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)
At this strange moment in my life, I want to make my contemplative work more focused and integrated. Communing with the image above led to a deepening, related to the experience of ‘living presence’, and reported in a recent post (1). The process of writing that post has prompted further developments. One of them is a renewal of engagement with ancient wisdom writing.
My favourite books in this genre are the Tao Te Ching (2) and the Gospel of Thomas (3). My work with them has two aspects. One is to understand their cultural contexts, assisted by editors and commentators and further reading. The other is my direct response to the sayings. I am currently focusing on Thomas because some it its sayings influence my practice. Below I summarise contextual information. Each of my next two posts will cover a specific saying.
As a text, Thomas has more resemblance to ancient Jewish Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes/Sirach) than either the canonical gospels or most Gnostic literature. Numbers of the sayings do also appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and Jesus/Yeshua defends Mary Magdalene against Peter – a common Gnostic trope. So there is some relationship with the canonical and Gnostic literatures. But there is no biographical information and no presentation of the teacher as a saviour from a super-celestial realm. There is no sense of the material world as a fallen or evil creation whether undermined by a cosmic adversary or ruled by a false god. Indeed there is no sense of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ being somewhere else at all: rather, it is “spread out over the whole earth, and people do not see it” – Saying 113 (1). Thomas can be seen as Gnostic in its sense of self-knowledge (gnosis) as transformational and because the individual is asked to identify with Jesus rather than ‘believe in’ him (4). The text is about self-transformation through a wisdom teaching that points us to our true nature. This makes it very different in cosmology and emphasis from the Gnostic movement that coalesced in the decades after Thomas was written.
Thomas was probably written in Edessa (now Urfa, a city of two million people in south east Turkey, close to the Syrian border), with the Coptic Nag Hammadi version (our only complete copy) a translation from a Greek or possibly Aramaic original (4). At the time of writing, thought to be the middle of the second century C.E., it was the capital of a Roman satellite state, not counted as within the borders of the empire. It rivalled Alexandria as a centre for book production, but had a different cultural feel – ascetic, contemplative and devotional, less concerned with creative myth-making. Christianities influenced by a Thomas tradition (though not necessarily this text) looked east and for many centuries flourished in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India. In contrast to Europe, they were not religions of power and had to negotiate with other faiths – leading to significant cross-pollination in ways unimaginable in Constantinople or Rome. For example, they are said to have been an influence on Islamic Sufism, and as late as the thirteenth century, Rumi enjoyed good relations with a local Nestorian monastery (5). These eastern churches have stood by a view of theosis, full participation in the life of God. This is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the contemplative vision of God, theoria; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, theosis.
Essentially, this is a gradual path non-dualism. The Gospel of Thomas itself reads to me like a direct path non-dualism, as it does to other people at the present time – like Douglas Harding (6) and Francis Lucille. However I wouldn’t want to go too far in appropriating this ancient text for the purposes of a modern movement. It should be met, as far as possible, as what it is. I am concerned to respect and respond to it. I don’t need to agree with it or (worse) to make it agree with me.
The saying I want to look at in my next post is:
“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” (from Saying 13)
In the following post, I will turn to:
“Yeshua said: when you bring forth that within you, then that will save you; if you do not, then that will kill you.” (Saying 70)
(2) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A new English version by Ursual K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998
(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(4) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: OUP, 2013
(5) Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died HarperCollins e-books, 2008
(6) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)
Winter in the Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.
There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.
The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”
I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.
(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017
(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016
(4) 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)
‘Imagining mystery’ is the title given by Ursula K. Le Guin for Chapter 25 in A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, her English rendition of the Tao Te Ching.
“There is something
that contains everything
Before heaven and earth
Oh, it is still, unbodied,
all on its own, unchanging.
So it can act as the mother
of all things.
Not knowing its real name,
we only call it the Way.
“If it must be named,
Let its name be Great.
Greatness means going on,
going on means going far,
and going far means turning back.
“So they say, ‘the Way is great,
heaven is great, earth is great;
four greatnesses in the world,
and humanity is one of them’.
“People follow earth,
earth follows heaven,
heaven follows the Way,
the Way follows what is.”
Ursula Le Guin comments: “I’d like to call the ‘something’ of the first line a lump – an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything; in the womb of the Way. The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as ‘what is’. I was tempted to say, ‘The Way follows itself’, because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us to see the way not as a sovreignty or a dominion, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.”
She also owns to a piece of creative editing. “in all the texts, the fourth verse reads: So they say, ‘the Way is great/heaven is great;/earth is great;/and the king is great./Four greatnesses in the world/and the king is one of them’.” Yet in the next verse, which is the same series in reverse order, instead of ‘the king’, it is ‘the people’ or ‘humanity’. I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”
I share Ursula Le Guin’s lens, and editorial calls like this are the reason I am drawn to her version more than any other. The text as a whole speaks to our experience of moving between non-duality, dualities, and the multiplicity of the 10,000 the things. For me, the work Ursula Le Guin has done, in reframing traditional understandings of A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, makes her a teacher in her own right.
She calls the first chapter of her version Taoing, emphasising process and flow, and the need to stay open to uncertainties and ambiguities. The text both acknowledges that words over-define experience (thus limiting and distorting it) and understands the need to use them (otherwise why write it?) When taoing, we hold such points of tension. For they are the key to imagining mystery.
“The way you can go
isn’t the real way,
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery,
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.”
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala A new English version by Rrsula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“The Tao Te Ching is
partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and
meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I
wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have
caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And
in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth. We have
that on good authority.
“Scholarly translations of the Tao
Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasises the
uniqueness of the Taoist ‘sage’, his masculinity, his authority. This language
is perpetuated, and degraded, in most modern versions. I wanted a Book of the
Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader,
not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the
soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for
twenty-five hundred years.
“It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, introducing her own English version of
the Tao Te Ching*
*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)
I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.
But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.
This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.
Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:
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. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)
Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)
Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)
Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)
Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)
Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016
“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
“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”.
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,
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
“Naturalness is called the Way. The Way has no name or form; it is just the essence, just the primal spirit.” (1)
The Secret of the Golden Flower is a lay manual of Buddhist and Taoist methods for clarifying the mind. It was first published in China towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is the product of the ‘Complete Reality’ School of Taoism (2), which synthesized the internal alchemical arts of longevity, the meditation techniques of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Confucian ethics. Its key texts included the Tao Te Ching (3) the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (4) and a later Taoist work which translates as Cultivating Stillness (5).
The golden flower itself symbolizes the quintessence of the paths of Buddhism and Taoism, as understood by this school. Gold stands for light, the light of the mind itself; the flower represents the blossoming, or opening up, of the light of the mind. Thus the image evokes the awakening of the real self and its hidden potential. Primal spirit is a mode of awareness subtler and more direct than thought or imagination, and it is central to this blossoming. The Secret of the Golden Flower is devoted to the recovery and refinement of primal spirit in the practitioner.
“The beauties of the highest heavens and the marvels of the sublimest realms are all within the heart: this is where the perfectly open and aware spirit concentrates. Confucians call it the open centre, Buddhists call it the pedestal of awareness, Taoists call it the ancestral earth, the yellow court, the mysterious pass, the primal opening.”
In 1920 a thousand copies were reprinted due to a demand by an “esoteric circle” in Beijing according to Richard Wilhelm, who brought it to Europe in a German edition a few years later with a foreword and commentary by C. G. Jung (6). An English edition translated from the German by Cary F. Baynes appeared in 1929. These editions included fragments from a second work, also from the Complete Reality School, called Hui-Ming Ching (7). This adopted the Chan idea that there is no separation between original nature or wisdom-mind (hui = Sanskrit prajna) and stillness (= Sanskrit Samadhi). At the same time hui-ming means uniting wisdom-mind with the energy of life (ming). Contemplative stillness is to be complemented by a system of energetic movement, drawn from Chinese energy arts (chi gung) – an approach consistent with the Taoist understanding of the Tao as simultaneously the underlying permanent reality and the changing flux of things in transformation.
Modern translators recognize the importance of the pioneering Wilhelm/Jung work, whilst expressing dismay at its level of inaccuracy and misrepresentation. In relation to the Hui-Ming Ching Eva Wong, who was able to translate a complete copy with illustrations, says: “Baynes’ translation is severely biased by Jungian psychology and does not present the work from a Taoist spiritual perspective … the historical and philosophical connections with its major influences … [are] … ignored … we cannot appreciate the spiritual value of a text if we impose a particular perspective, especially one that comes from a different culture … we need to yield to the text and let it speak on its own terms”. Thomas Cleary is equally unhappy on behalf of The Secret of the Golden Flower, using his own notes on the text to compare the older version unfavourably with his own and asserting that “Wilhelm was not familiar with even the most rudimentary lore of Chan Buddhism”.
In a way, Wilhelm and Jung suffer from the downside of being pioneers. Their successors are bound to know the territory better, partly thanks to them. But they were also men of their time in other ways, in their view of the mystic orient. Jung’s introduction began with a section on Difficulties encountered by a European in trying to understand the East. He expressed admiration for Chinese recognition of the “paradoxes and polarity inherent in what is alive. The opposites always balanced each other – a sign of high culture. One-sidedness, though it lends momentum, is a mark of barbarism”. He also used the opportunity to express pleasure that the West was now learning to value feeling and intuition and thereby widen Western consciousness and culture beyond a narrow “tyranny” of intellect. But he also made (to us) embarrassing statements like “measured by it [Western intellect], Eastern intellect can be described as childish … it is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates or ‘affects’ it in any way”.
We are now in a globalizing 21st. century where large numbers of Westerners are working with Buddhist meditation and Chinese energy arts and finding them entirely accessible and transforming. China and its place in the world are also very different. We can let go of any residual notion that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. I’ve had a personal involvement with Buddhist meditation and Tantric traditions that have incorporated chi gung exercises. I do not find them alien. My Western Way is a result both of a personal choice, and perhaps of a personal call. It could easily have been different.
I can learn directly from the East and I find that Taoism has a particular attraction – both that of the early classics and of the much later Complete Reality School: its attempts at inclusivity, its dialogue with Chan, its cultivation of the energy of life, and a Taoist/Chan sensibility in poetry and painting all speak to me. I am aware of a cultural note that is different to mine, yet I can incorporate key lessons directly into my practice. When working with breath, I have become increasingly conscious of a simultaneous movement of the breath and a stillness in the breath. For me this is both an experience and a metaphor. In my terms it feels very Sophian, and I believe I owe the insight to my acquaintance – however superficial – with Taoist tradition.
The Secret of the Golden Flower: the Classic Chinese Book of Life (1991) Translated by Thomas Cleary, with introduction, notes and commentary New York: HarperCollins
Eva Wong (1997) The Shambhala Guide to Taoism Boston & London: Shambhala
Lao Tzu (1998) Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way New version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton Boston & London: Shambhala
The Heart Sutra: the Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Translation and commentary by Red Pine Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint
Cultivating Stillness: a Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind (1992) Translated with an introduction by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala
The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life (1962) Translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm with a Foreword and Commentary by C. G. Jung, and part of a Chinese meditation text The Book of Consciousness and Life with a foreword by Salome Wilhelm. London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul (revised edition)
Liu Hua-Yang Cultivating the Energy of Life (1998) A translation of the Hui-Ming Ching and its commentaries by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala