Taoist cosmology and Chinese poetry


To understand their Way, we must approach it at its deep ontological level, where the distinction between presence (being) and absence (nonbeing) arises. Presence (psi) is simply the empirical universe, which the ancients described as the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation, and absence (ant) is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of presence perpetually arises. This absence should not be thought of as some kind of mystical realm, however. Although it is often spoken of in a general sense as the source of all presence, it is in fact quite specific and straightforward: for each of the ten thousand things, absence is simply the emptiness that precedes and follows existence.Within this framework,Way can be understood as the generative process through which all things arise and pass away as absence burgeons forth into the great transformation of presence. This is simply an ontological description of natural process, and it is perhaps most immediately manifest in the seasonal cycle: the pregnant emptiness of absence in winter, presence’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into absence in autumn.

At the level of deep structure, words in the poetic language function in the same way as presence, the ten thousand things, and the emptiness that surrounds words functions as absence. Hence, the language doesn’t simply replicate but actually participates in the deep structure of the cosmos and its dynamic process; it is in fact an organic part of that process. And the pictographic nature of the words, enacting as it does the “thusness” of the ten thousand things, reflects another central concept in the Taoist cosmology: tzu-jan, the mechanism by which the dynamic process of the cosmos proceeds, as presence arises out of absence.

The literal meaning of tzu-jan is “self-ablaze,” from which comes “self-so” or “the of-itself.” But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan is “occurrence appearing of itself,” for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things arising spontaneously from the generative source (wir)—each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient; each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating for ni. his vision of tzu-jan recognizes the earth, indeed the en-tire cosmos, to be a boundless generative organism. There is a palpable sense of the sacred in this cosmology: for each of the ten thousand things, consciousness among them, seems to be miraculously emerging from a kind of emptiness at its own heart, and emerging at the same rime front the very heart oldie cosmos itself.As it reflects this cosmology in its empty grammar and pictographic nature, the poetic language is nothing less than a sacred medium. Indeed, the word for poetry, shih, is made up of elements meaning “spoken word” and “temple.” The left-hand element, meaning “spoken word,” portrays sounds coming out of a mouth: . And the right-hand element, meaning “temple,” portrays a hand below  that touches a seedling sprouting from the ground Hence: “words spoken at the earth altar”: