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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 10: The Tai Ji Symbol and the Oviphile Swastika, Cont.

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 2 of 3

A few other coincidences deserve mention. Basque traditional "feng shui" considerations required placing the facade of a home on the eastern side. Now, for as far back as Hannibal (the historical limit), various would-be conquerors had discovered that Basques were fanatical freedom fighters who neither enfeoffed outsiders nor yielded dominion (an ongoing political problem) to foreigners. In short, Basques refused to submit to any feudal system or to relinquish title, in full or in part, to their lands or east-facing houses. Rodney Gallop, in his A Book of the Basques, refers to this independent spirit and, citing both the antiquity of the decorative swastika motif and the Basque’s ferocious defense of their freeholds, says, "A possible, though rather fanciful, explanation of its (the swastika’s) origin has been suggested to me by a sentence in George Birdwood’s book Sva: ‘Any house facing the East is a Svastika; and svasthya are the freehold lands held in their villages by the Brahmans.’ Could there possibly be," wonders Gallop, "a connection between the swastika and the eastern orientation of the Basque farmhouses, both phenomena being of similar origin and intended to signify the freedom of tenure which has always reigned in the Basque Country?" Brahman ideas have a way of popping up in unexpected places. Gallipoli is said to mean Kali’s City and Kelly is said to be Kali, and so on.

Gallop additionally alludes to the peculiar discoidal tombstones which the Basques share with the ancient Turks. As it happens, the great Zhou invasions of Northwest China were of a Turkish people and the odd design appears frequently in Chinese art.

Basque tombstone illustrating a motif common to Basque, Chinese and Turkish art.

Much has been made of the Nestorian Christian presence in China. Silk, always a powerful commercial ligature, had long bound Europe and China together. Overland, and by a variety of sea routes, trade in this commodity had existed for centuries before Rome was sacked and Europe entered the Dark Ages. So, whether Christians found their way into China during the good times of the Pax Romana or whether they immigrated later, preferring to enjoy the Sui and Tang Dynasties’ Golden Age than to suffer the discomforts of darkened Europe, is difficult to say. Christian monuments, stone stelae bearing both Syriac and Chinese writing erected in the 7th century, are still standing. There may have been, and doubtless were, other earlier, less durable monuments that perished along time’s way.

One of many Ancient Christian stone monuments which bear both European and Chinese inscriptions. 7th Century, China

However it was drawn and by whom, a new line was etched into the religious geometry of Daoist thought, a line that split concepts and qualities into polar opposites, a line which divided microcosm and macrocosm, light from dark, Yang from Yin. Re-uniting the opposites as One became the work of a new, spiritual alchemy, a regimen that could be taught and transmitted. The work was actually a method, a way, a school or a style for accomplishing a state of consciousness which the natural mystic could very easily discover for himself.

Religions, especially imported ones, that were based upon the distinctions of light and dark were not new to the Chinese. Persian traders had browsed the shops of Canton (Guang Zhou) three hundred years before Christ; and Persian traders were usually Zoroastrian. The need to proselytize no doubt "came with the territory" they marketed; but the ethical slant they gave to that line - that light and dark (Ahura Mazda vs. Ahriman) represented the polar opposites of good and evil - remained tangential to Chinese thought. The Chinese may have associated light with male and therefore nice, indeed, if you were one; but they never abandoned the idea of balance, and of cyclical eventualities. Dark may have been feminine but it was never evil. Dangerous, perhaps... but hardly evil. Zoroastrianism may safely be eliminated as a significant contributor to Daoist thought if it did in fact contribute anything at all.

More peculiar, if not unique, was that the Dao, itself, i.e., the "Ground of All Being", was seen as the Great Matrix, a female construction. The Dao was the Mother of all Creation. Civilizations, in particular proto-indo-european ones, do not usually envision an unwed Mater as being responsible for the all of creation; but, and this is merely curious, the Basques do, too. Their words for sky and also earth indicate this feminine, maternal identity. Also, unlike most other civilizations, they considered the moon to be masculine, the celestial representative of a great Lord not unlike Shiva. The rest of Europe may have considered this an insult to Artemis or Diana, but it was a designation of gender which came, no doubt, as a relief to the angst-ridden Man in the Moon.

On the other side of the world from the Pyrenees, Daoists formed their own trail, their own Way. Their main highway created itself from the confluence of five distinct courses: the original pragmatic, philosophical way of Lao Tzu; the more withdrawn, detached approach of Chuang Tzu; the yoga routes which advocated pranayama, diet and exercise; the herbal and chemical-alchemy avenues which sought to prolong and enrich life through the ingestion of special fungi or mineral compounds; and the spiritual alchemy or Hermetic path which was either introduced by Nestorian Christians or coincidentally received a new impetus or revitalization during the days of their immigration.

We are much indebted to the Eranos Yearbooks, in particular to the collections recently published by Princeton University Press and edited by Joseph Campbell, for the many essays which illuminate the otherwise shadowy subject of oriental alchemy. Erwin Rouselle, who contributed articles to this series, writes of his own experiences as a novice in Beijing’s White Cloud (Baiyunguan) Monastery. It is worth noting that in his Spiritual Guidance In Contemporary Taoism he records his astonishment at the nature of certain requirements imposed upon him as he progressed in his spiritual regimen. "A new dedication is now undertaken. The novice is required to make a solemn vow to regulate his way of life according to a supreme principle, sub specie aeternitatis. These Confucians and Taoists made me swear to walk in the paths of Christ, understood in a very profound and ultimate sense."

Tattered and ancient, this exquisite and very early portrait of Christ on silk was recovered from the desert caves at Dun Huang, China. Note the Imperial Roman headdress and cross-pendant necklace, fine garments, and scepter. British Museum.

Whether or not or, if so, just how much Christian thought influenced this particular Daoist alchemical path is a matter for sinologists and theologians to decide; it is sufficient for us to note that Richard Wilhelm, whose translations and commentaries on several old and esoteric Chinese texts were much admired by Carl Jung, gave more than casual credence to the view of such scholars as Timothy Richard and P.Y. Saeki. To Wilhelm, Richard and Saeki, Nestorian Christianity did in fact influence Southern School Daoism and Chan.

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