The Great Unity of the Cosmos: The Taiyi sheng shui

From To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice and Self-divinization in Early China
The Taiyi sheng shui, a text discovered in the Guodian tomb and probably dating to the late fourth century BC, describes a cosmogony focused on Taiyi, 太 一; the Great One. In this text, Taiyi is the force that gives birth to the cosmos.

The Great One gives birth to water. Water goes back and supplements [i.e.. joins with] the Great One. They thereby complete Heaven. Heaven goes back and supplements the Great One. They thereby complete Earth. Heaven and Earth return and supplement each other

In this opening portion of the cosmogony, the Great One is the primary power. It initially generates, on its own, water. Water and the Great One then join to give birth to Heaven. Then Heaven and the Great One combine to create the Earth. The Great One not only begins the process with a direct birth (without a direct partner) but it continues to be the force with which each successive substance copulates to compete the next substance. This process reaches its conclusion once both Heaven and Earth have been completed. Contrary to most early Chinese cosmologies, Heaven is not the highest power. Not only is Heaven subordinated to the Great One, but it is placed within a generative process that it does not control. Heaven is not a potentially capricious power here; it is part of a larger processual movement.

Following the completion of Heaven and Earth, the substances begin copulating among themselves, without the Great One: Heaven and Earth join together and complete two more substances, which in turn copulate and complete two more:

They thereby complete the spirits and the illuminated (shenming). The spirits and the illuminated return and supplement each other. They thereby complete the yin and yang. Yin and yang return and supplement each other. They thereby complete the four seasons. The four seasons return and supplement each other. They thereby complete the cold and hot. Cold and hot return and supplement each other. They thereby complete the wet and dry. The wet and dry return and supplement each other. They thereby complete the year and then stop.

Of interest here is that all these figures, from the Great One, through Heaven, Earth, the spirits, and the illuminated ((shenming), were gods and spirits who received cult at the time. The authors of this text ar ethus building their cosmology from actual gods and reading them simply as substances in a balanced cosmos.

However, the text draws a further conclusion as well: the Great One pervades all that was generated from it and is in fact active in the seasons themselves:

Therefore the Great One is stored in water and moves in the seasons. Circulating and again [four characters missing, probably: starting, it takes itself as] the mother of the myriad things. At times diminishing, at times flourishing, it takes itself as the alignment (jing) of the myriad things.

The Great One pervades everything and is both the mother and the aligner of the myriad things. Spirits do not control natural phenomena, nor, as we will see later in the Huainanzi, do they align the cosmos. Instead, the One gives birth to the myriad things and aligns them.

It is therefore the one thing that cannot be controlled by Heaven, Earth, yin and yang:This is what Heaven is unable to kill, what earth is unable to regulate, and what yin and yang are unable to complete. The gentleman who understands this is called… [characters missing]. He who understands that the Great One pervades and aligns everything understands the movement of the universe.

The authors then explain the alignment of the universe… The interaction of Heavan and Earth takes place through the Great One, also known as the Way: The way is also it’s style-name (zi). I beg to know it’s name (míng). It can be given the style-name of the Way, but the real name is unknowable. This is presumably a reference to contemprary religious practice… placing the image of spirits on cauldrons allowed a degree of control over those spirits: naming domesticates deities by putting them in a system controlled by humans. Here, however the name is unknowable: one cannot place the ancestor into a humanly defined system, and one cannot gain control over it. One must simply entrust oneself to its name:

He who follows affairs by means of the Way must entrust himself to its name. Thus, tasks are completed and the body grows. As for the sages following of tasks, he also entrusts himself to its name. Therefore his achievements are completed, and his body suffers no harm.

… In this cosmology, natural phenomena are not controlled by individuated spirits… any attempt to manipulate the spirits of the world through divination and sacrifices would be useless… There is an inherent alignment in the world, generated and maintained by the Great One, that provides the basis for human action. Power and knowledge are thus to be gained not by appropriating the powers of spirits but by understanding and subordinating oneself to the patterns of the cosmos. The cosmos is thus seen as following a normative pattern discernible by those who know how to understand it.

Becoming an ancestor to the people: the Laozi

In the Guodian cache, the Taiyi sheng shui text is linked with, and may have been attached to, the third of the texts containing chapters from the Laozi. The Laozi does, indeed, compare in many ways with Taiyi sheng shui. To begin with, it posits a comparable cosmology:

The Way gives birth to the One
The One gives birth to the two,
The two give birth to the three,
The three give birth to the myriad things.
The myriad things carry the yin and embrace the yang,
and blend the vapors so as to become harmonized. (Chap.42)

Although worked out differently, the cosmology of the Laozi, like that of the Taiyi sheng shui, is based on generation from an original ancestor, the Way.

Also like the Taiyi sheng shui, the Laozi discusses the Way in terms of its name (míng) and style name ():

There is a thing chaotically completed,
born before Heaven and earth.
Still and quiet,
standing alone yet unchanging,
going around yet never becoming weary,
and capable therby of being the mother of all under Heaven.
I do not know its name (míng)
It’s style-name () is the Way.
If forced to give it a name, it’s name would be Great (). (Chap. 25)

The ancestor of all that exists can be given a style-name Great but its real name is unknowable. Here again, one cannot control or domesticate the divine power by knowing its name.

Unlike the Taiyi sheng shui, the Laozi calls on the adept to return to this ancestor:

All under heaven had a beginning
It can be taken as the mother of all under Heaven.
Once you have obtained the mother,
you can thereby know the sons.
Once you have known the sons,
you can return and hold fast to the mother.
Until the end there will be no harm (Chap. 52)

The crucial point here is that the sage does not strive simply to understand, follow and accord with the generative process of the Way. On the contrary, the sage reverses that generative process and returns to the source of power: the ancestor.

By doing so, the adept gains the same powers and generates the same harmony as the Way itself… he becomes, in a sense, like the ancestor: he is able to generate order and cause everything to submit to him.

The ruler is thus able to accomplish everything, but it will seem to the people as though everything is occuring naturally, without any directing will:

When his achievements are completed and tasks finished,
the commoners say We are like this naturally (zi ran) (Chap. 17)

In contrast to the sage of the Taiyi sheng shui, the sage of the Laozi is not according with a pre-existing natural order, nor is he simply following the ancestor – the One. Instead, the adept is according with the Way in order to gain its powers and create an order of his own choosing.

… In the Laozi , the sage does not model himself on nature, he models himself on the Way, which is the ancestor of the human and natural worlds. He thus gains power over both: the natural world, like the human world, submits to him, not the other way around. Moreover, the sage does not act naturally at all. To begin with, he reverses the natural generative process to return to the Way. He thereafter fools people into thinking that the subsequent generative phenomena they witness are natural, when in fact they are simply his wishes.

… In short, this is not naturalism at all:it is yet another form of self-divinization – a claim that humans can, through self cultivation, gain divine powers. The claim here… is a genealogical claim in which the adept is able to appropriate and thus gain the powers of the ultimate ancestor of the cosmos.

To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, by Michael J. Puett, Harvard University Press; paperback, 31 Dec 2004. ISBN: 0674016432 (original hardback ISBN: 0674009592, 2002) pp160-163.

Tai yi is close and yet far to the Judeao-Christian idea of a God. The Great One (unity) is not a person: one is kept safe from harm not by calling on its name (Psalm 80:18) but by entrusting oneself to its name. In Daoism, this came to mean acting in harmony with the universe (nature).

I cannot find a character pronounced jing that means alignment. The closest character I have found is jiē, which means to tie a thread on a knot and thus to bind.


~ by scalambra on August 1, 2009.

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