Facing the Blank Page–The Unfolding of Tao

Here’s another interesting set of thoughts from my Morning Pages. It speaks to creativity, wu wei, and insight around our interdependent arising with everything.


Eating brunch–well, soon to be. It’s been a couple days, journal. I hope that this day is beautiful for all sentient beings out there and that those going through the wakes of storms and disasters suffer not at the misfortunes of the world’s changes.

Anyway, I don’t know what to write about again. That’s the first time I’ve said that in a while. Isn’t that wonderful: the thrill and anxiety of the blank page? What will come out? Who knows! As long as one resides in this appreciative, open view, it’s truly a joy to face the blank page. Then it becomes an act of faith in the process, a creative lightning bolt of positivity, and an easy flow along with the unfolding of what is in this moment. That’s right (write? ūüôā )–it’s an action of wu wei. Mastery is only important insofar as to have the skill to flow along without resistance.

So the question is not: what do “I” create (i.e. what do “I” as masterful agent do?)? Rather, it is a letting be of the creative process.

My thoughts and easy smile seem at odds with the liveliness of the little cafe right now, but that just invites me to smile wider. How many creative moments will unfold today as I go through the ebb and flow of deeds and feelings? How many people’s lives will I come into contact with, even just in passing as two apparent egos passing in the night? Such moments of pause are truly a wonder–if thoughts about consumption, desires, aversions, etc. don’t pull you away from the thought experiment.

Stop. Contemplate: how many myriad lives are in this room with me right now? Don’t stop at the obvious–you and other people. There are bacteria, insects, dust mites! Billions of little specks of life pop in and out of existence around and¬†inside¬†of you all the time. They come and go–emptiness manifested and reformed to another manifestation. This is¬†Tao–the 10,000 things and the mother of the 10,000 things. On a larger level, there are 100s, 1,000s, 1,000,000s of people in your city, state, country, and 1,000,000,000s around the world. Then, there are countless planets, stars, galaxies. Don’t worry about your little passing desires. Stop and see your unfolding in this miracle, and hold this insight in your engagement with all of the unfolding. One mind–no separation.

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“It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call¬†your own should have sprung forth into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically¬†one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in¬†this sense–that¬†you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it, as in Spinoza’s pantheism. For we should have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are¬†you? What, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you–and all other conscious beings as such–are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but it is in a certain sense the¬†whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in a single glance. ”

The universe implies the organism, and each single organism implies the universe–only the “single glance” of our spotlight, narrowed attention, which has been taught to confuse its glimpses with separate “things” must somehow be opened to the full vision, which Schr√∂dinger goes on to suggest:

“Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not¬†once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you thousands of times over. For eternally and always there is only¬†now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

–From Alan Watts’¬†The Book¬†pp. 98-99;¬†Quoted sections herein originally from: Erwin Schr√∂dinger’s¬†My View of the World pp. 21-22.

May this help you see beyond you as an island, an ego amidst all–controlling creativity as a forceful act of “I”, “me”, and “mine”.

Gassho!

Neither This Nor That

Me, myself, and mine
Are not the heart of the divine
“My” Truth? Do you comprehend
What this phrase would intend?
Between extremes–meaninglessness
Or metaphysical seriousness
We swing on conceptual dichotomy
Really invokes experiential lobotomy
Either/or, black or white?
Can All be measured in wrong or right?
Is value so readily inherent?
Is Truth just personally apparent?
Must we choose eternalism or nihilism?
Absolutism and relativism–a schism
De-cide–roots meaning to cut apart
Conceptual delimiting of ideological art
The Way walks through the abyss
The dividing line between–just this
Neither here nor there, this nor that
Wisdom lies not in the distinction I shat
Presence/Oblivion: two sides, same coin
These are not separate–nothing to join

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After a storm at sea the sailor heads for home and quiet harbor.
Tossed by indecision
we must return our unsettled mind to the center.
Tao is within us all.
With many voices it has but one beautiful song;
many aspects but only one essence.
Though we are not bound, we are always connected.

Buddhahood is meditation;
with constant attentiveness our mind travels far:
into the highest hills and all over the world.
Elusive, delicate–we see the cosmos is empty
as well as full.
Nothing beyond, Nothing in hand.
Beauty, spirit, Tao–all one.

–¬ß1 in “Everyday Practice” from The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao by Loy Ching-Yuen

Without words, we understand no-mind;
without shape, we understand true nature.
With relaxed mind, we grasp the meaning of Tao;
with the boundless Way, we understand truth.

–¬ß3 in “Everyday Practice” from The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao by Loy Ching-Yuen

May this help you see beyond dualism and the relativistic pat on the back that can come with your own Stories–that is “My Truth”.

Gassho!

The River of Life–on Existence and “Separation”

Here’s another set of Morning Pages philosophical thoughts. Enjoy!


Floating through–a bubble on the surface of a river. The fragility of it and the shining beauty–yet not separate from muck and refuse also floating by in the water. Separate? Does such a word make any deep sense? Of course the bubble is distinct from the banks of the river, but where does the bubble end and “the river” begin? Also, could one truly be without the other? You may say that the river could, but it would be a different river, and would either be without the banks? What is separation?

This image is a metaphor for life, and the last point stands to remind us that “my” life as separate, as independent, is equally implausible. The universe would not be the same without me in it, but we usually stop there and make this into some sort of grand creed of the ego–“My existence is of universal importance!!!” Thus do we beat our chests at the confusion and existential anguish of the questions: “Why am I here? What is the point of it all?” Thus do we cover over our fear of death and nonexistence, trying to overlook how that bubble could so easily pop and that we cannot begin to understand or conceive of what it would be like to dissolve from bubble into river–to have the “I” dissolve into whatever it may become when this body pops in its own way.

We must not stop with this roar at the uncertainties of our embodied, impermanent life. The other point was that I am not separate from the universe. The bubble would not be, if not for floating along on the water. Words deceive here. It is not the river, and yet it is the river. It flows differently than the water around it, but it is composed of the same water and shows us merely a different way that all the particulars of the river’s flow can manifest, albeit briefly, as one possible occurrence in the ever-changing flow of flux.

Bubbles floating on a river...

Bubbles floating on a river…

Here is the mystery. Here is¬†Tao, shunyata, Source,¬†or¬†the divine spark. Here is what you should spend your time observing. The universe universes the universe, right here, right now–right everywhere, right always–and “I” am not a separate, “independent” observer. I am that unfolding splendor in one tiny, localized manifestation, clearly not the whole yet not separate from the whole. Such mystery cannot be adequately represented in words, only indicated, only shown.¬†Look.

May All be happy.
May All be healthy.
May All be at peace.
May All live with ease.


May this bring you insight and inspire you to look deeply at all you encounter.

Gassho!

Cutting Through the Mask

Om mani padme hum…
Repeat again and again…
1000s of times…
Working for the liberation
Of all sentient beings
From Suffering
From Delusion
Goes on and on…

Can you hope to help
If you are still stuck
In your own delusion?
Compassion in action:
Om mani padme hum
Begins with seeing,
How “I” become special
“I” am advanced.
“I” will become enlightened
“I” am nearly a guru!
Such sentiment perpetuates
Delusion, is the core of
Delusion, is the beating,
Black heart of Separation

Suffering begins with
This separation that creates
“Your” mask.
A constructed aegis
To ward off inevitable Death
The black heart of Selfishness
Beats in a network of
Ego’s arterial stories.

Let go of such
Spiritual materialism
Compassion begins:
Cut through your “self”,
Open your heart
Let it beat
The ebb and flow of The Universe,
Tao
, resides in emptiness
Feel that you
And others
Are not two.

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It is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.
-Jamg√∂n Kongtrul, as quoted in “Machik’s Complete Explanation”

When there is no perceived difference
between square and circle,
light and dark in our minds,
we have attained the profound truth of Tao.
Everything in heart should be as one:

Emptiness
Emptiness

-Loy Ching-Yuen, “The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao”

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – šļĒ śąí) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

Now:
Peace
Faith
Gratitude
Actualization
Compassion
– My shortened mantra of the precepts


“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the¬†very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are¬†teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its¬†telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all¬†behavior aims at is¬†happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make¬†eudaimonia. Rather,¬†eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of¬†the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As DŇćgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of¬†gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I”¬†like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.


Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.

Gassho!

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith
Next Reiki: The Five Precepts Post –¬†4th Precept: Actualization

Grasping at Sand – The Pursuit of Happiness

We pursue happiness,
grasping onto desires–
Justifying this as wisdom, as nature, as fact–
Fulfillment + gratification = happiness!!!
Yet we don’t see…

The heart grasping onto desires
Is like a hand grasping
Onto grains of the finest sand.
No matter how hard we
Try to hold on,
It slips out,
And what remains
Tickles and scratches,
Holding onto the hand
Even if the hand lets go.
Yet we don’t see…

Sand flits out of the hand’s grasp
Blowing away in the wind
Lost, gone, vanished
Like a dream
As though the grains were never there
Just like this
Desires arise and disappear
Ephemeral phantoms taken as solid
Yet we don’t see…
Is there a better way to be?

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Without desire, without distress
we keep to our empty heart.
The beauty of the Way is that there is no
“way”.

No self
No this, no that

Everything, everything is simply emptiness.
РLoy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Tao, §10)

Desire that has no desire is the Way
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind

Travelers know that steep cliffs mean a long, hard
climb.
Just so with Tao:
No smooth roads without first a few ups and downs.
-Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Enlightenment, §1)

May this help you balance your wanting and not-wanting mind, finding the desire that has no desire. May this help you slowly open the heart that grasps onto desire, one that seeks happiness in selfish fulfillment. May you instead find your way onto the selfless path that brings true happiness: an open heart of bodhicitta (have a look at my discussion of the first chapter of the Dhammapada for more on the selfish and selfless paths, and have a look at this one for more discussion of bodhicitta).

Gassho!

“Whatever arises”

This is another passage taken from a recent morning pages session. Again, I’ve skipped past some initial words to get to the insightful part.


So, I feel a bit tired this morning–also due to a couple extra hours at work last night. However, I’m glad to show up again today, no matter what arises. “Whatever arises” is a mantra I’ve had in mind a lot recently. Ultimately, I feel that it captures the liberation from samsara of the Buddha way. The Buddha resides in the burning house. The Buddha’s path doesn’t lead to some special place beyond the world we live in or transcend it through some sort of sleight of hand: appearing here but residing elsewhere. No, the Buddha experiences nirvana in samsara. He merely presides with joy, with loving-kindness, calm-abiding,¬†no matter what arises. In explaining equanimity like this to friends, they misunderstood it as complacency. I understand why one might think that, but that’s not it. The Buddha is not telling us to not walk a path, to not cultivate certain ways or positions. Reading¬†The Dhammapada quickly makes it clear that the Buddha way requires an ongoing engagement that prefers the greater joy over the lesser. However, a great part of this joy is in meeting the challenges of change and the snares of Mara with a peaceful smile–nonattachment to conditions being any particular way. Come what may; whatever arises.

It may be easy to rail against this again, but a look at the¬†Tao Te Ching or even the Stoic works of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would bring us to similar, if not the same, conclusions. Equanimity does not mean non-action or passivity: complacency. Imagine Buddha walking across India again and again for 45 years after his enlightenment, teaching everywhere he went. Imagine Marcus Aurelius writing his “Meditations” at night on the battlefront.¬†Wu wei, the right action of skillful means, requires seeing reality as it is–the unfolding flux of¬†Tao, emptiness’ dance–and flowing with that change without attachment. This is doing without doing: not forcing the world, rather acting along with whatever arises. It’s not inaction or reactivity; rather, it’s working in accordance with nature, a properly attuned action with¬†Tao. This is a key to the Way of the Sage, the Way of the Buddha, and the Way of the Lover of Wisdom (a¬†philosopher).

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For comparisons with the comments on¬†wu wei at the end, look at my posts on the¬†Tao Te Ching, particularly: Tao a Day–Verse 8: In Accordance with Nature, Tao a Day–Verse 26: Inner Virtues, and Tao a Day–Verse 63: Doing without Doing.

May this inspire you to be at peace, whatever arises.

Gassho!

Nothing to Do…

If, if, if…
A set of checkboxes
Mark them all, and…
Get happiness?
Even a spiritual path–
A pursuit of spiritual materialism
An accumulation of ego
The doing of an “I”
“My attainment”
A misperception
Of Truth
“I” am not solid–an illusion
The word, a placeholder,
A Transcendental Unity of Apperception
My “Higher Self”?
Not like anything conventionally conceived:
The ebb and flow of everything
Not separate from it-
A divine chaos–unfolding
The beautiful, empty, mysterious Tao
Emerging-abiding sway of all difference
The path: There’s nothing to “do”
Nowhere to “go”
Enlightenment is here: in this moment
Nirvana in samsara
Just live: realize this one step.

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Inspired by a wonderful meditation this morning and all the wise things I regularly read: in this case, I’ve been particularly moved by Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something. This passage clarifies some of the final lines:

So, how can we practice zazen as an end in itself? All you have to do is take a step. Just one step. Strictly speaking, there is just one thing we have to face, and nothing else. If you believe there is something else besides this one thing, this is not pure practice. Just take one step in this moment with wholeheartedness. Intellectually, we think about the past and the future, but if we take one step, this shore and the other shore are now. Taking one step already includes all other steps. It includes this shore and the other shore. This one step is zazen.

I’ve also been amazed by a recent find of Loy Ching-Yuen’s The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao. I would put it up alongside the¬†Tao Te Ching¬†and the¬†Dhammapada; it’s a beautiful intertwining of Taoism and Buddhism written by a true master from about a century ago. I plan on writing about several passages in the future. For now, enjoy these selections from the sections On Tao:

3. Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn and smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

5. What labor we expend sorting out our mundane chores year after year.
But doing them without regret or tears,
without resistance,
that’s the real secret of¬†wu wei
like the mountain stream that flows unceasingly:
Elsewise, all we do goes for nought.

We can hold back neither the coming of the flowers
nor the downward rush of the stream;
sooner or later, everything comes to its fruition.
The rhythms are called by the Great Mother,
the Heavenly Father.
All the rest is but a dream;
We need not disturb our sleeping.

To see his brilliant fusion of Buddhism and Taosim better, compare this quote with my analysis of¬†wu wei here and my analysis of the¬†famous lines about flowers falling in DŇćgen’s¬†GenjŇćkŇćan¬†here.
Finally, my words here make subtle references to Ch√∂gyam Trungpa, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Gilles Deleuze, and this meditation and wordplay would never have come to be if I hadn’t recently read the Dalai Lama’s¬†How to See Yourself as You Really Are, all of which (these myriad sources!) I highly recommend to anyone willing to begin a spiritual path with heart.


May this inspire your own investigations and journeys along the path, fellow wanderers. May you find ideas to play with and solace in the beautiful words of all these masters who have brought these insights into my life.

Gassho!

Tao a Day – Verse 63: Doing without Doing

Let’s approach this verse in two pieces. We’ll compare the Red Pine and Jonathan Star translations for each piece in that order:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

Act without acting
Give without giving
Taste without tasting

Tao alone becomes all things great and all things small
It is the One in many
It is the many in One

Let Tao become all your actions
then your wants will become your treasure
your injury will become your blessing.
– Trans. Jonathan Star


It’s always interesting to see how different translations of this classic have been approached, and the power of Red Pine’s translation is to get it down to one without artistic interpretation: a simple, bare-bones, as close to the original as possible translation without embellishment. The quote from his translation here boils this down; act without acting in all instances and with everyone, no matter how they treat you. Do this by repaying wrong with virtue. However, what are we to make of the very enigmatic opening lines? Luckily, his book also has chosen commentary from Chinese masters throughout the ages. I found these two bits of commentary quite helpful. Ho-Shang Kung, a Taoist master from around 100 B.C., says: “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.” Sung Ch’ang-Hsing, a seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate and Taoist master from the 1700s, says: “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.” ¬†These two pieces of commentary make this short section shine. It fits well with my previous discussion of Verse 8 (What I called: “In Accordance with Nature”), and it also fits with a previous post (in terms of doing what is natural and not imposing oneself on others and the world): Control and Letting Go. The doing without doing,¬†wu wei, is acting in appropriate resonance with the nature of things–situations as they present themselves. It is not about imposing your own will on the world and making it conform to you. The Sage does not see such a separation, and the¬†Tao Te Ching¬†speaks in passage after passage about how that which is gained by force does not last very long: it comes to an early death. Hence, the way to live forever (or live longer and at peace) is to develop the virtue,¬†Te, which goes along with the emanations of the 10,000 things (one aspect of¬†Tao). Acting through force and reactive vengeance is not only ego-centered, it does not embrace Tao. It embraces “me”. That’s all. Acting in that very standard sense of pursuing your own motivations to make the world the way you want it to be, to form it in your own image as some creator-God-wannabe, is not virtuous, not wise, and not seeing the universe and its mysterious origins for what they are.¬†We could look to the comments on Verse 26. Jonathan Star’s translation says pretty much the same thing as everything I just explicated but in a more succinct and poetic manner. As he closes, letting¬†Tao become all of your actions is to act without the intention of promoting yourself. Instead, it is to act in accordance with¬†Tao, the ever unfolding beauty of All, and by so doing, you act without acting. It’s not about complete inaction. It’s about acting through¬†Tao rather than through your “self”.


Here is the second passage from the verse:

Plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard
– Trans. Red Pine

Take on difficulties while they are still easy
Do great things while they are still small
Step by step the world’s burden is lifted
Piece by piece the world’s treasure is amassed

So the Sage stays with his daily task
and accomplishes the greatest thing
Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way
for much ease brings many difficulties

Follow your path to the end
Accept difficulty as an opportunity
This is the sure way to end up
with no difficulties at all.
-Trans. Jonathan Star


Let’s take one more piece of commentary to handle these lines. Te-Ch’ing says (again from Red Pine’s book): “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.” Controlling the mind in Buddhism is mindfulness. This is showing up to each moment just as it is without concept. Taoism’s stories of insight are meant to produce the same result: non-conceptual understanding. We might understand the Sage here as the mindful one of Tao’s unfolding with each moment. A task, no matter how large, is always right now. For instance, the next verse is the one with the famous line “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The thing is: it begins with a single step, it continues with a single step, and it ends with a single step. The task is always the small, easy task of just one step. The Sage approaches doing by not looking at the goal which sees the task in its entirety: huge, hard, insurmountable. Rather, he sees it as this small, single step in this moment. Each moment of doing is¬†a step. Again and again. Yet,¬†the Sage sees it just as the step of this moment, not¬†all the steps that lie ahead. The Sage recognizes the greatness of the¬†task, but he is not daunted, as he¬†approaches it in accordance with the task and with flexibility in each and every step, moment by moment: just this.¬†Through such a mindful engagement with the present action that is in accordance with nature, the Sage will surely accomplish the greatest of things.

May this help you achieve the greatest things without acting.
Gassho!

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Tao a Day — Verse 38: The Sage’s Relation to “Self”

To give without seeking reward
To help without thinking it is virtuous–
     therein lies great virtue
To keep account of your actions
To help with the hope of gaining merit–
     therein lies no virtue

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without condition
The highest justice is to see without preference
– Trans. Jonathan Star (excerpt – opening lines)


We live in a time of little virtue. We are told to look out for number one. Famous writers have propounded philosophies in which greed is a great virtue which helps everyone. It seems that all around us, most of the time, people are concerned most about what they will get out of a situation; we are told that this is natural and good to be self-involved like this.

From a certain perspective, spirituality is in utter opposition to such a view. The stance of what can I take, what can I get, is yet another way of maintaining the certain safety of ego. It upholds I, me, and mine, and it furthers the goal of solidifying them as of the utmost importance. According to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Ch√∂gyam Trungpa, spirituality moves against this but stands in constant danger of falling into the traps of ego-fulfillment. We all too readily fall into spiritual practice as something to hoard, something to show that I’m wiser than others, or something that makes me remarkable and worthy of being looked up to by others as a guru, realized one, or some other egoic hero. The Buddhist emphasis on the practice of compassion is both a means to reach enlightenment, and at the same time, compassion–focusing on others as more important than “me”–keeps us from falling prey to these traps. I’m not implying that Buddhism is superior to other spiritual disciplines. Hardly. I’ve known Christians and pagans who displayed compassion first and foremost, and their spiritual practices and personal virtues were all the more noteworthy and admirable because of this outward oriented engagement with the world.

The Sage also exemplifies the¬†Te¬†(virtue)¬†which does not focus on self above all else. She gives without seeking reward. She does not tally up her great deeds. Instead, she, like water, acts in a way that supports all, rather than herself. This was discussed in a previous post¬†about being in accordance with the flow of nature–the unfolding of¬†Tao. Having virtue,¬†Te, is completely about actualizing the¬†Tao as the microcosm of the macrocosm. That was discussed in my post on inner virtues to some extent. In this case, let’s remember that the¬†Tao continuously gives the 10,000 things. It is both the origin and totality of all. This totality continues to ebb and flow into being. It continually gives. Nothing statically remains as some sort of beloved object that¬†Tao holds onto for itself. Rather,¬†Tao loves bringing forth the ever-arising new of change. So why do we grasp at possessions and holding back that which is mine, when¬†Tao shows us to move and flow: to give and support life without interest in self-bolstering?

Tao supports all. Those seeking to cultivate¬†Te should as well. I heard an interesting Dharma talk last night in which the priest ended in saying that compassion is being able to hear whatever another person has to say without limiting those words to what we want to or are able to hear from “my” perspective. Letting go of oneself enough to be completely present to what appears (in this example, the words of another) is¬†Te–it is being in harmony with nature and being able to act within that harmony,¬†wu wei. Thus, the Sage responds to what arises:¬†recognizing that “The highest justice is to see without preference.” The Sage opens his eyes, sees the world as it is–Tao, and acts skillfully from this proper seeing. Such a proper seeing shows that the “self” is an ever-unfolding process of emergence, one that mirrors Tao:¬†the appearance and disappearance of the 10,000 things of Tao–the mysterious flux of universal becoming in all its myriad forms.

Having “Te” requires seeing and actualizing “Tao”


Here is the rest of the verse for further reading. Have a look at the closing lines if nothing else:

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
And when the high-blown rules of conduct are not followed
people are seized by the arm and it is forced on them
The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty–
quite confusing to the heart
And when men rely on these rules for guidance–
Oh, what ignorance abounds!

The great master follows his own nature
and not the trappings of life
It is said,
“He stays with the fruit and not the fluff”
“He stays with the firm and not the flimsy”
“He stays with the true and not the false”
-Trans. Jonathan Star

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