Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 35

Poem 35

She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.


The persistence of life - wild butterfly bush at Dollymount, 2006
Balance is both a physical and a mental necessity if we are to live a life characterised by well-being. Indeed, one is more than a little likely to connect balance to the old Greek philosophical idea of moderation in all things or what Aristotle termed the "Golden Mean," namely the desirable middle or balancing point between any two polar extremes. For example, Aristotle saw courage as that virtue which was the mean or balancing point between recklessness on the one hand and cowardice on the other.  In these pluralistic times, it is interesting to point out that such a teaching of moral balance is also found in the ancient Chinese teaching of Confucius who lived approximately from 550 to 480 B.C.  He called his teaching "the doctrine of the mean" while Buddhist philosophers spoke of the concept of "The Middle Way" which basically is a summary of the essence of the Nobel Eightfold Path.

One could, of course, argue that much of Jesus Christ's teaching could be boiled down to a similar ethic of balance summarised in "love your neighbour as yourself."  However, let me return here to our Taoist poem which recommends such balance, not alone in the above quoted stanza, but in the whole work we call the Tao Te Ching. Balance essentially is at the very heart of Taoism as is witnessed in its major symbol, that is, the Yin-Yang emblem.

Spanish Chestnut Tree - Dalgan Park, November 2006
Our translator, Stephen Mitchell, who is steeped in his subject, often uses the feminine and masculine pronouns interchangeably as the Tao is both, more indeed, beyond all gender and in that sense is very much transgender, not in a sexual sense, but in a philosophical sense.  If we are creatures or beings of balance we will have no fears at all as we are centered in the Tao and this means that we are "at home" with ourselves always and we never fear going anywhere.  This is the meaning of the opening lines of our first stanza above.  The word "Tao" means the "way," also a word must loved in all spiritual traditions, e.g., Jesus proclaimed himself to be "the way, the truth and the life."  Now the Tao or Jesus or any other spiritual leader very seldom, if ever, promise an easy way or an easy path to our destination.  Indeed they sometimes explicitly, and mostly implicitly, say that the "way" or "path" is the destination. Pain and suffering are parts of the human lot as we all know.  I shan't rehearse here my personal woes as I have outlined and pointed to them at various times in this blog and in others.  Anyway, those personal incidents are only tangentially of importance here.  The Tao will help us keep our balance when the "storms of life" rock our fragile "ship of self."  Again, all spiritualities offer the same advice and the same sustenance basically when everything is boiled down to the essentials.

German Philosopher M. Heidegger
In our present sufferings, we are invited to see beyond the superficial flavours and smells of food to the "real food" or "invisible food" or if you like raise our hearts to a spiritual realm. This is so hard to do, so I cannot do more than repeat what the Taoist poet so well expresses above.  I often feel that those who attend AA or Narcotics Anonymous or Weight Watchers or any of the many other self-help groups are reaching out to a help or a power that is somehow greater than them, some trans-temporal power, some power that at one level can be evoked by the group but yet they can experience it as a power from another dimension reaching down and into them.  This is very hard to explain unless you know the experience of being grasped by something greater than oneself.  On one level, the rationalist in me will explain this by saying it is mere parapsychology, mere emotions and/or spiritual experiences whipped up by the enthusiasm of the group.  On another deeper level, I definitely experience this quite often as a divine or spiritual element from outside me or from outside the group reaching down or reaching in. It helps to call to mind that we are not just computer-like brains that are cortical only. There are many other intelligences - Multiple Intelligences - as Howard Gardner has pointed out. It also heartens me to realise that there is more to life than is dreamt of in my little intelligence.  Furthermore, the sheer wonder of life and both the exhilaration and trials of that same life lead me often to figuratively fall down in awe at its very mystery bringing me back to that wonderfully powerful question posed by the philosopher Heidegger of all thinking beings, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" That is a big metaphysical question that all cultures attempt to answer.  Indeed, one might contend that cultures are indeed humankind's attempts to answer that thorny but crucially important question.

Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy
Let me finish with a quotation from the great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, amazing survivor of Auschwitz, who founded the existentialist therapy called "logotherapy" on the basis of his experiences in that death-camp, that hell of hells:  "Those who have a 'why' to live can bear almost any 'how'." (from Man's Search for Meaning.)  All spiritualities worth their salt are about offering their followers a "why" to go on with the prospect of living.  The Taoist poet is offering us one way or one "why" to keep on going.

Happy New Year, friends.  For a few minutes now, I invite the reader to reflect on what are his/her motives or his/her main "why" in their life journey. This is a small but paradoxically great exercise to do!

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