essays

Mar 1, 1981

Nature and the Tao

“In this Taoist conception, man and nature are allied, connected, and inseparable. Man must be understood in vital interconnection with nature.”

Hajime Nakamura

“The Idea of Nature, East and West.” The Great Ideas Today: 1980, ed. Mortimer Adler. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980. pp. 234–305.

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The Eastern concept of nature has interesting parallels with its Western counterpart. Wedding these two notions could help us avoid exploiting nature and achieve greater contentment with our material lot.

As to the parallels, both Eastern and German traditions exhibit a love of natural beauty in a manner that Hebrew or Greek poetry does not emphasize. Whereas pessimism in Western thinking means a weariness with existence in this world, pessimism in Japanese thinking means a weariness with social restrictions, from which we may be delivered by living closer to natural beauty.

In ancient times, both the Eastern Vedic poets and the Western Greeks conceived of the universe as an ordered whole, which furnished a standard of morality that even gods must obey. If a ruler transgressed this moral order, calamities would result and revolution could be justified. The thought of revolution was called Ko-ming which means, literally, “to cut off (or take away) the mandate of heaven from some particular ruler.”

In modern times, the Confucian philosophy emphasized the importance of the form of government, in addition to the character of the rulers. Huang Tsung-hsi (1610–95) wrote: “I say we must first have laws which govern well and later we shall have men that govern well.” In Japan, the teachers of Mental Culture (Shingaku) taught that virtue consists in living in conformity to our nature, when that nature is in accord with a broader, natural order, called Mind. Like Grotius in the West, Master Jiun drew a sharp distinction between universal, inviolable natural law and nonuniversal mutable civil law. But instead of seeing God as the author of nature, Jiun held that nature and law are nothing but perfect Mind or “Buddha” himself. Even so, the final source of knowledge about natural law is neither tradition nor books, but an aware observation of nature.

In art, Eastern culture has always given a priority to nature, whereas Western culture allowed human or divine subject matter to predominate until the eighteenth century. In the gardens of Zen temples, rocks and streams are symbolized and used to point directly at the Tao or Way of nature. In this Taoist conception, man and nature are allied, connected, and inseparable. Man must be understood in vital interconnection with nature.

Japanese and Indian thought emphasize the idea of the natural world, seen as the power of change, becoming ultimate or absolute reality. Experiencing the world in this way is called enlightenment. After Japan opened to the world in 1868, most Japanese Buddhists broke away from the disciplines, which have been replaced by the notion of service to the community, however. In doing this service, the individual is freeing himself and becoming true to his own nature.