tzu said, ‘Shove off, then! I will continue to crawl about in the mud!’ (Palmer, pp. 146-147)

The Chuang-tzu, particularly in the seven Inner Chapters, provides us with a view of life wherein all things are moving and changing. Any perspective or stance one might take can only be limited and biased. True happiness can be found if one lets go of all preferences and disputes to be open and accepting of life’s changes and transformations. A particularly famous illustration of Chuang-tzu’s attitude and wit can be found in his recounting of a dream wherein he became a butterfly.

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu? However, there must be some sort of difference between Chuang Tzu and a butterfly! We call this the transformation of things. (Ibid, p. 20)

Chuang-tzu’s view of the sage was far more transcendental than the one held by the Confucianists. The Confucian sage would be one who could govern humanity with benevolence and the strength of his personal example. The Taoist sage according to Chuang-tzu is beyond politics or human society, but is one with all of nature and to ordinary people appears to be quite useless.

How can the wise one sit beside the sun and moon and embrace the universe? Because he brings all things together in harmony, he rejects difference and confusion and ignores status and power. While ordinary people rush busily around, the sage seems stupid and ignorant, but to him all life is one and united. All life is simply what it is and all appear to him to be doing what they should. (Ibid, pp. 18-19)

The teachings of Lao-tzu were very popular during the early part of the Western Han dynasty. Lao-tzu’s teachings were then linked with traditions attributed to the Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, and so this movement was named Huang-Lao. It concerned itself with the joys of the simple life, governing best by governing least, and the alchemical quest for an elixir of immortality. The Huang-Lao movement fell out of disfavor during the ascendancy of Confucianism, but it did not disappear, and starting from around the 2nd century BCE the movement came to be known as Taoism.

During the Eastern or Latter Han dynasty (25-220 CE), Taoism developed into a religion with its own ceremonies, liturgies, divinely revealed scriptures, and even a hereditary high priesthood. In 150 CE the Han emperor dedicated a shrine to Lao-tzu, divinized as the Great Lord on High. Around this time, a work called the Classic of Great Peace appeared which purported to have been revealed by Heaven to show humanity how to avoid calamity and bring about a utopia. In 142 a man named Chang Tao-ling claimed that Lao-tzu as the Great Lord on High had appeared to him and given him a new teaching. This was the beginning of the movement that would come to be known as the Celestial Masters or the Central Orthodox School of Taoism. Chang Tao-ling’s descendants would thereafter be the high priests of this form of religious Taoism, though it would in time come to be overshadowed by other mystical and religious movements.

Nichiren was not concerned with religious Taoism or Taoist alchemical traditions, and so it is to philosophical Taoism that we must turn back our attention. The collapse of the Eastern Han dynasty brought about a great disillusionment among the literati with the ideals and institutions of that dynasty. They turned away from Confucianism and began to engage in what they called “pure conversation” (Ch. ch’ing-t’an). They instead indulged in wine, women, poetry, song, and other escapist pursuits. An example of their wit and flouting of social conventions can be seen in the following story:

In the Shih-shuo we have a story about Liu Ling (c. 221 – c. 300), one of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (seven “famous scholars” who gathered for frequent convivial conversations in a certain bamboo grove). This story tells us that Liu evoked criticism through his habit of remaining completely naked when in his room. To his critics he rejoined: “I take the whole universe as my house, and my own room as my clothing. Why, then, do you enter here into my trousers?” (Ch. 23). Thus Liu Ling, though he sought for pleasure, had a feeling of what lies beyond the world, i.e., the universe. (Yu-lan, p. 235)

These disaffected literati also engaged in metaphysical speculation. In particular they liked to talk about what they called the Mysterious or Dark Learning (Ch. hsüan hsüeh), in reference to the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao (Way) that can be told is not the eternal Tao;

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;

The Named is the mother of all things.

Therefore, let there always be non-being so we may see their subtlety,

And let there always be being so we may see their outcome.

The two are the same,

But after they are produced, they have different names.

They both may be called deep and profound (hsüan).

Deeper and more profound,

The door of all subtleties!

(Chan, p. 139)

Those involved in the Dark Learning movement during the time of the Wei (220-265) and Chin (265-420) dynasties have come to be known as the Neo-Taoists, though in fact the many of them were syncretists who were trying to find a way to harmonize Confucian values with what they saw as the bigger picture of the Taoist insight into the natural order and therefore humankind’s true nature. They viewed Confucius as the perfect sage who exemplified his interior realization in the nobility of his daily conduct, but they rejected the scholastic formalism that Tung Chung-shu’s version of Confucianism had become mired in. The Neo-Taoists turned instead to the study of three texts: The Book of Changes that they associated with the investigation of being, the Tao Te Ching that emphasized non-being, and the Chuang-tzu that upheld both being and non-being.

The Book of Changes (also known as the Changes of Chou) has been discussed already in connection with Confucianism. It is a work that deals with the changes and transformations of beings and their circumstances and therefore it is particularly associated with the various modes of being. As it says in chapter 11 of the “Appended Remarks Part 1” (one of the ten wings that compose it):

The Changes deals with the way things start up and how matters reach completion and represents the Tao that envelops the entire world. If one puts it like this, nothing more can be said about it. Therefore the sages use it to penetrate the aspirations of all the people in the world, to settle the great affairs of the world, and to resolve all doubtful matters in the world. (Adapted from Lynn, pp. 63-64)

A little further in that chapter it is written how the Great Ultimate (Ch. t’ai-chi) generates the forces of yin and yang and how these in turn generate the four forms of major and minor yin and yang, which in turn generate the eight trigrams that in turn determine all fortune and misfortune. The Great Ultimate is a name for all potential existence and its transformations. It is the undifferentiated state of primal chaos before the manifestations of yin and yang. Today we are familiar with the Great Ultimate as the symbol of a circle divided into a teardrop shaped yang or bright half with a yin circle in the middle and a teardrop shaped yin or dark half with a yang circle in the middle.

The Neo-Taoist thinker, Wang Pi (226-249) wrote one of the first philosophical commentaries on the Book of Changes. He also wrote an introductory essay called the General Remarks on the Changes of the Chou. In this latter work Wang Pi wrote, “No thing ever behaves haphazardly but necessarily follows its own principle. To unite things, there is a fundamental regulator; to integrate them, there is a primordial generator. Therefore things are complex but not chaotic, multitudinous but not confused.” (Ibid, p. 25) Wang Pi believed that by using the Book of Changes one could discern the ruling principle at work in every moment of time and the changes that characterize each moment. With that knowledge one will know how to act (or not act as the case may be) in every situation. To Wang Pi, existence is about change and change occurs in accordance with natural laws or principles, and these in turn derive from the One. But what is the One? Wang Pi found his answer to that question in the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching points not to a primal chaos as the ultimate origin of existence or being, but to non-being (Ch. wu-chi). Speaking of the origin of things, the Tao Te Ching says, “Reversion is the action of Tao. Weakness is the function of Tao. All things in the world come from being. And being comes from non-being.” (Chan, p. 160) The source of all beings cannot itself be a being; the source of all things must be no-thing. The ultimate source of being must be formless and empty of anything that would define or limit it, because otherwise it would belong to the world of beings and their transformations. Therefore the ultimate source is non-being. If the Great Ultimate is the stirring of primal chaos that gives rise to all things, then non-being is the stillness that precedes the stirrings.

Wang Pi taught that the original substance (Ch. pen-t’i) of all things is none other than original non-being (Ch. pen-wu). In his Commentary on the Lao-tzu he wrote the following about the opening chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

All being originated from non-being. The time before physical forms and names appeared was the beginning of the myriad things. After forms and names appear, Tao (the Way) develops them, nourishes them, and places them in peace and order; that is, it becomes their Mother. This means that Tao produces and completes things with the formless and nameless. Thus they are produced and completed but do not know why. Indeed it is the mystery of mysteries. (Ibid, p. 321)

Chuang-tzu, in his typically whimsical way, takes a more dialectical approach to being and non-being, thereby putting them on par with one another. He has no wish to take sides in giving precedence to being or non-being and does not at all seem to be afraid of an infinite regress as one transforms into another depending on changing circumstances and one’s point of view. In fact, Chuang-tzu seems to reduce all such speculations about being and non-being to mere word play that one should not get too caught up in. It is better to learn acceptance of whatever arises or does not arise. In Chuang-tzu’s words:

There is a beginning. There is no beginning of that beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something. There is nothing. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing. But between something and nothing, I still don’t really know which is something and which is nothing. Now, I’ve just said something, but I don’t really know whether I’ve said anything or not. (Feng 1974, p. 35)

Kuo Hsiang (d. 312) was the Neo-Taoist who is responsible for editing the redaction of the Chuang-tzu that is known today. Incorporating an earlier commentary by Hsian Hsiu (fl. 250), Kuo Hsiang wrote what became the most famous and definitive commentary on the Chuang-tzu. Kuo Hsiang emphasized Nature (Ch. tzu-jan) and spontaneity rather than non-being. In his view all things are produced spontaneously by Nature without any self-conscious deliberation. This is the impersonal working of Heaven or Nature. In his Commentary on the Chuang-tzu he wrote the following:

The music of Nature is not an entity existing outside of things. The different apertures, the pipes and flutes and the like, in combination with all living beings, together constitute Nature. Since non-being is non-being, it cannot produce being. Before being itself is produced, it cannot produce other beings. Then by whom are things produced? They spontaneously reproduce themselves; that is all. By this is not meant that there is an “I” to produce. The “I” is self-existent. Because it is so by itself, we call it natural. Everything is what it is by nature, not through taking any action. Therefore [Chuang-tzu] speaks in terms of Nature. The term Nature (literally “Heaven”) is used to explain that all things are what they are spontaneously, and not to mean the blue sky. But someone says that the music of Nature makes all things serve or obey it. Now, Nature cannot even possess itself. How can it possess things? Nature is the general name for all things. Nature does not set its mind for or against anything. Who is the master to make things obey? Therefore all things exist by themselves and come from nature. This is the Way of Heaven. (Chan, pp. 328-329)

In all of these discussions of the origination of various forces like yin and yang and the various transformations that they take on (whether the five elements or the eight trigrams) there is an assumption that behind and beneath these changes is a substratum called ch’i. Ch’i is has been variously translated as “vital force”, “matter-energy”, “breath” and other things depending on the context and the understanding of the person using the term. It is not really matter or spirit for it is the life force that precedes such distinctions. Ch’i is pure potential and therefore the content of the Great Ultimate, but ch’i is also the basic energy or building block of all that exists. A living being or existent thing only persists for as long as its ch’i maintains that particular configuration. As the existence of things comes to an end the ch’i that composed them returns to a state of undifferentiated potential. In this view, life and death is a matter of the coalescence and dissipation of ch’i. Han Kangbo (d. 385), who was a latter-day disciple of Wang Pi, explains this in his comments on the Book of Changes: “When material force consolidates into essence, it meshes together, and with this coalescence a person is formed. When such coalescence reaches its end, disintegration occurs, and with the dissipation of one’s spirit, change occurs.” (Lynn, p. 52)

The teachings, exercises, and meditative disciplines of Taoism aim at stabilizing and preserving the ch’i that has been allotted to one for the sake of a long and happy life. The Taoist sage avoids stirring up trouble by leaving the world alone and working on his own self-cultivation. He (or she) influences the world in a positive way by not intervening in the natural cycles of life but simply by being one with all things and allowing them to find their own harmony and natural simplicity. Unlike the Confucian image of the sage who actively sets the world in order, the Taoist sage leaves things alone so that one and all may find their own natural order that is the Tao or Way appropriate to them.

Taoism began as a counterpoint to Confucianism, which constantly exhorted its followers to cultivate benevolence and righteousness and to refine themselves by conformity to the rites and the study of literature and the arts. Lao-tzu saw this as pretense and even hypocrisy. Confucianism was not the true way or Tao, but rather a symptom of the loss of the Tao. “When the great Tao declined, the doctrines of humanity and righteousness arose. When knowledge and wisdom appeared, there emerged great hypocrisy.” (Chan, p. 158) Lao-tzu recommended a return to the unadorned authentic nature of the Tao. “Display a genuineness like raw silk and embrace a simplicity like unworked wood, lessen your concern for yourself and reduce your desires.” (Ames 2003, p. 104)

The criticisms and lampoons of Confucianism found in the Chuang-tzu could be even harsher. In one passage the Confucianists are even blamed for people’s loss of the virtue of the Tao.

In the time of perfect Virtue, people live side by side with the birds and beasts, sharing the world in common with all life. No one knows of distinctions such as nobles and the peasantry! Totally without wisdom but with virtue which does not disappear; totally without desire they are known as truly simple. If people are truly simple, they can follow their true nature. Then the perfect sage comes, going on about benevolence, straining for self-righteousness, and suddenly everyone begins to have doubts. They start to fuss over the music, cutting and trimming the rituals, and thus the whole world is disturbed. (Palmer, p. 73)

In other passages, the Confucian teachings and precepts are put into the mouths of robbers and tyrants and used as justification for their crimes and tyranny.

A member of Robber Chih’s gang asked him, ‘Is there a Tao for the thief?’ Chih replied, ‘What profession is there without its Tao? The robber works out what is worth stealing: this shows he is a sage; his courage is shown by being the first to break in; his righteousness is shown by being last to leave; his understanding is shown by deciding whether the raid is possible; his benevolence is shown by his dividing the spoils equally. Without these five attributes, no one in the world could become such a great thief.’ (Ibid, p. 77)

Granted that many of the critiques found in the Chuang-tzu are similarly facetious, the point was made that Confucianism’s virtues were more than capable of being twisted and used by a clever and ambitious elite to justify themselves and keep those with less power under control. Several stories in the Chuang-tzu portray an ambitious and meddlesome Confucius who is overawed when he meets a true sage like Lao-tzu, or even someone like Robber Chih who sees right through the pretenses of Confucian teachings and precepts. There are other stories, probably by later more syncretistic writers, that present Confucius in a more favorable light, but even those passages subsume Confucius into the larger context and concerns of Taoism.

The Neo-Taoists like Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang took a different view of the relative merits of Confucius and Lao-tzu. As mentioned before, they both saw Confucius as the true sage, whereas Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu were lacking in comparison. There is even an account of a fellow minister who asked Wang Pi for an explanation as to why Confucius, if he was the greater sage, did not speak about the profundities of non-being whereas Lao-tzu did speak of it.

At the time when P’ei Hui was serving as Director of the Ministry of Personnel, Wang Pi, who then had not yet been capped [i.e. had not yet reached the age of maturity at twenty], went to pay him a visit. As soon as Pei saw him, he knew that this was an extraordinary person, so he asked him, “Nonbeing is, in truth, what the myriad things depend on for existence, yet the Sage [Confucius] was unwilling to talk about it, while Master Lao expounded upon it endlessly. Why is that?” Wang Pi replied, “The Sage embodied nonbeing, so he also knew that it could not be explained in words. Thus he did not talk about it. Master Lao, by contrast, operated on the level of being. This is why he constantly discussed nonbeing; he had to, for what he said about it always fell short.” (Adapted from Lynn, p. 11)

This view, though at odds with the mainstream of the Taoist tradition before and after them is strangely in keeping with Lao-tzu’s own view that “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang saw Confucius as the one who truly knew the Tao and so did not discuss it but simply embodied it through his teachings on mundane matters and his exemplary conduct in daily life. Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang believed that the true sage was one who could function with equal facility in both the mundane and the transcendental worlds. Let us end, then, with Kuo Hsiang’s words on this from his commentary on Chuang-tzu:

Therefore principle has its ultimate, and the transcendental and the mundane world are in silent harmony with each other. There has never been a person who roamed over the transcendental world to the utmost who was not silently in harmony with the mundane world, nor has there ever been anyone who was silently in harmony with the mundane world and yet did not roam over the transcendental world. Therefore the sage always roams in the transcendental world. By having no deliberate mind of his own, he is in accord with all things. (Chan, p. 333)

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