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  • Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Harold D. Roth . Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xv, 275 pp. Hardcover $9.50, ISBN 0-231-11564-4.

Going back to what A. C. Graham regards as "possibly the oldest mystical text in China," Harold Roth (a professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Brown University) calls to our attention the Nei-yeh or "Inward Training," an ancient text from circa 350 B.C.E., and the "mystical" intent of the "Original Tao." The book Original Tao is the Nei-yeh in both its Chinese version and English translation, the two spaciously set side by side for readability and comparison on adjacent pages.

Roth claims that the Nei-yeh blurs any facile dividing line between "philosophical" and "religious" Taoism. His findings and interpretation of this oldest extant ancient "Taoist" text further confirm the fact that "Taoism" itself may be a problematic entity; there is substantial evidence that the beginning of its lineage, around 239 B.C.E., rivals that of Confucianism. Thus, the answer to the question [End Page 535] "What is Taoism?" is not as clear as Herrlee Creel would have it in his 1970 book of that name.1

Roth's "textual archaeology" builds on the advances that have come out of the archaeological discoveries, over the last twenty-five years, of ancient texts (written on bamboo strips and silk), beginning with the manuscripts uncovered in the tomb of a son of a Marquis of Tai at Ma-wang-tui in South-Central China in 1973, and at other sites such as Ting-chou in Hopei, Yin-ch'üeh Shan in Shantung, and Chang-chia Shan and Kuo-tien in Hupei. According to Roth, the Nei-yeh itself was buried, both literally and by academic neglect, as a mystical text within a group of seventy-five other texts that collectively are known as the Kuan Tzu, which hitherto has been better known as a collection of short treatises on political and economic thought.

Roth's thesis is that long before "Taoism," the Nei-yeh, like the Lao Tzu, was essentially a people-oriented manual on governing the family and the state by "active nonaction," or wu-wei, both allowing and assisting people to be their natural (tzu-jan) best selves.2

However, the Nei-yeh underscores the importance of the indicative (to be) rather than the imperative (to do), although, within the holistic Way, the two are virtually inseparable. Therefore, the Nei-yeh offers techniques of "Inward Training" or "inner cultivation" through proper bodily posture and the moderating of breath and other physiological functions, including sex, with the objective of realizing a mystical resonance of the numinous (shen) self with the totality of all beings and things within the cosmos and with the cosmos. The imperative to govern the family and state well is seen by Roth as the outcome of the syncretic process of interaction between this Nei-yeh perspective and the "Confucian" and "Legalist" schools of its time, but resonance of the numinous self with the cosmos remains its central focus.

Roth traces three evolutionary strands in the "Taoist" sources, which he categorizes as follows: (1) Individual, where the inner transformation of the self leads to mystical experience and union with the Tao—the "mystic gnosis" of Benjamin Schwartz3—a common theme held in all Taoist texts of the Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu, and the Huai-nan Tzu; (2) Primitivist, where incorporated into (1) is the political and social philosophy that recommends a return to the simple lifestyle associated with small agrarian societies; and (3) Syncretist, where (1) is commended to rulers as a technique of self-cultivation to the end that good governance, the coordination of cosmos and social order, can take place. Although insights were borrowed from the Confucian and Legalist schools, the syncretist remained fundamentally "Taoist" in its cosmological orientation.

Common strands are also found between the Nei-yeh as "Original Tao" and other "Taoist" texts dealing with medicine, such as those discovered at Ma-wang-tui...


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