Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 19


This chapter continues the distinction in the last chapter between a conscious effort to be virtuous, and living in harmony with Tao which allows virtue to naturally manifest.

Abandon sainthood, renounce wisdom
People will benefit a hundred fold

In my young adulthood, I visited a zen center in the beautiful wine country outside San Francisco. The monk who led this group seemed to make a point of being “unsaintly.” He would walk around in his black robes with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, but I never saw him actually smoke or drink. I got the idea that he wanted to avoid being perceived as some kind of holy guru. Irreverent and funny, he was unfailingly kind and gracious. The twinkle in his eye suggested a deep love of, well, everything.

The monk’s followers, on the other hand, floated around with beatific smiles and, at least what seemed to me as, superficial humility, while not so subtly trying to outdo each other in enlightened behavior. They let me know in various ways that I was not in their league. Ah, we are so human, aren’t we?

Abandon benevolence, renounce morality
People will return to harmonious relations

As with the last chapter, we might look at some of these things we are supposed to abandon or renounce and wonder what would happen if we did. They seem to be the bedrock of civilized society. If we toss them aside, what is to keep us from devolving into chaos and violence? On the other hand, how well has adherence to a legally-imposed moral code worked for humanity so far? Just sayin....

Abandon shrewdness, renounce profit
People will be free from robbers

This harkens back to Chapter 3 (not collecting treasures prevents robbery). I think it’s interesting that in the Quran, interest is not allowed on loans. I have a friend who is a devoted Muslim and works for the Saudi government trying to bring banking regulation into compliance with this principle. Not sure how that would work, but in its simplest form, I think the principle here is not to take advantage of others, and not to grasp so greedily for things that we care about more than we care about the things that really matter, which, by the way, are things that cannot be grasped, greedily or otherwise.

Therefore heed these teachings:
Recognize the pure, embrace the simple
Reduce the ego, temper desires 

These last two lines can be understood two different ways. It could be four separate encouragements:

1. Recognize the pure
2. Embrace the simple
3. Reduce the ego
4. Temper desires

The alternative is to read them as cause and effect. In others words, the result of recognizing the pure and embracing the simple IS the reduction of ego and the lessening of desires. Personally, I prefer this latter interpretation. Ego and desire naturally fade as we become less distracted by the artifice of our consumer/marketing-driven world.

Just as an interesting (to me!) aside, the character for pure is  , which depicts raw or undyed silk. The character for simple is   , representing an uncarved block of wood. (As we saw in Chapter 15, this image of the uncarved block of wood is a popular one in the Tao Te Ching, suggesting not only simplicity but also unlimited potential.)

So what to make of this chapter? My commentary has been somewhat disjointed as the different lines reminded me of different things, so thank you for indulging my wandering mind. Overall, though, I think the focus here is on releasing our attachments, whether to beliefs, judgments, or desires. Grasping leads to stagnation; releasing allows natural flow. Consider the things we are asked in this chapter to abandon or renounce. If we can become aware of these things in our own life, then we can begin to see the effects of holding onto them. And to the extent we are able to loosen that grasp, even the tiniest bit, we can begin to experience and to manifest the beauty that is our true nature.

[A] truth is a truth until you try to organize it, and then it becomes a lie. Why? Because the purposes of the organization begin to take precedence over that which it first attempted to keep in order.  ~Wayne Dyer

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Secret Language


The creek speaks a secret language
So quiet you might miss it
Beneath the rushing water song
A voice burbles near the bank
Kneel down in the sponge wet moss
Lean close and listen
Cotton soft marimba bells
Whisper messages of mystery
Don't try to understand
This is the language of the soul
And only there is it received

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 18


This modest little (four lines) chapter does nothing less than represent the entire debate between Confucianism and Taoism, two major philosophical traditions originating in ancient China. (Confucius and Lao Zi, purported author of the Tao Te Ching, were contemporaries, both living in China around 500 BCE.) 

When great Tao is lost, there is kindness and morality
Intelligence and knowledge emerge, and there is great artifice
Family relations are not harmonious, and there is filial piety and parental devotion
The nation is in disorder and discord, and there are loyal ministers

If you look at the second part of each line, you might wonder what the problem is. What’s wrong with kindness, filial piety, and loyal ministers? (I’ll come back to artifice in a minute.) The answer is that nothing is wrong with these virtues. The issue, I think, is one of direction. Does Tao lead to these virtues, or do these virtues lead to Tao? 

With apologies to scholars and philosophers for my gross oversimplification, Confucius believed that the conscious cultivation of identified virtues led to personal, social, and governmental harmony. Lao Zi, on the other hand, believed that when we live in harmony with Tao, these qualities naturally manifest without conscious effort. The “Te” of the Tao Te Ching  means virtue, but in a much broader, organic sense than the moralistic, judgmental connotation we often attach to this word. 

So back to our question about whether Tao leads to virtue or whether virtue leads to Tao -- does the “direction” matter? 

This is where artifice comes in. The character used here  伪 carries connotations of pretense, hypocrisy, falsehood. But the character itself breaks down into person  人   and action  为  , suggesting something that a person does or makes. And indeed, one of the meanings of this character is man-made. Man-made has a more neutral connotation, and even a positive one. Indeed, we are often very proud of what we can manufacture and produce. In this sense, the character might be thought of as indicating something originating from the ego, or self. 

If we think about it this way, the question becomes whether we can find Tao (God, the Sacred, whatever name you like), through the ego’s efforts. The Bible offers some insight.

Paul taught that when one surrenders oneself (ego) to the Holy Spirit, one naturally manifests the “fruit of the spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – just like fruit on a tree grows because of its intrinsic nature. I think this is similar to Lao Zi’s view that the highest virtue is not consciously cultivated in accordance with some moral code, but rather naturally flows through us when we are in harmony with Tao. In this sense, we are “not acting” ourselves. This represents the theme in the Tao Te Ching of wu wei, or non-action.

In contrast, some of you might be familiar with the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, a bunch of people got together and decided to build a tower high enough to reach heaven. Great idea, but, as you can guess, they were unsuccessful. 

Going back to the Chinese characters, the Tower of Babel is more like the sense of “artifice” conveyed by the character  伪  in this chapter.  Remember that this character combines person  人   with action 为   to convey the sense of something man-made. The fruit of the spirit is more like the theme of wu wei, or non-action, which permeates the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei is two characters, 无  meaning without, and 为  meaning action. Notice that the “action” part 为   Is the same in both concepts. One is the person acting; the other is non-action.

The point of this chapter is, I believe, that while kindness, morality, filial piety and parental devotion, and loyal ministers are all good things, they are, in the words of one author writing about this chapter, “second best.” They are like the artificial light we use and value when the sun goes down. It is man-made and useful when we have lost the natural light, but cannot duplicate or replace the sun itself.

The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.  ~Deng Ming-Dao 

[Note: In response to a reader's comment that the posts are hard to read with the white print on the red background, I'm trying a larger font. I welcome feedback!]

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sitting Forgetting


The benefits of meditation are by now widely known and accepted. However, many of us still don’t have a regular meditation practice. The reasons vary – I don’t know how, I don’t have time, I can’t sit still, my mind is too chaotic, it’s too hard, I tried but it didn’t work, and so on.

But underneath all these reasons, I wonder if perhaps there is just a little bit of anxiety. Maybe we think we have to be good at it, and we are afraid to fail. Maybe we are afraid we’ll be successful and something unexpected or even scary will happen. Maybe we think something grand is supposed to happen, and if it doesn’t we’ll be disappointed.

I meditate for the simple reason that my life is better when I do. Not necessarily better each time, but overall. For the most part I meditate every day, but there are days that get skipped, and I don’t freak out about that.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying a meditation practice called in Chinese zuo wang. Zuo means sit. Wang means forget. So the practice is literally sit forget. At my age, this is so easy to do since I forget most things anyway!

The character for sit    combines the character for person   with the character for earth   . Put together, the character for sit shows two people sitting on the earth  .

The character for forget  places the character for heart    under the character  , meaning to flee or to lose. Because of the over/under placement, I think of forgetting as something lifting away from the heart  .

When you put the characters zuo wang together  坐 忘 , I get the sense of releasing thoughts that just fly away as the heart stays rooted to the earth. Sitting. Forgetting.

As thoughts arise during meditation, and they will, I remind myself to “forget” them, to let them float away like a balloon as my heart/mind sinks gently into the “earth” of my spirit/center. If a thought persists, I silently whisper zuo wang, and the thought detaches and goes on its way. I know the thought will come back later if I need it, and probably even if I don’t.

The benefits of brief times devoted to meditation permeate my life. The line between more “formal” meditation and daily life begins to blur. A Buddhist teacher, when asked about the timing and frequency of his meditation practice, replied, “I am never not meditating.” It reminds me of the encouragement in the Bible to “pray without ceasing.” It doesn’t mean that you should be sitting on your meditation cushion, or kneeling with your head bowed all the time. That's not very practical. It means moving through your day with awareness and reverence. And that, my friends, is very practical.

In Greek mythology, the giant Antaeus was the son of Gaia, or Mother Earth. He was a famed wrestler who could not be beaten as long as he had contact with the earth, his mother. Even Hercules could not defeat him, until, realizing the source of the giant’s strength, Hercules held him aloft and vanquished him.

In chaotic or challenging times, any habitual practice that helps us stay connected to our root, our equilibrium, our inner strength, seems like a good thing. So if you don’t already have such a practice, maybe give it a try. If you have any questions or need some support, let me know in the comments, or email me at galenpearl@gmail.com. And please share your own practice and suggestions.

Here are some of my favorite meditation quotations:

Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively. ~Sharon Salzberg

To earn the trust of your meditation, you have to visit it every day. It’s like having a puppy. ~Chelsea Richer

Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. ~Deepak Chopra

Meditation is offering your genuine presence to yourself in every moment. ~Thich Nhat Hanh

One conscious breath in and out is a meditation. ~Eckhart Tolle

Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated? ~David M. Bader

And my very favorite:

If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent. ~Pema Chodron

[Note: The photo above accompanies a news piece about a school that substituted meditation for detention, and then started teaching all students to meditate, with amazing results!]

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Bringing Peace


Fighting will never bring peace
Ceasing to fight will never bring peace
Only ceasing to fear will bring peace
We will cease to fear 
    when we realize there is nothing to fear
We will realize there is nothing to fear
     when we remember who we are
We will remember who we are
     when we release everything we are not
We will release everything we are not
     when we understand that everything we are not is...
Everything

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 17

Chapter 17 is one of the more cryptic verses in the Tao Te Ching, not in the mysterious way we saw in Chapter 14, but in a literal sense. The characters are so sparse that any attempt to discern meaning requires a great deal of subjectivity. While frustrating on one level, the beauty is that you can take what is given and consider it in so many contexts.

What is given at the outset is a hierarchy. This hierarchy is viewed in various translations as applying to government, sages/teachers, Tao, a time in history, or a more amorphous “greatness” or “highest.”

In its simplest form, the hierarchy is:

little known (or unknown)
praised
feared
scorned

When distilled to this essence, what I notice is that the levels below the top one all involve some kind of judgment or evaluation. Praise, fear, and scorn are all based on an evaluation that something is good or bad.

But the top level of being little known or unknown is neutral. At the level of government, we might see this in the context of a society that operates in harmony with Tao, in which case, government has little to do and operates in the background without forcing or imposing its power on the people. [This is not a political commentary on our current state of affairs, and as said, assumes the overall harmony of an enlightened society.]

The best teacher, for another example, is one who empowers and inspires the students to learn rather than dominating them.

The rest of the hierarchy shows an obvious degeneration. Yes, praise is better than scorn, but as we saw in Chapter 13, honor and disgrace both speak to the ego and disturb equanimity.

This de-emphasis of the ego is seen again at the end of the chapter.

Work is completed. Things are in order.
The people say “All is well.” 

Notice the use of passive voice, that is, the absence of an actor. “Work is completed.” There is no ego credit for who did it. This is a theme throughout the Tao Te Ching. In the roughly 5,000 characters of this text, the character for “I” or “we” is used only about 40 times, and even then not to take credit for some accomplishment.

Try this as an experiment. Describe your day, or just a single event, without using self-reference. Don’t worry about smoothness; there will likely be some awkward sentences. This is not a literary effort, but rather an exploration of how your see yourself in the story of your life.

I found this very challenging! My tendency to make myself the subject of my life reveals to me those places where I try to direct or control. But when I am able to get myself out of the story, I can begin to see the natural rhythm of my life, and of life in general.

There is not a “right” way to do this. Just try it and have fun. For example:

Laundry is done. Grandchild helps fold towels. There is teaching and playing. Laughter fills the room. Towels are put away. Hearts are full of love.

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. ~Larry Eisenberg

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 16


Chapter 14 focused on the mystery of Tao. Chapter 15 described how one lives in harmony with Tao. This chapter celebrates the revelation of Tao through the manifestation of the “ten thousand things,” representing all creation.

Attaining complete emptiness
Abiding in perfect tranquility
Watch the ten thousand things
Arise and return
All things flourish
Then return to the root

This passage reminds me of sitting at the creek by my cabin. There is this one spot where I can sit comfortably on a flat rock and just ... watch. I watch the creek laughing by, birds bobbing on the bank for the insects flickering in and out of shadows. Under the giant trees, tiny moss forests bloom with even tinier red flowers.

One time a salmon paused right in front of me, resting for a moment on its upstream pilgrimage. Ah, the perfect example of flourishing and returning. The salmon’s birthplace sends it forth in youth to travel far, then calls it home. The salmon heeds the summons, swimming with unwavering intent to fulfill its destiny, returning to its origin to end one cycle of life and begin the next.

Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent. Everything that lives will die. But life itself does not die. Each day succumbs to night, and returns in the morning to dispel the darkness.

Returning to the root is stillness
Stillness is destiny 
Destiny is eternal
Knowing the eternal is enlightenment

The character for enlightenment   combines the sun   and the moon  . Light is without form or color. Only when it is separated into individual parts of the spectrum can we see color. I have a prism hanging in my window. When the morning sun streams in, the prism throws rainbows all over the walls and curtains. As the sun moves on, the rainbows disappear, leaving the sun’s radiance to fill the room without differentiation. Again, manifesting and returning.

So how do we know the eternal? We have a perfect reminder built right in. Breathing! I dance the eternal dance with every breath. Breathing in is the first thing I did when I was born...manifesting. When I die, my last exhale will complete the cycle...returning. And with each breath during all my years, I embody the natural harmony that is my existence. Not holding on or forcing, not denying or rejecting. My breath happens naturally if I allow it.

As does everything.

Life is Tao breathing. Manifesting as the ten thousand things and returning to Tao. The dance of being and non-being. Abide in perfect tranquility...and watch.

Be still and know that I am God. ~Psalm 46:10