Monday, September 20, 2010

Christ the Eternal Tao

This is the transcript of a talk delivered by Fr Damascene Christensen.
Host: Father Damascene, who, as I am sure you are all aware, is an Eastern Orthodox Christian monk, began his life as John Christensen, and was nominally introduced to Western Protestant Christianity as a child. By the time he began college, however, he believed that the highest spiritual reality was not a personal deity or God, but rather a transpersonal reality. 
He considered himself a Buddhist, specifically, in the Zen tradition, and he had various experiences, which he writes, included darkness, infinite nothingness, existing outside of space and time, where everything is now, and time has no meaning. Despite these experiences, there was still something missing in the soul. 
While in college at U.C. Santa Cruz, John Christensen met Eastern Orthodox Christian students and was invited by them to a lecture by an American priest and monk, who had also been a serious student of Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. It was through this lecture that Father Damascene met the man through whose influence his life would be radically altered. 
This man was Father Seraphim Rose, spiritual seeker, Eastern Religious scholar, Orthodox monk and priest, and author of many books and articles on spirituality and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It was through this meeting, his ongoing studies, and many pilgrimages to the monastery Father Seraphim founded in the secluded woods of Northern California, that John Christensen came to discover that truth was not just an abstract idea, sought and known by the mind, but something personal, even a person, sought and loved by the heart.
This discovery that truth is personal, not impersonal or abstract, was the conclusion that Father Seraphim also reached after extensive study of Taoism and Lao Tzu, under a genuine transmitter of the Tao’s philosophy tradition, Ji Ming Shen. It was this thread of study that Father Damascene used as the basis of his book, Christ the Eternal Tao, which is the subject of our seminar series this weekend.
Now please, I would like to remind you of some etiquette.  We do not applaud in the nave of an Orthodox Church. It is my pleasure to introduce to you our guest speaker, Father Damascene.
Father Damascene:  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thank you for that excellent introduction. I did not know you were going to be saying all those things about me. (laughter) It was all true, you got it all right. (laughter) Thank all of you for coming. Thank you, Father Wayne and Father Michael, for your invitation to be here. With the blessing of His Grace, Bishop Joseph, many pilgrims have been coming to our monastery from this parish for many years, and it is a great blessing for me to finally be here among you all, and also to welcome all the people who do not go to this parish, but have come as guests to hear this talk, and to take part in the seminar.
Tonight I will be talking about Christ the Eternal Tao, specifically about the ancient book of Chinese philosophy, The Tao Te Ching, of Lao Tzu, in the light of Christian revelation, as found in its fullness in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and tomorrow I will be talking more about the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church and even more so about the practice. I will be talking about the Orthodox world view, the understanding of the purpose of man’s life, our creation, our original state, our fall, our redemption and salvation by Christ, and our path to union with God, which has been opened to us by Christ, and specifically, I will be talking a lot about watchfulness and prayer on the path of that union to God. Tonight I will talk about it briefly, but tomorrow I will go into much more depth about it. 
The talk tonight is based on the book that I wrote, Christ the Eternal Tao, which was first published in 1999. I wrote this book with two purposes in mind.  First of all, it was meant to reach out to spiritual seekers in the West who were looking into Eastern religions, particularly westerners who have had some exposure to Christianity in the past, who have a longing for Christ, but have been put off by modern Western forms of Christianity, and who have been looking into Eastern religions to fill the void in their hearts, and provide answers to the ultimate questions of life.  To such people, this book affirms that whatever truths they may have found in Eastern religions, find their fulfillment, their ultimate and final expression, in the revelation given by God to man in Jesus Christ, and specifically, in the Orthodox Church.
So this book is not a book of religious syncretism, rather it is a bridge book, a book intended to bring spiritual seekers of our times to a true understanding and experience of Christ in the Orthodox Church. 
The second reason I wrote the book is to present the Orthodox faith to Chinese people through the eyes of their own ancient sage, Lao Tzu. The book is now being translated into Chinese, and parts of this translation have recently been posted on the internet. It is on the website I chose to use the Tao Te Ching as a springboard to Orthodox Christianity because, in my opinion, it resonates with Christian revelation more fully than do other works of ancient Eastern philosophy and religion. 
As I will attempt to show in this talk, Lao Tzu’s understanding of the Tao is a foreshadowing of what would later be revealed of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Incidentally, in this talk, I will not be treating the religious Taoism which developed several centuries after Lao Tzu in China. I will be limiting my discourse to what is commonly known as philosophical Taoism, and specifically, to the philosophy of Lao Tzu. 
In choosing the Tao Te Ching as my bridge between Eastern philosophy and Orthodox Christianity, I was inspired not only by my own admiration and an appreciation for this intriguing work of ancient Chinese philosophy, but also, as was mentioned, by the life and work of my late spiritual father, Father Seraphim Rose. Father Seraphim was the person most instrumental in my own conversion to Orthodox Christianity 28 years ago, and was the co-founder of the St. Herman monastery, where I live.
As was mentioned, Father Seraphim was, himself, a convert to the Orthodox faith. Before his conversion, he was a fervent seeker of truth. His search for truth led him to ancient Chinese philosophy, where he found great profundity and, as he later said, “A noble idea of man.” The Chinese classic he was drawn to most was the Tao Te Ching. He became a scholar of Chinese philosophy and mastered the ancient form of the Chinese language, with the primary aim of reading the Tao Te Ching in the original language.
He was fortunate to be guided in his studies by a traditional Chinese philosopher by the name of Ji Ming Shen. Before coming to the West, Ji Ming had studied under sages in China, as well as under some of the greatest Chinese thinkers of the 20th century. 
A humble and virtuous man, Ji Ming was regarded by Father Seraphim as having a better understanding of Chinese philosophy, probably, than anyone else outside of China. Father Seraphim helped Ji Ming to translate the Tao Te Ching into English and Ji Ming opened to him the deeper meaning of its contents. Later, Ji Ming disappeared mysteriously, to the great sadness of Father Seraphim, who to the end of his days remembered him with the deepest admiration and gratitude.
Father Seraphim went on to become an Orthodox Christian monk and writer, and as many of you know, he is today one of the best-loved spiritual writers in the Orthodox countries of Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Georgia. In this talk, in addition to referring to Orthodox Christian sources, I will be drawing on Ji Ming Shen’s analysis of the Tao Te Ching, which is to be found both in Ji Ming’s articles, and in the notes that Father Seraphim took during his classes, which we have preserved in the monastery. Also, at times, I will be referring to Ji Ming’s English translation of the Tao Te Ching.
In Ji Ming’s transmission of the ancient Chinese tradition, one is struck by how closely this tradition resembles the ancient Greek tradition. In fact, Ji Ming taught that the early Chinese and Greek philosophers were basically alike in their view of the universe. “In the history of ancient China,” Father Seraphim once said, “there are moments when it is absolutely incredible how the same things happened in Chinese life as happened in the West, even though there was no outward connection between the two civilizations. The first of the Greek philosophers, Thales, lived about the 6th century B.C., just about the time Confucius was in China and the Buddha was in India. It is as though there really was a spirit of the times.”
One of the first Greek philosophers was Heraclitus. Heraclitus was born in the middle of the 6th century B.C. For the riddling character of his writings, he was surnamed The Obscure, even in antiquity. He based his philosophy on the logos, a Greek word which, itself, means “word,” but which suggests measured, proportion, and pattern. According to one textbook of Greek philosophy, the logos of Heraclitus is the first principle of knowledge. Understanding of the world involves understanding of the structure or pattern of the world, a pattern concealed from the eyes of ordinary men.
The logos is also the first principle of existence, the unity of the world. This unity lies beneath the surface, for it is a unity of diverse and conflicting opposites, in whose strife the logos maintains a continual balance. The logos maintains the equilibrium of the universe at every moment.
But at the same time that Heraclitus lived in Greece, there lived in China the philosopher, Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu wrote of the same universal pattern or ordering principle that Heraclitus styled, the logos. “I do not know its name,” Lao Tzu wrote, “but characterize it as the Way, or the Tao,” the Tao being a symbol basic to Chinese thought as the logos was to ancient Greek thought.
For Lao Tzu, the way was precisely what its adopted name signified, in the ultimate sense of the word: The way, path, or pattern of heaven, the course that all things follow. The way is the uncreated cause of all things. It is the Way that creates, and it is the Way that nourishes, develops, cares for, shelters, comforts and protects the creation. These are Lao Tzu’s own words: “Balancing the strife of opposites, by itself not contending.”
As Ji Ming Shen taught Father Seraphim, this Tao of Lao Tzu is to be identified with the Logos of Heraclitus, and the other ancient Greek philosophers. Of the writings of Heraclitus, only a handful of fragments have come down to us, but from Lao Tzu we have a full 81 chapters of the
. Of all the ancient philosophers, one may say that Lao Tzu came the closest to finding the essence of reality and describing the Tao, or Logos. His Tao Te Ching represents the height of what a human being can know through intuition, through glimpsing the universal principle and pattern of creation.
Six centuries after Heraclitus and Lao Tzu, there lived on the Greek Island of Patmos, the holy apostle and evangelist, John the Theologian. While exiled in a cave on the island, John dictated to his disciple, Prochorus, what he had received from direct revelation from God, and thus spoke to the world words that it never thought to hear:
In the beginning was the Logos, the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.
This was that very Logos of which Heraclitus had said that the people always proved to be uncomprehending. This was the very Tao that Lao Tzu had said no one in the world was able to understand. It is not without reason that sensitive Chinese translators of St. John’s gospel, knowing that Tao meant to the Chinese what Logos meant to the Greeks, have rendered the first sentence of the gospel to read, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.” And later, “And the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us.”
When the apostle, John, wrote his gospel, he was no doubt aware of the common philosophical symbol in the Greek language of the Logos, but as can be clearly seen by comparison of that gospel with the riddles of Heraclitus, or the writings of other philosophers, when St. John spoke from revelation, he was not merely borrowing an old term, rather he was transforming it—bringing it into the light of the fullness of divine knowledge. When he spoke of the Logos, it was now no longer in riddles, as from one who had only glimpsed its traces in nature, for now the Logos, creator, sustainer, pattern, and ordering principle of nature, was made flesh and dwelt among us, for the only time in history.
And John, His disciple, had seen Him. He had beheld His glory, and heard the words which proceeded from His mouth, being offered the ultimate closeness to Him who had only been dimly seen before. He had even lain on His breast, and in the greatest of mysteries, had received Him into himself at the last supper. Thus, while Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Chingrepresents the highest that a person can know through intuition, St. John’s gospel represents the highest that a person can know through revelation, that is, through making God, Himself, known and experienced in the most tangible way possible.
Now let us look in more detail at the connection between the intuitive awareness of Lao Tzu and the revelation of Christ. I will attempt to do this chronologically. I will begin by discussing what the Tao Te Ching calls the primitive origin of man, and then I will speak about the philosophy of Lao Tzu, and then about Christ’s revelation, and finally about the life of man in union with Christ, the incarnate Tao.
We will begin at the beginning. The holy fathers of the Orthodox Church say that man was created in a state of pristine simplicity—pure awareness. In the beginning, his thoughts and memories were not diversified and fragmented as they are today, but were simple and one-pointed. He knew no mental distraction. While being wiser than any human being today, he was in a state of innocence, like a child, and in this state he lived in deep personal communion with God, and in harmony with the rest of creation.


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Interesting. I will look into this more...

nico said...

this idea is herectical.
of course--- in this new age of syncretism we see the united nations matra of one god.
however christ is clear of his message-- only believe in me the true god that you can be saved.

Orthodox Christian Resources said...

Dear Nico,

You clearly do not understand what Fr Damascene is trying to saying.

As the Jews had the prophets to show them the way, and the Ancient Greeks had the philosophers, so too the Ancient Chinese had Lao Tzu showing them glimpses of the Truth.

You say: 'however christ is clear of his message-- only believe in me the true god that you can be saved.'

Fr Damascene is not trying to say that one MUST read the Tao Te Ching to develop a relationship with Christ, and certainly does not say that this idea can substitute the message of Christ.

However, at a time when people are utterly confused and are subject to all kinds of ideologies, he shows that it is still possible to find the Truth Who is Jesus Christ.

Orthodox Christian Resources said...

This is not religious syncretism.

It shows that Christ the Eternal Logos is present and active equally in all periods of history, at all places, and it is the same experience of God throughout the historical spectrum. What changes is our receptivity towards the Logos.

Christ is not only the Logos, but the Telos (end or purpose) and hence all the things mentioned by Fr Damascene only make sense in the light of the Crucified and Exalted Christ.

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