The Theosophical Forum – February 1944

THE RELIGION OF CHINA (1) — Christmas Humphreys

The Chinese have the oldest and the finest civilisation extant, not excepting that of India. Compared with them we in the West are in many ways, as they were wont to describe us, ignorant barbarians. They have produced the greatest art in history, not excepting that of Greece. To-day, reluctantly, and only in defence of their very right to exist, they have produced an army which is unbeaten and may prove invincible. After the war, they will form one of the four Great Powers responsible for the re-organisation of mankind. What, then, is the fount of life from which have sprung this civilisation, this exquisite art and this unconquerable spirit on the field of war?

The answer is a religion-philosophy unique in its complexity, its range and in what, for want of a better term, I call its "infusion" in the national life. It is composed of three of the seven great religions of mankind, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and three of the other four have played their part in its creation. Hinduism has influenced the Chinese through Mahayana Buddhism; Christianity, of the Nestorian variety, was widespread in the vital period of the T'ang Dynasty, and there are millions of Chinese converts to Islam. It is true that the outward forms of all these faiths have suffered at the hands of time, but the spirit of Confucius is at the heart of the Chinese army's morale; if Taoism has to some extent degenerated into necromancy and traffic with the spirit world it has nevertheless provided the soil in which the seed of Buddhism has flowered into Zen, that mysticism of the will which is the bravest path to Reality yet used by man; and if Chinese Buddhism has too far become a series of "services" appropriate at birth, marriage and death, yet there is in progress a widespread revival of true Buddhism fostered by the mighty figure of the Ven. Tai Hsiiu.

These three ingredients of the religion of China are not merely mixed but complementary. All men need a philosophy, secondly, a way of life, and that indefinable third factor, wings, that lifting power of the mystic's vision, the joy of expansion which comes, paradoxically enough, in self-surrender, and which manifests alike in the quiet humility by which alone we possess everything, and in the spontaneity and laughter of the child. And these requirements are to be found in what the Chinese themselves have called the Tripod, a religion standing on three legs. Ancient tablets show the figures of the three Founders side by side; modern societies study the three philosophies dispassionately, and have even attempted to formulate, in the doctrine of the "triple ego," a set of principles acceptable to all. Nor do the Chinese choose or let their parents choose to which of the three religions they shall belong exclusively. One Chinese student, when I asked him to which religion he belonged, replied: "All three," and added: "And in my private shrine I have a crucifix as well." Why not? All men are different, and "the ways to the One are as many as the lives of men." Though the great religions have all built highways to Reality, every man must some day make a path for himself and tread it to the end.

Before we can understand the compound religion of China we must understand the Chinese character. The Chinese, like ourselves, are intensely practical, and therefore suspicious of all abstractions and abstract ways of thought. They are, like ourselves, extremely individual following the Buddha's dying exhortation — "Work out your own salvation with diligence." They are experts in relationship, content with their own station in life whatever it may be, and insistent on observing the right relationship with all above and below them. As such they are a religious-minded people, for religion is the adjustment of the particular to the universal, the living of the right relationship between man, nature and THAT. If, on the other hand, by religion be meant the worship in collective form of a personal God, then the Chinese are no more religious than the English, of whom, so the Bishop of Durham says, "only 5 per cent, have any connection with organized religion."

The Chinese are artists all, lovers of the beautiful in all its forms, perhaps the only nation since the Greeks who have made of beauty a religion in itself. They are a friendly, simple people, ever in love with life. In the terms of modern psychology they have learnt in the passing of unnumbered centuries to "sit loose to life," at terms with the unconscious. Hence, moving on the rhythm of life, as a people they know not death. Always they follow a Golden Mean, despising all extremes, with what may be described as a short swing of the pendulum between the "opposites." As Confucians, their creed is "Do as you would be done by'; as Taoists, "Be humble and you remain entire"; as Buddhists they are followers of the Middle Way which leads to the heart's enlightenment.

In England we are apt to date our history from the time of Christ. In China there was a well-developed monotheism and a high degree of art and culture by at least 2000 b. c. As the representative on earth of Tai, the Supreme Ruler, there was a Priest-King, who was the "Son of Heaven." Below him came the feudal lords, and then the countless heads of families, who looked to their sons to afford them the same reverence and respect which they afforded to their fathers, their lords, their king and so the Heaven of which he was but regent upon earth. Thus there was a continuum of creation, reverenced as such, which, far from "ancestor worship" in the popular sense of the term, is another example of the Chinese love of right relationship.

By the 6th century b. c. the country was torn with civil war, and men were already dreaming of the "Golden Age" of the first Emperors when at least a man might sleep in his home without fear for the morrow. At such a crisis there appeared in China two of the greatest men the world has produced, Confucius and Lao-Tzu. At the same time there appeared in India Gotama the Buddha, whose teaching was to reach China in the first century a. d. and blend with the existing two religions as never before or since have three religions blended into one. Further West, Plato was teaching in Greece, and part of his philosophy concerned the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In China, Confucius taught the Good Life; Taoism and Buddhism told men of the True, but China needed no one to teach the religion of the Beautiful. The Chinese sense of values has always been in favor of the aesthetic rather than the utilitarian, stressing the value of creativeness over the thing created. In Confucianism, for example, the emphasis is on being and doing good; in Taoism on seeking and realizing Tao; in Buddhism on the actual treading of the Middle Way. Once more it is the right adjustment or the sense of right relationship which has religious value. The thing created or the act done is of comparative unimportance. The Chinese approach to life, in other words, is largely subjective; hence the saying, "Fulfilment is deception." The Western approach is objective; hence the proverb, "the end justifies the means." It follows that anything is important to the Chinese mind which is itself creative, its importance lying in its creativeness. Thus ceremonial is valued not for what it produces but what it is. Courtesy is itself an expression of the creativeness of the individual mind. Right conduct to one's neighbor is an end in itself, and even drinking tea may become a ceremony expressing the same spirit of creation as in other lands may manifest in using a machine. In no way is this better shown than in the Chinese attitude to war. War is a struggle for results which, however obtained, justify the effort expended on obtaining them. But results, say the Chinese, are never worth fighting for. Why fight for land and booty? When won, they have no abiding value to the individual, and the very men you fight may be your allies in some political reshuffle in a few years" time!

Such were the main ingredients of the Chinese character even in the 6th century b. c. when, in a country torn with civil war, there appeared Confucius (Kung Fu-Tze), the greatest name in China. Yet the Master Kung was not a pioneer of thought, not, in the ordinary sense a religious man, and certainly not a World Teacher as were the Buddha and the Christ. He was, on the other hand, the first Chinese of whom we have knowledge to found a school of thought, and he certainly codified a great deal of the literature and traditions of the past into a noble system of social reform through the example of right living. Fearless in the pursuit of truth, utterly sincere with himself and all men, loyal to all, his teaching roused the best in the Chinese character. First, he said, reform yourself. "The Master said: The man of honour makes demands on himself; the man without a sense of honour makes demands on others." For him the reform of the country — the "new order" as we should say, to follow the years of bitter fighting — depended on the reform by himself of the individual. To this end, he insisted, first gain knowledge as handed down by the great minds of the past, but regulate the use of this knowledge by the inner rule of li, good form, and common sense. Then, and the order must be noted, acquire some measure of self-control and self-discipline. Only then should the self-trained "gentleman" apply his mind and energies to the "social service" of his fellow men. In this way, all teaching and ultimately all government was a matter of "gentlemen," in the sense of trained and disciplined individuals, setting an example to those they taught or governed, and thus in the end to all men.

Hence the great stress on ethics, the science of social relationships, and indeed the teaching of Confucius has been described as a code of ethics raised to the status of a religion. Loyalty to oneself and goodwill to one's neighbours were the two basic principles of the teaching, sometimes summed up in the word "reciprocity," though I prefer the far more graceful, "Do as you would be done by."

Such a teaching had an instant appeal to the Chinese mind. Here were no metaphysics, no abstract, far ideals. Develop your own character, and practice right relations with your family, your neighbours and the state. Here was a tangible philosophy which summarised their own convictions. But is it a religion? If by religion be meant the worship of a God, the answer is "No." But Confucius, like his greater contemporary, the Buddha, was silent on ultimates. He built a framework of right living, and it is not his fault that the Chinese later made this framework into a cage. The Master emphasised the Golden Mean in all behaviour, the practice of a right adjustment, hence harmonious relationship to the father of one's family, one's overlord, one's Emperor and so to Heaven. This is a way in the world and not a way of escape from the world. As the Master said: "The way is not far removed from men. If a man pursues a way which removes him from men, he cannot be in the Way."

The Way is a way of commonsense, of compromise when necessary. Hence the delicious doctrine of "saving face" by which all parties may withdraw from an embarrassing situation without loss of dignity. All things are regarded as of equal value in the sense that to the superior man what matters is the handling of and attitude to facts rather than the facts themselves. All ritual and courtesy, and the Master's life was full of both, were methods of handling facts and circumstances, so that their significance and not their nature might be emphasised. Facts and circumstances are of little value; what matters is their significance. Hence the delighted observation of a Chinese gentleman to Mrs. Adams Beck, the well-known author of The Story of Oriental Philosophy. "In the West you think it important to reach a place in sixty minutes rather than in sixty hours. In China we consider that what matters is what you do when you get there."

Mencius, the most famous follower of Confucius, had less, perhaps, of his nobility and his profound humility, but he had more "human-heartedness," more love of the common people, and he certainly developed the doctrine of right for right's sake, without thought of a reward, here or hereafter. But even a developed and expanded Confucianism could only satisfy half the Chinese mind, and it is one of the remarkable coincidences, if there be such a thing, of the history of religion that there should have appeared in China, contemporary with Confucius, another Sage whose teaching was an exact antithesis.

Lao-Tze was also a transmitter, but whereas Confucius had concentrated on the Tao of man, his older contemporary was primarily concerned with the Tao of Heaven. As we shall see, it was left for Buddhism to provide the necessary link between the two.

Compared with the teaching of the Master Kung, the song of Lao-Tze was as a bird singing in the misty first half-light of dawn compared with the tramp of weary feet upon a long high road. Taoism, the philosophy-religion compiled from the teaching of Lao-Tze, rests on three fundamental principles or concepts, Tao, Teh and Wu-wei, all of which are untranslatable. Of Tao, the Taoist conception of the Absolute, nothing can be truly said. For "the Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao." Yet only in India did the intellect climb higher in its flight to the Absolute, and only in Zen Buddhism has the mind of man discovered and blazed a Way which goes "beyond the intellect" to the final Namelessness.

"As a fish wants water, man wants Tao." Yet Tao is not God, not a spiritual essence, not anything which words or even thought can in any way describe. Tao is not this or that, or this and that; it IS. Seek and you will not find it, for it is the boots on the feet of the seeker, the eyes with which he seeks. As is written in the classic of Taoism, the Tao-Teh King, "There is a thing inherent and natural which existed before heaven and earth. Motionless and fathomless it stands alone, and never changes. It pervades everywhere and never becomes exhausted. It may be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. I do not know its name. If I am forced to give it a name I call it Tao. . . . When one looks at it one cannot see it; when one listens to it one cannot hear it. But when one uses it, it is inexhaustible."

The second Taoist term which must be understood is Teh, as untranslatable as Tao. It is not "virtue," but a way of life lived in the rhythm of Tao, Tao in action, as it were. It calls for a genuine humility of mind — "be humble, and you will remain entire'; for a mental and if possible a physical simplicity of life, for riches, power and position can never add to Tao; for a corresponding poverty of desire, for a man's true wealth is measured by the absence of his personal desire. The genuine Taoist has no personal ambition, and, "because the Sage does not compete no one competes with him"! These qualities lead to a still keener love of life, a love of beauty — "the face of Tao," and a love of nature — "the manifestation of Tao," which is almost unique in the field of religion. To the Taoist Chinese, nature is a fellow pilgrim on the Way. As the famous Chinese poet, Li-Po, exclaimed, "We never grow weary of each other, the mountain and I." And the pilgrimage of life, of every form of life, is a way of return — for "Returning is the motion of Tao," returning home.

Wu-wei, which may be described as the technique of Tao, can no more bear translation than Tao or Teh. It is not a quietism, nor the doctrine of laissez faire; still less is it doing nothing. It is a fluid attitude of mind incapable of snaring in a net of words. It has been said, "Man stands in his own shadow and complains of the lack of light." If that means nothing to you, let me put it another way. Get rid of the self and the Tao can enter in. Men build windows in a wall, but it is the hole in the wall which is of value; they make bowls and pots, but the value of the pot is the space in the middle. Hence the doctrine of the "Void," which applies these analogies to the mind of man. When the mind is a vacuum of self, the Tao flows in; when filled with his own importance man is empty indeed. "The soft and the weak overcome the hard and the strong," a spiritual principle which is the basis of the science of Judo, or Ju-jitsu. Just as in this form of wrestling the winner uses his opponent's force to defeat him, so the same science of winning by giving way may be applied to the mind. The Taoist never gets in another's way, nor even in his own. When the force of circumstance, or time, or another's enmity assails him, he is just not there! For "Tao is ever inactive, and yet there is nothing that it cannot do." In this subtle use of force to its undoing there is an element of using time, of timing every act with a sixth sense of its own. From this point of view it is "the doctrine of the right opportunity, of acting on the inevitable hour." It is in one way the "action in inaction" of the Bhagavad Gita, or more accurately action by inaction, a motion of will applied to circumstance in which the act is as nearly possible motiveless. Where there is no self in the act there is no recoil, that is to say, no need for Karma, the law of moral cause and effect, to produce a reaction on the doer as an effect of the deed he does. Hence the saying, "the perfect act has no result." In brief, nature abhors a vacuum, and where the self is emptied out, the Tao flows in. "To him that hath not shall be given. . . . Die, if you would live!"

Lao-Tze's most famous follower was the philosopher-wit, Chu-ang-Tze, whose elaborations and commentaries on the Tao Teh King have made him virtually the founder of Taoism as a religion-philosophy. Much of his brilliant writing is spent in satires on the teachings of Confucius from his own Master's point of view, and he was quite determined to avoid the cage of convention in which he regarded all Confucians as having locked themselves. When a deputation arrived to invite him to be Prime Minister of the state of Chu, he is said to have asked, "I hear that in your Prince's private shrine there is a sacred tortoise which has been dead three thousand years. Do you suppose that it prefers to be venerated in death, or would it rather be wagging its tail in the mud alive?" "Surely the latter," was the polite reply. "Then away with you," said Chuang-Tze, "and leave me to wag mine!"

This great philosopher and writer expanded the teachings of his Master, and illustrated them with a wealth of delightful stories and analogies, many of which hinted at the One beyond the "opposites." To him the "opposites," the countless antitheses of life, were only relatively real, and equally unreal. Why, then, fight about them? One of his most famous stories was of a keeper of monkeys who was wont to feed them four nuts in the morning and three at night. At this they violently objected. Wherefore he changed the order and gave them three in the morning and four at night. With this the monkeys were well content!

Chuang-Tze attacked Confucius" axiom of charity and duty to one's neighbour. Charity, he pointed out, begins when Tao is lost, and deliberately to cultivate a virtue is to arouse its opposite. Where there is love there must in a relative world be hate. Why, then, choose one of the pairs of opposites? Moving in the rhythm of Tao, learn to be right and you will unfailingly do right. Don't strive to be good. Let Tao, which orders all things, occupy your heart and you will be good naturally. In other words, cease interfering with the rhythm of nature by the efforts of your personal self, and Tao will take command.

From this it will be seen that though not always complimentary to each other, Confucianism and Taoism were remarkably complementary. Obvious comparisons of Stoic and Epicurean, Puritan and Cavalier, Classic and Romantic spring to the mind, and though analogies are never safe to press too far, the complementary nature of these pairs of opposites applies. Confucius cultivated, note that word, respectability and propriety. Lao-Tze was spontaneous and irrational. The former's ideals were precise and attainable; the latter's vague and all but unattainable. Mr. Lin Yutang has compared the relative points of view in terms of modern life. "A modern Confucian would take the city-licensed, pasteurized grade-A milk: a Taoist would take fresh milk from the milkman's pail. For while your health officers can protect your milk from typhoid germs they cannot protect it from the rats of civilization!"

Of course, the two had much in common. Both sought Tao, but whereas the Master Kung was mainly concerned with the Tao of man, Lao-Tze followed the Tao of Heaven. Both sought Tao by adjustment through behaviour, but the former looked to the right behaviour of man to man and the latter of man to nature and to Heaven. Yet here again is another of the pairs of opposites, and the Chinese genius has learnt to unite them in a higher third. Surely Tao is for the inner, and the ethics of Confucius for the outer man?

For a thousand years these two great Teachers were reverenced, and their teachings studied and applied through the length and breadth of China, until, in the first century a. d. there arrived as a potential rival the teaching of Gotama, the Buddha. At first the Chinese were suspicious of such metaphysical doctrines, and still more of an Order which, with its rule of celibacy, struck at the root of their family life. But Confucian scholars soon learnt to appreciate the scholarship of the Indian visitors, and used their methods to improve their own presentation of Confucian ideals. Taoists seem to have welcomed the new teaching as an improvement on their own philosophy, and to a large extent were later absorbed by Buddhism.

The relationship of Buddhism to the two indigenous teachings seems to lie in the fact that Buddhism provided three factors needed by but largely absent from the other two. In the first place it provided a link between the moral code of Confucius and the spiritual heights of Taoism, a ladder as it were from earth to Heaven, at once a sanction for the Confucian self-discipline and an application of Taoist ideals. In other words it served as a Middle Way between the two existing philosophies of life. Secondly, by introducing the twin doctrine of Karma and Rebirth, the individual was seen as a pilgrim coming from a distant past and moving by his own initiative towards a distant but definite goal. Hence a practical guide to the Way, with knowledge of its nature, purpose, and its goal. Thirdly, and perhaps arising from the other two, there was more light thrown on the nature of life after death, the interim period between two lives, and of the nature of the enlightenment, the fruit of self-reliance and self-discipline, which awaits each pilgrim at the journey's end.

The Buddhist viewpoint stimulated Chinese art to new activity, and it is agreed that Buddhism has been the greatest single factor in producing the incomparable art of China and Japan. The Buddhist teaching "Look within — thou art Buddha!" applied to all living things, implies that man and nature and Heaven are in essence One, and this sense of mystical unity affected not only art. It served to improve the position in society of Chinese women, assuaged to some extent the element of cruelty which is a defect in the Chinese character and, with its element of devotion, produced for the first time what might be called a religion in the ordinary sense of the term.

The Chinese appreciated Buddhist tolerance of conflicting points of view. For if all phenomena are viewed as illusion, of only comparative reality, it is clearly foolish to fight about opinions, or even to argue that any point of view is absolutely right or wrong. Hence the thousand "devices" used by the different sects of Buddhism to arouse in the individual his dormant enlightenment. All symbols, argues the Buddhist, ever inclined to be over-tolerant, and all Ways to enlightenment are admissible if they are of help to someone. For knowledge on earth is at the best comparative, and only in true enlightenment can any man be said to know the Truth, as distinct from knowing "about it and about."

This attitude of mind alone explains the enormous range of Mahayana Buddhism, the "greater vehicle" of salvation, as distinct from Hinayana, the teaching of the Buddha as handed down in the Southern School. It is certainly difficult to understand how doctrines as different as those of the Pure Land sects on the one hand, and of Ch'an or Zen Buddhism on the other can spring from a common stem. Yet the Mahayana is like a wheel. From a central hub have radiated spokes in all directions, each developing some aspect of the Message of the All-Enlightened One. It follows that spokes of development that have moved in opposite directions have little in common by the time they have reached the vast circumference, but of all the schools of Buddhism there is none greater than the Dhyana in China known as Ch'an, and in Japan by the term best known to the Western world, Zen. The Ch'an, or "Sudden" school of Buddhism in China was founded by Bodhidharma, who came to China from India in 520 a. d. The legend runs that the secret of Zen was taught by the Buddha to his nearest disciples, and handed on by them from Patriarch to Patriarch until Bodhidharma brought it to China, and thus became the first Chinese Patriarch. However that may be, it soon became the leading Buddhist School, and uses what is at once the most earthly or human and the most exalted or god-like method of attaining enlightenment. Its approach is violent, strenuous and unique. First train the intellect to carry consciousness as high as the intellect can go. Then, having reached the limit of the thinking mind, standing upon the utmost pinnacle of human thought, leap into the unknown, thrusting away irrevocably the ladder of thought by which you climbed. Till now the mind has learnt increasingly "about it and about." Now for the first time it must have the courage to KNOW.

How? There are no words in answer. "Lead the life if ye would know the doctrine." Even "Buddhas do but point the Way." C. G. Jung, the leader of Western psychologists, has written of religion as a protection from religious experience, as a sometimes necessary screen between the aspiring mind and the direct knowledge of truth which it is not yet strong enough to stand. He who would know, who must know even if he forfeit life for it, must develop the strength to face the naked truth without the robes of ritual and symbol that hide the flame from his enquiring eyes. Destroy all symbols, cry the Masters of Zen, smash the screen which hides the flame! Yet waste no time in seeking the flame. "The Light is within thee," said the Egyptian Hierophants, "Let the Light shine!" Don't study music — sing! Don't study ways of living — LIVE! A Zen Master said to a pupil, "You say "I live." I say "I live," but when you say "I live" there is still a distinction between the "I" and the "live." I live!" Don't stop to argue, still less to understand. Don't stop for anything. Walk on!

So fettered are we in the West with the clumsy process of conceptual thought that we laugh at the strange, exotic methods of the Zen Masters. Yet they have one aim in view, to break into the cage of the disciple's mind and free the joy of life, the love and the light of enlightenment which dwell within. Anything is used which tends to that utterly desirable and yet elusive end. One means is the koan, the word or phrase whose meaning can never be found by the intellect yet which, as a pebble in the mouth, is carried about in the mind by day and night until, in a deathless moment, a flash of enlightenment comes, and the first step on the final path is attained. Sometimes the mundo, a form of question and answer, nonsense to the uninitiated listener, is used by the Master. And nonsense it is, non-sense because beyond the feeble substitute for knowledge we here call sense. Sometimes a physical blow will shatter the mental barrier, sometimes a shout, or a joke — or silence! For words, which can never describe Tao, can never speak of true enlightenment. Most of what can be said has been said by Dr. Suzuki in his various volumes on Zen, but all of this is only a "finger pointing the Way." The rest is silence, for it has been said, and truly said, that "Zen has nothing to say!"

So much for a lightning survey of a vast subject, the religion of China, one of the greatest nations on this earth to-day. From one point of view it is complete in itself; from another, it is the religion of the East as distinct from that of the West. But East and West are only another of the pairs of opposites. The antithesis is partly that between depth and breadth, a striving to allign oneself with the powers of nature and heaven, or the will to dominate the powers and forms of nature till they bow to the human will. But these are complementary ways of the Way, the narrow Way that leads in the end to the heart's enlightenment. And even as none can truly find enlightenment for himself "until the last blade of grass has entered into Buddhahood," so there is no nation that is complete unto itself. In brief, "only the world entire can save the world entire."


1. Reprinted from The Middle Way, July-August, 1943. (return to text)

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