by Naropa, Contributor, ZenGardner.com
Apocryphal, sometimes humorous, often true, mysterious and subtle- the Taoist texts of ancient China, out of which sprouted the Zen tradition of Japan, are full of timeless wisdom. I have found many of these cryptic, hard-to-translate, hard-to-find and often incomplete or ruined archeological remnants (many span thousands of years old), to be of great use in my own omnidirectual spiritual journey, because they never failure to be relevant- because they pertain to the whole of life. They don’t cease to be practical or useful, and practicality and usefulness is at the heart of Taoism. Many of the more popular texts have now been translated numerous times, with many yearly revisions- so they have become quite accessible.
There is a divergence, indeed a very wide gap, between the scholarly and practitioner side of Taoism, and this is because what these texts essentially are, are multi-layered spiritual instruction manuals- and, to pierce through the veil and see through the stories and riddles, and somewhat ambiguous instructions, elusive directness – direct pointing of the mind of man, and poetic references, not to mention all written in an ancient foreign language which the natives can sometimes barely understand themselves, and one that is nearly impossible to accurately translate in only one way, is no easy task, especially for the Western mind.
However, to the patient and inquisitive explorer, the treasures that may be found through due diligence and persistence, are of priceless value. To actually know what these texts were talking about you really had to study with a teacher, and receive a direct, oral transmission of the teaching. This is how ancient texts such as the I-Ching and the Tao Te Ching were (and still are) traditionally taught, oftentimes in a private, 7-year academic process known as Taoist priesthood.
This is not the only way, but it was one way to ensure that these teachings were preserved intact. Taoism is probably one of the most practical “religions” on the face of the earth. Not even the gnostics or shamanic traditions were able to approach the scientific width and extensive culture that was developed in ancient China. Not to put them down- they all have their place and their own amazing strengths and insights, but if one point can be argued upon it is that they were not as “complete” or resilient of a system. The Taoists always made sure to complete that formative circle and make the return home in order to be able to properly explain, lay-out and codify, to pass down to younger generations what they found so they could do the same- it’s about as no-nonsense as you can get with this kind of stuff.
You may be wondering at this point why Taoism is so little known in the west, where we have an abundance of information on other yogic practices from places like India. The answer is simple- it’s because of the language barrier. When England made itself known to India, the language barrier was dissolved for the most part, so we had no difficulty in importing things like Buddhism and Yoga. Taoism on the other hand, never had such luck- and perhaps that was a good thing.
The texts primarily focus on meditative techniques, but they can be subdivided into several key categories:
1) Master-student interchanges, anecdotes, tales. This was the “expedient” way. Think of your typical Zen tales- these are often nonsensical stories with the purpose of (at least temporarily) “short-circuiting” the pupil’s mind by forcing impossible-to-answer questions and conjuring up in that pupil a novel way of no-thinking, or viewing “the fundamental problem” from a different vantage point. Old Taoist tales used the same kind of non-sequitur utterings and this was a principle way of practicing reductio-ad-absurdum, a form of action through non-action in dialogue form.
2) Dual philosophical/practical texts, in which the principle tenets of Tao are expanded upon and refined, and coded instructions for meditative practice are given- the Tao Te Ching being a perfect example. Each of the chapters of the Tao Te Ching for instance, contain all the others, so it is non-linear. It also contains instructions for Taoist meditation.
3) Purely instructional texts for spiritual and meditative practices. Nei-Dan or Chinese internal alchemy, was practiced with the goal of reaching certain kinds of physical and spiritual states, including immortality. The Taoists had set out very specific instructions for the accomplishment of this, which all focused upon the same genre of set-theories and energetic anatomies- the very same out of which Traditional Chinese Medicine eventually sprouted. The ancient Taoist sages were after all, the modern-day scientists of their time. However, even these kinds of texts were written in somewhat vague poetic and allegorical forms which could be understood in a number of different ways however to the dedicated practitioner, they made increasingly more sense as they kept up with their meditative practice. To the layman, these are often a complete bore to deal with and indeed, not the best starting point.
4) Time-keeping, erroneously termed “divination tools”- such as the canonical text of the I-Ching, arguably the most important manual that came out of ancient China at least over 3,000 years ago. It’s original intent was to track the movement of energy through time in all it’s permutations (in this case, 64 hexagrams, or permutations). It was a kind of written and symbolical microcosm for the entire range of possibility inherent to the outside world. I think many of you are already familiar with the I-Ching, so this should suffice as a brief description. C.G. Jung, in his introduction to Richard Wilhelm’s famous 1950 translation of the I-Ching stated;
“I do not know Chinese and have never been in China. I can assure my reader that it is not altogether easy to find the right access to this monument of Chinese thought, which departs so completely from our ways of thinking. In order to understand what such a book is all about, it is imperative to cast off certain prejudices of the Western mind. it is a curious fact that such a gifted and intelligent people as the Chinese has never developed what we call science. Our science, however, is based upon the principle of causality, and causality is considered to be an axiomatic truth. But a great change in our standpoint is setting in. What Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason failed to do, is being accomplished by modern physics. The axioms of causality are being shaken to their foundations: we know now that what we term natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must necessarily allow for exceptions. We have not sufficiently taken into account as yet that we need the laboratory with its incisive restrictions in order to demonstrate the invariable validity of natural law. If we leave things to nature, we see a very different picture: every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much so that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception.”
Indeed it seems we have based so much of our understanding and our culture on empirical, materialistic science, that we have left out the rest of what’s “out there”. We have opted for the linear and causal mode of thinking, rather than what’s circular, unseen, interpenetrating, and spirals. What we’re discussing here is about as far away from petri dish as you can get. The Taoists always matter-of-factly asserted that Taoism exists in all places- all planets, all galaxies, all times, in all extraterrestrial civilisations- not as a religion, but as a flexible kind of science, a non-material science, that can be translated into any language. It just so happens that on our planet, at our particular stage of evolution, Taoism is represented in texts such as the I-Ching in 64 hexagrams. In other words, Taoism adapts to us and not the other way around- and that is the biggest difference between this and other modern religions, especially the Abrahamic ones in which an image of God is made in the image of man. There are no Gods or Deities per se in Taoism, at least not in early Taoism. They came later as psychological byproducts of a growing age of esoterica and cross-acculturation.
So the reason I am writing about Taoism today is for several reasons; the main being that I find the topic fascinating to no-end and of a depth and scope of practice and knowledge that an entire lifetime could not begin to scratch, but that’s just my trip. The other reasons I am writing is because it is a philosophy that can find new and welcome home in the West and at a dire time such as this, a very useful counterpoint to our linear and competitive, causal, way of thinking. I think living texts such as the I-Ching never got their due, and so hold in them an inherent longing to be known and understood. Indeed in ancient times as much as today, the I-Ching is held to be a living entity with it’s own whims, wishes, desires, and containing a scope of understanding and wisdom it is seeking to depart with for the benefit of our human race- approached in a careful, curious and patient way (indeed like the mind of a child), Taoism can offer one so much useful and relevant information, that can be applied to almost anything you can think of. I debated whether to make this introductory article a practical guide in itself but I figured I would rather let the readers do their own exploring as that is indeed, part and parcel of the process of self-discovery. I will leave it to you, the reader, with a montage of choice readings from a wide variety of Taoist texts of which the relevance will be completely up to you to decide. The cauldron is indeed inexhaustible and the avenues of exploration are open to you in whichever way feels natural.
Those who speak- but do not know that words are not things- do not know.
Those who speak- but know that words are not things- know.
Those who know (that words are not things) can choose either to speak or not speak.
Hence, one strips oneself of passion
In order to see the Secrets of Life.
Hence, one regards life with passion
In order to see its manifestations.
How can one be open to experience if one believes in anything?
A special transmission beyond the scriptures;
No dependence upon words or letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Cosmic Consciousness
The body is the three of perfect wisdom (Bodhi),
The mind is the stand of a bright mirror.
At all times diligently wipe it.
Do not allow it to become dusty.
Fundamentally perfect wisdom (Bodhi) has no tree.
Nor has the bright mirror any stand.
Buddha-nature is forever clean and pure.
Where is there any dust?
The mind is the tree of perfect wisdom.
The body is the stand of a bright mirror
The bright mirror is originally clean and pure.
Where has it been defiled by any dust?
Fixating contemplation is indispensable; it ensure the making fast of enlightenment. Only one must not stay sitting rigidly if worldly thoughts come up, but one must examine where the thought is, where it began, and where it fades out. Nothing is gained by pushing reflection further. One must be content to see where the thought arose, and not seek beyond the point of origin; for to find the heart (consciousness, to get behind consciousness with consciousness), that cannot be done. Together we want to bring the states of the heart to rest, that is true contemplation. What contradicts it is false contemplation. That leads to no goal. When the flight of the thoughts keeps extending further, one should stop and begin contemplating. Let one contemplate and then start fixating again. That is the double method of making fast the enlightenment. It means the circulation of light. The circulation is fixation. The light is contemplation. Fixation without contemplation is circulation without light. Contemplation without fixation is light without circulation! Take note of that!
Within our six-foot body we must strive for the form which existed before the laying down of heaven and earth. If to-day people sit and meditate only one or two hours, looking only at their own egos, and call this reflection, how can anything come of it?
One looks with both eyes at the tip of the nose, sits upright and in a comfortable position, and holds the heart to the centre in the midst of conditions. In Taoism this is called the yellow middle, in Buddhism the centre of the midst of conditions. The two are the same. It does not necessarily mean the middle of the head. It is only a matter of fixing one’s thinking on the point which lies exactly between the two eyes. Then all is well. The light is something extremely mobile. When one fixes the thought on the mid-point between the two eyes, the light streams in of its own accord. It is not necessary to direct the attention especially to the central castle. in these few words the most import thing is contained. ‘The centre in the midst of conditions’ is a very subtle expression. The centre is omnipresent; everything is contained in it; it is connected with the release of the whole process of creation. The condition is the portal. The condition, that is, the fulfillment of this condition, makes the beginning, but it does not bring about the rest with inevitable necessity. The meaning of these two words is very fluid and subtle.
It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties. Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love, It reveals itself fully and without disguise;
A tenth of an inch’s difference,? And heaven and earth are set apart; If you wish to see it before your own eyes,
Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
To set up what you like against what you dislike—This is the disease of the mind:
When the deep meaning of the Way is not understood?.
Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.
Erring in thought is not to be forcibly annihilated. Why should true suchness be sought? Buddhas equally act on the fundamental essence. Delusion and enlightenment are not confined to before and after.
When enlightened, you become a Buddha instantly. When deluded, you sink into the flow for a myriad of eons. If you can accord with true practice but for a moment, you annihilate the defilement of countless wrongs.
Fundamentally there is no origination or extinction, yet we insist on seeking divisions, marking birth and death. As for sin and merit, these too are baseless. When has the subtle body ever increased or decreased?
I have a round clear mirror, which has hitherto always been covered. Today, I polish it so it reflects the universe and myriad images are clearly revealed. The essence of the self enters the essence of the Buddhas. The essence of Buddhahood is everywhere thus.
From on high the cold light shines in the cold springs. One moon appears in a thousands ponds. It’s smallness is smaller than a hair. It’s greatness fills the universe. High and low do not restrict it. It may be square or round. What long or short, deep or shallow, can you say it has? The principle governing the teaching fundamentally has no doctrine. The emptiness that empties emptiness, also, is not empty.
Quiet and clamor, speech and silence, are originally the same. Why bother to talk of a dream in a dream? There is no function in the function that has function. Effort is applied in the effortless effort. It is like the fruit naturally reddening as it ripens. Do not ask how to cultivate the seed.
Good or bad, forget thoughts all at once. Let neither prosperity nor decline concern the mind. In dark and light now concealed, now revealed, float or sink as you may. According to your lot, eat when hungry, drink when thirsty. Spirit- calm, serene, ever tranquil. One may sit or recline, sing or hum. The autumn water in one pond is blue and deep. When the wind blows, do not be startled. Let it be as it is.
No need to try and annihilate objects- enlightenment is an artificial definition. Matter and voidness, light and dark, are basically equal. Stop dividing reality and falsehood into two. When you understand, it is called the Pure Land. There is no more saintliness, no more evil. Who said paradise is the Western Heaven? When you understand, Amitabha appears in the world. Others, self, beings, lives, how can we divide that and this- high and low?
Reality spontaneously shines throughout, with no “I” or “they”. One need not seek it, thought after thought. Has seeing what is right ever been seeing what is right? Hearing what is wrong is not necessarily hearing what is wrong. Various functions have never controlled each other in life or death, who can hinder you?
If you cultivate practices and charity while dwelling on appearances, the resulting rewards will be limited to celestial and human spheres. It is like shooting an arrow into the sky; it will fall, simply because the force has come to an end. How can that compare to unfabricated reality? Returning to the original, reverting to simplicity, going back to the pristine purity. Objects forgotten, feelings ended, going along with the natural reality. Thereby, you realize acceptance of the truth of non-origination.
Once you’ve caught the fish or the rabbit, you naturally forget the net or the trap. The raft that crosses to the river, the ladder to the heights, once you’ve reached the goal- they are abandoned. Before you are enlightened, you need explanations. After enlightenment, verbalizations become wrong. Even though these lines belong to non-contrivements, they too, are to be shed. After enlightenment, do not seek quiescence. Guide the deluded according to conditions. When views of annihilation and eternity are presented, they are expedients to guide back to reality.
Five eyes, three bodies, four knowledges, six perfections, and a myriad of practices, cultivated equally. One sphere of round light, a fine jewel helps others and also saves oneself. I see people these days expounding essence who just boast of quickness in repartee, but when they meet actual situations, they are all the more deluded. How are they any different from the ignorant? What is preached, should be put into practice. Only then is it called speech and action without defect. If you can use this sort of wisdom to cut the jewel, this is called the “true knowledge of the enlightened”.
If you want to understand the sublime path of birthlessness, it is all a matter of seeing the true mind for your self. The true body has no form, and no cause, either. The pure spiritual body is just thus. This path is not non-being, and not not-being. Not in-between, not to be sought there, either. When both extremes are dismissed, abandon the middle. Once you see it, this is called “supreme”.
One day Lung-shu was chatting with his friend who claimed he was especially adept at curing strange illnesses. Lung-shu found this hard to believe, so he challenged his friend, “I have a strange illness. If you can cure me, then I’ll agree that you’re the best doctor around.”
His friend did not seem flustered. “Tell me about your illness,” he said.
“Now listen carefully,” said Lung-shu. “This is my illness. When I am praised by others, I do not feel pride. When others speak badly about me, I do not feel disgraced. When I gain something, I am not happy. When I lose, I am not sad. Life and death, riches and poverty, fortune and misfortune are the same to me. As a matter of fact, I can see people as pigs and see myself as other people. When I’m at home, I feel I am wandering around. When I’m in my country, I feel I am among foreigners. Since I got this strange illness, I have lost all interest in becoming rich and famous. I don’t care about titles, land and renown. I don’t think much about rules and regulations. The rise and fall of government and politicians are not my concern, and I am not affected by the emotions of people around me. Because of my illness I can no long serve my country, manage my business, or become the head of my family. How are you able to help me?”
The doctor told Lung-shu to stand with his back to the sun. Facing the light, he examined Lung-shu from a distance and looked him up and down carefully. Presently he said, “Ah, I can see that your heart is empty and that you are close to being a sage. Six out of seven cavities in your heart are completely open. However, one of them is still shut. This blockage is probably the cause of your illness. If indeed your illness is seeing wisdom as a strange disease, then my skills are inadequate to cure you.”
Lung-shu had gotten rid of all his attachments except one. He still retained a conception of what it means to be enlightened. Comparing enlightenment to a strange illness, Lung-shu made it mysterious, extraordinary, and unnatural.
Enlightenment is a very normal experience, attainable by everyone. Therefore, there is nothing mysterious or secretive about it. There is nothing unnatural about it, either, because it follows the natural way of things.”