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Switch to Forum Live View Gods and Immortals -- an agnostic view
10 years ago  ::  Jan 28, 2008 - 7:31PM #1
MengTzu
Posts: 110
It is my understanding that many forumers, including myself, are self-fashioned agnostic Daoists.  On the other hand, certain aspects of Daoism are so supernatural that agnostics find difficult to accept, yet so much a part of Daoism such that, to simply take them out would greatly limit the scope of Daoism that one can appreciate.  Many Western Buddhists face a similar issue.  One option, and certainly a valid one, is to throw out all of the supernatural aspects.  I suggest, however, a middle way.  Part of the answer rests in Daoism’s own view of deities and immortality.  Part of the answer is in how we agnostics may approach the issue.

There is a myriad of gods in the Daoist pantheon, which has expanded greatly over the centuries.  The highest of the gods are the Three Pure Ones: Yuanshi Tianzun (The Heavenly Worthy of the First Beginning), Lingbao Tianzun (The Heavenly Worthy of the Spiritual Treasures), Daode Tianzun (The Heavenly Worthy of Dao and De – also popularly known as Laozi).  The Three Pure Ones are transformations of Dao, and may be considered personifications of Dao.  Some also believe that the Three Pure Ones are transformations of Yuanshi Tianzun, while some believe that they are transformations of Laozi.  The Three Purities, the deities, and all beings are manifestations of Dao.  Cosmologically, while Dao is limitless and uncharacterizable, it manifests itself in Qi, or “energy” or “breath,” which takes on various forms, resulting in all beings of the world.

There is a lot of fluidity in this concept here.  Dao is the ground of all beings, including the gods.  In a sense, gods may be viewed as ethers or energies emanating from the one principle we call Dao.  For various reasons: perhaps some Daoists have experienced Dao in a personal way, or perhaps in order to make the concept of Dao more understandable to the general populace, the energies of Dao are personified as compassionate gods.  In fact, gods pervade throughout the entire universe.  There are gods throughout a person’s bodies.  There is a god representing each organ, such as heart, lungs, liver, brain, etc.  The word for “god” in Chinese is “shen,” which, if used as an adjective can mean spiritual, mysterious, miraculous.  Similar to the Latin word “animus,” the Daoist consider “shen” the vital force in all things.

I think it is easier for agnostics to accept the metaphysical implications here.  The Daoist texts often discuss the gods in metaphysical, cosmological terms.  For example, Tianbao Jun (a.k.a. Yuanshi Tianzun) came into being through accumulation of over 90000 layers of Qi or energies.  Therefore, according to Daoism, gods ARE energies.  As to the personal aspects of gods, we may consider these on symbolic terms, the same way some treat earth is our mother.

Another concept related to the gods is the idea of immortality.  The key here is that, in Daoist belief, we, too, may become like the gods.  In Daoism, gods and immortals are often referred to conjointly through the phrase “shen xian,” as though they are in one category.  Instead of putting them on an inapproachable place, Daoists believe that the gods and humans consist of the same substance, Dao, and that we may also become immortal and become similar to the gods.

Thus the gods, and the immortals who are humans said to have achieved immortality, may also be viewed as models of our practice.  We agnostics do not actually have to believe in immortality itself.  We can view it symbolically: that it is a state of being in this life consisting of absolute non-action, quietude, and peace.  Thus, gods and immortals may also serve as mental imageries of our goal in this life, of achieving a sublime state of mind during this life.
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10 years ago  ::  Jan 29, 2008 - 5:19AM #2
marmalade
Posts: 24
I've been interested in the Daoist view of gods ever since I read about it.  I think about gods as Jungian archetypes or as Sheldrakian morphic resonances(habits of the universe).  My main way of thinking about deities comes from Jung, and Jung was influenced by Daoism some.

I'm an agnostic that has been influenced by Daoism, but I don't know enough about it to identify myself as a Daoist.  Besides, having been raised in a Christian culture, Christian terminology is too ingrained in my mind.  I'm also influenced by a particular view of Tibetan deities.  First, you idealize them and then you identify with them in order to take on their traits.
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9 years ago  ::  Jul 17, 2008 - 5:06PM #3
luke643
Posts: 5
i think agnostic is a poor term.  It literally means "against knowledge".  Hardly a position any of us should be embracing. 

I also recognize that embracing daoism or buddhism for any westerner is difficult, but should never be performed with the expectation that there is no reality beyond our perception, no spirituality in other words.

I have little use for the taoist god-pantheon, and from what I have read of some giants of taoist literature, Sima Chengzhen, Sun Simiao, or as far back as Zhuang Zi, they had little use for god structures also. 

An important thing we have to grasp is that many of us a Atheists (anti-god) not agnostics (anti-knowledge).  If you are that, like me, you need to reclaim metaphysical reality, spirituality, super-human qualities of the universe from the religionists of the world.  I am personally tired of the atheist label being completely controlled by the materialists.

my 2 cents.
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9 years ago  ::  Oct 19, 2008 - 3:50AM #4
MengTzu
Posts: 110
Hi Luke643,

    I don't think "a" (as a prefix in "atheist" or "agnostic") means "anti."  As a prefix, "a" connotes "not" or "without."  In addition, I'm not too bothered with finding an exact label.  I'm certainly not anti-god, and I'm certainly not anti-knowledge.  I'm just generally skeptical: I'm skeptical about religious claims, but I find it irrational to dismiss all religious claims as absolutely false, because while we cannot prove with certitude that they are true, we also cannot prove with certitude that they are false.  Certain things simply cannot be verified.  My stance is that we simply cannot know right now, and it's best for now to just leave it at that.  At the same time, I find great value in certain aspects of religion.  I hope that clarifies my stance a bit.
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9 years ago  ::  Oct 20, 2008 - 5:04PM #5
EyesoftheWorld
Posts: 1,708
Yowser! I've never heard of names of Taoist Gods.

Honestly, it seems "heretical". so to speak.

I've read from an eminent source, that "Taoism is to the Tao Teh Ching what Christianity is to the teachings of Jesus".

Now, I interpret that to mean that the pure essence is the Tao Teh Ching; a massive philosophical movement has grown around that core and most if not all of that growth is extraneous and serves to obsure the pure Light.

Of course, your point of view can be the opposite and maybe you feel that the Tao Teh Ching isn't as important or essential as some other work(s) which came after it.

I can't relate to that, but I'm not saying anyone is wrong.

I just try to shed light.

I hope this helps.
Does my use of the word "heretical" make sense? I'm being sort of ironic of course, but the line in the Tao Teh Ching about any attempts to put names or descriptions on the Tao will only serve to obscure when to me it seems the idea is to have no veils at all.
What Fatal Flowers of Darkness Bloom from Seeds of Light!
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9 years ago  ::  Nov 12, 2008 - 9:33PM #6
MengTzu
Posts: 110
Hey Eyesoftheworld,

    The historical Daoist view of Scriptures was very expansive.  The Dao De Jing is one out of a multitude of Daoist texts (the Ming dynasty Zhengtong Daoist canon has over 60 volumes, many times longer than the Bible).  Few Christians would say that one should only read the Epistle of St. Paul to the exclusion of all the other books of the Bible.  Accordingly, it's strange to assume that any book that mentions anything specifically extra to the Dao De Jing is there "less Daoist".

    As to "naming" Dao, we must keep in mind that the DDJ itself names and describes Dao many times, keeping in mind that the name is not the reality it signifies -- the word "Dao" is not Dao itself, nor is any other name or description Dao De Jing uses to describe Dao.  Accordingly, it does not matter whether we name Dao sparingly or excessively -- as long as we keep in mind that they are only names.  It does not matter we refer to Dao simply by a single syllable, or signifies it by multitude upon multitude of deities and transformations -- one thing or one billion things, they are all Dao.  Insisting on not describing Dao would obscure Dao as much as insisting to describe Dao.  Holding onto sixty volume of texts would obscure Dao no more and no less than holding onto one single text of Dao De Jing -- they are all holding on, insisting on particularized representations.  To realize the truly vast and unrestricted reality of Dao, one need neither shrink from the multitude of representations of Dao nor insist that it is restricted to these representations.  It is not representations and descriptions that veil Dao from us -- it is our heart that veils Dao from us.  To a heart that embraces Dao, the absence of any representation, the representation by a single word "Dao", and the representation by a multitude of beings are all the same.
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9 years ago  ::  Nov 12, 2008 - 10:21PM #7
MengTzu
Posts: 110
Hey Eyesoftheworld,

    I wanted to make some changes and additions to my post, but beliefnet sets a time limit, so I can only post this again with the changes and additions.

    I understand where you are coming from.  However, to restrict ourselves to the Dao De Jing appears to be exactly contradictory to the teachings of Dao De Jing itself.  Dao can't be restricted to the Dao De Jing, or even to the sixty something volumes of the Zhengtong Daoist canon.  It can't be restricted at all.  Furthermore, the historical Daoist view of Scriptures was very expansive. The Dao De Jing is one out of a multitude of Daoist texts -- the Ming dynasty Zhengtong Daoist canon has over 60 volumes, many times longer than the Bible.  Note: as I will explain below, I view that the Dao De Jing is just as equally valid (and equally invalid) as the other Daoist texts (neither the Dao De Jing nor the other texts fully encompass Dao).  Now, few Christians would say that one should only read the four Gospel accounts to the exclusion of all the other books of the Bible.  Accordingly, it's strange to assume that any book that mentions anything specifically extra to the Dao De Jing is any less valid than the Dao De Jing itself simply because they have elements that are not in the Dao De Jing.

    As to "naming" Dao, we must keep in mind that the DDJ itself names and describes Dao many times, keeping in mind that the name is not the reality it signifies -- the word "Dao" is not Dao itself, nor is any other name or description Dao De Jing uses to describe Dao.  Accordingly, it does not matter whether we name Dao sparingly or excessively -- as long as we keep in mind that they are only names.  It does not matter we refer to Dao simply by a single syllable, or signifies it by multitude upon multitude of deities and transformations -- one thing or one billion things, they are all Dao.  Insisting on not describing Dao would obscure Dao as much as insisting to describe Dao.  Holding onto sixty volume of texts would obscure Dao no more and no less than holding onto one single text of Dao De Jing -- they are all holding on, insisting on particularized representations.  To realize the truly vast and unrestricted reality of Dao, one need neither shrink from the multitude of representations of Dao nor insist that it is restricted to these representations.  It is not representations and descriptions that veil Dao from us -- it is our heart that veils Dao from us.  To a heart that embraces Dao, the absence of any representation, the representation by a single word "Dao", and the representation by a multitude of beings are all the same.

    I want to comment on one very interesting statement you made: "Of course, your point of view can be the opposite and maybe you feel that the Tao Teh Ching isn't as important or essential as some other work(s) which came after it."

    Why do you assume on such a dichotomy?  Why must one be pit against the other?  Why must texts outside of the Dao De Jing be more important or essential in order for them to be valid?  The Dao De Jing and the other texts are equally valid (and equally invalid) to me.  I read the Dao De Jing frequently, and I don’t consider it any less (or more) essential than some other Daoist texts (note: from a structural and thematic point of view, the Dao De Jing is certainly more central to Daoism than many other Daoist texts – this doesn’t mean that it is more valid than these “not as central” texts.)  The Daoists have an expansive view: some Daoists even encourage reading non-Daoist texts.
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9 years ago  ::  Nov 13, 2008 - 7:10PM #8
EyesoftheWorld
Posts: 1,708
Hi MengTzu! I really appreciate your posts... I really should have elaborated as to why I posted what I posted and I should have explained why I posted how I did.

I'll try now; I probably wouldn't have without your prompting me and I think this will help others understand at least what I was getting at, and thus they will get a better idea of where I'm coming from (which obviously informed what I post). It will probably also help me understand myself better too by articulating/crystallizing my thoughts.

I am just one individual and understand my point of view is not superior to anyone elses; the nature of this forum and life in general is that we can only present one point of view, even if we have tried to integrate many points of view in ourselves. All of those points of view are still refracted, like through a prism, through our Self.

I love the simplicity I find in Taoism. I value simplicity.

I believe the root or seed of "Taoism", per se, is/was the Tao Teh Ching. Granted I haven't read much else in regards to Taoist literature. To say "I can't imagine anything doing any bettter a job at conveying the unconveyable" is, I know, a terrible explanation for discounting those Non-TTC texts...

I feel that the simplicity of what's pointed at with the word "Tao" is only obscured more and more by the more we read about it... Nietzsche counseled about the hazards of the "profuse chaos of symbols", and I take that advice to heart.

I did preface my relating of the idea that the Tao Teh Ching is to Taoism what Jesus' words are to Christianity by stating that it is an opinion and not fact. I find it compelling enough to pass it along here, not as 'gospel' but as another point of view. the intent is to champion simplicity.

however, that quote in the last paragraph assumes a more or less agreed upon concept of "Taoism" and "Christianity"! which is pretty silly to assume as I have already expressed my belief that there are only individual points of view; usually there is enough overlap to overrule the differences which allows folks to consider themselves in agreement.

my point is this: If Christianity is spawned from the Life of Jesus, and Taoism is spawned from the Tao Teh Ching, wouldn't it be best to go to the source? other works which came after may shed light or express things better, but it seems like maybe a risk....

I hope this makes some sense.

Simplicity is my point and you can't be more simple than sticking to the least amount of pure, raw material.
What Fatal Flowers of Darkness Bloom from Seeds of Light!
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9 years ago  ::  Nov 13, 2008 - 8:43PM #9
MengTzu
Posts: 110
Hi Eyesoftheworld,

    I have wanted to comment on your point that Daoism is to Dao De Jing what Christianity is to Jesus' teachings.  There's some truth to this idea, but it is overly simplistic.  Daoism is not a "one-source" tradition -- that is, it didn't solely result from a singular text.  While DDJ is essential to Daoism, it is overly simplistic to imply that it is the sole core of Daoism -- in fact, it is questionable whether we should treat the DDJ as the root of Daoism.  The role of DDJ in Daoism is not analogous to the life of Jesus in Christianity.  Your statement: "Taoism is spawned from the Tao Teh Ching," is not entirely accurate.  What is unfortunate is that English speakers who can't read Chinese have very little access to text outside of the DDJ, thus it is easy to fall into a DDJ-only mentality.  This is one of the reasons behind my effort to translate additional texts, although it is hard to find time to do that.

    Daoism is a "mult-core" tradition.  In fact, it isn't one tradition, but many.  A Christian can claim that Jesus to be the core of Christianity, but Daoism is ideologically and structurally different -- this is partly why the statement by your "eminent source" is misleading.  It has some truths to it, but the analogy can create an inaccurate impression about how Daoism is formulated as a body of diverse traditions.  For example, while historically Chrisitanity deals with the problem of competition of views by asserting orthodoxy and attacking heresy, Daoism deals with the problem very differently.  Often time various orders and schools coexist -- that is not to say that the Daoists are "better people" and never fight and compete.  Instead, they just "compete" in a different way.  A reason for this difference is that Daoism, unlike Christianity, doesn't insist on assent to and belief in a body of central truths as the means of salvation.

     Therefore, it is correct to say that DDJ is essential to Daoism, but it is not the only core.  Nor was it the only original source of Daoism.  What I found most troubling from your posts was your insistence (in another thread) of treating the DDJ as the highest truth -- Daoism is not so dogmatic like that.  I think we should all be

     I also want to comment on your idea that non-DDJ texts obscure the light of Dao.  As long as you're stating a personal preference and not an objective "truth-asserting" statement, then we are in perfect agreement.  I encourage everyone to approach Daoism with his or her own angle.  However, I also suggest that, instead of making blanket statement that all other non-DDJ texts by default obscure Dao without first reading these other texts, and rather than rely on a purportedly "eminent source," you can greatly benefit your studies by personally researching the rest of the Daoist canon.  Simplicity ultimately lies in the heart.  One whose mind is chaotic will find no symplicity even from a short text like the DDJ, but one who is at peace will not be confused by a million words. 

    I recommend that, instead of simply believing some scholar and ignore all non-DDJ texts, and, almost by an apparent act of faith, accept DDJ as the sole truth, why not read a few (or even just one!) other non-DDJ text to see for yourself?  It is my experience that extra-DDJ texts actually help elucidate Dao rather than obscure it.  Everyone's experience might differ, but at least investigate for yourself before making a decision.  That way you can express your views based on your own experience rather than your reliance on someone else's opinion.
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9 years ago  ::  Nov 14, 2008 - 11:51AM #10
EyesoftheWorld
Posts: 1,708
Meng Tzu, I thank you for explaining yourself so well. I feel this will allow me now to as closely as possible explain myself.

You are correct that my American perspective is greatly limited w/r/t what is even available for me to read about Taoism.

I did think the the TTC/DDC was the first "book" of Taoism, and have/had an impression that it was the seed and not just a flower, so to speak.

I think I always make clear that my posts are only my personal perspective. If I come across as being an authority, I apologize, but I do feel that my prefacing my feeling and thoughts with "I think" and "I feel" is fair warning.

Towards the end of your last post you were poetic and succinct. I hope you don't mind me excerpting some lines which I want to quote:

"I have wanted to comment on your point that Daoism is to Dao De Jing what Christianity is to Jesus' teachings. There's some truth to this idea, but it is overly simplistic."...
"I also want to comment on your idea that non-DDJ texts obscure the light of Dao. As long as you're stating a personal preference and not an objective "truth-asserting" statement, then we are in perfect agreement. I encourage everyone to approach Daoism with his or her own angle. However, I also suggest that, instead of making blanket statement that all other non-DDJ texts by default obscure Dao without first reading these other texts, and rather than rely on a purportedly "eminent source," you can greatly benefit your studies by personally researching the rest of the Daoist canon. Simplicity ultimately lies in the heart. One whose mind is chaotic will find no symplicity even from a short text like the DDJ, but one who is at peace will not be confused by a million words.

I recommend that, instead of simply believing some scholar and ignore all non-DDJ texts, and, almost by an apparent act of faith, accept DDJ as the sole truth, why not read a few (or even just one!) other non-DDJ text to see for yourself? It is my experience that extra-DDJ texts actually help elucidate Dao rather than obscure it. Everyone's experience might differ, but at least investigate for yourself before making a decision. That way you can express your views based on your own experience rather than your reliance on someone else's opinion. "

I have read other Taoist text and upon reflection, feel I had no need to read anything other than the Tao Teh Ching to understand Taoism. Everyone's experience will obviously vary. I am of course only conveying my experience. So, I have investigated and made my decision. I apparently did not make that clear enough.

My citing of the greatest comparative religious scholar of the 20th Century (of which I am aware) was not my taking on faith his statement. His statement resonated with me greatly. I only recently came upon it, but had that same kind of feeling but had never articulated it. I shared it here b/c that's what we do. I wasn't going to articulate that thought until I read my scholar's statement, as I thought it would be far too great an analogy to make on my own non-authority.

Christianity, I feel, has totally buried Jesus' teachings under other dogmatic texts. I think Xianity would probably be the greatest Western relgion if all it consisted of were what are believed to be Jesus' words.

Similary, TTC is all I needed.

I stated my value of simplicity, which I feel is a Taoist virtue, also.

My advice is informed by these things. Getting into names of Gods or whatever, to explain Taoism, I feel, has little or no value and could be actually counterproductive.

By the way I"m amazed that you used the word "Canon". Is there really a Canon? was there a council that selected books to include in the Canon and actively excluded books, like the Apocryphal texts of the Bible?

You probably mixed metaphors or concepts, but Canon implies central truth...

If there is a Canon of Taoism, I'd love to see the list.

If not, then anything goes. Anyone can write a Taoist book.

I think the chances are that nobody can match the sublimity of the Tao Teh Ching. That's all I needed. All other words (I haven't reach a million w/r/t Taoism) did not confuse me, but they were extraneous. I luckily did not read anything about a Taoist Pantheon. That sound totally absurd.

Maybe I'll write a book about Taoism and make up some names for Taoist Deities! Will that make the Canon?

I'd be interested in hearing what the duties or responsibilities or habits of these Taoist Deities of which you posted allegedly are. Also, you might as well tell us what book(s) they're in and who wrote the books.

Did those books help you to understand Taoism?

The idea that words and names only serve to obscure is, I feel, one of the most basic, fundamental concepts of the Tao Teh Ching and it's in like the first or secton section. To have mountains of books that may include some heirarchy of Gods with names even, seems almost like a joke, but you seem pretty serious. I do appreciate dry humor, though.
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