contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Ursula Le Guin

LEARNING FROM THE WATERCOURSE WAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

URSULA LE GUIN: HYMN TO TIME

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Quoted by Maria Popova in https://www.brainpickings.org/newsletter/

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)

HEADLESS TAO

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

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

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

 

25: BEFORE THE FIRST BEGINNING

Before the first beginning

An emptiness is here

Alone forever and at peace

This side of what appears,

Eternally unchanging

And lacking any limit

The void of all potential

The present ultimate.

It enters all appearance

And then returns to source

It’s ever at your center

Your only true recourse

For here begin the heavens

The earth and humankind

Following this greatest way

You cannot be confined.

 

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

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

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

 

42: DAO ENFOLDS A ONENESS

Dao enfolds a oneness

Holds yin and yang as two

Within a single presence

As two sides of the view

With yin upon my shoulders

And yang in my embrace

I live the presence of the Dao

Where all is in its place.

When the two appear as one

It’s wholeness that I see

And balance has to follow

As well as harmony.

 

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

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

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

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)

 

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