Friday, March 24, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 21


The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things
   ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ~John 1:1

This chapter is the counterpart to both Chapter 14, which described the unknowable nature of Tao, and Chapter 10, which described the concept of Te and how it manifests in our lives. Te has been loosely translated as primal virtue, but not in the moralistic sense. More like inner harmony, or integrity.

Here, in this chapter, we see the connection between Tao and Te, how Te emerges from Tao like the stars emerging from the star nursery in the photo above. This chapter is, an a sense, a creation story.

The nature of vast Te flows only from Tao
Tao’s manifesting is elusive and intangible
Elusive and intangible
Within is image
Intangible and elusive
Within is form
Hidden and obscure
Within is essence
Its essence is real
Within is truth
Its name is everlasting
The origin of all creation

In the Bible, God created by “naming.” When he said, “Let there be light,” there was light. And so on. Naming is a creative and powerful process. Many cultures have naming rituals for their children. We have seen that the Tao cannot be named. It is beyond concepts, and thus beyond language. But here, we are told that the name of Te is everlasting. It is the name of creation, the ten thousand things. It is not so much the things themselves, although it is that too, but it is the existence of the things, their very being. The being that emerges from nonbeing.

Like the stars that appear from a cloud of primordial star “stuff,” Te emerges from the brimming emptiness of Tao. And while we can’t know unlimited Tao with our limited minds, we can recognize the manifestation of Tao through the harmony and integrity of Te. Indeed, we are that manifestation.

Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye, but the dance lives on. ~Michael Jackson

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Season of Forgiveness


To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.  ~Lewis B. Smedes

Fall was the season of courage and gathering energy. Winter was the season of stillness and storing energy. Now we arrive at spring. The light has been quietly returning since the beginning of winter, and now it surpasses the darkness as birds sing the day awake. Sap rises. Buds that have waited patiently through the cold months open timidly or boldly burst forth. Everyone comes out of hibernation. Kids are playing outside as neighbors greet each other. The stores of winter are almost depleted and now it’s time to plant. There is a sense of newness, of promise. We feel alive.

It’s funny in a way that our calendar new year begins just as winter settles in. The new year motivates us to begin new projects, set new goals. But winter’s energy is stillness and quiet, not action and accomplishment. Spring is much better suited for these undertakings. The Chinese medicine and qigong associations predictably express this energy of expansion and growth, but the association of forgiveness might not be so obvious. Let’s look at the various associations to see what they have to teach us this season.

Organ

The organ associated with spring is the liver. The liver is a busy organ, with detox, regulation, and production functions. The detox function purifies the blood and prevents stagnation and is perfect for spring, like perpetual spring cleaning! This function operates in our physical system, cleaning the blood, and also in our energetic system, cleaning our qi, or vital essence.

One of the points on the liver meridian is called the “great surge.” The Chinese character for surge is      . The short lines on the left side of the character stand for water. The rectangle with the vertical line through it means center. So this character suggests the center of water, like a spring bubbling up. We saw this same character used in chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching to describe the inexhaustible nature of Tao.

This particular acupressure point on the liver meridian is located on the top of our feet, in the “valley” between the bones leading to our big toe and the one next to it.

Massaging this point on either foot is a great pick me up, helping to remove energy blockages so that the qi can move freely through the body. I’m told it can also help with headaches and allergies!

Element

The element associated with the liver is wood. This is not surprising as trees blossom and produce new leaves in the spring. There is also an expansion quality of energy in this season, represented by the rings added around tree trunks every year. Indeed, this quality of growth and expansion is seen in all plant life. Whether it’s dandelions growing through cracks in the sidewalk, or fern fronds unfurling, or vine tendrils curling around porch railings, we see this great surge of life that will not be denied.

Emotions

As stated before, the emotional associations are often categorized as positive or negative, but don’t think of this as good or bad, but more like a polarity, or a balance. The negative emotion associated with this season is anger. We sometimes feel anger when our plans are thwarted in some way, when our efforts to move in a chosen direction are blocked. When this happens we look for someone or something to blame, and when we find a target, our anger is reinforced.

The positive emotion to counter anger is forgiveness. This might not make sense at first, but think about what unforgiveness feels like. We often feel stuck in our righteous indignation. When we can’t “let it go,” we begin to stagnate in our inability or unwillingness to move on. When I used to lead discussion groups on this topic, a common stumbling block was the belief that forgiveness had to be warranted in some way. But this is based on the mistaken view that forgiveness is for the benefit of the forgiven, when in reality, forgiveness liberates the forgiver.  [The topic of forgiveness is vast, and certainly deserves more than I can include in this post, but here is a link to something else I wrote on this topic that might be helpful.]

The healing sound associated with the liver is “shhhh.” What a perfect sound to soothe the beast of anger and allow the angel of forgiveness to release us from whatever blocks the sunshine of our souls.

So this season is a perfect time to clean out the debris, plant a new crop of beauty, and watch it grow.

Spring is nature's way of saying "Let's party!"  ~Robin Williams

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Gift So Rare


I'll give you a poem
Said the stranger passing by
A gift so rare
Not of the senses
But of the soul
Like the sunshine 
Dappling the morning trees
Sparkling on the dancing waters of your life
It needs no words
But whispers delight and blessing
It is mine but not mine
As it was ever yours

Sunday, March 12, 2017

My Twin

I have a twin
Her name is Death
When I breathed my first breath
She was born
Ever at my side
My dearest sister
She loves me with fierce wisdom
Where I fear she is fearless
Guiding me with sure unflinching steps
She is my last breath
O happy reunion 
As we race home hand in hand

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 20


The chapter begins with a line that ended up being a joke on me!

Abandon learning no worries

This reflects an ongoing theme throughout the Tao Te Ching, favoring the natural flow of Tao over conscious, or acquired, knowledge. As we’ve seen in recent chapters, this contrasts with the high value placed on learning in the Confucian system of social harmony.

There is much scholarly debate about the placement of this line. The four characters follow a pattern from the last chapter, so some scholars place this line at the end of Chapter 19. But placing it there ruins the symmetry and rhyming of the last lines of that chapter. Others place it here at the beginning of Chapter 20, but it is out of sync with the lines that follow.

So where is the joke? After spending a lot of time studying commentary and analytically comparing the alternative placements, I was feeling flummoxed and frustrated by the lack of a clear answer. Then I sat back and laughed.

Abandon learning no worries

Oh....

Now I am not worrying. The wisdom of the line has been clearly and effectively demonstrated through my own futile attempts to analyze its precise placement. The line, like Tao itself, can float where it will.

This is an especially meaningful concept for me (and obviously one I need to be reminded of). I always loved school, and loved the study of law as well as my career as a lawyer and a teacher of law. I have, for much of my life, lived in my head, where I was very much at home. I valued cerebral competence and enjoyed cerebral pursuits, and dismissed anything that smacked of feelings or intuition.

Over time, however, I recognized the limitations of such an approach to life. I lived long enough to see that when I disregarded my intuition in favor of a rational path, the result was never satisfactory. I came to understand that intellect has its place, but outside of that place, intellect is not very helpful, and in many cases is detrimental. As I began to seek out and rely on my intuition (inner guidance, divine guidance, Tao, Holy Spirit, whatever you want to call it), my life became infinitely happier, easier, more...um...beautiful, for lack of a better word.

So when I caught myself reverting to intellectual analysis to solve the “problem” of where this line goes, I had a good laugh.

Now that I’ve spent all this time inviting you to share the joke, what about the rest of the chapter? Through several comparisons, the follower of Tao is contrasted to other people in general. While people are going about their busy lives, the follower of Tao is compared to the precognitive purity of a newborn baby.

Some of the words used to describe the follower of Tao sound negative – dim, fool, confused, weak. However, taken in context they represent the undifferentiated formlessness of origin, or, in the words of the anonymous 14th century Christian mystic, the “cloud of unknowing.” When we enter this cloud, we leave all knowing behind. To go back to the first line, we abandon learning. And here is where we meet God.

Or, as the last line of the chapter says, we are nourished by the Great Mother.

When we remember this, as the first line promises, we have no worries. Like the lilies of the field and the birds in the sky, we are created and sustained by an energy we call by many names, but is beyond names and understanding. It is not ours to know, but to have faith. And when we can allow that flower of faith to bloom, then we rest in the perfection of being.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Thanking Our Enemies



Our enemies are our greatest teachers. ~The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet to avoid being imprisoned or killed by the invading Chinese. For decades, he has lived in exile. If anyone has a right to be unforgiving or hateful towards enemies, he does. And yet he doesn’t exercise that right. Instead, he offers compassion. He knows, as Buddha said, that hatred does not end hatred. Only love ends hatred.

In my martial arts school, we avoid adversarial language. For example, we spar with a “partner” instead of an “opponent.” We don’t compete for points. There is no winner or loser. Sometimes, when one partner uses a particularly effective technique, the other person might say “thank you.” Why? Because the technique revealed a weakness or vulnerability that allowed the attack to be successful. We learn from these “failures.” As one of our training slogans says, we “invest in loss.”

I used to spar with a guy named Billy. Billy had a great side kick that got through my defenses every time. Even when I knew he was going to use it, I still couldn’t get out of the way or deflect it. So when I sparred with him, I always asked him to use that technique so that I could learn. I didn’t shy away from it or get upset with him for using it. I thanked him for it. And when one day I managed to defend myself against it, we were both very happy.

In a sense, Billy was my sparring “enemy” but really he was my teacher.

The world today seems so full of enemies. What could I learn if I took one individual or group that falls in that category, and instead applied the label of teacher instead of enemy? What would I see in myself that needs work?

I had a supervisor once who was, in a word, mean. He seemed to go out of his way to keep the people he supervised on edge, wary. He delighted in bringing attention to mistakes (sometimes real, sometimes not) in a way calculated to embarrass the person. His own mistakes were always blamed on someone else. A request or suggestion to him was often met with a knee jerk denial, but if the suggestion was a good idea, he would then promote it as his own. You get the picture.

I dreaded going to work, and tried to avoid him as much as possible. Over time, however, I realized that he was not going to change, and so it was up to me to find a way to succeed in this environment. I gradually learned to adapt in a way that kept me out of direct confrontations. For example, if I needed his okay on something, I would go in his office and propose the opposite. He would predictably shoot that down and demand the option I supported. I would praise his insight and march off with the approval I needed to proceed with what I had originally wanted.

Rather than fighting him, I learned from him, and in the process became much better at my job, which involved a lot of negotiating. While we never were buddies, I had a successful working relationship with him, and his tactics no longer bothered me. Years later, after moving on to other jobs, I could look back and appreciate how much I had learned from him. He was indeed one of my greatest teachers.

Is there someone in your life you consider an enemy? It might be a family member, a neighbor, a coworker, a person who voted for (fill in the blank), a person who belongs to a group you oppose. Try for just a moment to think of that person as a teacher. What can you learn about yourself from this person? And if you can’t bring yourself to feel gratitude towards this person for what you can learn, can you soften enough to feel compassion, both for the person and for yourself?


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