This is the first English translation of one of Rene Guenon's most important works, and constitutes a major contribution to the field of traditional studies. What is owed to Guenon for having outlined so clearly the causes of the spiritual crisis of the modern world, and for having offered remedies that are uncompromising in their application, is realized more and more by each generation of his readers. For Guenon presents an approach to religion that satisfies at once the highest level of intellectual rigour and the deepest level of religious practice in the context of a perennial wisdom that acknowledges the integral way of each revealed religion as a path to the totality of Truth as the rays of the Sun can be traced to their luminous source.
The Great Triad is centred on Taoism while being characteristically rich in illuminating cross-references to other traditions, for the ternary in question - Heaven, Earth and Man - is an inescapable feature of all spirituality. Seldom can the multiple levels of significance of a single symbol have been expounded in such profound and meaningful detail so as to reveal that, when properly assimilated, the triad symbol possesses the possibility of functioning as an initiatory means of support for inner realization.
Rene Guenon (1886-1951) is without doubt one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Frithjof Suhuon has said of him that he had the central function of restoring the great principles of traditional metaphysics to Western awareness and he added that Guenon gave proof of a universality of understanding that for centuries had no parallel in the Western world. The Great Triad was first published in French in 1946 and was the last of the author's books to appear in his lifetime.
DOUBTLESS there are many who will realise just from the title of this study that it is concerned primarily with the symbolism of the Far-Eastern tradition. We say ‘doubtless’, because the role played in this tradition by the ternary composed of the terms ‘Heaven, Earth, Man’ (Tien-Ti-Jen) is widely and well enough known; and it is precisely this ternary—which people have become accustomed to refer to by the name of ‘Triad’, even if they do not always exactly understand the meaning or significance of the term—that we now propose to explain, while at the same time also indicating the correspondences to be found in other formal traditions. We have already devoted a chapter of another study to this subject, ‘but it deserves to be treated at greater length.
It is equally well known that there exists in China a ‘secret society’—or at least something generally alluded to as such- which in the West has also been given the same name ‘Triad’. As it is not at specific part of our intention to concern ourselves with this organisation, it will be just as well to say a few words about it now so as to avoid having to come back to it in the course of our exposition.
The true name of the organisation in question is Tien Ti Huei, which can be translated as ‘Society of Heaven and Earth’— provided that, for reasons explained elsewhere, all due reservations are made regarding use of the word ‘society’. This is because what is in question here is something which, although admittedly of a relatively external order, is very far from presenting all the characteristics inevitably evoked by this word in the modern Western world. It will be noticed that only the first two terms of the traditional Triad appear in the title. The reason for this is that the organisation itself (huei), by virtue of its members understood in a collective as well as an individual sense, takes the place of the third term. This will become clearer later on.
One often finds it said that this same organisation is also known by quite a large and varied number of other names, including some in which the idea of the ternary is explicitly mentioned In fact, however, this is not strictly accurate. The designations in question actually refer only to particular branches or to various temporary ‘emanations’ of this organisation, which appear at such-and-such a moment in history and disappear as soon as they have finished playing the specific role for which they were brought into being.’
We have already indicated elsewhere the true nature of all organisations of this kind. In the last analysis they must always be considered as deriving from the Taoist hierarchy, which gave rise to them and which invisibly guides them for the purposes of a more or less outward activity in which it cannot itself intervene directly owing to the principle of ‘non-action’ (wu wei). According to this principle the role of the hierarchy is essentially that of the ‘motionless mover’—in other words, of the centre that governs the movement of all things without participating in it.
All of this is naturally lost on most sinologists. Given the particular standpoint from which they approach their subject, it is hardly surprising that their studies fail to inform them that everything of an esoteric or initiatic order in the Far East necessarily derives, to a greater or lesser degree, from Taoism. Even so, it is still somewhat strange that the same scholars who have detected a Taoist influence in the ‘secret societies’ should have failed to carry the matter any further and draw any important conclusions from it. Instead, noting simultaneously the presence of other elements—notably Buddhist—they hasten to dismiss the whole matter with the word ‘syncretism’. Little do they seem to realise that this word designates something altogether opposed, on the one hand to the eminently ‘synthetic’ mentality of the Chinese people, and on the other hand to the initiatic spirit from which the organisations in question obviously derive—even if in this respect we are only dealing with structures situated at a fair distance from the centre. Certainly we do not wish to claim that all the members of these relatively external organisations are necessarily aware of the fundamental unity of all traditions. Yet those who stand behind these organisations, and inspire them, most certainly do possess this awareness in their capacity of ‘true men’ (chen jen), and it is this that allows them—when circumstances deem it appropriate or advantageous—to introduce into the organisations formal elements that strictly belong to other traditions.
In this connection we must dwell a little on the usage of elements of Buddhist origin. This is not so much because they are without a doubt more frequently encountered than any others (a fact easily explainable as due to the extensive diffusion of Buddhism in China as well as the entire Far East) as because there happens to be a deeper reason for this usage which gives it a very special significance. Indeed, without this other factor the diffusion of Buddhism just mentioned might quite possibly not have occurred.
We could easily find numerous examples of this usage. However, apart from those which themselves only possess a more or less secondary importance, and whose value lies precisely in their ability (mainly through their sheer number) to attract and hold the attention of the external observer and thereby divert it from what is of a more essential nature, ‘there is at least one very clear example which has a bearing on something more than mere details.
We are referring to the use of the symbol of the ‘white lotus’ in the title itself of the other Far-Eastern organisation which stands on the same level as the Tien Ti Huei." In fact Pai Lien Chai or Pai Lien Tsung, name of a Buddhist school, and Pai Lien Chino or Pai Lien Huei, name of the organisation in question, designate two completely separate entities. Yet there is a kind of intended ambiguity in the adoption of this particular title by this organisation of Taoist origin, just as there is also in certain rites of outwardly Buddhist appearance, or again in the ‘legends’ in which Buddhist monks almost constantly play a more or less significant role.
It can be seen quite clearly from an example such as this how Buddhism can serve as a ‘cover’ for Taoism, and how it has thereby proved able to save Taoism from running the risk of externalising itself to a greater degree than would be appropriate for a doctrine which by definition must always be restricted to a limited élite. This is why Taoism could favour the diffusion of Buddhism in China, without there being any grounds for invoking affinities of origin which only exist in the imagination of certain orientalists. Moreover, it was even better able to facilitate the diffusion of Buddhism because the two parts of the Far-Eastern tradition—the esoteric and the exoteric——had formed themselves into two branches of doctrine as far apart from each other as Taoism and Confucianism, and it was easy to find room in between the two for something of a basically intermediate nature. Another result of this, it may be added, was that Chinese Buddhism was itself influenced by Taoism to a considerable degree. This can be seen from the adoption by some Buddhist schools (notably the Ch’an school) of certain techniques of clearly Taoist inspiration, and also from the assimilation of certain symbols, no less essentially Taoist in origin, such as Kuan Yin for example. It is hardly necessary to point out that through these assimilations Buddhism became even more eminently qualified to play the role which we have just outlined.
There also exist other elements whose presence even the most ardent advocates of the theory of ‘borrowings’ could hardly dream of explaining away as ‘syncretism’; in the absence of initiatic knowledge on the part of those who have attempted to study Chinese ‘secret societies’, these elements must remain for them an insoluble enigma. The factors we are referring to are those responsible for similarities, quite often striking, occurring between the organisations in question and organisations of the same kind belonging to other formal traditions. In this connection some writers have gone so far as to entertain, in particular, the hypothesis of a common origin for both the ‘Triad’ and Free- masonry; hardly surprisingly, they have not been able to support their hypothesis with reasoning of any substance. This is not to say that the idea is to be rejected altogether, but just that it needs to be understood in a completely different sense from the way in which it is usually understood: that is, it needs to be phrased not in terms of a historical origin of greater or lesser antiquity, but solely in terms of the identity of principles governing every initiation- whether it be of the East or of the West. In fact, to discover the real explanation for this similarity would require going back well beyond the beginning of history- to the primordial Tradition itself. As to certain similarities of a more specific nature, we will simply say that factors such as the use of numerical symbolism, to take one example, or the use of ‘building’ symbolism, to take another, are in no way peculiar to this or that initiatic scheme. On the contrary, they are merely some among the many elements to be encountered everywhere (with minor differences due to adaptation) because they relate to sciences or arts that exist equally, and possess the same ‘sacred’ character, in all traditions. Really, then, they belong to the domain of initiation in general, which means that where the Far East is concerned they will fall specifically within the province of Taoism. If the adventitious elements—Buddhist or otherwise—are basically a ‘mask’, these other elements on the contrary belong to what is truly essential.
This brings us to a matter that requires further clarification. When we speak here of Taoism, and when we say that such-and- such a thing falls within the province of Taoism (which will be the case with most of the issues we will be examining in this study), this is to be understood with reference to the Far—Eastern tradition in its present state. We mention this because people who are too prone to view everything ‘historically’ might be tempted to conclude that it is a question of concepts not to be met with prior to the development of what is strictly called Taoism; whereas in fact, very far from this being the case, these same concepts are to be found constantly throughout the entire Chinese tradition as it is known, starting from the (earliest period which it is possible to go back to—in short, from the time of Fu Hsi. The reason for this is that in reality Taoism has made. No ‘innovations’ whatever in the esoteric and initiatic domain—just as, for that matter, Confucianism has made none in the exoteric and social domain. Both Confucianism and Taoism are, each in their own way, merely ‘re-adaptations’ necessitated by conditions which had led to the tradition in its original form no longer being understood in its entirety From that time on, one part of the previous tradition entered into Taoism and another part into Confucianism, and this is the state of affairs that has continued down to the present day. To refer this notion to Taoism, or that notion to Confucianism, is therefore in no way to attribute them to something more or less comparable to what Westerners would call ‘systems’. Fundamentally it simply amounts to saying that they belong respectively to the esoteric and the exoteric parts of the Far-Eastern tradition.
We shall not be returning explicitly to the subject of the Tien Ti Huei, except when necessary in order to deal with certain particular points, because this is not part of our plan. However, what we shall be saying in the course of this study will, besides its much more general scope and bearing, demonstrate implicitly the principles on which—as even its title indicates—the organisation is based. This will permit the reader to understand how, in spite of its external nature, the organisation has a genuinely initiatic character that guarantees its members at least a potential participation in the Taoist tradition. In fact, to be more specific, the role assigned to man as the third term of the Triad is, at one level, that of ‘true man’ (chenjen) and, at another level, that of ‘transcendent man’ (chzin jen), thus indicating the goals of the ‘lesser mysteries’ and the ‘greater mysteries’ respectively—in short, the goals of all initiation. Doubtless this organisation, taken in isolation, is not to be numbered among those that effectively allow these goals to be attained. None the less it is at least capable of preparing for the final stages those who are so ‘qualif1ed’, however far they may stand from the goal; and this makes of it one of the ‘forecourts’ that are able to provide access for these individuals to the Taoist hierarchy——the degrees of which are none other than the degrees of initiatic realisation itself.
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