Shakti in Taoism
The belief in Shakti or the Divine Power as distinguished from the Divine Essence (Svarupa), the former being generally imagined for purposes of worship as being in female form, is very ancient. The concept of Shakti in Chinese Taoism is not merely a proof of this (for the Shakti notion is much older) but is an indication of the ancient Indian character of the doctrine. There are some who erroneously think, the concept had its origin in "Sivaic mysticism," having its origin somewhere in the sixth century of our era. Lao-tze or the "old master" was twenty years senior to Confucius and his life was said to have been passed between 570-490 B.C. A date commonly accepted by European Orientalists as that of the death of Buddha (Indian and Tibetan opinions being regarded, as "extravagant") would bring his life into the sixth century s.c., one of the most wonderful in the world's history. Lao-tze is said to have written the Tao-tei-king, the fundamental text of Taoism. This title means Treatise on Tao and Tei. Tao which Lao-tze calls "The great" is in its Sanskrit equivalent Brahman and Tei is Its power or activity or Shakti. As Father P. L. Wieger, S. J., to whose work (Histoire des Croyances Religieuses et des Opinions Philosophiques en Chine, p. 143 et seg. 1917) I am here indebted, points out, Lao-tze did not invent Taoism no more than Confucius (557-419 B.C.) invented Confucianism. It is characteristic of these and other Ancient Eastern Masters that they do not claim to be more than "transmitters" of a wisdom older than themselves. Lao-tze was not the first to teach Taoism. He had precursors who, however, were not authors. He was the writer of the first book on Taoism which served as the basis for the further development of the doctrine. On this account its paternity is attributed to him. There was reference to this doctrine it is said in the official archives (p. 743). The pre-Taoists were the analysts and astrologers of the Tcheou. Lao-tze who formulated the system was one of them (ib. 69). The third Ministry containing these archives registered all which came from foreign parts, as Taoism did. For as Father Wieger says, Taoism is in its main lines a Chinese adaptation of the contemporary doctrine of the Upanishads ("or le Taoisme est dans ses grandes lignes une adaptation Chinoise de la doctrine Indienne contemporaine des Upanisads"). The actual fact of importation cannot in default of documents be proved but as the learned author says, the fact that the doctrine was not Chinese, that it was then current in India, and its sudden spread in China, creates in favor of the argument for foreign importation almost a certain conclusion. The similarity of the two doctrines is obvious to any one acquainted with that of the Upanishads and the doctrine of Shakti. The dualism of the manifesting Unity (Tao) denoted by Yin-Yang appears for the first time in a text of Confucius, a contemporary of Lao-tze, who may have informed him of it. All Chinese Monism descends from Lao-tze. The patriarchal texts were developed by the great Fathers of Taoism Lie-tzeu and Tchong-tzeu (see "Les Péres du systéme Taoiste" by the same author) whom the reverend father calls the only real thinkers that China has produced. Both were practically prior to the contact of Greece and India on the Indus under Alexander. The first development of Taoism was in the South. It passed later to the North where it had a great influence.
According to Taoism there was in the beginning, is now, and ever will be an ultimate Reality, which is variously called Huan the Mystery, which cannot be named or defined, because human language is the language of limited beings touching limited objects, whereas Tao is imperceptible to the senses and the unproduced cause of all, beyond which there is nothing: Ou the Formless, or Tao the causal principle, the unlimited inexhaustible source from which all comes, ("Tao le principe parceque tout derive de lui") Itself proceeds from nothing but all from It. So it is said of Brahman that It is in Itself beyond mind and speech, formless and (as the Brahmasutra says) That from which the Universe is born, by which it is maintained and into which it is dissolved. From the abyss of Its Being, It throws out all forms of Existence and is never emptied. It is an infinite source exteriorizing from Itself all forms, by Its Power (Tei). These forms neither diminish nor add to Tao which remains ever the same. These limited beings are as a drop of water in Its ocean. Tao is the sum of, and yet as infinite, beyond all individual existences. Like Brahman, Tao is one, eternal, infinite, self-existent, omnipresent, unchanging (Immutable) and complete (Purna). At a particular moment (to speak in our language for It was then beyond time) Tao threw out from Itself Tei Its Power (Vertu or Shakti) which operates in alternating modes called Yin and Yang and produces, as it were by condensation of its subtlety (Shakti ghanibhuta), the Heaven and Earth and Air between, from which come all beings. The two modes of Its activity, Yin and Yang, are inherent in the Primal That, and manifest as modes of its Tei or Shakti. Yin is rest, and therefore after the creation of the phenomenal world a going back, retraction, concentration towards the original Unity (Nivritti), whereas Yang is action and therefore the opposite principle of going forth or expansion (Pravritti). These modes appear in creation under the sensible forms of Earth (Yin) and Heaven (Yang). The one original principle or Tao, like Shiva and Shakti, thus becomes dual in manifestation as Heaven-Earth from which emanate other existences. The state of Jinn is one of rest, concentration and imperceptibility which was the own state (Svarupa) of Tao before time and things were. The state of fang is that of action, expansion, of manifestation in sentient beings and is the state of Tao in time, and that which is in a sense not Its true state ("L'etat Yin de concentration, de repos, d'imperceptibilité, qui fut celui du Principe avant le temps, est son êtat propre. L'etat Yang d'expansion et d'action, de manifestation dans les êtres sensibles, est son êtat dans le temps, en quelque sorte impropre"). All this again is Indian. The primal state of Brahman or Shiva-Shakti before manifestation is that in which It rests in Itself (Svarupa-vishranti), that is, the state of rest and infinite formlessness. It then by Its Power (Shakti) manifests the universe. There exists in this power the form of two movements or rhythms, namely, the going forth or expanding (Pravritti) and the return or centering movement (Nivritti). This is the Eternal Rhythm, the Pulse of the universe, in which it comes and goes from that which in Itself, does neither. But is this a real or ideal movement? According to Father Wieger, Taoism is a realistic and not idealistic pantheism in which Tao is not a Conscious Principle but a Necessary Law, not Spiritual but Material, though imperceptible by reason of its tenuity and state of rest. ("Leur systéme est un pantheisme realiste, pas ideâliste. Au commencement était un étre unique non pas intelligent mais loi fatale, non spirituel mais matériel, imperceptible a force de tenuité, d' abord immobile.") He also calls Heaven and Earth unintelligent agents of production of sentient beings. (Agent non-intelligents de la production de tous les étres sensibles.) I speak with all respect for the opinion of one who has made a special study of the subject which I have not so far as its Chinese aspect is concerned. But even if, as is possible, at this epoch the full idealistic import of the Vedanta had not been developed, I doubt the accuracy of the interpretation which makes Tao material and unconscious. According to Father Wieger, Tao prolongates Itself. Each being is a prolongation (Prolongement) of the Tao, attached to it and therefore not diminishing It. Tao is stated by him to be Universal Nature, the sum (Samashti) of all individual natures which are terminal points (Terminaisons) of Tao's prolongation. Similarly in the Upanishads, we read of Brahman producing the world from Itself as the spider produces the web from out of itself. Tao is thus the Mother of all that exists ("la mére de tout ce qui est"). If so, it is the Mother of mind, will, emotion and every form of consciousness. How are these derived from merely a" material" principle? May it not be that just as the Upanishads use material images to denote creation and yet posit a spiritual conscious (though not in our limited sense) Principle, Lao-tze, who was indebted to them, may have done the same. Is this also not indicated by the Gnostic doctrine of the Taoists? The author cited says that to the cosmic states of Yin and Yang correspond in the mind of man the states of rest and activity. When the human mind thinks, it fills itself with forms or images and is moved by desires. Then it perceives only the effects of Tao, namely, distinct sentient beings. When on the contrary the action of the human mind stops and is fixed and empty of images of limited forms, it is then the Pure Mirror in which is reflected the ineffable and unnamable Essence of Tao Itself, of which intuition the Fathers of Taoism speak at length. ("Quand an contraire l'esprit humain est arrêtê est vide et fixe, alors miroir net et pur, il mire l'essence ineffable et innomable du Principe lui-meme. Les Pêres nous parleront au long de cette intuition.") This common analogy of the Mirror is also given in the Kamakalavilasa (v. 4) where it speaks of Shakti as the pure mirror in which Shiva reflects Himself pratiphalati vimarsha darpane vishade). The conscious mind does not reflect a material principle as its essence. Its essence must have the principle of consciousness which the mind itself possesses. It is to Tei, the Virtue or Power which Tao emits from Itself ("ce Principe se mit a êmettre Tei sa vertu") that we should attribute what is apparently unconscious and material. But the two are one, just as Shiva the possessor of power (Shaktiman) and Shakti or power are one, and this being so distinctions are apt to be lost. In the same way in the Upanishads statements may be found which have not the accuracy of distinction between Brahman and its Prakriti, which we find in later developments of Vedanta and particularly in the Shakta form of it. Moreover we are here dealing with the One in Its character both as cause and as substance of the World Its effect. It is of Prakriti-Shakti and possibly of Tei that we may say that it is an apparently material unconscious principle, imperceptible by reason of its tenuity and (to the degree that it is not productive objective effect) immobile. Further Wieger assures us that all contraries issue from the same unchanging Tao and that they are only apparent ("Toute contrariété n'est qu' apparente"). But relative to what? He says that they are not subjective illusions of the human mind, but objective appearances, double aspects of the unique Being, corresponding to the alternating modalities of Yin and Yang. That is so. For as Shamkara says, external objects are not merely projections of the individual human mind but of the cosmic mind, the Ishvari Shakti.
We must not, of course, read Taoism as held in the sixth century B.C. as if it were the same as the developed Vedanta of Shamkara who, according to European chronology, lived more than a thousand years later. But this interpretation of Vedanta is an aid in enabling us to see what is at least implicit in earlier versions of the meaning of their common source -- the Upanishads. As is well known, Shamkara developed their doctrine in an idealistic sense, and therefore his two movements in creation are Avidya, the primal ignorance which produces the appearance of the objective universe, and Vidya or knowledge which dispels such ignorance, ripening into that Essence and Unity which is Spirit-Consciousness Itself. Aupanishadic doctrine may be regarded either from the world or material aspect, or from the non-world and spiritual aspect. Men have thought in both ways and Shamkara's version is an attempt to synthesize them.
The Taoist master Ki (Op. cit., 168) said that the celestial harmony was that of all beings in their common Being. All is one as we experience in deep sleep (Sushupti). All contraries are sounds from the same flute, mushrooms springing from the same humidity, not real distinct beings but differing aspects of the one universal "Being". "I" has no meaning except in contrast with "you" or "that". But who is the Mover of all? Everything happens as if there were a real governor. The hypothesis is acceptable provided that one does not make of this Governor a distinct being. He (I translate Father Wieger's words) is a tendency without palpable form, the inherent norm of the universe, its immanent evolutionary formula. The wise know that the only Real is the Universal Norm. The unreflecting vulgar believe in the existence of distinct beings. As in the case of the Vedanta, much misunderstanding exists because the concept of Consciousness differs in East and West as I point out in detail in the essay dealing with Cit-Shakti.
The space between Heaven and Earth in which the Power (Vertu, Shakti, Tei) is manifested is compared by the Taoists to the hollow of a bellows of which Heaven and Earth are the two wooden sides; a bellow which blows without exhausting itself. The expansive power of Tao in the middle space is imperishable. It is the mysterious Mother of all beings. The come and go of this mysterious Mother, that is, the alternating of the two modalities of the One, produce Heaven and Earth. Thus acting, She is never fatigued. From Tao was exteriorized Heaven and Earth. From Tao emanated the producing universal Power or Shakti, which again produced all beings without self-exhaustion or fatigue. The one having put forth its Power, the latter acts according to two alternating modalities of going forth and return. This action produces the middle air or Ki which is tenuous Matter, and through Yin and Yang, issue all gross beings. Their coming into existence is compared to an unwinding (Dévidage) from That or Tao, as it were a thread from reel or spool. In the same way the Shakta Tantra speaks of an "uncoiling." Shakti is coiled (Kundalini) round the Shiva-point (Bindu), one with It in dissolution. On creation She begins to uncoil in a spiral line movement which is the movement of creation. The Taoist Father Lieu-tze analyzed the creative movement into the following stages: "The Great Mutation" anterior to the appearance of tenuous matter (Movement of the two modalities in undefined being), "the Great Origin" or the stage of tenuous matter, "the Great Commencement" or the stage of sensible matter, "the Great Flux" or the stage of plastic matter and actual present material compounded existences. In the primitive stage, when matter was imperceptible, all beings to come were latent in an homogeneous state.
I will only add as bearing on the subject of consciousness that the author cited states that the Taoists lay great stress on intuition and ecstasy which is said to be compared to the unconscious state of infancy, intoxication, and narcosis. These comparisons may perhaps mislead just as the comparison of the Yogi state to that of a log (Kashthavat) misled. This does not mean that the Yogi's consciousness is that of a log of wood, but that he no more perceives the external world than the latter does. He does not do so because he has the Samadhi consciousness, that is, Illumination and true being Itself. He is one then with Tao and Tei or Shakti in their true state.