II. Historical and philosophical aspects of Taoism within China and Korea.
"The Way of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu is not a method, it is an aim itself."62
China has a 4,000 year recorded history and is one of the oldest civilizations in the world.63 Taoism, together with Confucianism, were the two most significant religio-philosophical currents that formed Chinese culture for more than half of this period.64 Confucianism, concentrated on the formation of a moral and political conformity aimed at molding both society and the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Taoism, by contrast, was a more naturalistic philosophy, which emphasised human beings' freedom from conventional constrains. In contrast to the Confucian emphasis on the li, the relationships of authority, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu emphasized cultivation of the inner man, through following the Way, or Tao, of inner harmony and tranquillity.
Lao-tzu (Old Master), a semi-mythological Chinese thinker of the 6th century B.C., is generally considered to be the originator of Taoism. The main source of information detailing his life is a biography in the Shih-chi ("Historical Records") - China's first universal history (2nd century BC) - by Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Lao-tzu was born in the area of Honan around 600 B.C. and was a librarian or archivist at the royal court of the Chou dynasty (c. 1111-255 BC). He specialized in subjects such as astrology and prediction and was in charge of the sacred records. In a 5,000-character essay, the so-called Tao Te Ching or Lao-tzu, written in a single night toward the end of his life, Lao-tzu set down his thoughts and philosophies just prior to his departure from Honan for an unknown destination.65 The Tao Te Ching itself indicates in equal quantities both a deep pacifism and resolute notions on government. Scholars and interpreters maintain it shows the purest form of contemplative introspection and political application written.
Tao (the Way, Supreme Principle or Truth) is nameless, unnameable and unformed but whole, it is the utmost presence behind the universe, nature, and individual circumstances. It is all-comprehensive, constant, and righteous. However, it is also indescribable. It is not a manifestation but a creative process. What Lao-tzu considers to be the Tao is ever changing, not stagnant. The traditional Chinese concept of using names (ming) placed the named into a hierarchical position. However, Tao is non-hierarchical with no fixed concept, definition or place in time or space. Equally, Tao takes none of these classifications. It is incomprehensible and unobservable, about which nothing can be fixed firmly but which consists potentially of the configurations, existences, and dynamisms of that which it surrounds. To comprehend the activities of Tao is to comprehend the mystical changes of both nature and the universe, an impossibility!
Te (Virtue or Love) is identified by naivete, simplicity and tenderness. It is the omnipotence innate in all creatures. Tao represents the birth of all living beings as well as innate substances, while Te nurtures them. These antipodes are similar to the relationship between yin and yang. Te is the effect of Tao in the sphere of existence, as well as a hidden strength that never claims its achievements. Among its greatest virtues are tenderness and weakness, exemplified by the infant, the feminine, and water. Water abides in valley's yet it benefits innumerable creatures. Although gentle, it is able to overwhelm the "strongest" opponent. In this way weakness can be seen as strength. Also in this way water follows Tao - the Natural Way.66
Lao-tzu's stress on virtue and harmony among all the creatures and substances of the universe, gave rise to distinctive themes in Taoist philosophy. Lao-tzu gave great credence to unity (Tao), underlying the obvious variety within the phenomena of this world. Taoists stress the unity of the universe, unity between nature and human beings. Another theme is the cyclical character of time, universal rhythm and the expected principle of return.67 Therefore, demise is natural and Human beings should neither be perturbed at death nor should they covet it. And once Taoists see all substances and beings as united, conflicting beliefs can emerge only because human beings neglect to view the Whole and hold their partial and limited facts as perfect and complete. In this case they are comparable with a frog at the bottom of the well who observes a shaft of sunlight and believes it to be the whole ether.68 The sealed rule, the infatuation and biases into which narrow contemplations confine themselves, conceal Tao (Truth) which abides inside all humans and is greater than all other distinctions. In the Tao Te Ching, the supreme consonance of the ubiquitous Tao itself is presented as a social model, intended as a text for the monarch. The representative monarch is one whom the populace are not aware, since he interferes as rarely as possible in the original circulation of innumerable creatures. He lays down the barest minimum of laws. Therefore, the monarch ought to be a philosopher whose behaviour is un-recognized and his very presence remains un-detected. In this way the "least government is the best form of government".
The view of "doing everything by doing nothing, inaction or taking no action (wu-wei)" was assigned as a determining ideal for the rational monarchy. Wu-wei can be seen as a primordial laissez-faire, based on the view that in life as well as in the universe there is an unconscious accord. However, wu-wei should not be seen as a concept of complete inaction. It is rather a tranquil activity. The relationship between wu-wei and those objects it absorbs is so harmonious it remains un-detected, leaving no trace of its accomplishments. The accomplished sermon is comparable to a labourer whose tools leave no harsh imprint on the piece of jade he is reforming. In such a way, the activity of wu-wei can be compared to a person who helps mankind whilst seeking no glorification for himself as opposed to one who helps in the most public of ways. It is Tao that never acts, but there is nothing it does not do. The sage who practices wu-wei lives in his original nature, before it was contaminated by knowledge and condensed by ethics. He has returned to "natural piety" similar to an Un-carved Block. In un-carved naivete, human beings achieve their genuine character. Civilisation and society slices the wood into defined frames for its own use and consequently deprives us of the distinctive composition of its first completeness and intactness.
Those who understand the idea of Tao, the underlying maxim and the ruler of the whole being, understand the principle of wu-wei. Taoists demand no limitations or interdictions on their dependents. This intention results in a lack of interference with the universe and with nature. This innocence produces within all creatures both tranquillity and a concord with the world; what is more it is produced without intention and premeditation. Not-being (wu) does not denote emptiness but rather the un-importance of distinguishable characteristics. Wu-wei shows in a changing universe, nothing is stagnant. However, all parts of nature are accorded an harmonious rhythm. In this way the static word or creed can mean different things to different people. Beings and innate substances are laid open to fluctuating changes and modifications. In Lao-tzu's conception, wu is higher than entity (yu).
Lao-tzu's ideology has accommodated the cultivation of a position of inner tranquillity, spiritual inspiration, clearness of mind, a feeling of peacefulness and a virtuous example for the Chinese people. Having grasped and imbibed the concept of "nothingness" the philosophical Taoist has unfettered himself from all interfering notions and distracting passions and therefore allows Tao to act through him without obstacle. A key index that guides Tao is naturalness and spontaneity (tzu-jan), the unconditioned. Through meekness (represented as femininity), modesty, and softness, human beings achieve a loftiness of spirit, calmness of reason, compatibility and empathy, and an openness of mind. Human beings are blissful and unimpeded whilst retaining their own nature and world. They accomplish their individual fate, by escaping from the fear of life and death, rise above advantage and disadvantage, and live a plain and unpretentious life; innocent like a child.
As Lao-tzu himself put it:
"He who is genuine is not artificial;
He who is artificial is not genuine.
He who is intelligent is not quarrelsome;
He who is quarrelsome is not intelligent.
He who is wise is not pretentious;
He who is pretentious is not wise."69
Chuang-tzu (ca. 369-286 B.C.)70 cultivated philosophical Taoism to new-fashioned prominence with his belief in the equality of variegated creatures, the spontaneous movement of Tao, and the mysterious connection between humans, nature and the universe at large. He looked for the neutralisation of the Heaven-created and the human created; that is, the universe and civilisation. Chuang-tzu wished human beings to abandon all unnatural characteristics such as slyness and craftiness, states of mind in which Tao cannot reside. Equally human beings ought to forsake all notions of scope, axiom, and probity. Chuang-tzu condemned not only civilisations and heroes, glorified by the Confucians, but also the philosophers who created the ceremonies and disciplines of people. Moreover the seeking of knowledge for its own sake can be blamed because it causes rivalry, clashes and leads to destruction, all in the name of either personal or collective gain.
The distinctions between Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are great, not fundamentally philosophical, but in style. Whereas Lao-tzu is sublime and mystical, ambiguous and even humourless, Chuang-tzu is earthly, energetic, humorous and above all humanitarian.71 Whereas Lao-tzu's was the philosophy that discoursed to the philosopher-emperor, Chuang-tzu's was the first successful Chinese treatise to examine individual existence, and wisdom for human beings. Chuang-tzu compared himself and the attendant government with an abundantly-fed ornamental ox being led to consecration in the tabernacle, seeing himself as the unmatched hog "cheerfully" romping in the slime. This childlike and natural openness and spontaneity of Chuang-tzu is always refreshing.
Taoism contributed to Chinese culture and science. It had been influential in the development of Chinese medicine, particularly through herbalism and the cult that centred around the extension of life through healthy living. The fundamental principle of Lao-tzu's philosophy and its idea of "Weakness" has given succour and "asylum" to the elderly, the underprivileged, and oppressed dissidents, as well as rebels, hidden elites, and secret societies. Also Lao-tzu's philosophy that the activity of Tao lay in reversal helped foster and encourage the patience and resilience of the Chinese people in times of oppression.
"Despite the contaminated politics of the last several decades, I could draw breath through my daily conversation with Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu."72
Confucianism and Buddhism, rather than Taoism, have been the predominant and influential philosophies within Korean history. However, although never at the core of Korean history, Taoism has always existed as an underlying presence. Whereas Confucianism and Buddhism left behind a myriad of historical records, Taoism did not. The only recorded information that remains is small and fragmented. As a result of this, until the end of World War II only one fully researched paper on Korean Taoism existed.73 Because of this lack of written sources, Korean Taoism was incapable of spreading as a philosophy. However, that is not to say that Taoist philosophy did not have some influence.
Taoism within Korea, unlike Buddhism and Confucianism, or even Chinese Taoism, failed to grow as an autonomous religious denomination or cultural sect. It first arrived in Korea in 624 A.D. Its popularity in China led the T'ang Monarch, Kao'tsu, to send a Taoist preacher to the Koguryo Kingdom along with Taoist literature: Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.74 Korean historical documents show that the instructions of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu were welcomed and eagerly scrutinised by one of the Three Kingdoms, Koguryo Court, in early 7th century A.D.75 This eagerness can be seen in the fact that the Taoist preacher spoke on the philosophy of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu in lectures that were attended by the Koguryo monarch and his ministers.76 As a result of this enthusiasm from the Koguryo Royal court, Buddhist temples were eventually transformed to Taoist temples. However, this first enthusiasm for Taoism within the Koguryo Kingdom lasted for only 30 years.77 In the Paekche Kingdom (BC 18 - AD 660), another one of the Three Kingdoms, Chinese Taoism did not have the same effect as in the Koguryo Kingdom. The philosophy was only briefly introduced and was merely a passing vogue. Nevertheless the thoughts of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu had some influence through syncretized treatises linking it to Buddhism and Confucianism
Of the Three Kingdoms, the Silla Kingdom left the most substantial legacy of Taoism. Silla received Lao-tzu: Tao Te Ching in 738 A.D. from the T'ang Monarchy.78 As a result, Silla scholars went to the T'ang Monarchy in order to study Taoism. This led to Lao-tzu being used in civil service examinations, which led to a popularisation of Lao-tzu among the public. However, the characteristic of Silla Taoism concentrated on the practice and training of one's mind or self discipline.79 Its most distinctive mark can be found in the rule of the Hwarang, an elite armed force noted for its disciplined composure, simplicity, relaxation and harmony, every one a component of philosophical Taoism. It is that self-disciplinary aspect of Taoism that dominated Silla Taoism.
Sin-Sun Sasang (Manaism)80; which was relatively widespread within the Silla Kingdom, had its roots in folk beliefs and practices, but it was also influenced by Korean Taoism.81 The Sin-Sun Sasang in its original form was taken from the adoration of nature, and grew out of its animistic character. Indeed the term Sin-Sun Sasang is an important one in Korean Taoism, reflecting the modification of Chinese Taoism made by Korean Sin-Sun Sasang. By the mid period of the Koryo Kingdom (935-1392), even Sin-Sun Sasang had become so intermixed with Buddhism that its original ideology was hardly perceptible. Furthermore, considering the primary ruling ideology of the Koryo Kingdom was Buddhism, Taoism mainly acted as a supplementary idea under the influence of Buddhism. It was not the foremost ruling philosophy for the Koryo Kingdom even in this, its most popular period.
The Choson (1392-1910) society was predominantly set by Neo-Confucianism as a state religion, and was accepted by the Royal Court as well as lesser aristocrats but not by the common people. This newly-embraced state religion, was unable adequately to provide any religious focus for the oppressed populace. Meanwhile, at least at the start of the Choson Dynasty, Taoist literature was quite popular among groups of the intelligentsia. These groups published and produced various pieces of literature, the result of their academic research on Taoism. Whilst it is undeniable that there was a clear divergence between Confucianism and Taoism, the intelligentsia's writing on Taoism was predominantly from a Confucian perspective. However, there was a growing opposition from the main Confucian faction against Taoism, and Taoism began to be perceived as "heretical". Subsequently the number of practitioners of Choson Taoism was drastically reduced and the volume of Taoism was cut hugely. Eventually, when the Japanese Invasion took place in 1592, Choson Taoism was systematically abolished. Since that time until the present day, Korean Taoism has been marginallized not only by the Korean Royal Court, Confucians, and Buddhists but also by society as a whole. With such a historical framework, today only a handful of Taoists exist throughout Korea.
In diffuse ways, however, Korean Taoism survived to influence all classes of the Korean people. A clear instance of the effect of Taoism among Koreans is the pursuit of good fortune and long-life, a part of Taoist religion rather than Taoist philosophy. Moreover it affected the lives of everyday people in other ways, including geomancy, fortune-telling, prognostication and folk literature. In this respect, Korean Taoism tended to reinforce a certain fatalism. It emphasized making do with one's lot, carefulness and even submission, and at the same time, legitimated certain animist trends in popular culture.
However, over all, as I have pointed out above, the most unique and remarkable folklore legacy of Korean Taoism is Sin-Sun Sasang. Both China and Korea share an authoritarian history. The Sin-Sun Sasang can be seen as an anti-thesis against this authoritarianism. Sin-Sun is a super-historical and super-natural power, which resists and is hostile to conventional systems or authoritarian restriction.82 This critical and resistant consciousness of Sin-Sun manifested itself in the advocacy as well as in the pursuit of "anti-values", against secular-overpowering fixed-values.83 By way of example one can examine the characteristics within a Sin-Sun tale. Many female Sin-Sun appear in these tales, and very frequently their magical abilities are stronger than their counterparts' male Sin-Sun. Considering Oriental society is a male-dominated one and traditionally accepted the predominance of male over female, the Sin-Sun tale shows the reversed value of this society and can be seen as embodying a rudimentary feminism. The Sin-Sun tales have a common point: all of them refuse to accept the authoritarian order in Korea, and they choose rather the adversity of their life. Moreover Sin-Sun, pursue eternal life through the protection and helping of other creatures. The Sin-Sun lives with everyday people, trying to alleviate their suffering by any means possible. One aspect of the Sin-Sun character can be compared to that of the legendary Robin Hood. Both fought for the rights of all oppressed peoples. Perhaps that is why the idea of Sin-Sun could only be transmitted via folklore.
In conclusion, I have shown that Korean philosophical Taoism was poorly developed as an abstract theory. Religious Taoism flourished briefly, but mainly within the Royal Court as a means of rite and ceremony. Popular cultural forms of Taoism have existed, mainly in practices of fortune telling, geomancy and animism. Insofar as Taoism had popular appeal, it was mainly through Sin-Sun Sasang, through a "Robin Hood" figure, and this can be seen as a rather meagre reflection of the initial flourishing of philosophical Taoism in Korea.
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