III. Taoism and Zennism

« II. The Schools of Tea

The connection of Zennism with tea is proverbial.  We have already remarked that the tea-ceremony was a development of the Zen ritual.  The name of Laotse, the founder of Taoism, is also intimately associated with the history of tea.  It is written in the Chinese school manual concerning the origin of habits and customs that the ceremony of offering tea to a guest began with Kwanyin, a well-known disciple of Laotse, who first at the gate of the Han Pass presented to the “Old Philosopher” a cup of the golden elixir.  We shall not stop to discuss the authenticity of such tales, which are valuable, however, as confirming the early use of the beverage by the Taoists. Our interest in Taoism and Zennism here lies mainly in those ideas regarding life and art which are so embodied in what we call Teaism.

It is to be regretted that as yet there appears to be no adequate presentation of the Taoists and Zen doctrines in any foreign language, though we have had several laudable attempts.

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade,–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design.  But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?  The ancient sages never put their teachings in systematic form.  They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended by making their hearers wise.  Laotse himself, with his quaint humour, says, “If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely.  It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.”

The Tao literally means a Path.  It has been severally translated as the Way, the Absolute, the Law, Nature, Supreme Reason, the Mode.  These renderings are not incorrect, for the use of the term by the Taoists differs according to the subject-matter of the inquiry.  Laotse himself spoke of it thus: “There is a thing which is all-containing, which was born before the existence of Heaven and Earth.  How silent!  How solitary!  It stands alone and changes not.  It revolves without danger to itself and is the mother of the universe.  I do not know its name and so call it the Path.  With reluctance I call it the Infinite.  Infinity is the Fleeting, the Fleeting is the Vanishing, the Vanishing is the Reverting.”  The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path.  It is the spirit of Cosmic Change,–the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms.  It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists.  It folds and unfolds as do the clouds.  The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition.  Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe. Its Absolute is the Relative.

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