A central quest within Taoist practices is the search
for immortality - literal, physical immortality. The sense of an interplay
between natural law and the abstract laws prevailing in the cosmos,
is held in common by shamanism and Taoism. Taoism searched for balance
within these forces and enshrined the concept that change cannot be
forced, only experienced and assimilated.
Confucius lived in the sixth century BCE, a time
of considerable political unrest and feuding. He taught the virtues
of order, structure and correct behaviour, which was underpinned by
a rigid notion of hierarchy, involving strict filial devotion. Confucian
notions of hierarchy are evident in the bureaucratic pantheon of Chinese
Buddhism was introduced to China in the first century
CE and has been adapted by the Chinese so that the mythologies of the
indigenous faiths and the imported are intertwined. Early Buddhism consciously
created a mythology to give meaning to its practices and beliefs.
Even the advent of Buddhism is mythologized in the tale of the Emperor
Ming. His dream of a golden man who could fly led him to dispatch messengers
to Afghanistan to bring back the Buddhist scriptures.
Pangu and the Creation of the World
This myth is similar to many creation myths worldwide,
in which the world is formed out of the body of a primal being.
In the beginning there was darkness everywhere,
and Chaos ruled. Within
the darkness there formed an egg, and inside the egg the giant Pangu
came into being. For aeons, safely inside the egg, Pangu slept and
grew. When he had grown to gigantic size he stretched his huge limbs
and in so doing broke the egg. The lighter parts of the egg floated
upwards to form the heavens and the denser parts sank downwards, to
become the earth. And so was formed earth and sky, Yin and Yang.
Pangu saw what had happened and he was pleased.
But he feared that heaven and earth might meld together again, so
he placed himself between them, his head holding up the sky and his
feet firmly upon the earth. Pangu continued to grow at a rate of ten
feet a day for 18,000 years, so increasing the distance between heaven
and earth, until they seemed fixed and secure, 30,000 miles apart.
Now exhausted, Pangu went back to sleep and never woke up.
Pangu died, and his body went to make the world
and all its elements. The wind and clouds were formed from his breath,
his voice was thunder and lightning, his eyes became the sun and moon,
his arms and his legs became the four directions of the compass and
his trunk became the mountains. His flesh turned into the soil and the
trees that grow on it, his blood into the rivers that flow and his veins
into paths men travel. His body hair became the grass and herbs, and
his skin the same, while precious stones and minerals were formed from
his bones and teeth. His sweat became the dew and the hair of his head
became the stars that trail throughout heaven. As for the parasites
on his body, these became the divers races of humankind.
Although Pangu is dead, some say he is still responsible
for the weather, which fluctuates according to his moods.
Despite the fact that this tale is accepted as a
legacy of ancient China, it is probable that is was imported from South
East Asia However, it is usually ascribed to Ko Hung, Taoist writer
of the fourth century CE, who also wrote on the preparation of an elixir
of life, and similar subjects. He also wrote Biographies of Spirits
and Immortals, which is a prime source of mythological material.
The Cosmic Egg
Myths of a ‘cosmic egg’ are common to many cultures,
signifying the origins of conscious life. In some versions the egg is
produced by a mother figure of some description, and even where this
is absent, it is present by implication. At one level it merely dramatizes
the experience of every individual, starting existence in the egg-shape
of the womb, which is at first a container and a totality. Conscious,
separate existence is achieved when the container is breached, but ends
at death, when the constituents of the body return to the earth to become
part of the cycle of life.
myth of Pangu on this small level gives meaning to each individual life,
and may be a way of processing the idea that the world existed long
before we did and will continue long after death. Creation myths embody
the internal process of increasing consciousness of the world.
A Buddha showing Chinese influence (actually
a rock painting on a Scottish island)
The creation motif
On a larger scale, creation myths are a way for
the conscious mind to attempt to explain the infinite and to make sense
of a boundless universe. The conscious mind cannot truly conceive of
something that has no beginning. However, creation myths of this sort
have factors in common with modern scientific theory. The cracking open
of the egg itself echoes the theme of the Big Bang, while the shape
of the egg connects with Einstein's theory of curved space.
According to the Big Bang theory, all matter was
at first compressed into an unimaginably dense single point. A reaction
took place which caused this to explode and expand into the stars and
galaxies. Steve Eddy and Nicholas Campion in The
New Astrology (Bloomsbury, 1999) write:
The myth of Pangu also reflects an animistic view
of the world, prevalent in so-called primitive cultures, in which everything
is seen as alive, even rocks and soil. It is a vibrant view of creation,
and conveys an instinctual respect, a willingness to work with a living
earth, rather than an intention to subdue inert matter.
Human beings, in the myth, have a fairly lowly
position. Rather than standing at the centre of the cosmos they are
fairly insignificant, taking their place in the natural order. This
perspective is echoed in Chinese paintings, where tiny figures are dwarfed
by the sweeping vistas of natural features, mountains and waterfalls
on varying levels. The development of a spiritual consciousness confers
humility and balance.
Adapted from Teach
Yourself Chinese Myths