Thursday 1 September 2011

Secrets of the Tao (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

Modern Pathway to Ancient Wisdom
By Peter Hubral

Western Philosophy starts with Plato's advice to try to free ourselves from the conventional, everyday truths of the external world. Plato suggests instead that we should try (once in a while) to withdraw from it to our inner world, a realm that he calls the things before the things. Recall the words of the Oracle at Delphi, so characteristic of Socrates:
Recognise thyself 
This is an example of both how enigmatic Socrates' philosophy can appear but is equally an example of how often it is clumsily re-interpreted to fit this or that commentator's purpose. The original Greek is gnothi seautón, and is usually put as 'know thyself'. In this paper, I shall argue that much of the sense of this and many other Ancient texts has been lost. Now I was very early in my life attracted to the Platonic Dialogues and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching or The Classic of the Way and Power. I started to make real progress in grasping both works, however, only after I 'experienced Taoism' under Tao-Master Fangfu. He taught me the essentials of Tao Mediation, as rooted in ancient China and the teaching of Lao Tzu and the Yellow Emperor.

The first lesson I learned was that interpretations of natural philosophers such as Lao Tzu , Pythagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato and many others may appear plausible, but this does not mean that they are correct. Conventional readings of both the Ancient Greeks and Taoists indicate rather that it is more as Bertholt Brecht once wrote: Invisible becomes the insanity then, when it has gone out of proportion.

Take for example an article I read recently honouring Charles Darwin. In it the author claimed that Darwin had given the words of Socrates a deep meaning, because in them he thought he saw Socratic support for the theory that humans evolved from apes. But this is just one of many questionable interpretations of words of ancient wisdom; indeed the commentaries are full of them as pointed out by the contemporary philosopher, Sarah Kaufman, who notes in her book, Socrates: Fictions of a Philosopher, (1998) that with Socrates there are 'no facts', only 'interpretations'. This is true if one has no guide to track one's way through the jungle of literature about Socrates and many other ancient natural philosophers.
Tao Meditation: The key to ancient wisdom
Bear with me that I present here a new way of interpreting Plato. It is no 'insane fiction' for me as it is based on the use of Ancient Chinese techniques of Tao Meditation, techniques that  became for me a kind of  'Invisible Stone of Rosetta' able not only to unlock the Tao Te Ching, but Plato's Dialogues and many other ancient writings.

In retrospect, I can say that Fangfu, my Tao Meditation guide and mentor,  'acted like a midwife', who brought to birth in me the gradual development of an unusual knowledge, which 'came out of itself' in Tao Meditation. Recall that Socrates describes himself as a 'midwife' to knowledge too. He speaks about the things that become themselves by themselves (auta kath'hauta), as is the case in Tao Meditation.

My experience with it has led me to view Plato in many ways as a kind of Greek Lao Tzu and, conversely, to see Lao Tzu (who historically is rather earlier, being thought to have lived in the sixth century BCE) as having a similar place in Chinese philosophy as Plato has in the Greek tradition. More than that, it seemed natural to me on account of numerous insights to suppose that many of the Ancient Greek philosophers, and certainly Socrates and Plato, also practised (something very like) Tao Meditation.

Tao Meditation is a technique with no rules about what should or should not be done. It rather involves applying the principle of rigourously doing nothing. This is called by the Chinese, the Wuwei-principle (Wuwei signifies the complete absence of intentional action in rigourous stillness, so that nature can spontaneously act). The abundant benefits (with respect to relaxation and health and unusual knowledge) that result from it stem from this simple principle, irrespective of where and when it is applied. What is attained is comparable in different cultures.

Although there are no rules, typically, Tao Meditation is performed in a relaxed quiet standing position. It is interesting to recall that Socrates is often referred to as 'standing', most particularly in Plato's Symposium.
One morning he was 'thinking' about something which he could not resolve; he would not give it up, but continued 'thinking' from early dawn until noon... there he stood fixed in 'thought'; and at noon attention was drawn to him, and the rumour ran through the wondering crowd that Socrates had been standing and 'thinking' about something ever since the break of day. At last, in the evening after supper, some Ionians out of curiosity (I should explain that this was not in winter but in summer), brought out their mats and slept in the open air that they might watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning; ... and with the return of light he offered up a 'prayer' to the sun, and went his way.
This is the conventional interpretation of the passage, unlikely though it seems. 'Prayer' is a misleading translation, for example as the ancient pagan masters were not religious. What results from 'meditative standing' can be recognised only in between the lines if one has experience with Tao Meditation. In the cited quotation thinking is, for instance, not familiar discursive but unusual intuitive thinking (thinking before thinking). It is nurtured by the Wuwei-principle as intuitions (insights) occur in absentmindedness. They are there, where (discursive) thinking cannot get to.  The application of the Wuwei-principle can hardly be gauged from the literature, because not much can be written about doing nothing. Teaching and implementing it is a very high art - as Tao Meditation shows. It requires the help of a Tao Master. It brings the Tao-practitioner onto a 'path of expanding his consciousness (and five senses).' There are good indications that I refer here to the 'Path of Truth' that Parmenides, often cited by Plato, talks about when he mentions two different paths to perceive the world.

Taoists accept that without Tao Meditation you can only investigate half of the world. What can be uncovered with it can be viewed as a recollection (reawakening) of unusual knowledge that Plato calls gnósis. Recall that he refers to anámnesis, which translates to recollection.

Recall too, the Fourth Speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. There we read that humans were once ball-like beings rolling through the cosmos. Such a prenatal experience can be recollected as a result of applying the Wuwei-principle, the technique of thinking of nothing. In the words of my Tao Meditation guide, Fangfu: In ordinary life it is the world surrounding us that determines our consciousness. In Tao Meditation it is the (gradually expanding) consciousness that determines (enhances) our perception of the world.

We can also read in the Fourth Speech that after the ball-like beings attempted to conquer the Olympus, Zeus separated them into two halves. These words imply that without Tao Meditation, also called 'Great Path', we use only half of our capabilities, the ones to explore the outer world. With Tao Meditation we can investigate the other half and thus discover inner worlds (realms, states, levels, planes, ranges of consciousness), the so-called Tai Chi worlds. These can be subdivided into the three worlds You, Wuyou and Wu.

You corresponds to the (consciousness of the) known world, which can be labelled 'Being'. Wuyou is an intermediate creative world available to someone with an expanded state of consciousness; and lastly Wu is 'Non-Being', the opposite world of Being.

The three worlds are addressed in the following summary of the 'Great Path': 
The seeker begins the practice in You (on the first plane of consciousness) to perceive and amplify (on the second plane: Wuyou) the life-energy Qi (Chi), to illuminate the spirit (Shen). One illuminates the spirit, in order to get there, where the origin is of all things: Wu.
The summary provides no instructions on how to progress from Being (You) to Non-Being (Wu) as there are none! It, however, indicates that the seeker (practitioner) steadily penetrates into higher worlds (Tai Chi worlds) after exiting the familiar world of consciousness (You) . The inner worlds (encompassed in Wuyou) are unattainable by language and thinking. They reveal themselves by unusual insights and experiences, which may be called psychic or eidetic (to use the German existentialist, Edmund Husserl's nineteenth century term). They occur by themselves (in Greek: auta kath'hauta), because stillness creates movement. The 'Great Path' brings the Tao-practitioner into contact with the 'creative world' (Wuyou). This is the central (intermediate or mixed) world that acts like an interpreter to translate the 'unknown world' (Wu) into the known, 'created' world (You), which gradually expands on the 'Great Path' while Non-Being (Wu) gets diminished.

As I became more familiar with the 'Great Path', it deepened my understanding of many Ancient Chinese and Greek philosophical metaphors. I find myself now in the position to unravel reasonably well their contents using as a guide the distinction at the heart of Tao Meditation between the (creative and potential) inexpressible things before the (created and actual) expressible things. (in the terminology of Tao Meditation, the distinction between Wuyou and You.)

Some readers may be reminded here of the relationship of 'Plato's Forms' to the 'everyday world'. I think indeed such a comparison is correct. I see here indeed the dependency between the eternal, creative world (Wuyou = kósmos noetós) and the familiar, transient, visible world (You = kósmos aisthetós). 'Plato's Forms' is for me a misnomer. 
Reports of the Great Path
Lao Tzu expresses his experience on the 'great path' - great Tao: 
There exists chaos, which existed already before heaven and earth existed, still and formless. It is in a state of a circular movement that is nourished by itself. One may call it the mother of the 10.000 things. I do not know his name and for that matter I call it the Tao. Because I find no better attribute, I call it 'great'. 
Lao Tzu's insights could be repeated by everyone with enough motivation and talent for Tao Meditation. And indeed, many other persons have put Lao Tzu's experience into similar words. Confucius, considered in China as representing a worldly philosophical tradition, and thought to have not practised the techniques himself, puts certain Taoist experiences into his own words (rather as Aristotle, who additionally questioned recollection, did with some wise words of his teacher Plato).  Confucius writes in his commentaries on the I Ching:
Change has Tai Chi, which creates the two poles. 
'Change has Tai Chi' is a confusing formulation. But it is the first ever quotation of Tai Chi. Most likely it is poorly translated from Chinese, or perhaps Confucius did not understand what he was discussing himself (just as Aristotle did not understand many things he reports about Plato). But 'Change has Tai Chi' means something like 'impermanence (change) is the eternal constant of the world.' Here Confucius uses Tai Chi as a synonym of 'Great Tao'. Tai signifies the very first beginning and what is before. Chi signifies the very last end and what comes thereafter. Simply put, Tai Chi addresses the sensation of eternity (and infinity). What Lao Tzu calls chaos Confucius calls change, what Lao Tzu calls heaven and earth Confucius calls the two poles.
In the fragment on the creation of the world (the theogonía) of Hesiod (about 700 BCE), we can read:
At first was created chaos, and then Gaia with her separate breasts.
One can also recognise in the metaphor of the separate breasts,  the two poles (heaven and earth) which are used to characterise what the Chinese call You, and which Hesiod calls Gaia - the earth. Again, in ancient Taoist China earth is another term, a metaphor, for You - and heaven is for Wu.  The ball-like beings rolling through the cosmos mentioned by Aristophanes (according to Plato) can also be related to the 'chaos with circular movement' alluded to by Lao Tzu and experienced on the 'Great Path.' The two poles (heaven and earth or separate breasts) characterise the 'familiar world of conscious experience (You)', as a world of antagonisms or juxtapositions. Juxtapositions like those between part-whole, content-border, past-future, believe-disbelieve, right-wrong, becoming-decaying, et cetera, so that we can discursively communicate our thoughts about the 'visible (external) world.

The price we pay for this is that in this way we do not address the (true) natural world, the realm of the unnameable things in Wuyou (Tai Chi) before the named things in the everyday, consciously comprehended world of You. In You we rather consider the appearance (or image) of Wuyou.

To give an example, let me consider a nameable thought in You, which is the appearance (image) of a preceding unnameable intuition in Wuyou. What I express agrees with Plato. He says that 'the psyché is imprisoned in sóma, so that it can only perceive the things as through a grid.'

Sóma is usually translated as 'body', but in fact it is more than this. Plato uses it as a synonym for the apparent (bodily) outer world You and its many nameable appearances -phainómena - that veil true unnameable nature (ph'ysis). This is indicated in the etymology of that word, phainómenon, which is a synonym for existence in the everyday world, pointing to change (transitoriness) and appearance.

In order to get the psyché out of 'prison (sóma)' Plato recommends that one should not confine oneself to the 'world of appearance (You)', but should aim for the things (in Wuyou) before the things (in You) as is possible in Tao Meditation. In other words, it is language (with its many antagonisms) and thinking that make the visible world (You), an appearance (or a view through a grid, a veil) of true nature (Wuyou). This can be verified on the 'Great Path' but is not easily grasped by those, who cannot share what is recollected on it without language and words. As Lao Tzu wrote: The Tao that can be spoken about is not the 'real (great) Tao.
Eón: the Greek equivalent of Tai Chi and the Great Tao
My Tao-experience led me to look for equivalencies of Tai Chi in Plato's work. An often used one is eón, which is given much attention by Aristotle, who asks: What is ón (eón)? In the same way, Tao Meditation guide, Fangfu, would frequently ask: What is Tai Chi? Because this is the profoundest question of Tao-philosophy. But back to eón. Though whatever is formulated as an answer cannot be complete, useful information is given by Parmenides: 
The eón is one (unity) and eternal, aloof of becoming and decaying.
These words are similar to the ones of Confucius about Tai Chi, because becoming and decaying refers to the two poles. The two poles characterise the everyday transient world (You), but not the eternal Tai Chi (Wuyou), in which all opposites like becoming and decaying coincide. This is indicated by the fact that any inexpressible insight (that results from thinking before thinking in Wuyou) is a mixture of 'what is known (You)' and 'what is unknown (Wu)'.

Comparing Confucius with Parmenides provides only one indication that eón = Tai Chi. Parmenides, who uses mè eón as an equivalence for You, gives other hints. When he claims that mè eón cannot be recognised, he does not say as mostly claimed that Non-Being (Wu) cannot be comprehended (which is true and trivial), but that Being (You) is an unnatural or cultural appearance of eón. He made jokes about his contemporaries, who confused mè eón with eón. This mix up still creates a tremendous distortion in understandings of the Ancient Greeks today. When Parmenides writes that eón and mè eón are the same and not the same then he emphasises that both states of consciousness deliver different perceptions of one and the same reality.

What Parmenides writes is supported by Plato in the Sophist (260 c 3-5): 
The wrong emerges from the word as the word does from (intuitive) thinking. Who expresses his thoughts about mè eón  is not telling the truth.
This explains why for Parmenides and Plato only 'creative eón' has truth and not the 'created mè eón'. In his Allegory of the Divided Line, Plato puts eón to mè eón into the same relationship as tà gnostá (Wuyou = world of recollection) to tá dóxasta (You = world of opinions). What is written about Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato and other masters is the best proof that mè eón (Being) is a world of opinions, beliefs, 'no facts' and only 'interpretations'.

  The traditional way back to nature
The 'Great Path' is a way back to nature (ph´ysis). But ph´ysis is not the simple everyday 'nature.' It is rather what hides behind Being and creates everything from the inexpressible 'things before the things', like us, our expressible language, thoughts, knowledge, health and virtue. Realising this helped me to understand the natural Greek philosophers. They must have experienced the other half of the world in Tao Meditation by rigourously doing nothing, thus approaching Wu, which is also the Chinese word for illumination.

From what I have indicated so far, we can certainly get a greater appreciation of the famous saying of Socrates: 
I only know that I know nothing
This phrase (In the Greek, oída oudén eidós) does not reveal him, as it is so often said to do, as the inventor of ignorance. On the contrary, Nothing refers to the philosophical attempt to approach Non-Being (Wu) through the technique of emptying the mind (with Wuwei).  That is why Pythagoras taught his students for five years to do 'Nothing'. And Socrates is proud of his non-knowledge (hypomnesis). This is the pre-natal knowledge (Plato: gnósis) gained by recollection, about which Plato writes: But this knowledge is something that cannot be put in words, as is the case with other sciences.

Tao Meditation, the way back to nature, is also called 'cultivate life' (Yangsheng) and 'search for truth' (Xiuzhen). Plato calls it (for example, in the Republic and the Timaeus) among many other terms metrétiké techné (the Art of measurement) and  also geometría, which has nothing to do with geometry but is rather for him a way to ensure virtue in the Ideal State. He says that if geometría is used to explore eón it is useful and if it is used to investigate mè eón it is useless. Plato describes in the Phaedo as the 'right philosophising' a 'practice of death (melete thanatou)' that will let the psyché, in death, arrive at its divine, immortal, and wise status in truth (81a).

There are ancient eastern masters, who allegorically relate Tao Meditation also to dying and Wu to death. This has nothing to do with contemplating about (true) death or yearning to die, let alone, as one can read, that Socrates suggested to his students to commit suicide. What hides behind it is rather a full dedication to a balanced life as can be attained with Tao Meditation.

Address for correspondence:  

Dr. Peter Hubral is Professor of Applied Geophysics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. He runs a website giving more details.  


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