From “the Tao of Physics”
Essay title: From “the Tao of Physics”
From “The Tao of Physics”
When Buddhism arrived in China, around the first century A.D., it encountered a culture which was more than two thousand years old. In this ancient culture, philosophical thought had reached its culmination during the late Chou period (c. 500-221 B.C.), the golden age of Chinese philosophy, and from then on had always been held in the highest esteem.

From the beginning, this philosophy had two complementary aspects. The Chinese being practical people with a highly developed social consciousness, all their philosophical schools were concerned, in one way or the other, with life in society, with human relations, moral values and government. This, however, is only one aspect of Chinese thought. Complementary to it is that corresponding to the mystical side of the Chinese character, which demanded that the highest aim of philosophy should be to transcend the world of society and everyday life and to reach a higher plane of consciousness. This is the plane of the sage, the Chinese ideal of the enlightened man who has achieved mystical union with the universe. The Chinese sage, however, does not dwell exclusively on this high spiritual plane, but is equally concerned with worldly affairs. He unifies in himself the two complementary sides of human nature -intuitive wisdom and practical knowledge, contemplation and social action- which the Chinese have associated with the images of the sage and of the king. Fully realized human beings, in the words of Chuang Tzu, “by their stillness become sages, by their movement kings.”

During the sixth century B.C., the two sides of Chinese philosophy developed into two distinct philosophical schools, Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism was the philosophy of social organization, of common sense and practical knowledge. It provided Chinese society with a system of education and with strict conventions of social etiquette. One of its main purposes was to form an ethical basis for the traditional Chinese family system with its complex structure and its rituals of ancestor worship. Taoism, on the other hand, was concerned primarily with the observation of nature and the discovery of its Way, or Tao. Human happiness, according to the Taoists, is achieved when men follow the natural order, acting spontaneously and trusting their intuitive knowledge.

These two trends of thought represent opposite poles in Chinese philosophy, but in China they were always seen as poles of one and the same human nature, and thus as complementary. Confucianism was generally emphasized in the education of children who had to learn the rules and conventions necessary for life in society, whereas Taoism used to be pursued by older people in order to regain and develop the original spontaneity which had been destroyed by social conventions. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Neo-Confucian school attempted a synthesis of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, which culminated in the philosophy of Chu Hsi, one of the greatest of all Chinese thinkers. Chu Hsi was an outstanding philosopher who combined Confucian scholarship with a deep understanding of Buddhism and Taoism, and incorporated elements of all three traditions in his philosophical synthesis.

Confucianism derives its name from Kung Fu Tzu, or Confucius, a highly influential teacher with a large number of students who saw his main function as transmitting the ancient cultural heritage to his disciples. In doing so, however, he went beyond a simple transmission of knowledge for he interpreted the traditional ideas according to his own moral concepts. His teachings were based on the so-called Six Classics, ancient books I of philosophical thought, rituals, poetry, music, and history, which represented the spiritual and cultural heritage of the “holy sages” of Chinas past. Chinese tradition has associated Confucius with all of these works either as author, commentator, or editor; but according to modern scholarship he was neither the author, commentator, nor even the editor of any of the Classics. Hi own ideas became known through the Lun Yu, or Confucian Analects, a collection of aphorisms which wa compiled by some of his disciples.

The originator of Taoism was Lao Tzu, whose name literally means “The Old Master” and who was, according to tradition, an older contemporary of Confucius. He is said to have been the author of a short book of aphorisms which is considered as the main Taoist scripture. In China, it is generally just called the Lao-tzu, and in the West it is usually known as the Tao Te Ching, the Classic of the Way and Power, a name which was given to it in later times. I have already mentioned the paradoxical style and the powerful and poetic language of this book which Joseph Needham considers to be “without exception the most profound and beautiful work in the Chinese language.”

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