Table of Contents


Keywords: aesthetic, being and non-being, body, Chuang Tzu, Confucianism, death, desires, Five Relations, good and evil, First Peoples, human nature, human heartedness, Jesus, koans, Legalism, Lao tzu, life needs/necessities, life-coherence principle, love, male/female, Mencius, Mo Tzu, mind, money, Nature, Neo-Confucianism, principles, propriety, self-other, subjectivist circle, Tao, translations, universal life, Wang-Yang Ming, wu-wei, Zen Buddhism                                  


  1. Non-Theist Religions: An Introduction
  2. Ultimate Principles and the Life-Ground: A Prologue to Understanding the Tao
  3. Challenging All Orthodoxies by the Natural Way
  4. Good and Bad Decoded: Nourishing Function versus Selfish Desires
  5. Testing the Limits of the Tao: The Problems of Evil and Knowledge
  6. The Mandate of Heaven, the Confucian Moral Order, and the Mohist Heresy
  7. Confucianism and the Golden Rule: The Inner logic of Equality and Inequality
  8. Between the Lines of Orthodoxy: The Unseen Radical Humanism of Mencius
  9. The Universal Life of the Heart That Cannot Bear the Suffering of Others
  10. The Infinite Here and Now: The Silent Zen-Buddhist Revolution and Its Limits
  11. East-West Synthesis: From Bodhidharma and the Sages to Jesus on the Kingdom of Life
  12. The Deathless Way of Undivided Being: Universal Life Transcending All Divisions
  13. Beyond Internal Light: Liberating Embodied Life From Suffering and Discrimination

Summary: This philosophical analysis lays bare the defining and transformative principles of Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism, and Zen Buddhism as spiritual philosophies with contrasts and comparisons including the original Jesus. Explanation focuses on primary sources, principled capacities to relate to the eco-social life-ground, and implied ways of universal life.

1. Non-Theist Religions: An Introduction

While major Indo-European and Middle-East religions are theist, the great religious philosophies from the Far East – Taoism, Confucianism and Zen – have no God. In other words, their ultimate ontological principles do not conceive of Ultimate Being as separate from and prior to embodied life. Thus the ancient dualisms of man and God, matter and spirit do not arise. Where then do we find the transcendent in these spiritual philosophies? In Taoism, the transcendent is found in the invisible ordering mystery of the cosmic Tao. In Zen, the transcendent is the unmediated experience of the infinite in the Now. In Confucianism which is most widespread as a governing doctrine, Heaven refers to a self-subsistent moral law or Great Norm of cosmic harmony.

Again however life value as of ultimate concern remains only implicit, so philosophical analysis is required to lay bare its exact place and limits in these organizing visions of enlightenment. Coherent spiritual philosophies East and West remain distinguished by transcendence of material self interest and what is empirically established in the world. And both seek some ‘way of universal life’ that transforms all divisions including death itself into a higher unity of the Real, the True and the Good. Yet analysis must first move beyond false religion as explained in World Visions of Universal Being from False Religion to Life-Coherent Spirituality. The explanation to follow does not deny that an absolute Ruler, Superior, or Master on earth may still emerge in these religions without God. Nor does it overlook how structures of life oppression may continue to reign with first principles of social rule assumed as sacrosanct. Life-blind conformity at the cost of people’s lives is again invariably the sign of false religion, but not in the primary sources of the religion philosophies studied ahead except when so flagged.

2. Ultimate Principles and Understanding the Tao

Of all the religious philosophies, Taoism is the most life-grounded in principle. First articulated by Lao tzu  or Lao tse or  Laozi – the English versions vary – its author is recorded as born around 550 BCE, the elder of Confucius. Disputes about the dates have, however, become a minor industry so that the entry of “Laozi” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia discusses little else. As often occurs, undecidable scholastic disputations replace coming to grips with profoundly challenging meanings. This analysis, in contrast, is concerned solely with the defining principles and arguments of the Tao-te Ching itself. Yet insofar as it is steeped in culture with a language of 45,000 ideographic characters, we first require translations by scholars familiar with both for life-value analysis to decode the underlying philosophical principles which the work expresses. Wing tsit Chan’s translation in his definitive Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy is thus principally relied on along with the Feng-English version, and further cross-checked with An Accurate Translation of the Tao-te Ching by Derek Lin online. Throughout the primary sources examined ahead, a general rule of meaning is applied. The test of any underlying principle of explanation is that it is consistent with authoritative translations and applies to all contexts. In this way, the philosophical principles explained are tested in both respects across the works in question.  As in linguistic science looking for the deep structure underneath surface sentences, philosophical method identifies ultimately regulating principles which are confirmed in all instances to ensure the meta level of meaning that is defined.

Yet sometimes a textual meaning still evades clear definition. Thus the Tao- te Ching cautions in its first line: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao”. The first level of this meaning is that we must not equate words with what they refer to. The later Zen saying that “the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon” derives from this original insight. The moon is, however, a more direct experience than the edgeless Way of Nature to which Tao refers. The Tao is claimed to be too “deep and profound” for any concept to represent without partiality of meaning. For concepts by their nature exclude all they do not refer to. Thus the concept of “table” excludes all that is not-table. The harmonizing way of cosmic reality – the Tao – has, in contrast, no lines of division or confinement. Words draw boundaries of demarcation where no real boundaries exist.

The Upanisads of India emphasize this basic point in a more mystical way. Name and form, nama and rupa, draw lines of division when there is only one underlying reality, “the One without a second”. This is the Supreme Being and only It ultimately exists according to this philosophy. Reconnection to the One occurs by withdrawing the senses and consciousness from the world to behold “the Real” from within, “face to face” – the divine infinite of the inner Atman which is opened to by yogic introspection. Lao tzu , however, goes in an opposite direction – not away from, but to the surrounding world and universe which hosts all life as the Way of Nature.

The Tao-te Ching (literally “the book of the Way of all functions”) finds the Tao in the principles of the natural cosmos which apply to all beings – for example, the rising and falling moments of all life in diverse cycles of return. The cycles themselves become intrinsic to the sage’s experience of the world, the depths of the present in perpetual transformation. Thus the Tao-te Ching says “Hold onto to the Tao of old to master the things of the present. This is the bond of Tao” (Chapter 14). That is, there is an immutable pattern of the world’s changes and the sage  dwells in it to understand the manifold states it expresses in the present of its cyclic turning. The Natural Way is to live in natural life function (te) within a universe of natural functions in attuned consciousness to its recurring patterns. This grounding of way of life in Nature characterizes much First Peoples’ philosophy as well, but this connection is little recognized. A difference is that the Tao is what governs the myriad beings of the one ecological whole, but it also includes more primarily the “Non-Being” from which all beings come and from which it differs in that it “can never be worn out”. “Let there always be Non-Being, Lao says in his first lines, “so we may see the subtlety of things, but let there always be Being so we see their outcome”. Tao is “empty as well as full”. Lao’s philosophy is earthy, but never earth bound. For infinitely behind, around and in-between beings is the empty space of “non-being”. This apparently empty space within and around all that exists includes the heavens and  its invisible laws from which the cosmos manifests,  but it is also what enables beings to function as embodied beings – from the space within the cup or bowl that enables its function to the space in between creatures that allows them to move and function to the sky above all that exists. Thus Being and Non-Being are inseparable and complementary within the one Tao, and this is why Lao says what is otherwise indecipherable: “The two are the same”. That is, they are inseparable aspects of the One Tao.

Throughout Lao implies the yin (receptive) and yang (active) tendencies within the Tao whose interaction produces all processes and outcomes – for example, day and night, the seasons, and species life cycles. Much of the Tao-te Ching is in the rhythm of this yin-yang interaction producing change with each function of the Tao manifesting in accordance with this law-governed dynamic of the whole. “The Tao produced the One” – that is, the invisible natural laws and energy (ch’i) which precipitate into the cosmos and its perpetual changes and cycles. “The One produced the two” – that is, the yin and yang tendencies in interrelation. “The two produced the three” – that is, the process of transformative becoming – and “the three produced the ten thousand things” (the timeless Chinese metaphor for all entities that exist). Together all of this constitutes the “grand harmony” – an all-embracing concept which crosses the Taoist and Confucian thought systems as an ultimate onto-ethical norm. Within its eternal ordering, every life and form of being finds its proper (Confucian) or natural (Taoist) place. All beings arise, reach their limit, and revert back. The Taoist sage does not detach from the changes as in Buddhism, but “rides the transformations of the elements” as Chuang Tzu puts it, and lives one with the Tao across the endless advances and returns of all beings – the Taoist way of universal life. “Being great means functioning everywhere”, Lao says in chapter 25. Taoism’s notion of the “grand harmony” expresses the ultimate idea of all Chinese philosophy. Even the class warrior Mao tse Tung declares it the ultimate goal of revolutionary Communism.

3. Challenging All Orthodoxies by the Natural Way

Unlike fundamentalist and false religions, there is no supernatural being or magic thinking in the Tao-te Ching – although these have been variously superimposed since. Perhaps because it continuously calls into question ruling beliefs which are normally taboo to confront, it has been mystified, caricatured, and appropriated for 2500 years. To anyone thinking in terms of conventional givens, its lines may simply not make sense. Yet Lao’s profound challenges of inherited ways of seeing apply more than ever to globalization today, and may constitute the most critical reflection on civilization that exists. The Tao-te Ching can only be decoded from a standpoint that thinks through natural every image and step. Like the First Peoples’ spiritual philosophy of North America, it is in deep accord with Nature and inimical to artificial norms and prohibitions. “The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world”, Lao says, “the poorer are the people” (chapter 57). In fact Lao confronts conventional life bindings at every turn from the start, beginning with his affirmation of “non-being” as primary. Much Confucian reading of this onto-axiology sees it as an ‘irresponsible worship of nothingness’ – just as was seen in Buddhism which replaced Taoism in China before itself radically declining. The “abyss” and “great emptiness” do not resonate with social convention. As the Tao-te Ching shifts parameters of meaning so that non-being and receptivity become primary and artificial ordering by rank and ambition are rejected, conventional “propriety” and “the great hypocrisy” are left behind. When it says that “the wise greet both favor and disgrace with apprehension, and of these favor is considered inferior” (chapter 12,) Confucian scholars cannot make sense of what it means and even change its words. How could anyone regard favor as worse than disgrace?

This position, however, follows from the Tao-te Ching’s repudiation of Confucian conventions which bind natural life function and ordering. Thus if one is favored by such artificial and life-repressive standards, then this approval is inferior from the standpoint of the natural way.  Lao makes the point more emphatic later in chapter 41. “Great purity”, he says, “appears like disgrace”. In other words, the one who does follow the natural way appears to be unworthy through the eyes of propriety. One thinks here of Diogenes in Greek civilization who also preferred to live outside conventional society and was called “the cynic”. Elsewhere Lao goes even further. He repudiates the very cornerstones of Confucian morality, saying “abandon humanity and discard righteousness” (chapter 19). The Tao-te Ching does not mean inhumanity or amorality as many interpret it. Rather as throughout this last testament –Lao tzu repudiates the airs, roles and hypocrisies of “humanity” and “righteousness” but not their life substance.

We need to bear in mind that the Tao-te Ching ardently condemns war, militarization and capital punishment. To speak against the military institution and capital punishment over two millennia ago – as it does in chapters 46 and 27 respectively – shows true humanity and righteousness far ahead of its time. What it opposes are the pretenses of “humanity and righteousness” endemic in official society and Confucian propriety. The Tao-te Ching even provocatively asserts in the same chapter, “abandon sageliness and discard wisdom”. Again it means the hypocrisies and pomposity, not the life substance. In fact, the Tao-te Ching goes further than any work for millennia when it calls for mutual education rather than punishment as the way to deal with wrong-doers (chapter 46). In short, learning is of ultimate importance, the reality of wisdom not role display of it. What is abhorred is the self-serving role playing of “humanity”, “morality” and “wisdom” as the masks for repressing and harming life. In particular state killing of wrongdoers as “justice” is deplored. “There is always the master executioner [of the Tao] which “misses nothing”, he says in chapter 74, and “whoever undertakes to hew wood for the master carpenter rarely escapes injuring his own hands”. Rather than losing one’s life within the countless rules of conduct and ceremony while social climbing the hierarchy in which ceremonial killing displaces deep social learning, the Tao-te Ching argues for the natural way of life function.

In chapters 18 and 38 especially, explanation moves through the primary Confucian values of “superior virtue”, “humanity”, “propriety”, and “filial piety”, and presses the distinction between their real and “substantial” versus “superficial” forms as well as the “ulterior motive” of ambition and power behind their moralist disguises. Here as elsewhere the Tao-te Ching always conceives of authentic virtue as grounded in doing what nourishes life in its natural mode. While it deplores hypocritically coercive moralism, it does so for opposite reasons than the freedom of the üebermensch (“superman”) in Nietzschean theory. Life serving action from behind with no ulterior motive or show is the standard throughout. The sage thus “does not claim credit” but “performs his function and then withdraws”(chapters 2, 17). The choral idea is “to produce but not take possession” – the defining principle of the Tao and the sage at once. The Tao-te Ching asserts that declarations of moral virtues are in fact hypocritical. Only when real “virtue”, “humanity” and “righteousness” have been lost does “the doctrine” of each arise (chapter 38). On the other hand, to sincerely “rule people and serve heaven, there is nothing better than frugality”(59). In short, the Tao-te Ching repudiates all morality not nourishing life function.

3.1. The Taoist Aesthetic of Nature

The life-value critique of the Tao-te Ching also reaches into the domains of the official arts and  ceremonies. Consider these initially paradoxical but categorical declarations in chapter 12. “The five colors cause one’s eyes to be blind”. “The five tones cause one’s ears to be deaf”. “The five tastes cause one’s palate to be spoiled”. These statements come one after another with no explanation. Again one must fill in the blanks by adopting Lao’s standpoint of the natural life way. His point is that divisions of color, sound and taste into homogenous man-made frames deadens sentient life. Only privileged people in Lao’s day could afford such artificial occupations of the sense fields at the cost of spontaneous natural life sights, sounds and tastes in far subtler composition. Yet it is not only because the rulers sate such unnatural desires “while the fields are exceedingly weedy and the granaries empty”, a reprehension of social injustice Tao-te Ching expresses elsewhere. Here Lao  deplores the lack of taste of the loud showpieces, music and foodstuffs on display – precisely what is assumed as impressive. The Tao-te Ching asserts the opposite. The great events occupy the fields of seeing, hearing and scenting life by an unbearably invasive bad taste.

The problem named here penetrates to the very organizing structure of perception. In the official Chinese world-view, the fivefold classification of reality extends across domains of phenomena, and here it carves up the fields of sentient life into homogenous blocks across the senses. The light spectrum is divided into five conventional and uniform colors. The vibrational fields of hearing are divided into five prescribed tones. And scents and tastes are treated to the same monotonic ordering of the infinite spectra of light, sounds and tastes of Nature. Dividing all experienced colors, sounds and flavors into five forms is claimed by Confucians to uphold harmonious relations – always the goal in China across schools of thought. But for the Tao-te Ching this conventional structuring of sentience destroys the sense experiencing of the subtle harmonies of Nature by grandiose set-pieces of official sights, sounds and flavors. The seeing, hearing and scenting of the 10,000 beings in natural transformation are so invaded and occupied that the “eyes are made blind’, “the ears deaf”, and “the palate spoiled”. Readers might here think of today’s corporate motors and commercials occupying every sense field of life to recognize the totalizing occupation of life sensibility that the Tao-te Ching first describes. When are the eyes, ears and taste anywhere free to experience the sublime sentient fields without this deadening interference?   When the later Zen philosophy seeks to restore awakeness to the transcendent beauty of undivided Nature and “the original mind”, it relates back to this foundational insight of the Tao-te Ching. Yet in general, awareness of the despoliation of life sentience by what is thought to be civilization goes unnoticed by aesthetic understanding.

We might here compare the lament of Chief Seatthl of the First Peoples of America: “There is no quiet place in the white [sic] man’s cities, no place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect’s wings – – the smell of the wind cleansed by a midday rain or scented with pinion pine – – the sight of the great land with buffalo free of the iron roads and talking machines – – .”  The Tao-te Ching then continues the chapter with a sentence which mystifies interpreters, “racing and hunting cause one’s mind to be mad”. His connection of the reduced sense fields of life to “racing and hunting” also relates well to the contemporary world. The transcendent experience of the open senses is overwhelmed by one racing, chasing and hunting after another (think of today’s commercial sports and televised bombings of cities) so that they “cause one’s mind to be mad”. The insanity is to destroy life’s beauty without being aware of it in pursuit of ephemeral want objects including the deaths of other life. “They are the mad ones” is what the First Nation mother says millennia later as she and her child watch the developers tear up the valley of life below. Lao is more categorical. He opposes every man-made device or entertainment that interferes with natural life function and enjoyment. He says at the end of the Tao-te Ching, “Let there be ten or a hundred times more utensils, but let them not be needed or used – – Even if there are ships and carriages, none will ride in them. Even if there are armor and weapons, none will display them” (chapter 80). The Tao-te Ching does not here speak against the inventions and contrivances, but rather against pervasive use of them. In contemporary terms, we might think of the person who has a car, but usually walks and bicycles, of armaments for society that are kept out of sight, and of utensils for special occasions. In this way, the world of life is left free and natural in its sights and sounds without useless contesting – the aesthetic of natural life function.

What would Lao say to the charge that he opposes ever new devices and entertainments created by the technologies and free markets of the day? In fact, the Tao-te Ching has an answer which points to a more exciting life. Yet first human sentience and action are to be re-grounded. In chapter 13, the Tao-te Ching says, “The sage loves the world as his body and that is why he may be entrusted with the empire”. Identification with the “world as one’s body” is not the way of enlightenment, but only rule in accordance with it can be trusted. Lao is the first known thinker to recognize this way of universal life, and the only one to ground the legitimacy of rule in it. We see here perhaps the most demanding qualification for rule in world thought.

4. Good and Bad Decoded: Nourishing Function versus Selfish Desires

According to legend, Lao only wrote his work as an older man leaving China on request from border officials. That he was returning to Nature or going into the wilderness to re-enter its wider cycles is not discussed. All scholars know is that no more was heard from Lao tzu/tse/zi except the Tao-te Ching – “the Book of the Way and its Functions”, his sole work and last testament. The first chapter is appropriately a conception of the life and death from the view of the natural way. All being and non-being are inseparable within the whole of the cosmos or the individual life. By chapter 2 – all the chapters are in verse form usually under 10-20 lines long – the  Tao-te Ching  has introduced the famous but elusive principle of wu-wei – typically rendered as “non-action” or  “wei wu-wei”, the “way of non-action”.  In Lao’s own words, the sage “produces but does not take possession” – a concept that recurs from chapter 2 on. He “nourishes function in accord with Nature”, but then moves on “without claiming credit” and without “ulterior motive” or desire for anything external to the function – “these are like remnants of food and tumors of action” (chapter 24). Observe that the notion of ‘non-action’ does not mean absence of active life function or mere manipulation – as it is often misunderstood to do – but  means no action for gaining something extrinsic to the life function itself. Lao’s position here is analogous to Krishna’s defining principle of action in the Bhagavad-gita: “You have a right to your action only, never at all to its fruits” (chapter 2, verse 47). But it is different in that only action in accord with natural life requirements is affirmed. This is why the standard translation of wu-wei  as “no unnatural action” is true so far as goes. More exactly, nourishing life function is the value logic of all action for Lao tzu – or not action in accordance with the standard motives of external reward, credit, or pretense of superiority. This is Lao tzu’s implicit notion of the Good although he generally steers clear of normative categories.

As we have seen, the Tao-te Ching ultimately calls for identification with “the world as one’s body” so that as we have seen in chapter 25, “Being great means functioning everywhere”. The sage in this way “models himself after earth”. His recurrent analogous role models are water “which nourishes all things” and the sun “which shines on all alike”. This idea of benefiting all alike is the ultimate value of the Tao-te Ching. Thus the sage puts himself in the background”, he says in chapter 7, “but finds himself in the foreground./ He puts himself away and yet always remains./ Is it not because he has no personal interests that his personal interests /are fulfilled?”  In the final chapter, the idea of the sage’s universal identity as personal identity emerges again in choral summary: “The more he gives to others, the more he has himself. /The more he gives to others the more he has of his own”. One can see the early formulation of the message of Jesus five centuries later. The apparent paradox of serving other life interests to realize one’s own is resolved when one recognizes that “the good man” of the Tao-te Ching is one with the Tao, and so these conclusions follow. “The more he has of his own” and “the more his personal interests are fulfilled” show, moreover, that this “giving to receive” is not mere submergence in the Tao, but the Tao experienced and enjoyed as one’s true being. This profound idea crosses all the great religions. As Christian Humphreys nicely puts it to explain the Buddhist way of universal being,  the enlightened person is “not a drop in the ocean, but the ocean poured into a drop”.

The previous chapter’s analysis has explained the core principle of giving action for its own sake and not for expectation or reward. Yet Lao is more exact than Krishna about what the nature of the action must be to be enlightened. It must be functional within the life whole. Even if in forced combat –  the  Tao-te Ching is by no means passive – the enlightened person focuses on bringing aggressors “to the way of reversion” by natural methods learned by identifying with other creatures – the strike of the heron, the evasion of the fish, and so on among myriad natural functions the sage draws on. The Tao-te Ching is the origin of “weaponless combat” now called martial arts. Always be in accord with the natural way not violate it is the ultimate principle. If the out-of-control desires of men must be engaged in direct struggle, the wise “honor the left not the right”, “never make light of the enemy”, “march without formation”, “hold weapons without seeming to have them”, “use surprise tactics” of reversal, “withdraw as soon as one’s work is done”, and “weep over slaughter” with no victory celebration but “funeral ceremonies” (chapters  69 and 31). The Tao-te Ching is also the philosophical foundation of guerilla warfare. The caricature idea of Taoism as a limp quietism or devious opportunism confuses patience and long-term thinking with conventional projections. The common feature of this philosophy across domains is that no action is not in accord with life supporting transformation. This is the meaning of wu-wei which has often been turned upside down as “inaction”.

4.1. The Deathless Way of Human Virtue and Universal Life Identification

This higher consciousness of the Tao and its functions with which the sage becomes one in microcosmic wholeness is, it is implied, the te or function/virtue of human being. Yet Tao-te Ching never puts humanity on a pedestal. Indeed it rejects humanism as anthropocentric, saying in chapter 5: “Heaven and earth are not humane./ They regard all things as straw dogs. /The sage is not humane./ he regards all people as straw dogs”.   The idea here is not misanthropist. Straw dogs refer to straw bales burned for sacrifices which in China mark life-sustaining natural functions like Spring and Harvest. So too human beings – – their bodies come and go as transformations within the whole, and for the one who identifies with the whole the “ancestral sacrifice is never suspended”. The Tao-te Ching thus says in chapter 50 “in him [the sage] there is no room for death”. There are only changing functions, and the enlightened are one with each and all of them. Even “wild buffalo cannot butt their horns against him, tigers cannot fasten their claws into him, weapons of war cannot thrust their blades into him”. Magic-thinking interpretations abound around such claims of apparent invulnerability and immortality. Yet all that is meant is that understanding different life functions within the Tao enables vital co-existence with them, including voracious tigers. Even attack by man-made weapons are met with non-being or empty space – in distance from them or by martial art elusion. Being and non-being are inseparable in the person of the Tao as they are in the Tao itself. If still murdered, the Tao does not die, nor do its functions. That is why “there is no room for death in the sage” whatever happens. In contrast, “violent people die a violent death –  – the father of my teaching” (42).

What goes wrong to explain why so few open to the natural way? The answer is that the unenlightened want what they can get, the more without limit the better. For this mind-set, Taoist natural function is absurdly out of fashion and to be laughed at. “If the lowest type did not laugh at it”, says Lao in chapter 41, “it would not be the Tao”. The ultimate root of evil the Tao-te Ching argues is selfish desires, and it acknowledges “only the most diligent” get beyond this  level. In chapter 46, this ultimate principle of how the human condition goes wrong is especially categorical and far-reaching. “There is no calamity greater than lavish desires”, the Tao-te Ching says. “There is no greater guilt than discontentment. And there is no greater disaster than greed”.  The principles apply as much to the present as 2500 years ago. Observe that not only is desire for ever more a motor of disaster, but discontentment is no less blameworthy. As in all religious philosophies, however, analysis remains at the level of individual motivation. While there is no criterial principle here whereby to distinguish desire and discontentment from real need, life-value analysis provides it – that without which life capacity and function are reduced. This principle of need-desire distinction is of ultimate importance here and elsewhere. It also fits well with the Tao-te Ching which argues to reduce selfish desires along with the converse to rejoice in natural life function – the innermost Taoist logic of good and bad across domains. The more impartial and comprehensive one’s life bearings, it is also clear, the more one is in accord with the Tao. “Who follows Tao is identified with the Tao – – – – Being all-embracing he lasts forever – – – The all-embracing quality of the great virtue (te) follows from the Tao.” This is the Tao-te Ching’s answer to the problem of death. An all-embracing life is deathless.

This universal identity is also affirmed by the other great Taoist thinker, Chuang-tzu (also called Zhuangzi). He  elaborates the enjoyment of “being one with the Tao” in transcendental terms. Thus he says in various contexts: “Personally realize the infinite to the highest degree and travel in the realm of which there is no sign – – To realize life is good is the way to realize death is good – – Even if great oceans burned up, he would not feel hot – – Being such he mounts upon the clouds and forces of heaven, rides on the sun and moon, and roams beyond the four seas”. None of this is possible for the individual body, as magic-thinking interpretations misconceive the meaning. Chuang Tzu here speaks of the universal life of the sage who experiences all the transformations of Nature. Since s/he is one with the Tao, s/he “revolves in the infinite” and no more suffers death, burning, or spatio-temporal confinement than the Tao itself. Death of the individual life is natural for every being, he often affirms. Yet that it makes room for and enables other life is the reason why “what makes my life good is what makes my death good” – the profound unspoken meaning hidden within Chuang’s  chapter 6 aphorism.

4.2. The Universal Life Principles Beneath Relativism and Desires

An ultimate distinction between the philosophies of Lao and Chuang is that Chuang Tzu is a moral relativist, saying such things as: “If man sleeps in dampness, he will shrivel up and die, but is that true of eels? Who is right, the man or the eel?” Or more nihilistically: “Neither life nor death affect the sage, how much less can such matters as benefit and harm?” (chapter 2). His implied argument is that since every being has its different requirements and joys, universal general claims of “right and wrong” must be false. Indeed he calls such moral universals “petty biases – – imposed on others” which do not recognize the differences among beings. Chuang Tzu adopts a kind of postmodernist position millennia before Postmodernism. Yet he captures the essence of Taoism and the Great Vehicle of Buddhism at the same time when he says, “the sage is united with the sound and breath of things” while still repudiating any principle of value common to all life. What Chuang and the anti-universal argument he founds do not recognize is that despite all such differences among beings and their  functions, it remains true on a second-order level that all have life necessities of some kind which they must have (“benefits”) if their lives are not to be not to be despoiled (“harms”). Moreover for this higher-level understanding of natural life and function, the former is “right” and in accord with the Tao, while the latter is not and is therefore “wrong”.

As we have seen, Lao tzu recognizes this higher-order level of understanding in every generic principle considered above – in particular, the underlying general principles to nourish function and to move on, and to reduce all desires to life need. As so often happens, however, these higher-order principles of understanding are lost. Unexcavated as well is the underlying universal argument pattern applying to all human beings across cultures and times which the Tao-te Ching implies. We may call this the desire reduction argument. More burdened with reality than Chuang-tzu’s soaring imagination, its implicit train of reasoning is as follows:

(1) desires beyond life needs are the ultimate problem;

(2) most people seem to want more;

(3) wanting more leads to conflict over who gets it;

(4) this leads to sacrificial competition and war;

(5) rules come in to limit the life sacrifice,

(6) but are only effective on the level of appearances;

(7) while life sacrifice is intensified by people competing for more

(8) as desires grow in spite of external rules to stop them and pretenses of higher motive.

(9) Therefore reduce desires, rules and competition by

(10) nourishing and enjoying natural life functions within the Tao.

(10) has been spelled out in prior explanation. It implies: i. enabling natural life function  ii within iii the infinite harmony of being and non-being/yin and yang in process iv with liberated enjoyment of the Tao’s transformations  v as the universal Way across time, place and changes. This is the ‘way of universal life’ decodable in the Tao-te Ching. Explanatory analysis now moves to test the Taoist philosophy at its most challenging turns of understanding.

5. Testing the Limits of the Tao: The Problems of Evil and Knowledge 

As we have seen, Taoist action requires inclusive awareness of the mutually supportive functions of life in encompassing awareness of the Tao’s infinite transformations in accordance with natural laws – the Tao-te Ching’s spiritual ecology. At the most basic, the way of Nature seeks to follow the “Way of Heaven which reduces whatever is excessive and supplements what is insufficient” instead of the “way of man that reduces the insufficient to offer to the excessive” (chapter 77).  Scientifically decoded, “the Way of Heaven” can be equated to the ecological laws of nature. The “way of man”, on the other hand, is the inequality, dysfunction and waste of  selfish rulers. As elsewhere, the underlying social system which selfish rulers express is a missing link of understanding.  Taoism like other great philosophies of salvation focuses on selfish desires as the ultimate problem, not the regulating social mechanism that selects for these desires and their expansion across selves and generations. In any case, the Tao-te Ching gives a complex argument of why desires themselves are the problem, as we have seen above. The issue then becomes how people are to reduce their desires, leaving aside the question of social-system determination. The Tao-te Ching speaks to the problem of people’s selfishness at many levels. The natural way is easier and more relaxed. It is in accord with Nature and the lives of other beings. It does not require contesting against others for what is wanted. Thus, the Tao-te Ching concludes, if rulers follow the way of minimal desires “the people will follow of their own accord”. Even when the “companions of death’ are in ascendancy, the method is straightforward. “Do without ado”, he says in chapter 63, “Prepare for the difficult while it is still easy – – Therefore the sage never strives for the great/And thereby the great is achieved”. Chapter 64 continues: “The journey of a thousand li begins where one stands – – The sage desires to have no desires”. There may be no chapter not somehow engaging the issue of reducing desires, working with natural function, and overcoming selfishness in attunement to the way of universal life.

The initially enigmatic chapter 27 is especially illuminating on desire containment and its natural achievement. “A well-shut door needs no bolts, and yet it cannot be entered”, Lao says – meaning that people who remain true to life function and enjoyment require nothing to lock their desires in, including prisons. The Tao-te Ching continues, “A well-tied knot needs no rope, and yet none can untie it” – meaning that tying up people does not prevent crime while well-tied understanding cannot be undone.  The underlying principle is that the Tao rejects no person and no thing, so neither should the rule of man. Like the Tao “the sage is always good in saving things so that nothing is rejected”. Likewise it “is always good in saving men with no man rejected” but again always directed to life function. In short, all is used for life with no waste of any person or thing. “This is the light”. When the Tao-te Ching says in this chapter that “the bad is the material from which the good may learn./ He who does not value the teacher [of the bad]/ Or greatly care for the material [the bad itself]/ Is greatly deluded although he may be learned”, he speaks to the ancient “problem of evil” as it is known in philosophy and theology. His answer is not to eliminate bad people, but to enable learning from their wrongs while saving their lives. Observe the difference from the world’s dominant theologies and justice systems. At the personal level, one is reminded of the anonymous Sufi saying: “People punish and feel guilty for their sins, but the person of the path learns from his heedlessness”. For the Tao-te Ching , life function is always the guide. The converse is that if the bad does not provide resources to learn from – but continues to be suppressed, denied, unseen, caged, killed, or otherwise unused for better – then the learned are deluded and the people ignorant of the secret of the Tao. The worse the evil is, the more far-reaching the learning that is demanded. “Such is the essential mystery”, the chapter concludes.

What Lao repudiates is “knowledge” and “learning” imposed by memorization of received lines or conditioned reactions to force. When the Tao-te Ching shockingly says “Abandon learning” (chapter 20), it immediately poses a question which appears to be a non-sequitur: “How much difference is there between ‘Yes Sir’, and ‘Of course not’ ”. The point is that learning and knowledge are not binary yes-no accumulations of word lines and behavioral repertoires – Yes Sir, No Sir in obedient reactions. The eternal lesson, the Tao-te Ching argues, is to understand the natural functions of the Tao. Official knowledge programmed into learners to compete for official position is, in contrast, “a disease” (chapter 71. That is, it invades natural community with forced divisions and false pretenses of certitude disconnected from life need. Yet where do we draw the line with the reality principle of civilization? Here the Tao-te Ching’s second last chapter answers with the most radical “return to the roots” on record. We have already seen that the Tao-te Ching here recommends consigning man-made carriages, ships, weapons and utensils to less and less use. Here it goes on to say, “let the people again knot cords”. By this it means a return to the customary method of recording by knots in cords in place of the abstractions of written symbols. It thus calls into question the baseline of human civilization, the written word.

For the Tao-te Ching, not even movement beyond one’s own village should break the ties to the ancient ways embedded in Nature and direct life function. Here it goes further still and implies that literacy and numeracy decouple people from natural life function and that they should be allowed to return to tying knots instead. Lao’s position confronts us by a clear line of division between “natural function”(te) and wu-wei, on the one hand, and rules of thought and action like reading and writing abstract symbols, on the other. He seems thereby to reject what has most enabled the human species’ evolutionary success and elevation above the animal world. In opposition to the Tao-te Ching, life-value onto-axiology affirms reading and writing as of the highest value in capacitating humanity to ever more comprehensive ranges of life. The conflict of values here arises because Nature is the model for the Tao-te-ching, and literacy in writing is not found in Nature. Yet humanity can achieve deeper and wider understanding of natural functions and the laws of the Tao itself by reading and writing, as in ecological science. If Nature is the model, such deathless connective comprehension is ruled out. At the same time, without the written word in all its forms of creation and communication, the crippling of humanly evolved capacities and their enjoyment would be entailed. We see here through the life function principle the limits of the natural Tao as well as the good of civilization.

5.1. The Tao versus Life-Incoherent ‘Development’: The 10,000 Chariots of Being

Yet the Tao-te Ching uniquely flags the dangers of human civilization which had already begun to invade, destroy and enslave the societies and environments of aboriginal societies. In this way, the Tao-te Ching speaks for all the First Peoples of the world in observing what civilization and its abstract symbol systems do to the Way of Nature if not life coherent in principle – alienate mind from body, rulers from community function, technological powers from natural life functions, and human beings from direct experience. Not least, there is the people’s great loss of the companions and space of the natural life. “Where have our fellow creatures gone? Where do the waters flow pure with life? Where is the great music not drowned? – – ” . A great cry of loss has been heard over 500 years in the modern millennium and the Tao-te Ching composed 2500 years ago bears witness to it at an early stage of the world’s oldest civilization.

The globally ruling assumption says all this is inevitable and ultimately good in a grand narrative  of ‘development’ which does not, however, distinguish between more commodities sold for profit and more life means for people – the core blindness of our era. The Tao-te Ching in deep contrast points to the experiencing life of the Natural Way and its leaving Nature free – with the enlightened person attuned to the infinite modes of Nature in myriad species transformations. “How”, the Tao-te Ching asks in its most dynamic single sentence, “can a lord of ten thousand chariots behave carelessly in his empire?”(chapter 27). What this means is that the sage is conscious of the ten thousand beings of the Tao which bear him as the chariots of his being. This for the Tao-te Ching is the true life body of knowing beyond man’s doctrines and self desires. The later Chuang Tzu thus sings of the transcendental joys of being one with its universal life “If our bodies could go through ten thousand transformations without end”, he says of the Tao’s life-death cycles, “how incomparable such joy could be! Therefore the sage roams freely in the realm where nothing can escape but all endures” (chapter 6).

6. The Mandate of Heaven, the Confucian Moral Order, and the Mohist Heresy

Confucian humanism finds it historical ground in a profound historical change in the Chou conquest of the Shang dynasty long before the Tao-te Ching (1751-1112 BCE). This dynastic change marks a transition from tribal to feudal society in which prayers for rain are replaced by irrigation and, at the moral level, the Mandate of Heaven or Great Norm – a higher self-existent moral law – replaces an anthropomorphic Lord. The Shang were said to have failed in their duties and fulfillment of the Mandate of Heaven and its impartial and immutable moral ordering of the cosmos which the new dynasty claimed it served. This tradition of an ultimate moral validation of imperial rule and its passing from the dynasty that does not fulfill it to one that does continues for millennia to the Communist Revolution of 1949. This revolution itself may be interpreted as a new dynasty fulfilling the moral Mandate of Heaven, only this time it is the Communist Party rather than a blood-line imperial dynasty.

“Heaven” throughout is not the heaven of a theist God or an otherworldly place. It is the source of ultimate moral law which properly governs the cosmos. While Confucian philosophy features Rules of Propriety, Humanity and Filial Piety within the Five Relations of Emperor-Minister, Father-Son, Husband-Wife, Older Brother-Younger-Brother and Guest-Host, Taoism, as we have seen above, rejects this whole normative framework for natural relations beneath official rules, roles and commands. Confucians on the other hand regarded the “five relations”/”moral relationships”/”universal ways” – all these terms are used to designate the same structure of filial piety and propriety – as based in natural law which necessitates the natural superiority and inferiority of the rulers and the ruled in each archetypal relationship. The emperor, minister, husband, and older brother are endowed with the right of superiors, and their inferior in each case of father and children, lord and subjects, man and wife, older and younger has the obligation to serve the senior position. Ever more detailed articulations of the rights and duties for each within these ruling-ruled relationships are then instituted through time. Most philosophically interesting is the relationship of guest-host with the guest in the ruling position. Perhaps the guest is the ‘official guest’ or, as interpreted today, the relationship between friends.  Not much is said in the literature about the principle. “Filial piety” is in any case the generic concept for all of the five moral relationships and their derivatives. Thus the emperor regards the people as his children, the husband relates to his wife as weaker and dependent, the older person is paternal in relationship to the younger, and so on.

Why all this is singled out for philosophical analysis is that the whole complex edifice of ruling-serving relationships is simply assumed – not only through most of China’s history, but also through much of the history and culture of other East Asian societies like Japan and Korea. It operates as a kind regulating set of cultural universals defining the laws of how to live in society,  with corresponding feelings of responsibility, guilt, shame and virtue attending the proper fulfillment of one’s position. This is the essential meaning of propriety and its subjective correlative of filial piety. In its original hold, it is more important than economics or worldly success and almost no known Confucian thinker puts profit or self-gain before duty. To do so is regarded by 2500 years of Confucian philosophy as the mark of an “inferior person”. As with Buddhism and other religions, however, wealthy businessmen have long been prominent in the funding of temples, monasteries and institutions whose moral principles were prior to globalization felt to properly govern their conduct and aspirations.

The hierarchy of moral authority in Confucianism ultimately begins in the Mandate of Heaven itself to which the Emperor or “Son of Heaven” is himself bound in filial piety and service – and so on through minister, father, husband, older brother, and received guest. Slaves, younger sisters, and workers do not warrant mention in the five moral relationships, but fall into the inferior role down the line in organized order. Nothing is more important than order and harmony in China’s ages-old civilization and societies influenced by it – not only for the dominant Confucian culture but for its adversaries of Taoism and Mohism and eventually for the Communist Party. The critical question arises. Cannot even absolutism or fascism be claimed as desirable for the ordered harmony it imposes? This meta question is not asked within the dominant traditions including after the Communist Party’s ascension to rule. Rather, thousands of rules and regulations sedimented over centuries to articulate specific duties and obligations within the ultimate framework of ruling-ruled and the “moral relationships” it governs.  According to the sacred Book of Rites transmitted by Confucius in its later form as the Doctrine of the Mean, “the Great Way of the sage” embraces “the three hundred rules of ceremonies and the three thousand rules of conduct” (chapter 27). This maze of decorum is what the Tao-te Ching repudiated as unnatural. With their unifying universal moral principles of the five relations, however, Confucian philosophy presupposes the regulating edifice as natural and eternal. While the Legalist School in China emphasizes law and punishment instead of jen to bring naturally bad dispositions into the required obedience, its position is little respected by the sage tradition. “Legalism” reports Wing tsit Chan seeks “regimentation, accumulation of power, subjugation of the individual, uniformity of thought, and use of force”. The general pattern of state absolutism may be  familiar , but the title of this school as “Legalism” seems misconceived since it priorizes imperial command over rule of law, dismisses legal precedent as relevant only to the past, and provides for no rights to individuals and communities beyond ruler ordinances.

What most distinguishes Confucian thought from such absolutism is the central importance of jen – which is exactly equated to “human-heartedness” over 2300 years since Mencius. It means to think and act in terms from the heart of the golden rule, first articulated by Confucius as “don’t not do unto others what you would not have done unto you”. (Analects 5:11). One must think from an organized heart. Thus the father-son relationship – the paradigm of the moral hierarchy of filial piety – ought never to do to his son what he would not like done to him if he were the son in the inferior position. The structure of rule and subordination is itself never questioned. The five moral relations are assumed as natural, necessary and ordained by Heaven. Ruin is believed to follow free violation, especially if the Emperor at the top disobeys his father – the source of the ruling moral order itself. He thereby loses “the Mandate of Heaven”. When Communism comes to rule China after over 2500 years of this moral hierarchy of rule remaining in place, it understandably rejects Confucianism as “feudal” and “reactionary”. While the new rule seems thus to override the five moral relations, it essentially re-frames them within “the Party’s leading role” at all levels in the “collective interest of the working class”, the ultimate ground of moral and political value in this philosophy. Heaven, however, does not disappear as a concept, but is expressed in such mottoes as “Women Hold Up Half of Heaven”.  Relations of rule and subordination continue, but within a revolutionarily re-set vertical hierarchy of social order.  Inherited private property as the basis of lordship and command is first eradicated in the name of the working class, but after deep “market reforms” the ruling order becomes a hybrid. Developing under non-private central authority with no sacred dogmas of ‘an invisible hand’ regulating production and distribution, this mass-industrializing order has developed to global dominance in the last decade. While all this has been understood as a revolution indebted to the European philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, it might be most simply comprehended as the Mandate of Heaven passing to a new Emperor, the Communist Party.

In this light, the defining philosophy of rule by collective worker interests has thread-lines to the ancient past, specifically the Mohist philosophy first articulated 24 centuries earlier. The philosophy of Mo Tzu (479-438 BCE) not only helps to define Confucian philosophy by negation. Its proto ideal of the universal human right to live humanly across class and other divisions anticipates perhaps the greatest long-term movement in human thought. While Mo Tzu’s philosophy is today hardly known beyond scholars of Chinese philosophy, its underlying core idea has proved timeless. The principle of “universal love” becomes advocated for the first time, and it is defined in this-worldly terms: promotion of benefit and removal of harm for all people whatever their position within society.

6.1. The Mo Tzu: The First Philosophy of Human Rule for Universal Social Well-Being

Mo Tzu’s defining and ultimately regulating principle of thought is comprehensive and universalist: “to serve the promotion of benefits for the world and removal of harm from the world”.  This doctrine of “universal love” as Mo calls it predates Christianity by almost five centuries, but is repudiated by Confucianism since its emergence as “love without distinctions”. Even Communist philosophy which may be seen as analogous in claimed ideals to Mohism never mentions it. The essential reason the Confucian tradition has been dismissive of Mohism is that it promotes what becomes a permanent slogan of invalidation – a “universal love without distinctions”. This form of love is repudiated from the start because it is seen as an indiscriminate negation of the graded relations of responsibility and honor within the family, the community and the wider world. The superior and inferior ranks of hierarchical order are first principles which are believed necessary and natural for social harmony and stable positional functions. As Mohism is perceived to challenge the very organizing principles of the ruling order, it is attacked by even the progressive Mencius. Almost as provocative to Confucian orthodoxy, Mohism like Taoism rejected elaborate ceremonies, expensive funerals, and privileges of rank. All are repudiated as a waste of resources properly devoted to promote universal benefit for the people. What is needed instead, The Mo Tzu argues, is a universal love in which other countries, families, all regard each others’ lives “as their own” whatever their positions within the five relations and feudal-lord domains (Part 2, Chapter 15). In this way, Mo Tzu claimed, no more divisions can occur between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, cunning and ignorant, strong and weak, and so on.

To provide a sense of the radical nature of Mo Tzu’s vision, we may note why contemporary Communist Party culture is silent on Mo Tzu, but not Confucius whose teachings are now exported to Western universities. Mo tzu opposes what it promotes – graded orders of benefits and positional privilege, notably between greater and lesser payment according to the designated value of work performed, but also lavish private profits from industrial enterprises while hundreds of millions are impoverished without social security. The ultimate problem of Mohism for Confucian thought, in contrast, is that “universal love without distinctions” means that one should regard other people as members of one’s own family, or another man as one’s father, or a worker as a minister of state, or – – There was no limit to the gross impropriety and breaking the mould of social order that was seen. Thus almost every known Confucian thinker after Mo Tzu rejects his doctrine of equality a-priori. Not until K’ang Yu-wei in the twentieth century does such an ideal arise again. The Mohist ideals of universal mutual benefit and prevention of harm are visions that do not die. What is most provocative to ruling culture is that Mo Tzu does not just expatiate about a utopian possibility, but advocates enforcement of these ideals by law – including by the elimination of lavish ceremonies which Confucians abhorred as an attack on the arts and culture itself.  We may recall Lao’s rejection of the official arts and ceremonies, but Mo Tzu goes further. Legal punishment and reward are to enforce the social re-ordering. Lavish privilege is not to be only criticized for its violation of natural function, but to be prohibited by force of law.  This was and is anathema to Confucian thinking and ruling ideology in general. Yet according to Mo, enforcement of universal benefit and prevention of harm follows from the fact that it is self-evidently the “will of Heaven” (Tienzi) which shows it “loves all people” by the means of life it provides for humanity (Part 1, Chapter 26). Heaven’s mandate must therefore be implemented by humanity. Accordingly, rewards are to go to those who follow the path of universal benefit, and punishment to those who do not, as in the golden-age past of “sage kings”. Like most Confucians and Lao tzu, Mo Tzo looks to an ancient golden age of sagely rule.

There is no need here to labor the problems of meaning and implementation in Mo Tzu’s vision of righteous rule. What are the sound criteria to decide benefit and harm across times, individuals and cultures? What are the defining principles to decide the punishments and rewards to ensure them? How can productive provision be ensured if all are guaranteed life means?  These were not the questions Confucians posed, however. It was the lack of discrimination between persons, families and ranks that was unacceptable. Although Mo Tzu was himself once a chief officer of Sung, the force of his movement and school arose out of the dispossessed classes. Mohism flourished with many followers for two centuries, and then no Mohist philosopher appeared again. As the leading scholar of Chinese philosophy, Wing tsit Chan, explains: “If it is correct that Mohism represented the interests of the working class, then the opposition between Confuciansim and Mohism is a foregone conclusion”. He adds the Mohist “condemnation of war did not endear them to rulers” – – Mo Tzu who had about 300 followers “did not hesitate to walk for ten days and nights to dissuade a ruler from making war”. In effect, Mohism has been remembered only as what Confucianism was not – another expunction of a doctrine in conflict with the ruling order. In this case, however, Mohism challenged the now oldest continuous order in history with perhaps the oldest opposing vision, an equal humanity under law.

7. Confucianism and the Golden Rule: The Inner Logic of Equality and Inequality 

Confucius (551-479 BCE) claimed he was only a transmitter of the eternal wisdom of past sages. The ultimately regulating principles of this wisdom – the anatomical structure of ‘the Confucian philosophy’ – can be summarized with concision. “Rectification of names” is a correspondence theory of knowledge and reality as well as of social order and propriety of action. That is, knowledge must correspond to actuality, words to actions, and behaviour to rank. The Way of Heaven (T’ien tao later T’ien Li ) is the self-subsistent moral law to which, in turn, all of these must correspond as the ultimate norm to which they conform. Jen or “human heartedness”, in further turn, is to inform thought and feeling for them to be virtuous.

Most significantly, Confucius is the first known thinker to express the golden rule of jen, saying “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you” (Analects 5:11;15:23). Its positive form is: “Wishing to establish his own character, the sage also establishes the character of others” (Analects, 6:26). These formulae may be unpacked into a sequence of equations which define the Confucian ideal at its most advanced level: human nature = human heartedness (jen) = do not want to do to others as one would not want to have done to you = always put oneself into the place of the other in the other’s social position within the five moral relations and rules of propriety = one acts with virtue or te (objective right) and righteousness or yi (subjective right). This may be called the one thread through Confucian teaching. Jen thus goes from what is one central in oneself to the other mediated by rank propriety so as to relate to other beings properly. This is what is called “the measuring square” in the Confucian classic The Great Learning.

Eventually in Neo-Confucianism the other person to whom one relates by this golden-rule measure comes to include all beings whatever. Already in chapter 22 of the Doctrine of the Mean (circa 210 BCE, originally chapter 42 of the Book of Rites), the principle is expressed as follows: “If people are sincere and can fully develop their [jen] nature, they can then fully develop the nature of others. If they can develop the nature of others [by putting themselves into the other’s place], they can fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of [the principles of] Heaven and Earth”. One may perhaps observe here an internalization of Taoist ideas into Confucianism within its framework of relations and propriety. This methodological inclusivism distinguishes the philosophy of China across its long history. As to how one puts oneself into the place of things – ultimately the ten thousand things – it is always by their regulating principles of being which the mind recognizes in harmony with the whole. This is the variously manifesting inner logic of Chinese philosophy across the ages, and it eventually leads to the dynamic idealism of the Neo-Confucian Wang-Yang Ming (1472-1529). His “investigation of things” leads him to assert his master principle that the “original mind” innately knows the principles of reproduction of all beings with which it “forms one body”. Overall the ever more inclusive principle of jen contributes one of the most important developments in human thought. The idea of putting oneself into the position of the other gradually develops into a spiritual ecology of all beings.

Classical Confucian philosophy, however, never calls into question the five relations of superior-subordinate themselves. These ordering relations of rule are not conceived as exploitative or oppressive, as they may seem to be. Confucius and his successors oppose the self-serving quest of “possessions” or “profit” as the mark of “the inferior man” (Analects, 4:11-12), and the “superior man” strictly follows the rules of propriety of the five relations with an ordered heart. The “son may gently remonstrate with his parents” but must “resume an attitude of reverence and not cease to serve them” (4:18).  Non-human beings meanwhile are outside the five relations, and Confucius defends sacrifices of them – “you love the animals, I love the ceremony”. Although animal sacrifices eventually discontinue in Confucianism, rigorous attachment to ceremony is conceived as a sacred ordering required by social and cosmic harmony, the ultimately regulating principle of all. Supernatural beings or miracles are not discussed, and one can best decode the meaning of “spirits” as invisibly ordering principles. This life-grounded conception is most clearly implied in The Book of Mencius where he says “if there are still droughts and floods, the spirits of the land and grain are removed and replaced” (7B:14). Their replacement is presumably to be by principles that work.  After-death possibilities are no more discussed than supernatural forces, although both remain prominent in popular superstitions.

Social practicability for the people is an underlying  meta selector of Chinese thought. Thus, for example, given the ruler choice of forfeiting “sufficient food, the confidence of the people, or armaments”, Confucius famously opts for abandoning armaments (12:7). He further priorizes moral example over force on the grounds that “if the ruler sets himself right, he will be followed without his command” (13:6). This is a themal principle shared with Taoism and Mohism. Confucius nonetheless accepts strict punishments if they accord with the five relations and rules of propriety. “If punishments are not just”, he says, “then the people will not know how to move hand or foot” (13.3). There are even rules for a brother-in-law when his sister-in-law is drowning – he may hold her hand. “Women and servants are the most difficult to deal with”, Confucius advises on relations of proper rule. “If you are familiar with them, they cease to be humble” (17:25). Long attributed to Confucius without source or denial is the view that: “woman’s duty is to be submissive before her husband so as to show no will of her own but to demonstrate a perfect form of obedience”. That strict Confucian propriety within the five relations requires “a perfect form of obedience” of subordinate to superior indicates the limits of the doctrine.

8. Between the Lines of Orthodoxy: The Unseen Radical Humanism of Mencius

The work of Mencius (sometimes Meng Shu) is a primary classic of Chinese thought and civil service examinations over centuries. Although unflagged by the literature on his work, some of his arguments remain radically humanist even by today’s standards. It is this underlying and little recognized critical core of Mencius’s teaching which will be focused on here. At the most basic onto-ethical level, Mencius forcefully argues for an idea which is very widely repudiated – that human nature is originally good. Both the near contemporary and famous Hsun Tzu (298-238 B.C.E.) and the long-influential Legalist School repudiated this idea as a disorder and in accord with general sentiment across history and civilizations, they began instead from the first principle that human nature is naturally selfish and only law-abiding if controlled by the legal force of  central authority. Christian religion after Augustine also institutes an opposite doctrine of “original sin”, while modern political and social science typically repudiates the natural goodness of man a-priori. Today the dominant theories of evolutionary biology and economics presuppose the natural selfishness of human beings in competing for genetic progeny and market survival respectively; while even Marx – who is falsely understood to have believed in the goodness of human nature – in fact argued that the nature of human beings is determined by external factors, namely, society’s productive forces and ownership structure. Mencius however argues that “man’s nature is naturally good just as water flows naturally downwards. There is no man without  this good nature” (The Book of Mencius 6A:2).  Yet he continues just as “you can force water uphill”, so also “man can be made to do evil”. In both cases, however, “it is the forced circumstance that makes it so”.

Just as “there is a common taste for flavor”, “a common taste sense for sound”, and so on, Mencius contends there is in humanity a “common sense of principle and righteousness in our minds” (6A:7). Yet “without proper nourishment and care, everything decays”, he cautions. “Hold it fast and you preserve it. Let it go and you lose it” (6A8). The innate “moral sense” then is both inherent and loseable – not only if forced from without, but if seduced by desire objects. “The originally good mind” nonetheless endures beneath deformation, and so Mencius says, “The way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind” (6A:11, emphasis added). This is a canonical conception Mencius introduces that is carried forth in Wang-Yang Ming and K‘ang You-Wei eighteen and twenty-three centuries later along with his timeless idea of jen as “the heart which cannot bear the suffering of another”. Like most Confucians, Mencius also argues  there is always choice in whether good or evil actions occur. Yet Mencius exceptionally holds rulers responsible for what goes wrong. “Your Majesty can practice a humane government, lower taxes and levies, make it possible to plough the fields deep and the weeding done well”, he says (1A:5, emphasis added). Observe that the state of the individual farmer’s fields are not held as a private responsibility alone, but are a matter of irrigation and mutual aid which are well or badly provided for by the ruling order.

Mencius goes on to argue that even the crimes of individuals are to be explained by the social rule within which they live. “If the people do not have a secure livelihood, they will not have a secure mind – – [And so] when they fall into crime, to pursue and punish them is to entrap them” (3A:3). This equation of the prosecution of the deprived to the authorities’ immoral action of entrapment takes religious and moral thought to an entirely new level. No less applicable to our day, Mencius denounces war-making by leaders sacrificing peoples on all sides as the worst of all  evils. “When the ruler’s ministers fight for territory, they slaughter so many people that the field is full of them. When they fight for a city, they slaughter so many people that the city is full of them. This is what is called leading on the land to devour flesh. Death is not enough for such a crime.”(4A:14). Mencius explains his fearless stands as a moral obligation. “I like life and I also like righteousness. If I cannot have both of them, I will give up life and choose righteousness” (6A:10). Yet he does not see himself as an exception. “Therefore”, he concludes, “there is something men love more than life and hate more than death. It is not only the sages who have this moral sense. All men have it, but only the worthies have been able to preserve it”. Thus “those who follow the greater qualities in their nature become great men and those who follow the smaller qualities in their nature become small men” (6A:15).

While it is difficult to think of anyone who has ever more profoundly exposed the evils of rulers, Mencius holds class rule is a necessity. “There must be gentlemen [nobles and rulers], and there must be country men [rural workers].Otherwise there will none to support the rulers and none to rule the ruled” (3A:3). “Mind” work for rulers and “body” work for the ruled, he concludes, “is a universal principle” (3A:4). However circular it is, Mencius’s mind-class/body-class doctrine is uniquely demanding on the obligations of rulers to rule for the common interest. If the emperor himself violates these obligations of rule over time, then he is rightfully killed. “I have heard of killing a mere fellow Chou [formerly King Chou, “a destructive person”]”, Mencius says,” but I have not heard of killing the ruler” (1B:8). That is, the ruler must be upright as the ruler, or he is not the ruler. He is only an imposter. Here again we see Mencius adopting a revolutionary position regarding rulers and their obligations while remaining within the Five Relations.

9. The Universal Life of the Heart That Cannot Bear the Suffering of Others

While Mencius is the first to have said, “All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others” (2A:6), this concept of jen as a universal feeling of identification with others’ well-being provides the governing ground of the later philosophers Wang Yang-Ming (originally, Shou-jen before his honorific title, 1472-1529) and K’ang Yu-wei (1858-1927). Here the ideal of “the mind that cannot bear the suffering of another” is made a self-evident first principle of the human condition. Explanation here focuses on Wang’s sublime proof of this universal life identification. While various other ideas of universal identity have been explained in  their Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic, Christian and Islamic forms in World Visions of Universal Identity: From False Religion to Life-Grounded Spirituality, Wang’s demonstration strikes a new experiential core in moral and religious philosophy across cultures.

Wang Yang-Ming’s demonstration of humanity’s innate disposition to identify with all forms of life and things is not speculative or deductive. It is hypothetico-empirical and step-by-step testable by anyone. It is the only such proof on record. Wang Yang-Ming or Shou-jen’s original argument is his first statement in An Inquiry on the Great Learning:

“The great man regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body – – – not because he deliberately wants to, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so. – – Even the mind of a small man is no different. Only he himself makes it small. Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an ‘inability to bear’ their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of a small man necessarily forms one body with all.”

One can hardly improve on Wang’s demonstration of the natural connectedness of humanity to other beings across species and kinds. Even “the small man” of limited mind cannot help this “feeling with” other beings. Logic can challenge the inference that this shows all form one body with other beings. For although one may spontaneously feel distress at other  beings visibly in mortal danger – even a falling object on someone else’s head generates a spontaneous shrinking of one’s head and neck into one’s own shoulders – this does not demonstrate that others’ bodies “form  one with one’s own”. What it does demonstrate, however, is that we relate to their immediately perceived danger in death’s way as if they were directly connected to our own lives. We do not literally “form one body with” them because they may be killed and we remain untouched. “Form one body with” is nonetheless a key concept in Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought which for logical clarity can be understood as meaning something more modest: namely that in the direct sight of impending annihilation of other’s beings (the unifying principle of Wang’s examples) felt concern is aroused in all human beings. Prior to social conditioning against such concern, or looking away so as not to see, or cocooning our lives so as to avoid such scenes, or rationalizing the killing as necessary, or even blaming the victims for their deaths – in short all the strategies of uncaring that human beings have learned so well that Wang’s demonstration of the “lost mind” is necessary – there is this undeniable feeling connection. What is connected to is the life of these beings whose suffering of destruction is directly experienced even at a distance – hence the concept of “forming one body with”. The feeling is not mere reaction, but relates to the kind of life it is – from young human through birds and animals to plant-life to inanimate forms, all in an implicit ladder of humane concern correlated to life and suffering capacity.

In historical fact, of course, numberless people have not cared about the destruction of others’ lives. As Wang says of his own culture, people have become “lost in fragmentary and isolated details and broken pieces”. This is why he points to the nature of the “lost mind”.  “Let me hope”, says Chief Black Hawk centuries later in America in his own invocation of human-heartedness in 1832 before his death, “that when the hand of oppression and seizing our motherland is stretched against us that every part of the United States, filling the mountains and the valleys, will echo and say stop – -”. While there was no stop, ever more people have resonated with the “heart that cannot bear the suffering of another” even in retrospect. It alone seems to explain why already free people have risked their lives to fight against slavery of other races, to end the woman and child oppression they do not suffer, and to stand against wars of aggression against peoples thousands of miles away.

9.1. Seeing Past the Subjectivist Circle to the Way of Universal Life 

As “The Dynamic Idealism of Wang Yang-Ming” in Chan’s invaluable Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy explains, Wang or Shou-jen (his birthname coincidentally ending in “jen”) worked through exile and “a hundred deaths and thousand sufferings” to reach his timeless insight.  We may see clear connections of this description to the Mahayana idea of the many lives of Buddha, and also to the Taoist idea of being one with the ten thousand things. Yet Wang-yang Ming’s proof of humanity’s identification with all kinds of other beings – human, animal, bird, flower, tree and even inorganic forms – is original. Another chapter of the Philosophy and World Problems Theme has spelled out the correlation between the concern of the felt side of human being with other beings and the range of consciousness and sentient life these other beings bear (See 7. Good And Evil Within: Opening The Terra Incognita of The Felt Side of Being). What Wang infers from his luminous demonstration, however, goes in an entirely different direction. Life-value as such is dropped. Instead he moves to a radically idealist conclusion. “All principles are contained therein [in the mind] and all events proceed from it. There is no principle outside the mind; there is no event outside the mind” (section 32).

This idealist ontology wrongly conflates two very different claims as equivalent – the acceptable premise that things or events depend on human consciousness to be perceived and the false inference that therefore these things or events do not exist outside the mind. This generic form of argument to a consciousness-only conclusion may be the oldest fallacy in philosophical and religious thought, the subjectivist circle. Because as bodies we are confined within the circle of our own perceptions and conceptions, it is wrongly concluded that this is all there is in reality.  Wang falls head first into this ancient philosophical hole. “Without the innate knowledge of inherent in man”, he says, “there cannot be plants and trees, tiles and stones” (274). While it is true these entities require human categories to be classified, it is plainly false that they are nothing but the mind doing this. The same subjectivist circle is earlier introduced by Buddhist metaphysics. Yet it is absurd: because it entails, that gravity and light, oceans and rock, and astral events do not exist independently of the mind. No subjectivist circle, however, follows from Wang’s demonstration of humanity’s felt ties and identification with other beings. Rather the opposite. The mind is drawn out of itself by the suffering end of the lives of other beings, and responds with concern without any interests of the self involved. This is the crux of the meaning. Yet Wang goes the way of religious philosophies before him. Suffering in the world is a mind attachment to release from, or not relevant to the spiritual journey of the eternal soul, .or whatever.  And so a pathway of retreat from the world is set for the spirit that does not characterize just mind-only Vedanta and Buddhism, but the Judaic-Christian-Islamic monotheisms too insofar as they decouple from humanity’s embodied condition.

Because Wang is ultimately concerned about the world’s embodied well-being and does not  deny its reality, he ends in confusion on the subjectivist metaphysics he has adopted. He concludes that “all [heaven, earth, spiritual beings, or myriad things] are permeated with one material force”(337, italics added),  not an idealist ground but a material one. To the pointed question that arises in his own text (great philosophy often poses the most difficult questions to its own conclusions), “Why should it be that if my clear mind is gone, they will all cease to exist” (emphases added), Wang replies with a non-answer. “Consider the dead man – – where are his heaven and earth and myriad things?” (3.57a-58b). He has here undercut his own position. For he admits that things depend on the mind’s perception of them only for the perceiver.

Wang also argues for a distinctively activist epistemology not in keeping with mind-only metaphysics. “Knowledge is the beginning of action”, he says, “and action is the completion of this knowledge” (26). Observe that his concept of knowledge begins and ends in action not ideas. If we bracket out his mind-dependency metaphysic, Wang Yang-Ming’s philosophy reads as a uniquely dynamic Confucianism. It seeks to transfigure embodied reality to a higher harmony of “universal production and reproduction – – for the benefit of the people” (section 101). The social transformation to universal life concern and benefit promised by the most advanced Judaic, Christian and Islamic prophets becomes here a systematic this-worldly vision. Propelling it is his conception of human nature which identifies with all beings and “forms one body” with them. It is in this light that we best understand his call to world transformation: “The Way is everywhere, and so is our task”.

10. The Infinite Here and Now: The Silent Zen-Buddhist Revolution and Its Limits

The Ch’an movement develops out of Buddhism and Taoism. Its divisions into schools in Japanese Zen – dominantly Rinzai and Soto schools stressing different but overlapping practices – will not be followed here, but rather the unifying philosophy itself. The originally Sanskrit concept of dhyana or “meditation” translates as “Ch’an” in Chinese and as “Zen” in Japanese. While Ch’an-Zen has its apparent roots in Mahayana Buddhism, its underlying ontology is in  unflagged opposition. Buddhism’s deconstruction of embodiment as illusory and a nest of suffering is silently rejected on both counts.  Zen does not regard regard embodiment as illusory, and it does not regard suffering as the issue.  As Diatetz Suzsuki puts it in Zen Buddhism, “Salvation must be sought in the finite itself, there is nothing infinite apart from finite things” (p. 14) – a far cry from the Buddhist refrain “all that is transitory is evil”. As for extinction of pain, Zen-master slaps, swatters, wooden-swords and switches are standardly used to awaken students out of words to the infinite in the now. In truth, Ch’an-Zen is a revolutionary affirmation against Buddhist orthodoxy by its turn to embodied experience as the ground of the transcendent. The body aggregate is not detached from as the source of suffering, but re-entered in the boundless fullness of experiencing Now as transcendent in time. In the famous Zen aphorism, one is “to become a Buddha in this very body”. Change is not repudiated – “all that is transient is suffering” says original Buddhism. On the contrary, it is – as in Chuang Tzu’s Taoism – the perpetual transformation of the infinite now which the sage experiences as sublime. These revolutionary transformations of Buddhism are striking unremarked in both traditions.

While the Diamond Sutra is said to be favoured in the “sudden enlightenment school” of Ch’an where enlightenment does not require formal meditation, it in fact instructs an opposite way of illumination. The enlightened must “free themselves from beautiful sights and fragrances” as “seductive phenomena” (section 3, Dana Paramita). In direct contrast, the choral idea of Zen enlightenment is that it can be occasioned by “the singing of a bird, the blooming of a flower or a drop of rain”, all experiences of the edgeless whole in the moment. This ultimate underlying conflict in principle between Buddhism and Zen Buddhism – the embodied experience is to be detached from versus the embodied experience is the home of illumination – is somehow overlooked. This may be because the clear common ground of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism is their mind-only or subject-only metaphysic. All reality is experience. Experience is subjective. Therefore reality is subjective or there is Subject only. In Ch’an/Zen, this means an absolutely non-dualistic opening to the boundless Now beneath words. While there is complete agreement with Buddhism on the undivided no-thingness of the real world, the ultimate reality for Buddhism is not found in this body while for Zen it revolutionarily is. “The attainment of the Way is truly accomplished within the body”, says Dogen (1200-1253) in his Shobogenzo-Zuimonki at an apogee of the Zen tradition. He continues (emphases added): “One sage clarifies True Mind (Reality) when he saw peach blossoms, and another realized the Way when he heard the sound of tile hitting bamboo. They attained the Way through their bodies”. It is in this boundless being here now with no division that the transcendent fullness of the moment is entered. In Zen, eternity does not replace time in a realm where corruption of the body cannot occur. Eternity is in Time in the direct moment of experiencing the infinite in the finite.

The Ch’an Platform Scripture argues, “When no thought is attached to anything, that is freedom” (section 17). Consciousness is uncircumscribed by any place, act or time. Death itself is overcome by denying any foothold to it in experiencing the pure illimitable awake present. “Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is the great matter”, says Dogen, “you are only alive in this moment” (p. 4). Death is an abstraction from outside the now which is all that ever is.

10.1. Sudden Enlightenment With No Divisions

For a long time the original Ch’an Buddhism taught that this “door into your original nature” or “eternal essence” was gradual and by meditative discipline – what was called “the Northern School” led by Shen-Hsiu. Then a Southern School founded by Hui-Neng displaced the ruling orthodoxy with a radical doctrine of “sudden enlightenment”.  The Northern School taught that one must remove the darkness from the mind first, while the Southern School taught to open to the light and enlightenment can come in a flash at any moment. The new approach posed the original luminosity of “Thusness” or Tathatata without any dividing of the mind into ignorance and truth. The legendary victory came when the Fifth Patriarch of Ch’an called for his monks to describe the truth of deliverance “from the bitter sea of life and death”. The Head Monk, Sheng-hsiu, responded by writing: “The body is the tree of perfect wisdom. /The mind is the stand of a bright mirror/ At all times diligently clean it. / Let no dust upon it adhere”.  The Fifth Patriarch responded “You have arrived at the front door but not yet entered it”.

A lowly layman in service to the monastery as a rice-pounder, Hui-neng, answered the verse with another (translations differ): “Bodhi is not some tree/ Nor needs mirror a stand./ Originally there being/ not a thing/ Where is the dust to adhere?” (Platform Scripture, sections 6-8). The Robe of the Law was silently transmitted that night. Zen was thus opened further. The message of Zen – “Special transmission outside the scriptures;/ No dependence on word and letters;/ Direct pointing at the soul of man; / Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood” – was now accessible to all, not just the erudite. As Hui-neng says in the Platform Scripture, “perfect wisdom is inherent in all people”, and it is from directly “seeing into their nature”.  We may see here the influence of the Confucian doctrine of “the original mind” and the Taoist idea of naturalness as good. Most deeply, we can see the shift of Ch’an to universality of direct access to the original mind beneath elite meditation, “the Lightning School” as it is sometimes called.

10.2. Reconnecting Zen Practices to Universal Life Bearings 

Zen does not continue the pacific philosophy characterizing the original Buddhism nor the Ch’an Southern School turn to equality. To make a long story short, Ch’an becomes Zen and combines with the Bushido warrior cult of Japan where quintessential satori illumination can emerge in the moment of death of the opponent when the self, past and consequences dissolve into the pure action – consummating in the sword cutting without break through the adversary’s neck “purposeless except in the task, It moves through me”. Where is it that the Zen practise goes wrong? There is no literature on the problem or the issue. When Zen as practise is united in the service to one’s lord Daimyo – Lord or Emperor – pure obedience and sublime skill in one’s station becomes the ultimately ordering principle. Fighting to the death in exquisite mastery becomes an exemplar of Zen purity and consummation. It is the incandescent intensity of the all-in-all moment “like a snowflake on a blazing stove”. In Suzuki’s words in Zen and Japanese Culture where no exposure of the problem arises: “The Zen point of view is to find an absolute point when no dualism in whatever form obtains – – [Western dilemmas] are swept aside” (p. 360); and, as he says more resonantly in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, “The inmost agonies of the soul could not be expressed in words, when lo! Light comes over my entire being” (p.60).

While Zen affirms rather than rejects embodied life, its focus is wholly on the experiencing now of the individual subject or the art practice with which s/he has become one. Zen’s movement is the negation of divisions of any kind to open to the luminous infinite in the present. Yet what harm to life is not allowed if the luminous moment of the timeless in the present is the end-in-self, with no more ultimate principle of life value to govern it? A similar problem occurs with Virtue Ethics. The disciplines and practises of excellence and their intrinsic goods are all that counts – even if in the art of war. The art of excellence is justified in and of itself. There is no overarching criterion of life value to evaluate or steer traditional practices themselves (as explained in Traditions as Moral Anchor in an Age of Criterionless Relativism). Indeed in Zen, any objective criterion or ultimate moral principle is rejected a-priori. The ultimate standard of the primary axiom of life-value is altogether missing. Any concept is like “trying to nail a stick into empty space”. Koans thus become (Rinzai) Zen’s signature device to deflect insistence on principled clarity, to release the nameless experience from all external forms including the moral.

10.3. Unravelling the Koan and Zen to More Inclusive Life Meaning

Long before Ch’an or Zen, the Logicians or School of Names produced koan-like paradoxes which required movement beyond a partial perspective to more embracing comprehension. One of these proto koans was “the eye does not see” – a statement which seems non-sense until one recognizes the underlying truth that the whole of life is involved in the act of seeing, and so the eye by itself does not see. Most Zen koans proper can be brought into more inclusive coherence in this way – by connecting beyond the elements of their apparently nonsensical words to a higher-order conceptual meaning grounded in the life whole. Even “the sound of one hand clapping” – a celebrated Zen koan – opens to meaning beyond the normal blinkers of lifeless conception. There is in fact a sound, a very faint sound which attuned consciousness can hear – in the case of the clapping hand, a displacement of air in its pathway of movement, and in the case of the hand itself, the pulsing of heart-driven blood through its veins. Thus Lao tzu says in the Tao-te Ching : “The great music sounds faint” (chapter 41). The koan begins with Chuang Tzu who says “there is nothing in the world greater than the tip of a hair that grows in autumn” and “Mount Tai is small” (Book 2). Both are true, once life perspective opens to recognize the meaning of all beings. For the microbe on it, the hair-tip on the leaf looms over all else. From a great distance of sight, Mount T’ai looks tiny. The absurdity is not generated by concepts, as the Zen reading has it, but by assertion within a too narrow framework of life meaning.

In fact minds become lost by being decoupled from the wider life whole – as in official documents from which the word “koan” comes. The same goes for values which are abstractions that do not allow life to speak.  Zen has performed an invaluable revolution in drawing spirituality back into embodied experience, but its limits are unseen. Like Virtue Ethics, it has no life-value principle to guide practices which can, in fact, include skilful forms of homicide as a virtuous arts. This is Zen’s unexamined a-morality.

On the epistemological level, its rejection of concepts overlooks the fact that words can be unifying life experiences and not screens against the direct experience of the Now. As the native Eagle Wing says, “Out of our languages we have given names to many beautiful things which will always speak of us”. Words can become the bearers of the transcendent and eternity cutting into time – as in masterful koans like “what did you look like before you were born?” The unifying power of the awakening through language – here emptying the self altogether to open to all the conditions making the experience of life possible – relinks Zen to the universal life infusing the Now experience as ultimately and deathlessly one.

11. East-West Synthesis: From Bodhidharma and the Sages to Jesus on the Kingdom 

The parable of Bodhidharma prefacing the collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, provides a synoptic framework of meaning in Zen. Square-bracketed explanations within this luminous text are added to explain the comprehensive philosophical meaning. “After nine years, Bodhidharma wished to go home and gathered his disciples about him to test their apperception. “In my opinion”, Dofuku said , “truth is beyond affirmation or negation for this is the way it moves”. [Logic is based on two functions, affirmation and negation, with meanings in the middle between Yes-No positions excluded i.e., “the excluded middle”. “The way it moves”, in contrast, overcomes this either-or reduction by attention to the movement of reality which is always in negation of where it was.] Bodhidharma replied: “You have my skin”.

The nun Soji said: “In my view, the truth is like Ananda’s sight of the Buddha-land – seen once and forever.” [Ananda means “bliss” in Sanskrit, and refers to consciousness liberated from “name and form”, that is, the “Buddha-land”.] Bodhidharma answered: “You have my flesh”.

Doiku said: “The four elements of light, airness, fluidity, solidity are empty, and the five skhandas are no-things. In my opinion, no-thing is reality”. [The four elements as “empty” means none has a bound to it. Skhandas means “aggregates” and the five aggregates temporarily join to make forms which are falsely assumed to be reality: (1) form (rupa) (2) sensation (vedana) (3) perception (sanna) (4) mental formations (samskara) (5) consciousness (vijnana). To avoid scholastic submergence in technical terms, the argument ultimately means that changing aggregates are not real because none is independent or permanent in nature.] Bodhidharma commented: “You have my bones”.

Finally Eka bowed before the master – and remained silent. Bodhidharma said: “You have my marrow”. [The “marrow” is what lies under skin, flesh, and bones as the ultimate reality that cannot be seen, but generates their cells of life. Silence is “the marrow” of Ch’an-Zen Buddhism because words to explain it are believed to lose the boundless intrinsic experience itself.]

This is the wordless doctrine of Ch’an-Zen Buddhism as it legendarily comes to China. Yet analysis is obliged to observe again that the wordless Truth negates both life-value standard a-priori and the unifying boundless experiences that words themselves can open to.

11.0. Taoism and Zen: Tracking Again to the Transcendent Life Whole Through Time

The underpinning spiritual revolution of Ch’an/Zen is also missed in the Bodhidharma parable – its affirmation of the transcendent in embodied life. This unspoken revolution comes from Taoism. Consider the striking parallels. When the Taoist Chuang Tzu says in defiance of word knowledge, “Sit down and forget everything” and “relax in the realm of the infinite”, his words are proto-Zen. When he says “the right is an infinity” and “what room is there for words?” we see Ch’an/Zen in pre-Buddhist stage. Chuang’s reply to the question “What is called Tao – where is it?” continues this genetic pattern. “It is in the excrement and urine”, he responds, anticipating a famous Ch’an/Zen master over a millennium later, Wen-yen, who responds to the question, “What is the Buddha, “It is the dried excrement-removing stick”.

Yet there is an important difference from Taoism which is brought out by the last quotation. For the Taoist philosophy, Tao in “the excrement and urine” is profoundly true on the functional level as well as in its breakthrough past conventional concepts.  Without the release of excrement and urine the living body dies, while the soil requires such fertilization to reproduce plant and tree as well as animal life through time. This is how the all-inclusive Tao functions without waste to enable all life. For Ch’an-Zen, in deep contrast, the reproduction of the whole is  presupposed and its myriad divisions of functions and temporal phases dissolve into the infinitude of the  present. For Zen, “the dried excrement-removing stick” dissolves the divisions between politeness and reality, human mind and body to open consciousness to the all-in-all moment of the Now experience, but stops there. Ch’an-Zen is thus naturalistic like Taoism, but illumination lies in the illimitable moment without including life’s needs to exist and flourish across differences. These are ultimately mutually inclusive visions, but Lao’s Way of nourishing function in the whole or Wang’s Way of forming one body with the principles of production and reproduction of particular beings do not compute to Zen. The most general Zen gets is in transmitted practises and ceremonies – refined martial practises, tea serving, floral beauty, stone gardens. Thus the social-justice inspiration of other spiritual philosophies is absent. No unifying ethical base, including of life value itself, informs its practices of enlightenment.

11.1. Opening the Infinite in the Moment to the Infinite Life-Ground it Expresses

Yet complementarity on this higher-order level is demanded by spiritual consciousness itself. It does not divide but integrates the luminous transcendence of the present moment with universal principles across time in a more inclusive integrity of transcendence and life. When the Zen master Dogen says “The whole moon and sky are reflected in one dew-drop on the grass”, he is bridging from the instant moment to eternity, from the tiniest microcosm to the cosmos with no line breaking the experience. Taoism by which Ch’an Zen is inspired to transform Buddhism into this-worldly meaning complements this vision. It contextualizes Zen in ecological time while also affirming the life support systems informing the infinite now. The practices of eternity in the moment require this movement outwards to Nature’s differentiating cycles and society’s ordering through time to be fully there, to comprehend the full life substance of the moment itself.

In a full-bodied Zen, the infinite now is connected to the universal life informing the moment to enlighten the Now all the way down and across – the infinite moment beyond death in life bearings as well as subject experience. The practice of eternity in the living moment is drawn by world life all the way through, the infinite in the finite for real. The Tao-te Ching implicitly anticipates this synthesis of the all-inclusive moment across time and life needs and calls into question the life-blindness of the surrounding social order from this encompassing life-ground. Yet it is as inadequate as Zen to humanity’s now crisis in symbolic existence itself – a ruling system consuming the living Now by a lock-step mechanism of money signifiers without life.

11.2. The Zen-Jesus Synthesis

Compare the transcendent One of “the Kingdom” experienced by Jesus as the whole of Creation drawing humanity through the Given of now. “The fowls of the heaven and of the beasts whatever is beneath the earth or upon the earth and the fishes of the sea, these are they that draw you”, says Jesus in the Oxyrinchus Sayings, “and the kingdom of heaven is within you, and whosoever knoweth himself shall find it”. The mission of universal life follows – to serve the least, to heal the sick, to empower the powerless to wholeness of life. The transcendent breathes into and infuses the Now to transform “earth as in heaven”.

Zen’s inner logic of meaning is similar in the microcosm – the transcendent “It” comes straight through the Now in transforming action. But Zen does not open past the noble art to the wider living world behind and after the action it connects. When the student in Zen and the Art of Archery finally so forgets himself in the practice that there is nothing but the pure action, an undefined “It shoots through him”. Even blindfolded, he draws the arrow so unselfconsciously and fully through that it splits the first arrow’s shaft already lodged in the bulls-eye. “Bow, arrow, goal and ego all melt into one another, so I can no longer separate them “, he exclaims. “Now at last”, the Master says, “the bowstring has cut right through you” (pp. 58-70). There is no self left, there is only the satori of the selfless action, but the wider ‘It’ has dissolved into the practice. The ‘life-and-death’ moment connecting the all through one’s action – “One shot, one life” – remains within the elite mastery. Transcendence in this very body and moment of now is a kingdom of heaven for both Zen and Jesus, but the all-embracing inspiration of the living world – the ‘It’ – is lost in the shot. The wholeness of transcendent presence as universal life coming through is beyond Zen’s transmission. The practice of the deathless in the all-in-all action is desublimated into a moment of martial art perfection.

Yet Zen may be the only practise of realizing the transcendent in this body is capable of internalizing the choice of the crucifixion as expressing the all-embracing action emptied of self – the impeccable warrior for universal life and justice as deathless in death. Here the opening of the transcendent into the living moment has cut into history as eternal meaning, an epitome of Zen intensity and significance in the all givenness of now out of time. Yet the bowstring has not yet been drawn back as deeply and far as the ‘It’ requires.

11.3. Searching for a Unifying Idea Across Religions: The Missing Life-Ground  

Zen is not inhibited by dogma. A Zen joke is that “the Scriptures were burnt for safekeeping”. It could find the transcendent in the moving moment all the back and across, but is curtailed without the universal reach of life principles. In Eastern spiritual philosophies in general, all except Confucians distrust concepts while using them, failing to distinguish which disconnect from and which enable life experience. Confucians hold to an opposite doctrine without life-value distinction either – that words must correspond to a known reality defined by norms which are assumed timeless and given. Thus social purpose to transform the world to meet universal life needs is not conceived. Across East and West, only Lao and Jesus call life-blind social ordering  into question, and neither remains in the ruling order so challenged – one leaving it behind, the other crucified by it.

In considering these meta patterns, the issue of life-coherent synthesis persists. While there are many ecumenical initiatives across world religions, there is little or no analysis at this level. Almost all the world religions, however, imagine an original paradise or golden age before self-desires and divisions end in greed, war and subjugation. The primordial archetype of an undivided human life on earth seems timeless across cultures. It is found in Confucianism as well as Taoism, Judaism and Christianity, and earliest of all Zoroastrianism – the oldest of the credal faiths which leads conception of the embodied world as inherently good but ruptured by evil forces (with the original scriptures suggestive of Ayan war bands  linked to the war god of Indra and caste ordering in India). The great division goes a long way back, with only glimpses of universal life principle within closed ethnic codes.

The ancient universal principle of the golden rule appears to provide what is needed. It is the most comprehensive, cross-cultural and timeless principle of how to live that exists. It defines a universal way at an individual level across cultures. Yet again it falls short of organizing principles for how to live as societies. There is no transcending common ground of universal life requirements and mutual support systems without which, in fact, all suffer or die in proportion to their deprivation. Even if its ideal is followed, the problem is not met because the golden rule does not work at the required level of meaning. People still do to others what they do to themselves in group conformity to the life-blind norms surrounding them.

12. The Deathless way of Undivided Being: Universal Life Transcending All Divisions

As we have seen, the “Kingdom of Heaven” spoken of by Jesus through the New Testament can be read as opening to the infinite Presence of the here-and-now before Zen. In the long-lost Gospel of Thomas discovered at the turn of the last century (reported direct sayings of Jesus with no doctrinal commentary or overlay), affirmation of a universal life identity across all divisions is asserted more clearly. One passage stands out. Jesus replies to the question, “when is the kingdom coming?” with the answer: “The kingdom is coming in a not observable manner. It is already spread on the earth, but people cannot see it” (saying 113). This is an idea which could have been said by a Hindu who sees the divine spirit within every manifestation of being, a Sufi dervish traveling in the presence of the divine beheld everywhere around him, a Christian or Jain mystic seeing life as sacred in every creation, or a Zen Buddhist opening to the luminous infinite here and now. But as Jesus goes on to say, it is not an identity of God and Nature or its divine design or beauty that is meant. His point is explicitly transcendental, that is, not to be found Nature or time. For he continues (emphases are added): “If your leaders say to you ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the sky’, then the birds will be there before you. If they say that the Kingdom in the sea, then the fish will be there before you. Rather the Kingdom is within you and it is outside you”. The meaning spells out further when he says of this Kingdom that there must be no division of inner and outer being or of self and other. The self and the other, the inside and the outside are “to be made one”. While this teaching may seem impossible to comprehend, it is an underlying universal idea of the advanced wisdom traditions. Consider the intersection of the world’s spiritual philosophies in this ultimate  idea of a wholly undivided being  – “the One without a second” of which the Upanisads speak and Krishna’s ultimate lesson of “overcoming of the dualities”  in the Bhagavad-gita; the universal interdependency and compassion with no self-other division taught by Buddhism of all schools; the heart-mind of jen which puts oneself in the place of eventually other beings in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism over 2500 years; the Taoist principle of all life functions  mutually enabling each other in one eternal ecological whole of Being and Non-Being in process; the Zen repudiation of the division between subject and object as the nature of satori. All these visions of ultimate emancipation converge at an omega point – the deathless way of undivided being.

Jesus begins with the statement: “- – -When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside.” This is an ultimately undivided being at the level of direct experience itself – what joins the Upanisads to Zen. What is within and what is without no longer form a duality of self and other, subject and object but become life as one without antagonistic division. This is the ultimate nature of who one is – all that is given as one’s cosmic being before self-other division ruptures the unity. The ‘making one’ does not entail the perennial subjectivist circle found in metaphysical Vedanta and Buddhism. It means, rather, the inclusive all resonating in each. As Neo-Confucian Wang Yang-Ming understood it, humanity’s internal life forms one body with beings outside it so they are internalized as one’s own identity – a universal identification by spontaneous human-heartedness for which he provides a step by step proof. “Love” or jen, he shows, is extended with no outer bound.  Buddhism is similarly inclusive in embracing all sentient being by a feeling with or “compassion” (karuna) until the liberation of all from suffering is fulfilled in desireless happiness beyond division. Yet Jesus further spells out the “two made one” to transcend the most foundational divisions of human society that other religions assume as given. The overcoming of the inside-outside and self-other divisions grounds two further affirmations of undivided being.  In the next reported words on ‘entering the kingdom’, the most sacrosanct relations of social power across civilizations are transcended.  The formerly natural and immutable divisions of ruler and ruled are ‘made one’.

First of all, Jesus says, one must “make the upper like the lower” – a teaching that only makes sense at the social level. Buddhism too revolutionarily repudiates caste divisions, but it retains higher and lower ranks, birth lineages and hierarchical rights in its regulating practises. More generally in Eastern religious philosophies, the master-guru principle of rule holds as deeply as the teachings themselves. Christianity has a like problem. While Jesus embraces the poor and marginalized as equals, the dominant Christian institutions since erected in his name attack egalitarian conceptions – from the Council of Nicaea in 325 under the direction of Emperor Constantine through Luther’s Protestantism calling for the bloody suppression of peasant uprisings and their Christian egalitarianism, to the Catholic Church’s silencing of Liberation Theology today. So when Jesus seeks to “make the upper like the lower”, the idea challenges the oldest structure of civilization. As for what needs to be done for the “higher to be made like the lower”, he instructs the wealthy young man who asks how he can serve God better, “sell what thou hast and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21, Matthew, 19:21). The underlying idea here is that both the rich and poor benefit by the higher becoming “like the lower” – the rich in moral redemption, and the deprived by what they need as human beings. The vision is not one of levelling, but of the kingdom of life on earth opened to undivided fullness of life for all.

Jesus then goes on to repudiate gender divisions more emphatically still, and his position seems unique in world religions. Put in the context of the other dualities to be “made one”, his brief manifesto of the undivided reads: “[you will enter the kingdom] when you make the inside like the outside, and the outside like the inside, and the upper like the lower, and thus make the male and female alike and as one, so that male isn’t male and the female isn’t female”. A near syllogistic argument form can be discerned here. Each assertion is universal, and each follows from the previous one. The implicit argument can be unpacked into the following onto-axiological steps:

  1. You make the two into one – Mind and Body, Self and Other.
  2. Thus the Inside (Subject) and the Outside (Object) are one.
  3. Therefore the Upper is made like the Lower
  4. And thus the Male and the Female are made alike and as one.

The unifying vision is to live undivided at every level. Yet how is this ‘way of universal life’ to be understood? The metynomic explanation which follows provide the answer in life terms:

“When you make an eye to replace an eye, and a hand to replace a hand, and a foot to replace a foot, and a likeness to replace a likeness, you will enter the kingdom”.

At first mysterious, the explanation here means that male and female are made alike insofar as the female eye is made like the male eye, the female hand like the male hand, the female foot like the male foot, and the female image like the male image. The problem is that while female eye, hand, and foot are naturally like the male before gender segregation and conditioning, they have been made unalike by man. In all of Nature and the Creation, no other being that exists is so “alike and one” in eye, hand and foot capacities and limits as the human male and female. Yet ‘an eye for an eye’ is not remotely equalized, ‘the hand’ of each means opposite things, and the feet are made to function for submissive dependency and stationary duties versus mobility and strength. They are thus to be “made alike and one” as equally human – not uniform, but as able to be fully human. We understand this meaning more fully if we think of children, and why Jesus favors them – “whoever among you becomes a child”, he says, “will be acquainted with the kingdom” (saying 46). Before children are conditioned to be divided, they are alike and one in their open eyes, learning hands, active feet and human likeness. Such a vital likeness and unity in male-female humanity is, we might add, being realized in developed societies 2000 years later.

Similarly, the “upper being made like the lower” can be understood by the same formula. Human lives are not to be divided so that only some can experience freedom of life enjoyment and action in the Creation. The eyes, hands and feet of higher and lower are made alike in being able to be fully human – not ‘the lower’ made to see the ground alone, work with the hands only, and have no space for the feet to carry life in motion. The two are made alike in their accessible ranges of experience and action as human.  Later in this report of sayings Jesus says in synthesis that he “exists from the undivided” (saying 61). He offers no qualification of ‘being undivided’ except to point in concrete life terms to what it is to be undivided all the way down. “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there” (saying 77). Here the experiencing of universal life goes through to the marrow of wood and creatures under rocks. This is not a Son of God claim, remarkably absent in his direct sayings. It is a way of understanding how to live which is open to a polar choice that which is made immediately clear.

12.1. The Ways of Light and Darkness

As soon as he says “I am one who comes from the undivided”, the Jesus reported by Thomas adds that there are polar-opposite pathways of life for everyone. “If one is unified one will be filled with light”, he says. “But if one is divided one will be filled with darkness”. We may deduce his meaning as similar in principle to the meaning across the primary sources of the great spiritual philosophies. The way of darkness comes from seeing only Other against the changing, ultimately insignificant me-self – an idea we find featured as well in the Upanisads, the Tao-te Ching, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and later Confucianism. The way of light, in contrast, comes from being filled with the Creation as one’s undivided being – what the Upanisads say in seeing the holy in all beings as just in the self, what the Islamic Sufi sees in rapt submission to the beloved Thou of the Creation, what the Mahayana Buddhist experiences as transcendent joy in crossing the river of delusion for all sentient beings, what the Taoist experiences in transforming with all functions in the realm of the infinite within and without, and what the Neo-Confucian means by “Humanity is the Mind of Heaven and Earth”.

“Blessed is he”, Jesus continues, “who finds his place in the beginning, he will know the end and not experience death” (saying 18). In life-grounded terms, this means that what one has come from lives on after one’s body vehicle has passed, and the ultimate issue is whether one made the world better or worse by one’s way of life in the time between. The Zen-master Dogen puts the matter in koan style, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. – – Thus it is taught in Buddhism that life doesn’t become death. For this reason, life is called the unborn. It is also taught that death doesn’t become life. So death is called the Undying”. Albert Einstein who inquires into cosmological laws as a scientist expresses the meaning more straightforwardly: “A human being is part of the whole we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thought as somehow separated from the rest – a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us – – Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature”. One might add to these words the framework of life-value meaning, “from which we come and to which we return, but made better or worse by what we have been”. How we tell better from worse is by life-value measure through the span, the primary axiom of value still missing from the undivided meaning. It includes the natural and social life support systems by which all live.

13. Beyond the Inner Light: Liberating Embodied Life From Suffering and Discrimination

The Neo-Confucian K’ang Yu-wei (1858-1927) is distinguished by an unprecedentedly broad vision of world emancipation and deliverance in social terms which fits well with the vision of the undivided. He adopts the millennia-old Confucian concept of jen or human-heartedness as his moral compass, and translates it as a “feeling of the same kind” across even species divisions. He is less concerned with the inner transcendental realm than with a full spectrum of social institutional transformation.  But first he adopts a four-step, Buddhist form of argument for universal happiness: (1) there are innumerable great sufferings; (2) there is a cause of all these sufferings; (3) the cause is discriminatory distinctions between kinds of beings; and therefore (4) the solution to suffering is the abolition of these discriminations. Yet unlike Shakyamuni, the cause of all suffering is not found in the desires and attachments of the illusory self, but in instituted forms of discrimination against other beings. And unlike other religions in general, surrounding ruling structures of power are identified as what is wrong with the world. K’ang identifies nine forms of oppressive division, which he calls “distinctions” in line with received Confucian distinctions between social superiors and inferiors. The nine spheres of discrimination which cause the world’s suffering, he argues, are: (i) between states, (ii) between classes, (iii) between races, (iv) between male and female, (v) between families, (vi) between occupational products as one’s own, (vii) by arbitrary or unfair systems, (viii) between species, and (ix) in suffering about suffering without resolution. Despite some obscurities, this universalist ideal of life equanimity and community may be the most far-reaching in human thought.

While K’ang Yu-wei’s vision of undivided being evolves out of the principle of jen, it  synthesizes basic elements of Confucianism (he attributes his ideas to Confucius), Buddhism, Mohism, Christianity, and modern science. He defines the core idea of jen in the traditional manner as “the heart that cannot bear the suffering of another”, but spells out a “feeling of the same kind” which extends to all that lives – far beyond “the Five Relations with distinctions” taught over millennia by prior and subsequent Confucians. Humanity is progressively moved through three great stages of history, K’ang writes, by this socially evolving feeling of the same kind which in the coming Age of Great Unity finally crosses occupations, nations and even species in a universal identity of felt being. We see a more explicit version here of what we have seen in the most advanced Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity – felt identification with all that lives so as not to harm but benefit it. While the reader may think this is all very well in ideal but impossible in the historical world, it is important to ask why. Individual human beings can identify with all other life in affiliative love which does not discriminate against its life needs. In accordance with life-value onto-axiology – albeit without this principled explanation in received spiritual philosophies and religions – universal life necessities are the common ground and value across beings, while coherently inclusive life requirements lead moral choice (as explained in What Is Good? What is Bad? The Value of All Values Across Time, Place and Theories).

13.1. The Transcendent Comes Home: Undivided Being on the Basis of Self-Other Divisions

While as we have seen the great religious philosophies come together in the light of undivided being, each must face what few do – the self-other division built into embodied life itself. However replete in transcendent inwardness individuals become, all remain dependent for existence on a separate organism which must distinguish between the self and not-self of any foreign object or pathogenic invasion to continue well and alive, and do so through every moment. This is the role of the immune system at the autonomic level, of continuous learning at the individual level, and of evolving regulatory organization against dangers to human life at the social level. The non-stop requirement of sustaining this complex and universal self-other division at the organic level cannot be overcome by belief in God, mind-only metaphysics, salvational visions, or anything else. It is the nature of life itself and the basis of individuation. The life body’s inevitable suffering and eventual succumbing to disease and death may explain why religions seek an otherworldly happiness, a defining feature of received religions. Yet belief in a supernatural realm with no verification or reliable report is irrational. This is the apparently irreducible dilemma of religion.

On the other hand, there is an unseen middle ground which the great spiritual philosophies intimate in their primary sources. Here the division of selves and certitude of death that are built into the embodied condition are not motives to seek relief in an other-worldly realm, but rather the opposite – the reason for evolving unity of life and mutual support within the Creation. The Upanisads seers who “see all as just in the self, and the Self in all beings”, the universal life bearer of Tao” whose “law of heaven is to reduce what is  excessive and supplement what is insufficient”, the prophets and the “Son of Man” for whom the love of God is the love of others,  and “humanity” in the transcendent sense defined by Wang Yang-Ming and K’ang Yu-Wei millennia later  – all of these visions are transcendental in inspiration, but they call humanity to transform the world to better, not escape it. Division and death at the organic level are the only way in which the infinite modalities of creative relationality of embodied life can exist at all. The “undivided being” that transcends these material selves and divisions is the universal life which is one across them into the here and now creation. Thus division and death bring human beings together in the transcendent awareness of the common life-ground and ecology of One that all live from and express.  This encompassing unity, the great spiritual visions imply, is humanity’s this-worldly redemption by what is timeless and transcends material egos and their certain end with mutual support at a deathless level.

This principle of a transcending unity on the basis of separate bodily lives has been both missing and implicit in advanced religions – the higher unity of life which generates eco-social justice across generational time. Whatever the narrow bearings of ruling selves and groups giddy with temporary godlike enlargement, the transcendent unity beyond these inevitable dead-ends is the life bond and fellowship recognized at the heart of spiritual traditions. It is  tracked between the lines by the encyclopaedic historian of religious ideas Karen Armstrong in her A History of God whose phrasings express the lost connective meaning: “Religiosity is a retreat from God – – Christian “Family Values” or “Islam” or “the Holy Land”[as represented in political slogans]  is – – a new form of idolatry – –   Ever since the prophets of Israel reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh, the God of the monotheists [Judaism, Christianity, Islam] has promoted the ideal of compassion and justice – – The compassionate ideal even impelled Buddhists to make a major change in their religious orientation [the Mahayana or “Great Vehicle”] – – – Later generations of Muslims have shared his  concern [of Jesus] to incarnate the divine will in history by establishing a just and decent society” (pp. 391-93). The just and caring society on earth is a yearning as old as civilization. Even in the darkness of today’s salvational religion of the theo-capitalist market where each seeks only money value under its “invisible hand”, the transcendent in the finite calls.

In the words of Arundati Roy, “Another world is possible. I can hear her coming. On a quiet day, I can almost hear her breathe”.

The idea of an eco-social world justice transcends Nature, but it is immanent in human possibility. It is also exactly definable – that which all need as each unites them across their differences. This is an onto-axiological core of the transcending vision first found in Hammurabai’s Code around 1780 BCE  to ensure that “the strong may not oppress the weak, and that justice might be dealt the orphan and widow”. As we have seen, it also inspires the prophets of Israel, Christianity and Islam whose underlying meaning is that the universal means of a human life be ensured to those without as God’s command of love. The transcendent-immanent principle is found more abstractly in the Upanisads rejoicing in the universal divine presence in all life where the enlightened recognize “that art thou” in oneness with others and God at once with embodied division an illusory appearance. Again Buddhism’s defining meta principle of universal interdependency is recognized as an ultimate law of reality from which universal compassion with all that lives follows. The ideal of non-harm to other beings joins across Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism as well as undivided life meaning. Jen or the human heart that cannot bear the suffering of another is simultaneously the bright thread through Confucianism over two millennia – ending in the undivided being of “the feeling of the same kind” without discrimination against any form of life.

13.2. Concretizing The Spiritual Ecology of One in Life-Value Terms

In short, an implicit ultimate principle of what unifies humanity and fellow creatures above their material divisions runs through the great religions. In life-value terms, whatever violates the requirements of continued life capacities in any human or species is transcended by an ecology of higher life community in which the undivided whole and the uniqueness of each evolve on the basis of the embodied divisions themselves.

The requirements on earth are very exact to realize the vision. For instance hygiene practices require humanity to be divided from whatever pathogenic forces are structured to invade life, but this division itself requires the undivided solidarity of human beings with Nature in one life-sustaining whole. This is a long evolving pattern of which social regulations and life support systems are an expression, all led by superogatory individuals and groups to deliver humanity from disease and environmental degradation, a simultaneously spiritual mission. But nothing in history has been more conflicted and confused in guiding principle of universal life meaning. Even in a painfully slow halting process now reversed by privatization of life prospects, a transcendently undivided oneness has evolved in terms of universal life necessities identified and served across distances and divisions – transcendent in calling, but immanent in demand of how to live. Totems, taboos and other belief locks are merely inherited failures to understand the matter whole, as in ethnic purity superstitions. Drawing the line of life-enabling division within the evolving unity of universal life has been the long meta confusion, but the line becomes exact by life-coherence principle across selves and groups. Thus all divisions which compossibly enable life through time are good in principle – such as exclusion of disease agents and waste by recycling them for life function. Conversely, divisions disabling life or life conditions are evil in proportion to their violation (e.g., racism, sexism, poverty amidst plenty, and delinkage from common life support systems).

Yet principled understanding of what enables life by its provision rather than deprivation has been expressed by religions only in fragments of universal life meaning. Jesus may go furthest in identifying universal life needs. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me – – – -” (Matthew 25, italics added) . The higher-order principle of these and all other life needs is always that without which creative life capacities are lost or destroyed, the inner logic of life longing for emancipation in this world. The more a social order is structured to deprive the life means and necessities of people and sustaining supports of life on earth, the more evil it is. It is this social ordering to life oppression that instituted religions across cultures and times have avoided or sanctified against their prophets and sages. The justifications of avoidance are well known – the body is a lowly and transient thing, the eternal soul is alone important, and politics should be kept out of religion (ignoring this as itself a political position). On the other hand, the domination of politics by belligerent fundamentalism is worse insofar as it demands more life destructive practices – waging of armed and cultural wars on weaker adversaries, cruel and homicidal punishments, and instituted privatizations of women. In such ways, religions betray their original messages to ruling forms of oppression and legitimate them as God blessed.

In truth the spiritual call comes from the Creation itself. If global life support systems are cumulatively polluted, reduced and exhausted, the call becomes as ultimate as the world of life itself. While this eco-social base of human and planetary life is little recognized in official religions, it follows from the love commandment of the three monotheisms and the compassion principle of Buddhism. It also follows from the supreme principle of Hinduism that “truth is that which is fraught with greatest benefit to all creatures” and the heart-mind of Confucianism as “that which cannot bear suffering of the other”. Yet while all in and out of religion variously aspire “to make the world a better place”, no life criteria are agreed on and so the great confusion continues. In truth, however, good and the evil in terrestrial existence are as clear as the universal life needs themselves – for water, for food, for shelter, for a livable environment, for contributing function, for means of social communication, and for life security through time. Even the mothering parents of the four-legged animals and birds know enough to provide these universal means of life for their young. Yet ruling ideologies have generally avoided this life-grounding since the conquest and subjugation of other societies began, and in this era a ruling system with no purpose but competing for more money-value totalizes its demands as world life is cumulatively sacrificed to them.  The facts are clear, but the dementia of the reigning religion of salvation and sacrifice is not. “The Market alone can save you.” “The Market has necessary sacrifices which must be made”. “The Market punishes hard those who disobey its laws.” The ultimate choice which selects for the greatest suffering or well-being of life on earth, how we live as economic systems, is effectively abolished from discussion.

13.3. Transcending Death by Transcending Selves: The Ultimate Meaning of Religion 

While it is the nature of religion to transcend individual death by a more ultimate identity, religious philosophies across cultures have stopped with transcendent inwardness as the end-point of salvation. At the highest level, there is a belief in rejoining the eternal light consciousness as God or Ultimate Being. The step into the world to reform it from man-made ruin is refused. The living examples from Ashoka through the Prophets and Jesus to Gandhi and beyond who have been moved by the transcendent force within to liberate world life are buried in religious privatization, while the timeless meaning across East and West – from the Confucian “Only the inferior man loves profit to Yeshua’s “You cannot serve God and Money at the same time” – is forgotten.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the missing link to the life-ground has become fatal. The reverence, thankfulness and obligation for the ultimate bases of life itself – the planet’s life support systems beneath and beyond skin, kin, distance or death – are displaced by commercial images and idols. The final judgment forming in the moving now is unconceived.

Gandhi puts it well when he says from the Hindu tradition a generation after the Neo-Confucian K’ang Yu-wei: “Joy or what men call happiness may be, as it really is a dream in a fleeting and transitory world. But we cannot dismiss the suffering of our fellow creatures as unreal and thereby provide a moral alibi for ourselves”. In historic contrast Shankara, founder of the God-only school of Advaita (“One without a second”) which Gandhi inherits, eliminates the issue of social ordering a-priori. When confronted by an untouchable who replies to his order to step aside, “If there is only one God, how can there be many kinds of men?” Shankara prostrates himself and writes a poem ending, “He who sees God everywhere is my master – whether he is Brahmin or an Untouchable”. He does not reject the caste-order of life oppression itself.

Today social structuring to mass misery and inhuman existence and destruction of other species  proceeds ungoverned, but has become forbidden to unite against. Compassionate Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity or Islam may confront local system oppression, but ground in no clear principles to regulate re-ordering to life’s necessities to continue and flourish. Within the reigning global system, oppression is officially denied even as the world majority is increasingly deprived of a human life. The most life-grounded of religious philosophies, Taoism, shrinks from engaging the regulating source of life ruin or emancipation – the way in which men live as social orders. Chuang-tzu thus advises in his chapter, “the Equality of All Things” that the way of the sage is “to be at one with all – – and disregard the social order”. As the ecological, social and spiritual dead-end becomes cumulatively evident across the world, flight from the ultimate decider of emancipation or hell on earth prevails. Whether a robustly life-coherent spirituality stands for the universal life host or not is an evolutionary meaning.


Agent-relative: A standard philosophical term signifying individual choice. By assuming value agency is restricted to individual persons, collective responsibility is excluded.

Anti-foundationalism: A generic term for the dominant trend of philosophy over the recent century embracing many contemporary philosophers and schools of thought whose unifying characteristic is denial of any universal ground, truth or value.

A-priori: derived independently of sense experience  e.g., 2+2=4. Truth by definition and tautological deduction is the model of mathematics and formal logic.

Augustinian Christianity: Influential turn of Christianity led by the now sainted Doctor of the Western Church (354-430) in which doctrines of original sin, undeserved grace, and afterlife without bodies become prominent.

Axiology: From the Greek, axioma, “what is thought to be worthy”, the ultimate, but under-theorized category of value reason, ideally building from rationally self-evident bases or axioms of value a complete system of value (aesthetic, epistemological, moral) with unlimited validity across domains. Onto-axiology is axiology which grounds in the nature of being. Life-value onto-axiology grounds in life-value as defined by the Primary axiom of value. Religious onto-axiology always supposes some ultimately unifying oneness of the universe.

Biophilia: This concept means “love of life” as distinguished from its opposite “necrophilia”, the “love of death” – a valuable generic distinction between opposed tendencies of religions.

Capital: Wealth that can used to produce more wealth without loss or erosion. The generic concept is applicable to natural capital, knowledge capital and so on (i.e., forms of life capital).

Capitalism: This is a socieoeconomic system in which all values are conceived in money terms and maximum sale of commodities for maximum private profit is the ultimate value governor of thought and action. Strictly speaking, the adjective money before capitalism is required to ensure distinction from the opposite form of capital, Life capital.

Civil commons: A unifying concept to designate social constructs which enable universal access of all members of a community to life goods (e.g., public education, healthcare, parks and pensions). Life support systems are civil commons so far as society protects and enables their reproduction and provision for all members.

Deep naturalistic fallacy: Identifies the survival-of-the-fittest order of nature with human order, and assumes this order as necessary and good for human survival and development.

Deontological ethics: Essentially, “duty ethics”, standardly opposed to utilitarianism insofar as it holds that good lies in the principle or duty which action embodies, not its consequences.

Determinism: A problematic term typically, but falsely, counterposed to freedom of choice. The meaning adopted by life-ground onto-axiology (and spiritual ecology) is to delimit (de-termine) a known range of material possibility within which individual or collective choices can occur.

Development: A central term of value in contemporary global discourse which does not distinguish between opposed forms of development or growth – for example, more commodities sold for profit (market development/growth) and more means of life available for people’s lives (human development/growth).

Dualism: Dualism is a central and controversial group of doctrines in philosophy in which reality is conceived as divided into two unbridgeable and incommensuarble orders of being: most famously, mind and body. The religious counterpart is the heaven-earth/spirit-body dualism

Ecology of justice: The branch of ecology of life value applying to human societies: that is, the relations among individuals in a society such that each receives what s/he is due in rights and obligations to universal life goods provision for all, admitting of degrees of realization with means available. See also Ecology of life value, Spiritual ecology.

Ecology of life value: Ecology with life-value coordinates so that the totality of relations among  species, their reproduction and distribution is conceived to be better rather than worse by the  coherent life-field advance and biodiversification it maintains and develops to a more comprehensively inclusive life system whole: in short, the primary axiom of value at an ecological level of conception.

Epistemology: This is a central field of philosophy concerned with the nature, grounds and limits of knowledge. Religion typically posits truth by faith rather than reason and fact, but not necessarily (as in Buddhism) or always (as in fallibilist religion or spiritual ecology).

Ethics: One of the three recognized basic areas of philosophy: that which is concerned with what is good and bad in human action, including competing positions of utilitarianism, deontological/formalist/duty ethics, emotivism/non-cognitivism, evolutionary ethics, intuitionism, naturalism, perfectionism, phenomenological ethics, postmodern ethics, subjectivism/pluralism/relativism, self-realization/teleological ethics, and virtue ethics. Religious ethics may come in a number of these forms and may or may not posit God, but most work from a shared premise that there is an underlying ultimate unity of all beings.

False religion: The defining master principle of f.r. across cultures is that a human group solicits special favor from an assumed non-human almighty to conquer designated enemies for major material acquisitions by the power of God who is worshipped in return. More exactly, f.r. involves (1) the continual sacrifice of others’ lives or life conditions in an almighty’s name for (2 ) exclusionary payoffs to the party invoking it as worship object, so that (3) no matter how life-destructive this god-system becomes in reality, (4) the evidence is blocked out or erased so that  (5) two levels of incoherence occur: (i) between serving the good in claim while enriching the self-group at the cost of others;  (ii) between the claimed emancipation of life and systematic violation of life in fact. Thus locked into systemic contradictions: (6) the ruling religion’s deity and laws are sustained by attacking any deviation from them, while (7) homicidal and life-condition destruction proceed in the name of a supreme, immutable and non-human authority which cannot be opposed without risk of social ruin.  F.r. includes theo-capitalism.

Fields of life value: This concept refers to the fields of thought (concept and image), felt side of being (sentient and affective), and action (organic movement through space-time), the triune parametric of all value whatever as explained by the primary axiom of value.

God: Typically understood in theism as a transcendent being which is characterized by the properties of omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence, but can be undogmatically understood as all-inclusive being becoming more all-inclusive being. See also Theism.

Group-mind: The g-m expresses a life-blind ruling value syntax which regulates consciousness across individuals. See also Ruling value syntax and False religion..

Idealism: A long-dominant tendency of Western and Eastern philosophy of various schools to posit ideas as prior to matter on ontological, epistemological and value planes.

Idolatry: Ultimate concern invested in a man-made object or system.

Infinite: Life-value onto-axiology distinguishes between the regressive infinite (infinite divisions into infinitesimally smaller units) and the progressive infinite (infinite depth and extension within human consciousness and outside it in the space-occupying universe).

Intrinsic and extrinsic good: The basic distinction between what is a good in itself and what is a good as an external possession.

Invisible-hand religion: Religion based on the idea that a Supreme Being or Design that regulates across beings to produce the best of possible worlds. See also Theo-capitalism.

Jen: A Confucian concept originally meaning “humanity” in an undefined way, it comes to signify feeling the other’s interests as one’s own – in particular “the heart that cannot bear the suffering of another”. While generally confined within the terms of the Five Relations of subordination (ruler-ruled; father-son, husband-wife, older brother-younger brother, guest-host), it develops to felt concern for the wellbeing of all that exists as ultimate transformation.

Justice: See Social justice

Liberation theology: A Christian movement from the late 1960’s Lt features primary concern for the lives of the deprived as the ultimate concern, “the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the body of the suffering people”.

Life coherence principle: The ultimate principle of validity whereby positions or systems must to qualify as fully rational or valid be consistent with (1) factual premises and (2) valid inferences, so as (3) to enable rather than disable life and life-support systems.

Life sequence of value: The process whereby any body of life becomes more life by means of life: a process which admits of regressive, reproductive and progressive modes and degrees, each measurable by the criteria of more/less fields of life enabled or enjoyed through time.

Life support systems: Any natural or human made system that enables the life of the biosphere in a sustainable way so as to meet universal human life needs and species biodiversification.

Life-blind norms: A characteristic tendency of ruling value systems and official religions to blinker out their life-disabling effects.

Life-Ground: Most simply expressed, all the conditions required to take your next breath. See also Universal life goods/necessities.

Life-unconscious: The life-unconscious arises out of life desires being conditioned to repressive forms – for example, the desire for ‘oneness with Nature’ conditioned to be a craving for a power-machine vehicle dominating the environment.

Life-value metric: Measures more or less life range in any domain or degree of life function or expression, with margin gains or losses with respect to prior states the measure of life-value progress or regression. See Measures of life-value and Primary axiom of Value

Life-value onto-axiology: The value-system which regards life and means of life to more coherently comprehensive ranges of life as the ultimate and universal good. It is referred to as life-value onto-ethic when emphasis is on the normative dimension of the axiology. See Primary axiom of value and Universal life goods/necessities.

Mandate of Heaven: The ultimate and self-existent moral law of the cosmos – an ultimate tradition of ruler legitimacy in China over 3020 years old. When the Emperor violates it by unrectified social disorder or corruption, the dynasty loses the Mandate.

Marxism: the theory of historical materialism which argues that the material mode of production of any society determines its legal, political and ideological forms (including morality), and that all significant change (including values) is by laws of development of productive forces outgrowing their ownership structure.

Measures of life value: Mlv quantify as more or less the functioning ranges of fields of life value which gain or lose at the margins in reference to a prior or compared state. Exact measures are determinable in any life-field, sphere or domain by identification of more/less range of life capacity through time with respect to another possible state.

Mechanism: Doctrines according to which all phenomena are matter in motion or governed and predictable by physics-like laws.

Metaphysics: Inquiry concerning ultimately regulating principles of existence (e.g., the mind-body problem, freedom versus determinism, and personal identity). ‘Metaphysic’ connotes no empirical accountability or life-ground requirements.

Money sequence of value: The inner logic of the commonplace expression, “money rules”:  using anything as means (including money using money) to turn private money sums into greater  quantities in reiterated choice paths of money-value increase without limit.

Morality: Morality always entail prescriptions or prohibitions whose violation is thought to deserve guilt or punishment.

Need: That without which life capacity is reduced at individual or social levels of life organization.

Nothingness, the Void, Emptiness: An ultimate idea with many names in Hindu, Buddhist and Zen thought which is often confused with mere negation. It is best understood as no-thingness, meaning it is boundless with no center or circumference and beyond spatio-temporal location.

Objective values: Values which  are independent of individuals’ affirming them (e.g., the values of universal life support systems like the earth’s atmosphere).

Onto-ethics/Onto-axiology: Denies the standard  split between ontology (the philosophy of being) and ethics/axiology (critical theory of good and bad) by beginning with their unity so that the analysis of the ultimate structure of being (ontology) and of the ultimately regulating principles of good and bad (ethics/axiology) are integrated into one field of understanding.

Phenomenology: A major school of contemporary philosophy in which human consciousness as such is adopted as the direct object of analysis prior to the subject-object distinction, causal explanation, or scientific reductions.

Platonic: A position which holds or resembles Plato’s view that there is an ideal noumenal realm of pure, self-subsistent, eternal and perfect Forms independent of material reality which consists of inferior and mutable copies and appearances.

Primary Axiom of Value: An axiom formally expressing the first and ultimate principle of all value and disvalue, and the measures of each across time, place or culture i.e., x is of value if and only if, and to the extent that, x consists in or enables more coherently inclusive thought/felt being/action. See also Fields of life value.

Relativism: A generic term for the view that there are no objective or universal values because all values are by their nature relative to the contingent cultures, preferences, individuals, practices and world-views in which they are embedded.

Religion: May be theist or non-theist, faith or reason based, but r. is always an organized set of ideas seeking to explain the cosmos/universe and humanity’s place in it, the ultimate nature of enlightenment or truth, and good and evil ways of life. See also Morality and Spirituality.

Ruling value syntax: In the ruling value syntax of contemporary global society, the subject is money capital whose verb is seeking to become more without upper limit, and all modifiers are money-demand or its equivalents: with competing money capital subjects and the human and natural resources they purchase, exchange and dispose of always used to become more money capital. Rationality in this onto-axiological grammar is regulatively presupposed as (i) self-maximizing strategies in (ii) conditions of scarcity or conflict over (iii) desired payoffs at (iv) minimum costs for the self to (v) win/gain more. See also False religion and Theo-capitalism.

Ruling value-system: A society’s value-system presupposed by those governed by it which ultimately regulates the decision norms and goals of the society’s dominant social institutions, individual roles within them, and the thought structure of those internalizing it. Religion is often the r.v.s. in fantastic form.

Satori: As samadhi is to Hinduism and nirvana is to Buddhism, so satori is to Zen – the state of enlightenment by which transcendent being is directly experienced. Zen is distinguished by its finding of this supreme experience in the embodied here and now.

Scientific method: a method which requires independently observable and reproducible verification of factual findings and laws, but required by this method to erase first-person inner experience a-priori. This built-in erasure of inner life is the nature of scientism.

Second-order shift: A move from first-order value-system (e.g., to maximize pecuniary possession) to a second-order level of value understanding and choice within which the first-order value-system is only one regulating possibility. This logic of distinction is straightforward in non-normative matters (e.g., the first-order of red and blue, and the second order of color), but not at the normative level wherever a ruling value program is assumed as without alternative. Spirituality entails a second-order shift of thought from a Ruling value syntax.

Social justice: The baseline and measure of social justice is defined by the principle of its opposite which it overcomes: systematic suffering from need by the life-capacity loss entailed by the deprivation of life means. See also Need.

Soul: In underlying principle, the ultimate elective depth and reach of human feeling opening beyond self as felt bonds of being which admit of infinite possibilities that music, the arts, and religions variously express. Soul admits of measure of life value to the extent of its inclusion of other life and life ranges in resonance of fellow being. See also Spiritual ecology.

Spirituality: Consciousness with or without God which crosses the divisions and dualities of selves, things and groups in felt being of one ultimately encompassing presence. See Second-Order Shift and Spiritual Ecology.

Spiritual ecology: Life-value ecology experienced from within – as in experiencing the self as in all beings and all beings as in the self. See also Ecology of life value.

Subjectivist circle: An underlying structure of thought which assumes the syllogism: All that is real is experience; experience is subjective; therefore all reality is subjective. Philosophical and religious subjectivism and idealism widely adopt this s.c. without recognition

Tao:  “The Way” of the universe – all-embracing first principles functioning as One from which all beings and changes arise in cyclical interplay of Yin-Yang.  The physical universe is its manifestation, virtue is to be in accord with it, and enlightenment is its realization. The Tao is the central idea of the Tao-te Ching, but also refers to the Confucian Way defined by li or governing principle(s).

Theo-capitalism: The private money capital and commodity sales system conceived as God in its properties of infallibility, omnipotence and benevolence, eternal necessity of rule, miracles and magic of operations, and rightful attack on opponents as requiring conversion or conquest. See also False religion and Ruling value-syntax.

Theism: Understands God as separate from and above the world, eternal and unchanging in nature, and unaffected by human history. A life-coherently transcendental possibility of God – developing as the laws of the universe and the world develop but impelling more inclusive possibility beyond them – is ruled out. See also God.

Truth: Always a process of more inclusively life-coherent taking into account. See also False religion and Life-value onto-axiology.

Universal life goods/necessities: All goods without which human life capacities are reduced or destroyed: atmosphere (breathable air, open space and light);  organism (clean water, nourishing foods, waste disposal); home and habitat (shelter and a life-enhancing environment); care through time (love safety and healthcare); human culture (music, language, art, play and sport); human vocation (meaningful work of value to others); life justice (right to enjoy these life goods and obligation to help provide them).

Universals: Applied to general terms like ‘red’, ‘table’ or ‘human being’ as distinct from their instances. An ancient debate from Plato through medieval scholasticism to philosophy today has revolved around the issue of whether ‘universals’ refer to eternal forms independent of their instances (“idealism”), or are explicable as merely convenient designations (“nominalism”).

Validity: From the Latin, validus (strong), v. is usually reduced to logical consistency of inferences from premises (philosophy) and/or replicatable demonstration of empirical claims (science) with neither required to be consistent with life requirements or Universal life goods/necessities. Consistency with life requirements, most basically life support systems, is the requirement of validity introduced by life-value onto-axiology. See Life coherence principle

Value compossibility: The compatibility of formerly competing or traded-off goods yielding more coherently inclusive value provision (e.g., housing development by preservation of natural environments rather than by destruction of them).

Value neutrality: The standard claimed when a value-system is so deeply taken for granted that its outcomes appear as value free.

Value syntax: Organizing principles of pro-and-con meaning, prescription, position and transformation which regulate a value system, but may be invisible to those who presuppose it.

Value-system: Any stable set of regulators of judgment and action.

Void, the: See Nothingness.

Witness consciousness: Non-positional consciousness that encompasses all life so as to bring into light unseen lives that are usually discounted. See also Universal life goods/necessities.

Yin-Yang: primary polar tendencies of the Tao, principally earth-heaven, dark-light, soft-hard, female-male, receptive-active, whose interaction produces all beings and cyclic changes.

Yoga: A concept derived from the Sanskrit “yongere” meaning “to join” or “yoke” with  countless varieties implying some form of joining to a transcendental field. In life-grounded yoga, the transcendental unity yoked to is explained in Spiritual ecology.


Alston, .P.(1963), Philosophy and Religious Belief 625 pp. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World. [This comprehensive collection includes representative arguments in the field of rational understanding of religion by Thomas Aquinas, Arthur Eddington, Sigmund Freud, John Hick, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkeggard, William James, D.T. Susuki, and Paul Tillich.]

Aristotle (1995), The Complete Works of Aristotle (ed. J. Barnes), Princeton: Princeton University Press [ Aristotle’s general conception of the good is that the good is that which an entity thing aims to achieve in accord with its nature, whatever it is, with the good for the human being the realization of his or her human essence (reason), and the development of its faculties to the utmost: (eudaimonia, or self-realization). This ultimate idea frames Virtue Ethics and the work of Thomas Aquinas and Catholic/Thomist Christianity to today. ]

Armstrong, J. “Sharing One Skin” (1996), The Case Against the Global Economy and for a Turn to the Local (ed. Goldsmith E. And Mander J.) San Francisco: Sierra Books, 460-471. [This is an exemplary statement of First People’s inclusive life identity in opposition to the “suicidal coldness” of the market self as “flesh waiting to die”. The “ones who land and dream together” she says “teach that the body is the earth itself” and the “spirit self is ‘one without substance while moving continuously outwards’” to “stand against the disorder”.]

Armstrong, Karen (1993), A History of God, 461 pp. New York: Ballantyne. [This is a richly detailed contemporary account of various religious streams, sects and innovators in the three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.]

Audi ed. (1995), Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 882 pp. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. [An excellent short encyclopedia of received philosophical authors, concepts and schools cited in this essay.]

Aurobindo Ghose (1989), The Life Divine.1112pp. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ahram.[A’s conception of God/ Brahman rejects dominant Hindu and Buddha ideas of the material world as illusory for an evolutionary conception realizing Gnostic Consciousness.]

Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth and Logic (1936), 160 pp. New York: Dover. [This is a classical statement of the view that moral and religious statements are meaningless.]

Baruchello, Giorgio, “Western Philosophy and the Life-Ground”, Philosophy and World Problems Theme (ed. J. McMurtry). Oxford: EOLSS. [An erudite survey of Western philosophy explaining the dominant decoupling of philosophy from life support systems.]

Becker L.C. ed. (2000), Encyclopedia of Ethics, 641pp. London GB: Routledge [This work provides the most comprehensive representation of value theory available.]

Bernays, Edward W. (1933), Propaganda, 159 pp. New York: Liverright. [By a nephew of Freud and primary pioneer of Wall Street modern mass-market conditioning, author explains how media appeal to unconscious desires to engineer avid consent of the masses.]

Blake, William (1966), Blake: The Complete Writings, 966pp.Oxford: Oxford University Press.[Blake is a quintessentially spiritual thinker outside religion for whom the human imagination is the divine creative power within that can “see the world in a grain of sand”.]

Bible (Old and New Testaments) is the official text of the Christian religion, with its Old Testament derived from Hebrew sources. See Jerusalem Bible.

Carr, B. And Mahalingam, I. (1997), Companion Encyclopedia to Asian Philosophy,1132 pp. London and New York: Routledge. [This large volume contains 48 articles of good quality in sets of chapters grouped under Persian, Indian, Buddhist, Chinese and Japanese Philosophy.]

Chalmers, D.J. ed. (2005), Philosophy of Mind, 675 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Canonical writings in contemporary philosophy of mind as a-priori a-moral.]

Chan, W. (1963), Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy, 856 pp. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press [This lead collection of classical Chinese Philosophy from Lao tzu to K’angYu-Wei provides texts across millennia on “the Tao”, “the Great Norm”, the essential Confucian and Neo-Confucian canons, the complete Tao-te Ching, little known Ch’an-Buddhist and Logical School writings, and fine Notes. It is the definitive primary source of a 2500-year-plus tradition.]

Crossan, John Dominic (1994), Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 209 pp. New York: HarperCollins [Biblical scholar argues that the logic of Jesus’s scriptural positions is radically egalitarian.]

Davies, S. (2002), The Gospel of Thomas, 118 pp. Boston: Shambhala Publications.[This work enlists numerous prior translations with extensive sympathetic and speculative notes.]

Dawkins, R. (1976), The Selfish Gene, 224 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[Most famous work of the author whose The God Delusion (2008) rejects religion as a “poison of the mind”.]

de Chardin, Teilhard, The Future of Man, 332 pp. New York: Harper and Row. [Jesuit biologist’s complexity theory of evolution suggests that human society is the missing link of understanding.]

de Wal, Franz (2009), The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kind Society, 304 pp. London: Crown Publishers.[Like Kropotkin over a century earlier, this work argues against the dominant view of the relentlessly selfish competitive instincts of human and natural life.]

Dennett, Daniel (1995), Consciousness Explained, 511 pp. Boston, Little, Brown [This the standard work in philosophy which reduces consciousness to functional states of the brain.]

Descartes, R. (1637- 41/1996), trans. Weissman, D. And Bluhm W.T., Discourse on method and Meditations on first philosophy. 383pp. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press [While avowedly religious, Descartes regards the body or res extensa as nothing but “divisions, shapes and motion” so that all animals and human bodies are merely mechanical automata.]

Diener M.S., Erhard, F-K, Fischer-Schreiber, I. Friedrichs, K. (1994), Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, 492 pp. Boston: Shambhala.[This Encyclopedia covers Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism and Taoism with historical and technical proficiency.]

Einstein, Albert (1954), Ideas and Opinions, 377pp. New York: Crown Publishers [This is a comprehensive collection of Einstein’s writings exhibiting the bridge in his thinking between spiritual and scientific reasoning.]

Elmasry, Mohamed (2006), “Takaful: A Pro-Life Social and Economic Order”, Cairo Islamic  Conference, March 16-19. [This paper explains the primary Islamic concept of mutual life support as a binding command of Allah and the community body, deploying McMurtry’s “universal human life necessities/needs” or “life goods” as a framework of explanation.]

Evelyn-White, Hugh (1920), The Sayings of Jesus From Oxyrhynchus, 176pp,. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[This is a scholarly translation and commentary on later-found fragments of recorded words of Jesus believed associated with the Gospel of Thomas.]

Falk, R. (2001), Religion and Humane Social Governance. 208 pp. London: Palgrave MacMillan. [This work by an eminent professor of law argues for a religious resolution to world conflicts because of failure of political remedies.]

Feng, G. and English, J. (1974), Chuang Tsu / Inner Chapters, 162 pp. New York: Random House [This translation of Chuang Tsu’s “inner books” is reliably complete.]

Fischer-Schreiber, I. et al (1994), The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, 468 pp. Boston: Shambhala. [This is a scholarly and highly detailed dictionary of terms, schools and thinkers in the religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Zen and Hinduism.]

Feuerbach, L. (1986), Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. 80pp. Indianapolis U.S.: Hackett Publishing. [This work applies the author’s “transformative method” of translating God’s attributes into the conceptual possibility of the “community and unity of man with man”.]

Frankl, Viktor (1963), Man’s Search for Meaning, 223 pp. New York: Washington Square Press. [This harrowing and honest first-person account by a psychiatric scientist of life and survival in Auschwitz reports that finding a meaning to life by self-transcendence is a basic human need.]

Freire, Paulo (1967), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 243 pp. Boston: Beacon Press. [This classic in the philosophy of education and justice derives from Christian base communities.]

Freemantle, Francesca and Trungpa, Chogyam (1975), The Tibetan Book of the Dead/ The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, 119 pp. Boston and London: Shambhala Books. [This translated scripture of Tibetan Buddhism conceives death as open experience of the ‘bardo’ with deities and the world itself understood as psychological projections.]

Funk W.R., Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar (1993) The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 432 pp. Toronto: Maxwell MacMillan.[This is a published result of  the studies from 1985 of 164 New Testament scholars, concluding that the “fifth gospel” outside the canon, “The Gospel of Thomas” is the most coherently valid record of the words of Jesus.]

Gandhi, M. (1935/2000), The Bhagavad Gita according to Gandhi 245 p. Berkeley, Ca.: Berkeley Hills Books.[Gandhi conceives the dynastic war of the Gita as an allegory for the inner war of the soul between the divine atman and the selfish forces of avidity.]

Goddard, Dwight (1938/1970), A Buddhist Bible, 677 pp. Boston: Beacon Press. [Selections from canonical Buddhist teachings make this the most scholarly comprehensive coverage.]

Gottlieb, Roger S.,ed (2006), Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, 520 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [This collection of 25 articles by scholars covers religions and regions.]

Great Law of Peace of the Longhouse Peoples. Akwesasne: White Roots of Peace, 1971. [Fire councils open by “expressing gratitude to the earth where men dwell, to the streams of water – – the maize and fruits – – to the animals that serve as food – – to the great winds – – and to the sun”.]

Gutierrez, Gustavo (1974), A Theology of Liberation, 276 pp. London: SCM Press. [This work by a silenced Roman Catholic priest leads scholarly work in “liberation theology”.]

Hammurabai, Code of (circa 1780 BCE) [This is the oldest life-protective codified law known from area of tody’sIraq (available at www.historyguide.org.ancienthammurabi.html). While discriminating between classes and punishments under law, the code is written so that “the strong may not oppress the weak, and that justice might be dealt the orphan and widow”. ]

Hayek, F.A., The Fatal Conceit, 180 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Influential economist declares capitalism a “transcendent order” to which “humankind owes its very existence”, urging that “Thy will (ie., not mine) be done on earth as it is in heaven”. ]

Herrigel, Eugen (1953/1971), Zen and the Art of Archery, 90pp. New York: Vintage Books. [A classic study of Zen practice by a philosopher who reports his training immersion in its discipline over six years to achieve enlightenment.]

Hume, David, (electronic), The Complete Works and Correspondence of David Hume [The famous sceptic leads Anglo-American philosophy in erasing the significance of the inner life,  arguing that that the self is but a bundle of perceptions with no core, and that the proper relation of human reason to appetites and passions is not to guide but “to serve and obey them”.]

James, William (1902/1990), The Varieties of Religious Experience, 517 pp. New York: Vintage Books. [James’ classic work on religion where his signature concept of pragmatism – the truth is what works – is used to assess religious belief, leading to his notion of “a mother sea of consciousness” as a dynamic “finite God”.]

Jonas, Hans (1963), The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity 432 pp. Boston: Beacon Press. [The eminent theologian and phenomenologist explains the Gnostic split between the divine paradise of God and  the fallen world of the Demiurge maker which it is the mission of Jesus and humanity to heal.]

Jones, Alexander (ed) (1972), Jerusalem Bible, 1693pp. [The most scholarly of contemporary translations, this primary source includes all Old and New Testament books with notes.]

Jung, Karl (1957), “On the Tibetan Book of the Dead”, in Evans-Wentz (trans), The Tibetan Book of the Dead, pp. xliv-lxiv. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [This overview provides a synthesis of Jung’s psychological ontology and Tibetan Buddhism, with truth won by recognition that light consciousness with no circumference is the ground and ultimate reality with “categories of the imagination” projecting onto the world unconscious as “reality”.]

Kierkeggard, S. (1978), Kierkegaard’s Writings, (eds. H.V.and E.V.Hong) 24 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [The most comprehensive collection of Kierkegaard’s work explains his exploration of the “infinite inwardness” as connected to a transcendent, unknowable God.].

Kabbalah (trans. D.C.Matt), 221 pp. San Francisco, Harper. [This is a translation of selections from the Jewish mystic tradition seeking cosmic consciousness without denying the world.]

Koran (trans. Dawood, N.J.), 454pp. London: Penguin. [This is a scholarly translation and transparent arrangement of the Holy Qur’an with historical notes.]

McLuhan, T.C.(1971), Touch the Earth, 261 pp. New York: Pocket Books.[ This is the perhaps the richest survey of direct shortish quotations from the First Peoples of North America.]

McMurtry, J. (1989), Understanding War, 90 pp. Toronto: Science for Peace [A concise  overview demonstrating the locked choice-spaces of the military paradigm of war with decoding of religious justifications as cover stories of political-economic power.]

McMurtry, J.(1998), Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market As An Ethical System, 372 pp. Toronto and Westport CT: Garamond and Kumarian [Introduces concepts of universal life identity and civil commons as alternative to refuted principles of capitalist doctrine.]

McMurtry, J. (2002), Value Wars: The Global Market versus the Life Economy, 262pp. London: Pluto Press [Tracks the underlying principles of money-value versus life-value in the ‘new world order’ across wars, ecological crises, financial predation, and public-sector meltdowns.]

Merton, Thomas (1961), Mystics and Zen Masters, 302 pp. New York: Delta. [A leading Christian monk provides a survey of mystic thinkers across the world featuring Zen/Buddhism].

Mitchell, S. (1991), The Enlightened Mind, 221 pp. New York: Harper-Collins.[This anthology of over 50 sages across cultures includes selections by Dogen and Einstein.]

Muller, Max, (ed) (1879-1910), Sacred Books of the East, 50 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islam, Parsi/Zaruthustran, Confucian and Taoist scriptures are translated in the most comprehensive reference source extant.]

Nicholson, Reynaud Alleyn (1914/1963), The Mystics of Islam, 178 pp. London: Routlege and Kegan Paul. [This is a classic account of Sufi mystics and mysticism through the ages.]

Perry, R.B. (1969), Realms of Value: A Critique of Human Civilization, 487 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Perry justifies the ruling idea that the good = what is desired, an axiology which implicitly justifies the value-system of a globalized market order.]

Plato (1961), The Collected Dialogues of Plato (ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns), New York: Pantheon Books: [Plato’s “Theory of Forms” – very influential in Christianity and Islam – posits pure, transcendental, eternal ideas of which all material entities are inferior, mutable copies.]

Radhakrishnan, S. and Moore, C. (1957), Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, 683pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [This premier reference source of Indian philosophy includes the full texts of the principal Upanisads, Bhagavad-gita, and definitive sources of  Buddhism.]

Robinson, J.M. (ed.) (1978), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 549 pp. San Francisco: Harper. [This scholarly collection includes the non-fitting Gospel of Thomas.]

Samuelson, Paul and Nordhaus W.D. (2005), ECONOMICS, 784 pp. New York: McGraw-Hill. [This is the standard global reference text of contemporary economics in which the preface invokes the value imperative to “Spread the gospel of [capitalist] economics anyway we can”.

Shah, Idries (1964), The Sufis, 452 pp. New York: Doubleday.[Shah assembles Sufi stories in illustration of a spiritually open and dynamic  philosophy outside official rules and dogma.]

Schweitzer, Albert (1936), “The Ethics of Reverence for Life”, Christendom, 1, 225-39. [This is  the most crystalline argument for theologian Schweitzer’s argument for “an absolute ethics of will-to-live [which] must reverence every form of life”.]

Smith, Adam (1776/1966), An Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 2 vols. New York: A.M. Kelley. [This is the founding work of “the moral science” in which the “invisible hand” of the “free market” is understood to necessitate the “common good”.]

Solomon, R.C. and Higgins, K. (1995), World Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 350 pp. New York: McGraw-Hill. [A distinctively all-round collection from all continents and traditions.] .

Spinoza, Baruch (1985), The Collected Works of Spinoza (ed. E. Curley), 7 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press. [Spinoza argues that God is infinite substance whose thinking and extended modes and attributes are rational in structure and can be better (more adequately) or worse (less adequately) comprehended by deductive reasoning to one rational whole.]

Suzuki, D.T. (1956). Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki (ed. W. Barrett). 294 pp. Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday [Writings of the most widely recognized scholar of Zen.]

Tatia, Nathmal (1994), Tattvartha Sutra; That Which Is, 324 pp. New York: HarperCollins.[The sacred texts with notes of the Jain religion.]

Tillich, Paul (1958), Dynamics of Faith, 276 pp. New York: Harper Torchbooks.[Theologian Tillich undogmatically explains God’s will in humanity as “ultimate concern”.]

Whitehead, A.N. (1938), Modes of Thought, 172 pp. New York: Macmillan [Whitehead’s “process philosophy” conceives Nature as “alive”, “feeling”, and “purposing” energy flows consistent with dynamic physics, the totality of which processes he conceives as God.]

Biographical Sketch   

John McMurtry holds his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. from  University College London, and has been a longtime Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph and now University Professor Emeritus. An elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, his many articles, chapters, books and interviews have been globally published and translated.

To cite this chapter
John McMurtry
, (2012), WAYS OF UNIVERSAL LIFE: THE TAO, HUMAN HEARTEDNESS, ZEN AND JESUS, in Philosophy and World Problems,[Ed.John McMurtry],in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems(EOLSS), Developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO, Eolss Publishers, Oxford ,UK.


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