Taoism, the other side of Chinese thought

Videoconference by Rémi Mathieu, Emeritus Research Director at CNRS (CRCAO).

Rémi Mathieu begins by asking the question: what is Taoism? This term is a French transposition that actually covers two Chinese expressions based on the word Dao which means the way, the way: dàojià "The School of Dao" and daojiao "The teaching of Dao».

If the term Taoism did not exist at the beginning, it is from the Han (206 BC NE-220 AD) that the different schools of thought were classified: Confucianism, Taoism, legalism, the School of dialecticians, the School of the Five Elements.
The founding fathers of this school are Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi. We can distinguish three branches of Taoism: the philosophical Taoism which is the most important, the Taoist practices which aim at the lengthening of the life, even with the immortality, and the religious Taoism which led to a religious practice, a deification founding fathers and the constitution of a Taoist "church".
Speculative Taoism probably dates from the 6rd s. av. Our era. Taoism aiming at lengthening life is at the same time anterior, contemporary and posterior. Religious Taoism that appeared around our era is still alive today in China, where it is tolerated and controlled, as well as in the Chinese diaspora.

The speculative Taoism is a doctrinaire set, relatively coherent but which did not really give birth to a school. Laozi did not have disciples, like Confucius, but rather heirs.
There is not really a philosophy in China and if, in Laozi's thought, there is a search for a form of wisdom which makes it possible to understand the arrangement of things, he is not going to seek the meaning of things. , the meaning of life. Since there is no godly purpose, there is no final goal. Beings are considered in themselves without appealing to a transcendent power and they spontaneously find their place in the world, hence the relationship of Taoism with nature.

The era of the Warring States (771-256 BC) was particularly fruitful in the field of thought. All these thinkers were at the service of the princes in order to advise them in good government but also in the management of political, economic or military problems. It should be noted that Taoism will spread some of its ideas in other currents of thought such as Confucianism, legalism, etc.

Laozi and his heirs give at the end of Dao  several senses including that of following the Way and that of teaching the Way. Header of Laozi ( Dao De Jing), it says "the Dao cannot express the Dao Constant (immutable), the Dao Constant cannot be stated ”. This term is not the prerogative of Taoism but is also used by all other schools of thought. This word is not defined, and this is the big difference between Chinese philosophy and Greco-Latin philosophy. We cannot define the Dao because that would restrict it. If we want to approach it as closely as possible, we must think of a generating energy composed of two antagonistic and complementary forces, the Yin and Yang. In Taoist cosmogony, the Dao first generates the void, then it generates the determined and the indeterminate. There is a Dao universal but also Dao individual insofar as everything has its Dao. It is therefore necessary to respect both so that the mechanisms of nature can function in an endless cyclical movement. The notion of non-action is also an important and central element of the doctrine. Non-action is not synonymous with inaction, it is an action that unfolds between a subject or an object, respecting its own nature and putting its Dao individual in harmony with the Dao universal. This notion finds its origin in naturalism which is specific to Taoist thinkers and advocates a spontaneous gesture, which does not require reflection, an act of oneself by oneself. The support of existence is the vital breath, the Ch'i ou Qi, and one can imagine that the theory comes from the School of the Five Elements, elements which succeed each other by eliminating themselves but also by regenerating themselves (wood, fire, earth, metal and water).

Laozi might never have existed, like Confucius, whose older contemporary he would have been. It's at 2rd  s. that the great historian Sima Qian (145-86) devotes a biography to him which sets up the elements of the legend: his position as archivist of the Zhou in 5rd s. BC, the visit Confucius paid him, his distaste for courtly life and his journey west on the back of a buffalo. The text of the Laozi ( Dao De Jing), did exist, because a copy was found in an archaeological site dating from the 4rd s. Before our era. This text has been used by all the great Taoist thinkers.

Le Laozi is a fundamental work from its origin and it is really the base on which all the other Taoist theories were developed. Taoism is not a dogmatic thought but which develops, which encourages more reflection than offering solutions. It says, in the preamble, that the Dao (the Way) is invisible, inaudible, intangible, intellectually incognizable and elusive by the senses. He is deemed unmentionable (that would be to restrict him) "the Dào that can be named is not the Dào Constant (unchanging), not knowing his name, I call him Dào. To know the Constant is to attain enlightenment. To know the origin is to know the Dào which is inexhaustible. The Nameless Dao has no name… ”. the Dao nameless is the origin of heaven and earth. In the Laozi, there is a whole set of approach maneuvers to say without saying. In Laozi's logic, there is the choice of the paradox and to the question, how do I know that it is so, he answers, by that very. It is based on intuition which is a direct communication between the world of things generated by the Dao and the Self. Hence the experience of the body which allows direct learning without intermediary. "The Dao is everywhere, it is the All, it is both Totality and Emptiness which allows the emergence of everything.... Le Dào is not himself begotten, he is his own, his own cause, Dào has no other model than himself". The apology of Dao, it is also the apology of Vide that we find constantly in Taoist thought, to the extent that Vide is at the origin of all beings and all things, it is a forge bellows, both empty but full of breath and force. It is in a way a promise of potentiality. Another strong thought from Laozi is the mystery: “the mystery of Dào is revealed by its darkness because the bottom of Dào is darkness. Darkening the darkness is the strength of all the subtleties". Darkness must remain in order to understand what has been generated by the Dao. Another pillar of Taoism is related to efficiency (effectiveness) "Higher efficiency is inefficient, which is why it is difficult. Higher efficiency does not act and has no purpose. Lower efficiency acts and has a purpose , but things (beings) honor efficiency". In original Taoism, higher efficiency refers to the notion of power, of power which emanates from a being and which can be expressed and preserve the integrity of his person. It is in fact the expression of Dao of the individual in what is effective.

To come back to non-action, it is not inaction but an accompaniment of the spontaneous action of things. This action, which is non-intervention, is the accompaniment of the spontaneous processes which are at work in all of nature. "By not acting, there is nothing that is not done, it is always by not acting that we win the whole world,… rectify without constraining, discipline without hurting. Because whoever acts fails, the wise man does not act therefore does not fail". Intervention is the cause of failure. This point is important because it touches on the spontaneity of beings and to respect their spontaneity is to respect their very nature. This idea of ​​non-action will have an influence on thinkers of other schools which have been inspired by Taoism, in particular the schools which are relative to military tactics.

Another aspect is teaching without speaking. We see in Laozi and especially in Zhuangzi, a distrust of the word. Speech is a deception for the one who uses it and also for the one who listens to it. The sage teaches without words, "true speech is not pleasant, pleasant speech is not true. The good man does not argue, he does not argue". True communication is infra-language, it takes place through the body and especially through the mind. We can see that for the Taoists, intuition is the primary mode of communication between beings, animals or things.

Taoism is also a political thought, like all the philosophical schools of the Warring States period. These are doctrines that try to offer solutions to the princes they advise so that society is peaceful, happy and war-free. As in other schools, the teachers of Dao invoke this figure of the wise prince. Laozi, like Confucius, seeks to return to primitive society, essentially rural, where the people were in ignorance, in simplicity, in the rough. All of these schools never question the political structure and organization in the principalities that make up feudal China. Taoism does not pose the question of moral thought, it is above all relativist; for him, ethical notions are totally artificial because they depend on both civilizational and temporal environments, likely to evolve from one era to another. He does not seek to found any morality, but he seeks to prevent the desire which is at the origin of all disturbances, both individual and social, from being expressed. It is not a question of suppressing one's desires but of not having any. "There is no greater cause than to approve of his desires, the sage desires non-desire, he does not appreciate goods that are difficult to acquire.". Desire is seen as that which goes beyond its own nature and leads to error.

In Laozi, there is a repudiation of knowledge, study, even wisdom which are the most eminent virtues of Confucianism. He writes "Renounce wisdom, renounce knowledge, renounce study. The further we go, the less we know. Without going through the door, you know the whole world, without looking out your window, you can see the way to Heaven, because the master knows without traveling. To know is not to know, not to know is to know. The one who knows is not a scholar and a scholar is not the one who knows. The one who knows does not speak and the one who speaks does not know».

The other very important branch of Taoism is that which has to do with esoteric techniques. One of the senses of Dao is method, means, practical. These techniques aim to provide long life, even immortality. It is important to cultivate the breath by different means and these techniques are very elaborate. The idea is to find the fetal breath by exhaling the old breaths and inhaling the new breaths. It can sometimes be picturesque because the goal of the sage can be to imitate the behavior of certain animals in order to hope to be as powerful as them, to live as long as them, or to have physical or mental capacities of their own. It's about moving like bears, stretching like birds, splashing around like ducks, leaping like gibbons, adopting owl looks or making tiger eyes… The basic principle one of these exercises is to reject stale breaths from one's body and to absorb new breaths by imitating the behavior of these animals. These practices probably have a shamanic origin but which have become regulated and systematized over the centuries and through numerous works. There are also dietary practices, it is desirable to avoid certain foods like grains or garlic, etc. Respiratory gymnastics consists of leading the breaths in the body to the heels through a very artificial geography of the body. Certain sexual practices contribute to this search for long life and have given birth to a literature that has been called "The Art of the Bedroom" (fangzhongshu) which is a literary category in its own right. These techniques aim to allow each partner to preserve the energies at his disposal for hygienic and not “pornographic” purposes.

We cannot speak of a Taoist religion in the real sense of the term but of the teaching doctrine of Dao since the beginning of our era. This teaching appeared following the social unrest which marked the end of the Han dynasty (220). It was at this time that Taoism appeared as a religious practice, with a cult based on the organization of a clergy, with texts considered sacred and their authors deified, the foundation of temples and ritualized behavior. This religious practice was aimed at providing long life, healing from disease, invulnerability and immortality. This current came in parallel with the philosophical current and scholars continued to develop Taoist doctrine.

Rémy Mathieu concludes that if his presentation may seem summary, it is very difficult to speak of such a complex doctrine, which lasted so long and which continues to evolve even today.




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