World's Religions: Taoism

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COURSE NOTES ON TAOISM by Godzinkski

Taoism (pronounced like “Dowism”) may be the most difficult spiritual tradition within the “Far East” for Westerners to grasp—especially in relation to understanding and cultivating the ideal ego and being. In order to better understand the basic movement of Taoism, which influenced Confucianism and Buddhism to some extent, we need to turn to a near-mythical figure within the Taoist tradition. The figure that I am referring to is the legendary Lao Tzu (circa 604 BCE). Unfortunately, very little historical information exists regarding the life and death of Lao Tzu. Some stories surrounding Lao Tzu’s entry into the world are almost surreal. For instance, one mythical account claims that Lao Tzu was carried in his mother’s womb for 80 years. Another story maintains that Lao Tzu was conceived by a shooting star. Yet another account holds that he was born a sage with long white hair. Some sources suggest that the great Chinese philosopher Confucius met with him in order to gain additional wisdom. Setting aside the fantastic creation myths, other accounts generally purport that Lao Tzu was discontent with the societal norms and values of his time—insofar as they were not concerned with upholding “natural goodness.” (See page 124 in The Illustrated World’s Religions. 1 ) In view of his disillusionment with society’s lack of interest and desire to impart change, the general narrative says that Lao Tzu headed toward the west (what would be considered modern day Tibet) to find a life of solitude. That same narrative says that while Lao Tzu stopped at one of the mountain passes, a border sentry pleaded with him to document his reflections on the Tao (The term “Tao” can be translated as the right “way” or “path.”) before he left the country and he obliged. After three days, it is said that Lao Tzu produced a concise and enigmatic work titled Tao Te Ching2 (The Way and Its Power) that addressed the nature of the Tao.3 After leaving the border, he was never heard from again. Even though some Taoists and scholars may dispute the authenticity of the story noted above and question whether or not the Tao Te Ching actually was written by the hand of one person is inconsequential. For them, the meaning contained within the Tao Te Ching is what matters most. Therefore, let us now turn to Huston Smith’s deconstruction of Taoism’s essential movement. Three Senses of the Tao On page 126 in The Illustrated World’s Religions Smith discusses the three different senses of the Tao: 1) the Tao as a transcendent reality, 2) the Tao as being immanent, and 3) the Tao as the way of human life. Let us examine each sense in some depth. 1 Smith, Huston, The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). All additional references to The Illustrated World’s Religions within correspond to this edition. 2 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963). 3 Some of Lao Tzu’s favorite symbols for the Tao that are employed within the Tao Te Ching are water, the valley, the female, and the infant. 2 NOTES ON TAOISM – GODZINSKI (COPYRIGHTED) In terms of the first sense, the Tao is the ultimate reality that undergirds and “gives birth” to all things visible and invisible, yet it is not a being per se. One could also postulate that this sense of the Tao is atemporal and ahistorical. From this perspective, the Tao existed even before the creation of the universe and more importantly is responsible for its creation. This notion is affirmed in Chapter 25 of Tao Te Ching, where Lao Tzu writes, “There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, Which existed before heaven and earth. Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao.”4 As both an idea and ideal, the transcendent Tao is eternal. This aspect of the Tao is so complex and incalculable that it is not possible, in principle, to gain a bird’s eye perspective on it. In fact, the opening lines (Chapter 1) of the Tao Te Ching reflect this same conceptual limitation by stating, “The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The Named is the mother of all things.”5 This means that once a person thinks she has figured out exactly what the Tao is, she is no longer thinking of the Tao. Chapter 32 of the Tao Te Ching expresses this very point, where Lao Tzu claims, “Though its simplicity seems insignificant, none in the world can master it.”6 To put it another way, there is an intrinsically vague and ineffable quality to the Tao itself. In an epistemological register, we need to be attentive to the scope and limits of what can be known about the Tao in an absolute way. The second meaning that is associated with the Tao, its immanent sense, points in the direction of the Tao being part of the fabric of the universe. The laws of nature reflect this notion and it follows that the Tao exists in all things—living and non-living. Chapter 34 of the Tao Te Ching identifies this reality, where Lao Tzu writes, “The Great Tao flows everywhere. It may go left or right. All things depend on it for life, and it does not turn away from them.”7 Another section of the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 14, speaks of the immanent sense of the Tao as that which serves as the “bond” of all things visible and invisible.8 Lastly, the Tao as the way of human life represents a prescriptive set of norms or ideals. 9 Although there are ethical implications attached to this sense of the Tao, it is not limited to the ethical dimension—to the extent that this sense of the Tao is much more encompassing and pertains to one’s entire being. This means that not only do we need to be mindful of the Tao, but things function best when our actions conform to the Tao and our egos yield to it. 4 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 144. 5 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 97. 6 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 157. 7 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 160. 8 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 124. 9 See Chapters 21, 51, 54, and 67 in The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching for a more complete account of virtue. 3 NOTES ON TAOISM – GODZINSKI (COPYRIGHTED) Three “Schools” of Taoism Paradoxically, there are three different approaches or “schools” to understanding this sense of the Tao. On pages 126 through 134 in The Illustrated World’s Religions text, Huston Smith defines the three different approaches or schools as: 1) the philosophical, 2) religious or popular, and 3) “vitalizing” programs. Let us now examine each school in a little depth, in order to get a clearer idea of how each responds to the Tao as the way of human life—as well as how each deals with te, or the power of the Tao, as it flows through our being. The philosophical approach generally perceives a being’s te as finite. As such, philosophical Taoism strives to reserve one’s te. This primarily is accomplished through wu wei. Within The Illustrated World’s Religions text, Huston Smith mentions that wu wei literally means inaction, but the more meaningful translation is best understood along the lines of “pure effectiveness” or “creative quietude.”10 In all cases, it is important to understand that wu wei is not a form of inactivity or a matter of doing nothing. To put it another way, it is a very subtle activity that almost looks actionless. Although wu wei may appear deceptively simple on the surface, it takes extraordinary skill to accomplish it. Lao Tzu stresses the importance of wu wei in Chapter 43, where he declares, “The Softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world. Nonbeing penetrates that in which there is no space. Through this I know the advantage of taking no action. Few in the world can understand the teaching without words and the advantage of taking no action.”11 If Lao Tzu’s insight is correct, then some of the hardest natural substances on Earth, like granite, sandstone, limestone, and gneiss, can be cut and manipulated by some of the softest substances on Earth, like water and wind. Viewed against the backdrop of geological processes and “deep time,” rivers are able to cut through and form impressive canyons and gorges. Within a more contemporary and pragmatic register, stone fabricators will appeal to a similar type of insight by using high-pressure water jets to cut through marble, quartzite, and granite countertops. Wu wei, as an intentional act, tries to keep friction to a minimum by using the Tao itself. When wu wei is successful friction is kept to a minimum and one’s te is best maintained. If this concept is still seems mysterious, then I will share one personal example that relates to keeping “friction” to a minimum by using wu wei. When I lived in Northern California it was not unusual for me to surf five to six days a week, year round. During one winter day, a friend talked me into surfing an area south of the Golden Gate Bridge that I had never surfed. From what I knew of this area, the surf could be very powerful and treacherous. The rip currents were well-known, so much so, that signs were posted warning beachgoers of the high-risk. Anticipating the thrill of surfing 25+ foot waves negated any of those concerns. After a brutal paddle out through the “white 10 The Illustrated World’s Religions, p. 129. 11 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 178. 4 NOTES ON TAOISM – GODZINSKI (COPYRIGHTED) water,” 12 we soon realized that the incoming sets were unpredictable and asymmetrical. While trying to catch my first ride of the morning, the wave closed out on me and I soon found myself in the turbulent whitewater. As soon as I surfaced, I took a quick breath and dove down as far as I could towards the bottom, because another 25 foot wave was going to break directly on me. Suffice it to say that I felt like I was a rag doll in a commercial washing machine. I had absolutely no idea where I was in relation to the bottom or surface. Despite not knowing my bearings and being violently tossed around under the water, I knew that my best course of action was to remain calm and not fight the whitewater and incoming waves—even though I was mindful of the real possibility that I could be held under for more than two minutes. A machismo approach to trying to make the white water and surf capitulate to my will would have had radically different consequences—to the extent that fighting and struggling to reach the surface at any and all costs would have done nothing more than deplete my oxygen supply more quickly. Ironically, it is instinctual and counter-intuitive to not want to immediately fight and reach the surface in order to gain the next breath. However, that instinct and natural drive needed to be countered in this situation, by taking an action that seemed actionless. Thus, the best course of action was to wait for a lull in the breaking sets and then attempt to surface. Luckily that lull came and I was able to recover and escape. Now I cannot say that I practiced Taoism at that time, although this example is analogous to the idea that it is possible to use the Tao to one’s own advantage by engaging in wu wei. So the ultimate aim within philosophical Taoism is to align one’s entire life with the Tao. In contrast to philosophical Taoism which views te as being finite, vitalizing programs strive to increase one’s te. Vitalizing programs endeavor to accomplish this end through the cultivation of ch’i (breath or vital energy).13 In effect, vitality programs believe that it is possible to increase one’s ch’i through nutritional and herbal supplements. Traditional Chinese Medicine is highly conducive to this approach, yet there are other means to increasing one’s ch’i as well. For instance, vitalizing programs also believe that it is possible to increase one’s ch’i through dance, martial arts, calisthenics (e.g., Tai Chi), acupuncture, and meditation.14 In addition to increasing one’s own ch’i, some vitality programs argue that it is even conceivable that one’s accumulated ch’i may be transmitted to others. The third and last approach to understanding the way of human life is through religious Taoism. This form of Taoism and the Taoist church emerged in the 2nd century of the common era. Unlike philosophical Taoism and vitalizing programs, this is the only school of Taoism that is formally organized. On pages 132 and 133 in The Illustrated World’s Religions text, Huston Smith acknowledges that this variety of Taoism is associated with ritual and “magic.” In order to better explain what he meant by magic, Huston Smith discusses Peter’s healing of Aeneas in Acts as possibly qualifying for this 12 This is the area of the surf zone where the waves break. 13 The Illustrated World’s Religions, p. 130. 14 Huston Smith mentions that meditation within the Taoist tradition may share some similarities with Raja Yoga within the Hindu tradition. See page 131 in The Illustrated World’s Religions for more information. 5 NOTES ON TAOISM – GODZINSKI (COPYRIGHTED) type of magic.15 In a similar way, Larry Darrell’s healing of Gray Maturin in The Razor’s Edge16 may also be akin to the sense of magic that is operative within the Taoist church. In any case, it is important to note that religious Taoism seeks to use ritual and magic only in positive and humane ways. At this juncture, it may seem to be the case that all three Taoist approaches or schools are unique and operate independently of one another. However, Huston Smith views that interpretation as being problematic—insofar as there is not a hard and fast line that can be drawn between those schools. Invariably and in practice, the different schools have a tendency to occasionally blur those lines by participating in some of the traditions and techniques of the other schools. Instead, Huston Smith recommends that all three schools be perceived as different currents occupying the same river.17 On a parenthetical note, it is interesting to point out that Lao Tzu explicitly acknowledges (in Chapter 32) that “Tao in the world may be compared to rivers and streams running into the sea.”18 I am not certain if Huston Smith’s river analogy regarding the three different schools is a merely coincidental in view of Chapter 32—especially as Smith was well-versed with the Tao Te Ching. Apart from this possibility, try to be mindful of this connection when watching Andy Goldsworthy’s film, Rivers and Tides: Working with Time. 19 The symbolism contained within that documentary will be difficult to miss. Other Taoist Values Aside from the various ways in which the different Taoist schools respond to the Tao as the way of human life, there are other values that are embraced by Taoists. Some of those values may be very difficult for the Westerners and capitalists to fathom— especially since they generally shun self-assertiveness, pridefulness, and competition. Consider the following lines from Chapters 24 and 68, “He Who stands on tiptoe is not steady. He who strides forward does not go. He who shows himself is not luminous. He who justifies himself is not prominent. He who boasts of himself is not given credit. He who brags does not endure for long. From the point of view of Tao, these are like remnants of food and tumors of action, Which all creatures detest. Therefore those who possess Tao turn away from them.”20 and “A SKILLFUL leader of troops is not oppressive with his military strength. A skillful fighter does not become angry. A skillful conqueror does not compete 15 The Illustrated World’s Religions, p. 133. 16 The Razor’s Edge, DVD, (1984), ASIN#B000069HYF, Sony Pictures, dir. John Byrum. 17 The Illustrated World’s Religions, p. 134. 18 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 157. 19 Andy Goldsworthy Rivers and Tides: Working with Time, DVD, (2001), ASIN#B0002JL9N6, Mediapolis, dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer. 20 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 143. 6 NOTES ON TAOISM – GODZINSKI (COPYRIGHTED) with people. One who is skillful in using men puts himself below them. This is called the virtue of non-competing….”21 Within the West, children are taught at a very early age that in order to be successful, one must stand out from the crowd. To put it another way, child are taught to excel by being the best that they can possibly be—academically, intellectually, athletically, and so on. It is praiseworthy and noteworthy in Western culture to set and break records—to earn awards, scholarships, medals, and the like. Running contrary to these Western values, Taoists embrace humility, non-competiveness, and above all, respect for the Tao. An old Taoist adage reminds one that the tallest tree in the forest will be the first one cut down.22 In a related sense, Taoists value spontaneity and the natural world. This means that there are ecological implications that are intertwined with the Tao. Within this context we can appeal to the general rule of thumb that “nature knows best.” Moreover, Taoists will acknowledge that inherent value of the natural world. If this insight is correct, then nature should not be used merely as a means to an end. To place this idea within an environmental register, humans should be attentive to and respectful of the beauty of the natural world and all it provides. From this vantage point, humans should refrain from treating the natural world as a mere resource that can be manipulated, exploited, and conquered. This same Taoist orientation would privilege the use of natural materials for construction, in contradistinction to “engineered” or non-natural materials.23 Likewise, homes should be relatively modest and blend into the natural landscape. It would follow that “McMansions” and dwellings that are in sharp contrast (e.g., colors, textures, lines, etc.,) to the natural landscape are not attuned with the Tao. Another Taoist theme that has influenced other spiritual traditions is the unity of opposites. The yin-yang symbol that is shown in our main course text, exemplifies this unity.24 A generic representation of the yon-yang symbol can be found below. 21 The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te Ching, p. 221. 22 Smith, Huston, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), p 211. 23 When watching the film-clip from Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides, try to be attentive to Goldsworthy’s preference for natural objects and materials while constructing his art works. Also, there are numerous Taoist themes that are operative within Rivers and Tides as well. 24 The Illustrated World’s Religions, p. 141. 7 NOTES ON TAOISM – GODZINSKI (COPYRIGHTED) Yin, which is associated with the female and expressed by the dark shades within that picture, complements Yang, which is associated with the male and expressed by the light shades within that same symbol. What is more is that neither reality exists in isolation from the other. This notion is further advanced by the fact that a small dark circle is encapsulated within the larger light, teardrop section, while a small light circle exists within the confines of the larger darker, teardrop section of the same symbol. In addition, there is a type of gestalt that is in play—to the extent that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The unity of opposites in this respect emphasizes that no particular section of the symbol is privileged over and against any other section. Accordingly, one is in harmony with the Tao when one recognizes and values these structures and their interrelations. Historically, Western perceptions generally have ignored the wisdom of Eastern traditions and their attentiveness to the unity of opposites in favor of a structure of binary oppositions. The latter structure prefers to understand things in terms of their differences and in isolation from one another. For instance, the following word-pairs are examples of this binary way of thinking and perceiving: up/down, right/left, north/south, hot/cold, male/female, good/bad, heaven/earth, mind/body, nature/nurture, reason/faith, republican/democrat, and so forth. This approach may make things easier to manage and understand at some level when one is given an either-or choice, but some Western paradigms (e.g., metaphysical, social, philosophical, political, etc.,) have had a proclivity to privilege one particular binary at the expense of the other. The Taoist understanding of the unity of opposites looks beyond those partial and binary distinctions towards a greater whole that also considers the interrelationships between its constituents. The juxtaposition of the values and attitudes noted above may be the main reason why Taoism is so difficult for Westerners to fully grasp. At any rate, try to look for some of the aforementioned Taoist themes within the clip from Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides.

Transcript ON Film Clip:

Andy Goldsworthy's: Rivers and Tides (clip with subtitles)

From   on October 9th, 2018  

RW. Art for me is a form of nourishment. I I need I need to learn and need it. I want to understand that state and natural energy that I have in me that I also feel in the arms and in the land. And into the life that the desert running through the flowing through the landscape. Has her intended both in the the does here in the garden. Growth. Change and then deal flow or in nature. To begin phones is in my work in the sea in the river both water. And you would think that time would be more compatible with the tide time and tide Mrs Daly up and down but somehow I think there's a lot to be learned about time by the river. There are always. These obsessively falls that you cannot get rid of. And I don't like. That sensation of traveling. I feel discontented. Up rooted. Then takes me time to reestablish the roots again and when I arrive at a new place they have to begin work almost immediately there's no period of research or resting I go straight to work. In. The tide is a quite extraordinary to have that liquid movement effect because the folds a little cold this relationship to stone new fluidity. But I am from a stranger. In the strangest soul I am so out of touch with it. I've had shook hands with the place. And begun. To. Know what's going on while they feel warm but there's a lot. Right through me. You know. In the dark to keep you warm. But Miss timed it today I got up early very not far. And I can see anything. Moving without but. The cast a shadow down here. And once you lose each of these guys. And I have to work with my bare hands because that meant my gloves stick and I don't have the sensitivity. To do it with with. With gloves. These feel of. It they've always like to touch the liver shake someone's hand with the glove on. It is hard hard going and it is cold sometimes on the hands and I do get up very early and all acid is ultimately going into trying to make something that it is a is effortless. And. I wish I had reached this point about an hour ago before the sun had risen what it what is extraordinary that I didn't expect but I wouldn't I don't have dreamt of happening is that the sound coming from that shines completely on both sides of the rock so all that I suppose is is illuminated. Again that Claire and I never had. Any idea that that would happen so the potential the Pentagon chill here is untasted. No it is it is water. The river in the sea made salad. And it's so many work that I've made that the thing the very thing that brings the word to life is the thing the world calls it that. My first knew of the beach was a river and a pool that was being turned and by the river. I'm trying to touch and understand the motion the flow and need and then the meeting of the rhythm with the sea in the days to two to Waters me. Yeah. You. Know. When I was a boy we used to stand on those rocks and dive in the water it was a little deeper and then one thing must have been. You have a name for this is this the this is a salmon We'll get you caught salmon from yard wall many many slam and. They were touching each other and they were so thick. That I made such a strong connection you know I have a lot of salmon holes because I like that I like that feeling of the fish eat the fish and then here know that that it has a sense of a world who'll you know. And I think decking what I want to do you know I've I've read that. Into this piece. So once going to have been one do you expect it's going to happen when then tied in with as you're going to go to Western and crowd the way it'll do middle of the day and then move into the. For the poor you know one thing that absolutely. Like it's been taken off into another plane taking off into another world or another word. Feel. Like. Destruction. Moment is really part of the cycle of. Fear. That's a way of understanding. Seeing something you never saw before and it was always there with your blood and. There are more. Strong. Beautiful and a piece of work. Happens. That is. There now those. The moments that I just live for. While it's quarter to eight. And I think the tides doing at. Around three. And. Well you know there's not a lot of time and I think you should stop the meeting and kind of around things to do something useful. That is felt nothing not so bad. Having to walk quite a distance to get it. All if I'm losing losing time. And. So that makes for an interesting walk. Away like that and seeing. Them as a risk you know maybe only this half way up and the tides here and you know it's like a market to that time that's coming up behind me. And began working on the beach where I began. Using great teacher. Time. In the relentlessness of it there's no getting away from the fact that C. is going to be here. I was a college at Lancaster and all the students who are in their cubicles as they are in the cramped space every day I take us a train to two more commercial staying and you get off the train and you see this Biggs expands the space in such stark contrast to the go home one day I went off and worked on the geek. What struck me was that. Sense of. Energy when you was outside of the art college it was very secured a nail college since you made something outside because you saw most breathlessness and and uncertainty. Total control can can be the death of a work. In. The Stone speaking. And never had one do this before and I think you possibly see the sand. There's. This settling in. For the weakness of the stone. Or the combination of the two. But I don't think this is going to I think I'll make this the widest point and just try to get some weight back in the middle of the start securing it. This is my way. Too many unknowns. And I think the chances of some him. With. A very heavy stone to bring me a very heavy stone and can I lump a square is one. He gets into a. Good guess is gently. To fall. In love. With. A man and. I think it would be better to wait. For the moment when something collapses it is you intensely disappointing. And this is the fourth time it's fallen and each time. I got to know the stone a little bit more I got higher each time so it grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone and that is really what one of the things that my art is trying to do strength to understand the stone. I obviously don't understand it well enough. Yet. People make small piles of stone to mount pathways in the hills mountains and in Scotland and I think all over the world. So all the columns are related in some way and they become markers to my journey. There's who places that I feel the tension towards. Room. And then it has a quality of this god in the way that it's timeless and feels as if it is protecting me something. To prove. I like the connection with the farmhouse with the seed very full of admirable. And. A name to look at Stone and find growth as expressed in a seed within a stone is a very powerful …