Even when I was young, a pre-teen, I was attracted to Taoist and Buddhist imagery. During my first visit to San Francisco's Chinatown at about the age of twelve, I bought a bunch of scrolls and artwork showing sages wandering on misty mountain paths.
Where the heck did that immediate attraction for a philosophy I knew nothing about come from? I have no idea. But it was a premonition of things to come.
Because now my churchlessness has evolved to the point where Taoist and Buddhist writings are just about the only kind of spiritual literature that my psyche can stomach. And even with these genres, occasionally I get turned off by excessive dogmatism.
On the whole, though, philosophical Buddhism and Taoism are pleasantly compatible with a churchless frame of mind.
I like Powell's way of saying things so well, I'll let quotes from his book speak for his point of view and not try to paraphrase him. Here he talks about the first Hindu skeptics who appeared in what is now India.
They began to question everything Hindu. In fact, sometimes they would eat the flesh of dead men or would meditate atop a corpse. And instead of chanting Om, and instead of seeking for Brahman -- the essence of everything -- they began to question if anything has an essence -- if Brahman even exists. They questioned everything -- using riddles.
And from among this group of skeptics emerged a young prince, Siddartha Gotama, who was to become known as the Buddha. The Hindus had believed that the soul or Atma was identical with Brahman or God, and that it was eternal. But Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, and that there is no soul.
...Buddha paved the way for Asia's greatest Indian philosopher, who was to be called "The Second Buddha." His name was Nagarjuna, and many modern scholars have found that his philosophy has much in common with Derrida's "deconstruction."
The important point is that we cannot see both the cup and the faces simultaneously. Each image appears to possess svabhava or self-essence. Each image appears to be a self-sufficent, self-existent, discrete image. But they don't possess self-essence!
There is an intimate, subtle relationship between the faces and the cup. One cannot exist without the other. They depend on each other. According to Nagarjuna, we tend to think in terms of such dichotomies (or binary opposites).
For instance, the Hindus thought the Universe is made of up of this pair: (1) An eternal spiritual Self (Atman or Brahman) and (2) a Non-Self, made up of Matter. This fundamental dichotomy lies at the basis of all Hindu experience. But the Buddhist will say that neither the Self nor the Non-Self is substantial.
A fundamentalist Christian or Muslim will also think in terms of such dichotomies. He will claim that only his religion is true, and that every other religion is myth or of the devil. As Derrida and Nagarjuna have shown, we tend to form these dichotomies (binary opposites) and to favor one member of the pair. Either Christian or Muslim.
But the cup and the faces are not separate. Each image is in a subtle and intimate relationship with its hidden partner. Though they cannot be seen at the same time, neither of them exists alone. Neither of them possesses svabhava or self-existence.
In fact you could say that they are Empty of Self-existence. This does not mean that they don't exist, or that they don't appear. Emptiness just means that the illusion of their separateness is a mirage.
...Ordinary people are like the magician's audience. They assume that everything has self-existence. They become emotionally and intellectually attached to the "things" they perceive. Thus, most people see only the ordinary level of truth (samvritisatya).
Those who see the Emptiness of things are like the magician -- he sees the same things, but from a different point of view. He knows that things are empty of a fixed, self-existent nature. He simply perceives things accurately. Thus he sees the Ultimate level of truth (para-marthasatya).
And even the concept of these two levels of truth is empty of self-existence! For if you cling to the concept of an Ultimate Truth, then IT becomes the lower, Conventional Truth!
Then Powell talks about someone -- Coyote, say -- gazing into a pool of water and seeing his own image, but thinking that it is the real unreflected Coyote.
But then you suddenly realize that the reflection is not what it appears to be. This does not mean the reflection does not exist. The reflection now seems to be an illusion only because you had believed it was the real you.
But now you know that the reflection in the pool does not have self-existence. After all, the reflection depends upon the pool, the eyes, mind and presence of the real Coyote. But this doesn't mean that you abandon the reflection. It is still useful to you for admiring yourself, etc.
The reflection is like the Lower Conventional Truth. And realizing it is only a reflection, devoid of self-existence, is like the Higher Truth. According to Nagarjuna, everything in the world is like the reflection of the mirror.
Taoism gets less attention than Buddhism in Powell's book. The deconstructive power of Taoist teachings is just as great, however, because Taoist sages similarly clear away dualistic oppositions that clog up human minds.
There isn't any room for conventional religious dichotomies -- body/soul, God/man, heaven/earth, virtue/sin -- in Chuang Tzu.
Nothing exists which is not "that," nothing exists which is not "this." I cannot look at something through someone else's eyes. I can only truly know something which I know. Therefore "that" comes out of "this" and "this" arises from "that." That is why we say that "that" and "this" are born from each other, most definitely.
Compare birth with death, compare death with life; compare what is possible with what is not possible and compare what is not possible with what is possible; because there is, there is not, and because there is not, there is.
...When "this" and "that" do not stand against each other, this is called the pivot of the Tao. This pivot provides the center of the circle, which is without end, for it can react equally to that which is and to that which is not.
...To use a finger to show that a finger is not a finger, is not really as good as using something that is not a finger to show that a finger is not a finger; to use a horse to show a horse is not a horse is not as good as using something other than a horse to show that a horse is not a horse.
Heaven and Earth are as one as finger is, and all of creation is as one as a horse is.