My Crib Notes on Taoism

1200px-Yin_yang.svgThere is a being, wonderful, perfect;

It existed before heaven and earth.

How quiet it is!

How spiritual it is!

It stands alone and it does not change.

It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.

All life comes from it.

It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and

Yet it claims no honour, it does not demand to

Be Lord.

I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao,

The Way,

And I rejoice in its power. (Tao Te Ching)

What is Tao?

According to Huston Smith, author of the excellent book, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions,Tao has three meanings.

Tao is the way of ultimate reality. According to Huston Smith, ‘This Tao cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom.’ (Smith, 1998).

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” (Tao Te Ching). The author/s of the Tao Te Ching recur to this theme: the ineffable, the transcendent, the primary mystery, “the mystery of all mysteries (Smith, 1998).

Tao is also immanent: it is the way of the universe, the “norm, the rhythm, the driving owner in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it assumes flesh and informs all things.” (Smith, 1998). It is also benign; infinitely generous, open and flowing.

According to Huston Smith, “Charles Darwin’s colleague, George Romanes, could have been speaking of it [Tao] when he referred to the ‘integrating principle of the whole – the Spirit, as it were, of the universe – instinct without contrivance, which flows with purpose.’”

Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe…” (Smith, 1998).

Three Forms of Taoism

In China, three forms of Taoism have arisen:

  • Philosophical Taoism
  • Religious Taoism (Popular Taoism)
  • Active Taoism (Smith calls these the “Vitalising Taoisms”)

Philosophical Taoism is not organised as a religion, but essentially is “an attitude towards life” (Smith, 1998). The core principle is that humans should live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not wasting it through friction and conflict. The concept of wu wei, literally “inaction,” in Taoism means “pure effectiveness” or “creative quietude” (Smith, 1998). Friction is minimalised. The aim is that we align our daily lives with the Tao, “to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow.”

Creative quietude unites supreme activity with supreme relaxation. The ego yields to the Tao. According to Smith, this is the opposite of Confucianism. “Confucius turned every effort to building a pattern of ideal responses that might be consciously imitated. Taoism’s approach is the opposite – to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behaviour flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action will follow new being, wiser, stronger being.”

Taoists reject competition and self-assertiveness, instead promoting humility and disinterest in worldly ambitions. Taoists extend this to nature; humans should not be aggressive towards each other or nature, seeking attunement with nature rather than dominance.

Taoists also adopted the Chinese yin/yang symbol which describes relativity and balance, in which supposed opposites are just phases in an endless cycle in which each eternally turns into its opposite and vice versa. Life does not follow a linear vector, but “bends back upon itself to come full circle to the realisation that all is one and all is well.” (Smith, 1998). Taoists even see good and evil as relative: “He who feels punctured must once have been a bubble.” (Tao Te Ching).

Life and death as complementary cycles in the Tao.

There is the globe,

The foundation of my bodily existence.

It wears me out with work and duties,

It gives me rest in old age,

It gives me peace in death.

For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life

Will also give me what I need in death. (Tao Te Ching)

Active Taoists aim to increase the amount of Tao that they can access. They talk about ch’i, which literally means breath but refers to the power of the Tao that practitioners experience flowing through them or being blocked. Practitioners aim to further the flow of ch’i.

Active Taoists work with matter, movement and mind. Practices have arisen such as acupuncture, meditation, Chinese medicinal herbs, and t’ai chi chuan. This last united yin yang philosophy, martial art and meditation to draw ch’i from the cosmos and remove internal blocks to the flow of ch’i.

Taoists meditators attempt to empty the mind so that the Tao can enter the self. Physical postures and mental techniques are not dissimilar to those of the Hindu raja yoga. In China, Taoists wanted to focus the ch’i they gathered through meditation and yoga, and transmit it psychically to the community.Meditators aim to cleanse and purify their minds and bodies of emotional disturbances and desires in order to reach the mind’s original purity and stillness. They aim in this way to realise the Tao, the ultimate truth. This would be experienced as a sense of joy: everything falling into place.

Religious Taoists built on China’s folk religious practices and Buddhist influences. The Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist Teachings,” emerged in the second century AD, with Lao Tzu as one of the three originating deities from whom sprung sacred texts which outline rituals for channeling the life force in ways which could be called “magical.”

My Reflections on the Tao

The Tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal Name. (Tao Te Ching)

When I first read these words, they came home to me, they resonated with me.

‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.’ I really like how the Tao Te Ching, right up front, acknowledges the unnameability of spirit. The writer gets to the heart of what it means to be talking about something that is beyond and within, that escapes language because it came before language.

It reminds me of the Huston Smith chapter about the indigenous spiritualities of the First Peoples. Smith talks about how significant it is that in, for example, Aboriginal Australian culture, spirituality was experienced in a non-written way. This intrigued me – how would we see the world if we did not write the words down? Then I reflected upon how different this is to the Christian new testament: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and Christ is the Word made flesh.’

There was something formless and perfect

Before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao. (Tao Te Ching)

But back to the Tao Te Ching, which strips things right back to their inner nature. When you do this with the universe itself, what do you have left? Nothing. Literally, no thing. So how do you talk about it? ‘For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.’

I love this line. It is so direct, and I really like how it has been written in the first person voice, which is really different to say, the Christian bible or the Quran, which are written from a third person narrative voice which gives it an aura of authority, you know, the objective voice of history. In this passage from the Tao Te Ching, the use of first person really brings it home that this is just a regular human being writing these words, doing her best to communicate something which it is impossible to communicate. The basic humour of that is something which I think really colours Taoism, with its crazy riddles and joking monks. There is something earthy about it which really resonates with me, and also something which reminds me of my Chinese ancestry – there is a matter of fact-ness, a down to earthiness, a laughing pragmatism about the Taoist way of relating to the world which I just love.

I think I also see in this use of first person the importance of developing my own personal voice and narrative when it comes to interfaith ministry. It is a profoundly uncomfortable act for me as a female, and an Australian with our deeply culturally ingrained British reserve, to talk about myself. But I am coming around to seeing how useful it will be to find a way to speak in the first person, as the author of the Tao Te Ching did.

 

The Tao gives birth to all beings,

Nourishes them, maintains them,

Cares for them, comforts them, protects them,

Takes them back to itself,

Creating without possessing,

Acting without expecting,

Guiding without interfering.

That is why love of the Tao

Is in the very nature of things.

I love this passage because when I read it, to me it sounded like an excellent set of directions for how to parent – to be like the Tao – and quite possibly, I imagine, how to minister. ‘Create without possessing, act without expecting, guide without interfering.’ That is the best way to parent a child, and I can see myself coming back to this as a guide to how to be an interfaith minister.

References

Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. (1998).

My Crib Notes on Hinduism

270px-Aum_calligraphy_Red.svg-2For my Interfaith course, I have to do homework on the world’s major religions. I thought I might share my crib notes here in case anyone else is curious about these faiths. I can heartily recommend Huston Smith’s book if you want to see where I got all these excellent insights from.

The Hindu Approach to Finding God

The Hindu journey is to realise one’s total being; to tap into infinity deep inside the self.

There are four disciplines, or methods of training, called “yogas,” which can lead to the integration of the human spirit with the God deep inside it.

“How to come to Brahman and remain in touch with Brahmanl how to become identified with Brahman, living out of it; how to become divine while still on Earth…is the quest that has inspired and deified the human spirit in India throughout the ages.” (Zimmer, 1969: 80-81).

A person chooses their preferred yoga based on their personality traits as they relate to spirituality:

  • Primarily reflective: jnana yoga
  • Primarly emotional: bhakti yoga
  • Primarly active: karma yoga
  • Primarly experimental: raja yoga

The first steps of all four yogas are to do with morality: non-injury, honesty, non-steling, self-control, cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, and a desire to reach the goal. The law of karma refers to the moral law of cause and effect from one incarnation to the next, creating a sense of total personal responsibility.

Jnana yoga: The Way to “God” Through Thought

This is the yoga meant for me. It is the path of knowledge: an “intuitive disernment that transforms, turning the knower eventually into that which she knows.” (Smith, 1997). This yoga is for people given to the life of the mind.

The three key stages towards deeply understanding that you are more than your finite self are:

  1. Learning that your essential being is Being by reading and listening to teachers.
  2. Thinking and reflecting on everyday language and metaphors which point towards the infinite Self.
  3. Shifting your self-identification to the abiding Self.

In stage 3, instead of thinking, “I am walking down the street,” the jnani might think, “There goes Jackie walking down the street.”

During and outside of meditation periods, the jnani would constantly remind herself that she is Spirit, witnessing the activities of a finite self. The objective is to split the consciousness of ego and the infinite Self, Atman. This cultivates detachment and forces decreased identification with the “surface self” and increased identification with the deeper, infinite Being. This Being is transpersonal, infinite.

The jnani is satisfied with the idea of “God” as Nirguna Brahman, “God-without-attributes”: utter reality, infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss.

Bhakti yoga: The Way to “God” Through Love 

This is the most popular of the four yogas, designed for people who are best motivated by emotion. The bhakta will not conceive of “God” as one’s deepest Self, which is what the jnani does. The bhakta conceives of “God” as other. The bhakti’s goal is not to identify with God, but to love God.

In bhakti yoga, people utilise images of God, rituals and myths. Huston Smith quotes a common invocation used by Hindu priests:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:

Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;

Thou ar without form, but I worship you in these forms;

Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.

Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations. (Smith, 1998).

The bhakta will engage in a number of useful practices which cultivate this selfless love of God such as:

  • Japam: the practice of repeating God’s name all day long
  • Ringing the changes on love: utilising different relational images of God to cultivate the various modes of love e.g. parental, sibling, friend, lover
  • Chosen ideal: developing a lifelong devotion to an ishta, one of the manifestations of God

The bhakti utilises the Saguna Brahman, “God-with-attributes”: a personal conception of God.

Karma yoga: The Way to “God” Through Work

This yoga is suited to people with an active procilivity. God can be found by throwing yourself into work, which becomes a “vehicle for self-transcendence” (Smith, 1997).

The type of karma yoga you choose to practise will depend on temperament. For those who are reflectively motivated, karma yoga can be practised via jnana (knowledge). For those who are emotionally motivated, karma yoga can be practised by bhakti (devoted service).

For the jnani practising karma yoga, working without thought of the self helps to cut away her egotism until she is no longer separate from God. She works in detachment from her surface self, as the eternal Self observing the action. She does not work for gratification of the ego.

“The knower of Truth, being centres in the Self should think, ‘I do nothing at all.’ While seeing, breathing, speaking, letting go, holding, opening and closing the eyes, he observes only senses moving amongst other sense objects.” (Swami Swarupananda, 1933: 125).

For the bhakti practising karma yoga, work is done for God’s sake rather than for the self. “Each task becomes a sacred ritual.” (Smith, 1998).

Raja yoga: The Way to “God” Through Psychophysical Exercise

This yoga is for those with a scientific mind. The raji will experiment on her own mind by conducting prescribed mental exercises and then observing what happens. The meditator tests the hypothesis that the human self is made up of layers: the physical body, the mind, the sub-conscious, and Being.

The meditator will abstain from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality and greed in order to make it easier to engage in introverted investigation. She will also observe cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the divine.

She will then practise the asanas, which are physical postures of balance and ease somewhere between drowsiness and discomfort, creating a physical state of relaxed attentiveness. The lotus position is the most well-known of these meditative postures.

The meditator will train her breathing to prevent disruptions of concentration. She will also train her single-pointed concentration so that she is not disrupted by external stimuli such as noises, or internal thoughts.

Concentration then deepens into meditation, and the object which she concentrates on becomes merged with her self, making self-concsciousness disappear.

The final state which the meditator may gain is samadhi, which means “together with God,” or “comepltely absorbed in God.” In this state, form itself falls away. The mind continues to “think,” but of no thing. It is “filled with that which is separated from all qualities, neither this nor that, without form, without a name.” (Smith, 1998).

Stages of Life

In Hindu thinking, people’s lives follow four approximate stages:

  1. Student: a period focused on cultivating habits and practices
  2. Householder: In this stage, a person focuses on satisfying human wants: pleasure (through marriage and family), success (through vocation), and duty )through participation in the community)
  3. Retirement: Withdrawal from social obligations to engage in spiritual exploration
  4. Sannyasin: Return to the world as a person who has discovered the difference between the finite and infinite self, often as a mendicant or economically independent person who has no more interest in the body

My Reflections

“God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.” (Sri Ramakrishna, 1903).

I really like the inclusive spirit of Hinduism, which seems to embrace Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, even Christianity as different paths to God. Naturally in a social and cultural context this does not always play out as religious tolerance – witness Gandhi’s assassination, or anti-Moslem riots. But the philosophy itself (as with most world religions, when you get under their cultural surface) is incredibly open-hearted and open-minded.

The ideas of the different yogas for different personality types in Hinduism really makes sense to me. I have always tried to shoehorn myself into a devotional model, as that was all that was ever offered in my Catholic upbringing (I didn’t have any exposure to Christian mystics in suburban Australia!).

Reading about the jnana yoga approach, I felt like I was seeing a place for myself in a religious framework for the first time. As Hindus acknowledge, we all utilise various aspects of all the paths, and I also get a lot from meditation and work (the raja yoga and karma yoga). But I have never felt comfortable “naming” God or praying to a He, or She for that matter.

The chapters in the Bhagavad-Gita which seems to outline the jnana yoga approach for me best are “Religion by the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery” and “The Manifesting of the One and Manifold” (Trans. Arnold, 1993).

“Receive and strive to embrace

The mystery majestical! My Being –

Creating all, sustaining all – still dwells

Outside of all!

 

“See! As the shoreless airs

Move in the measureless space, but are not space,

(And space were space without the moving airs);

So all things are in Me, but not I.”

 

I also like the following passage, because of Arjuna’s reaction, which is a beautiful way of describing how humans cannot stand to behold the Unnameable for long.

“So did Pandu’s Son behold

All this universe enfold

All its huge diversity

Into one vast shape, and be

Visible, and viewed, and blended

In one Body – subtle, splendid,

Nameless – th’ All-comprehending

God Of Gods, the Never-Ending

Deity!

 

But, sore amazed,

Thrilled, o’erfilled, dazzled, and dazed,

Arjuna knelt; and bowed his head,

And clasped his palms; and cried…”

Key Texts

There are a LOT of Hindu texts. The “Vedas” are “revealed texts” which include four main parts:

  • Samhita or Mantra (prayers and devotional hymns)
  • Brahmanas (commentaries and priestly texts)
  • Aranyakas (rituals)
  • Upanishads (esoteric philosophical texts)

The Upanishads are the most influential amongst these, and in modern Hinduism the Bhagavad-Gita is the primary scripture. For a more detailed account of these texts, take a look at Arvind Sharma’s book.

References

Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Edwin Arnold (trans.) The Bhagavad-Gita. (Toronto: Dover Publications, 1993).

Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, 1951. Reprint. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1969).

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Swami Swarupananda, trans., Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita (Mayavati, Himalayas: Adavita Ashrama, 1933).

Swami Abhedananda, The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: The Vedanta Society, 1903).