contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Daoism

LIFE-FORCE: A TAOIST UNDERSTANDING

“Three subtle energy currents:

Twin helixes around a jade pillar.

This glowing presence

Is the force of life itself.

“Deep in meditation, it is possible to become aware of the life-force itself. You can see it if you learn to look within. To describe it as electricity, or power, or light, or consciousness is all somewhat correct. But such descriptions are inadequate. You have to see it for yourself. You have to feel it for itself. You have to know it for yourself.

“To be in its presence is to be in something primeval, basic, mysterious, shamanistic and profound. To be in its presences makes all references mute and all senses slack, leaving only deep awe. One is drawn to it in utter fascination. It is the mighty flame to our mothlike consciousness.

“This column of energy that coils around itself holds all the stages of our growth. It is our soul; it is the force that animates us and gives us awareness. If you want to engage your life completely, it is essential for you to come to terms with this inner power. Once you harmonize with it you can blend with the dynamics of being human.”

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

AFFIRMATION: THOUGHTS OF A MODERN TAOIST

“Stand at the precipice

That existential darkness,

And call into the void.

It will surely answer.”

“The precipice represents our dilemma as human beings, the sense that this existence is all too random, all too absurd. Is there order? Is there a force directing things? These are the important issues, so important that we cannot rely on scripture, but must instead explore on our own.

“The followers of the Tao compare the void to a valley. A valley is void, yet it is productive and positive. The emptiness of the valley permits water to accumulate for plants. It allows life-giving sunlight to flood its surface. Its openness gives comfort to people and animals alike. The void should not be frightening. Rather, it contains all possibilities. Peer into it, call out, not just with your voice but with your whole being. If your cry is deep and sincere, an echo is sure to return. This is the affirmation of our existence, the affirmation that we are on the right path. With that encouragement, we can continue our lives and explorations. Then the void is not frightening, but a constant companion.”

Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

INWARD TRAINING

The Way fills the entire world

It is everywhere that people are

But people are unable to understand this.

When you are released by this one word:

You reach up to the heavens above;

You stretch down to the earth below;

You pervade the nine inhabited regions.

What does it mean to be released by it?

The answer resides in the calmness of the mind.

When your mind is well ordered, your sense are well ordered.

When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.

What makes them well ordered is the mind;

What makes them calm is the mind.

By means of the mind you store the mind.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

Only after there is awareness does it take shape;

Only after it takes shape is there a word.

Only after there is a word is it implemented.

Only after it is implemented is there order.

Without order, you will always be chaotic.

If chaotic, you die. (1)

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (Nei-yeh) (1) comes out of an oral tradition in which teachers gave their pupils verses to learn and study. Hence the emphatic and somewhat repetitive flavour of the text. Teacher pupil relationships of this kind are very ancient in China, likely emerging out of an indigenous Chinese shamanism (2).

Translator and editor Harold Roth suggests that the ‘one word’ that releases people is Tao itself, used as the focus of meditation, somewhat in the manner of mantra work. When the mind is calm, another mind becomes available – the mind within the mind, that precedes words and takes shape prior to their emergence.

Tao, in this understanding, is experienced as a foundational and pervasive cosmic process in which we can centre ourselves. The recommended practice helps us to cleanse the doors of perception, and achieve that centring. My experience of contemplative inquiry, and the Druid training that preceded it, is that ‘inward training’ works.

(1) Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/08/12/

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

POEM: HERMITAGE HOSPITALITY

At dusk I came down from the mountain,

The mountain moon as my companion,

And looked behind at tracks I’d taken

That were blue, blue beyond the skyline;

You took my arm, lead me to your hut

Where small children drew hawthorn curtains

To green bamboos and a hidden path

With vines to brush the travellers’ clothes;

And I rejoiced at a place to rest

And good wine, too, to pour out with you:

Ballads we sang, the wind in the pines,

Till our songs done, Milky Way had paled;

And I was drunk and you were merry,

We had gaily forgotten the world!

Li Po and Tu Fu Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 (Poems selected and translated with an introduction and notes by Arthur Cooper)

 The poem above was written by Li Po (701-762) and its full title is ‘Coming down from Chung-Nan Mountain by Hu-Szu’s Hermitage, he gave me rest for the night and set out the wine’. The editor says: “this is typical of Li Po’s occasional poems, a ‘bread-and-butter letter’ to a friend who had entertained him. The ‘hermitage’ is not to be taken too seriously and need mean no more than a country cottage. In a world of intriguing courtiers, everyone was pleased to be called a retired hermit; though the word used for ‘hermit’ here is in fact also a high Taoist Degree of Initiation. (‘The world’ at the end of the poem, though a fair translation of the word used, translates something that can itself mean ‘intrigue’.)

METAPHOR: A MODERN TAOIST’S PERSPECTIVE

“Spirituality is applied Poetry. Metaphysics is applied Metaphor.

“All the methods that we have for knowing Tao came from observing the outside world and then applying it to the human dilemma. In the past, the body was seen as a microcosm of the universe, spiritual energy was compared to the sun, the duality of the body was matched to the duality of day and night, the habits of animals were copied for their innate wisdom, and the psychic centres of the body were imagined as opening flowers. Even if we apply these ideas today, they yield results.

“Metaphor is essentially a way to shape thoughts. The insights of poetry can often guide us out of our problems; the imagery of an opening flower is often used in meditation. Yet poetry is only a sensation of the mind and there is no opening flower inside of us. Human beings take objective reality and absorb it partially through a poetry of the mind. Without this, there could be no sense of humor, no creativity, and no spirituality. For until we make the connection between all things, we have no way out of the isolation that often infects us.”

Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

THE ART OF TRAVELING AND SIGHTSEEING

“Lieh-tzu used to love to travel and to see the sights. When his teacher Hu-tzu asked him what he found so enjoyable about traveling, Lieh-tzu said, ‘While other people travel to see the beauty of sights and surroundings, I enjoy seeing the way things change. To other sightseers, it may seem that I am like them, but the difference between us is that they see things whereas I see changes.’

“Hu-tzu said, ‘You think you are different from other travelers, but actually you are not. Although they are amused by sights and sounds, and you are fascinated by things that always change, you are both occupied with what is out there rather than what you experience inside. People who are attracted to the external world are always looking for something new and wonderful that will satisfy their senses. However, only people who look into themselves will find true satisfaction.’

“After this conversation, Lieh-tzu stopped traveling because he thought he had thoroughly misunderstood what it means to travel. Seeing this, Hu-tzu said to him, ‘Travel is such a wonderful experience! Especially when you forget you are traveling. Then you will enjoy whatever you see and do. Those who look into themselves when they travel will not think about what they see. In fact, there is no distinction between the viewer and the seen. You experience everything with the totality of yourself, so that every blade of grass, every mountain, every lake is alive and is a part of you. When there is no division between you and what is other, this is the ultimate experience of traveling.’”

Eva Wong Lieh-tzu: a Taoist Guide to Practical Living Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001

Eva Wong grew up bilingual in Hong Kong, is a practitioner of the Taoist arts and a well-known translator of Taoist and other Chinese texts. She writes, “before I had even heard of Taoism, the stories of the Lieh-tzu were familiar to me from my childhood readers … although my family was bilingual, I grew up in Chinese culture, and the Lieh-tzu gave me and my schoolmates kernels of wisdom packed in fables and proverbs. Even at age six and seven, we knew about the Old Fool who tried to move the mountains, the man who worried that the sky would fall, and the man who tried to chase down the sun”.

The Lieh-tzu is less well known to Westerners than Lao-Tzu’s Tao-Te-Ching or the work of Chuang-tzu. But for Eva Wong the voice of the Lieh-tzu is a friendly one, not that of an all-knowing sage or master. “It is the voice of someone who gives advice not because he is an expert, but because he has made mistakes and learned from them. It comes from a person who allows us to listen. He speaks, he pauses, and when we respond, he speaks again”.

Comparing the three great representatives of early Taoism, Eva Wong says that “Lao-tzu speaks as a sage”, and “when the lecture is over, there is no question period. It is up to us to understand him”. Chuang-tzu “is an eccentric who chuckles to himself and is not concerned about being understood. He “wanders in a world different to ours”, where “the ground of reality is always changing”. But “the Lieh-tzu is different. Lieh-tzu lives in our world. He talks about experiences we can understand … life and death, fortune and misfortune, gain and loss … friendship, human communication, dreams, reality and learning … it is as if someone gently shook us and woke us from a deep sleep … I am awed by Lao-tzu, baffled by Chuang-tzu, but I am never afraid of Lieh-tzu”.

RESTING IN BEING

Last autumn I worked with two on-line resources developed by Peter Russell (1). The first was a brief meditation course, which nudged me into a particularly easeful and surrendered meditative style. The second was a webinar series under the Science and Nonduality umbrella (2), Resting in Being. From this I picked up a helpful definition of nonduality (a translation of Sanskrit advaita). Going back to the time of the Upanishads (3), it invites us to think of ourselves as clay pots. If we look at two pots together (or any number) we find only one clay. Peter Russell describes the clay as ‘mind stuff’. Older Vedantic tradition uses the language of divinity, whilst Tantric Buddhists speak of ‘primordial nature’ (4). Russell is careful to distinguish nonduality from union, unity, or complete identity. My human relationship to the clay (mind stuff, primordial nature) is one of ‘not I not other than I’ (5). I am distinct but not separate.

This ground reality is ever-present and pervasive, yet oddly hard to recognize. No recognition is necessary for a successful human life, yet without it many people experience a sense of loss and alienation or intuit that something of consequence is missing. We invent grail quests and ladders to heaven, strategies for enlightenment or redemption, to address the perceived deficit. These in turn tend to become displacement mechanisms, deflecting us from the very goal we seek. The direct approach points us back to our immediate experience. Peter Russell uses words like ‘being’ and ‘awareness’ – suggesting indeed that that latter might also be turned into a doing word: ‘awareing’. Process terms better express both the movement of experience and the stillness within it. Ursula Le Guin does the same with ‘Taoing’ (6).

As a term, I find ‘resting in being’ useful in guiding me into contemplative awareing. I feel opened, energized and expanded. My centre of gravity shifts. I feel porous, spacious, held within the whole: here, now and home. The years of contemplative inquiry have boiled down to this. It is the stance I am taking away. My remaining sense of inquiry concerns the influence of this stance on the rest of my life and I will look at this in another post.

(1) Spirit of Now website peterrussell.com

(2) https://www.scienceandnonduality.com

(3) The Upanishads Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, CA: Niligri Press, 2007 (2nd  ed.)

(4)  https://www.dharmaocean.org/

(5)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(6) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (New English version by Ursula K. LeGuin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

A WAGER

“In the words of Shakespeare, ‘And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, a poet’s pen turns to shape them and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’. All thought, feeling, sensation and perception give to airy nothing – this full, empty, luminous loving substance – a temporary name and form.

“The finite mind – thought, feeling, sensation and perception – is a temporary localization of infinite Consciousness, love and beauty. The three forms or three activities of the finite mind – thinking, feeling and perceiving – clothe this airy nothing, this luminous, empty, loving Presence, with their own particular qualities and limitations, making this airy nothing, this luminous, empty, loving substance, appear as thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions

“But in doing so, this luminous, empty, loving substance never ceases to be itself. It never becomes anything other than itself, such as an object, person, self or world. It simply modulates itself within its own infinite being, knowing itself in and as the forms of all experience, but never ceasing to be and know itself alone”. (1)

This is the proposition, or invitation, of The Direct Path, as presented by the teacher I am attending to most. The resource I am using has audio and book versions in one package. Passages like the one above are interwoven with guided meditations designed to reframe our experience through a careful introspection that is both precise and gentle. When listening, I am more focused on the meditations. When reading I am more focused on the passages, which work like a Lectio Divina – words to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Looking at key words closely, I can appreciate Shakespeare’s use of ‘imagination’ as a light-touch anticipation of Coleridge’s: “the primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation” (2).

At the level of the finite mind I have reached a stage of provisional assent to the Direct Path view. I don’t want to drown out any doubt with the urgent, monological discourse of a new ideology. I notice this tendency in the non-dual community, and I suspect it comes from an impatience with ambiguity and difficulties in holding a point of tension. For me, that would indicate a covert lack of confidence in my inquiry process. At the same time, I want to live from this kind of understanding. In my version, I feel like the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, with the equivalent dilemma of wondering whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. I would say ‘both’ – not holding this view in a fundamentalist way, but strongly enough to live from.

So, I’m adopting the strategy of Blaise Pascal*, who in seventeenth century France decided to make a wager about God: “if God exists, he is infinitely incomprehensible. So human reasoning has no way of determining whether or not he exists. We cannot make up our minds on the basis of reasoning. But we must make up our minds. How is it to be done? Pascal suggests that adopting belief in God, and leading a Christian life, is the soundest bet. In event of winning the bet, an eternity of bliss is gained. In the event of losing the bet, the loss incurred is utterly insignificant. The alternative, – i.e. unbelief – can at best incur an utterly insignificant gain, at worst an immense loss.” (3)

I do not see myself facing the same consequences as Pascal, either in Earth or Heaven, from making a ‘wrong’ choice. But I adopt the strategy: making my existential choice and embracing what flows it.

*Blaise Pascal (1623-62) French mathematician, physicist, religious thinker and philosopher.

(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

(2) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria: Or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions Dent: London, 1906 & 1956 (Everyman’s Library. Edited and with an introduction by George Watson)

(3) Thomas Mautner The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy London: Penguin, 1996

 

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