Outsiders, i.e. non-Initiates, frequently believe that the Tao te Ching as the Taoist Bible holds a preeminent position amongst practitioners. While revered by Taoists, this book is not the primary source. While it is a primary verbal source, ideas are secondary to practice. According to Taoist legend, Lao Tzu’s mother, Mother Li, revealed the practices, which transformed Lao Tzu from a mortal to an Immortal.
“For most of Chinese literati, the Tao te Ching is the only book revealed by the Old Master [Lao Tzu] and also the only essential book of Taoism. The Taoists themselves are only in partial disagreement with this view. … In Taoist legend … this comprehensive work presents itself as being not the first, but the second revelation. The first Taoist revelation remains that of Mother Li to her Old Child [Lao Tzu].”1
Mother Li? Who’s she? Most of us have never even heard of Lao Tzu’s mother. We certainly are not told of her importance to Taoism. Could this significant omission be due to the patriarchal filter through which the intelligentsia tends to interpret the history?
In the patriarchal West and East alike, there is a tendency to worship great men as the historical movers. There are few women that are acknowledged on a similar plane. We like to find ‘great men’ wherever we look. Sometimes we will see a ‘great man’ where he doesn’t exist. Sometimes we will create a ‘great man’ to fill the void. We are simply servicing our preconceived notions. This is fine, if we are satisfied living in the Land of Mirrors. If however the food from this land of preconceived notions tastes stale, repetitive or contrived, then it is necessary to pursue the fresh though sometimes bitter flavor of truth.
Throughout the 20th century, many in both the East and West embrace(d) Lao Tzu as the ‘Great Man’ who transmitted verbal truth to the world. This felt ‘right and correct’ to all those with the traditional patriarchal mindset.
“In all such traditions – as in later Taoism – many people could not deal with the fact that they had a great text unless they could satisfy themselves that it was the product of a single great man.”1A
However for Taoists, Lao Tzu’s word-based ideas are secondary to the practices that Mother Li transmitted to her son. The importance of the legend of Mother Li giving birth to Lao Tzu reflects the primacy of the symbol of the fertile woman in Taoist mythology. The significance of the intimate connection between mother and child even before the child enters the world is acknowledged in Taoism in the legendary birth of Lao Tzu. This is not an isolated instance of Taoism honoring the mother and feminine values, such as fertility. In fact, some of the prime metaphors of Taoism are associated with women, as we shall see. But let us first examine the Mother Li mythology in more depth.
Below is a composite story of Lao Tzu and Mother Li derived from a few different sources with some modern insertions.
“There was once an old woman who belonged to the clan of the Pure Ones.”
Her name was the Mother, Mother Li, Mother Plum Tree, or
Jade Maiden of the Obscure Mystery.
“She had no husband but had become pregnant
After absorbing a drop of ‘sweet dew’.”2
Her child waited to be born
Until there was a day of no birth and no death.
After an 80 year pregnancy,
(My what compassion!3)
The God of the Underworld and the God of Heaven
Allowed that day to come.
He was born from her armpit.
She whispered in his ear the secrets of Immortality.
She asked to see his face,
That she could recognize him
Before he left on his Mystical Quest.
Upon seeing him, she realized her Mission was done,
And, gratefully, departed this realm.4
“He said, “What should be my personal name?
My mother called me ‘old child!’
So, my name will be ‘Lao Tzu’ [Ch. ‘old child’]”5
After wandering for many years
Searching for someone to transmit to,
He gave up and decided to leave.
Upon passing through the city gates,
The Gatekeeper, Yin Hsi6, seeing a holy man
Asked for some words of wisdom.
Lao Tzu transmitted the Tao te Ching and then left.
In brief, Mother Li impregnates herself with the ‘sweet dew’. No father. After 80 years, she gives birth to a white haired child from her armpit, at which time she dies.
Born at the age of 81 from his mother’s armpit? This is at the same mythological level as Athena springing full-blown from Zeus’ head. The virgin birth of Jesus is almost believable in context, especially with the advances of modern science. Romulus and Remus raised by wolves? Somewhat believable. Moses tossed into a river and discovered by Egyptians? Plausible. An armpit birth at the age of 80? Not quite. Whether Lao Tzu was patterned after a real man or not is secondary to his existence as a mythological personage, far removed from historical reality.
Is the point of this legendary story the transmission of the Tao te Ching or is it Lao Tzu’s birth? From the patriarchal/verbal perspective, Lao Tzu’s transmission of his Book is the great achievement of this story. The intellectual tradition normally leaves Mother Li out of the story altogether. A typical pattern for the male and those with word-addicted minds.
From the experiential perspective, however, the notable part of the story is the birth. Hence the achievement is Mother Li’s, not Lao Tzu’s. Her grand achievement is that she bore him in her womb for 80 years – waiting patiently for the right time for him to be born – ‘a day of no birth and no death’.
The symbolism of the story can be construed in the following manner. A human being spends a lifetime upon a creation. This creation then assumes its own life. According to the mythology of the story, Mother Li’s non-verbal transmission is turned into words, a Book, a verbal transmission. From this perspective, the process of creation that results in an actual product is more important than understanding. Mother Li gives birth to Lao Tzu and Lao Tzu creates a book.
We are not given any indication as to their psychological states, whether they were at peace or were mentally agitated. We assume that an 80-year pregnancy must have been relatively challenging for Mother Li. Instead of an easy, calm life of ‘enlightened’ understanding, it seems evident that her aim was instead to both bear her child and then transmit her secrets. Briefly, Mother Li’s purpose was to bear fruit. In this metaphor, fertility is stressed, not wisdom. Evidently fulfilling her mission was more important than peace of mind and/or transcending this realm of existence.
How inspirational! How compassionate! For the good of humankind, Mother Li devotes her entire life to her creation – Lao Tzu. What patience! What perseverance! Further her extraordinary efforts paid off. Her non-verbal self-cultivation techniques combined with her child’s book have nourished humankind for millennia.
How was Mother Li impregnated with no husband? She was fertilized by the ‘sweet dew.’ The ‘sweet dew’ is frequently understood to be the sweet saliva that arises in one’s mouth when all internal and external systems are flowing properly. This process is somewhat physical, not mystical. When chi, i.e. energy flow, is incomplete or blocked, the system becomes dry and stagnant. When chi is more complete and free to flow, the system is wet, in the sense that it produces internal juices that are pumped upward to nourish the body.
In similar fashion, hungry people salivate when they see food. Additionally people salivate when they even see something that they like of a non-food nature. Women approaching my wife’s jewelry display begin salivating, as evidenced by their swallowing. Simultaneously, their husband’s mouth becomes dry. He is presumably afraid of spending money. Fear is a blocked response, which dries the body. Fear dries the bodily fluids, while desire wets them. There is even a popular expression. ‘You are only wetting my appetite.’ This refers to tantalizing, without satisfying.
Wet is good and wet is created by appetite, i.e. desire? While Buddhists work to kill their desires, Taoists attempt to transform them into a spiritual direction. Rather than suppress desire, Taoists attempt to transform it into spiritual desire. The spiritual desire to achieve our Mission creates the ‘sweet dew’ necessary to accomplish the Task set before us by the Grand Master – Mother Nature. In terms of the story’s symbolism, Mother Li’s abundant chi energy generated the ‘sweet dew’ that enabled her to give birth to and transmit the secrets of her vitality to Lao Tzu.
What was the first Taoist transmission preceding the Tao te Ching? Specifically what was the nature of the secrets or mysteries that Mother Li transmitted?
Popularly they are thought to be the non-verbal transmission of the secrets of Immortality. There are definitely Taoists whose aim is physical immortality. Pills are created and ingested. Taoists of this persuasion employ(ed) pills, elixirs, exercise, diet, meditation, breath control, and sexual control for this end.
Adepts hope that their practices will allow them to live forever, or at least extend their life span. Taoist literature even refers to individuals that have become Immortals due to their self-cultivation techniques. For these Taoists, Mother Li was passing on her secret practices to Lao Tzu so that he could attain Immortality.
The actual events of Mother Li’s story confute the notion that her secrets convey techniques to attain physical immortality. Mother Li bears Lao Tzu and dies. She does not hang onto this Life. If she knew the secrets of Immortality, why would she have died after giving birth to Lao Tzu?
Those of us who worship fertility interpret Mother Li’s story from a different perspective. We see her life and death as a natural process, not something to be transcended. Employing the plant metaphor, we understand that only our Seeds survive the Great Fire to propagate. We don’t cling to life. We bear our Fruit with their Seeds and move on when it is our time to go. Once we have finished our Mission, it is time to die. Why cling to this ephemeral body after the work is done? Life is about moving on, not about clinging to.
From the fertility viewpoint, our primary question is: “How do we maximize vitality in order to bear Fruit with Seeds that will survive the Fire?” Like a plant, bearing fruit with seeds that will survive is our first concern.
Instead of passing on the techniques to achieve physical immortality, Mother Li, transmits the secrets of Vitality, Inspiration and hence Creativity.
“What else could the Mother’s revelations be but the very secrets of her woman’s body and an initiation into her creative power [te]?”7
From the fertility perspective, Mother Li’s secret transmission to Lao Tzu dealt with self-cultivation practices that maximized vitality in order to fulfill personal potentials. Although these practices probably did not lead physical immortality, they might have led to spiritual immortality. Let’s see how.
Generally speaking, Taoists employ(ed) self-cultivation techniques (hsiu-chen) to achieve transcendent dimensions of reality (chen). Those who have mastered these dimensions are referred to as ‘chen-jen’ – Masters of Reality.8 For many Taoists, the Masters of Reality and the Immortals are one and the same.
Taoism is typically about process, not results. Due to this mindset, Taoists don’t concern themselves with speculation about death and the afterlife and are instead more involved in the process of living. In this sense, Immortality is achieved in the moment, not the lifetime. In this context, Mother Li’s secrets are the practices that enable an individual to become a ‘chen-jen’ – a Master of Reality – someone who achieves ‘transcendent dimensions of reality’.
One further refinement: The quest for physical immortality is personal and doesn’t necessarily benefit the common good. In contrast, Taoists believe that realized beings (chen-jen) develop special powers. Further these powers can be and are meant to be employed for the welfare of the community. Rather than recluses out for personal immortality, the ‘chen-jen’ become sages. In this way, Taoists that ‘cultivate reality’ benefit the entire society, not just themselves. In such a way, Taoist sages emulate Mother Li’s compassion.
As mentioned, Taoists honor Mother Li’s non-verbal transmission over Lao Tzu’s book. Her teachings concerned self-cultivation practices designed to maximize personal power. They were probably associated with stilling the Mind and awakening the many energetic channels of the Body.
In this manner, Taoism is associated with the magic of the body. Magic in the wrong hands is always dangerous. As such, Mother Li’s wisdom is just meant for initiates, not for the general public. Because the secrets of Taoism are about personal power, it is important that the information doesn’t reach someone who will use it irresponsibly. Taoists only revealed their wisdom selectively and in stages.
“The teachings of the Mother, when she reveals the Mysteries of her body, carry the seal of the occult and are fraught with interdictions. They are only to be transmitted to initiates. By contrast, the transmission of the Tao-te Ching to Yin Hsi marks the beginning of the spread of Taoism throughout the world, and thus is known to outsiders. … The Tao-te Ching is not an esoteric book, although certain passages do allude to concepts and practices that must have belonged to the spheres of initiation. … Its message is meant for all.”9
This quotation from an ordained Taoist priest suggests that the ‘Lao Tzu’ was meant to communicate the truth of the sages to the public, but was not meant to be an instructional manual for Taoists. It was meant to point the way to personal power, not provide the actual steps. In some ways, it was like a travel brochure that is meant to pique interest.
The Lao Tzu did not inspire the beginnings of Taoism, but instead brought Taoism to the public. Taoism, in its relation to shamanism, deals with initiation into the Mysteries. One of the Taoist concerns is attaining inspirational states, trances and channeling divine forces. The words only designate the insights that were achieved, rather than methods to achieve inspiration. Mother Li reveals these practices.
When the Tao te Ching became available in the West, many read the book and felt that they understood its teachings. Many felt that a mere understanding of the Lao Tzu was the only requirement for calling oneself a Taoist. With this limited understanding, some wrote popular books regarding the Tao, for instance the Tao of Pooh and the Tao of Physics. However, by focusing upon the words and neglecting the practices, they presented a distorted picture of Taoism. Instant insight is much easier than the slow integration process, as no daily practices are required.
“Indeed, one of the reasons that some of the teachings of the Tao te Ching became so readily domesticated in Western culture is that the public enjoyed the mistaken belief that its teachings involved no definable practices at all.”10
While Lao Tzu might have been a real man, his real importance was as a mythological composite of a Taoist Immortal. Further, his supposed book, the Tao te Ching, did not found the religion of Taoism, but only communicated the insights of the Initiates to the public. The Initiates did not call themselves Taoists. As we saw earlier, this label was applied much later to the Initiates, their books, and their religion, if we can call it that. Confucian Chinese historians living 400 years after Lao Tzu’s legendary birth named them Taoists.
The Tao te Ching was not an introduction into Taoist practices, but was only representative of their ideas. Furthermore the Taoists didn’t value these ideas as highly as their physical practices. Ideas are only a symbolic verbal representation of the non-verbal experience of Reality. Wisdom was not the primary goal of the Initiates. The real emphasis of the Mystery schools, eventually called Taoism, was the achievement of personal power through a trance-like state. In some ways, Taoism is about techniques for self-actualization. Because Taoism is about personal power, its message is not for everyone. Although the initiates of Taoism refer to the Tao te Ching as a primary verbal source, their primary source of transmission is non-verbal. And it was Mother Li, Lao Tzu’s mother, also a mythological personage, who revealed these secrets. Written by Initiates, the Lao Tzu was meant to transmit their insights to a greater audience.
The Journey to the West reflected the Taoist theme that little or incomplete knowledge can be quite dangerous in the wrong hands. Because the knowledge can be dangerous, it is concealed. It is then only revealed in stages to worthy disciples.
Many of the monsters or demons who block Tripitaka’s path are masters gone astray. None of the demons employ brute strength to capture Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk. Monkey wins any test of brute strength. He handles tigers as if they were kittens. Each of the monsters blocking the path has attained supernatural powers through self-cultivation, just as have Monkey, Piggy, and Sha Monk.
One monster is able to handle Piggy and Sha Monk quite easily. Monkey is only able to defeat him through trickery. Many of the monsters blocking Tripitaka’s Path are so powerful that Monkey needs heavenly assistance to defeat them. Frequently, simple martial abiities are not enough. Most of the time the monster has some supernatural trick that surpasses Monkey’s strength.
One of the monsters is really a goldfish that overheard one of Kuan Yin’s lectures; another is Lao Tzu’s bull that has wandered away; another is a group of Taoist lads who are just tired of practicing self-cultivation, but have acquired considerable powers in the meantime. A 250-year-old Zen Master who still experiences incredible jealousy presents one of the early obstacles. The body knowledge or wisdom of each of these monsters is considerable, albeit distorted. One of the most difficult monsters had even created an internal Pill, the goal of many Taoists, through many self-cultivation sessions.
Due to the danger of incomplete knowledge, it is the Master’s duty to reveal these truths in a responsible way. One master is said to have been cursed because he revealed truths too early to unworthy disciples. Remember that these truths have to do with internal power. In the Taoist sequence towards becoming an Immortal, first comes the internal peace. As this inner quietude grows, the ability to responsibly manifest power also grows. If the power precedes the inner quiet, then it could easily manifest in an unbalanced way.
The Master and Disciples have a reciprocal arrangement. The Master must supervise his Disciples and the Disciples must not leave the Master prematurely. The goldfish and the Taoist lads left their master prematurely. Monkey holds Kuan Yin and Lao Tzu responsible for not paying careful enough attention to their students. The Immortals merely respond that Heaven had set up these ordeals in order to test Tripitaka and to allow the others to obtain merit through their assistance.
Many of these monsters, fiends, and demons might be referred to as Fallen Immortals. They are those who have achieved Immortality through self-cultivation but for one reason or another have fallen off the right path. In fact, each of the 5 members of the Journey is a Fallen Immortal.
Tripitaka was banished for falling asleep at one of Buddha’s lectures. Sha Monk and the Dragon Horse were careless, one breaking a jade vase while the other accidentally set a fire. Piggy let his desires get out of control and Monkey let his pride get the best of him and actually challenged Heaven successfully. These Fallen Immortals are given the chance to redeem their misdeeds by traveling to the Western Heaven to obtain the Buddhist scriptures and then bringing them back to the Chinese for their salvation. Let it be reiterated that the ‘wisdom’ of the scriptures had nothing to do with the redemption of these Fallen Immortals. It was only the fulfillment of the Quest that redeemed their misdeeds.
Certain information must be retained until the Initiate is ready. Tripitaka and his group must travel for over a decade and experience 80 ordeals in order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures. Mysteries are always revealed in stages. Never all at once. The Lao Tzu was obscure enough to be circulated publicly. Certain information was too dangerous to even be written down. This information was transmitted orally and through bodily practices from generation to generation.
We have spoken of the shamanistic mystery cults that gave birth to Taoism. We have even spoken about the deliberate retention of mysteries from non-initiates. We have spoken of Mother Li’s non-verbal transmission to Lao Tzu. What are these deep dark mysteries that have been suppressed or concealed? What was Mother Li’s non-verbal communication to Lao Tzu after he was born?
Part of the secret entailed body cultivation practices. Hence, no words will suffice. Tai Chi is one of the energetic keys, taught non-verbally of course.
Summarizing to promote integration: For the non-Initiate, Lao Tzu and the Tao te Ching are the primary source of verbal wisdom for Taoism. For the Initiate, the non-verbal transmission of Mother Li to Lao Tzu is more important. It is her body wisdom that is the primary wisdom of Taoism. Because of the patriarchal nature of European and Chinese culture, Mother Li’s importance has been minimized or ignored and replaced by an emphasis upon Lao Tzu. Her secrets have to do with the generation of Vitality necessary to produce the Taoist Pill or Seed that will nourish the generations. Because these secrets concern vitality and hence personal power, they are reserved for Initiates only. While the messages of the Lao Tzu are obtuse enough to distribute publicly, the real secrets are transmitted from Master to Disciple privately. This essay is an attempt to transcend the dualist nature of words by employing words to point to the Source – the Body. Hopefully these words do not become too distracting.
Could Mother Li represent or symbolize a Goddess of the Neolithic fertility cults that preceded the Bronze Age patriarchy? Check out the next article for suggestions.
1 Schipper, p.183-4
1A Russell Kirkland, p. 56, Taoism: The enduring tradition, Routledge, 2004
2 Kristopher Schipper, The Taoist Body, 1993, translated by Karen C. Duval, UCPress, p. 120
3The Mother exhibits her Great Compassion. Not resorting to abortion techniques of purgation, she bears a man in her belly through his natural life cycle. Compassion is also manifested in the figure of Kuan-yin, Bodhisattva of compassion.
4 Death is not dreaded or feared after the Mission has been completed. Instead it is welcomed.
5 Kristopher Schipper, The Taoist Body, 1993, p. 120
6 Schipper, p. 183
7 Schipper, p. 123
8 Russell Kirkland, p. 207, Taoism: The enduring tradition, Routledge, 2004
9 Schipper, p. 184
10 Kirkland, p. 48