The Taoist Story of Creation
When we hear a myth about the creation of the world for the first time, it helps to reflect on a period when our earliest ancestors were searching for answers about things they could not explain. The explanations they came up with, about the soul and about nature, originate in similar kinds of meditations, regardless of the geographical region or historical era. Eventually these ideas were expressed in myths and legends. By studying them, we can reveal the common roots of our humanity.
Long before contemporary scientific and psychological thought, there was aboriginal thought, a mode of thinking that was, and still is, comfortable, even intimate, with myth. Such thinking proceeds from the original, natural mind. It is an outcome of a special, nearly extinct, way of life. In one sense, this type of thinking may be considered unsophisticated and even primitive. In another sense, though, aboriginal thought is a powerful tool. It is a way of deriving conclusions that is simple, direct, and uncluttered by systems of logic and vast vocabularies.
Knowing something about the way of life that gives rise to original thought is important because this knowledge allows us to rediscover facets of ourselves that have been neglected and forgotten.
When the Chinese creation myth is heard for the first time, we see in it a story similar to that told in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis. We also see a tendency in Chinese thought to express concepts in terms of essential components. The primal forces of the masculine and feminine, of the yang and the yin and their permutations, are emphasized. This ability to express abstract ideas in a direct manner is never really abandoned throughout the entire history of Chinese philosophical thought.
Rather than beginning this book with a hefty philosophical account, it is more appropriate to extend an invitation. In a sense, a myth is a kind of invitation. A myth is like a greeting, and it contains a message from the past, offered to the present. Myths introduce us to a particular part, however small, of the prehistory of a civilization.
The Myth of Pan Ku: Creation and the Universal Egg
In the beginning of time, there was only chaos. The elements and gases of the heavens and earth freely mingled, and the organizing principle was dormant. It lay dormant somewhere inside this elemental cosmos, awaiting the right moment to begin the transformation. The shape of this primeval mass was something like an egg.
For 18,000 years the universe remained in this state, until the incubation was finally complete, and the egg hatched. Then the heavens and the earth came into existence. The lighter, most pure substances floated upward and became the heavens. These elements were named yang. The heavier, more impure substances descended and became the earth. These were named yin.
From the same forces, a third, the giant Pan Ku, was born as well. As he grew, his sheer size divided the heavens and the earth. The giant lived for another 18,000 years. With the assistance of four creatures, a tortoise, a phoenix, a dragon, and a unicorn, he labored daily to mold the earth. Together they created the world as we know it today.
When Pan Ku finally died, his body was transformed. His left eye became the sun and his right eye became the moon. His blood became the rivers and oceans, his breath became the wind, his sweat became the rain, and his voice became the thunder. His flesh became the soil, and from the fleas living on his body, the human race sprang into being. In this way, the stage was set for the pageant of history to unfold.
The story of Pan Ku is the Chinese myth of creation. The ancient myths of creation from virtually all cultures show that at the root of human experience is the belief that our world has an organizing principle. After this creative force appears, everything else takes the form of opposing forces: heaven and earth, black and white, day and night, good and evil. These are the ideas of the yang and the yin, of the masculine and feminine. These opposing qualities are, by their fundamental natures, equal in all respects but forever separate entities.
Here we see the theme of the One giving rise to the two in the order of creation, and of a creator who, like Pan Ku, works with primordial substances to bring an entire world into being. This theme will expanded upon in the next section as we discuss the connection between Taoism and nature.