I've been attracted to Taoism for a long time. Even before I knew anything about it. Early in my teen years (maybe a bit before) I visited San Francisco's Chinatown.
I came back with a bunch of cheap art, bought from my allowance. I was enthralled with the images of misty mountains drawn with a few brushstrokes, usually including a tiny solitary figure walking along a path.
Who knows where that early instinctive attraction to Taoism came from? I sure don't. My mother had no inclination toward Eastern philosophy or art. I wasn't exposed to such in any other fashion, so far as I can remember. But I had those scrolls and prints up in my bedroom for quite a few years.
They seemed entirely natural to me. As does Taoist philosophy now, along with Tai Chi, the current stage of my martial arts evolution.
I've been reading and hugely enjoying a new book in my Taoism collection. "Daoism Explained" by Hans-Georg Moeller is brilliant. It looks at Taoism/Daoism in a fresh light. Familiar Taoist stories and images are becoming new for me again, thanks to Moeller's insightful take on classic writings.
He translates the eleventh chapter of the Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching).
Thirty spokes are united in one hub.
It is in its [space of] emptiness,
Where the usefulness of the cart is.
The hub, says Moeller, is at the center; it is empty; it is still; and it is single, being a center. This is the Tao. Yet it isn't only the empty hub. The Tao is the spokes also. It is the process (not a substance) that makes the world go 'round.
So Taoists try to reflect the emptiness of the hub. They seek to be holey, rather than holy. An artificial morality is anathema to them. In ancient China it was the moralistic Confucians who came in for Taoist scorn. Today fundamentalists of other persuasions make the same mistake:
Failing to see that prevention is better than cure, that emptying oneself of notions about right and wrong produces a natural ethical sense. Moeller:
If people learn to follow the Way (dao) and the "own course" (ziran), then morality will not be required because everything will be just naturally fine. From a Daoist point of view, morality is the virtue of latecomers…Instead of focusing on the Dao and trying to naturally follow it in the first place, the Confucians seem to attempt to "help" the Dao once they have already failed to correspond to it.
It's easy to miss the Tao. That's why Taoism is so simple to follow. You want to miss the Tao. The entire difficulty comes from making the Tao into something that can be spotted, understood, perceived, sensed, worshipped, contemplated, meditated upon.
In Chinese Tao is wu (emptiness, non-presence) rather than you (fullness, presence). If you believe you've got it, you don't.
If something "is there" or if somebody "has something," there is fullness; and if nothing is there or if somebody "has nothing," then there is emptiness. In this sense you designates a place or spot where there is something while wu designates a place or spot where there is nothing. In the image of the wheel, the spokes are obviously in the place of you – in the space where there is something (the turning spokes cover all the space around the hub), whereas the hub is in the space of wu.
Religions adore presence. They make God or ultimate reality into something transcendent that exists Out There, a Platonic form of divineness that we fallen humans must struggle to reach.
Religious humility, egolessness, surrender – this is a means to attain a glorious end. True believers see themselves as being on a spiritual roller-coaster. "If I can just go down far enough, I'll then be able to rise up."
Back in the days when I looked at the mystic-religious path of Sant Mat (Radha Soami Satsang Beas branch) through uncritical devotional eyes, I failed to recognize this. I didn't see that my efforts to prostrate myself before the guru, and thence before God, sprang from a elevational goal.
Even when my eyes were downcast, focusing on the humble descent of the spiritual roller coaster, I was keeping a look out for the anticipated swoop upwards. Wheeeeee! Sach Khand! God-realization! Paradise!
Now, I don't know where I'm heading. Up. Down. Sideways. Nowhere. Somewhere. I'm clueless.
Which, more and more, feels natural to me. Because after some forty-five years of investigating the meaning of life (including my teenage Taoist phase, which was followed by a lot of listening to Bob Dylan, so that period should count) here's a big part of what I've learned:
The sum total of agreed-upon human knowledge about what lies beyond the physical is precisely zero.
There's a virtually endless supply of religious dogma, countless volumes of philosophical speculation, large crowds of supposed spiritual gurus, endless stories of the miraculous. But when you add them all together and discard the unproven, unlikely, and unbelievable, what's left is a big pile of nothing.
And that exactly equals what Taoism says should be found by anyone seeking the hub of the cosmos, the pivot point around which everything in existence swirls.
Everything that exists, in its entirety, exists by itself, and at the center of this entirety of presence is "nothing" – or more precisely, nonpresence (wu). This is the "Dao of heaven" (tian dao).
Beautiful. Taoism finds emptiness at the core of reality. This empty Tao is holey, not holy. It can't be worshipped, revered, prayed to, or otherwise made an object of veneration, because it isn't separate from the potential venerator.
When I try to lay hold of my own innermost essence, I can't do that either. The core of my being is as squirmy, slippery, and shadowy as the Tao is. And as the God that religions and mystic faiths claim to know, but can never provide proof of.
There's a story in the Zhuangzi about fish drifting along free and easy. A couple of sages discuss this seeming happiness of fish, wondering whether it is possible to know what makes a fish happy if you're not one yourself. I liked Moeller's commentary.
If one "rambles" free and easy, one has no friction whatsoever with one's surroundings and so is part of a seamless, easygoing process…When Zhuangzi claimed to know about the happiness of fish, he did not claim to be able to feel the exact same feeling. He was just saying: I feel perfect by rambling around, and the fish feel perfect by rambling around.
At the center, wu. Nothing.
Rambling around wu. Perfect.
The only words and concepts that we have to best explain pure awareness are emptiness and nothingness.
We can conceptualize consciousness but not pure awareness.
But rather than pure awareness being empty it is all that is. (i.e. isness)
It is a paradox: pure awareness is no thing yet pure awareness is every thing.
It will sizzle the mind if we try to intellectualize it with words or concepts.
Posted by: researcher seeker | August 01, 2007 at 10:36 PM
Great blog, Brian. I'm with you on the appeal of Taoism, though there is an element of magical thinking associated with it that can strain the credulity sometimes.
What I like best is Taoism's simplicity, and its focus on nature as the source of information on how to live a spiritual life.
Posted by: Mystic Wing | August 02, 2007 at 07:41 AM
Mystic Wing, I agree with you about Taoistic magical thinking. That's a side of Taoism that I don't resonate with. Moeller talks about this some in his book.
He makes the usual distinction between "religious" and "philosophical" Taoism. The first places a lot of emphasis on the physical body. Immortality, or at least very long life, is sought for, thereby supposedly reflecting the eternal Tao.
Philosophical Taoism, which appeals to me a lot more, tries to become one with the Tao in a different sense. Not bodily, but more holistically. (Guess I should say, holeistically).
By emptying ourself of self, we naturally attune to the Tao - which is beyond the distinction of self and other, while encompassing them.
I do enjoy relating Taoism to Tai Chi, though. Just started to read a book by Stuart Olson that relates Tai Chi movements to the I Ching and Taoist philosophy. But that's not really magical.
Physical movement is very much real, as is the interplay of yin and yang in both individual movement and partnered movement (like dance).
Posted by: Brian | August 02, 2007 at 11:04 AM
Please forgive my not staying in accord with your essay subject today, but - for those who might wish to follow up on it - I commend Miguel Ruiz' _The Four Agreements_ (San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997) - xx + 138. Its essential message is: "...Today I will be impeccable with my word, I shall not take anything personally, I will not make any assumptions, and I am going to do my best" (p. 90). That sums up the book, and, as Hillel [a chopper of wood!] said, "The rest is commentary." Some few might find the book useful or worth bothering with.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | August 03, 2007 at 11:28 AM
Robert dangerous very dangerous agreements. Agreements must have love in them. Love self and love others might be a good start.
Compassion for self and others might be another.
Those four agreements could be used to justify their actions by a horrible dictator or elitists that want to give to the rich to help the poor that I just saw stated on fox news.
When humans try to intellectualize laws for society or individuals without the wisdom the spiritual masters have taught us this is what we get.
Laws that can be used by the few to take advantage of the many.
Posted by: researcher seeker | August 03, 2007 at 12:26 PM
Dear research seeker,
The set-up here at the Library does not permit me to hear what was said in the Fox-News clip you referred us to. I am not able to respond to it. I do ask, however, whether you are familiar with the "commentary" portion of Ruiz' book? It seems that you may not be.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | August 04, 2007 at 10:50 AM
you are right robert I read that book several years ago and have forgotten the thrust of the book.
sorry if I overspoke.
I just went on what your comments where about that book.
Posted by: researcher seeker | August 04, 2007 at 11:16 AM
I read "The Four Agreements" and put the agreement "don't make any assumptions" to good use. This has saved me a lot of trouble and money, for example in real estate deals. This agreement keeps me more alert and 'present' and it applies to everything in life from driving a car to hearing the news, to approaching dangerous situations. By applying this agreement, you find out how conditioned and habitual your mind is. Things are not always as they appear. Keeps you on your toes like an antelope on the savannah. A soldier who doesn't understand this is more likely to become a dead soldier.
The administration assumed that when we booted Saddam the people would all jump on the democratic bandwagon in an orderly fashion and this would then have a stabilizing influence the Middle East political situation and oil supplies. They assumed it would be easy and that we all would be patting Bush on the back by now. To me it appears the CIA, Rumsfeld and his department were the real fuck-ups here. Wish they'd read the book.
Posted by: Tucson Bob | August 04, 2007 at 12:28 PM
they read books?
Posted by: researcher seeker | August 04, 2007 at 11:24 PM
Certainly Taoism, as any school of thought, can be misused and turned into various cults, sects, etc...however the pure philosophy is what attracts me and keeps me centered and focused on what is really important.
That is, nothing.
I love the Tao.
Posted by: Angela | August 10, 2007 at 12:17 PM