Taoist Cosmology

By Bill Mason

Also known as, "Who Made Who," this question is often put in the form of "who created me?" or "why am I alive?" or "what is my purpose for living?" All of these questions are related to the overall question of cosmology.

Tao cannot be described. A picture tells a thousand words. Likewise God, the creation, life, sufferings as a result of the creation....why, why, why? Only a true and sincere seeker of the Truth will have real wisdom to see the picture. But everyone claims to be able to know and have found the Truth. Only God knows..............
TA Chew 

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You may notice one common theme underlying all of these questions: there's always some reference to "me." Is this not a bit biased? For Taoism, the first question would be: who is this "me" person anyway? How many times in a single day do people use the word, "me"? Yet this concept that people seem so familiar with using, they are very unfamiliar with the implications.

First of all, the seed for your growth was given by your parents, but the seed alone is not sufficient. This seed needs a vast amount of nutrients, which, when recognized by the DNA patterns in the seed, are put together in rather amazingly complex patterns to start building an embreyo. All of these nutrients are provided by the mother, which is in turn provided by the world in which she lives.

Right from the beginning, there is no you. The seed is not you; it was produced by your parents. The nutrients and the biological structures produced from them are not you either; they were provided by the world around you.

Then comes the profoundly complex structure known as the brain. This is nature's masterpiece. As various species evolved over time, nature continously selected only those beings which were more conscious. The conscious is the awareness of life, and everything else the brain learns to divide. Part of this awareness, however, is the awareness of self, referred to in psychology, and of course by Taoists, as the Ego.

Ego and Self, however, are two of the great misunderstandings in psychology and philosophy, even in Taoist philosophy. Ego is not some "thing" that sits in the brain. Ego is nothing more than a concept, that of self-awareness. It's silly to talk about "The Ego," as if it's some person inside your brain. If nothing else, "The Ego" is the thing thinking about "The Ego." The Ego is nothing more than "you" as a separate being, seeing yourself in relation to that which is "not you." It is self-awareness, nothing else.

Nevertheless, this concept is nothing more than a concept. There is nothing in reality like it other than that big lump of flesh we call our conscious brain. Of course, fiction serves its own purposes in other contexts, but fiction is not what I'm exploring in this essay.

Now that we've hit that dead end, it's time to try a different path. Let's start back at the question of "who made who," you know, the one that's usually phrased as, "who created you?" As I pointed out already, the "you" that is thought of here is nothing more than various nutrients pieced together by the instructions encoded biologically in your DNA. So if there's anything that anyone can point to as "you," the closest they could come is that initial seed provided by your parents.

The safest answer to the question, "who created me" is "there is no me to have been created," so the next safest answer would be "my parents." However, we could apply the same argument to them as that given above, and see that they, as seperate entities, don't really exist either, but we already saw where that got us, so let's keep going and say that their parents made them, and their parents made them, etc.

Uh oh. Looks like we've got ourselves trapped in circular logic again! I guess that's why the next safest answer would have to be, "God created us all!" Whew! Off the hook with that one! But no such luck, because the next inevitable question would be, "who created God?" I guess you have to end somewhere. The curiosity as to what spawned the Absolute Starting Point will spoil any answer to the Great Cosmological Question. If you must have an answer, then the starting point is arbitrary.

You'll pull back and back, starting with your biased concept of "self," then looking to your parents, then to their parents, and finally to the universe itself, then to God. You could pull back even further if you're creative enough with your theology. It really doesn't matter where you place the starting point, because you will always wonder what happened Before The Beginning. What came first? The chicken or the egg?

This is a common problem found in logic known as a paradox, or circular logic. You will always find yourself asking your original question. In fact, this is an excellent sign of your logic failing you. However, most people don't ask deep enough questions to get into too hot of water. They're usually satified with the usual overly-processed Answer, and they go on with their lives. In fact, this is what we have to do with everything, because logic, by nature, is finite, and that which logic tries to comprehend is infinite. It is inevitable that your logic will break down, and in fact it always happens in the form of a paradox.

Taoism teaches that nature itself is cyclical: there is no starting point, and no ending point. It's just like a circle. This is what creates the paradox in logic: you can answer question after question until you find yourself back to your original question. That's because you've gone around the circle and found yourself back to the beginning.

But logic thrives on linearality. Everything must have a starting point and a distinct ending point. There must be a this, and there must be a distinct that. Since nature is circular instead of linear, there is the illusion that you're going in a strait line with your logic because on an infinitesimal level (which is our relative size to the universe we're conceptualizing), a circle looks like a strait line. But then we find ourselves where we started and we say, "that doesn't make sense!"

This inevitable conclusion to every logical question is what Taoist writing thrives on. If you read the Tao Te Ching or Chuang Tzu for the first time, I'm sure you'll exclaim, "that doesn't make any sense!" But that is their whole point of writing it! How else can a Taoist describe the universe? We already know that it's futile. We'll just find ourselves back where we started. So instead of going in a strait line, we go in circles.

Of course it won't make sense to the conscious brain, because the entire reason for Taoist writing is to transcend the conscious brain and go deeper. You see, the conscious brain is only a recent (and in fact relatively unsophisticated) development in evolution. There is a whole other, highly unexplored, part of the biology that developed right from the beginning, just by the very nature of its inseparability from the universe around it. It is by this that beings operated before the development of the conscious brain, and it is this which Taoists are trying to tap into.

The conscious brain is excellent for adapting to environments and surviving in general, but it's awful at understanding things as a totality. By its very nature, its job is to not understand things as a totality, but to divide it up and analyze as separate parts. It's like trying to see a star through a microscope. The microscope is intended to analyze on a very tiny level, whereas the star is very far away and very massive in size. The microscope wasn't designed to observe stars, and it would be silly to use it in this way. That's why we have telescopes. Similarly, the conscious brain wasn't designed to observe the Whole, but there is something else that was.

So what is this "thing" that is used to observe the whole? It would probably seem more like "feeling" than "thinking." Some refer to it as intuition, or more mystically, "the third eye." Psychologists call it the unconscious brain. But it is not something bizarre and supernatural. It is something very natural indeed, and something very old in age, the oldest in fact. It is the very seat of creativity.

Taoists purposely say things that are paradoxical and downright confusing, but it only seems that way when you're analyzing the words with logic. If you understand the words at a deeper level, that of your intuition, or whatever else you might want to call it, it can be very profound. Entire philosophies of life can be derived from just a few single words. But insist on analyzing, and it will seem like nonsense.

When a superior man hears of the Tao, he immediately begins to embody it. When an average man hears of the Tao, he half believes it, half doubts it. When a foolish man hears of the Tao, he laughs out loud. If he didn't laugh, it wouldn't be the Tao. Thus it is said: The path into the light seems dark, the path forward seems to go back, the direct path seems long, true power seems weak, true purity seems tarnished, true steadfastness seems changeable, true clarity seems obscure, the greatest person seems unsophisticated, the greatest love seems indifferent, the greatest wisdom seems childish. The Tao is nowhere to be found. Yet it nourishes and completes all things. Tao Te Ching - Chapter 41

Now think of this circle which your logic will take you in. You have what you call a starting point for the universe, and you move along the circle until you find the ending point. You begin wondering what happened Before the Beginning and what will happen After the End. Is there just void? That's what the universe is anyway, relative to what we call "matter" which is contained in it. Explore the question long enough, and your logic goes in circles.

Taoism starts with a very basic premise, which I already mentioned: that of cyclical growth. Nothing in the universe goes in a straight line, but in circles. If you nail down a starting point, you have trouble finding the ending point. Likewise, if you nail down an ending point, you have trouble finding the starting point. That is the Way the universe works. So what created the universe? What existed before the universe existed? The only thing that could possibly exist is the Way itself.

Think about it. How do you build a house without knowing the Way to Build a House? You could argue, "but the Way doesn't build the house! The carpenter builds it!" Thus if you were to build a house, you would see it as your creation, just as many see the universe as God's creation. But we've already gone through that argument! There is no you, separate and distinct. You already know the universe created you, and we also know the troubles of seeking who created the universe.

The only possibility for the Ultimate Creator is the only thing that could exist before the Creator, which could spawn the Creation of the Creator. The only thing that exists in and of itself, without reliance on anything else, is the Way itself. In other words, there is no starting point on the circle. The starting point is the entire circle itself. This Way, or Circle, or Creator of the Creator, is given a special name in Taoism: the Tao, which is really nothing more than the Chinese word for "the Way."

There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao. It flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things. The Tao is great. The universe is great. Earth is great. Man is great. These are the four great powers. Man follows the earth. Earth follows the universe. The universe follows the Tao. The Tao follows only itself. Tao Te Ching - Chapter 25

To nail down a starting point is to limit yourself. To be finite, something must have a starting point. With no starting point, you have infinity. Since you are nothing more than a piece of the universe, and the universe is nothing more than a piece of the Way, and the Way is infinite, not being a piece of anything, that means that you are intimately connected with something infinite! There is no limit except for that which you impose on yourself by seeing yourself as separate and distinct from the Way, the beautiful, yet deceiving, talent of the conscious brain.

That is the goal of Taoism: to tap into the infinite Way. To do so, you needn't have a teacher, nor read certain books, nor sit in meditation for hours, although these help only if they clarify The Real You: the Way that is infinite. But my point is that you don't need "something else." Everything you need is given to you, you just need to learn how to use it. That is the only purpose that teachers, books, or meditation can serve.

The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her her radiance. The Tao is ungraspable. How can her mind be at one with it? Because she doesn't cling to ideas. The Tao is dark and unfathomable. How can it make her radiant? Because she lets it. Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see. Tao Te Ching - Chapter 21

By tapping into this infinite source, you have unlimited power. I don't mean power as in the usual term, that of the ability to control people and situations. Perhaps I mean Power with a capital P: the ability to control everything. Okay, this seems a bit wishy washy, but that is only because you're clinging to ideas, and seeing everything as separate. I did not say you can control each and every single entity which your brain has contrived to separate. I said that you can control everything.

How can this be? Because you are The Way. You are not just that body that nature assembled and gave a brain with which it can divide itself and everything that it is deluded enough to think is separate. This is nothing more than a concept. From the perspective of that concept, that body is indeed limited in its power, simply because to see itself as separate it requires limitation. Without limitation, there is no separation.

But once you feel yourself one with the Tao: no separate you, no separate Tao, then you will have unlimited power. Of course, you already have unlimited power, you just don't use it because you're too busy concentrating on your limitations. Just because you have a delusion of separateness and limitation doesn't mean you really are separate and limited.

One thing the delusion can do is cause you to behave as if you were. You are the ugly duckling who is only ugly as a duckling. Seeing yourself as a duckling makes you see yourself as ugly. Seeing yourself as the swan that you truly are makes you see yourself as beautiful. Likewise, seeing yourself as separate makes you limited, but seeing yourself as infinite makes you unlimited.

The Tao is infinite, eternal. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Why is it infinite? It has no desires for itself; thus it is present for all beings. The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled. Tao Te Ching - Chapter 7