Consistency Through Change

Over the last year, I’ve had a few discussions about the phrase “It is what it is”. My friend took offense at this phrase because she felt that it’s a shirking of one’s agency to produce change, to drive, to control.

However, we don’t control nearly as much as we think, and ultimately, saying “It is what it is” isn’t passive. That’s because active vs. passive is a false dichotomy. Our actions in life and the situations we are involved in are far more complicated than wrestling things to one’s will or being wrestled into submission.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Taoism and Eastern philosophy more generally. In fact, the strategy of The Art of War fits with this in a lot of ways. The successful general on the battlefield isn’t he who forces his will onto a situation at all costs. That’s simply stubborn and out of touch with reality. That’s a way to get oneself and one’s forces slaughtered. No. It’s about reading the landscape, the opposing forces, the weather, the resources, etc. for what they are and adapting to make the most of the situation. It is what it is. The situation you are in is the one you have to work with. Honestly, this applies very well to my experience in project management as well: to get things done requires adaptation, flexibility, and a kind of poise that works with new problems.

I was recently thrilled to come across a book about Bruce Lee’s philosophy by his daughter, as I was immediately taken with the title: Be Water, My Friend. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned

Lao Tzu’s Taoteching, Verse 8, Trans. Red Pine

There are several aspects here I could point to in regards to what I’ve said about the poise of adaptation. Water flows; it finds the empty space, follows the path of least resistance, and it can even wash things away through erosion or the great weight of a wave. It nurtures, but it doesn’t press an agenda of it’s own over and against others (“without competing”). Water lacks a particular form but it always reaches its destination. We can see clear affinities here even with some of my favorite parts of Mahayana Buddhism in the “governing with peace, working with skill, and moving with time”. Skillful means and flowing with impermanence are precisely what we should aim for in moving with the ebb and flow of life.

Let’s compare this to the Bruce Lee quote that inspired the title of the book:

Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup.
You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot.
You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle.
Now water can flow, or it can crash!
Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee, in preface to Be Water, My Friend

The emptiness within a form is reminiscent of the importance of emptiness in rooms, bowls, etc. in the Tao Te Ching as well. The emptiness makes the form what it is. The empty space is what informs the use, shape, and function of these objects/spaces. Being able to flow around through emptiness, through the openings in situations, is where formlessness adapts to the surroundings and governs with peace, works with skill, and moves with time, without competing. However, yes, maybe sometimes a situation calls for a crashing wave. Even the stories of the past lives of the Buddha has an adventure where he killed a band of pirates to save the lives and suffering of others. The problem is that so much of what we are taught is to always be the crashing wave – crashing against rocks without much forward motion, rather than flowing around them, even if that flow is a slow trickle. It is what it is.

I was truly inspired to write about this topic tonight as I read some of the Bruce Lee book, but I also did a reading of the I Ching for myself last night to help find guidance with heartbreak. One of the two hexagrams I drew was #32 Enduring. The book I have spoke to ancient Chinese perspectives on how one endures. It wasn’t the remaining steadfast and refusing to give ground that we might immediately call to mind. Instead, they held another facet of the skillful means and responsiveness in being like water that I’ve been trying to elucidate here:

In the Western tradition things endure because they are unchanging. The Book of Changes [i.e the I Ching] takes a different view. Things endure not because they do not change but because they do change: They grow, they evolve, they respond, and in this way they continue. The symbol of the eternal is not in the unchanging but the cycle, which a process of constant movement and alteration governed by principles of order. In a cycle every beginning results from a previous ending, and every end point is followed by a new beginning. What endures are not the momentary manifestations of physical reality but the basic principles that shape change and give it order and continuity. Analogous principles apply to the world of humanity. Change is inevitable: The secret to endurance is to make the changes in one’s life intelligible through principles that endure; it is to learn to grow continuously with integrity.

To endure means to keep going despite obstacles. Endurance is neither stagnation nor a state of rest. It progresses forward, unlike stagnation, and it keeps moving and growing, unlike rest. What endures renews itself and its effects through continuous activity. What endures does so through change, not in spite of change. Its effects are understood against the experience of change. We see this in the cycle of the seasons that continually renew themselves as the earth moves around the sun. The cycle of the seasons repeats perpetually because its underlying causes continue. Plants and animals grow and change as they endure over time. When they cease to grow, they die, and then they cease to endure.

The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life, Jack Balkin, p. 351-552.

While this doesn’t speak to the metaphor of water, it follows the same ideas of emptiness and flow that is the adaptation and change to situations. We flow around obstacles; we don’t stop and give up or flail against them to try to break through in the dichotomy of active/passive that we started with at the beginning of this post. No, the skillful way is to flow past them like water, maybe sometimes to crush them through force… Sometimes.

To return to Bruce Lee – his practice was one of being pliable yet ready to respond to the scenario. That’s precisely how one is pliable: responsive to the world, rather than reacting out of one’s egoic position. That’s the key point in all of this. There’s a balance of being soft and pliable yet having the right tension to move forward with the moment. Such is the way of working with skill, moving with time. Such is the way of endurance that progresses forward, moving and growing through change. Bruce Lee is another great example because he endured as a great warrior by training intensely all the time. This is how one harnesses change to continue forward: our bodies break down, so we must maintain them through the change of effort and nurturing. This is both the emptiness of form (Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”) and the response needed to live concretely in a world of that principle of emptiness. Ultimately, this pliable tension in a responsive dance with emptiness is wu wei, and such doing without doing is being water, my friend.

If you’re interested in these ideas and want to further consider skillful responsiveness rather than the egoic dichotomy of active/passive, I recommend starting with my post on Verse 63 from the Tao Te Ching and the posts that are linked within.


May this make you think about change, enduring, and skillful responsiveness to the challenges of life.

Gassho!

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 4th Precept: Actualization

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


It’s been a couple years since the last entry in this series. To be honest, this current post daunted me, and at the time, I put it off as I had a lot of other ideas to write. However, my reiki posts have resonated a lot with followers of this site. There are regularly many who read these posts, and for them, I will continue discussing the last two precepts of Usui-sama’s practice. May this help guide them with their own engagement with the path.

The fourth precept is usually translated as something along the lines of “work hard” or “work diligently”. This has always seemed the clunkiest of the precepts to me. The term “work” seems like an earthy, money-driven concept, or one of bodily toil, rather than commitment to spiritual improvement. In this, I merely observe from my own perspective — outlining my own understanding and associated concepts with the term “work”. It may or may not be lighter or heavier of a concept for you, but I have a sense that there are many who would share my hesitance at this translation.

So what do we make of this? An engaged practice is difficult. It is work in that sense. We could think of this then more as: practice diligently. Ane what brings diligence to a Buddhist practice (recall that Usui was a Tendai monk)? Mindfulness, commitment, continuing to try moment by moment throughout the day without judging yourself for when you come up short. Instead, you merely refocus on the task at hand, when your mind or attention wanders. Thus, we could rephrase this as: practice mindfully with engagement and an open heart.

If we add one more piece of understanding to this, we’ll get to what I mean by “actualization” in my shortened form. Buddhism speaks often of upaya — skillful means. It’s an engagement that fits the situation, responding to it with connection and compassion. This responsiveness does not necessarily fit some greater theoretical technique handed down by a master; rather, it’s a pure presence of being one with the situation. I find this to shed light on the related (in my view) idea of wu wei from Taoism. Wu wei is often translated as inaction, non-action, or not doing. However, in delving into Taoism, it becomes clear that it’s better understood as action that conforms with the natural flow of situations; it’s in this sense that we can get closer to being like water, as Lao Tzu counsels us to do in an early chapter.

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“The best are like water” – Lao Tzu (trans. Red Pine)

“Actualization” is a term that I got from a translation of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō from the famous passage Genjo-koan . I was struck by an enigmatic passage at the end in which a monk explains the nature of wind being everywhere around the world while fanning himself. This is the true koan aspect of this chapter, and I honestly cannot say that I’m certain I understand it still. However, I take from it that the situation at hand is a hot summer’s day, and though in the abstract, the wind is an ongoing thing of the world that will never end and goes everywhere, in the concrete of this moment, the summer heat and still calls for the engaged action of fanning. If we take this metaphorically, our lives come up with moment after moment for awareness, connection, and compassion, but this requires us being present and mindful within each of those moments, not grasping onto any ideology or conceptual system with our heads in the clouds; rather, here, in this moment, we can be open and responsive instead of active (which I think of as controlling events to meet one’s own ego-driven desires). This is what it takes to actualize, and in actualizing, one responds to each moment — this is that diligent practice above.

May this discussion bring you new understanding of the precepts and how to practice them.

Gassho!

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 3rd Precept: Gratitude


For those compelled by that connection with wu wei and water from the Tao Te Ching, here is chapter 8 from Red Pine’s translation. Read this with all the ideas of this post in mind; it resonates well with them all:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
thus they approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned

Tao a Day – Verse 8: In Accordance with Nature

The best way to live
is to be like water
For water benefits all things
and goes against none of them
It provides for all people
and even cleanses those places
a man is loath to go
In this way it is just like Tao

Live in accordance with the nature of things:
Build your house on solid ground
Keep your mind still
When giving, be kind
When speaking, be truthful
When ruling, be just
When working, be one-pointed
When acting, remember–timing is everything

One who lives in accordance with nature
does not go against the way of things
He moves in harmony with the present moment
always knowing the truth of just what to do – Trans. Jonathan Star

For comparison:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they
don’t compete
they aren’t maligned – Trans. Red Pine

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Although these two translations have some differences, I think the message is the same. The best way to live is one that flows along with the changes of life being able to adapt with them (“without competing” “in accordance with the nature of things”). Such a way benefits all by moving in accordance with them, rather than fighting against all out of self-interest. Notice, however, that this flexibility, receptivity you might say, does not mean that you don’t act–being dragged along with the flow. Rather, you act with virtue, straightforwardness, and a simplicity of purpose. For instance: “When speaking, be truthful” (“speaking with honesty”). Speech is meant to communicate, that means sharing the truth with others, not holding back and competing by using words to promote your own self-interest through deceit. Thus, speak to speak: speak with honesty. The same follows for the others. Of these two translations, Red Pine worked hard at compiling the most authentic rendition of the text (what we have is based on various copies hundreds of years after the original, which is lost) and translating that quite close to the words (not poetically). As such, I find Jonathan Star’s take of “thinking with depth” and turning it into “Keep your mind still” interesting. This fits well with the entirety of the Tao Te Ching and Taoism’s emphasis on seeing the Tao rather than conceptual thinking. Thought then, should get to the real heart of things, the Tao, which means keeping the mind still from the distractions and divisions of conceptual thought. However, I find the “governing with peace” of Red Pine a bit more interesting than “When ruling, be just”–“justice” is an impossibly difficult concept (just look at the history of philosophy, such as Plato’s “Republic” if you think I’m off). Who can say what justice is? Thinking of this could create endless discourse of conceptual analysis. However, governing with peace is more in line with the intuitive understanding of the Sage, seeing what fits in accordance with the nature of things and moving along with it, as water does.

Our takeaway: Live in accordance with the nature of things, with the flexibility and sustaining nature of water. This opens the way of “doing without doing” – wu wei, which doesn’t mean inaction, rather appropriate action: speaking fully, working fully, etc. It should be pointed out that being able to act so deftly comes from the sight of the Tao, the ability to see the way of things is necessary to move in accordance with them. Furthermore, moving with the way of things not only meets no resistance, it helps the whole as well: Water “benefits all things” (“bringing help to all”). In these points, we are reminded of the importance of intuitive insight in Taoism alongside a simple compassion found in working with Tao, and we can see the resonance with the prajna (knowledge of the way things are) of Buddhism and the skillful action that comes in acting from that knowledge in showing compassion to all, rather than pursuing your “self”.

May this help you find the Way.

Gassho.

Water’s Flux

Indigo waters gently stir
Under a night sky, black as emptiness
Foggy lights behind – the only luminescence
Ripples gently skim the surface,
Lapping at the dock’s beams
Lip, lup, lap, lup…

The water shimmers as it moves
Undulations in dim, pale light
A glittering, indigo, velvet flow
With each lap, the lake changes,
Water moves, dirt and particles shift
With every moment, fluctuation

The lake remains, but
It is imperceptibly different
I meditate – looking on the splendor
Of flux, of impermanence
As each ripple rolls toward me
Breathing in and out
Changing microscopically
With the lake
The “I” that appears the same
Just as the lake seems constant