If you read about Taoist alchemy [1] then, apparently, there is an interesting feature of the teaching. This is that it has a common standard intepretation – an ‘outer teaching’, which is about materials; which substances to add to which substances to get what potions, etc – and a deeper, hidden intrepretation – an ‘innner teaching’ which is about spirituals, what the written lore is really about, and which concerns various tantric practices (i.e. mystical activities, some of which involve putting your genitals into various places). By the by, you get the same theme in western alchemy, the idea that the outer teaching – about turning lead into gold and all that – is really a distraction, or veil, for the inner teaching – which is about (perhaps!?) immortality, perfect knowledge, etc.

There is inner and outer teaching in Christianity as well. The standard intreptation (read: common depiction) of the christian metaphysic is cartoonish: a hell of burning fire, a heaven of clouds and angels with harps, a perverse God who puts apples on trees just so innocents will eat them. Alongside/within this there is a more sophisticated reading of christian theory with all its great themes of sin, forgiveness and justice and wotnot [2]. What interests me is that, here, the inner and outer teachings have conicident implications. Although they differ in their semantic content (and level of sophistication) the implications are the same: go to church, live a pious life according to the teachings of jesus, etc

Here’s a third example, in a different arena, in which I believe there are inner and outer teachings: the justification of the invasion of iraq. Now it is obvious that the outer or popular justifications for the invasion are lies. We obviously didn’t invade because of Saddam’s Links to al-Qaeda, nor was it about WMD, nor was it about Saddam being an evil tyrant. Although they were believed by many misinformed people, these things appear insufficient as causes for our invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, some of us wonder, what is the real reason, the true justification? What, in other words, is the inner teaching that those in power of the Western armies must believe? As with Christianity there is this coincidence of consequences between inner and outer teachings. The misinformed public can believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and want vengence, the White House can believe that we need the oil (or want to make a statement of brute force on the world stage to shore up US hegemony, or want to stop Iraq trading oil in euros, or whatever you believe the real reason was for our invasion) – but the effect is the same: invade Iraq.

So I’ve been thinking about this business of inner and outer teachings, in a kind of undirected way; does the categorisation make sense? Is it as common in theologies as it seems from these three examples? Most importantly, is it functional? What social, institutional or psychological work does it do?

This occured to me, and you can tell me if it is convincing – the point of an inner and outer teaching is where there is no true centre to a set of beliefs. The appearence of hidden meaning is really a function of a set of symbols of such fecundity that they yield an intepretation as rich as the mind that decides to interrogate them. One meaning for a superficial reading, another for a deeper reading. And another for a still deeper reading, or for a deep reading which brings with it a different set of biases or assumptions. The existence of inner and outer teachings are the resolution of two dynamics. One made of institutional forces which promote consistency of actions (also known as compliance in some circumstances!), the second a more personal drive to remove inconsistency in beliefs. The different levels of teaching allow everyone to pick a symbol intepretation which they are comfortable with, without needing to feel like they are contradicting those who use another level of intepretation. The belief (meta-belief) in a higher level of meaning – the inner teaching – allows everyone to happily follow the same behavioural path without having to challenge each other over inconsistencies in their symbol intepretations.


[1] Not something I regularly do, admittedly, but I do have this book ‘The Secret and Sublime:Taoist Mysteries and Magic: Taoist Mysteries and Magic’, John Blofeld (1973)

[2] There are parallel inner and outer teachings for different aspects of Christian theology. Witness the recent discussion on whether the standard story of Jesus dying for our sins indicates that god is ‘perverse’ (not that I follow Christian theology, but it was on radio 4 at about 7 yesterday morning)