Life is a mystery. Such, for me, is a given. Don't try to argue me out of it. Hopeless task.
For about forty years I believed this meant the cosmos must have mystical underpinnings, some transcendental Absoluteness which, though hidden from everyday experience, held clues -- if not the answer -- to what life, the cosmos, birth and death, heck, everything, was all about.
Now, I'm not into that belief very much. In fact, very little. Mysticism has come to strike me as just another way of saying "life is a mystery."
Question is: can the mystery be unraveled, understood, fathomed?
Or perhaps the best approach to living life to simply live it, accepting that us limited human beings never are going to grasp a 14 billion year old universe, made up of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, governed by laws of nature which are, and may always be, imperfectly understood.
Taoism appeals to me.
I started to add "because..." to that last sentence.
But I'm reluctant to try to explain why I enjoy reading Taoist books and practicing Taoism-in-motion, Tai Chi, so much. When I was about twelve years old, I visited San Francisco's Chinatown for the first time. I spent my allowance on buying cheap scrolls of what I now realize were images of Taoist wanderers in Chinese nature scenes. That artwork decorated my room until I went to college.
At the time, I had no knowledge of Taoism. I don't think I'd even heard of that term. Now, some 50 years later, I still don't know much about Taoism. Great news! I may be a Taoist sage!
Last month I blogged about how I was enjoying "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism," by Chad Hansen and Brandon Toporov. The book is filled with pithy gems that are backed up by Hansen's indepth understanding of Chinese philosophy in general, and Taoism in particular.
I really like this passage.
Every situation, in the Taoist view, provides an opportunity for some kind of harmonious interaction with the Tao. When one has mastered the ultimate skill -- the skill of living itself -- there is no fretting or stumbling about whether or not one has the "proper" skill. One simply responds authentically at all times. But this is the skill of the sage!
For one who follows the Tao, skill expresses itself effortlessly and appropriately. Baseball star Mickey Rivers captured something of this open, trusting attitude toward all experience when he said, "Ain't no use worrying about things you control, because if you've got control over them, ain't no use worrying. Ain't no use worrying about things you can't control, because if you can't control them, ain't no use worrying."
When you think about it, you realize that each and every situation we face in life, at each and every moment, asks for some kind of response from us -- even if that response is, like Walter Cronkite's [at moment of first moon landing], an admission that we have no formal response at the moment, only ourselves.
The real question is not whether we have "mastered" all possible contingencies in advance, but whether we are wasting time and energy worrying about whether we have control over a given moment. A better course, a Taoist would argue, would be simply to do what we are naturally inspired to do, time and time and time and time again. From this kind of daily commitment, sages may emerge.
Yes. Simply to do what we are naturally inspired to do, time and time and time and time again.
Not that we have a choice. So I understand, having been one of these people, why some are naturally inspired to seek a transcendental, mystical, heaven-ward, divine reality which is theorized to be a vast expansion (or alternative) of what physical Nature is known to be.
Since I'm liking "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism" so much, I dove into deeper Chad Hansen-writing waters and bought his "A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought." It's also highly enjoyable, though some would find it too scholarly.
Here's a passage that resonated with my increasing skepticism toward mysticism. Hansen disagrees with those who consider philosophical Taoism to be mystical in the same way Hindu or Buddhist philosophy is. The last part is terrific.
I have challenged here the accepted view of what Daoism is. That accepted view treats Daoism as a metaphysical mysticism. The interpreters allow that what they see in the text is incoherent gibberish, but they seek to explain it by calling it deep and profound mysticism. Of course, anything they say will be incoherent, but somehow the interpreter divines that behind this screen lies a theory of reality and language.
The interpreter does not tell us how he managed to extract meaning from gibberish. But he confidently tells us that like all mystics, the Daoist absolutely claims the existence of a single dao and holds a theory of language such that language can't... something or other... the dao.
What do interpreters divine in the unspoken theory of reality and language that justifies writing this mass of contradictions? I cannot claim to know. I have tried without success to follow a number of accounts. I shall only try to mimic what I take to be what I am hearing so the reader can understand my frustration.
The most common version asserts the unity of mysticism. If we can use the word, there must be something in common among all mystics. So Daoist theory must be like that of the mystics of India and the West. That theory of language starts with the assumptions of Platonic semantics. Every term is meaningful if and only if it points to an unchanging reality.
Interpreters place that theory of language alongside a metaphysical assumption that reality consists of objects. But the objects we see are constantly changing. So language can't refer to any of these. Mysticism gets its paradoxical character, then, from claiming, again as Plato does, that there is some unchanging object.
The mystic, unlike Plato however, incoherently claims this is an object of experience -- albeit a mystical experience, which since it is unlike ordinary experience must not be an experience -- but never mind.
Now that we have this monistic and unchanging object, however we got it, one would expect that the conclusion should be relief. Language must be about that unchanging object. But no. They now conclude that language cannot pick out that object. It can only point to the ordinary objects which the theory had earlier denied that language can properly refer to.
Now they turn the tables and insist that language can only distort the only real unchanging object there is -- the dao, Buddha Nature, Brahman, Absolute, or God.
This reminded me of what I usually say when someone leaves a comment on this blog, saying, in effect, "Brian, you think too much! You're too wordy! You're missing the divine reality that can only be known through submission, silence, surrender. Meditate. All this analyzing is keeping you from reaching God."
"Dude, you did a lot of thinking in order to tell me to stop thinking. You used a bunch of words in your advice to give up words. You weren't meditating when you got on the Internet and posted your comment. You were analyzing me, which is what you criticized me for doing. But, hey, good for you. We're the same -- human beings acting naturally, simply doing what we're drawn to do."