Welcome to The Path of Water

This site is dedicated to exploring the Tao and Philosophical Taoism; and how it relates to everyday modern life in the 21st Century. It also includes posts relating to how I feel Taoism can provide insights for dealing with the problems of everyday living.

The process of writing out my thoughts helps me to explore what I believe and why, so these posts will probably develop over time. I hope that you'll find this site interesting and, for those of you new to the Tao and Taoism, I hope that it can provide you with a first step on the path to a rich spiritual life. If you want to post comments relating to a post or the site as a whole I'd be grateful as all feedback is helpful.

Enjoy your visit - In Tao - Woody


Who would follow the Way must go beyond words.
Who would know the world must go beyond names. *

No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. **

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

As Reform Taoists we try to celebrate certain events, not for the belief in a higher power, but because they remind us of the path we are on. One of these events is the Winter Solstice (Northern Hemisphere) as the time when a process changed direction and the world begins the journey towards Spring.

This is how I plan to mark the Solstice...

I'll wait until the rest of my noisy family have gone to sleep, pour out a small glass of Port and then I'll have all the lights off and light a single candle. I'll relax just watching the candle for a bit, then I'll spend a short time remembering good things about family members & friends who have died, drink a toast to them with the Port, blow out the candle and then probably stub my toe trying to find the light switch Smiler

The candle is for a few reasons...

1 - Midwinter celebrations across the world have long associations with light
2 - At the time of maximum darkness there is a point of light, reminiscent of the taijitu (yin yang symbol).
3 - I like candles


Thinking about deceased family members & friends is because...

1 - There are long associations with this time of year being linked with death & renewal
2 - It's nice to take some time out to remember people who have gone & this time seems as good as any.


The Port is because I like Port.

Physics & the Tao

We've been discussing the Tao and the Big Bang, how they are related and how Taoism is viewed by scientists. Is the Big Bang the same thing as the creation of the 10000 things referred to in the Tao Te Ching and can Taoism make predictions relevant to Physics?

My feelings are that I'd be cautious about directly linking the origins of the universe with the origin of the 10000 things. Taoism teaches us that there are no absolutes and already scientific theory is moving beyond the big bang with ideas such as M-theory and ideas that "time" in some form can pre-exist the big bang. There will also be the limitless manifestations of Tao which are forever beyond our knowing. What is interesting is that again and again in science we come across the same ideas as are found in Taoism and it is no surprise that we see something of the origin of the 10000 things reflected in our knowledge of the big bang.

As for Taoism and science? I'd venture that most scientists don't know or understand Taoism. Certainly those that encountered it like Bohr clearly saw the conceptual links between Physics and Taoism. Taoism is a series of statements of demonstrable fact combined with conclusions on what this tells us about how we can live our lives. The statements hold true wherever they are applied and so are just as valid in Physics or Mathematics. For example, by my understanding, Mandlebrot's analysis of the length of the coast of Britain demonstrating that a finite area can be enclosed by a line of infinite length is easily predicted from the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching - for exactly the same reasons. Equally Mandlebrot's work is an elegant example of the meaning of "The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao".

The advancement of science has been repeatedly held back by adopted orthodoxies - like the belief of God's hand at the heart of everything, celestial bodies moving in perfect circles, or the mechanistic predictable view of the universe's workings. These orthodoxies have repeatedly led to the dissenters being ostracised, outcast or whatever until, in a revolution brought about by a failing of the old orthodoxy, suddenly the old paradigm is overturned leading to some of the dissenters being validated. To the best of my knowledge, each time this has happened the new paradigm has moved closer to a picture of the universe in accord with that of Taoism.

Taoism doesn't need science to validate it, and science doesn't need Taoism - but the roots of both are the same and I believe each can provide something useful to the other.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Homosexuality

On the Reform Taoism forum a question was raised about what Taoism tells us about homosexuality and legal gay relationships. For what it's worth, here's my answer...

IMHO there's a few points here.... The first is that the Tao Te Ching is not a religious text in the same way as the Bible or Qur'an. It does not claim to be the "word of God" or some kind of infallible reference, but rather is the observations of either one or a group of people depending on what you believe. I like to think of it as a travel book, where the writer says "I did this to get where I wanted to go", and you can take from it what is useful to get you to the same destination, but it is not something to be blindly followed. If other texts pass any comment I don't know, but it would only be an opinion not a law. At the end of the day you are your own guide to the Tao.

Secondly Taoism is about finding your own way to live rather than telling others how they should live theirs. I see no way that two people having a consenting relationship affects me finding harmony with the Tao, so I don't see why what they do should be any of my business.

Finally, one of the foundations of Taoism is observation of nature. Apparently homosexual behaviour is common in nature and, while one should be cautious about reading too much meaning for humans in the behaviour of other species, it does make it difficult to claim that gay humans are "unnatural".

Friday, 22 August 2008

Crying children

On a more upbeat topic, a poster on the Reform Taoism forum was a while back asking for ideas on how to deal with a baby who was healthy but crying a lot due to teething, and the stresses that places on parents. Obviously it's important to check with professionals to ensure there is no serious problem, but assuming all is OK, here are my few thoughts....

I was helped by my mother-in-law's experiences - she used to be a maternity nurse training as a midwife but even she found times where being a new mother got to her. Her life got a lot easier when she reasoned that when she worked in the hospital they checked that any crying baby was basically OK healthwise, well fed and with a clean nappy, and then the nurses would leave them to cry because they were very busy. The babies in the hospital grew up fine, so she brought up 3 kids working on the basis that if the baby was basically OK (e.g. suffering from teething) then if the crying was getting to her the simplest thing to do was to put the baby somewhere where they were safe (e.g. their cot/crib), shut the door, sit down & have a cup of tea for 10 mins, then go back to trying to comfort them feeling a bit less stressed.

If you feel you're close to snapping the child will be a lot better off if they're left to cry in a safe location while you regather your composure than they will be with a stressed out parent. The other thing of course is that babies can sense their parent's distress and that makes them distressed which makes them cry, so it becomes a vicious circle.

Another important thing is to look at your expectations. If you're getting stressed because you want or need to be doing something other than comfort the baby, just accept that it isn't going to happen & just live for that moment.

One other thing I'd add is that as parents we seem to feel pressure to "fix" everything "wrong" with our children. I'm not suggesting that you don't try to comfort your child, but teething hurts, and when things hurt, children (and adults) cry. It's a natural process. Don't feel that if you can't stop your child crying you've failed somehow - just comfort them and be there for them, calmly soothing them as they work through the pain of growing.

All the world knows beauty but if that becomes beautiful this becomes ugly
all the word knows good but if that becomes good this becomes bad (11)

Taoism teaches us that our judgements are relative. By deciding that something is good (e.g. a quiet baby), something else (e.g. a crying baby) is therefore bad. We then try to achieve the good and remove the bad but in reality they are two sides of the same coin. Through excessive efforts to quiet a baby we can actually cause the baby to cry more, or we can get the baby quiet but the methods used can cause more problems further down the line.

In Taoism we seek a middle path, trying to find balance. A baby that cries all the time or never cries should both be causes for concern, but so too should be parents that seek to have a baby that never cries or that they consider to be a burden to their lifestyle.

The Soul

Continuing on my cheery theme of death (I'm really in quite a happy place right now so I don't know why this theme keeps coming up - maybe the Tao is trying to tell me something?????), a while back the question came up of whether there is a separate "Soul" which survives after death and whether science can tell us anything about it. The following is my take on this - YMMV....

What we know is that nature is part of the Tao & that by observing nature we can gain some understanding of the Tao.

Nature is unsentimental. Once things have finished their "usefulness" they die. Our science and technology can postpone this for us but only for a while. If we have a soul separate to our physical existence it seems reasonable to assume that it dies too unless it has some "usefulness" separate to physical existence.

Nature is efficient. It doesn't repeatedly create new energy from which to form matter. When we die, everything that we are is not destroyed - just recycled into new forms. Presumably the same would be true for a separate soul.

The Tao is more than Nature so it is possible to conceive that the essence of a soul falls outside of Nature, but if it does there's nothing that science will be able to tell us about it.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Funerals

Nice cheery subject, I know, but I've seen a few posts on forums over the years discussing how to arrange a funeral service for a philosophical Taoist. I saw another the other day and it got me thinking about how I might want it done given that most probable attendees might not even really know anything about Philosophical Taoism or even Taoism in general.

I was also looking for some structure which would not be completely unfamiliar to the attendees, but which would be true to my beliefs. It's not going to matter to the deceased whatever happens but ritual is a useful mechanism to help the mourners cope.

Whatever...this is what I came up with as a possible structure for such a service. It's envisaged that one or more people would handle the officiating (speaker) role and my personal request would be that all attendees wear brightly coloured clothing - just to brighten things up!

Any opinions and/or suggestions gratefully received.


Philosophical Taoist Funeral Ceremony

Welcome & thank you for coming to this ceremony to mark the passing of ..insert-deceased's-name.. .

..insert-deceased's-name.. was a Philosophical Taoist. The concept of Tao is the Taoists most deeply held belief, and the Chinese word "Tao" roughly translates as "Way". Lao-tse, the ancient Chinese philosopher widely regarded as the founder of Taoism, taught that the Tao simply defies description and that the only true way to seek it is through personal spiritual exploration and dedication.

The Tao is difficult to explain but amongst other things it is conceived as the fundamental non-sentient, impersonal basis of reality. The Tao can be seen behind the natural processes and balance of the Universe and all things in the Universe, while seeming separate and distinct, are actually just aspects of the Tao.

Philosophical Taoists believe that Death is not a loss, but a transformation, and that what we knew as ..insert-deceased's-name.. has now moved on to participate in the endless dance of manifestation and change that is the Tao. While it is natural to feel sorrow at ..insert-deceased's-name.. passing, it is important to balance this sorrow with our memories of the life ..insert-deceased's-name.. lived, our times together, and the love and friendship that we shared.

<...insert short obituary for the deceased, hopefully with a story or two of happy experiences & giving personal idea of deceased's personality...>


Philosophical Taoists do not have Gods or prayers or hymns, but they do follow the teachings of Lao-tze's book called "The Tao Te Ching", which he wrote over 2500 years ago. The Tao Te ching is not a Holy Book like the Bible or Koran, but rather is a guidebook on how one can live in harmony with the universe. I'd like to read you just an excerpt, adapted from a translation by Jonathan Star...

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind


Only then will you see that all things emerge from emptiness

Only then will you see that all things flourish and dance in endless variation

Only then will you see that all things dissolve back into perfect emptiness
Emerging, Flourishing, Dissolving back again - This is the eternal process of Nature


Be still

With stillness is revealed eternity

With Eternity is revealed a vision of oneness

With a vision of oneness is revealed universal love

With Universal love is revealed the great truth of Nature

The great truth of Nature is the Tao


Whoever knows this truth lives forever

The body may perish and deeds may be forgotten
but he who has the Tao has all eternity


Now can we all take a minute of silence to consider our own memories of ..insert-deceased's-name..


This was ..insert-deceased's-name.. favourite ..music/reading/etc....

<...Play music/read etc... while coffin is buried or curtains close for cremation or coffin buried...>

Monday, 19 May 2008

Thankyou

I'd like to say thanks to those people that have kindly taken time to post comments, and to reassure them that I do intend to add posts to this site over the coming month & years.

I'm no expert on Taoism and much of what I write on this site is as much to help me clarify what I believe at this time - tomorrow I might have a different perspective - and I hope that, whether on not you agree with my beliefs, there will be something on this site that may help you on your own journey.

I can't guarantee when posts will appear. The process can't (or at least shouldn't) be forced in case I fall into the trap of writing for the sake of writing, or writing because some people have said some nice things about my previous posts. When the time feels right I'll add more posts but I can't say what he frequency will be.

In my personal life I'm at a point of reflection. Our baby son was born in March and there are few things that can teach us as much about living in harmony with the Tao as a new baby.

Who is filled with harmony is like a newborn. (10)


Tuesday, 4 March 2008

So what is the Tao?

This is either the hardest or the easiest question in Taoism, depending on how you look at it.

It's the easiest because there is no definitive answer possible. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are variously translated as...

The Way that can be described is not the absolute Way; the name that can be given is not the absolute name. (5)

Existence is beyond the power of words To define: Terms may be used But are none of them absolute.(6)

The Tao that can be described in words is not the true Tao The Name that can be named is not the true Name. (7)

...and what all this is trying to say is that if you had all the time and all the words in the lifetime of the Universe they wouldn't be sufficient to describe the Tao.

This may be difficult to grasp, so maybe an example would be useful here...

Take the word "table" & what comes to mind? You might think of a sleek glass & metal designer construction, personally I think of an old wooden farmhouse table - by the use of a word common to both of us we are already heading off on different tracks of thought. We have also unconsciously limited our understanding as we've both thought of a "table" as piece of furniture, which means we've excluded other aspects of what constitutes a table such as the nature of the materials used to make it, the technology required to construct it, or the development of a culture in which tables are conceived in the first place. And then what about a "table" as used in a spreadsheet, or a medal table listing the most successful nations at the Olympics?

So we now get together a concise definition of a "table" - "it's a piece of furniture which can be made out of a variety of natural or synthetic materials constructed with tools which have developed over millennia of technological development and which performs a variety of roles that have evolved as human society has developed." Of course this is an inadequate definition - what about the origins & varieties of the designs, the origins of the materials, the atomic structure of the materials & their origins being forged in the heart of stars & how those stars came into being? What about the origins of mankind who made the table? What about the feel of a table when you touch it. What about how it feels when you bang your knee on a corner of one? Or how it feels when you're struggling with a heavy parcel and then you reach a table and put it down?

The point is that to fully describe a table would take forever. There is always more you can say, and while we may have an established concept of "a table" it is not necessarily the same thing to two different people.

There is also a problem in that as soon as you start to describe a "table" in any way the restrictions of both language and thought tend to exclude other equally valid descriptions. For example if you start down the line of describing it as a piece of furniture used in dining you're already moving away from any description that might discuss their use in operating theatres, or their use as improvised air-raid shelters. As soon as you start any form of description, the words will always describe something less than the totality of the thing you wish to describe.

Although we can demonstrate that we can never derive an exact definition, we can however identify properties of a "table" which have significance to our everyday experience of them, which are common for most people, and which enable us to communicate ideas.


So, getting back to the Tao, what does this tell us?...

"What is the Tao?" can be easily answered with "It's impossible to say!"


...but of course, that answer's not very useful is it? Seeking insights to better experience the Tao is how we move to the hard answer.


We know so far that anything we say about the Tao will at best only be an approximation of some of its characteristics, but is there anything that can lead us to some kind of understanding? Have a look at the next bit of Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching...

Nameless it is the source of heaven and earth; named it is the mother of all things.(5)

In the absence of names Lies the origin of heavens and earth The presence of names Is mother to the 10000 things.(8)

Tao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all limited things.(2)

...so all things in existence (the ten thousand things) have their origin in a source which we call the Tao. Given that all things have their origin in the Tao, all their observable characteristics come from the Tao and hence tell us something of its nature. Can we use this to understand better what the Tao is?

Well, we can use the observation of existence to understand facets of the Tao, but as per our little "table" thought experiment, as soon as we concentrate on any particular thing we obviously start limiting our overall understanding by excluding all the other things out there with differing properties.

The third part of chapter 1 in the Tao Te Ching gives us an insight into how to approach the observation of existence to shed light on the Tao's nature...

Whoever is desireless, sees the essence of life. Whoever desires, sees its manifestations.(5)

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery. By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.(9)

Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.(3)

...so by actively pursuing the knowledge you are getting caught up in viewing the manifestations of the Tao. This gives us a big problem, one which Buddhists have been aware of for a long time. We want to experience the truth behind existence and we know that to do this we need to free ourself from desire, but the problem is that the "wanting to experience the truth behind existence" and the "wanting to free ourself from desire" are both in themselves desires! We're stuck!

As creatures we are wrapped up with the manifestations of the Tao and we are always thinking back to the past, or planning what will happen in the future, wanting things to happen, and wishing things hadn't happened - themselves just more manifestations & desires. With us being wrapped up with all these manifestations and desires there's nothing we can do to break out to experience the underlying truth, so what happens now? Well if there's nothing we can do, the only other thing we can try is to do nothing!

Finally we are getting somewhere! It is through doing nothing that we have the chance to experience something of what lies behind these manifestations. Unfortunately doing nothing is a lot more difficult than it might sound (Hey! I never said this was going to be easy!), there's always desires and thoughts and plans bubbling up in our minds, and all the events in our lives to get in the way.

Doing nothing
doesn't mean being inanimate: Staying in bed all day won't do it. Being lazy won't do it. Doping yourself up to the eyeballs won't do it. For me Taoism is about learning how to do nothing.


So, this is all very interesting, but how would I attempt to come up with an approximation of a description the Tao? Well I've looked at a lot of definitions many of which I feel capture some aspects well...


The Reform Taoist definition says...

The Chinese word "Tao" roughly translates as "Way"; for Taoists, it refers to a non-sentient, impersonal power that surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates Natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It benevolently embodies the harmony of opposites (i.e., there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female).

...now I'm not completely comfortable with this description. I believe it is something flowing through all things, but it is also the things being flowed through; the non-things; a non-flowing; a nothingness; the source of the things, the non-things, the flowing, the non-flowing, and the nothingness; and the thing "behind" all these other aspects. I also feel that the use of terms like "regulates", "nourishes" and "benevolently" imply a level of conciousness and personality that I don't think we have any evidence for in our experience.

You can see we're falling into the problem of how to describe something again. If we can't describe a table, how are we going to describe the source of reality? Of course, the actual reason for the problem with the table description is that the table itself is a manifestation of the Tao and the more detail you get into the more you're heading towards trying to describe the whole of the Tao, of which our whole physical universe is only one manifestation.


Jennifer Emick writing on altreligion.about.com says...

The Tao is the living source, the ineffable from which all creation springs…it is the totality of the infinite, which cannot be described in words. Naming or describing is always a limiting act, therefore, that which is limitless cannot be named or described.

...which I think is a nice definition but fails to emphasise that nothingness & non-being are also part of the Tao.


Beliefnet.com says...

The Tao is a transcendent state of being--beyond the reality of the mind that includes words, and beyond the reality of the senses. Yet paradoxically, the Tao is also right here and now since we can perceive the Tao by observing the course of a stream or the flow of our own breath. The Tao is available to our perception when we are fully in the present. The Tao is the divine life that moves through all things.

I really like this definition but I feel it again talks about something moving through things, when the Tao is also the thing being moved through as well as limitless other things, and as well as nothingness.


For me, how I would attempt to describe the Tao at this time (ask me in a year and I'm sure I'll say something slightly different) is something like this...

We experience existence as a collection of separate things: this & that, you & me, life & death, then & now, love & hate, here & there; but the truth is that these things are not separate, but rather all just some of the characteristics of one single thing - the Tao.

The closer we look at things, the more we get wrapped up in the specific details and attributes of that particular thing. The more detached and distant our view, the more we gain a different perspective and see things in a more holistic and unified way. If we wish to experience more of the nature of the Tao we need to let go of the details of particular things to better experience the whole.

Were it possible to stand outside the Tao and see it - all we would see is the Tao. All the "separate" manifestations would be seen truly as just a part of the whole Tao and not separate from it or each other.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Death, Immortality & the Soul

There's a bit of discussion regarding death and what, if anything, happens after. I thought I'd post my brief thoughts here as well...

My belief is that Death is not really a loss, but a transformation, and that what we knew as the person moves on to participate in an endless ever-changing dance of manifestation, existence and de-manifestation that is the Tao....

All things emerge from emptiness
All things flourish and dance in endless variation
All things dissolve back into perfect emptiness

..I don't claim to know any better than the next person, but from observing nature we see things conceived, born, growing, dieing, decaying and becoming source material for new life. It seems to me that the desire for some form of personal survival is a natural feature of the ego.

Fundamentally there is no you and I, this and that - all are part of the same single thing - The Tao. The Tao is the thing that is immortal and as a part of it, so are we, but I see nothing in nature to convince me that anything of my personal identity would survive after death, and indeed what use is that identity without the physical person? Nature doesn't retain things out of sentiment.

I can't remember where I read it (somewhere online) but somebody wrote that you already know what death is like. You have been dead (i.e. non-existent) for billions of years before life existed on Earth, or before you were conceived, and death is exactly like that. That seems reasonable to me.

I've tried to synthesize my thoughts into a few brief paragraphs, using the beliefs entry on the Reform Taoism site as a starting point, and this is the best I've come up with so far...

I believe that mortal existence is just one of the infinite number of manifestations of the Tao. Will we be reunited with our loved ones after mortal death? There is no way to know, so I believe that we should focus on the living of life, and not on speculation on what happens after.

I believe that we must learn to overcome the human instinct to view mortal death as bad and as the "ultimate end", and to rest comfortably knowing that what happens to us after mortal death is also part of the eternal process of the Tao. If we can learn to live in harmony with the Tao during our mortal lives, we will be in harmony with the Tao at the time of our mortal death. If we can manage that, then everything else will fall into place; that is the nature of the Tao.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Introduction to Taoism

I was thinking of trying to write a simple and not to heavy introduction to Taoism, but while searching the Net for ideas I came across an excellent site which already does this. The Introduction to Taoism site is located at...

http://www.geocities.com/taoism101/

So what's with all the pictures of water?

Well, hopefully without getting too pretentious, all these different images are hopefully illustrating one of the key points central to Taoism. In the the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu writes "The Name that can be spoken is not the Eternal Name" meaning IMHO that when you give a name to something you only partially describe it.

For this particular case when we think of "Water" we might think of a glass of water, or a river, or the sea, but there are many, possibly limitless, other aspects such as the way light reflects on a wet pavement, a rainbow, the patterns raindrops make on a window, a cloud floating in the sky, or as here how water influences the world around us as a form of transport and in the location of our great cities. All of these things are also part of that thing we quickly describe as "Water".

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Tao and flat-pack furniture

So, if I'm here ranting on about Taoism, what impact has it had on my life? Well, one real life impact it has had is that I have attained an almost Zen like ability to assemble flat-pack furniture without getting angry, swearing, screaming or descending into the depths of despair.

It used to be the case that I'd hate to get something that I had to assemble myself. The item used to sit in its packing for months until I could postpone the agony no longer. Then the real trouble would start, frustration at the poor instructions, being told to count everything before starting, cheap screws, difficult to assemble pieces; all of these were a source of enormous frustration and stress, along with a feeling of anger towards the people that devised this form of torture. I'd put it together piece by piece while muttering and planning what I'd put in my letter of complaint to the company. Not surprisingly, most of the flat-packs I assembled were poorly constructed & I felt little satisfaction when they were completed.

Since finding Taoism I've realised that the problems I experienced did not really come from the outside world, but rather from my own perceptions and expectations. Before I even started I resented having to do the job, even though it was me that chose and bought the item. I could have paid more for an assembled item, but I wanted the cost savings of flat-pack - just without the effort. Once started I would be concentrating on rushing through the assembly as quick as possible and planning what I'd be doing once I'd finished. Any delay was another reason to be angry, and of course my anger & haste led to mistakes, which meant more delays causing a vicious circle.

Through Taoism I have gained perspective, relaxing & accepting that this is what I will be doing for the next how-ever many hours, taking pleasure in following the steps described carefully and calmly without thinking about what I'd be doing after, and adjusting my expectations based on experience. All of these mean that when I assemble a flat-pack these days, that's all I concentrate on - and all the stress, frustration and anger just fades away.

The sage works quietly, seeking neither praise nor fame;
completing what he does with natural ease, and then retiring.
This is the way and nature of Tao. (4)

Monday, 28 January 2008

So...how did I become a Taoist?

I was raised a Christian in the Church of England. As a family we rarely attended church except for weddings, funerals and main holidays such as Easter and Christmas, but I was sent regularly to Sunday school. Even at a young age, while I liked lots of the stories like Noah, Moses, Jesus with the fishes, I always felt that some things didn't make sense. Why did it matter that Jesus' mother was a virgin? If Jesus was God, why did he have to go through such a charade to forgive us? What's all this nonsense about a Trinity?

By the age of 12 my doubts were complete. Some bits I just didn't believe, and if the teachers were not telling me the truth on those bits, how could I trust them on anything else? I'd pretty much decided that the spiritual aspect of life was completely worthless. However, this started to change when my grandmother died. I missed her a lot and was deeply sad, but then it occurred to me for the first time as a real concept - I was going to die one day too!

I started thinking about life and death and started trying to understand how I fitted in. I don't want to make this sound like some great search - I found out bits about what some religions believed, but this was just brief interludes over the course of many years when most of the time I did my best to ignore the subject.

The western beliefs did little for me and all seemed to have the same flaws that Christianity had in that they seemed to consist of half-baked fairy tales designed to make life and death less scary. When I started to read a little about eastern beliefs I started to feel I was on to something. I'd come to the opinion that whatever was "the answer", it had to essentially be simple.

I'm a great fan of Einstein, particularly his thought experiments and use of reason. One of the quotes attributed to him is "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler" and this has always made sense to me. One of the problems I had with western religion was the level of complexity in their beliefs, a complexity which I believe comes from trying to make their beliefs fit the real world that we experience.

The level of complexity reminds me of the problem of understanding planetary orbits in the 16th Century. Before and after the scientific revolution that changed our world view from a system with the Earth at the centre to one with the Sun at the centre, it was considered that the motion of heavenly bodies must move in perfect circles due to classical theories of how the universe is ordered. The problem with this was that when observed in the real world, some of the planets did not seem to obey the rules, occasionally going the wrong way in the sky for a short while before reverting to their correct motion. Because of the belief that circles must be involved, systems of more and more complex motion involving circles upon circles (called epicycles) were imagined to explain this behaviour. These systems got ridiculously complex but still had trouble explaining planetary behaviour until Johannes Kepler came along and explained the motion with mathematically simple ellipses. If the explanation had been based on a modern scientific process of observation, measurement and theorisation the system of circles and epicycles would never have survived for very long, but because the whole system was built on erroneous beliefs a highly complex explanation was required.

Being drawn to eastern beliefs and simple explanations, Buddhism, and especially Zen seemed to approach what I felt seemed to make sense, but the world-view seemed to see life as a struggle whereas generally I've enjoyed life, so for many years I was uncommitted.

When I met my now wife, one of the books she had was "The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff. When I read the book I thought WOW! I don't agree with everything it's saying, and some parts seem contradictory, but this is the closest I've found to what I feel. I read on from here taking in some other Taoist writings, specifically the Tao Te Ching (TTC), and found that where I'd disagreed with Hoff, the TTC seemed to give answers that seemed right to me.

After this revelatory moment you'd think I would have dived in head first, but actually it went on the back burner - always there in the back of mind but un-pursued. It was only when I hit the age of 40 and started again to think about death and started to get fearful in the middle of the night that I really started to delve into Taoism and found it answered my questions and has lead me on a path of contentment, but also of wonderful experience.These days I wouldn't claim I'm a very good Taoist but each year I find it influences my life more, I'm more at peace, and I get richer experiences from life.

If any of this rings any bells with you then I'd recommend that you find out a bit more about Taoism and see if it can give you what you need to enjoy and savour life, and let it give you peace with the approach to the inevitable end of life. I recommend it!

Taoism or Daoism???

You might be confused that sometimes you'll see the words "Tao" and "Taoism", and at other times it's written as "Dao" and "Daoism". So which one is correct?

The two spellings arise from two different systems which have been created to represent Chinese (Mandarin) words using a Romanized alphabet. The Wade-Giles system was developed in the mid-to-late 19th Century and was the main system used through most of the 20th Century. The Pinyin system was adopted by the People's Republic of China in 1979 and has since become the international standard system for modern Chinese. Despite the difference in spelling, both systems are attempting to represent the Chinese word which sounds like "dow" - rhyming with "cow", "now" and "how" - so that's how it should be pronounced regardless of spelling.


For myself however, I first saw the "Tao" version and not knowing any better imagined that the word began with a "t" sound, and hence that's how I began to say it. These days, despite knowing better, I still say the words "Tao", "Taoism" and "Taoist" with a "t" sound instead of a "d" sound. There are three good reasons why I do this....
  • One of the central principles of Taoism is that the word is not the thing. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are "The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao" so getting hung-up on how the word is meant to be said is completely missing the point. Instead of calling it "The Tao", we could call it "The Universal Motivation", "The great Ooohjah", or even "Bob" and still mean the same thing. It's not important and I think it's important to remember this.
  • When I was in Shanghai, our guide told us that when the Chinese talk of Taoism using the English Language they say "Taoism" with a "t" when they mean Philosophical Taoism, and "Daoism" with a "d" when they mean Religious Taoism. Now I've not heard this anywhere else, but who am I to argue with him?
  • I prefer the sound of the word when it starts with the "t" sound. Of the two, that pronunciation makes me happier.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

What is Reform Taoism

I'm a member of the Reform Taoist Congregation, so what's that I hear you ask. To explain Reform Taoism, formerly called Western Reform Taoism, the easiest thing is for me to give you the decription on the Reform Taoist Congregation website written by its founder Michael Torley...

It is a religion, but probably not in the sense you're used to. Specifically, we do not believe in a god or deity; we believe in an impersonal force called the Tao. We also have no established concept of an "afterlife". However, we do believe that the Tao demonstrates to us the proper way to live. Through our beliefs, we learn how to act under any conceivable circumstances; how to handle problems; and how to live life properly, without causing harm to others. The fact that we place our lives and our trust in the Tao is what makes Reform Taoism a religion, rather than simply a philosophy.

We are brothers and sisters to each other, and as such, we respect each others' opinions and decisions. The purpose of a spiritual community is to lend support and encouragement. We help each other through rough times, and we offer advice to those who need it.

I don't necessarily agree with everything that other members of Reform Taoism believe, but we are a friendly community with similar beliefs committed to helping each other on their path. If you're interested in finding out more about Reform Taoism, follow the link in the Taoism Links section - and have a look, particularly at the Beliefs section on the "About Us" menu.



The Path of Water

Why did I call this blog "The Path of Water?" The Tao translates as the "Path" or the "Way" and it is often compared to Water because many of the properties of Water provide an insight into the nature of the Tao which most of us can relate to.

The highest good is like water which benefits all things and contends with none. it flows in low places that others disdain and thus it is close to the Tao. (2)

Water doesn't try, it doesn't want, it doesn't seek praise, it doesn't have pride, it does not feel fear, it does not feel inadequate, it just does, it just is. It acts in ways that are in balance with it's true nature.

We can learn from Water through acting in ways that are true to our nature. This doesn't mean reverting to living in trees; part of human nature is to explore, to compete, to invent and to learn; but it does mean that these should be balanced with other aspects of our nature such as nurturing, loving, and spirituality. In losing site of these aspects and undervaluing or rejecting them we leave a gap which we try to fill with possesions, comfort food, TV and status, but we can never be satisfied by these things as they don't fill the gap, they just distract us from it for a short while.


Water also has the property of stillness. When left without any outside forces acting on it Water becomes still and in its stillness is a "magical" peaceful quality which many of us recognize and are moved by. In Taoism it is through stillness that we can gain insight into the nature of the Tao.

Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. (3)



Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A Taoist Meditation

Become totally empty, Quiet the restlessness of the mind.Only then will you see that all things emerge from emptiness. Only then will you see that all things flourish and dance in endless variation.Only then will you see that all things dissolve back into perfect emptiness. Emerging, Flourishing, Dissolving back again - This is the eternal process of Nature.

Be still. With stillness is revealed eternity. With Eternity is revealed a vision of oneness. With a vision of oneness is revealed universal love. With Universal love is revealed the great truth of Nature. The great truth of Nature is the Tao

Whoever knows this truth lives forever. The body may perish and deeds may be forgotten, but he who has the Tao has all eternity. (1)

The Tao & Reform Taoism

I am a Taoist and a member of the Reform Taoist Congregation. The concept of Tao is the Reform Taoists most deeply held belief, and the foundation of our religion. The definition of Tao listed on the Reform Taoism website say that the Chinese word "Tao" roughly translates as "Way" and for Reform Taoists it refers to, amongst other things, a non-sentient, impersonal power that surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living.

The Tao regulates Natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. Lao-tse, the ancient Chinese philosopher widely regarded as the founder of Taoism, taught that the Tao simply defies description and that the only true way to seek it is through personal spiritual exploration and dedication.

Reform Taoists believe that Death is not a loss, but a transformation, and that what we knew as a living person moves on in Death to participate in the endless dance of manifestation and change that is the Tao.

Here we go....

This is my first posting on this site and my first blog posting ever. Hopefully the next ones will prove to be more interesting.
 
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