The Three Noble Teachers of Ancient China

By Ida Perrine Ryder
The following impromptu address was given during a long trip on a Chinese Cargo Liner. Each Sunday morning there was a short religious service during which one or another of the passengers spoke.
On our way back to the United States it seemed wise, as all the officers and crew were Chinese, to dedicate one service to Oriental religions, since all aboard had by then spent some time in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, where they had visited ancient temples, shrines and monuments.
Because the talk was limited to fifteen minutes and had to be prepared in a few short days, no ideas were thoroughly explored. However, it was so well received that the captain requested that it be mimeographed and given to the passengers as well as translated for the Taiwanese crew members, many of whom were young and had never visited mainland China. -- I.P.R.

Today I speak of China in the past tense, not because I feel that its greatness is irretrievably gone, but because my memories of the beloved country and its people are recalled from a period of more than forty years.

The uniqueness of China's civilization was that it endured through thousands of years. Other nations, such as Rome, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Greece rose to prominence, were powerful for a time and then sank into political oblivion, while China, though frequently disturbed by dissensions from within and invasions from without, remained a monument to the endurance and stability of its national and cultural tradition. As a nation is only as strong as the philosophy it lives by, it might be of interest to speak about the three main sources of religious inspiration that influenced China during those centuries of greatness.

Rather recently I saw a Chinese picture of unknown origin showing three elderly sages, each armed with a long-handled spoon, tasting vinegar which is boiling in a large pot over the fire. The first is Confucius who said that vinegar is sour; next to him, the merry-faced one is Lao-tzu who announced that to him the vinegar was sweet. Finally there is the Buddha who claimed that the brew was neither sweet nor sour: it was vinegar.

Confucius and Lao-tzu were 6th century B.C. Chinese contemporaries. Buddhism was imported from India in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is almost impossible to consider any one of these three ways of life without including the other two, as all are parts of the one tradition. Eastern philosophy has, in general, concentrated on the regeneration of the individual through his own efforts; it was never necessary to become old and disillusioned before seeking one's particular spiritual path. A young person possessed and cherished that desire as an inborn blessing from his youthful training. The longevity of the Chinese nation may be due, in part, to its development of tranquillity, and to its cultivation of relaxation.

I have known a businessman who, when granted a well-earned holiday, retired to his favorite temple, there to sit in meditation, listen to the steady chanting of the sutras, and to eat the sparse plant food of the religious order. To him this was a proper vacation from work. As one's favorite temple was very apt to be high up on some lonely hill, one could there feel the smallness of man and the tremendous vastness of all nature. Many Chinese artists have caught that sense of man's relation to the universe -- their pictures show the tops of great mountains wreathed in passing clouds, trees, perhaps a temple, and far below a man, hardly more than a tiny speck on the road. Thus we find Eastern man considering himself as part of nature, and not as an outside intelligence trying to dominate and control natural phenomena.

Confucius and Lao-tzu have been likened to the two sides of a coin: completely different, and yet each contributing to a perfect whole. Confucius became concerned over the tendency of the Chinese of that period to depart from the ancient traditions and loyalties that had served so long to hold the nation together. It was an era of change and revolt -- there may even have been a hippie movement afoot. His philosophy was not, then, a new one; he wished to bring the people back to the old way of life, the old morals. For years Confucianism was a reform movement , until it finally became the state religion during the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 221). The Analects of Confucius are forceful and austere: he preached good manners in family and state, respect for elders and those who governed; in other words, he wanted law and order. During his lifetime he had many adherents. He still has.

Equally popular, though a rather vague, mysterious teacher, was Lao-tzu. On this trip through the Orient we have seen in the antique shops as well as in the Museum in Taipei, wood-carvings of the funny little bearded fellow mounted precariously on an animal, sort of a cross between a horse (or a donkey) and a water buffalo. Many bronze incense burners take this form; this is a representation of Lao-tzu.

Lao-tzu's religion is called Tao. It is difficult to translate a word which expresses an idea for which the Western world has no equivalent thought. Tao is the source of life, that which makes all things alive. Then, too, Tao has been translated as the Path, if by the Path one conceives of a Divine Source, within which all lives and moves and progresses. About 600 B.C. Lao-tzu was teaching the theory that there is no dead matter; everything from the tiniest atom to the greatest intellect is part of one evolving life stream -- and this stream of living is Tao.

Lao-tzu was a man of few words. He left us only one very short piece of writing called the Tao Teh Ching. These few words he wrote down at the urgent request of his disciples; when his teaching was finished, he rode away on his strange animal, out through the Gates of China into the Gobi Desert to find for himself the eternal Tao. The Tao Teh Ching always has been, and is today, one of the world's most mystical and thought-provoking pieces of literature.

From the Tao Teh Ching we learn that in the beginning was the All -- Tao. The One, separating, became a duad -- two; these combining, produced a third: that is, spirit descended into matter and from the combination produced intelligence. But the three are really one. This mystery is a concept familiar to all peoples from earliest times; it was held in Greece and in many lands and during many eras. In Egypt, it was personified as Osiris, Isis and Horus; and in Christianity it is, of course, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; or, as the Eastern Orthodox Church states it, the Father, Holy Spirit and Son.

While in Japan, if any of us went to an exhibit of flower arrangement -- I mean the formal type, not just the pretty decorative kind -- we will have found this idea of the three-in-one. Formal Ikebana started as decoration on the altars of the ancient temples: always the tall stem denotes Heaven, or spirit; the lower branch is Earth, or matter, the two being connected, fulfilled, rounded out by Man, or intellect. The Lord said: "let there be light," and spirit descended into matter and through this union was born Man or the intelligently evolving entity. Although every bit of matter is to some extent informed by spirit -- that's what being alive is -- no being other than man that we know of can choose a Path, a Way of Life. We have many, many lives during which time we learn, mostly by trial and error, but always through the strength of our desire to know.

Each one of the great religious teachers of the world, coming as they did at different times, in various places, tried to explain his own particular notion and method of attainment in a manner that would be most helpful to those who listened to him. Christians will understand that in 600 B.C. in China it wasn't necessary to say "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's": there wasn't any Caesar. In Israel, a conquered country, one could learn to "turn the other cheek" once he knew the Kingdom of Heaven was within each one, and no amount of slapping around could effect the inner peace that one builds for oneself.

The forceful morality of the Confucian teaching had a lasting effect on Old China, the China that cherished the ancestors and the traditions. On the other hand, the vagueness of Taoism is such that it went through many changes -- as most religions do. We find stories of sages who float with the clouds from mountain top to mountain top; we find methods of fortunetelling, fairy tales and sorcery. Taoism went through a phase similar to that which Western Christianity experienced during its period of alchemy, witchcraft and religious charms that had super-physical powers. These are the barnacles that attach themselves to any philosophical ship; they may slow it up a bit, but it is still seaworthy. When we truly want to know about a religion we seek the words of the Teacher -- not what someone says that inspired being must have meant.

The third vinegar taster was the Buddha.

I think we all know the beautiful story of the radiant young Prince Gautama who, on viewing for the first time in his protected life misery, sickness and death, renounced his kingdom, his wealth, his family, in order to find answers to such conditions. He discovered the wise men of India had no intellectual solutions to problems of welfare, so he went to the sadhus and was instructed in discipline through long hours of yoga. After he had nearly starved to death practicing his austerities, he decided that it was not by torturing the body that one attained spiritual insight. Finally, he sought within himself, by making quiet in meditation both mind and emotions, and eventually beneath the famous Bo tree he reached enlightenment. He then set forth to spend the rest of his life instructing all who would listen. So great was the truth that he had found, that the world still listens.

All over China one saw the calm, almost expressionless face of the meditating Buddha on the thousands of figures, some huge in strength and composure, some broken and battered and through the careless ages overgrown with weeds; some tiny and jeweled, and some primitive in form and carved in wood, held sacred generation after generation by one family. All these depicted one visage, one idea, one inspiration, that of a Being who rises above that which physically seems to be -- the great illusion -- to a state untainted by physical, emotional or mental reaction to worldly circumstances.

The late Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations, once wrote a short fable: "Once upon a time, there was a crown so heavy that it could only be worn by one who remained completely oblivious to its glitter." (Markings, p. 64.) This is a Buddhist thought.

The power of Buddhism has, at times, been diluted, suppressed, divided, but in the long run it retains its authority through an almost majestic suggestiveness. One writer has likened it to a drop of mercury: it can be broken up into several small droplets, but once the separating barriers are down, all parts run back together into a perfect wholeness.

At a time in history when only scholars could read and write, it was necessary to teach by word of mouth and by symbols. We found these symbols in the many old Buddhist temples we visited, in China as well as in Japan.

The central Buddha on the altar is often flanked on either side by an aspect denoting the all-inclusiveness of the Buddha experience: on the left may be a representation of Divine Wisdom, on the right the Kuan Yin symbolizing all-compassion. These are representations of an idea. If the beautiful Kuan Yin statue sometimes has many arms, it is because it must be known that the Great Compassion reaches out in all directions to encompass all that lives. If the statue has many heads, Divine Love sees and hears in every direction of the universe. The fact that we may find these representations of Divinity not to our Western taste, in no way detracts from the legitimate value of their teaching quality for the time in which they were created.

Everything in life depends on certain acceptances. Truth, to be understood, must be within the experience pattern of the individual, otherwise it is not his truth -- not then, at least. Today we are involved in a world of physical science, but this science, too, depends on acceptance. It depends on the belief in an immutable universe, the principles of which are never changing, the elements of which are always constant, and the laws of which are so exact that if man can come to understand them in their entirety he can work miracles. These are the acceptances the science of our day has had to agree to. Just as surely as the universe comes out of a great mystery, so science has had to accept that mystery, thereby acknowledging that it does exist. It is this mystery at its source that the religions of the West would penetrate.

In the Orient there was a profound acceptance, much insight, and a trained ability to be quiet, to be still, in order to discover through self-effort that which one had, in many cases, already accepted. I think that inner calmness is so generally lacking these days that people hardly realize that one can create it within oneself, any time, any place not, however, without suitable practice, self-training and discipline, and a desire to attain. The various methods employed to secure this calm inner strength were practiced in old China, as suggested by the Three Noble Teachers and their disciples. To each the vinegar tasted uniquely, but if one gazed down into the boiling liquid, through the almost blinding illusion of steam and vapor, one knew that all came from the one great mysterious source.

 (From Sunrise magazine, August-September 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

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