I had read the Tao-te Ching many times unprofitably until, accidentally, I came across Richard Lynn’s translation with a commentary by Wang Bi. For the first time, I became acutely aware of the unique contribution of this text to the history of philosophy. It was the Tao-te Ching that, for the first time in the history of philosophy, introduced a notion of a sustainable way of life based on the metaphysical concept of “nothingness”, as opposed to the ways of life hitherto known, which were based on the metaphysical concept of “being”. It is true that “asat”, nothingness/non being, occurs in many passages in the Vedic corpus as a source of being, but it did not develop into a philosophical way of life. The possibility of such development in India was forestalled by the forceful introduction of the metaphysics of “being” by Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyak Upanishad and Uddalaka Aruni in the Chandokhya Upanishad. Their interventions were as significant to Indian philosophy as the poem of Parmenides was in the development of the metaphysics of “being” in Greek philosophy.
There is, of course, the Buddhism of the Nikayas which can be read either as a version of the “being” metaphysics or as discourse about a non-metaphysical way of life, as Nagarjuna, Wang Bi’s Indian contemporary, had interpreted. The non-metaphysical Buddhism of the Nikayas is not concerned with the truth about the ultimate reality. The Buddha has said in the Abyakatasamyutta sutta of the Samyuttanikaya as well as in many other suttas that the enquiry concerning such an imagined reality is not worthwhile. Instead, he privileges ethics as the first philosophy. For non-metaphysical Buddhism, ethical life with its psychological concomitance are the only things of spiritual value. That is, it does not see ethical life as a means of bridging the gap between us and an ultimate reality, as preached by Tao-te Ching. Nevertheless, there is an interesting similarity between the Tao-te Ching and the non-metaphysical reading of Nikaya Buddhism.
I have tried to present this uncanny similarity between them through a criticism of Arthur Danto’s critique of Daoism in his book Mysticism and Morality. Danto wrote: “The question it poses is the question we appear to encounter broadcast through the Orient, namely how to close the gap between the world and ourselves, how to ‘lose’ the self. Where it is just that gap that is presupposed by the moral questions of classical China and perhaps by the concept of morality itself. They suppose the gaps that need closing are those that separate us from one another. However, these are not relevant in closing the gap between the Way and ourselves which is the source of the only kind of infelicitude thinkers like Lao Tzu regard as worth healing and, perhaps, the only kind they are capable of healing. ..in enjoining the collapse of the conditions that made morality possible, they fall under a moral violation by our criterion.”
I think Danto‘s criticism is applicable to Chinese/Japanese Buddhism(s) and the Hindu-Buddhist practices of India as well. It is not that these practices do not have an ethical component. But in these practices, yoga and other meditation-related methods are more significant than ethics. Ethics plays only a secondary role in them, as in all other major religions. Unlike the Tao-te Ching and the non-metaphysical reading of the Nikayas, they do not spend time on the articulation of the significance of ethics or claim that only through the eradication of selfishness can one achieve nirvana (the final goal of the Nikayas) or become a sage (the final goal of Taoism).
In the Nikayas, it is eminently possible to read nirvana as an end result of a life-long cultivation of “sarvodaya” — a concern and practice for the well-being of all — leading to a state of psychological self-sufficiency in which all fears related with selfishness disappear. While the Tao-te Ching talks about the metaphysical need to bridge the gap between Tao and us, it is possible only if we reduce our selfishness to a significant degree. This is the reason I think Danto’s criticism is completely off the mark when it comes to Taoism of Tao-te Ching. The Tao-te Ching and the Nikaya are the two texts that make concern for the well-being of all the only condition to arrive at the goals they preach.
The state of the sage ruler of the Laozi as interpreted by Wang Bi, once achieved, stays till the death of the sage. The sage ruler does not suffer from fears arising from selfishness. The state of fearlessness arising out of the removal of selfishness and all its symptoms like anger, jealousy, hatred is identical to the state of nirvana indicated by the Buddha.
Even though meditation-like technique was available in China at the time of the compilation of the Tao-te Ching, the text, as interpreted by Wang Bi is completely silent about it. In Ariyapariyesan Sutta of the Majjhima Nikay, the Buddha claimed that he practiced and perfected all states of meditation but found them to be utterly useless because the states they produced were transient whereas he was looking for a permanent eradication of the state of dissatisfactoryness (dukkha). As he claimed in the Adittapriyaya sutta the dissatisfactoryness disappears only when all symptoms of selfishness subside.
That, essentially, is the difference between the meditation led metaphysical ways of life and the ethics led ways of life privileged by the non- metaphysical Buddha and the “nothingness” metaphysics of Tao-te Ching.