PART 5 - THE POETIC WISDOM OF TAOISM
by Dennis Gaumond
This is part 5 in our continued exploration of the world's mystical traditions. Needless to say, these traditions are very complex and even a lifetime of study and devotion would not familiarize one with all of the nuances and subtleties of Taoism or any other tradition. These writings are meant only as a brief introduction or overview.
The culmination of Chinese philosophy happened between 500 and 200 BC. It is largely characterized by its recognition of two sides of human nature, the intuitive wisdom of the sage and the practical knowledge of the king. Fully realized beings that have acquired their knowledge through stillness develop into sages, while those who self-realize by means of their actions are said to develop into kings or rulers. This more practical way of being is embodied by Confucianism, developed by a great teacher named K'ung Fu Tse, better known in the western world by the Anglicized name, Confucius. It advocates an efficiency of living which results from fairness and compassion.
The more mystical of the two philosophies is embodied in Taoism, which developed from ancient shamanic practices based on the observation of nature and the discovery of 'the way', known as the Tao. This refers both to the way things are and the way one should conduct oneself in order to find joy. According to the Tao, joy can be found by trusting intuition and joining the natural flow of things. Taoism is often symbolized by water, which takes the easiest path to the sea, flowing around obstacles rather than trying to overcome. Water is seen as softness, which in its perseverance can wear away hardness. The first book of Taoism is the beautifully poetic 'Tao Te Ching', (roughly translated as the Way and Its Power), written by Lao Tse, the Old Master, around 500 BC. The second, much larger book of Taoism is the 'Chuang Tse', written by a sage of the same name about 200 years later. A famous passage has Chuang Tse waking from a dream in which he was a butterfly. He then asks, "Am I really a man dreaming that I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?" A butterfly is an ancient symbol for the soul, which having been confined to life as a caterpillar, becomes transformed and is able to fly. (Modern scholars now believe that these two books were actually authored by several sages.)
The concept of the Tao is very similar to that of Brahman/Dharmakaya - that all things are interrelated, different manifestations of the same thing, part of a perpetual flow within which are constantly repeating cycles or patterns. A true sage lives according to these patterns, which manifest as an interplay of dualities called yin and yang. Those aspects of the duality that have yin qualities include dark, attractive, in-going, female, earthly, yielding, resting, intuitive, sage-knowledge. Those that have yang qualities include light, repulsive, outgoing, male, heavenly, unyielding, moving, rational, king-knowledge. This interplay of opposites is studied in depth in the 'I Ching', or the 'Book of Changes'. This is a book of no particular author that is thought to have developed over thousands of years. Its system of 64 hexagrams is used as an oracle, providing clues to the right way to live. The essential message of the I Ching is that nothing is static, everything is constantly changing.
Of all of the eastern philosophies, Taoism has the greatest mistrust of the intellectual, reasoning process. According to Taoism, change results not from outside forces, but from innate, preprogrammed codes or blueprints and thus, all actions arise spontaneously. The choices or actions of a wise person are also spontaneous, based on intuition. This type of wisdom, the following of nature's way, is known as 'wu-wei', which means 'non-action' or 'effortless effort'. This concept has often been misunderstood to mean that one should do nothing, withdrawing from the bustle of everyday life. On the contrary, life is seen as the vehicle or the means by which one can practice wu-wei, living mindfully and willfully yet effortlessly, as in the analogy of water moving toward the sea.
a quote from the Tao Te Ching -
"Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world."
In next month's newsletter we'll take an introductory look at Shamanic Mysticism.