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)

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 明   combines the sun ζ—₯  and the moon ζœˆ . 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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Enemy is Me!

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. ~Rumi

I began a recent post with Pogo’s quote “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” The post was about a person who canceled a holiday party rather than invite people who voted for the presidential candidate he voted against. I noted the irony of discriminating against people because they voted for someone who discriminates. I ended the post by saying that the person who canceled the party was welcome at my table, along with those who voted for the other guy.

A friend later observed that my post was “morally smug in its own way, which is how I believe you characterized” the guy who canceled the party.

What?! Me?! You mean that while I’m pointing out the irony of someone judging others for voting for someone who judges others, I myself am judging? That while I am calling out someone for smugly excluding others, I am smugly including everyone? Is that any different?

A Course in Miracles says that we teach what we want to learn. True that, my friend, true that. In my frustration and sadness over the rancor that is splitting up friends and neighbors and families, I tried to pluck the speck from my brother’s eye, while overlooking the log in my own.

Furthermore, my friend asked, would I really welcome everyone to my table? Really? Well, okay, I wouldn’t literally sit down with a serial killer. So how is that different, my friend persisted, from not sitting down with people who don’t agree with my political views? In both cases, there is a choice being made to exclude someone.

I don’t have a good answer to that, except that in the physical world, good boundaries are healthy, and in extreme cases even necessary for survival. But in the realm of spirit, boundaries have a different impact. They block us from sacred union, which is what our spirits yearn for. If we can keep our heart doors open, then perhaps our understanding and compassion can lead to expanded connection, rather than alienation, in our physical world.

The best example I can think of is the Amish community who refused to hate the man who came into one of their schools and shot ten young girls, killing five of them. One author said that, had the killer not died on the scene, the community would have supported whatever consequences the law imposed, and then visited him in prison. Their example lit up the news around the world, and the story became not just one of soul crushing tragedy, but one of soul lifting beauty.

So my challenge is keep my heart open, to welcome, yes truly welcome, everyone to my heart table, if not to my literal table. Of course it’s not easy. And sometimes I fail. But that is where our practice is–at the edge of our comfort zone. The razor’s edge, as it has been aptly described.

Thanks to the friend who held up a mirror, to help me see where my own work lies.

Namaste–The divine in me greets the divine in you. I honor that place in you where, if you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 15

Followers of Tao are as elusive and mysterious as Tao itself. Mystics, living in the liminal space between being and non-being, movement and stillness, yang and yin, manifesting and returning. In this chapter, we are told that they cannot be known or understood, yet the author tries to give us a description of their demeanor.

Careful, as crossing a winter stream
Alert, as aware of surroundings
Courteous, as a guest
Yielding, as melting ice
Simple, as an uncut block of wood
Empty, as a valley

How could we embrace these qualities as we go through our day? What if I paused to consider before speaking or acting? What if I chose courtesy over criticism? What if I kept an open mind before rushing to judgment? What other ways can we embody these qualities?

The image of an uncut block of wood is used to convey a sense not only of simplicity but also of unlimited potential. The uncut block of wood can become many things. In the process of carving, however, the emerging form begins to eliminate possibilities. As the completed shape becomes defined, it takes on an identity, separate from all other things it might have been. The uncut block of wood represents the beginner’s mind of zen.

How can we live in beginner’s mind? As we mature, we make choices that set us on a certain path. We might have a career, settle down with a partner, raise children. Or not. As we age, we realize that certain choices are no longer open to us. So what does it mean to have beginner’s mind in the midst of life’s commitments and limitations?

To me, the focus of beginner’s mind is internal rather than external. After all, the term is beginner’s “mind,” not beginner’s “life.” What characterizes a beginner’s mind? It is open, curious, eager, courageous, engaged, willing. It is what Jesus meant when he said that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

How would beginner’s mind change the way I live my life today? How would it change yours?

Murky water through quieting becomes clear
Stillness through movement brings life

I have described the practice of martial arts as meditation in motion, stillness within movement, movement within stillness. This is Tao, manifesting as the ten thousand things, then returning to the beginning. It’s like the rise and fall of breathing, the natural rhythm of the universe.

When we are able to enter this rhythm, our individual identity begins to soften. Because we do not grasp for ego separation, we become one with all creation. In nature, there is no separation. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything belongs in interconnected harmony.

What if we went through our lives today looking for connection rather than separation? How would our thoughts, words, and actions be different?

In describing the characteristics of a follower of Tao in the context of the natural rhythm of the universe, we are offered some insight into how our daily lives can be transformed, lifted up, ...beautiful.

For today, newly bright  ~title of the painting by Cecilia Lin in the photo above

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Listen Listen

In the forest still and true
One can hear a snowflake fall
Or resting among meadow flowers
The whisper soft of fairy wings
Turn within and one can hear
The rhythm of the heartsong drum
Go deeper down and listen listen
Can you hear it?
God is humming all creation

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 14

If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine

This quotation, to me, best represents the analysis-defying beauty of Chapter 14. The Sanskrit expression “neti, neti,” meaning “not this, not this,” says even more simply that truth can’t be organized, labeled, described, or sensed. Indeed, the Chinese negating character  δΈ , meaning no or not, appears nine times in this chapter.

The unfathomable mystery of Tao is revealed in this chapter not only by the language used, but also by the fluid lack of structure. There is no separation of distinct thoughts. Lines of characters can be grouped in different combinations to give different meanings, as evidenced in various translations.

It is, as one commentator noted, the language of the mystics. Despite eluding understanding, or rather because of it, we are invited by the rhythm and swirling symmetry of the Chinese poetry to let go of solid ground and enter the mists of the infinite.

You can look at your own translation, if you have one, or look online for several to compare, but here are some key lines (out of order in places):

Look! It cannot be seen; it is invisible
Listen! It cannot be heard; it is soundless
Grasp! It cannot be held; it is intangible

Above it is not bright
Below it is not dark
In front you cannot see its face
Behind you cannot see its back

Returning to non-being, it is the form of the formless
Indefinable and beyond imagination

Knowing the ancient origin
Is the essence of Tao

Lovely. But what does this mean to us in our daily lives? In one sense, nothing. The nature of mystery is that it doesn’t take form in some concrete, practical way. No, it calls us to transcend the practical. To enter, as the 14th century anonymous mystic called it, the cloud of unknowing. From there, our lives become less about in”form”ation, and more about in”spir(it)”ation. And that, my friends, means everything.

For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. ~2 Corinthians 4:18

Monday, January 2, 2017

Everyone Who Is Like You Is Already Here

We have seen the enemy, and he is us. ~Pogo

[Note: This is as close as I hope I will ever come to something that sounds like political commentary. But it isn’t intended as such. The context might be political, but the message is, I hope, universal.]

I was deeply saddened to see on Facebook someone crowing about canceling a holiday party because he would not welcome into his home people who voted for the presidential candidate he voted against. He bragged about this as a moral stand against the discrimination that the candidate, in his view, represents. Does anyone see the irony of discriminating against people who voted for someone who discriminates?

I once attended a church service during which a new pastor applicant gave an “audition” sermon. Afterwards, the members of the congregation were invited to ask him questions. This church, like so many, was aging itself out of existence. A concerned, gray-haired senior asked him what he would do to “grow” the church. This was his answer:

“That depends on what you are willing to risk. Everyone who is like you is already here.”

Let that soak in for a moment. What does this mean to you?

Since this is a story from a Christian church, we need look no further than Jesus for guidance.

Who was welcome at his table?


What was he willing to risk?


A Course in Miracles teaches that we cannot be separated from anyone else and be connected to God (divine, sacred, universal energy–pick your word). In other words, our union with the divine is directly related to our union with each other. Even simpler, our union with the divine IS our union with each other.

Think about that. Anything, anything at all – judgment, fear, anger, hatred, dismissal – anything that separates us from anyone else separates us from what our spirit most deeply yearns for. The embrace of the sacred. Separation from one is separation from all. Without exception.

Yes, but.... Doesn’t matter.

But they.... Doesn’t matter.

I can’t accept.... Doesn’t matter.

It’s just so.... Doesn’t matter.

Tara Brach wrote, “The world is divided into people who think they are right....”

Get it? Takes a second. So how do we “undivide” the world? By undividing our own hearts.

Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” The value of this promise is not dependent on who said it, nor on how it has or has not been modeled in the political arena. The value is in each one of us resolving to manifest what we want to experience on this earth: inclusion, friendship, honor, compassion, respect, love, kindness, integrity, generosity, peace, courage, joy.

Jesus told us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good to those who hate us. Like the sun that rises on the evil and the good, and the rain that falls on the just and the unjust, we are called to shine our light in the darkness without reservation.

It’s easy to love those who love us back, those who are, in the words of the pastor, already here. But what are we willing to risk to gain our heart’s true desire? To manifest our soul’s true destiny? Can we open our heart door to “them,” whoever “they” are to us? I’m willing to try.

So to that person who canceled his holiday party to avoid mingling with people he sees as morally beneath him, you are always welcome at my table. Along with people who voted for the other guy.

Blessed are the peacemakers. ~Matthew 5:9

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Snow Falls Silent

Snow falls silent in the night
Blanketing the past
All tracks erased
In quiet purity
All fresh now new
Awaken to unlimited possibility
Step gentle true
My friend