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The Tao and Mother Goose
By Robert Carter
The Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1988 Robert Carter
All rights reserved.
The beginning: A Preface to God and Man
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Whether it is the Hebrew story from the book of Genesis, an Egyptian, Chinese, or North American Indian story, the essential story of creation remains very much the same wherever it is told: There is first an airy or watery darkness, or a void:
The Tao is a void,
Used but never filled:
An abyss it is,
Like an ancestor
From which all things come.
And in this Primal Chaos, there resides a spirit, a power, or a mystery:
Something there is, whose veiled creation was
Before the earth or sky began to be;
So silent, so aloof and so alone,
It changes not, nor fails, but touches all:
Conceive it as the mother of the world.
We may call it "mother of the world," "Spirit of God," the Godhead, or the Tao. It has been given many names. But it is the Source and the Origin of all things. It is the Supreme Principle which initiates, inspires, flows through, and regulates the cosmos. It is the Beginning from which all being comes. In the words of the Tao Teh Ching:
A deep pool it is, never to run dry!
Whose offspring it may be I do not know:
It is like a preface to God.
This Beginning, this Oneness, may be further described as the Formless which precedes all forms, the Soundless which inspires all sounds, the Nameless which pervades all names; it is the Non-Being which precedes all being. From this Imperishable Unity arises our world of perishable multiplicity; from this Infinite and Eternal is created the finite and the temporal.
The particulars of how this is accomplished may vary from one creation story to the next, but in each the furnishing of the world takes place in twos—the Oneness gives rise to the Two and the world of dualities is born.
In Genesis, creation proceeds in pairs of opposites: light is first divided from darkness, then heaven from earth; sea and land are separated, and the sun is created to rule the day, the moon to rule the night. Plants are created in two kinds—those that bear their seed within and those that bear it without. Creatures for the skies and creatures for the seas appear; then creatures for the land, in two kinds, those that walk and those that creep upon its surface. And lastly comes another pair: man, created from the dust of the earth, and woman.
In Taoist thought as well, the One begets the Two: and here the two are called Yin and Yang. They are the fundamental male and female principles, the regulators of the seasons, complementary and mutually necessary opposites, which govern all the changeable world. Yin, the feminine principle, is darkness, cold, wetness, softness, passivity, and such. Yang, the male principle, is light, warmth, dryness, hardness, activity, and the like. It is through the interaction of these two primary principles that all the changing phenomena of our world are produced.
In the traditions of both East and West, the Oneness gives rise to the Two, and the story of human life on the planet begins. And however these stories of creation may be understood—as superstition, myth, divine revelation, or historical fact—it is important to consider that modern biological theories of organic evolution and the investigation of DNA and contemporary cosmogonies that describe an expanding universe do nothing to contradict their common basic theme: that of an initial unity from which arises multiplicity.
However grand the Two may be, it is a lessening, a division, and a diminution of the One. And as life forms continue to flourish and develop in their diversity, this lessening, this sense of diminution, gives rise in us to a longing for the One, a nostalgia for the paradise of our origins. There is born in us a sense of alienation, a feeling of being irretrievably cut off from the Source. This separation is described in the biblical story of The Fall.
Along with this sense of separation from the Oneness, there is born the need for religion. Taken from the Latin prefix re meaning "back," and the verb ligare meaning "to bind," religion is a binding back together of that which has become divided. In fact the primary motivation in every religion has been to bind us back together with the One, to regain and re-establish on whatever literal or symbolic level the Oneness from which we sense we are derived.
Whatever else has motivated humanity, this powerful longing has been our greatest need. From their earliest development, our social and governmental systems, our arts and architecture and sciences—all of our earthly systems of order—were arranged as micro- cosmic and mesocosmic reflections of the "heavenly order" apparent in the workings of nature. The earliest constructed housing seems to have been domical, a microcosmic echo of the 'heavenly dome' of the skies above. (Our words domicile and domestic still reveal their origins in the Latin and Greek words for house, domus and doma.)
Early city plans and calendars alike were arranged in a cyclic fashion, reflecting the circular earthly plane and the cycle of time, and each was divided into four parts, in imitation of the four directions and the four seasons. Kings were equated with the sun, ruler of the heavens; queens were associated with the moon and the Earth. Even the names for the days of the week were originally derived from the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. In fact most early human effort in every sphere of activity not directed solely at physical survival can be demonstrated to have been influenced strongly and directly by this basic need for "religion," for binding us back together with the Oneness.
In this sense, religion can be said to exist for the irreligious, for those who are not "bound back." For where there is no sense of alienation, no feeling of separateness, there can be no need for religion. The history of the world's religions may be described most simply then as the Two yearning for the One, as the world of man and multiplicity longing for the Heaven of God and Unity.
The best-known Christian prayer seeks this union of the heavenly and earthly Two with a powerful plea to its God:
Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
But the plea, in a sense, contains its own negation. The statement "Thy" will (unless understood in the special sense Martin Buber describes in his I and Thou) is a positive recognition and an assertion of separateness, of duality and division. It infers a world of Self and Other, of God and man, of I and It. And this state, confirmed in the words of the prayer, is the very thing the prayer seeks to overcome.
It is as though, suddenly aware of the separateness of our two hands, we desperately wish to merge them into one. Obviously the only way this can occur is when there is no desire and the two hands are joined and absorbed in a common task. And this is most clearly symbolized in the joining of the two hands, which is common in both Christian and Oriental traditions, in attitudes of prayer and meditation.
In the Christian practice, the hands are joined, palms together, and placed at the level of the heart or the head, where they are aimed together upward and outward, away from the self. In this way, the whole being of the worshipper is symbolically brought together and focused at the location thought to be its center (the heart or the head), then aimed or projected toward a greater Being without.
In Oriental traditions of meditation, the hands usually point toward one another and are cupped, palms upward; the thumbs are brought lightly together at their tips to form a flattened circle between the palms and the thumbs. The hands, joined in this way, are then held in the lap next to the lower abdomen. In this way, the whole being of the meditator is symbolically brought together and concentrated at the spot thought to be its center (in this case, the belly, or the hara), and focused on the greater Being within.
The simple and profound differences between the two practices illustrate quite clearly the fundamental contrasts and similarities between the two traditions. Each demands an intense centering and focusing of the spiritual energy of the worshiper. But the way of the West is linear; once focused, the energy and concentration are directed in a line away from the self and outward to a God above.
Oriental traditions form a self-contained circle with the hands, and the circle is centered on the lower belly, thus focusing the meditative energy downward and inward to a God within.
In either practice when desire of any kind is present, there can be no successful communion with God. In order for desire to exist, there must be a duality of subject and object. Desire is synonymous with awareness of separateness from the thing desired; desire and duality are coexistent.
How we have attempted to hear the sound of "one hand clapping," how we have sought to effect our binding back together with the One, is a story written in the history of art, science, and religions, with their doctrines, dogma, rituals, beliefs, teachings, and practices. It is the one most fundamental and fascinating story of all.
However else we may respond to the stories of creation, we should recognize that the process they describe exists every bit as much in the present moment and in the future as in past. If these stories describe our collective beginning, they describe our individual origins as well. For the process of creation is one that is daily and constantly repeated, renewed, and re-experienced by us all. Consider the way life is conceived and brought into our world: the two—male and female—are joined and "reunited," and where there was nothing, something is miraculously begun. The prenatal infant floats in the darkness of the amniotic waters, bound together with and within its source in the mother. And when the infant is born—emerges and is divided from that source—it encounters the world of dualities in much the same order as they are described in Genesis.
First the baby is exposed to light, where before there was only darkness, and to air and dryness and cold, where there was only watery wetness and warmth. The baby encounters form and space, where before they were undifferentiated, and all space was filled. He learns of man and woman, of creatures great and small. And as he grows, and when he is an adult, he will continue to participate in the creation story, as a million new cells are daily born within him.
The Beginning: An End to God and Man
For man, both collectively and individually, the desire to return to the womb of his origins—in the broadest and deepest sense—the desire to be bound back together with the Source, is perhaps the most persistent, deeply rooted, and intense desire of all. It is the very basis for the religious instinct, the motivation which lies at the base of every religion, and is manifest in countless ways both secular and spiritual. But if it is the highest and most noble human goal, it is also the source of our deepest frustration.
By their very nature, attempts to institutionalize the Tao—to make known the Unknown, to define the Indefinable—are in many ways self-defeating. These fixative efforts, recorded in the history of organized religions, may be likened to the story of Chaos, as told by Chuangtze, the third century B.C. Chinese philosopher. In the story, Chaos (or what we have called the Oneness, the Godhead, the Tao) is the cause of the achievements of his followers. They recognize that this is so, and wish to repay him. Seeing that Chaos has no sense organs by which to discriminate, they resolve to help him, and do so by first giving him eyes, another day a nose, and so on, until in the space of a week they have transformed him into a creature like themselves. And, as D. T. Suzuki reported in a splendid essay, "while they were congratulating themselves on their success, Chaos died."
This is nothing less than the death of God through the well-meaning efforts of his followers! Friedrich Nietzsche, a Western philosopher with a similar understanding, wrote in 1882, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." Nietzsche—who has often and mistakenly been understood as anti- Christ when he was merely anti-Christian—felt not only that Christians had killed their God, but that they had come to worship the very antithesis of everything He stood for:
Mankind lies on its knees before the opposite of that which was the origin, the meaning, the right of the evangel; in the concept of 'church' it has pronounced holy precisely what the 'bringer of glad tidings' felt to be beneath and behind himself—one would look in vain for a greater example of world historical irony.
Put in the terms used by medieval churchman Meister Eckhardt, "to seek God by rituals is to get the ritual and lose God in the process, for He hides behind it." Or, in the words of the Tao Teh Ching:
The secret waits for the insight
Of eyes unclouded by longing;
Those who are bound by desire
See only the outward container.
The meaning of these authors is clear: Chaos, Godhead, or Tao, the Primal Unity, the Oneness, the Beginning, the Infinite and Ineffable "secret" behind all of life—call it what we will—is unfathomable, unnameable, ungraspable. When we seek to make it finite, to divide it into parts, to fathom and to chart its depths, we cannot but fail. For stilled waters must surely become stagnant.
This tendency for the fixed and known to become a stagnant, corrupt, and isolated pool, only dimly reminiscent of the great Sea of the Unknown from which it was born, may have been a familiar idea to three of our greatest teachers: Buddha, Socrates, and Christ. For none of the three committed his teachings to the fixed and written word, none created any system, structure, or organizational hierarchy to promulgate his teachings. With each, the teaching was carried out orally and person-to-person, and in the living moment of the present.
Here is a great paradox: obviously we will not seek for God, will not search for the "secret," unless we desire it, and desire it greatly. Yet we are told, "those who are bound by desire see only the outward container." But if the invisible cannot be brought into the visible world, if the Infinite cannot be made finite, how then may it ever be approached at all? If we are doomed by our very desire to see only the outward container, how may we ever know the secret? The Tao Teh Ching answers:
These two come paired but distinct
By their names.
Of all things profound,
Say that their pairing is deepest,
The gate to the root of the world.
It is a cryptic answer, but that is the only kind of answer we are likely to get.
The texts of the world's religious teachings, particularly the traditions of mysticism, in both the East and West, offer the seeker instruction in approaching the unapproachable. They all seem to share a passion for the cryptic and paradoxical response, a tendency to speak in terms which defy our rational attempts to understand them. For theirs is a tradition that lives and is transmitted outside the fixed world of Time and History, beyond the realm of logic and words and the rationality of waking consciousness.
On the surface, their pronouncements are often frustratingly illogical, baffling, and absurd, sometimes to the point of seeming silly. In fact, this is a part of their aim: to lure us on beyond the boundaries of the sensible world, beyond the fixed, known, material, and conscious plane, and into the timeless sea of the unconscious wherein dwells the Tao.
The journey, if we attempt it, is most difficult and fraught with powerful dangers, which are no less real for the fact that they are hidden from normal view. This journey is described symbolically over and again in myth and dream and fable, as Joseph Campbell eloquently points out in his account, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Each such journey requires letting go, relinquishing our grip on the safe and familiar haven of the known, and plunging headlong into the abyss, the wilderness, or the sea of the unconscious. There we encounter adventures and horrors unimagined before we may find the Tao:
By letting go, it all gets done;
The world is won by those who let it go!
Paradoxically, this noble and life-affirming search must end, if it is to be successful, in our own extinction. Eastern and Western traditions alike insist that the death of the individual and personal self, the negation of the separate ego, is required before the greater reality, the "secret," may be found. In words reported by Matthew to be those of Christ: "He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." And in the Tao Teh Ching, "The Wise Man chooses to be last and so becomes the first of all; denying self, he too is saved"; or, in another passage, "Then, though you die, you shall not perish."
This selfless state of perfection, if reached, also means the end of all desire, the end of preferences, attachment, and differentiation, as Christ described in his injunction to be perfect, even as God is perfect: "for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
Even more alarming perhaps is that this enlightenment and awakening means, in a sense, the death of God. For when the One is re-created, when Unity is attained, there can no longer be the separate duality of God and Man. Their duality has been transcended. For one who is "bound back together," God and religion are as unnecessary, unnatural, and irrelevant as lungs for a fish.
Excerpted from The Tao and Mother Goose by Robert Carter. Copyright © 1988 Robert Carter. Excerpted by permission of The Theosophical Publishing House.
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