A Look at the Main Tales of Tao Te Ching and Customs of Taoism
Holy Envy- a look at other faiths, and how they can give us new eyes for our own. In God and the Universe of other Faiths, theologian john hick writes before that Copernican revolution, we humans believed we were the center of the universe. And of course we did. We look up and around and see the cosmos swirl around us. Then Copernicus came up with a new map of the universe- with the sun at the center of our solar system and the earth and the planets orbiting around. And Hick argues that it is past time for exactly such a revolution to happen in theology— where God is at the center, and we are each different worlds, spinning around God. And Christianity, rather than being the center, is one of the worlds. Because God is at the center and we are not. This planet is where we stand, where we see from. But it is not the center.
If our two readings sound very like each other, well that is because they are. Many scholars have remarked on this. In both the East and West philosophers, mystics, and scholars have a concept behind the whole Universe. This concept represents what moves, governs, and holds all existence together. In the East they named this concept the “Tao” meaning “The Way”. In the West they called this concept “Logos” “the Word “meaning “divine mind” (loosely translated). When Jesus Christ said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), he wasn’t claiming religious supremacy as many fundamentalist would claim, he was identifying himself as the divine or “ultimate truth” the world had already been searching for.
The empty space between our cells. The humming energy of the universe- filling up empty space between human cells, quamtum particles, and planets. A UCC motto is “That all may be one”. This doesn’t mean everyone has to become Christian. Jesus clearly does not have uniformity or immediacy in mind as he prophetically and with certainty says he WILL gather ‘other sheep that do not belong to this fold… There WILL be one flock one shepherd.’
People in Jesus’ day were as divided about Jesus’ prophecy as we are today…mosques or no mosques; synagogues or no synagogues; churches or no churches; gay marriage or no gay marriage; ways to worship, receive communion, or baptize. And yet, we act as if God, knowledge, or love itself is something we can own, limit, control or divide. But the day will come when this blindness will be healed and all who seek to love God with all their heart soul and mind and their neighbors as themselves will be one, even in the midst of difference.
Taoism first appeared around the 4th century BCE, in China. The word ‘Tao’ is translated ‘way’ or ‘path,’ so that the Tao is the Way, a single concept that describes the entirety of life and the universe. And this too reminds us of Jesus, who is the way. Early Christians said they were on the Way. According to legend, the Tao Te Ching was written down by a contemporary of Confucius, named Lao-tzu (Old master- legends, born old, lived 1000 years- or didn’t exist), who gets credit for putting down in writing some of the lessons that Taoism teaches. ‘Tao,’ as you may recall, means ‘way’ or ‘path,’ and ‘Ching’ is a word meaning ‘book’ or ‘classic.’ But the middle word ‘Te’ can be translated roughly as ‘virtue’ or ‘power’ or, as I and some scholars prefer, ‘integrity,’ So, an accepted translation of The Tao Te Ching would be ‘A Classic about the Way of Integrity.’
Those two common letters combined, TE (pronounced ‘deuh’), are almost as significant to the understanding of Taoism as the Tao itself. ‘Integrity’ here refers to that true inner nature of every creature. It is also the sum total of any human being’s actions, good and bad. And a significant purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to improve the odds that one’s actions will more often serve the good, especially the good of the whole. It emphasizes doing what is natural and ‘going with the flow’ in accordance with the Tao a cosmic force which flows through all things. The philosophy grew from an observance of the natural world, and the religion developed out of a belief in cosmic balance maintained and regulated by the Tao.
If one looks for the Tao, there is nothing to see; If one listens for it, there is nothing loud enough to hear. Yet if one uses it, it is inexhaustible . It isn’t God, exactly, not a creator God. And it’s frankly uninterested in whether there is such a Divine being. But it says there is something- some force, an alpha and omega that is in all things. The universe is a kind of music. It vibrates, and we can be in harmony with it. If we are attuned to it. And the way to fall out of tune- is to try to hard, to focus on the wrong things. According to Taoism, life as we experience it reflects the eternal harmony of the Tao, if we have the inner and outer eyes to see it in its wholeness (even though ‘there is nothing to see,’ per se). The eternal harmony of the Tao is there at all times, available to all people at every moment.
The more we move in harmony with the Tao, the more peaceful and productive our journey. Tao Te Ching, an ancient manuscript–is rich with paradox and mysterious metaphor. Thus it can be interpreted endlessly, and many translations exist. It consists of 81 short poems, the first of which begins with a challenge: The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way. The names that can be named are not the eternal names [Ch. 1]. Augustine- if you understand it is is not God.
All things also tend to move into their opposites, how Ying and Yang qualities are opposed but always connected, in relationship. A deeper look at this Taoist principle includes what has been called ‘the relativity of all attributes’ [A. Waley, The Way and its Power]. In other words, all things are described and understood only by standards of comparison. A cicada and a wren were chatting together, when a friend of theirs came by and declared that some birds fly hundreds of miles without stopping. The cicada and the wren looked at each other incredulously and agreed that such a thing was just impossible. ‘You and I know very well that the furthest one can ever get even by the most tremendous effort is that elm tree way over there, and even that we can’t be sure of reaching every time. These stories of birds flying hundreds of miles are pure nonsense.’
So, the assumptions one lives with help to define what is possible. If your imagination is no larger that that of the cicada and wren, you will limit your reach to only what you know, as you compare anything new to what is already part of your world. This is a natural tendency and it can be safe and comforting, but also stultifying. The reality is that any judgment depends upon perspective.
So it behooves the Taoist to look for the largest possible perspective, to more closely understand and reflect the harmony of the Tao in any given situation, and not be so sure that what appears in this moment is the final verdict. You never really know. The Taoist school of thought tells that everything is relative. It all depends upon your perspective, how big a picture you can hold in your mind. Perspective tells us that we are individuals and separate and that my success lessens you or her achievement takes from you.
The Tao is a universal and unitary force that encompasses everything; it is Oneness. By deeply centering themselves in this Oneness, Taoists move in accord with the Way; they are in harmony with it, and things ultimately work out. However, in the face of any given situation, they may reserve judgment longer than many of us would be comfortable doing, because they generally expect that there is a larger perspective available. A story helps make this point…
A poor Taoist farmer and his teenage son live together and cherish their one prized possession: a fine horse, which one day escapes and disappears. Their neighbor finds out and comes over to sympathize with the farmer. ‘What a terrible turn of events,’ he says, but the farmer simply responds: ‘How do you know?’ A day later, the runaway horse returns on its own, leading a few more wild horses with it back into the corral. Again, the neighbor visits, to share the good news. ‘This is a wonderful windfall!’ But the farmer again responds: ‘How do you know?’ Sure enough, while riding a new horse, the son is thrown off and breaks his leg. The neighbor hears of this and comes over to help with some of the chores. ‘How sad that your son has to be laid up for many weeks,’ he says to the farmer, who responds: ‘How do you know?’
And sure enough, later that week, the Imperial Army marches through, taking all able-bodied young men to fight in a far off war, perhaps never to return. The neighbor comes over to celebrate that the farmer’s son was spared this duty and exclaims, ‘You are so lucky to be able to keep your son!’ What do you think was the farmer’s response? ‘How do you know?’ And the story has no ending, no conclusion. It just goes on like this… The farmer’s responses may seem passive, accustomed as we are to being active on our own behalf, often aggressive, forceful and controlling. Yet so much power available through, say, non-violent resistance, as taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to know that what looks passive on the surface may not be. T’ai Chi very based in Taoism is conservation of energy, centered and used powerfully but defensively. Force Defeats Itself. And Jesus the prince of peace told Peter to put away his sword.
Certainly an act of violence- physical or otherwise- can seem to be effective in achieving an immediate goal. But Taoism would have us consider a larger context, in which such an act ultimately does more harm to its perpetrator. This may be little comfort to a victim in pain, perhaps, but we know the insidiously damaging effect that accumulates to one who resorts to violence. We must look with deeper eyes, but the harm is there.
Who’s to judge which damage is greater, ultimately: the pain inflicted by a perpetrator of violence, or the erosion of that person’s (or country’s) integrity? seems to be drowned out by the din of a diametrically opposed but much more common slogan, being: ‘The Best Defense is a Good Offense.’ The current climate of offensive saber-rattling is deeply disturbing to me, yet I am, like many of us in this country, cowed into quiet by a virulently vocal patriotism that questions any reluctance to fight, fight, fight.
Unfortunately, the kind of centered, more deeply aware and ultimately defensive stance that would perhaps be encouraged by a Taoist approach to our current dilemma would also require a degree of introspection and patience that seem to be in very short supply. For instance, the most productive discussion I can think of for our country to engage in right now and for the foreseeable future, would be to define for each other just what real ‘security’ means and looks like. But that would take a very different kind of leadership, alas.
You may have heard that the written Chinese character for the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two elements: the symbol for danger and the symbol for opportunity. May we help turn danger into opportunity by our loving, our healing, and our dreaming. Tao of Pooh- Pooh is the epitome of Taoism. He goes with the flow. He is simple, he is loving and kind. He is unpretientious. The person of superior integrity does not insist upon their integrity. For this reason, they have integrity [Ch. 38]. This is why Winnie the Pooh is an epitome of Taoism. He has integrity without insisting on it. His wise innocence is just what the Tao proposes. He is not ignorant––but he is involved in each moment, so fully present to the world right before him, that it all seems brand new, and he brings his own true inner nature to bear (!) on each situation.
On a trip, to bring a pot of honey to Eeyore as a birthday gift, Pooh notices a little hunger coming on and just sits down and polishes off the contents. (It is certainly part of his true inner nature to eat honey.) But then: ‘Let’s see, where was I going?’ Oops! So the container itself becomes the gift–’a Useful Pot.’ And Pooh’s life goes on, happily flowing with the Tao.
‘While the Clear Mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness Mind wonders what kind of bird is singing’ [Hoff, Tao of Pooh, pg. 146]. Meanwhile, that Empty-Minded Pooh was walking along with Christopher Robin, one day, when the boy declared that ‘what I like doing best is Nothing.’ After Pooh had wondered about this for a while, he asked, ‘How do you do Nothing?’
‘Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say ‘Oh, nothing,’ and then you go and do it.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh. [pg. 141].
Back in China, the Emperor was returning from the Mountains and discovered he had lost the dark pearl of Tao. He sent Knowledge to find it, but Knowledge was unable to understand it. He sent Distant Vision, but Distant Vision was unable to see it. He sent Eloquence, but Eloquence was unable to describe it. Finally he sent Empty Mind, and Empty Mind came back with the pearl. [pg. 143].
To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day. It’s not inaction or passivity, though. It’s more of a refusal to interfere with the Tao–a posture that could appear to be passive in any given moment. But when the Taoist acts in accord with the eternal balance and harmony of the Way, this demands such centeredness, such humility, such awareness of the bigger picture that it often seems like inaction. Once a band of marauders rode into a monastery, and all the monks fled quickly into the hills–all but one, who stood silent and still as the marauders destroyed much of the facility.
Finally, their leader galloped up to the lone monk and confronted him arrogantly: ‘Don’t you know who I am? Why, I could run this sword right through you without batting an eye!’ The monk responded calmly: ‘Don’t you know who I am? I could let you run that sword through me without batting an eye.’ And the marauder backed away, respecting the strength of this attitude.
“Forgive them. They know not what they do.”
To ‘do without doing,’ Taoists compare themselves to water in a river, which from a distance, looks still. But its movement is most powerful. Think of the slow but effective process of erosion. Some of the most stunningly beautiful places I know on this earth are the result of soft water shaping hard rock.
The Tao Te Ching puts it this way: The softest thing gallops triumphantly over the hardest. [Ch. 43] Nothing is softer or weaker than water; and yet nothing is better for attacking what is hard and strong… The defeat of the hard by the soft, the defeat of the strong by the weak–this is known to all, yet no one is able to practice it. [Ch. 78]
This is the life of Jesus- born to a peasant girl in occupied Palestine, poor, with no power. And he told us, continually that the meek will inherit the earth, the hungry will be filled. He said true power isn’t held by the wealthy, the noble, the emperor, the army. True power is in love, in relationship- with God and neighbor. Power is not something to be grasped.
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