Essay, Research Paper: Taoism


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In order to go into Taoism at all, we must begin by being in the frame of mind
in which it can understood. You cannot force yourself into this frame of mind,
anymore than you can smooth rippled waters. But let's say that our starting
point is that we forget what we know, or think we know, and that we suspend
judgment about practically everything, returning to what we were when we were
babies when we had not yet learned the names or the language. And in this state,
although we have extremely sensitive bodies and very alive senses, we have no
means of expressing what is going on around us. You are just plain ignorant, but
still very much alive, and in this state you just feel what is without calling
it anything at all. You know nothing at all about anything called an external
world in relation to an internal world. You don't know who you are, you haven't
even the idea of the word you or me. It is before all that. Nobody has taught
you self control, so you don't know the difference between the noise of a car
outside and a wandering thought that enters your mind- they are both something
that happens. You don't identify the presence of a thought that may be just an
image of a passing cloud in your mind's eye or the passing automobile; they
happen. Your breath happens. Light, all around you, happens. Your response to it
by blinking happens. So, on one hand you are simply unable to do anything, and
on the other there is nothing you are supposed to do. Nobody has told you
anything to do. You are completely unable to do anything but be aware of the
buzz. The visual buzz, the audible buzz, the tangible buzz, the smellable buzz--
all around the buzz is going on. Watch it. Don't ask who is watching it; you
have no information about that yet. You don't know that it requires a watcher
for something to be watched. That is somebody's idea; but you don't know that.
Lao-tzu says, "The scholar learns something every day, the man of tao
unlearns something every day, until he gets back to non-doing." Just
simply, without comment, without an idea in your head, be aware. What else can
you do? You don't try to be aware; you are. You will find, of course, that you
can not stop the commentary going on inside your head, but at least you can
regard it as interior noise. Listen to your chattering thoughts as you would
listen to the singing of a kettle. We don't know what it is we are aware of,
especially when we take it altogether, and there's this sense of something going
on. I can't even really say 'this,' although I said 'something going on.' But
that is an idea, a form of words. Obviously I couldn't say something is going on
unless I could say something else isn't. I know motion by contrast with rest,
and while I am aware of motion I am also aware of at rest. So maybe what's at
rest isn't going and what's in motion is going, but I won't use that concept
then because in order for it to make sense I have to include both. If I say here
it is, that excludes what isn't, like space. If I say this, it excludes that,
and I am reduced to silence. But you can feel what I am talking about. That's
what is called tao, in Chinese. That's where we begin. Tao means basically
"way", and so "course"; the course of nature. Lao-tzu said
the way of the functioning of the tao is "so of itself"; that is to
say it is spontaneous. Watch again what is going on. If you approach it with
this wise ignorance, you will see that you are witnessing a happening. In other
words, in this primal way of looking at things there is no difference between
what you do, on the one hand, and what happens to you on the other. It is all
the same process. Just as your thought happens, the car happens outside, and so
the clouds and the stars. When a Westerner hears that he thinks this is some
sort of fatalism or determinism, but that is because he still preserves in the
back of his mind two illusions. One is that what is happening is happening to
him, and therefore he is the victim of circumstances. But when you are in primal
ignorance there is no you different from what is happening, and therefore it is
not happening to you. It is just happening. So is "you", or what you
call you, or what you will later call you. It is part of the happening, and you
are part of the universe, although strictly speaking the universe has no parts.
We only call certain features of the universe parts. However you can't
disconnect them from the rest without causing them to be not only non-existent,
but to never to have existed at all. When a one experiences oneself and the
universe happening together, the other illusion one is liable to have is that it
is determined in the sense that what is happening now follows necessarily from
what happened in the past. But you don't know anything about that in your primal
ignorance. Cause and effect? Why obviously not, because if you are really naive
you see the past is the result of what is happening now. It goes backwards into
the past, like a wake goes backwards from a ship. All the echoes are
disappearing finally, they go away, and away, and away. And it is all starting
now. What we call the future is nothing, the great void, and everything comes
out of the great void. If you shut your eyes, and contemplate reality only with
your ears, you will find there is a background of silence, and all sounds are
coming out of it. They start out of silence. If you close your eyes, and just
listen, you will observe the sounds came out of nothing, floated off, and off,
stopped being a sonic echo, and became a memory, which is another kind of echo.
It is very simple; it all begins now, and therefore it is spontaneous. It isn't
determined; that is a philosophical notion. Nor is it capricious; that's another
philosophical notion. We distinguish between what is orderly and what is random,
but of course we don't really know what randomness is. What is 'so-of-itself,'
sui generis in Latin, means coming into being spontaneously on its own accord,
and that, incidentally, is the real meaning of virgin birth. That is the world,
that is the tao, but perhaps that makes us feel afraid. We may ask, "If all
that is happening spontaneously, who's in charge? I am not in charge, that is
pretty obvious, but I hope there is God or somebody looking after all
this." But why should there be someone looking after it, because then there
is a new worry that you may not of thought of, which is, "Who takes care of
the caretaker's daughter while the caretaker is busy taking care?" Who
guards the guards? Who supervises the police? Who looks after God? You may say
"God doesn't need looking after" Oh? Well, nor does this. The tao is a
certain kind of order, and this kind of order is not quite what we call order
when we arrange everything geometrically in boxes, or in rows. That is a very
crude kind of order, but when you look at a plant it is perfectly obvious that
the plant has order. We recognize at once that is not a mess, but it is not
symmetrical and it is not geometrical looking. The plant looks like a Chinese
drawing, because they appreciated this kind of non-symmetrical order so much
that it became an integral aspect of their painting. In the Chinese language
this is called li, and the character for li means the markings in jade. It also
means the grain in wood and the fiber in muscle. We could say, too, that clouds
have li, marble has li, the human body has li. We all recognize it, and the
artist copies it whether he is a landscape painter, a portrait painter, an
abstract painter, or a non-objective painter. They all are trying to express the
essence of li. The interesting thing is, that although we all know what it is,
there is no way of defining it. Because tao is the course, we can also call li
the watercourse, and the patterns of li are also the patterns of flowing water.
We see those patterns of flow memorialized, as it were, as sculpture in the
grain in wood, which is the flow of sap, in marble, in bones, in muscles. All
these things are patterned according to the basic principles of flow. In the
patterns of flowing water you will all kind of motifs from Chinese art,
immediately recognizable, including the S-curve in the circle of yang-yin. So li
means then the order of flow, the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid, because
Lao-tzu likens tao to water: The great tao flows everywhere, to the left and to
the right, It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them.
For as he comments elsewhere, water always seeks the lowest level, which men
abhor, because we are always trying to play games of one-upmanship, and be on
top of each other. But Lao-tzu explains that the top position is the most
insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree, but then if they do the
tree will collapse. That is the fallacy of American society. Lao-tzu says the
basic position is the most powerful, and this we can see at once in Judo, or in
Aikido. These are self-defensive arts where you always get underneath the
opponent, so he falls over you if he attacks you. The moment he moves to be
aggressive you go either lower than he is, or in a smaller circle than he is
moving. And you have spin, if you know Aikido. You are always spinning, and you
know how something spinning exercises centrifugal force, and if someone comes
into your field of centrifugal force he the gets flung out, but by his own
bounce. It is very curious. So, therefore, the watercourse way is the way of tao.
Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, lazy, spineless, and
altogether passive. I am always being asked when I talk about things, "If
people did what you suggest wouldn't they become terribly passive?" Well,
from a superficial point of view I would suggest that a certain amount of
passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture because we
are always creating trouble by doing good to other people. We wage wars for
other peoples benefit, and attempt to help those living in
"underdeveloped" counties, not realizing that in the process we may
destroy their way of life. Economies and cultures that have coexisted in
ecological balance for thousands of years have been disrupted all around the
world, with often disastrous results. A noted Chinese anthropologist has written
that Chinese religion "mirrors the social landscape of its adherents. There
are as many meanings as there are vantage points."2 The same could be said
of the diverse tradition we call Taoism. Taoism was understood and practiced in
many ways, each reflecting the historical, social, or personal situation of its
adherents. While this diversity may confuse and perplex the outside observer, it
accounts for the resilience of Taoism in China. Taoism was adaptable, evolving
to fill spiritual gaps created by the vagaries of life. Taoism can also be
called "the other way," for during its entire history, it has
coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and
religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire.
Taoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the
Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not
mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of
choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few straightlaced
Confucians and a few pious Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both --
either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and
taste. Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th
century B.C.?), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and
its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and
development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination.
Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious
skepticism (see article on Confucianism), developed the notion of the Dao (Tao
-- way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force -- unknowable in
its essence but observable in its manifestations -- that lies behind the
functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the
basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to
the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and
enduring social order? The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more
stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized
institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish
only in accord with Dao -- nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life.
The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the
natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei --
lit. no-action), action modeled on nature. Their sages were wise, but not in the
way the Confucian teacher was wise -- learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi's
sages were often artisans -- butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans
understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative,
they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with
externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed
the creative path of nature, not the values of human society. Throughout Chinese
history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human
achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature. They might retreat
to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty. They would
compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene,
attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature's vitality.
They might share their outing with friends or more rarely -- a spouse, drinking
a bit of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon. Chinese utopian
writings also often bore a Taoist stamp. Tao Qian's (T'ao Ch'ien, 372?-427?
A.D.) famous "Peach Blossom Spring" told the story of a fisherman who
discovered by chance an idyllic community of Chinese who centuries earlier had
fled a war-torn land, and had since lived in perfect simplicity, harmony, and
peace, obliviously unaware of the turmoil of history beyond their grove.
Although these utopians urged him to stay, the fisherman left to share his
discovery with friends and a local official. He could never find his way back.
He did not understand that this ideal world was to be found not by following an
external path, but a spiritual path; it was a state of mind, an attitude, that
comprised the utopia.3 If Taoist ideas and images inspired in the Chinese a love
of nature and an occasional retreat to it from the cares of the world to rest
and heal, it also inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life --
health, well-being, vitality, longevity, and even immortality. Laozi and
Zhuangzi had reinterpreted the ancient nature worship and esoteric arts, but
they crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to
enhance and prolong life. Some Taoists searched for "isles of the
immortals," or for herbs or chemical compounds that could ensure
immortality. More often, Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they
experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these
arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthy diets;
they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and
youthful. Taoists were supporters both of magic and of proto-science; they were
the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments
with nature. 4 Some Taoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the
natural world and the internal world within the human body). Theologically,
these myriad spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, which could
not be represented as an image or a particular thing. As the Taoist pantheon
developed, it came to mirror the imperial bureaucracy in heaven and hell. The
head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the jade Emperor, who governed spirits
assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of
moral justice. The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials
in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes
toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell
acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers
in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by
the martial forces of the spirit officials.5 The common people, who after all
had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to
keep troubles at bay and ensure the blessings of health, wealth, and longevity.
The initiated Taoist priest saw the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao.
He had been ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important
spirits, and to ritually direct them through meditation and visualization. In
his meditations, he harmonized and reunited them into their unity with the one
Dao. However, only the educated believers knew anything of the complex
theological system of the priest. Thus communal rituals had two levels: (a) a
priestly level, which was guided by the priest's meditation and observed by
major patrons, who were educated laymen; and (b) a public and dramatic ritual,
usually performed by lower ranked Taoist assistants, which was theatrical in
form. It conveyed the meaning through visible actions such as climbing sword
ladders, or lighting and floating lanterns. The same ritual had a subtle
metaphysical-mystical structure for the theologians, and a visible dramatic
structure for the lay audience.6 Taoism was also an important motif in fiction,
theater, and folk tales. Local eccentrics who did not care for wealth and
position were often seen as "Taoist" because they spurned Confucian
values and rewards. In fiction Taoists were often eccentrics; they also had
magical or prophetic powers, which symbolized their spiritual attainment. They
healed, restored youth and vitality, predicted the future, or read men's souls.
They were also depicted as the stewards of a system of moral retribution; the
Taoist gods in heaven and hell exacted strict punishments for wrongdoing, and
would let no sinner off the hook. On the one hand, then, they were
non-conformists who embodied different values and life styles; on the other,
their strict moral retribution reinforced the values of the society. Taoism was
"the other way," but it did not threaten the moral consensus. It was,
perhaps, a kind of safety valve to escape the pressures of society, or at least
a complementary channel for alternative views and values. Chinese communists see
Taoism as fatalistic and passive, a detriment to socialist reconstruction. The
People's Republic has kept alive some practical arts, such as the use of
traditional herbal medicines, which have longstanding links with Taoism. In a
larger sense, since Taoism functioned in imperial China as a retreat and
withdrawal from the struggles of the political arena, one might say that in a
very general way the current relaxation of political pressure in reaction
against the excesses of the Gang of Four represents a Taoistic phase of Chinese
Maoism. When I was a sophomore in high school, I became convinced that Asians
and Americans were too different. I also thought that perhaps true understanding
between the two was beyond the realm of possibility. What started me in this
direction of thought was a class on world religions. An elderly Catholic priest
taught this class, and while he certainly knew a great deal about Catholicism,
it quickly became clear that he was not as knowledgeable about other religions.
Because of my bicultural background, his lack of understanding was especially
jarring whenever he spoke of Asian faiths and beliefs. My ears perked up when we
discussed the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. Most of the class was
non-Asian and found this concept perplexing. One classmate raised the question:
What was the rationale or reason to compel the Chinese to worship their
ancestors? The priest shrugged, professed ignorance, and then speculated that
the Chinese were fearful of the spirits of their ancestors. Maybe the ritual was
meant to placate them, so that these spirits would not punish their descendants
with some sort of curse. This was so far off the mark that I became instantly
incensed. I jumped to my feet and spoke up to contradict the teacher. In
retrospect, I think I probably caused quite a scene. At that moment in time,
almost two decades ago, the reckless impetus of youth possessed me, and I didn't
even consider a more diplomatic approach. From this incident I learned that
many, many people in America did not have the first clue on what ancestor
worship meant to the Chinese. They regarded this essential cornerstone of
Chinese spirituality as a quaint, exotic ritual, with all the trappings of
primitive superstitions. Recently, I came across another item that seemed to
reinforce this impression. Prior to his untimely passing, celebrated author and
scientist Carl Sagan penned his last book, The Demon-Haunted World. In that
book, Sagan spoke against the spread of irrational beliefs in the world. To
illustrate the decline of scientific thinking in China, he pointed to the
resurgence of "ancient Chinese practices" such as I Ching fortune
telling and ancestor worship (page 17). There it was again: the casual equating
of ancestor worship with primitive, out-dated superstitious beliefs. Apparently
it is not just the average person in America that does not understand this
aspect of Chinese culture, but noted intellectuals as well. Let's set the record
straight once and for all: ancestor worship springs not from fear or
superstitions, but from gratitude and respect - possibly the highest echelon of
all human emotions. "Drink water, think of source" is the phrase that
the Chinese associate most often with the concept of ancestor worship. The idea
is to never take anything for granted. As you quench your thirst, don't forget
the spring or well where the water comes from. Without that source you would not
be drinking deeply. In just the same way, one should never, ever take one's own
existence for granted. Without your ancestors you would not be here. If they
hadn't lived, loved, struggled, fought, and survived, you would not exist. Just
as you cherish your own life, it makes perfect sense that you should also
cherish your forebears, for they are the ones who paved the way for you. This is
the real essence of ancestor worship: a state of grace known as gratefulness.
It's a feeling that you are uniquely blessed, as the last link in an
unimaginably long chain of human beings stretching all the way back to the
genesis of humanity. You feel very much a part of this ancient tradition and the
feeling gives you power and strength. In that regard, ancestor worship is not
necessarily superstitious. One does not have to believe in the existence of
ghosts or spiritual beings to feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation.
Likewise, expressing that gratitude and appreciation through a ritual isn't
always an endorsement of the supernatural. The emphasis on gratefulness extends
into other aspects of Chinese thinking as well. For instance, it elevates filial
piety to its rightful place as a high virtue. This kind of emphasis does not
exist in the "advanced" West, where too many of the elderly die lonely
and are not commemorated by their descendants after their passing. The Chinese
practice is a sharp contrast to this lamentable state. In that regard, ancestor
worship is anything but primitive. The ability to feel gratitude marks an
individual as a worthy human being; the institution of ritualized thanksgiving
marks a people as a truly civilized society. One reason why many Westerners have
such a tough time with this concept is the unfortunate use of the word
"worship." The connotation of this word is entirely religious, with
all the implications of deities and supplicants. Without any other information,
the typical Westerner naturally assumes that the Chinese regard their ancestors
as gods on a similar level as Buddha or Jesus. This is a false assumption that
the Chinese would find ludicrous or laughable if ever they figure out what their
American friends are really thinking. Certainly the Chinese believe their
ancestors exist as spiritual entities, but to go from there to godhood is a
mighty big stretch, indeed. A better word than "worship" would be
"communion." When the Chinese hold incense sticks in their hands and
face the ancestral shrine or gravestone, they are in silent prayer to the dead.
The content of such prayers have to do with greetings, the paying of respects,
invitation to share a meal (thus the offerings of food), and request to watch
over the safety of family members. Note that the Chinese prayers to ancestors do
not include begging for things like forgiveness for sins or transgressions,
victory over Evil, vanquishing of one's enemies, or a guaranteed entrance into
heaven. That makes sense because departed family members are at best guardian
angels, not gods. When you look at it this way, is the Chinese practice of
ancestor worship/communion really so bizarre after all? In the West, do we not
also pray to departed family members? We most certainly do, and all without
assuming that dear old Aunt Meg has, since her death, become the Almighty Saint
Meg of the Seventh Host. The Catholic priest from my high school days would
never assume that we pray to the dear departed out of some fear of the
supernatural. Carl Sagan, despite his atheist convictions, would never think of
it as some superstitious and irrational mumbo-jumbo. What the Chinese do, in
essence, amounts to the exact same thing. And yet Americans seem to insist on
seeing Chinese customs as both more and less than they actually are. Perhaps
this is because there is a certain need in the Occidental psyche to see the
Orient as mysterious and inscrutable. If so, the insight we have gained today
may come as a disappointment. In the final analysis, and despite superficial
trappings and different styles, we all share a common, universal need to be in
touch with the spiritual world. Beneath the multicultural veneer, our essential
human nature is similar. The insight gives me a new perspective as well. It
tells me that my sophomoric high school views were wrong. The East and the West
are more alike than different. Perhaps true understanding between the two isn't
an impossible dream after all!
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