In the year 635 AD, 24 Christian monks from Persia, march into the Chinese capital of Chang-An (Xian) and are welcomed by the Chinese emperor, Taizong. Within 50 years there was evidently a Christian monastery and/or parish church in every major city in China.
Why the welcome, and why the fast growth? This new information about this story has only been recently uncovered in the past century. Surely it would have been amazing to scholars over just 50 years ago, whose opinions of Chinese openness to the outside world (particularly to Christianity) would have been formed by events such as the Boxer rebellion (with it a large amount of Christian martyrs) and the Chinese government's xenophobic policies. So the information of the success of Christianity in China in the 7th century, does present a puzzle, no matter how short lived this success may have been.
The Christian scriptures, when translated into Chinese, use the word "Tao" to express the concept of "Word," or "Logos" in the Greek. Is this the answer? Is the Logos of St. John the Apostle and the Christians, the same as the "Tao" of the Lao Tzu and the Taoists? Did the Chinese Taoists see the Christian's "Jesus", as "the fulfillment" of their religion?
It is said, that the Chinese are to the East, what the Greek are to the West. The analogy works very well for our purposes here, as it is two concepts, the Tao of the Chinese and the Logos of the Greeks (most specifically the Christian Greeks), with which we wish to compare and contrast.
Hieromonk Damascene believes so and illustrates in his book Christ the Eternal Tao, just exactly how this relationship came to be. His premise is, that among the ancient philosophers, mystics and sages, none come closer to understanding the nature of things, than Lao Tzu: Of all Ancient philosophers, Lao Tzu came the closest to assimilating the essence of reality and describing the Tao or Logos. His Tao Te Ching represents the epitome of what a human being can know through intuition, through the apprehension of the universal Principle and Pattern manifested in the created order.
Lao Tzu is the legendary founder of the philosophical system and religion known as Taoism. The book attributed to him is known to us as the Tao Te Ching; that is the "Sacred book of the Tao and the Te." Tao of course, the subject of this study, refers to "Way," and "Te" which is traditionally translated as "virtue," or "grace."
While most scholars agree that Lao Tzu was undoubtedly a historical figure, it is hard to distinguish fact from legend when it comes to understanding just who he was. It is said that he was a government official, and that he eventually got fed up with public life, and meant to escape to the West. He came to a pass, and the keeper vowed to not let him pass, unless he left him some of his wisdom. Lao Tzu complies, writes a book, departs and is never heard from again. The book of course is the "Tao Te Ching."
According to Fr. Damascene, this book contains knowledge that Lao Tzu was able to arrive at through contemplation of himself and nature. He arrives at an awareness of the absolute, or ordering principle of the universe. Lao Tzu at once calls this ordering principle "Tao", or "The Way," at the same time saying this thing (for lack of a better word), is "nameless" *
This mysterious Tao, the "mother of the 10,000 things," Lao Tzu intuited much about. The Tao is everywhere, or omnipotent (Tao Te Ching Chapters 34 & 71); ineffable (Chapters 1, 32) unchanging and eternal (16, 25); the source of all (21, 51). He was able to intuit these things, 500 years before Christ, whom Christians refer to as "the Logos."
What then is meant by the word "Logos?" Heracletus of Ephesus was the first to utilize this term (which up to this point was a commonly used "word"). He was a Greek philosopher who lived in the late 6th century BC, a contemporary of Lao Tzu, although a continent away. The word Logos meant (and means) "word," but had a connotation of "order," or "pattern." He began to use the word to refer to "the underlying principle" or source of all things; "the primal order."
Aristotle in "On the world" says: "Things which are put together are both whole and not whole, brought together and taken apart, in harmony and out of harmony; one things arise from all things, and all things, arise from one thing."
Pseudo-Plutarch puts it this way :" As a single unified thing, there exists in us both life and death, waking and sleeping, youth and old age, because the former things have changed, are now the later, and when those latter things change, they become the former."
These ideas are so congruous and complementary to Lao Tzu. What is it that they were onto, these Greeks and Chinese? What possibly could have caused Lao Tzu, and those Greek philosophers, living so far apart, to write about a concept, such as the "underlying principle" of the universe, in such parallel ways?
According to Fr. Damascene, it is due to the common heritage of all people. He points to the monotheism of all ancient people to show that mankind was simpler and more innocent, closer to God and to nature. Therefore their knowledge of God was more pure than the polytheism that later arose in many cultures.
He describes, how according to the ancient Christian faith, God had created man in a state of "pristine simplicity," and "pure awareness;" using language that is undoubtedly Christian, but is also consistent with the teachings of Lao Tzu. He describes how man lived "simply" and in union with the Tao. But man began to harbor illusion of "self-sufficiency." This led to departure from the Tao, or what Christians refer to as, "the fall." Instead of naturally living according to "the Way," man now has to face at every turn, the decision, "should I follow the way?"
Fr. Damascene states, "Of all the primordial people, save the Hebrews, the Chinese-together with their racial cousins the native North Americans -- retained the purest understanding of the One God, the Supreme Being." Earlier generations of Chinese had called it Shang Ti or "Our Lord," T'ien "Heaven" But as time went on, the Chinese, as did all people, began to feel a distance from God. Thus arose the worship of personal, although limited pantheon of gods. This was part and parcel with a gradual shift from simplicity to complexity through out the world; monotheism to polytheism.
But because of the adherence to tradition in some cultures, the "memory of a culture," men in these societies retained some knowledge of the Tao. They to some degree remembered God, and desired union with Him.
Lao Tzu had access to a tradition that had a memory of the one God. According to John Ross in his The Original Religion of China:
It is therefore evident that the belief in the existence of the Supreme Ruler is among the earliest beliefs of the Chinese known to us. Of an earlier date, when no such belief in polytheism did exist, we find no trace. Nowhere is there a hint to confirm the materialist theory that the idea of God is a later evolutionary product of a precedent belief in ghosts or departed ancestors, or that the belief had arisen indirectly from any other similar source.
Indeed, LaoTzu himself wrote:
Immeasurable indeed were the ancients...
Subtle, mysterious, fathomless and penetrating
By seizing on the way that was
You can ride on the things that are now.
For to know what once there was, in the beginning,
This is called the essence of the Way.
And what Lao Tzu was not taught, by this tradition of his ancestors, he intuited through contemplation of himself, and nature. Indeed Fr. Damascene gives him high praise for this. "The greatest achievement of this man who so valued non-achievement, was that he came closer than any person in human history to defining the indefinable Tao without the aid of special revelation."
The Greeks also had a "recollection" of the One God. This is evident for example in the writings of Plato, among others of the philosophers. The Apostle Paul took notice of an altar in the city of Athens, ascribed to the "unknown God." He took advantage of that to introduce to the philosophers gathered on Mars Hill, the Logos incarnate; Jesus the Christ.
St. Paul's people, the Hebrews, among all the peoples on the planet, had entered a special relationship with God. God had entered a covenant with them and had chosen them as His special people. He gave them the Law and the prophets, in order to prepare the world, through them, for an incredible event: the entrance of the Tao into creation. The uncircumscribable, took flesh and was circumscribed. The nameless one was given a name "above every name," Jesus. He that contained the whole world in his hand was contained in a virgin's womb.
Recorded first in the Prologue of the Gospel ascribed to the Apostle John, is the Christian Tradition equating the Logos, as described by the Philosophers, with the specific man, Jesus Christ. Jesus was a historical figure, occupying a certain time at a certain place. This of course, if true as the Christians believe, is an opportunity to know the Tao, the Way, the Logos by revelation. To understand more fully, that which was intuited by Lao Tzu in China and the Philosophers in Greece.
Let us look at John's Gospel for a moment and examine how the early Christians understood Jesus. Is the historical person of Jesus that he writes about, the Eternal Tao that Lao Tzu approached?
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
16 And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace.
17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
18 No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
(King James Version)
In this passage at the beginning of the Gospel ascribed to St. John the Apostle (popularly entitled the "Prologue"), the Gospel writer uses the word "Logos" (translated as "Word" in English) many times, as he attempts to communicate to his readers, just what they should understand about the man Jesus Christ. St. John is referred to by the Early Church as "The Theologian," because of this Gospel (and his epistles). Instead of merely relating the events as they took place in the life of Christ, He underscores the Spiritual importance of all that took place.
In his use of the word "Logos," the Hebrew reader would recognize in this as an assertion of the intimacy of this Christ, with YWHW. The Greek listeners would see that what was implied was the "Rational Mind" of Heracletus, that "rules the universe." In the first verse St. John states that this Word was "In the beginning" (Gr. "en arche"). It implies that when the beginning, began, the Word was already there. He restates this in verse two for emphasis. The Word was pre-existent, distinct and fully deity.
In verse three, John declares that the Logos is Co-creator with "God" (or Father). He is more than just a "tool" or instrument of creation. His will, operation and power are one with the Father. Apart from the Eternal Word, existence is impossible.
The Logos is the "source of life" according to verse four, and "this life was the light of men." Life is embodied in the Word, and God's purpose and power are made available to them who partake in the life of the Logos.
There is this interesting comparison of "light and darkness" ("yin and yang"?) in verse five. Darkness will oppose the Light, but the Darkness cannot defeat it. Traditionally, darkness here is representative of evil, and ignorance. St. John the Apostle then goes on to talk about St. John the Baptist, the "witness to the Light." He "was not the Light," but bore witness to the "True Light."
"And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us." Certainly this is the crux of John's gospel. This Logos, not only exists eternally, creates and gives light (despite men's unwillingness to see), He also took "flesh" and men "beheld his glory." St. John asserts that he was one of these men. If the Logos is indeed the Tao, then what was approached by Lao Tzu (and the Philosophers and all other ancient "sages"), was now accessible by ordinary men, in ordinary ways; through the senses.
Finally St. John asserts what was to him as a Jew, an absolute truth; no one has ever seen deity. This was true as well of the concept of the Logos to the Greek philosophers. Physical eyes are simply incapable of viewing that which is beyond nature. But, "The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him." Because the Logos was "with God and was God," He reveals the Father: when we see the person Jesus, we see the eternal God. This is the foundation of the 2,000-year-old Christian religion.
So to return to Lao Tzu, is this then his "Tao?" Let's examine some of the things he wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
Before heaven and earth existed
There was something nebulous:
Standing alone, not changing
Eternally revolving without fail
Worthy to be the mother of all things.
I do not know its name.
I adore it as Tao.
If forced to give it a name,
I shall call it "breath."
Does this not sound like the God of the Hebrews, whose name was so Holy, that it was "unpronounceable?" This God refers to Himself as "I AM," asserting that His very existence, is name enough. And it was this God, that according to St. John, that the Logos was with from the beginning, and whose will He did on earth.
Lao Tzu again, in chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching:
Tao gives them birth
Te fosters them.
Therefore all things of the universe
Worship Tao and exalt Te
Tao is worshipped and Te exalted.
Without anyone's order but of its
While the scope of this paper is limited to
a comparison of Logos with Tao, it must be
mentioned that Lao Tzu's description of the
relationship of Tao and Te, closely
parallels the Christian understanding of the
relationship of Son and Holy Spirit. The
Son, the Logos creates, as we've seen. The
Spirit is seen as "sustaining."
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote many years before the birth of Jesus. In a famous passage he speaks of the messiah who would come, who would be a "man of sorrows." Likewise Lao Tzu says:
He who takes upon himself the slander of the
Is the presence of the state.
He who takes upon himself the sins of the world
Is the King of the World.
Of course there are objections to this outlook. First of all some may argue, that although the Tao and the Logos appear very similar at first look, they are really quite different. The argument is that the Christian Logos is personal; while the Tao of Lao Tzu is impersonal. This point has merit; for indeed, Lao Tzu truly avoids any language that appears to be anthropomorphic.
But as it earlier has been stressed, Lao Tzu
could not fully realize the Tao, as he
himself underlined the "unknowability" of
the way. No sage, seer, prophet, philosopher
or wise man could come to a full
understanding of the ineffable absolute,
unless the Tao itself (Himself) engaged in
But even without the benefit of revelation, Lao Tzu still approaches "personhood." He certainly ascribes benevolence to the Tao, and it is inconceivable that benevolence is possible without personhood. Lo Tzu says:
All things rise from the Tao.
By the power of the Tao (Te) they are nourished, Developed, cared for,
Grown, and protected.
The Tao of Heaven is to benefit, not to
The Tao of Heaven makes no distinction of persons
It always helps the virtuous.
From the above quotes, as well as the feel that comes out of the whole Tao Te Ching, it could be argued that Lao Tzu had a "relationship" with the Tao.
Later Taoist writers lost the sense of
benevolence of the Tao. For the authors of
Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu for example, the
Tao, of necessity becomes a neutral force.
They could not reconcile that the Tao could
be One and Selfless, and still be
benevolent. Certainly the neutrality and
non-personhood of the Tao was in contrast to
the personal, yet egoist and despotic "God"
of the monotheistic Jews and Muslims.
Fr., Damascene says:
If we take the Oneness and Personhood of God together, we end up with a God dwelling in metaphysical solitude, making way for a distorted view of Him as a stern demanding judge, a petulant egoist, and a sever Lord of Vengeance.
He goes on to say:
To the Hebrews was given the revelation of the One Personal Absolute; to Lao Tzu was given the realization of the One Selfless Absolute.
If both of these are true, they obliterate and cancel each other out. But the Apostles John and the Christians would say there is a piece of the puzzle missing. Thus the Way reveals of Himself information, that can help us avoid either distortion; that is the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
According to the Christians, God was One yet contained three persons. These persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) share the Divine Essence, as human beings share the human nature. The persons of the Godhead dwell in perfect love for each other. "God is love." 1 John 4:8
Fr. Dumitru Staniloe of Romania writes:
Love must exist in God prior to all those acts of his which are directly outside Himself. Love must be bound up with His eternal existence. Love is the ‘being of God.'
Thus now it could be seen that the Tao/Logos is at the same time, One, Personal and Selfless. Lao Tzu for all his greatness, could not have seen that, without the knowledge of the Trinity. And this was only revealed in the "Logos made flesh" who appeared in Palestine hundreds of years later.
Indeed, Lao Tzu mysteriously opined that, "The three produced all things." Chinese philosopher and Taoist, Gi-ming Shien comments on this saying, that the "three" represent "the reconciliation of opposites," and that the "three is the principle of order. So Lao Tzu, while not fully knowing the meaning of the Triad, never the less realized it to be a creative principle.
So, perhaps these teachings are what led to an easy embrace of Christianity, by the Chinese of the Tang dynasty. When Aleben, and his monks came marching in, they were welcomed and expected. There are some texts that have only recently been discovered, and collectively they are called the "Jesus Sutras." These texts were produced by Aleben and his monks, based on the Syriac writings they had brought with them. But they did not merely translate their existing Christian texts. They wrote new texts, and drew heavily from the Tao Te Ching and other Taoists texts, in their attempt to "spread the Gospel" to the land of China.
A recovery of the attitudes of these ancients is in order. For the ancient people in all world cultures, saw that there was an unfolding of wisdom through out the ages. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church put it this way:
Though not with the same power of God as in the Hebrews, nevertheless the presence of the Spirit of God also acted in the pagans who did not know the true God, because even among them God found for Himself chosen people. . . . Though the pagan philosophers also wandered in the darkness of the ignorance of God, yet they sought the Truth, which is beloved by God; and on account of this God-pleasing seeking, they could partake of the Spirit of God, for it is said that the nations who do not know God practice by nature the demands of the law, and of what is pleasing to God.
St. Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, was one among the early Christians who was not afraid to call upon the pre-Christian philosophers and poets, such as Lao Tzu. St. Justin:
Those who lived in accordance with the Logos are Christians, even though they were called godless, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heracletus and others like them . . .
Another Church Father, Lactantius says:
The Greeks speak of God as the Logos. . . for Logos signifies both speech and reason, inasmuch as he is both the voice and the reason of God. And of this Divine speech, not even the Philosophers were ignorant, since Zeno represents the Logos as the arranger of the established order of things, and the framer of the Universe.
Both Justin and Lactantius highly honored Socrates, because he respectfully refused to proffer opinions on things that he did not have a direct experience with. Socrates said, "It is neither easy to find the Father and maker of all, nor having found Him, is it possible to declare Him to all." This sounds like it is right out of the Tao Te Ching.
Certainly, if the early Christians had known of Lao Tzu, they would have honored him, as they honored the Greeks, (as well as the Hebrews it goes without saying) and recognized Christ as the Eternal Tao, as they recognized Him as the Divine Logos. As the Monument Sutras record Emperor Taizong, "These teachings will save all creatures and benefit all mankind, and it is only proper that they be practiced throughout the world."