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Beginningless beginnings in 350 BCE and the 20th Century – Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton

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Western society and its religions have traditionally fallen on the dualistic end of the philosophical spectrum. Good is good and bad is bad. Good is rewarded and bad is punished. God is all powerful and up in the heavens – transcendent. We are sinners way down here, and going to hell if we aren’t careful. Or if we don’t belong to the “right” religion.
NonSequitur10-31WrongChurch

Non Sequitur 10/29/09

Eastern religions have been more non-dualistic. There is yin in yang and good in bad. The spirit inside a person, Atman, and the spirit of the universe, Brahman, are the same. Spirit is immanent – in all things. The three religions of China – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism – often meld the strengths of each and find a way to all get along.

For this and other reasons, there were few Western writings on the unity of Spirit and Creation until quite recently. Even the European mystics were trying to close the gap between themselves and God rather than believing there wasn’t a gap.

But then the tenor of late 1800s began opening some doors, in part because travel made contact between East and West easier. The first Hindu to set foot in the West came as a visitor to the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Yin-Yang-Harmony-By the late 1930s, French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin was writing a stunningly non-dualistic vision of the Cosmic Christ, but on orders from the Vatican the controversial treatise wasn’t published until  the 1950s, when The Phenomenon of Man came out in French and English. It was discussed in some progressive Catholic colleges by the 1960s, although with the caveat that some Church officials felt his views bordered on pantheism, a no-no.

Since the mid-20th Century, Buddhism has taken root in the West; Hindus have grown to more than a million in the U.S. and practices such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong have introduced everyday people to Eastern concepts.

At the same time, changes in secular society in the West have created an atmosphere in which the unity of God and Creation could be seriously considered. Even the new physics and the interconnectiveness of the internet have given us a new way to look at reality.

In essence, if one’s entire philosophy and world view is built on dichotomy, a separate, remote God makes the most sense. When the focus is more on interconnections, the Vedic Upanishads’ sparks flying from the same fire can become part of our belief system again.

As I searched for writings for In the Same Breath, a few examples from the earliest times and today were particularly striking. In perhaps the most interconnected, a 20th century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, studied the writings of one of the founders of Taoism, Chuang Tzu, and  wrote personal versions of his favorites. Merton was part of a group of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu monks who studied and prayed together as part of an ongoing inter-monastic dialogue.

chuang-tzu_1Chuang Tzu lived between 370 and 301 BCE. His writing is mind-bending and often shot-through with surprising humor. One of his writings in The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu is responsible for the domain name of the blog – beginningless.  Merton’s version is in his 1965 book, The Way of Chuang Tzu. Merton died in 1968 while traveling in Asia.

Chuang Tzu

There is a beginning. There is not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing.

Suddenly there is nonbeing. But I do not know, when it comes to nonbeing, which is really being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.

There is nothing in the world bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mount T’ai is tiny. No one has lived longer than a dead child, and P’eng-tsu died young.

Heaven and earth were born at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me.

Chuang’s words sound to modern ears almost like a Zen koan to tease the mind into reflecting on the mystery of this unity on a deeper level than rational thought. One has to let the words seep into one’s bones over several re-readings to begin to comprehend. That’s the fun of it. This brilliant gibberish, this impenetrable clarity, is early Taoism’s way of describing the unity of spirit and creation.

Thomas Merton

In the Beginning of Beginnings was Void of  Void, the Nameless.

mertonballcapSM

© the Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

And in the Nameless was the One, without body, without form.
This One, this Being in whom all find power to exist  –
Is the Living.
From the Living, comes the Formless, the Undivided.
From the act of this Formless, come the Existents, each according
To its inner principle. This is Form. Here body embraces and cherishes spirit.
The two work together as one, blending and manifesting their Characters. And this is Nature.


But he who obeys Nature returns through Form and Formless to the Living.
And in the Living
Joins the unbegun Beginning.
The joining is Sameness. The sameness is Void. The Void is infinite.
The bird opens its beak and sings its note
And then the beak comes together again in Silence.
So Nature and the Living meet together in Void.
Like the closing of the bird’s beak
After its song.
Heaven and earth come together in the Unbegun,
And all is foolishness, all is unknown, all is like
The lights of an idiot, all is without mind!
To obey is to close the beak and fall into Unbeginning.

When next we meet: Taking a closer look at 600 to 300 BCE and all those beginningless beginnings!

gswimg at eartlhlink dot net

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Author: jeanlatzgriffin

Jean Latz Griffin is the owner of CyberINK, a small business that produces quirky skeleton-themed products. She has finished the first draft of a historical fantasy and received comments from her agent. She has turned to Orson Scott Card for tips on the second draft. She is author of "In the Same Breath," and "One Spirit: A Creation Story for the 21st Century." She has a certificate in creative writing from the University of Chicago's Writers Studio. Griffin is a member of the growing community of former Chicago Tribune reporters, enjoys Weekend Writing Warriors and the Story Studio in Chicago. Her Sheltie, Thunder, likes to "type" on her computer keys, and Dr Wu, a Weimaraner, likes to lick her ear when she is trying to think. Her husband passed in June of 2011. Her three fabulous grown sons live nearby. She plays violin in an amateur string orchestra.

2 thoughts on “Beginningless beginnings in 350 BCE and the 20th Century – Chuang Tzu and Thomas Merton

  1. Fascinating stuff.

    I remember being in a certain Protestant church* for a wedding and seeing a sign that said, “God Loves Us in Spite of Who We Are.” What do you suppose are the psychological origins of dualistic thinking? What makes some people intuit a separation from the creator, and further, assume that they’re spiritually behind the 8 ball from the get-go?

    *specific denomination withheld to avoid giving offense

  2. That’s a great question on dualism. I don’t know, but it goes back pretty far. It seems like Greek and Norse mythology had fairly separate gods and humans, while at the same time, ancient Vedic and Taoist scriptures had the vision of unity as the mainstream thought, not a thin thread.

    Regarding the 8-ball, something similar, that difference may have come later and be more specific to Christianity. I don’t think original sin existed as a concept prior to Christianity – the idea that we are born sinful and have to have it washed away by baptism.

    By contrast, Taoism envisions an “earlier heaven” in which one tries to achieve the innocence before birth.

    But why the psychology of the West went one way really quickly and the East in the opposite direction remains a really good question. I wonder if anyone has written on that?

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