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Introduction to the Tao Te Ching by Arthur Waley


. . . There was another sect [of Taoism] that . . . met with equally severe condemnation. Han Fei Tzu speaks of people who “walk apart from the crowd, priding themselves on being different from other men. They preach the doctrine of Quietism, but their exposition of it is couched in baffling and mysterious terms. I submit to your Majesty [the king of Ch’in] that this Quietness is of no practical value to any one and that the language in which it is couched is not founded on any real principle ... I submit that man’s duty in life is to serve his prince and nourish his parents, neither of which things can be done by Quietness. I further submit that it is man’s duty, in all that he teaches, to promote loyalty and good faith and the Legal Constitution. This cannot be done in terms that are vague and mysterious.


The doctrine of the Quietists is a false one, likely to lead the people astray.” How did this doctrine arise? We have seen the gradual inward-turning of Chinese thought, its preoccupation with self and the perfection of self. We have seen how out of the ritual preparation of the sacrificer for the reception of the descending spirit grew the idea of a cleansing of the heart which should make it a fit home for the soul. Such cleansing consisted above all in a “stilling” of outward activities, of appetites and emotions; but also in a “returning”; for the soul was looked upon as having become as it were silted up by successive deposits of daily toil and perturbation, and the business of the “self-perfecter” was to work his way back through these layers till “man as he was meant to be” was reached. Through this “stillness,” this complete cessation of outside impressions, and through the withdrawal of the senses to an entirely interior point of focus, arose the species of self-hypnosis which in China is called Tso-wang, “sitting with blank mind,” in India Yoga, dhyana and other names; in Japan, Zen. A definite technique was invented [or borrowed from Yoga] for producing this state of trance. The main feature of this technique was, as in India, breath-manipulation— the breathing must be soft and light as that of an infant, or, as later Quietists said, of a child in the womb. There were also strange exercises of the limbs, stretchings and postures much like the asanas connected with Indian yoga; but some Quietists regarded these as too physical and concrete a method for the attainment of a spiritual end.

The process of Quietism, then, consisted in a traveling back through the successive layers of consciousness to the point when one arrived at Pure Consciousness, where one no longer saw “things perceived,” but “that whereby we perceive.” For never to have known “that whereby we know” is to cast away a treasure that is ours. Soon on the “way back” one comes to the point where language, created to meet the demands of ordinary, upper consciousness, no longer applies. The adept who has reached this point has learned, as the Quietists expressed it in their own secret language, “to get into the bird cage without setting the birds off singing.” Here a question arises, which is indeed one which Quietists have been called upon to answer in diverse parts of the world and at many widely separated periods of history. Granted that consciousness can actually be modified by yoga, self-hypnotism, Zen, Quietness or whatever else one chooses to call it, what evidence is there that the new consciousness has any advantage over the old? The Quietist, whether Chinese, Indian, German or Spanish, has always made the same reply: by such practices three things are attained—truth, happiness and power.

From the theoretical point of view there is of course no reason to believe that the statements of Tao are truer than those of ordinary knowledge; no more reason, in fact, than to believe that the music we hear when our radio is adjusted to 360 is any “truer” than the music we hear when it is adjusted to 1600. But in actual practice the visions of the Quietists do not present themselves to him merely as more or less agreeable alternatives to everyday existence. They are accompanied by a sense of finality, by a feeling that “all the problems which all the schools of philosophers under Heaven cannot settle this way or that have been settled this way or that.” Moreover, the state to which the Quietist attains is not merely pleasurable rather than painful. It is “absolute joy,” utterly transcending any form of earthly enjoyment. And finally, it gives as the Indians say siddhi, as the Chinese say te, a power over the outside world undreamed of by those who pit themselves against matter while still in its thralls.

Nor is this aspect of Quietism confined, as is sometimes supposed, to its eastern branches. Sin trabajo sujetaras las gentes y te serviran las cosas says St. John of the Cross in his Aphorisms, si te olvidares de ellas y de ti mismo1 It is this last claim of Quietism—the belief that the practicant becomes possessed not merely of a power over living things (which we should call hypnotism) but also of a power to move and transform matter—that the world has been least disposed to accept.

“Try it (yung chih) and find out for yourself,” has been the Quietist’s usual answer to the challenge “show us, and we will believe.”

We know that many different schools of Quietism existed in China in the fourth and third centuries before Christ. Of their literature only a small part survives. Earliest in date was what I shall call the School of Ch’i. Its doctrine was called hsin shu “The Art of the Mind.” By “mind” is meant not the brain or the heart, but “a mind within the mind” that bears to the economy of man the same relation as the sun bears to the sky. It is the ruler of the body, whose component parts are its ministers. It must remain serene and immovable like a monarch upon his throne. It is a shen, a divinity, that will only take up its abode where all is garnished and swept.2 The place that man prepares for it is called its temple (kung).

“Throw open the gates, put self aside, bide in silence, and the radiance of the spirit shall come in and make its home.” And a little later: “Only where all is clean will the spirit abide. All men desire to know, but they do not enquire into that whereby one knows.” And again: “What a man desires to know is that (i.e. the external world). But his means of knowing is this (i.e. himself). How can he know that? Only by the perfection of this.”

Closely associated with the “art of the mind” is the art of nurturing the ch’i,3 the life-spirit. Fear, pettiness, meanness—all those qualities that pollute the “temple of the mind” —are due to a shrinkage of the life-spirit. The valiant, the magnanimous, the strong of will are those whose ch’i pervades the whole body, down to the very toes and finger-tips. A great well of energy must be stored within, “a fountain that never dries,” giving strength and firmness to every sinew and joint.

Introduction to the Tao Te Ching by Arthur Waley is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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