Lady Tâɔnà didn’t start a religion— all her ideas were part of the longstanding Beic worldview. Rather, she started a school or tradition, Nàłó, [na52 ło24], the Interiorist school, with certain key doctrines, practices, and values.
Etymology: Lé ‘heart school’.
Heart vs. mind
The name of the school (and Tâɔnà’s own) assert the primacy of heart (nà) over mind— hǎe, the province of the competing Hâełó or rationalist school.
Heart implies intuition, feeling, individuality, and direct experience, as opposed to reason, legalism, and practicality. Both schools believe in doing good, but Nàłó offers no justification for this besides ŋɛ̀ ‘desire’ (and mocks the rationalists for their elaborate arguments on policy and morality).
The point of Tâɔnà’s enlightenment story (though to talk about “points” is to be suspiciously rationalist) is that reason and ritual are only half the journey. She had to leave the city and meditate, but that alone got her nowhere. She needed to feel— to experience pain, love, and heartbreak— and to still the rational mind whose chatter prevented nɔtǎn (enlightenment).
Spirit is everywhere
The story also reflects the Nàłó belief that the spirit world is everywhere; it is our natural home, and there is nothing surprising about talking to spirits, travelling the spirit world, or having spiritual power over the world. It’s only rationalist inhibitions that prevent us from doing these things.
(Hâełó didn’t doubt the spiritual world; but it believed that access to it required special training and precise rites.)
Why don’t we all live indefinitely or work miracles, as Tâɔnà did? Partly, it’s because we’re inhibited by false teachings, or distracted by ordinary living. And partly it’s because these things are something of a game anyway. If you have access to the spirit world, why mess around with superficial features of the mortal world? Save the sick person if you like, but it just affects their mortal manifestation anyway. As Tâɔnà said, the question is like asking “Once you can swim, why do you not spend all your time in the water?”
Nàłó is also the locus of skepticism in the Beic realms. In large part this is due to their millennial arguments with Hâełó, which they found riddled with error. Dissecting pragmatic and legalistic claims, Nàłó naturally began to catalogue logical fallacies, devise clever pedantic counters, and disdain Hâełó values: reason, dispassionate observation, authority, correct ritual practice.
This may seem to conflict with the previous point— weren’t they skeptical about the spirit world? Certainly, in that they warned that spirits (like the firefly) were evasive to the point of annoyance, that visions of the nɔŋǎ were misleading and incommunicable, that one person’s spiritual experience was not a guide or a norm for others.
But their response to our concerns would be that it’s we who aren’t skeptical enough, for we blindly accept the primacy of the physical world. Materialist views of the mind would particularly amaze them: why are spiritual beings pretending to be machines?
It’s explained that Tâɔnà’s experience of actual birth was unnecessary. There is no one path to enlightenment; the firefly was speaking metaphorically. But the importance given to birth was typical of Nàłó and to some extent all Beic thought. Discussions of female-male relations stressed the unique ability of women to give birth, which was often given as a justification for female supremacy— though sometimes it was taken as negative; after all one was drawing a spirit into the realm of death.
Nàłó was strongest in its home country of Mɔłɔsɔu, which was known even among the Bé for the low status of men, perhaps in reaction to the male-dominant Hake state and later underclass. However, an undercurrent of Nàłó thinkers defended and praised men, whose emotional nature they considered to be closer to nà than the rational spirit of women.
Nàłó did not condemn behaviors, only attitudes: e.g. murder wasn’t a sin, murderous rage was. Moralists carefully analyzed attitudes and intentions, and condemned their Hâełó colleagues whose alleged focus on outward action blinded them to the seething corruption inside most people’s hearts. In this sense Nàłó was like American conservatives, who look at most problems as moral ones, and find it difficult to conceive that their pragmatic opponents have any morality at all.
However, Nàłó was also individualistic: Tâɔnà expressed great scorn for campaigns to regulate morality, along the lines of the Swolan movement. You can’t impose morality any more than you can dictate enlightenment.
Tâɔnà, though always referred to with her royal honorific nàɔ, had given up her high position to dedicate herself to enlightening herself and then others. Nàłó retained some of this attitude; many of its greatest thinkers renounced wealth and refused public office. But they rarely advocated asceticism; mortification of the body was considered to draw attention to the physical world rather than free the spirit.
I’ve already hinted at how the Hâełó saw their opponents: vague and impractical, foolishly dismissive of objective reality and yet annoyingly moralistic.
Many had no patience with Nàłó’s idea of enlightenment (nɔtǎn), which seemed maddeningly squishy, even irrational. For every person who found Tâɔnà’s teaching stories suggestive and thought-provoking, there were two who considered them idealistic bull.
Nàłó went in and out of favor with the state. Some queens embraced it, or at least appreciated its emphasis on morality. But Nàłó could also turn on a government it considered immoral— or simply too concerned with practical matters. Even distributing food in a famine or building roads was of little interest to Nàłó: good works in this world are just adding makeup to a corpse.
The Nàłó school was originally simply the followers of Tâɔnà, who passed on her teachings and methods. There was no overarching organization, but there was a tradition of direct teacher-to-student transmission, emphasizing the memorization of the oral tradition. Thus followers fell into three classes:
- An inner core of adepts (łíŋ), who had mastered the tradition and could trace their study, student to mistress, back to Tâɔnà. These were restricted to women, except in the looser western states.
- Students or apprentices (inłó), those who were studying the tradition under the hands of a łíŋ. In Belesao, though not Mɔłɔsɔu, men could be students.
- Followers (inrɛn), who accepted the teachings but were not formal students. The vast majority of adherents fell into this class.
In the 1900s a new writing system was developed for Lé, based on the syllabographs of Uytai. There was some resistance to using it within philosophy, especially as the Hâełó school was the first to use it. Writing seemed too close to ritual, something external and formal that Tâɔnà wouldn’t have approved of.
The inrɛn had no such qualms; indeed, wasn’t it necessary to defend Nàłó in the emerging new international medium? Soon enough the inłó joined them, writing defenses and commentaries, and aides-memoire for learning the oral tradition.
By the 2100s several written versions of Tâɔnà’s teachings existed; in 2133 a council of Mɔłɔ adepts went over these to produce a definitive edition: the Tâɔnàje pàŋ or Book of Tâɔnà, completed in 2157.
Writing had two contradictory effects. It systematized the beliefs of the school, creating a strict orthodoxy: correct teaching no longer required consulting the local łíŋ (which generally required travel and conversation); you just consulted the Book of Tâɔnà. On the other hand, it was easier to spread both Nàłó and dissenting ideas. Many people were influenced by Nàłó without even being inrɛn, which implied acceptance of the entire body of thought.
Nàłó faded as an intellectual movement beginning in the 2500s (though a few remote groups continued the chain of łíŋ well into the 2800s). The movement was not so much rejected as superseded: new movements arose, and the Nàłó/Hâełó dichotomy was simply no longer adequate to contain Beic thought. An analogy might be Socrates, who is a foundational figure in Western civilization, and yet no longer the focus of a well-defined school of thought. People still read Tâɔnà, but she seems a remote and unsophisticated figure.