A Comparison Between Chinese Taoism and Native American Religious Tradition
An except from the forthcoming book by Gary R. Varner, “Ancient Footprints.” | www.authorsden.com
There are many similarities between Chinese and Native American spiritual belief and philosophy. While there is no conclusive evidence available that can tie the two together we can at least explore the possibility. It is important to understand that there is not one “Indian” philosophy or belief. But many tribes had similar traditions expressed in different ways. In this comparison I will employ a simplification of these beliefs. Taoism, the Chinese philosophy of perfect peace and the man-nature harmony, is very similar to various Native American traditions. Did a transfer of ideas result from early cross cultural contact or did these traditions and beliefs originate independently? The concept of humankind co-existing with Nature and thereby with the divine is an age old one and one shared universally among indigenous peoples. But this concept was never illustrated so simply and graphically until the Taoist and Native American philosophy came into being.
Both philosophies have the same message: the binding unity of humankind with the Earth. Man is only able to survive with the Earth’s cooperation. The Earth provides humankind with food, shelter and a meaningful education about life. But the Earth must be cared for as well. It is a give and take relationship. To many, at first glance, Taoism seems contradictory. It is a philosophy of opposites that Western man has difficulty in grasping. However, it is only ambiguous in its simplicity. The Tao states: “That which shrinks. Must first expand. That which fails. Must first be strong. That which is cast down. Must first be raised. Before receiving. There must be giving. Ancient Footprints. “This is called perception of the nature of things. Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.” Hyemeyohst Storm, a modern Plains Indian, wrote of perceiving: “All the things of the universe wheel have spirit and life, including the rivers, rooks, earth, sky, plants and animals.
But it is only man, of all the Beings of the Wheel, who is a determiner, our determining spirit can be made whole only through the learning of our harmony with all our brothers and sisters, and with all the other spirits of the Universe. To do this we must learn to seek and perceive. We must do this to find our place within the medicine wheel.” The concept of universality is a central theme in Taoist and Native American thought. The Ying Yang principle of opposites making up the whole is really just a cause and effect relationship. Ying Yang is only a way of saying transformation. The Chinese have a saying of “Ten thousand things—there is an infinity of all created things. Dark to light, hate to love, rain to give food.” Ying Yang is comparable to the Indian “Cosmos” thought. All things are because of the existence of other things. Cosmos is all. Cosmos is God, time, and nature. The seasons and life cycles are very much a part of the cosmos.
The birth, death and rebirth symbolized in cosmos is almost an exact re-phrasing of Ying Yang. Circular symbols are also important to both traditions. The Sioux saying “The year is a circle around the earth” and the Plains concept of “Universal Wheel” are similar to the Chinese Ying Yang. Similar are the ideas concerning the creator and heaven. In Tao God is a universal, ruling power, a power personified only through the wind and the mountains and in nature itself. A similar concept among Native Americans. Ceremony is also very important. In Tao the only way o the Universal Good, called Li, is through ritual and ceremony. If the ceremony is done with sincerity then everything goes as it should. Among Native Americans ritual and ceremony is also very important. Everything with consequence was accomplished through ceremony such as puberty, naming children, birth, death and curing.
In both Native American and Taoism ceremony was done for the honor of an individual or group or, more importantly, to honor and placate the spirits. To carry this concept further we realize in Tao that ceremony is what separates humankind from animal kind. Ceremony is the total essence of humanity. One must master it, and thereby Li, to become totally human. The lack of ceremony equates one to a subhuman level. Ceremony is a show of faith to both traditions. Natural harmony is also a connection between Taoism and Native Americans. Harmony with nature is to exist to the fullest. The Indian could only survive by cooperating with the Mother Earth. Harmony to Taoists is given the following description: 1. Heart is with learning. 2. Feet planted firmly on the ground (symbolizing stability). 3. No longer suffering from perplexity (symbolizing serenity). 4. Know the bidding of heaven (symbolizing renewed perception). 5. Hear with a docile ear, and. 6. Follow the dictates of the heart.
Through all of these, Tao asserts, the individual has achieved harmony with rightness. The Indian would put it more simply: to see, to understand natures interaction with man and to give back to the Mother Earth what one has taken from it. Harmony is simply a loving respect for all things. In respect to the Divine there is a slight difference between Taoist and Native American thought. In Tao “gods,” per se, do not exist. Tao, the “thought,” is itself the creating force and the universe exists because of the associated Ying Yang actionreaction principle. Man is part of that creation, and the Tao assets, there is no “god” but for a universal consciousness. In contrast, most Native American traditions have conceived of a Creator. The following Pima poem illustrated this general godhead thought: “I have made the Sun! I have made the Sun! Hurling it high. In the four directions. To the East I threw it. To run its appointed course”.
The Aztec verse: “The flowering tree stands in Tamoanchan: There we were created, there he gave us being. There we wove the strands of our life, He who gives life to everything”. To Native American’s the concept of “God” is a spirit that may be found in any form, a spirit that resides everywhere. The Spirit is, in this beautiful concept, everything from a rock to a soaring eagle. In the Native American world all things have a direct linkage to the “Spirit.” The eagle, for example, was a great omen and deservedly so with its power and beauty. Tradition itself is held in esteem by both Taoists and Native Americans. Tradition is the order of things. It is an established, working way. In Tao, order is a longing for innocence which is continually being sought. It allows no excess which would disrupt its order. Tradition is similar to harmony. The Tao would say “Knowing harmony is constancy. Knowing constancy is enlightenment.” 41 To the Native American tradition is life.
There is no greater teacher than the ways and laws handed down from generation to generation. The Indian has found that to break or lose traditional ways and skills is to lose their unity, their livelihood and their honor among each other. Tradition follows harmony and the Taoist Li results from both. They are one together with knowledge. The Tao states: “The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.” This is truly a Native American concept as well. Cooperation is an instinctive feature of Native American life. Alfonso Ortiz, a doctorate in anthropology, stated before a Native American symposium on “American Indian Philosophy”, his observations on the Indian belief of non-interference with the Earth: “…I have never ceased to be impressed by… how difficult it is to find a [Navajo] Hogan, how they are set off nicely in a little pocket and blend right in with the landscape.
Again, the magnificent knowledge…” Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius and keeper of the imperial Chinese archives in the sixth century, had a very simple way of telling man that “progress” was destructive to order and harmony. In the Tao, Lao Tzu said: “the further one goes, the less one knows. Turning back is how the way moves.” Taoism can be classified as “the way of the Universe… the ordering principle behind all life.” To this the Native American concept of cosmos is again comparable. To the Native American the workings of the universe, nature, and humankind were all in order and nothing could be justified that would upset this delicate balance. To most Native American’s every individual is his own conscience and does what he/she believes is best. Individual age was unimportant as everyone was believed capable of rational thought. Parents never refused a reasonable request of their children.
Children were separate and equal to their parents and other adults as long as they could demonstrate sound reasoning. The Taoist saying “Who knows what is good or bad?” applies here. No one can determine for another if their actions are right or wrong as that determination belongs to the individual. The dominating theme of Native American religions is “at oneness.” To know yourself, to know the Earth and the Earth’s life-forms, to know that the cosmos was created for all life equally. This is true in Taoism as well. The philosophy of Taoism has been defined as the “acceptance (of) what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is only sets up resistence.
Nature provides everything without requiring payment or thanks, and also provides all without discrimination—therefore let us present the same face to everyone… we will come to appreciate the original meaning of the word ‘understand’, which means to ‘stand under’. Te—which may be translated as ‘virtue’ or ‘strength’—lies always in Tao—or ‘natural law.’” To most traditional Native Americans the usage of spoken language is a serious thing. Each word spoken reduces the power in the speaker because words hold great power in themselves and are taken as literal truths. Throughout the Tao Te-Ching we find evidence of similar concepts: “He who boasts achieves nothing. He who brags will not endure.” “A good speaker makes no slips.” “In speech, be true .” “More words count less.” “Great eloquence seems awkward. Stillness and tranquility set things in order.” To know the importance of the simple things we take for granted is an important concept in both Taoist and Native American thought.
To live and abuse nature or man was rarely heard of in Native American society. In effect, the Native American is perhaps a more perfect practitioner of Taoism than most Chinese. The similarity of Native American and Taoist thought can be illustrated in the following quotes: “Interference has gradually caused Nature to turn her face. When the sun rises and sets blood red, the people know that Nature is out of balance.” (Hopi). “The world is ruled by letting things take their course, it cannot be ruled by interfering.” (Tao Te Ching). “Through our ceremonies, it is possible to keep the natural forces together.” (Hopi). “Ceremony is all that is human. It is harmony with nature.” (Tao Te-Ching).