Hieromonk Damascene’s Christ the Eternal Tao begins with a chapter on Logos/Tao/Word theology, arguing that as “logos” was to the ancient Greeks, so “Tao” (Way) was to ancient China. This is supported by the fact that an early-twentieth-century translation of the Bible into Chinese said that “In the beginning was the Tao…and the Tao became flesh and dwelt among us” in John 1. Damascene offers a number of parallels between Heraclitus’s use of “logos” and Lao Tzu’s use of “Tao.” He concludes by citing a number of church fathers who say that pre-Christian philosophers such as Socrates were saintly. So Hieromonk says that Lao Tzu can therefore be viewed as saintly, having understood the pre-Incarnate Way so thoroughly.
Next comes a series of Nine Enneads, a poetic “New Testament of the Tao Teh Ching” (51). They beautifully present Trinitarian origins, creation, the fall, the incarnation of Christ, and devotion to the Way. Often arranged in a “the Ancient Sage [i.e., Lao Tzu] said…” and “the Way, when he became flesh, said…,” they beautifully communicate how God was known to Lao Tzu and how his teachings anticipate the coming of Jesus. They make for great devotional reading that I will return to time and time again.
Next comes an account of how the Tao has revealed himself in history. The Tao is pristine simplicity that enables persons to act spontaneously in the moment, being united with God. Such was primordial humanity, according to Damascene. Before the fall of Adam, humanity was united with God moving in the Way. After the fall humanity no longer acted spontaneously and without thought but gained “knowledge of good and evil.” So instead of flowing along with the Way, humanity became their own way (i.e., seeking to be gods themselves) and fell farther and farther from their primordial pristine simplicity. Lao Tzu, through his devotion to the Way, was able to discern much about the Ultimate Reality of the Way, even identifying it as personal (an attribute that Damascene says was lost by subsequent generations of Taoist thought). Without direct revelation, Damascene says that Lao Tzu was able to discern as much as is possible about the Way.
Other ancient religious folk had discerned God to be “an inexonerable cosmic Judge” but “when the Tao became flesh, He did not at all resemble this idea of God. He was, as Lao Tzu had said of Him, ‘like water, which greatly benefits all things but does not compete with them, dwelling in lowly places that all distain'” (264). Christ’s incarnation revealed that the Way of the universe was pouring oneself out, showing compassion for the “least of these,” and loving even one’s enemies. When one dwells in the fullness of Love, one can act naturally, spontaneously, and without fear for oneself.
Christ’s incarnation offered “a radical transformation of our whole being” and
did much more than reveal who God is. Through His coming, man not only achieves the self-emptying that Lao Tzu valued so much; now, in a way unknown before, his immortal spirit becomes wholly filled with the Divinizing, Uncreated Energy—Grace or Teh—of God. With Christ, man not only returns to the primordial state which Lao Tzu sought; now he rises beyond even this in the mystical union with the Personal Absolute that was originally intended for man. Through Christ’s self-emptying on the Cross, the way to heaven becomes open to man, and man experiences the Tao of Heaven in the plenitude of His being (275).
Damascene discusses the difference between the “original spirit” and the “conscious spirit” in Taoist thought, likening them to the higher aspect of the soul (the spirit, or nous) and the lower aspect of the soul. With the fall, the conscious spirit brought humanity down from their spirit, where union with God is possible, to their lower soul which is identified as ego. Damascene says that “the ego does what it can to conceal the existence of the spirit. In this way the spirit is not allowed to fulfill its designation of rising to God, and thus its light becomes darkened….The only cure for this sickness is to give the spirit its rightful mastery by stripping the soul of the form of the ego” (280–281). The ego creates “a constant state of distraction” in order to keep persons from rising to their spirit. The remedy to this ego state is repentance, constantly telling the ego that it is not a god, that it is wrong. This requires constant watchfulness, “a state of inner vigilance, attention, and sobriety” (300). We must guard against thoughts that distract us from God, that drag us down.
Many ancient Christian thinkers speak of the struggle with thoughts. It is vital that we understand what they mean by this. Our struggle is not against thoughts, for as Christ said, “Resist not evil.” Rather, our struggle should be to rise toward our source of knowing, the Tao/Logos Who is beyond thought. In other words, we do not engage the thoughts, but instead struggle to keep our attention lifted above them, in the stillness of the higher mind.
Each time we catch ourselves in a thought, we just return our attention to what is above it: to our spirit and to God….It is like a train that has been switched to a side track and must simply be switched back to the main track, which alone leads to one’s destination (309).
Watchfulness, then, can be achieved through ceaseless prayer. The author recommends the Jesus Prayer, through which “the mind is concentrated on a single thought: the thought of the sinner’s forgiveness by Jesus. Outwardly this activity is the most dry, but in practice it proves to be the most fruitful of all the soul’s activities” (342). And Damascene recommends daily moments of intentional watchfulness: mornings, evenings, and nights. These moments are coupled with the attempt to remain prayerful and watchful throughout the day.
The ultimate goal is union with the Way, what the Orthodox call deification or divination. Christ’s coming in human flesh allows humans to attain to God, to experience the fullness of God’s light which already dwells within them.