Thursday, October 13, 2011

Revisiting the Tao

A recent wood carving of mine
The word Tao (pronounced daĆ¼) in Chinese means "the way," indicating a path of thought or life that concerns the essential unifying force of everything that exists in the universe. Taoism is following the way if living in harmony with that force. Many people on a spiritual path embrace the principles of the Tao without realizing it.

The Tao-te Ching is the earliest document in the history of Taoism. It is a viewpoint that emphasizes individuality, freedom, simplicity, mysticism, and naturalness. Considered one of the great philosophical works of ancient China, Tao-te Ching literally means “The Classic of the Way and Its Power.” The book is less than 5,000 words long and is very likely one of the oldest written texts in the world. Authorship of the Tao-te Ching is generally credited to a man named Lao-Tzu but knowledge of him is so scarce that only legends remain. His name itself, means “old master” or “wise sage” and his teachings are very pertinent in our modern world.

The Tao is all encompassing. Despite the appearance of differences in the world, within the Tao everything is one. Since all is one, matters of true and false or good and evil are irrelevant and only arise when people cannot see beyond their narrow perception of reality. Taoism is a system of philosophical thought that puts emphasis on the spiritual life instead of the material world. The Tao is considered unnamed and unknowable.  Followers of the Tao avoid wasting their energies on the pursuit of wealth, power, trivial knowledge and other distractions. Instead, they concentrate on the reality of life itself of breathing, moving and living in harmony with the natural world in the present moment.

Living the Way of the Tao can be expressed by the term wu-wei which means doing – not doing. This concept does not signify non-action, instead it refers to action without attachment to the action, action without thought of the action. This is very close to the concept of Zen.

The roots of Zen also come from ancient China as well as India and fundamentally focus on the concept of pure human spirit. It can be imagined as the integration of the disparate aspects of the self into one complete and divine being. Zen is also the foundation of the Bushido code, the way of the warrior. The samurai, who lived their lives at the edge of a sword and could die at any moment, were taught to concentrate on and immerse themselves in the here and now in order to connect with the fundamental core of their being. It helped them develop the powers of concentration, self-control, awareness and tranquility. If they approached each battle as if it were their last, they would be able to have every part of their being at their disposal.

Zen itself has no theory. It is not meditation. It is not thinking. It is not not-thinking. It is not something you learn. It is simply something you are. To practice Zen is to live fully and completely, not in the past or the future, but right here and right now.

As with the Tao, the power of Zen is in simplicity, and yet it teaches one to become a master of all things by learning to go with the natural flow of the universe. Trying to walk upstream against the river is pointless. It is better to accept that change is inevitable, learn to embrace it and make the most of it when it comes. Both of these concepts are based on simplicity. If you have no expectations, then everything that happens is a surprising success. If you have no desires, then everything you get is a bonus. It is being alive in the present moment, experiencing life as it happens and reacting to it in a calm and natural way. It is living fully and completely.

In the words of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, one of India’s most widely respected spiritual teachers, it is known as “aliveness.” It is a feeling independent of any outward forces. It is being happy without having a reason to be happy. The difficulty lies in reaching this state of being and experiencing it. It is easy to speak of it. Living it is another story.

Lao Tzu, in writing the Tao Te Ching, observed that plants, animals and humans are born supple and soft, yet when they die they are stiff and brittle. In order to experience the kind of “aliveness” Lao Tzu and Rajneesh are referring to, we must be supple and soft. We must breathe, move and relax. We need to learn to allow the soft and supple aspects of life to prevail. We need to pay attention. That which is hard and stiff will be broken.

The modern lifestyle in our Western world runs counterproductive to the concepts of  the Tao and Zen. We give the highest value to technology and progress, believing that we have unlimited resources to continue along the path we are traveling. We think it is our right to take as much as we can for ourselves regardless of how it impacts other people or the planet we live on. We embrace the distractions of media, television and technology because they allow us to ignore the real truth of our predicament. We are caught in a hoax where we acquire and discard anything and everything in an endless cycle of mindless consumerism that is rapidly destroying our world.

We have lost our grace. When the world rewards competition and selfish acquisition, while the ideas of cooperation and sharing are seen as a way to fall behind, something is wrong.

Living in Zen or embracing the Tao is about existing in the present moment. It is enjoying life regardless of the circumstances. It enables us to find the freedom to enjoy whatever we have at this present moment. It enables us to break free of the technological, consumerism trap we find ourselves in. We must recover our grace. True freedom is adapting to the infinite variety of life conditions without losing confidence in our ability to connect to the deeper spiritual essence within.

Being distracted is no longer a valid excuse. We should all be aware by now that we live on a finite planet and taking whatever we want goes against the natural flow of life. It will only lead to difficulty and disaster. It is not the way. To reclaim our grace we need to remember that we are all part of the whole. Help others. Give of your time and resources. We can only succeed together.

Wishing you much peace,

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