Taoist cosmology and Chinese poetry

David Hinton [tooltip content= “Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Consciousness, cosmos, and language form a unity, and in the remarkably creative act of reading a Chinese poem we participate in this unity, filling in absence with presence, empty mind there at the boundaries of its true, wordless form.

The grammatical openness is apparent in this line from Meng Hao-jan.

And though it is not unusually pictographic, we find many images in the last four characters alone: grass (stalks and root divided by ground level) above water (abbreviated form showing drops of water; full form image . from the ancient form, which shows the rippling water of a stream ; the eye image (tipped on its side in the second character) shaded by a hand (shown as the wrist and five fingers) for best vision; rain falling from the heavens image that is mysteriously seen only at your feet it (schematic picture of a foot below the formal element of a circle, showing heel to the left, toes to the right, leg above, with an ankle indicated to one side); and fire (slightly formalized as the top half of the last character, the horizontal line and above), supported by a person A (variously described as the stylized image of a person, modified slightly in this character to give its base some structural stability). These two defining characteristics of the language—empty grammar and graphic form—are reflected in the Taoist cosmology that became the conceptual framework shared by all poets in the mature written tradition.

The cosmology must have evolved together with the language during the earliest stages of human culture in China, as they share the same deep structure, and it eventually found written expression in the Tao Te Ching (c. sixth century b.c.e) and the Chuang Tzu (c. fourth century a.c.e.). Taoist thought is best described as a spiritual ecology, the central concept of which is Tao, or Way. Tao originally meant “way,” as in “path-way” or “roadway,” a meaning it has kept. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu redefined it as a spiritual concept, using it to describe the process (hence, a way) through which all things arise and pass away.