contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Taoism

HOODED HERMIT

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)

 (5) http://www.headless.org

IMAGINING MYSTERY

‘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

it is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging.

“all-pervading,

ever moving.

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.

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

IMG_20191011_101101_kindlephoto-8745263

I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

THE TAO OF URSULA K LE GUIN

“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)

THE TEMPLE SPACE

“In this Temple Space (Aeon) you become all things,

and you see yourself no more;

and in that All-Other you become all things

and never cease to be yourself.

“Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers and sisters. They are inseparable.

“This is why goodness in not always good, violence not always violent, life not always enlivening, death not always deadly …

“All that is composite will decompose

and return to its Origin;

but those who are awake to the Reality

without beginning or end, will know the uncreated, the eternal.

“The words we give to earthly realities engender illusion; they turn the heart away from the Real to the unreal. The one who hears the word God does not perceive the Real, but an illusion or an image of the Real.

“It is impossible to see the everlasting Reality and not become like it.

The Truth is not realised like truth in the world:

those who see the sun do not become the sun;

those who see the sky, the earth or anything that exists, do not become what they see.

“But when you see something in this other space, you become it.

If you know the Breath, you are the Breath.

If you know the Christ, you become the Christ.

If you see the Father, you become the Father”.

Jean-Yves LeLoup The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, And the Gnosis of Sacred Union Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004 (Translation from the Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup; foreword by Jacob Needleman. English translation by John Rowe. Original French edition published 2003.)

Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip is a Nag Hammadi text, and a central one for a nondual current within Christian Gnosticism. In places the text seems almost Taoist (the fluid inter-relatedness of polarities within a greater unity, the suspicion of words and naming). For me it also resonates with the practice of Seeing in the tradition of Douglas Harding (see http://www.headless.org) It is one of my ‘special books’(see https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/

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’.)

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS MEMORY

“A man called Hua-tzu suddenly lost his memory in middle age. If you gave him something in the morning, he would forget about it by evening. If you asked him about something in the evening, he would forget it the next day. In the street he would forget to walk. At home he would forget to sit. Today he would forget what happened yesterday, and tomorrow he would not remember what happened the day before.

“Concerned about his loss of memory, his family first invited a fortune-teller and then a sorcerer to see if they could help Hua-tzu restore his memory. When neither could help, a doctor was called, but the healer shook his head and said there was nothing he could do either.

“Finally, Hua-tzu thought about a philosopher who could probably help him. So desperate was Hua-tzu’s wife in finding him a cure that she sold half their possessions and took her husband to the philosopher to ask for help.

“The family traveled to the philosopher’s home and he begged the wise man to cure Hua-tzu. The philosopher told the family, ‘this kind of illness cannot be cured by omens, magic or herbs. I’ll have to use special methods that are designed to work on his mind’.

“…..

“For seven days the philosopher was secluded with Hua-tzu. No one knew what he did or how he did it, but when Hua-tzu’s family arrived to take him home, they found him completely cured.

“After Hua-tzu recovered his memory, he became irritable and angry. He chased out his wife, beat up his sons and threatened the philosopher with a spear. When the police arrested him for disrupting the peace and questioned his motives, Hua-tzu said, ‘when I lost my memory, I was carefree and happy. I slept peacefully and had no worries when I woke up. I didn’t have anything on my mind, and I was a free man. Now that I’ve got my memory back I am miserable. I look back on the fortunes and misfortunes, the gains and losses, the joys and sorrows in my life, and I am overwhelmed. I woke up from a good dream into a nightmare. I will never be able to go back to the happy times when my memory was lost’.”

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”.

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

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