contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Tao Te Ching

THE GOLDEN FLOWER

 

“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.

 

  1. 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
  2. Eva Wong (1997) The Shambhala Guide to Taoism Boston & London: Shambhala
  3. 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
  4. The Heart Sutra: the Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Translation and commentary by Red Pine Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint
  5. Cultivating Stillness: a Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind (1992) Translated with an introduction by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala
  6. 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)
  7. 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

ANCESTORS

I watched the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice recently and felt depressed – addicted as well, but depressed. My problem? I didn’t feel connected to anybody in the story. I couldn’t fully empathise. I acknowledge descent from people like them – probably in a humbler station of life than those who got the attention. I could offer gratitude and respect for their fecundity/virility, for their resilience, for doing the best they could with the life on offer. I felt uneasy at the display of their mortal remains on TV. But connection? Not really.

So where would I look for living ancestry? If we take the Eurasia of the time as a whole we find, as part of the cultural mix, an acute consciousness of something painful and awry in the military-aristocratic cultures of the day, perhaps in the very cosmos itself. We can follow this as a persistent theme in powerful emergent literatures. Such indeed was the revulsion that some teachers and writers became world and life denying. But that’s not true of everyone. The words below, attributed to the early Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu, seem grounded enough:

Brim-fill the bowl,

It’ll spill over.

Keep sharpening the blade,

You’ll soon blunt it.

Nobody can protect a house full of gold and jade.

Wealth, status, pride

Are their own ruin.

To do good, work well, and lie low

Is the way of the blessing. (1)

In Athens, a little closer to home, Socrates suggested that our highest good lies in our moral centre and best self, and that all external goods, such as bodily pleasure, health and social reputation are correspondingly of subordinate value. Essential good was to be sought within rather than in externals. Socrates himself was famous for the simplicity of his way of life. His ascetic follower Diogenes, a kind of crazy wisdom master described by Plato as “Socrates gone mad”, is said to have had a late life encounter with the young Alexander of Macedon, soon to become ‘the Great’. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, reckoning that if Diogenes came up with something it would establish a relationship of patronage and dependency. Diogenes was sitting against a wall and had been enjoying the sunshine until Alexander came along and loomed over him. So he requested the King to stand away from his sun. Alexander went on to fight his way through the Persian Empire all the way to India. There he cornered a group of gymnosophists (= naked sages, either Jain or Yogi) and happily repeated his pattern of asking clever questions and receiving sagely answers.

I am not a follower of Lao Tzu, Socrates or Diogenes, but I do feel connected to them. I have involved them in my contemplative inquiry. In this sense they are my ancestors. Edited and mythologised though they may be, they speak to me over the centuries. I realize that literary wisdom comes out of older, oral traditions. Humans are capable of wisdom and it doesn’t depend on writing. The Tao Te Ching is an anthology of verses passed from teachers to pupils who were expected to memorise them. I understand that their initial recording and publication were controversial in their day. Socrates and Diogenes didn’t care much for writing: they left that to others. I do not doubt that there were paths and people of wisdom in the Celtic-speaking lands – people who stuck by the way of personal relationship and oral transmission in their teaching: this is, after all, the rumoured way of the Druids. I just doubt that we would find them amongst the princes, warriors and court Druids presented in The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice.

So my Samhain thoughts this year turn to exemplars, teachers and sharers of wisdom – firstly and obviously those who are publicly known and remembered; secondly and perhaps more importantly with those who remain unknown but whose invisible influence has leavened the life of the world.

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

ETHICS AND THE ENDLESS KNOT

Exploring ethics through contemplative trance and active imagination

In Clear and Present Thinking (1) a book about logic, Brendan Myers includes a Chapter on Moral Reasoning. In this chapter he talks about Virtue Theory as one “where the weight of moral concern is on the character and identity of the person who acts and chooses, as well as the habits he or she develops and discharges through her actions and their consequences”.

Some days after reading this, I found myself in my inner sacred space, a heart space, the garden of the Goddess. I was not doing any formal practice. I was just there. When the garden first emerged, it was specifically as Sophia’s garden. And so it was this time.

There was a banner hanging from a tree branch, hawthorn I think. It was red, with a gold pentangle inscribed on it. I recognised it as the heraldic emblem from Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2). In this 14th century English poem the pentangle is introduced as a token of fidelity first devised by King Solomon. It is unbroken anywhere, and known in England as the ‘endless knot’. The poem involves an interrogation of ‘virtue’ as understood both in King Arthur’s Camelot and in the older world of the Green Knight far to the north. Gawain will have to navigate both physical perils and moral ambiguities.

Why did I find this device, as a spontaneously emerging image, in Sophia’s Garden? Firstly, I had been thinking about virtue ethics as described by Brendan Myers. Secondly, the pentangle in this form has been a significant image for me ever since I encountered the poem in my late teens. I’ve revisited it from time to time ever since, and this includes the reading of John Matthews’ Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess (3) which makes the link with Sophia. “In the Gnostic system, Sophia, the divine emanation of the Godhead, would not permit anyone to enter her Realm of Light, unless they were in complete balance, and bore the sign of the pentangle upon them”.

The offered meaning, as I see it, is that when addressing virtue ethics, I can’t rely on reason alone. Virtue ethics is up close and personal, more than an abstract principle or set of rules. I need to mobilise more of myself. In Sophia’s Garden I’m in a deepened form of awareness, and can contemplate the imagery using heart and intuition as well as rationality. They all work together.

Allowing the vision, I entered a light trance, with the image firmly in mind. I lay down with pen and paper near. I fell asleep for a short period – not part of the plan, but cleansing and useful. On waking I had words: Love/Wisdom. Sophia is Goddess of Love/Wisdom. The love is the greater quality, and it is an Eros fuelled love, for Sophia is the emanation of the Divine who ‘fell’ and then recovered (4). There must an opening up and movement towards someone or something, however slight and tentative, for it to be ‘love’. Whereas I owe justice and a pre-supposition of basic good will towards sentient beings, love is in my experience beyond command and does not result from a conscious act of will – though I can certainly work at expanding my potential to be a conduit. Wisdom is connected to this love, acting as a detector of distortions – empty or ungrounded sentiment, unaware compulsion, possessive attachment, ‘spiritual’ love as world rejecting flight, or driven and reckless forms of generosity lacking in self-care.

But love modifies wisdom too. Wisdom here is too energised to be altogether prudential. Counting the cost may make sense, but it’s not the only criterion. Wisdom uses the head yet is lodged in the heart. At the same time, wisdom also knows that ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ as words can begin to solidify into things, always a problem with ‘nouning’. They can become wooden idealisations devoid of context and process, accessories to self-image, identity performance and external reputation. They can become alienated and commodified. They can even turn and be turned against us. So wisdom guards herself and love by guarding against too much reference to ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Love’.

At this stage I’m thinking again of the pentangle and wanting to use it to bring the virtues into relationship with each other rather than separating them out. I’m feeling happy about using this traditional framework so long as I can be playful with it. For I understand this to be the Sophian Way – with solemnity seen as having a stupefying effect, anaesthetising awareness. So in this ethics of the endless knot, I place love at the apex of the pentangle as I look at the banner, I move down to the base on my right, igniting the love/wisdom link.

Then, moving diagonally up left from the base I come to justice, for love and wisdom need justice in the world for the sake of their own flourishing: injustice inhibits the free flow of love and wisdom. I’ve already named justice, and fairness, as something I owe to all on a personal level, based on a presupposition of basic good will. I’m also clear about the need to work for justice in the wider world. On this, my vision is of a justice is careful of its methods, or it risks licensing revenge, both in power and opposition. Care about language and imagery are themselves a work for justice. Injustice wants to constrain and police these great resources. It seeks to close down their emancipatory magic. Working for justice is rational activity in service to love and wisdom. Sophia has always cried out against injustice, false justice and no justice. She has an ambivalent relationship with the law.

The classical virtue following on from justice, as I move in a straight line from left to right, is courage. What kind of courage am I looking at? For me it’s not about ‘warriorship’, with its theatricality and somewhat militaristic associations, however reframed for current values and conditions. (Perhaps that’s why my pentangle is inscribed on a banner rather than a shield.) Rather, it combines resilience with witnessing. Early Taoism captures the resilience aspect: “true goodness is like water … it goes right down to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way” and “the hard sword fails, the stiff tree’s felled. The hard and great go under. The soft and weak stay up” (5). I understand witnessing in a ‘truth to power’ sense and link it to my notion of care about emancipatory, life and world-expanding language and imagery and the need to guard them. This witnessing courage, to be honourable, may involve the willing loss of recognised honour and standing in a world that is formally virtuous. So it depends on a strong inner authority and a willingness to go against tribal custom. This is the courage I would tie in with love, wisdom and justice.

Moving down diagonally from courage, we come to the base of the golden pentangle on the left hand side, where I place temperance. In the course of its long history, ‘temperance’ has tended to shift from ideas of moderation to ideas of abstinence, as culture and religion have changed. Here and now, I have a resonance of ‘treading lightly on the earth’, in two senses. One is about limiting demands on material resources for the health and flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants. The other is about an ultimate non-attachment to material goods, contents of consciousness and the self-image they create. For me, there is a balance here which is why the word temperance comes in. I can love my possessions, my ideas and visions, my loved ones, my neighbours and my sense of who I am. But I am not fundamentally identified, not wholly immersed, in them. For these forms of love, if they are to flourish, demand some space around them, and there is a sense in which I am alone even within these nourishing interconnections. In another sense I am not. For I can go back to the simplicity of aware being and loving, timelessly arising from the fertile latency of the void. In this way I complete the endless knot.

This vision and reflection are only a beginning. I intend to continue engaging with this ethical approach, integrating it into my contemplative inquiry.

References

  1. Brendan Myers, Charlotte Elsby, Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray & Nola Semczyszyn Clear and Present Thinking: a Handbook in Logic and Rationality, Version 1.1 (21st May 2013) Available via brendanmyers.net or Amazon/Kindle
  2. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License – see creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/
  3. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight edited with an introduction, prose translation and notes by W. R. J. Barron. (Revised edition) Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998
  4. John Matthews Sir Gawain Knight of the Goddess (Revised edition) Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998
  5. Pistis Sophia: a Gnostic Gospel translated into English with an introduction and annotated bibliography by G. R. S. Mead. Blauvelt, New York: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (New Foreword for American Edition by Richard K. Russell
  6. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. LeGuin)

REFLECTION ON CHINESE POETRY

In his poem Written on a Cold Evening Yang Wan-li* writes:

The poet must work with brush and paper,

but this is not what makes the poem.

A man doesn’t go in search of a poem –

The poem comes in search of him.

I realise, that when I read or present classical Chinese poems, I am not just working with translations from another language, but with translations from a completely different approach to the art of writing itself. So here I’ve added a piece about Chinese calligraphy, taken from an article by Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University which is available on: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm

Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China, revered as a fine art long before painting. What makes the written language distinctive is its visual form. Unlike written words formed from alphabets, Chinese characters convey more than phonetic sound or semantic meaning. Written words play multiple roles: not only does a character denote specific meanings, but its very form manifests the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself. Writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to describe the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words:

“[When viewing calligraphy,] I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright.” (Sun Guoting, 7th century)

How can a simple character convey all this? The seeming simplicity of the tools is belied by the complexity of effects. A multiplicity of effect is produced in part by varying the consistency and amount of ink carried by the brush. Black ink is formed into solid sticks or cakes that are ground in water on a stone surface to produce a liquid. Calligraphers can control the thickness of the ink by varying both the amount of water and the solid ink that is ground. Once they start writing, by loading the brush sometimes with more ink, sometimes with less, by allowing the ink to almost run out before dipping the brush in the ink again, they create characters that resemble a shower of rock here, the wonder of a drop of dew there.

Unlike a rigid instrument such as a stylus or a ballpoint pen, a flexible hair brush allows not only for variations in the width of strokes, but, depending on whether one uses the tip or side of the brush, one can create either two-dimensional or three-dimensional effects. Depending on the speed with which one wields the brush and the amount of pressure exerted on the writing surface, one can create a great variety of effects. The brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, their entire body. The physical gestures produced by the wielding of the brush reveal much more than physical motion; they reveal much of the writers themselves – their impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, rebelliousness.

I would add that this kind of writing enacts the dance between ‘emptiness and form’ referred to in the Buddhist Heart Sutra (a favourite text in China) and the earlier references to that same dance in the Tao Te Ching, where it says, less abstractly:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub

Where the wheel isn’t, is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot

Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room.

Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is, is in the use of what isn’t. **

In Chinese calligraphy and painting the empty spaces can be as significant as the filled ones. The two cannot be separated and this is an enduring lesson both of Chinese arts and spirituality (in their Taoist and Buddhist influenced versions). For me it’s a key lesson of the contemplative journey in any culture.

*From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

** From Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin)

 

CONTEMPLATION AND ACTION

I’ve been thinking about action and contemplation – and their relationship. I think they belong together. Both modes are engaged. Neither is passive or indifferent.  I am coming to see them as qualities that arise together and remain interdependent, rather like the paired opposites described in the Tao Te Ching:

For being and non-being arise together

Hard and easy complete each other

Long and short shape each other

High and low depend on each other

Note and voice make the music together

In progressive Christian circles, this kind of relationship is demonstrated in organisations such as Richard Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation. Andrew Harvey would be another example.  In my ‘contemplative Druidry’ home group, I’ve noticed that a high proportion of the members are politically and socially engaged (mostly in the kind of causes currently packaged as ‘Green’). And I’ve also noticed that these different commitments support each other, rather than getting in each other’s way. On the one side it’s something about self-care, time for refreshment and renewal , and remembering to pause a little, able to maintain a spacious rather than frantic or tunnel-visioned awareness. On the other side it’s about enacting our interconnectedness and service, our commitment to the life of the world.  Right now it’s nudging me in the direction of activity.

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