Posts Tagged ‘lao tzu’

i chingThe idea of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos for positions of control in order to secure wealth and power. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us into predators and prey. There can be no other way, it says – no surviving life without combat.

Not true, says the Yi Jing.

The Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, is a strange text, one that first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC. It came to the west in the late 19th century as a cultural curiosity, and was taken up by the psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm (German) edition in 1923. It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting a more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to its values, and you will remain asleep also.

The Yi Jing is unlike any other book you have read. You can talk to it. You ask it stuff, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, or even God, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with it is going to be different. My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open a channel to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which form a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight.

I don’t know how it works, and to be frank, I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can it accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations that range from the vaguely plausible to the crackpot, and on the other a sour scientitsic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, and a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice as beings in flesh but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of its inherent limitations, and the knowledge that greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, the Yi Jing is without parallel. It is a text that remains as relevant today as it was in Neolithic times.

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The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The unnamable is the eternally real
Naming is the origin of all things
Free from desire, we realise the mystery
Caught in desire, we see only the manifestations
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source
The source is called darkness
Darkness within darkness
The gateway to all understanding

Carina NebulaSo runs the first chapter of the Dao De Jing, the seminal text of spiritual and philosophical Daoism. Although attributed by legend to the archetypal  and possibly mythical white-bearded sage figure Lao-tse, its true authorship is still debated. What is not in doubt is its antiquity – the earliest surviving versions thus far uncovered dating to around 300-400 BC, while tradition dates it much earlier to around 500-600 BC. In archeological terms its existence provides evidence of a remarkable awakening of a deeply spiritual, philosophical and self-reflective human consciousness – an awakening that seems to have taken place across many cultures, both east and west, around the same time.

The  Dao De Jing  is also a troubling text – just eighty one short, enigmatic verses that have been translated and interpreted in different ways. The above quote is from the opening of the Stephen Mitchell version which, although frowned upon by some scholars of Daoism, remains popular – perhaps, like the Dao de Jing itself – for holding more to the heart, than to the letter of an idea.

At first glance, the Dao De Jing reads like nonsense, and many of us will discard it as being too enigmatic for its own good. It’s only as we deepen psychologically and spiritually that more of the text begins to make sense. As children of a material and rigorously rational paradigm, we prefer our lessons delivered in plain words, our descriptions of reality literal, and our proofs of phenomenon to be demonstrated with an irrefutable logic. But the Dao De Jing suggests the ultimate nature of reality simply isn’t like that. This makes describing it in literal terms impossible, so the text uses paradox to provoke, twist and even to paralyse the mind into a logical impasse from which the meaning arises of its own accord, not as words but as visceral insights.

The unnamable is the eternally real. What’s eternally real is beyond language.  We know what it is, but not its nature. It is the ground of being, it is the gap in the perceivable quanta of the manifest world, but if we try to define it or even imagine it,  we limit our understanding to what we can perceive with the inadequate apparatus of the logical, thinking mind. It’s better then to have no mind, no convictions about the eternally real than any mind at all.

This is not to say the eternally real cannot be experienced. We are, after all, part of the ultimate nature of reality ourselves, our minds holographic reductions of a greater conscious whole. It’s through the mind therefore we can tune in, if we can first of all tune out the mind’s more daily preoccupations with material things or rational thoughts – for what we think about things is paradoxically our biggest hurdle to understanding any-thing at all.

If we can use our minds this way, and by a process of mindfulness seek nothing but the stillness in every moment, we might eventually glimpse the darkness of our immaterial self, and in so doing realise we can only be experiencing this self from the perspective of a deeper blackness, a more authentic all-encompassing formlessness that seems both self and no-self.

Impossible to define in intellectual terms this no-thing-ness is experienced as a sense of oneness, familiar and comforting as a passionate lover’s embrace. And with it comes the reminder this exquisite state is our most natural state, our own ground of being. It is who and what we really are – and we have merely forgotten it for a while, temporarily lost as we all are, in the world of forms.

Self in no self. Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

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Baoding ballsIn the 1954 movie “The Caine Mutiny” Humphrey Bogart plays the haunted, eccentric and much hated USN officer Captain Queeg. It’s a story in which Queeg finds himself up against accusations of incompetence lodged by his long suffering junior officers, two of whom he’s had hauled before a Court’s Marshal for mutiny. One of the most memorable images of the film is of Bogart rotating a pair of ball bearings in his hand as a stress reliever, while he glares moodily at his oppressors like a man possessed.

People manifest different habits when it comes to unconscious stress relief, not all of them quite so cinematically dramatic as Bogart’s ball bearings – biting nails, biting the inside of your mouth (one of mine), twiddling your hair, your eyebrows(another one of mine), or the ends of your mustache  or picking your toenails. Whatever the habit, it’s temporarily soothing for the doer, but it can be frustrating, even intimidating, for innocent bystanders.

A step up from Bogart’s ball bearings are the so called Chinese “healthy balls” [sic?]. These have the added curiosity of a chime built into them. As you rotate them against each other, you get a pleasing vibration in the palm of your hand – but again to anyone trapped in your company, the sound can be really annoying. I bought them because I liked the look of them, rather than believing they possessed any special healing properties, and I don’t play with them all the time – honestly.

Several of the major organs of the so called energy body have meridians that pass through the fingers, then through the palm of the hand and the arms, as they thread their way into the physical body. The constant dinging and vibration as you rotate the balls are supposed to stimulate the meridians which helps maintain a balanced energy body, which in turn regulates the physical body and keeps you healthy, hence the imperfectly translated: “healthy balls”.

That’s the theory anyway, and I should have an open mind about it, being otherwise such an advocate of alternative therapies, but my sense of smell which was temporarily restored by acupuncture, disappeared about a month ago and, in spite of continuing weekly sessions where I basically have pins stuck in my face, I’m now back to my old anosmic self – perhaps not helped by a stubborn chest infection. I’m therefore not really in a mood to talk about TCM, because I’m frustrated by anosmia – and for various other reasons as well.

Indeed, I feel very much like Bogart, oppressed and misunderstood, so I sit sour faced this evening, juggling my ball bearings. But the ball bearings are no good, Humphrey. You see, the frustration you feel creates a very negative kind of energy that you channel into the motion of those balls. It temporarily diverts the energy, stops it from damaging you, but the source is still there, eating away at you all the time, even when you’re asleep. What you’ve got to do is defuse it. Bad things happen you see? There is misfortune and suffering. That’s life, and its how we deal with it that’s the important thing. So take a deep breath, and let it go.

Well, that’s easy for you to say, says Bogart, but some things are just so goddamned awful, you can’t simply let them go, can you? Like your crew-members ganging up on you and trying to get away with mutiny by challenging your competence. But I think you can let it go, Humphrey. Indeed, I think we must. Lao Tzu said that if you’re frustrated or depressed, you’re living in the past, contemplating things that have already happened. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future, contemplating what has yet to come. So, let it go, steady yourself in the moment. Let the sediment fall, then clarity will be restored. Stress and anxiety cloud the thoughts. They stop you from seeing straight, stop you from making the right decisions for yourself and others in your care.

I once asked a TCM doctor if those “healthy balls” were any good, since he had a pair on the shelf in his office, and of all people he should probably have the straight dope on them. And he said, well,… if someone’s annoying you, you can gain temporary relief by picking one up and hitting him with it. Other than that they’re probably useless.

By all means juggle your balls or twiddle your eyebrows, but letting go feels so much better. This is not to say we retreat from that which oppresses us, but if we can rid ourselves of the reactionary cloud of negative emotion, we act as we should – wisely, skilfully and in the clear light of day – rather than being influenced by darker energies, which will always waylay us and lead us into making bad decisions.

I hope I have the good sense to take my own advice!

Goodnight all.

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garden buddhaSome time ago now, my good lady was a guest at a church service in London. The sermon, she said, with a mischievous twinkle, would have interested me because it began with the showing of two pictures, side by side, one of Christ nailed to the cross, and the other of the Buddha, serenely floating on a cloud. However, this was not an example of ecumenical harmony  – indeed it was quite the opposite. The illustrations were used to show how Christ was very much involved in life, quite literally nailed up and suffering on account of it, that this was what life was all about: being in the thick of things, and really suffering. As for the other fellow, well just look at him: floating about serenely, eyes closed, completely out of it. How involved is that? One is living with suffering, the other is avoiding life by retreating into a sort of cloud-cuckoo land.

Now, I was a little surprised by this as I’d imagined the various religious genres were less prone to taking a pop at one another these days, though I suppose of all the non-christian religious icons that might have been chosen for such undeserved denigration, Buddha is probably the one least likely to have taken offence.

Anyway, for a moment, I found myself feeling quite cross, which was surely what my good lady, had playfully intended. I was cross because the vicar or the speaker, or whoever this person was had obviously missed the point and was demonstrating only their ignorance of Buddhism. Moreover, as a spiritual leader, they really should have known better than to speak in such an ill-informed way about another tradition. Surely, no one understands the nature of suffering, its reality, and its causes, more than the Buddhists! Also if it’s possible by analysis to root out the causes of suffering, eliminate it as much as is possible, and live a happier, more peaceful life as a result, as the Buddhists suggest we can, then what’s wrong with that? How could the speaker not have understood this? I mean, it was ridiculous! It was a cheap shot, playing to an audience of the already converted. How antiquated! How perfectly,….. medieval!

Then as if he’d been sitting up on the back row of the theatre of my mind, I heard Buddha break out into an enormous belly laugh, not at news of the sermon, but at me, at my crossness. I saw the joke, and laughed too, laughed at myself. You let it go. You recognise the snare, you disentangle yourself from it before it’s had time to do you any damage, and you move on.

I’ve been studying Buddhist and Taoist philosophies now for about a decade,  looking for parallels in  various western humanist ideas, and trying to apply the stuff I’ve picked up in both my basic approach to living, and also in trying to understand life a little better. I’ve had a small statue of the Buddha in a corner of my garden for several years,  but this is more on account of his role as a cultural icon, than a religious one  – I bought him from a garden centre. I’ve certainly never considered myself to be a Buddhist, because I always reckoned there was so much more involved than I probably had time for, and I wasn’t sure I really “got” Buddhism that well anyway. I have some books, I explore meditation, I sometimes seek out the Dalai Lama on You Tube, but it doesn’t make you a Buddhist, does it? I mean, I don’t want to be pinned down, and labelled as anything really. I’m not that familiar with the Buddha’s Dhammapada, and find myself more naturally drawn to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Also, it has to be said, I rather like the idea of Lao Tzu putting all his wisdom into those wonderfully enigmatic verses, before disappearing into the sunset with a dancing girl, and leaving us all to it. (at least that’s what I heard)

For a moment though, after Buddha laughed, I realised I understood more about Buddhism than I’d perhaps given myself credit for. It crystallised, and in the letting go of my childish pique, I became a  Buddhist – at least for the moment – if not actually a real one, then perhaps a sincere garden one, one who has gained much spiritual,  psychological and philosophical mileage from reading the ideas of a character, who, in modern times has sneaked into the West in disguise as this cultural icon, rather than an overtly religious one.

Conversely, I failed to understand why picture of the suffering Christ was spiritually superior.  Perhaps someone can enlighten me? To suffer is to live? I don’t think the Buddhists would argue with that one, but there seemed to be a suggestion that it was somehow more virtuous to suffer, and unrealistic to seek an end to suffering – that indeed this could only be achieved by retreating from the world into a kind of meditative bubble in which we might as well not be alive at all.

But meditation is not an escape. We do not hide in our meditation – indeed, psychologically speaking, the opposite seems the case to me, most of us only able to get by in our day-to-day lives by hiding all sorts of things from ourselves, all the time. There is nothing more fantastical therefore, than the perception of reality many of us weave for ourselves. Meditation, on the other hand, gives us a chance to step aside from the illusion. In meditation we seek to achieve nothing at all for a while. We just stop. And if we stop often enough, the mind begins to simmer down a bit, and eventually, when we’re not meditating, we begin to see things differently, and react to situations differently, because a part of the mind that was subdued before, has the chance to get a word in edgeways now. Meditation then, is not sitting on a cloud and hiding from reality. It’s about establishing for yourself a subtly different view of what that reality is.

Our actual life is no different. We still suffer. We have the same disappointments, shocks and upsets as before. Family and friends pass away unexpectedly, we still get ill, crash our car, lose our wallet, the doorbell rings in the middle of our tea and there’s some evangelist trying to convert us to their particular brand of religious extremism, our computer gets a virus, and we break our wristwatch. Then there are more subtle  forms of suffering that one might call self-inflicted, and are  caused simply by the way we view the world through the distorted lens of our attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

Buddhism then does not change the things life throws at you. It just makes you see them differently, so you suffer less emotional damage as a result. And of course seeing things differently dissolves our unhelpful attitudes and our petty prejudices, so that self inflicted suffering, at least, ought to be attainable by all but the most benighted of souls.

The Buddhists say we suffer in life because we’re attached to it – not just to life, but to the details that make up our lives. Things can never really be the way we want, they say, because things just don’t last. They are impermanent, yet we try to fool ourselves into thinking everything’s going to last for ever, and that certain things are valuable enough to be worth pursuing at any cost – money, fame, material goods, or even less tangible things like love, health, happiness, or the respect of others. The pursuit of anything gives rise to feelings of passion, excitement and greed but once we have attained something our desire for it vanishes, to be replaced by the fear of its possible loss. Its loss is inevitable, eventually: whatever it is, it won’t last, but we still cling to it.

What can we do then? Well, according to the Buddhist method, if we can accept our troubles are caused by our desires, then naturally we can reduce our troubles by desiring things less, by recognising more the impermanent nature of the world around us and the things in it, and getting less worked up by unhelpful ambitions to hang onto things for ever, be they stuff, states of mind or even just ideas about the way things are. If we can find a way of looking at life dispassionately, if we can recognise the impermanent nature of things, and be less inclined towards attachment, that is the secret of a happier life. Happiness therefore is not hanging on against the odds – it is letting go. The pursuit of happiness is inherently self defeating and the secret is that the giving up of one’s ambitions to be happy, leads to the greatest happiness of all.

As with all the things I witter on about, they should not be looked upon as self-evident truths, or beliefs that I wish to force down the throats of others. They are merely the things I think, and, in the words of the writer Flannery O’Conner, I tend to write in order to see what it is that I think. And I have been led to think this way because I find that if I apply these thoughts, I feel a little better, and fancy I can sometimes see a little further than the end of my nose  – which is really the best any of us have to go on.

To live is to suffer, sure, but the idea that it is good to suffer any more than we have to sounds more like self-indulgence to me.

Michael Graeme


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