The Perfect Man According to Taoism and Its Relevance with Sufism: A Brief Survey

Arif Mulyadi


AFTER discuss on the Absolute Reality or, in the religion language, God, it is then the Perfect Man as well as his characteristics which place the second position in discussion the triad existence[1] in almost each religion and tradition.[2] In this paper, I would like to explain shortly the Perfect Man of Taoism. However, I want to explicate what the Taoism is before. It is important for us to know this, because the concept of the Perfect is actually a part of Tao’s teaching.
It is not easy to define exactly Taoism (or Daoism in English name). There are at least three meanings of Taoism as follows:
(1) A Philosophical school based on the texts the Tao Te Ching or Dao De Jing ascribed to Lao Tze (Lao Zi) and Book of Chuang Tze (Zhuang Zi);
(2) A family of organized Chinese religious movements such as the Cheng I (Zheng Yi , means Orthodoxy) or Quan Zhen (‘complete reality) sects, which collectively trace back to Chang Tao-ling (Zhang Daoling) in the late Han Dinasty (206 BC – 220 AD);
(3) A Chinese folk religion.

Literally, Tao = A Way, a Path, means ‘the way by which people travel, the way of nature and finally the Way of ultimate Reality. It had a limited meaning for Confucius, but to the Chinese mystics, it came not only to refer to the way the whole world of nature operates but to signify the original undifferentiated Reality from which the universe is evolved.

Therefore, the essence of Taoism is ‘Tao’, means ‘the way’, who is not the ‘eternal Tao’ (not God); he is the way, the truth, and the life. Tao (pronounced ‘Dow’) is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It refers to a power which envelopes, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living, in heaven and earth, and he wants to live in your heart. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites (i.e. there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female).

In Taoism, Tao, is a force which flows through all life and the first cause of everything. The goal of everyone is to become one with the Tao.

The Perfect Man
The Perfect Man as understood by Lao-tzu[3] and Chuang-tzu[4] is nothing else than the personification of the Way itself (Izutsu, 1983: 444). The Perfect Man is ‘perfect’ because he is an exact personal imago of the Way.[5]

The Perfect Man is a man who is completely unified and united with the Way. That is, when a man in the course of his spiritual discipline reaches the ultimate stage of Illumination, a stage at which there remains no trace of his ‘ego’, and therefore no divergence between ‘himself and the Way—that marks the birth of a Perfect Man. Lao-tzu calls this stage ‘embracing the One’.

The ‘sacred man’ embraces the One, and thereby becomes the exemplar for all things under Heaven.

Controlling his vacillating soul, (the Perfect Man) embraces the One in his arms and is never separated therefrom.

In the second paragraph, Izutsu shows us, by analyze the word of ‘soul’, that in ancient China the word of ‘soul’ (Greek, psyche) contains two separate substances: one of them being hun and the other p’o. Or we could say that man was believed to possess two souls. The former was The Perfect Man superior or spiritual soul, the principle of mental and spiritual functions. The latter was the inferior or physical (or animal) soul, charged with bodily and material functions. When a man died, the hun was believed to ascend to Heaven, while the p’o was to go down into Earth.[6]

There are some significant features in the Perfect Man as follows:
1. The Perfect Man is no longer harassed by the fretfulness of his soul. On the contrary, he always maintains his soul unperturbed.

In this way, Izutsu quotes this passage:
What do I mean by the ‘true man’? (I am thinking of) the ‘true men’ of ancient times. They did not revolt against scarcity (i.e., adverse fortune). They did not become haughty in favorable conditions. They did not make positive plans with the intention of accomplishing things.
Such a person does not repent though he might commit an error; he does not fall into self-complacency though he might meet with success.
Such a man does not become frightened even if he ascends to the highest place. He does not get wet even if he enters the water. He is not burnt even if he enters the fire.

All this is the result of the (true) Wisdom having attained to the ultimate point of perfection in (being unified with) the Way.

2. The Perfect Man takes the principle of ‘unperturbedness’ toward his own Life and Death.
Izutsu says:
The ‘true men’ of ancient times knew nothing of loving Life and disliking Death. They came out (into this world) without any particu-lar delight. They went in (i.e., died) without any resistance. Calmly they came, calmly they went. They did not forget how they had begun to exist (i.e., that the beginning of their Life was due to the natural working of the Way). Nor did they worry about the end of their existence.
They simply received (Life) and they were happy (to live that Life). But (when Death came) they simply gave (their Life) back and forgot it.
This is what I would call: not revolting against the working of the Way by the use of Reason, and not interfering with what Heaven does by straining (petty) human (efforts).
Such is the ‘true men’.

3. The Perfect Man has a calm inner state which effect on his physical conditions. His calm unperturbed mind is reflected by the very peculiar way in which his bodily functions are performed. The Perfect Man is different from the common people not only in his spiritual state, but also in his physical constitution.

In this case, Izutsu mentions this passage:
The ‘true men’ of ancient times did not dream when they slept. They felt no anxiety when they were awake. They did not particularly enjoy food when they ate.

Their breathing was calm and deep. They used to breathe with their heels. The common people, on the contrary, breathe with their throats (i.e., their respiration is shallow). You know those who are cornered in argument – how desperately they try to vomit out the words sticking in their throats. (Compared with the breathing of the Perfect Man, the breathing of ordinary people is just like that.) (This is due to the fact that, unlike the Perfect Man who has no desire, the common people) are deep in their desires, and shallow in their natural spiritual equipment.

So, the Perfect Man, according to Taoist—as quoted by Izutsu—is able to control his desires. Even his need of the food is relied upon the unification with the One. Therefore the ‘sacred man’, or the Perfect Man, concentrates on the belly (i.e., endeavors to develop his inner core of existence) and does not care for the eye (i.e., does not follow the dictates of his senses). Thus he abandons the latter and chooses the former.

These three significant features of the Perfect Man ultimately also affect on his political attitudes and views. This can be seen in Izutsu’s explanation about “Homo Politicus” in his book Sufism and Taoism (1983:457-466). For instance, Lao-tzu maintains, as quoted by Izutsu, the Perfect Man cannot be really ‘perfect’, unless he stands at the head of an empire as the supreme Ruler of its people. It means the Perfect Man is at once a philosopher and a politician (p.458). Thus, there is a social obligation for the Perfect Man in order to arrange the people. If he does not pay attention the social affairs, he cannot become the real Perfect Man.

The Perfect Man, however, according to Taoist, does not have to play his role in society directly. “The Perfect Man, as a human being,” Izutsu continues, “lives among the ordinary people as a member of society. He exists there in the midst of everyday life, quietly and calmly, behind and beneath other men. He ‘levels’ himself the common people, without ‘discriminating’ himself from other men. Outwardly, he seems to be exactly the same as the ordinary people. But this is, in reality, a very peculiar ‘sameness’, for in his spiritual structure, he is soaring like the Bird P’eng in the azure of absolute freedom and independence.”

The Perfect Man does not rule the world by means of man-made laws as the common ruler. But, he governs the world by ‘governing himself’, namely, by perfecting his inner Virtue. In other words, if he can actualize his inner Virtue, the world becomes governed ‘of itself’.[7] However, it does not mean the Perfect Man positively governs the world by instituting severe laws and enforcing them. The right ordering of the world is spontaneously manifested as the Perfect Man, on his part, ‘rectifies his inner self’.

Until now, we have a big picture about the Perfect Man in Tao’s perpective, that is, the Perfect Man divided into two level: one, individual level, and second, social level. The former is that the Perfect Man is someone who can unify his being with the Way (tao). He is someone who can remove his ‘ego’ so that, with this, he can unify and embrace the ‘One’. The latter is that the Perfect Man, after he removes his ‘ego’ and ‘desires’, he can rule the world directly and indirectly. Of course, he must first rule himself, and then rule the people.

The Relevance of Taoism with Islamic Mysticism on the Perfect Man
We come to know that the notion of the Perfect Man has similarity in Islamic mysticism in some aspects. Perhaps, this resemblance shows us, again, that in spirituality there are no differences between Islamic mysticism (at least, in Ibn ‘Arabi’s mysticism) and other mysticism traditions such as Taoism. In other words, the concept of the Perfect Man universally, for instance, admitted by both of them. Here I would like to mention some resemblance between them as long as I can.
1. Regarding to their steps toward the perfection
According to Chuang-tzu, the first stage consists in ‘putting the world outside the Mind’, that is, forgetting the existence of the objective world. The world as something ‘objective’ being by nature relatively far from the Mind from the very beginning, it is relatively easy for man to erase it from his consciousness through contemplation. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s perspective, this stage is the ‘annihilation of the attributes’. For him, in this stage man has all his ‘human’ attributes nullified, and in their place he assumes as his own the Divine Attributes.

The second stage, according to Chuang-tzu, consists in ‘putting the things outside the Mind’, namely, erasing from consciousness the familiar things that surround man in his daily life. At this stage, the external world completely dissappears from his consciousness.

The third step consists in man’s forgetting Life, that is, his own life or his personal existence. The ‘ego’ is thereby completely defeated, and the world, both external and internal, dissappears from consciousness. And as the ‘ego’ is nullified, the inner eye of the man is opened and the light of ‘illumination’ suddenly breaks through the darkness of spiritual night. This marks the birth of a new Ego in man. He is also ‘beyond Life and Death’, namely, he is ‘one’ with all things, and all things are unified into ‘one’ in his no-consciousness’.

For Ibn ‘Arabi the second step resides in that man has his own personal ‘essence’ nullified and realizes in himself his being one with the Divine Essence. This is the completion of the phenomenon of ‘self annihilation’ in the proper sense of the word. This step corresponds to the first half of the third stage of Chuang-tzu, in which the man is said to abandon his old ‘ego’.

As for the the third stage, for Ibn ‘Arabi, is the stage at which man regains his ‘self’ which he has ‘annihilated’ at the previous step. Only after he abandons his old ‘ego’ he will obtain a new Ego (the cosmic Ego). He has unified himself with the Divine Reality. This is called ‘self-subsistence’. This step corresponds to the latter half of the stage according to Chuang-tzu’s division of the process.

2. Regarding the social obligation.
Seemingly, we can say that the Perfect Man is in vain if he cannot manifest his perfection to the people. This fact can be concluded from, however, the dimension of man. As we know, man has two aspects or dimensions, that is, as an individual being and social being. He who has attained the perfection but he does not emanate his achievement to other human, he cannot be really the Perfect Man. If it is so, basically he still is entrapped in his ‘ego’. The real Perfect Man has placed his ‘ego’ with the new Ego, the cosmic Ego. Therefore, he plans to perfect his people and the world. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s world view, this man will be the Prophet (an-nabiy), the Apostle (ar-rasûl), or the Saint (al-waliy). It is these people, who can permeate the Divine Names, who govern the world and human.

All these is nothing but the social obligation from the Perfect Man. Either Taoist or Ibn ‘Arabi’s Sufism agree that in order to govern the world and people, one must purificate his self as we notice in the division of the process from them. In his Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom, Ibn ‘Arabi considers the soul is the king, the deputy of God. If the soul is damaged, so the body will be damage as well. Likewise, the king is damaged, the people will be damage also. []

1 By the triad of existence I mean God, human being, and nature. I mention the triad of existence because of the discussion about the existence of God in turn will be related to other than God as a sign of God’s existence. Basically, many things outside of God called ‘creature’ (makhluq). One part of the nature is human being itself. The discourse of human is analyzed specifically due to it is human being which reflecting the image of God very perfectly, especially Ibn ‘Arabi’s mysticism. Concerning the pattern of relationship between the triad of existence, see, for instance, Major Themes of the Qur’an by Fazlur Rahman, Man and Universe by Mutahhari, or Sufism and Taoism by Toshihiko Izutsu.
2 In this paper I differentiate between ‘religion’ and ‘tradition’. ‘Religion’ what I mean here is ‘the revealed religion’, includes Judaism, Christian, Zoroaster, and Islam. Whereas ‘tradition’ what I mean is the school of traditional philosophy or folk religion. Taoism itself has two senses above mentioned and, the third meaning, as a family of organized Chinese religious movements.
3 The specific date of birth of Lao Tzu is unknown. Legends vary, but scholars place his birth between 600 and 300 B.C.E. Lao Tzu is attributed with the writing of the “Tao-Te Ching,” (tao-meaning the way of all life, te-meaning the fit use of life by men, and ching-meaning text or classic). Lao Tzu was not his real name, but an honorific given the sage, meaning “Old Master.” According to Izutsu, Lao-tzu is a native of the state of Ch’u. He is an official of the royal Treasury of Chou, when Confucius (551-479 B.C.) came to visit him. See also:
4 Chuang Tzu (399 – 295 B.C.) has always been an influential Chinese philosopher. His writing is at once transcendental while at the same time being deeply immersed within everyday life. He is at peace while at the same time moving through the world. There is a deep vein of mysticism within him which is illuminated by his very rational nature. His style of writing with its parables and conversations both accessible while at the same time pointing to deeper issues. See further: Izutsu (1983:293) reports that Chuang-tzu, on the basis of the Ssu Ma Ch’ien’s accounts, is a native of Meng. He is once an official at Ch’I Yuan in Meng.
5 The same matter can be founded in the theory of the Perfect Man from Ibn ‘Arabi. Ibn ‘Arabi called man as the Imago Dei. According to Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘man’ himself, on the cosmic level, is perfect. Because in his being, he gathers together all the elements that are manifested in the universe. He is the Microcosm (Izutsu, 220).
6 Aristotle considered that soul as the form of body, while he differentiated between the rational aspect and irrational one therein. Both of them make the differentiation between three levels of function: vegetative (plant), sensitive (animal), and rational (human being). If we compare this to Tao, we come to know that the rational function will return Heaven. Because two previous functions still have the character of physical.
7 We can find the same meaning of this statement in the sayings of Imam Ali in his Nahj al-Balâghah: “Whoever wants to be a leader should educate himself before educating others. Before preaching to others he should first practice himself. Whoever educates himself and improves his own morals is superior to the man who tries to teach and train others.”

al-Musawi, as-Sayyid Abu al-Hasan Muhammad ibn al-Husain ar-Radi (2002). Nahj al-Balâghah: Selection from Sermons, Letters, and Sayings of Amir al-Mu’muninin ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Tehran: WOFIS
Bagus, Lorens (2000). Kamus Filsafat. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama.
Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Syaikh Muhyiddin. (At Tadbirat al-Illahiya fi islah al-mamlakat al-insaniya), especially Chapt.3.
Izutsu, Toshihiko (1983). Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts. London: University of California Press.
Mutahhari, Murtada. Man and Universe. Qum: Ansariyan.
Rahman, Fazlur (1994). Major Themes of the Qur’an. Biblioteca Islamica.



1 Komentar

  1. thepureislam said,

    Juli 1, 2008 pada 8:45 pm

    did you have the books of Shahid Murtada Mutahhari?
    I put the link of 31 title of his book in this link:

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