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. **

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.