Chatting about Chinese Culture: Tao and Techniques

Zheng Yang

PureInsight | March 31, 2003

[] One of my friends said I was a chauvinist because I center my life on traditional Chinese culture. I did not deny it. This doesn't mean that I cannot understand and appreciate other cultures. Every culture has its strengths and values. But my esteem for Chinese culture is actually built up because of its extensiveness and profoundness, its deep connotations and rich inner meanings. Traditionally speaking, the Chinese culture emphasizes the soul, despising the external body. Chinese ancients and sages of the past had all reached the thoroughness and essence of things. They had actually grasped the basis.

What has permeated throughout traditional Chinese culture is "Tao." Every strata of Chinese culture developed around the "Tao." Whether it was running the country or holding a wedding, funeral, marriage, or any aspect of daily life, they all signified peoples' respect for the "Tao." For instance, a common Chinese expression to describe women is "the people who follow the female Tao." Although it is just an expression, it obviously discloses the thought of the "Tao" that women also have their own "Tao." At the core of Chinese culture, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism manifest the idea of "Tao." Lao Zi's "Dao De Jing," a magnificent piece of writing, discussed over and over again what "Tao" is about. Confucius also expounded on his own inspirations and conduct: "My will is on Tao. It is based on De, relying on benevolence and maneuvering with craftsmanship". It is obvious that Tao is the core of the cultivation of Confucianism. The Fa of the Buddha school is similar to the Tao. In addition, the distinguished monks called it "obtaining the Tao" or "distinguished monks with Tao." The ancients believed that the Tao controls the operation of the human body. Therefore, people who want to achieve their goals must comply with the Tao of the Heavens.

Traditional Chinese culture also contains the concept of "skills," which are referred to something like "the skills of alchemy," "the skills of mathematics" and "technology." It is actually like "natural sciences" in modern society. In ancient China, science and technology were very advanced. China was advanced and ahead of its time. The famous four big inventions were very good examples. Certainly there were more than that. China had great expertise in medicine, agronomy, astronomy, building, and handicrafts, including ceramics, spinning and weaving, printing, craft manufacturing and food preparation, as well as literature, art, education, government and even military strategy. Thousands of years ago, China had a very good understanding of military theory and theory of operation. The book "The Art of War" by Sun Zi, gave a comprehensive explanation of military techniques. It is still referred to today, thousands of years after it was written. As we know, during the Three Kingdoms period, Kong Ming used tactical deployment (the one of Eight Diagrams) in battles. This shows that wars were very methodical at that time. However, the development of "skills" isn't what is truly brilliant. What is truly brilliant is that the wisdom of Chinese culture doesn't only show how something exists, but also why it exists. Actually it "emphasized Tao more than skills." Orthodox Chinese culture always despises "skills" and respects the Tao School and people with de (virtue). Skills and techniques were often referred to with contempt as "strange techniques and obscene skills." Lao Zi suggested people to "remove skills and abandon their advantage." The imperial examination for selecting the talented only tested poems and political theory. What they needed were those who had a thorough understanding of the Confucian classics, possessed a wide knowledge of the ancient and modern writings, and had excellent moral character. For instance, the inventors of the four big inventions in Chinese history were not well-known figures or important officials. On the other hand, many well-known people in modern society are famous because of their talents in their respective professions, such as movie stars and athletes. I am not saying that the development of "skills" should be completely neglected. What I mean is that they are taken more lightly in the Tao School.

Why should skills be taken lightly? "Things have ins and outs. Matters have the causes and results. If we find out why that is, we are then close to Tao" (The Great Learning). This sentence lays bare to the Taoism. In other words, the key to understanding the Tao is to understand what the essence of conflicts and substances are, and what trifles are. To understand conflicts, the root of the matter must be understood. ""Tao"" "encompasses everything and leaves out nothing" (Zhuan Falun). It is the most basic law of our world, compared to things like "skills," which are limited and narrow physical rules. Strictly speaking, "skills" are also the manifestation of the "Tao" in this specific area, and are a part of the "Tao." However, they only correspond to rules that we refer to in our every day lives. Therefore, Tao is fundamental and skills are trifles. Tao is of the spirit and skills are of the body. With this principle, we are able to solve problems from their roots, and come to a kind resolution; this has to come from one's moral character. If this method isn't used, it would be just like using a drug for temporary relief, or like ending a conflict on a surface level without addressing the underlying issue. The truth is extremely important. My Chinese ancestors had a deep understanding of this matter. It was once considered to be the essence of Chinese culture. Ancient Chinese cultural wisdom has already achieved an extremely profound degree of understanding the theories of humanity, life and the universe. For instance, Chinese ancients often said, "the three domains" - the heavens, the earth, and man, which summarizes the basic factors for what had been done in the human world. If the three domains were understood, all things would turn good and be sure to win. Take The Art of War, by Sun Zi, for example. Sun Zi said, "War is important to the country and can drive life to death. It is the factor of existence and elimination. So one must conduct research on it. We should consider it with five matters, measure it with strategic understanding, and fully appreciate the situation. They are the Tao at first, then the heavens, then the earth, then the generals and then the skills." That is to say that the Tao is first and foremost and that skills are secondary. The factors of the heavens, the earth and man are considered one by one in turn. Although modern people study The Art of War by Sun Zi, they focus on its schemes and strategic techniques. They neglect the Tao which is actually the most basic and essential characteristic of the book. Modern society only tries to solve problems on the surface without addressing the main conflict.

Nowadays, people have moved far away from the Tao. Many people are infatuated with elementary skills, which are only petty tricks. The one running the country does not strive to manage people's morals. On the contrary, it keeps on talking about some trifles like "Economics first" and "Stability crushes all" and the like. How can a country be prosperous and stable while everybody there is eager for quick success and immediate gain, with officials who are rotten to the core, without justice, humanity or faith? "Gentlemen conduct the basis and the Tao is created when the basis is built up". Modern science and technology can never solve people's fundamental problems. People who want to be happy must cultivate virtue in the world!

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