contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Dao

LEARNING FROM THE WATERCOURSE WAY

Alan Watts (1) describes Taoism as the ‘watercourse way’. For him, this ancient philosophy is “a skilful and intelligent following of the course, the current, and grain of natural phenomena – seeing human life as an integral feature of the world process, and not something alien and opposed to it.” It is a point of view that I find of direct relevance to modern Druidry, nature spirituality and ecosophy. (2)

The ancient Taoists themselves said that “true goodness is like water. Water’s good for everything. It doesn’t compete. It goes right down to the low loathly places, and so finds the way”. (3)

Alan Watts continues (1): “Looking at this philosophy with the needs and problems of modern civilisation in mind, it suggests an attitude to the world which must underlie all our efforts towards an ecological technology. The development of such techniques is not just a matter of the techniques themselves, but of the psychological attitude of the technician”.

A detached attitude of objectivity is inadequate for solving the problems we face. Subject and object cannot be separated, for “we and our surroundings are the process of a unified field, which is what the Chinese called Tao”. We have no alternative but to work along with this process by attitudes and methods which could be as technically effective as “judo the ‘gentle Tao’ is effective athletically”. Watts reminds us that human beings have to make the gamble of trusting one another to make any kind of workable community, and concludes that “we must also take the risk of trimming our sails to the winds of nature. For our ‘selves’ are inseparable from this kind of universe, and there is nowhere else to be.”

(1) Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way Souvenir Press: undated Amazon Kindle edition (with the collaboration of Al Chung-Liang Huang ; additional calligraphy by Lee Chih-chang)

(2) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)

(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

DAILY CULTIVATION

“Whatever system of spirituality you practice, do it every day. If it is prayer, then pray every day. If it is meditation, then meditate every day. If it is exercise, then exercise every day. … This methodical approach is reassuring in several ways. First, it provides you with a process and a means to maintain progress even if that particular day is not inspiring or significant. Just to practice is already good. Secondly, it gives you a certain faith. If you practice every day, it is inevitable that you gain from it. Thirdly, constant practice gives you a certain satisfaction. … [You} can take comfort from the momentum it has given you”.

There have been times in my life when I have followed this approach and times when I have not. I have had a daily practice for the last twelve years and I’m expecting this to continue. For all my inquiring, my looking at different traditions and perceived gains in insight, the pattern and form of my practice has been stable for eight years now. I like it that way for the reasons given by Deng Ming-Tao above. The pattern and form itself holds me up and sustains me. It is one of the things that gives my life a context – more than anything other than close personal relationships.

(1) Deng Ming-Tao 365 Tao Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

NONDOING

“Doing nothing is not a universal suggestion; it is specific to the time when a story is ending, and we enter the space between stories. I am drawing here from the Taoist principle of wu-wei. Sometimes translated as ‘nondoing’, a better translation might be ‘noncontrivance’ or ‘nonforcing’. It means freedom from reflexive doing: acting when it is time to act, not acting when it is not time to act. Action is thus aligned with the natural movement of things, in service to that which wants to be born.

“In this I draw inspiration from a beautiful verse from the Tao Te Ching. This verse is extremely dense, with multiple meanings and layers of meaning, and I haven’t found a translation that highlights what I’m drawing from it here. Therefore, the following is my own translation. It is the last half of verse 16 – if you compare translations you will be astonished at how much they differ.

“’All things return to their root.

Returning to the root, there is stillness.

In stillness, true purpose returns.

This is what is real.

Knowing the real, there is clarity.

Not knowing the real, foolish action brings disaster.

From knowing the real comes spaciousness,

From spaciousness comes impartiality,

From impartiality comes sovereignty,

From sovereignty comes what is natural.

What comes naturally, is the Tao.

From the Tao comes what is lasting,

Persisting beyond one’s self’”.

Charles Eisenstein The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2013

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

HEADLESS TAO

In my last post I said that I was exploring a modern tradition known as the Headless Way. I’ll be mentioning it from time to time in future posts as I go on. So I have looked around for a congenial explanation of what it stands for, written by an experienced practitioner.

Jim Clatfelter’s Headless Dao is a version of the Tao Te Ching modified by a ‘headless’ lens. Each chapter is reinforced by a commentary. It is written in a breezy, jingling verse in some contrast with my favourite free-form version by Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet it is very successful in making its point, and I value it for that – especially appreciating the commentary to the extract from Chapter 42 below. The overall view is one which I essentially share. It makes sense to me and fits my experience.

I’ve chosen extracts from two chapters and their commentaries to offer a taste of Clatfelter’s work. I’ve kept the chapter headings so that readers can compare it with other versions. Ursula Le Guin’s is still the one that I would take to a desert island.

 

25: BEFORE THE FIRST BEGINNING

Before the first beginning

An emptiness is here

Alone forever and at peace

This side of what appears,

Eternally unchanging

And lacking any limit

The void of all potential

The present ultimate.

It enters all appearance

And then returns to source

It’s ever at your center

Your only true recourse

For here begin the heavens

The earth and humankind

Following this greatest way

You cannot be confined.

 

“Here Laozi gives us an outline of his view of existence. What appears to us as a void or an absence or emptiness is truly a mystery. It’s the ultimate. The absolute. It’s the source of existence in its infinite potential.

“It’s also a presence, pure and unchanging awareness, the always-so. This presence contains all that comes and goes in the here and now moment. It is your true, unchanging and eternal identity. It is beyond time because it contains time.

“Can you see this Dao first in all things? You are the Dao, the one awareness, the only awareness. This awareness is very close at hand. It’s at your very center, and it’s always available. It’s who you really are, and it’s always at peace and beyond upset.”

 

42: DAO ENFOLDS A ONENESS

Dao enfolds a oneness

Holds yin and yang as two

Within a single presence

As two sides of the view

With yin upon my shoulders

And yang in my embrace

I live the presence of the Dao

Where all is in its place.

When the two appear as one

It’s wholeness that I see

And balance has to follow

As well as harmony.

 

“In Laozi’s original, this verse begins: from one comes two, and this makes three, and thus 10,000 come to be. What do these numbers refer to? …. One is Dao, the single presence. Two are yin and yang, the complementary opposites of Dao. Three is the sum, the whole.

“Laozi goes on to locate yin and yang in our direct experience. Just what is Dao?  It is yin on my shoulders and yang in my arms. The three terms Dao, yin and yang are not metaphysical terms. They are not mere words and names. They are concrete, physical and visible. You can literally point to them with a finger. To look at the yin, point to your own faceless awareness. To look at the yang, point your finger to the world of appearances (the 10,000 things) directly in front of you. See that nothing separates this yin and yang. They are two views of your presence, your life in the moment, two views of Dao. Can you see both ways and harmonize and balance the two views? It’s the Way to wholeness.”

Jim Clatfelter Headless Dao London: Shollond Trust, 2015. The Sholland Trust acts as the administrative arm of the Headless Way, which can be found at www.headless.org

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