Monday, 13 October 2008
EASTWARD HO!: A BIT ON THE TAO
"The Tao that may be spoken of of is not the Eternal Tao.
The Name that can be named is not the Eternal Name." - Tao Te Ching, Verse 1
Taoism was where I came in on this journey many moons ago. As a young lad of 16 I found myself one New Year's Eve staying at the Brighton home of a cousin of mine, Gillian, who was a Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at Sussex University. Two things transformed me during that stay. Firstly the sudden awareness that there were people outside of my immediate family who valued me and the ideas I might have and secondly the discovery of the Tao. I had with me on that visit a copy of the TAO TE CHING and a book about it by a man called Raymond Smullyan entitled THE TAO IS SILENT. Both books went off like a soundless explosion in my head. Suddenly the world seemed opened to a whole new set of possibilities. Gone were the impossible dualities and paradoxes of everything I had understood to be religious. What replaced them was a sudden awareness of something Cosmic in everything and the possibility of delighting in what is in THIS world.
I will never forget that New Year and have always associated it with my cousin Gillian who consciously and/or unconsciously opened a special door for me at that young age. She was a wonderful woman and a great mind who made it her business to try and revive intellectual adventure and interest in other cultures in the stuffy and insular world of British philosophy. Thank you forever, Gillian.
So what was it about the Tao that so appealed to me? Hard to explain, particularly given the fact that several millenia of Chinese culture has been given over to trying to explain it and, more often than not failing... So here is my (perhaps very Western) two penn'orth...
Unsurprisingly given its name, Taoism centres around the mysterious energy known as the Tao. Brilliantly for us, this word has no equivalent in English or any other European language. The best we can usually manage is 'the Way'. Sometimes the Buddhist term 'Dharma' is used, which is not much better for us as that too has no clear equivalent in the West. Needless to say that according to the author of the TAO TE CHING, Lao Tzu, trying to understand the Tao is simultaneously almost impossible while also essential to the Seeker looking to be one with it. This typically Chinese paradox which at the same time encapsulates Taoism's fundamental non-Dualistic truth exemplifies what is at the heart of this profound yet simple spiritual philosophy.
The essence of Taoism is the idea of the constant flow of the Male and Female/Positive and Negative/Yin and Yang energies. If one can become sensitive to this hidden flux, one is not drawn into dualism. In other words, one is neither inactive nor overactive but knows how to interact and flow with the flux of things in the right way. Finding this flow and working effortlessly with it is known as 'WuWei'. Again, 'WuWei', like 'Tao' has no clear equivalent in English.
WuWei, usually translated as 'Nonaction' (the best we can do) is not 'Inaction'. What it means is not PUSHING or acting with the Little Ego, the Selfish 'I'. By cultivating an awareness of the Tao, one's Little Ego becomes One with the Greater Ego - the Eternal, whether you want to call it the Greater Consciousness as the Buddhists do, the Ain Sof as the Kabbalists do, Brahman as the Hindus do or the Deus Abscondus as the Christians. This process involves immense inner work and the discovery of the laws of the Tao within oneself. Once all one's activities are thus governed by its flow, then all is well and wrong action cannot arise.
If you look at all mystical traditions, the term 'non-' or 'no-' comes up again and again. In Kabbalah, the Ain Sof is often translated as the 'Boundless No-Thing'. Brahman is often translated as the same... 'the Supreme Limitless'... Nirvana is 'Non-Being'. The Christian Mystic known as the Pseudo-Dionysius describes God as being 'No-Thing', in other words, something which contains nothing material. Ultimately, this is the Tao.
The wisdom of the Tao, like all other esoteric mysticisms, is recognising that all human value systems - whether wealth, fame, power, prosperity, even morality and immorality, good or evil - are human constructs and have no innate reality. To persue any of these creates a dichotomy and a duality. The more one wants to be beautiful, the more one is aware of one's ugliness. The more one wants to be good, the more one becomes aware of one's evil. The problem of duality in Christianity is a classic example of this. The more obsessed a Saint comes with wanting to be like Christ, the more sinful and abhorrent he finds himself. Through Action we pursue these goals, but only find ourselves tilting the seesaw, or falling off the Wheel. If Christianity could focus on the unifying principle of the Holy Spirit (the closest we get to the Tao in the West) we might get somewhere. Christ did, after all, describe himself as 'the Way'. But who listened? As it is, Christianity in its organised form has remained stuck on Dualism, as, I suppose, have Judaism and Islam, except in their Mystical forms...
The key is understanding the balance, the equilibrium that is the Tao, figured at the emptiness in a jug which makes the jug useful, or the emptiness at the centre of a wheel which makes it revolve. Ultimately Good and Evil, Beauty and Ugliness, War and Peace all fold into One in th Dao. Look at the Yin and Yang symbol. If one fixates on the duality, the symbol continues to revolve as a wheel. If one looks carefully, one sees that the Yin lies in the centre of the Yang and the Yang lies in the centre of the Yin. If one goes deep enough into one or the other one finds the opposite principle waiting for you.
If the Tao is properly understood and realised in one's life, Yin and Yang dissolve into One, the Moon Disc, the marriage of the two hemispheres of the human brain. THEN anything one does is in accordance with the Tao and there is neither Action nor Inaction, there is only Nonaction. By letting the Tao flow through us, the appropriate thing is done. The best illustration I have found of the idea of working with the rythmn of the Tao in Western Scripture is in this extract from the OLD TESTAMENT:
"To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to break up;
A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace." - Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Understanding WuWei is not easy to do. It requires immense work and a willingness to give up one's Little Ego to the Greater Ego. It also means immense spiritual work most of the time, although like all great Truths, the Dao is simple. A child could understand it. Which is why it is so complicated.
A great Chinese proverb says 'If the Truth were simple everyone would have told his brother'. I've had a go. There's a great deal more to it... as simple and as complex as you like... Take a look, but don't expect it to be easy!