Lao Tzu and Tao – Insights from Theosophy

Lao Tzu (also written as Lao Tze, Lao Tse, and Laozi, meaning “Old Master”) has

Yin and Yang from Taoism
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

become one of the most enduringly popular spiritual teachers and sages.

The archetypal “wise old Chinese man” figure, his book known as the Tao Te Ching (also written Tao Te King and Dao De Jing) has been translated into more languages than almost any other book in existence; in this respect it stands in fourth place behind the Bible, “The Little Prince,” and “Pinocchio.”

He is referred to by H. P. Blavatsky, not many times when compared with the frequency with which she speaks of other great spiritual teachers such as Gautama Buddha or Krishna, but enough and in such a way as to warrant our attention.

In “The Theosophical Glossary” entry for “Lao-tze” (p. 186) she simply says of him: “A great sage, saint and philosopher who preceded Confucius.” It is indeed believed that Lao Tzu was teacher to Confucius (Kung Fu Tzu or Kung Fu Tze) and that both lived approximately 2,500 to 2,600 years ago.

Her “Glossary” entry for “Tao-teh-king” on p. 320 says more:

Lit., “The Book of the Perfectibility of Nature” written by the great philosopher Lao-tze. It is a kind of cosmogony which contains all the fundamental tenets of Esoteric Cosmogenesis. Thus he says that in the beginning there was naught but limitless and boundless Space. All that lives and is, was born in it, from the “Principle which exists by Itself, developing Itself from Itself”, i.e., Swabhavat. As its name is unknown and its essence is unfathomable, philosophers have called it Tao (Anima Mundi), the uncreate, unborn and eternal energy of nature, manifesting periodically. Nature as well as man when it reaches purity will reach rest, and then all become one with Tao, which is the source of all bliss and felicity. As in the Hindu and Buddhistic philosophies, such purity and bliss and immortality can only be reached through the exercise of virtue and the perfect quietude of our worldly spirit; the human mind has to control and finally subdue and even crush the turbulent action of man’s physical nature; and the sooner he reaches the required degree of moral purification, the happier he will feel. . . . As the famous Sinologist, Pauthier, remarked: “Human Wisdom can never use language more holy and profound”.”

It is interesting to notice there the implication that Lao Tzu both knew and to some extent taught the Esoteric Doctrine, sometimes termed Secret Doctrine, Esoteric Philosophy, Occult Science, Ancient or Ageless Wisdom; it is Theosophy in its fullest and broadest sense and meaning, i.e. the Theosophia, meaning literally in Greek “Divine Wisdom.” Like numerous other great Teachers known to us throughout the ages, he had apparently been initiated into this sacred Knowledge and divulged as much of it as was deemed fit for his time, place, and circumstances.

In this regard, we find in HPB’s book “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2, p. 37, the phrase “the esotericism of Lao-Tse.” And in an article known simply as “Editorial Appendix” she mentions that “from Lao-tze down to Hiouen-Thsang their [i.e. Chinese] literature is filled with allusions and references to that island [i.e. Shambhala] and the wisdom of the Himalayan adepts.” (“H. P. Blavatsky Theosophical Articles” Vol. 3, p. 332 and HPB Pamphlet #21 “Tibetan Teachings”)

In the “Introductory” to the first volume of “The Secret Doctrine” much is said about the intriguing fact of the many missing texts of esotericism. Lao Tzu, amongst others, is mentioned, with HPB saying:

“The collective researches of the Orientalists, and especially the labours of late years of the students of comparative Philology and the Science of Religions have led them to ascertain as follows: An immense, incalculable number of MSS., and even printed works known to have existedare now to be found no more. They have disappeared without leaving the slightest trace behind them. Were they works of no importance they might, in the natural course of time, have been left to perish, and their very names would have been obliterated from human memory. But it is not so; for, as now ascertained, most of them contained the true keys to works still extant, and entirely incomprehensible, for the greater portion of their readers, without those additional volumes of Commentaries and explanations. Such are, for instance, the works of Lao-tse, the predecessor of Confucius.

“He is said to have written 930 books on Ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all. His great work, however, the heart of his doctrine, the “Tao-te-King,” or the sacred scriptures of the Taosse, has in it, as Stanislas Julien shows, only “about 5,000 words” (Tao-te-King, p. xxvii.), hardly a dozen of pages, yet Professor Max Muller finds that “the text is unintelligible without commentaries, so that Mr. Julien had to consult more than sixty commentators for the purpose of his translation,” the earliest going back as far as the year 163 B.C., not earlier, as we see. During the four centuries and a half that preceded this earliest of the commentators there was ample time to veil the true Lao-tse doctrine from all but his initiated priests. The Japanese, among whom are now to be found the most learned of the priests and followers of Lao-tse, simply laugh at the blunders and hypotheses of the European Chinese scholars; and tradition affirms that the commentaries to which our Western Sinologues have access are not the real occult records, but intentional veils, and that the true commentaries, as well as almost all the texts, have long since disappeared from the eyes of the profane.” (Vol. 1, p. xxv)

The reference here to Japanese followers of Lao Tzu is likely an allusion to the Yamabushi, also written Yamabooshi, who are mentioned a number of times by HPB. There is a Wikipedia page about them, describing them as “Japanese mountain ascetic hermits.” In “The Secret Doctrine,” after explaining the esoteric teaching about our moon actually being the parent of our planet, the latter the reincarnation of the former, we find it written that “This is one of the “seven mysteries of the Moon,” and it is now revealed. The seven “mysteries” are called by the Japanese Yamaboosis, the mystics of the Lao-Tze sect and the ascetic monks of Kioto, the Dzenodoo – the “seven jewels.” Only the Japanese and the Chinese Buddhist ascetics and Initiates are, if possible, even more reticent in giving out their “Knowledge” than are the Hindus.” (Vol. 1, p. 173-174)

Theosophy teaches that both the human being and the cosmos are comprised of seven fundamental aspects or “principles.” On p. 117 of “The Key to Theosophy,” HPB remarks that “Lao-Tze, in his Tao-te-King, mentions only five principles, because he, like the Vedantins, omits to include two principles, namely, the spirit (Atma) and the physical body, the latter of which, moreover, he calls “the cadaver.””

In the book “A Modern Panarion” is an article headed “Occultism or Magic.” This was first published under the title “A Few Questions to Hiraf” in “The Spiritual Scientist” magazine of July 1875, four months before the Theosophical Society was founded. The article, which is worth reading in its entirety – and which is quoted from at length in Hidden Origins of Rosicrucianism – was HPB’s first public mention of her connection with Brotherhoods of Adepts. She wrote about the Eastern Initiates in much more specific and detailed terms later on. In that article she shares some perspectives on Confucius and Lao Tzu:

“. . . “Hiraf” [i.e. the pseudonym used by the writer to whom she was responding] sins likewise in a certain comparison he makes between Christ, Buddha, and Khoung-foo-tsee, or Confucius. A comparison can hardly be made between the two former wise and spiritual Illuminati, and the Chinese philosopher. The higher aspirations and views of the two Christs can have nothing to do with the cold, practical philosophy of the latter, brilliant anomaly as he was among a naturally dull and materialistic people, peaceful and devoted to agriculture from the earliest ages of their history. Confucius can never bear the slightest comparison with the two great Reformers. Whereas the principles and doctrines of Christ and Buddha were calculated to embrace the whole of humanity, Confucius confined his attention solely to his own country, trying to apply his profound wisdom and philosophy to the wants of his countrymen, and little troubling his head about the rest of mankind. Intensely Chinese in patriotism and views, his philosophical doctrines are as much devoid of the purely poetic element, which characterizes the teachings of Christ and Buddha, the two divine types, as the religious tendencies of his people lack in that spiritual exaltation which we find, for instance, in India. Khoung-foo-tsee has not even the depth of feeling and the slight spiritual striving of his contemporary, Lao-tsee. Says the learned Ennemoser: “The spirits of Christ and Buddha have left indelible, eternal traces all over the face of the world. The doctrines of Confucius can be mentioned only as the most brilliant proceedings of cold human reasoning.” Harvey, in his Universal History, has depicted the Chinese nation perfectly, in a few words: “Their heavy, childish, cold, sensual nature explains the peculiarities of their history.” Hence any comparison between the first two Reformers and Confucius, in an essay on Rosicrucianism, in which “Hiraf” treats of the Science of Sciences and invites the thirsty for knowledge to drink at her inexhaustible source, seems inadmissible.” (p. 43-44)

Confucius is, however, spoken of more highly and positively elsewhere, even being called a “Fifth Rounder” in “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 162. This expression is an allegorical term, designed to indicate one who even in this current Fourth Round period of evolution (see Chains, Globes, Rounds and Root Races) has reached inwardly a stage of development that will only be normal for the average mass of humanity in the next great evolutionary cycle, millions of years from now.

It is true though that a “Fifth Rounder” is not necessarily highly evolved spiritually, for the Fifth Round – as also the Fifth Root-Race – relates to the development of the fifth of our Seven Principles, namely Manas, the mind and intellect. “The Secret Doctrine” gives Confucius and Plato as examples of “Fifth Rounders” and Buddha and Adi Shankaracharya as “Sixth Rounders.”

However, if Confucius was a Fifth Rounder and still not as great or spiritual as Lao Tzu, then we may perhaps suppose that Lao Tzu was himself a Fifth Rounder or even more.

Many translations exist of his Tao Te Ching. In the United Lodge of Theosophists or ULT, an edition first published in 1951 by Theosophy Company is generally used when the text is read from or studied in meetings and is also available for purchase at a very reasonable price; a mere £2 in the UK. This translation is not as literal and exact as some others and is more of a “rendition” (made by Lionel Giles and also named “Treatise of the Way and of Virtue”) than a literal translation, i.e. portraying the original ideas more so than the original words themselves.

Its first section speaks of Tao – literally meaning “The Way” – in its cosmogonical and metaphysical aspect:

“The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao; the name which can be uttered is not its eternal name. Without a name, it is the Beginning of Heaven and Earth; with a name, it is the Mother of all things. Only one who is eternally free from earthly passions can apprehend its spiritual essence; he who is ever clogged by passions can see no more than its outer form. These two things, the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their origin are one and the same. This sameness is a mystery, – the mystery of mysteries. It is the gate of all spirituality.”

“Oh how still it is, and formless, standing alone without changing, reaching everywhere without suffering harm! It must be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. Its name I know not. To designate it, I call it Tao.”

“All things under Heaven derive their being from Tao in the form of Existence; Tao in the form of Existence sprang from Tao in the form of Non-Existence.”

“Tao produced Unity; Unity produced Duality; Duality produced Trinity; and Trinity produced all existing objects. These myriad objects leave darkness behind them and embrace the light, being harmonised by the breath of Vacancy.

“Tao produces all things; its Virtue nourishes them; its Nature gives them form; its Force perfects them.”

In just these few words, many of the key Theosophical teachings are contained, such as (1) There is an eternal Tao, i.e. Tao-in-the-form-of-Non-Existence, which can only be thought of as Absolute Darkness, the unfathomable and inexpressible ultimate Source of all manifestation, the “Eternal Zero” from which comes forth the “One”; (2) There is a non-eternal Tao, the more direct Source of manifestation, i.e. Tao-in-the-form-of-Existence, which is the Unity of all things and which can, to at least some extent, be expressed in words; i.e. (1) and (2) are the relation and distinction between the Absolute and the Logos; (3) Spirit and Matter are one and the same in their ultimate origin, i.e. Parabrahm=Mulaprakriti, as emphasised in “The Secret Doctrine,” i.e. Absolute Divine Spirit and Absolute Divine Substance are one and the same “Thing”; (4) An apparent reference to the harmonising nature of what Theosophy calls “The Great Breath”; and (5) It is only through inner purity and freedom from the influence of lower passions and desires that one can perceive the real essence of the omnipresent Divine Principle.

Towards the end of the book we find some interesting and at times seemingly paradoxical words of wisdom:

“He who knows others is clever, but he who knows himself is enlightened. He who overcomes others is strong, but he who overcomes himself is mightier still. He is rich who knows when he has enough. He who acts with energy has strength of purpose. He who moves not from his proper place is long-lasting. He who dies, but perishes not, enjoys true longevity.”

“Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”

“The truest sayings are paradoxical.”

“To the good I would be good; to the not-good I would also be good, in order to make them good.

“With the faithful I would keep faith; with the unfaithful I would also keep faith, in order that they may become faithful.

“Even if a man is bad, how can it be right to cast him off?

“Requite injury with kindness.”

“He who always thinks things easy is sure to find them difficult. Therefore the Sage ever anticipates difficulties, and thus it is he never encounters them.”

“A journey of a thousand miles began with a single step.”

“To know, but to be as though not knowing, is the height of wisdom. Not to know, and yet to affect knowledge, is a vice. If we regard this vice as such, we shall escape it. The Sage has not this vice. It is because he regards it as a vice that he escapes it.”

“Use the light that is in you to revert to your natural clearness of sight. Then the loss of the body is unattended by calamity. This is called doubly enduring.”

“True words are not fine; fine words are not true.”

The final words of the text – at least in the Theosophy Company version – are “LAO TZU ON HIMSELF” and may be seen by earnest and devoted students of the original teachings of Theosophy as also applicable to H. P. Blavatsky:

“My words have a clue, my actions have an underlying principle. It is because men do not know the clue that they understand me not.

“Those who know me are but few, and on that account my honour is the greater.

“Thus the Sage wears coarse garments, but carries a jewel in his bosom.”

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