Buddhism and Taoism

Tao: The “radical” on the left means “go” or “advance,” indicating movement.

Taoism is a philosophy based on tao (“dao”), or the Way, an ancient Chinese concept expressed in two principle works, Tao te ching (“Book of the Way and Virtue”), attributed to Lao Tzu (fl. 6th century BCE), considered the founder of Taoism, and Chuang Tzu, the words of Master Chuang Tzu.

Taoism and Buddhism have a long history of co-existence and intermingling. Many of the early Buddhists in China were also Taoists, and Taoism exerted a profound and positive influence on Buddhism.

But things got off to a rocky start when Buddhism was first introduced to China. The Taoists resented these newcomers, the Buddhists, coming along with their strange Indian ideas. So, they said, “Well, you know the Buddha is just an emanation of Lao Tzu.” Of course, the Buddhists didn’t feel like they could let the Taoists get away with this, so they got together and decided to push the Buddha’s birth-date back 500 years so that he couldn’t be the emanation of anyone. That’s how the date of 3000 BCE was established. Today, everyone knows better, except the Nichiren and Pure Land schools who are kind of wedded to this notion, since their Buddhisms are based on the Latter Day of The Law, the degenerate age, which in turn is based on this 3000 BCE date.

What is tao? As I wrote above it means the Way, but a precise definition is hard to come by, for as the Tao te ching says,

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

The word tao can also be translated as “path” or “road.” Tao is mysterious, unfathomable, a path to ultimate reality, the force of ultimate reality itself, an abstract concept. Wing-tsit Chan gave as good an explanation as any:

It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. When this Tao is possessed by individual things it becomes its character or virtue (te) . . . As the way of life, it denotes simplicity, spontaneity, tranquility, weakness, and most important of all, non-action (wu-wei). But the latter is not meant literally ‘inactivity’ but rather ‘taking no action that is contrary to Nature’ – in other words, letting Nature take its own course.” [1. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, 136]

While the idea of a primordial force that is the creator or origin of all things is not entirely consistent with Buddhist thinking, it is not altogether inconsistent either.

Chuang Tzu said that the mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth in which all things are reflected.

In Buddhism, the ideal is that of a buddha or the bodhisattva, while in Taoism it is the sage. “The life of the sage is a transcendent one,” writes Fung Yu-lan. “But to transcend the world does not mean to be divorced from the world, and therefore the Chinese sage is not the kind of sage who is so sublime that he is not concerned about the business of world.” [2. Fung Yu-lan, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1947, 4]

The sage man is “the great man,” the wise man; part philosopher, part King, part ordinary person. The sage does not outwardly strive for anything, not for enlightenment, not to liberate other beings, yet simply by living in the natural rhythm of life, the sage helps all people dispel their confusions. In some respects, sageliness is comparable to Buddha Nature in that all people have the qualities of a sage within, just waiting to be nurtured.

Emptiness, tranquility, mellowness, quietude, and taking no action are the root of all things . . . One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with all beings. To be in harmony with all beings means happiness and to be in harmony with nature means the happiness of nature.”

Chuang Tzu, The Way of Heaven

Once the Taoists began to accept the presence of Buddhism in China, it attracted their interest. They were particularly intrigued by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata). From exposure to Buddhist culture, Taoism gradually transformed itself from a sort of freewheeling philosophy into a religion, and it was Buddhism that inspired them to make statues of their important figures. During the 5th century, a movement emerged that attempted to forge a real synthesis between not only Buddhism and Taoism, but also Confucianism. This movement was known as Jen-t’ien-chiao or “Man-Heaven Teachings.”

A Buddhist named T’an-ching (not to be confused with the “Platform Sutra”) in an apocryphal sutra titled T’i-wei Po-li Ching (“The Sutra of Trapusa and Bhallika”) sought to meld the five precepts of Buddhism (panca-sila) with the theory of the five elements of Taoism and the five virtues in Confucianism. The claim for this text is that it supposedly represents a teaching the Buddha gave on the seventh day after his enlightenment to a band of merchants led by Trapusa (T’i-wei) and Bhallika (Po-li). This fabricated sutra had an influence on the Chinese p’an-chiao or sutra classification system in which the periods of the Buddha’s teachings were divided according to content and chronological order. The T’i-wei Po-li Ching was used by a lay convert, Liu Ch’iu (438-495), to separate the Buddha’s teachings into the “sudden” and “gradual” categories.

From the first paragraph of the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, translated by Whalen W. Lai, we get a glimpse at how easily and seamlessly the Chinese were able to blend the doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism into an organic whole:

When the tathagata attained the Tao under the bodhi tree, for seven days no one knew that he had so attained the highest mystical state (samyak-sambodhi) except for two gentry devotees T’i-wei and Po-li. These two were versed in yin-yang and knew thoroughly the art of tortoise shell divination, the I-ching [Book of Change], and fortune telling. They alone knew that the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Together with the god of the tree, T’i-wei [and Po-li] offered food to the Buddha and so did the four heavenly kings. The Buddha, after eating the food, preached to T’i-wei [and Po-li] the law of rebirth in the various paths of existence.”

There is much more that could be said on this subject, and naturally, the surface can only be scratched in a single blog post. For further reading, particularly with regard to Jen-t’ien-chiao and the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, I recommend Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, edited by David W. Chappell (University of Hawaii Press, 1987) and Kenneth Ch’en’s Buddhism in China A Historical Survey (Princeton University Press, 1973). There are also many good translations of both the Tao te ching and Chuang Tzu to choose from.

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The Wisdom of Waiting, The Dharma of Delay

Earlier this week, on one of the morning news shows, I caught an interview with Frank Partnoy, the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego School of Law. He’s the author of a couple of books on modern finance, F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street and Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets. He has a new one out and that’s what he was promoting the other day.

It’s called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. In it Partnoy argues that we make make decisions too quickly and that we would benefit from taking things slower and delaying many of our decisions. One of the examples he gave in the TV interview was that of great tennis players who delay hitting the ball until the last possible fraction of a second.

According to his website,

Frank Partnoy provides a necessary rebuttal to the gurus of “go with your gut.” He shows that decisions of all kinds, whether “snap” or long-term strategic, benefit from being made at the last possible moment. The art of knowing how long you can afford to delay before committing is at the heart of many a great decision—whether in a corporate takeover or a marriage proposal.”

What he’s advocating here is a “mindfulness” approach to making choices, without the meditation element. Although I don’t suppose he would be against combining the “art of delay” with meditation. You could also call Partnoy’s concept of delaying as informed or enlightened procrastination, a notion which is at the heart of one of the oldest books in the world, Tao Te Ching. In the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation, we find these passages:

Fifteen

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.

Thirty-seven

Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone . . .

Thirty-eight

A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.

Sixty-three

Practice non-action.
Work without doing.

Lao Tzu’s take on delaying is called wu-wei or non-action. But it’s not simply inaction, rather it’s taking natural action. Wu-wei is action that is pliable, responsible, and mindful.  One of the reasons we practice meditation is so that we can train our minds to think more deliberately and not to long for things. It is that longing, that need to have and have immediately is what often results in the bad decision-making that both Lao Tzu and Frank Partnoy are trying to help us correct.

The Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu explained wu-wei with the story of an archer who at first would draw and fire the bow in a relaxed, natural way, and was unconcerned with whether or not the target was hit (which it was every time). But when the archer became fixated on winning a prize, the need to hit the target and have the prize got in the way and caused the archer to fail. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have target or goals, but merely that there is another way, perhaps a better way to hit the bullseye, to accomplish the goal.

I haven’t read Partnoy’s book, but I sure appreciate his message about slowing down, taking our time, using the “art and science” of delaying to make better decisions in every area of our life. It not only reminds me of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the Buddha’s mindfulness, but also of an earlier time when we used talk about “stopping to smell the roses,” and Paul Simon sang “slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last.”  I’ve often found the greatest truths are the simplest ones. They may sound sophomoric or cheesy when you first hear them, but eventually you no longer try to filter them, and when they sink in, you come to realize the rightness in their uncomplicated expression.

On a golden autumn
day returning
Where each moment
never is the same
Sometimes pure joy it
comes with patience
When Im waiting on,
waiting game
When Im waiting on,
waiting game

– Van Morrison

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Natural Concept: The Way of Wu-wei

The other day I quoted the Tao Te Ching: “By practicing doing nothing/Everything is in harmony.” This refers to the concept of wu-wei or non-action.

When we talk about non-action, it doesn’t mean inaction. Wu-wei means natural action.

Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says “Nature uses few words.”

Of wu-wei, Wang Bi (226—249 CE), the famous interpreter of the classical Chinese texts, wrote,

The sage understands Nature perfectly. Therefore he goes along with [all things] but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence, the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.

In Taoism, the sage is an ideal, representing the ultimate in human aspiration. The sage is like a buddha or bodhisattva, steeped in wisdom, guiding others. Because the sage is in harmony with the rhythm of life, the action he or she takes is not forced. In fact it seems effortless because less exertion is required. Tai Chi master Gary Khor calls wu-wei “relaxed action.”

Chinese characters for "Wu-wei"

Non-action is related to mindfulness. It is not as if we are suddenly “in harmony” with nature, as though someone had pulled a switch and voila! Wu-wei flows from mindfulness because it is actually a consciousness of harmony. Quieting the mind relaxes the body and spirit and we become more aware of life’s natural rhythms.

In terms of Buddhism, an attribute of awareness is understanding our part in the interdependency of all things. As all things are originally harmonious and natural owning to their ultimate oneness, practice of mindfulness and wu-wei teach us the way to take the right action at the right time.

The action of wu-wei is also the action of creative insight. The I Ching says “The creative is successful, advancing through correctness”.

More about the I Ching and creativity in an upcoming post.

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Grab Bag + Guns

A follow up of sorts to yesterdays post, a look at another side to the situation in Burma. From the Seattle Times: As Myanmar politics ease, tourism grows.

This was sent in by Carl, a recent interview with Dan Reed, who was a popular musician that got to spend 2 hours interviewing the Dalai Lama.

From This Week: Self-immolation: A brief history

On a completely different note, Ellen sent in this from Cracked.com (imitating Mad Magazine since 1958), “6 Cats More Badass Than You (And Most Superheroes)”

This article from the Hindustan Times is short and I love the title: Be a lotus in life.

Hard to believe, but Clint Eastwood is 80. Don’t know why it’s hard to believe but it is. Anyway, this piece is rather long, but in it, Clint remarks on Buddhism and meditation.

I watched the state of the Union speech last night on MSNBC. Now, I like and support Barack Obama, but I have to say, I don’t care who you are, if you are going to speak for over an hour on nation-wide (hey, world-wide) television, you need to schedule some commercial breaks so that people can go to the bathroom. It just makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.

And what is with John Boehner? He always looks like he’s in pain. I’m thinking maybe, hemorrhoids?

After the speech, I watched some of the commentary. Chris Matthews said, “The music was unity.” Lawrence O’Donnell, who I just started watching recently, and who impresses me as a very smart guy, said something about the speech being so transcendent that he couldn’t figure out what it was about. Then he added, “In the end, Republicans should be happy, it [the speech] says very little.”

Perhaps the country needed a pep talk and a message of unity, but I think we also deserved a speech that had some meat. Something missing was the problem of guns. In my opinion, this is one of the most pressing issues we need to deal with, and has been for decades now. I would think that in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, the present moment would be the perfect time to have a discussion. Especially since those who will be doing most of the talking, and the deciding, should be on their best behavior for a while.

Avoiding the gun issue is a mistake. The message that I got from the President’s speech was that to win the future we need to grapple with these enduring issues. So when are we going to do something about guns? Every day that goes by where we allow people, young people especially, have easy access to dangerous weapons, we, as a country, as a society, are committing a form of murder.

In the Tao Te Ching, it says,

As for weapons – they are instruments of ill omen.
And among things there are those that hate them.
Therefore, the one who has the Way, with them does not dwell.
When the gentleman is at home, he honors the left;
When at war, he honors the right.
Therefore, weapons are not the instrument of the gentleman –
Weapons are instruments of ill omen.
When you have no choice but to use them, it’s best to remain tranquil and calm.
You should never look upon them as things of beauty.
If you see them as beautiful things – this is to delight in the killing of men.
And when you delight in the killing of men, you’ll not realize your goal in the land.

Some believe that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, but it’s also a fundamental problem. The United States accounted for 45% of the total gun-related deaths in the 36 countries studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1998. Between 1980 and 2006, America has had on average more than 32,000 gun deaths per year. I can’t help but think of the line in Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died.”

except from Chapter 31, Lao-Tsu Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Hendricks

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“Be Like Water”

Bruce Lee used to say, “Be like water. Water has form, and yet it has no form.”

He meant to be able to adapt like water, which will take the shape of anything in which it is placed.

In the Tao Te Ching it reads, “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water, yet nothing can better overcome the hard and strong,”

Flowing water goes over or around the stones in its path. Eventually, it can erode the stones.

In the early days of my Buddhist practice, I was often told to have faith like flowing water. Faith in Buddhism is testing, understanding, and then practicing the teachings.

Flowing water means movement. It transforms the hard. When you are like flowing water, you adjust to obstacles. You can go around or over them. With patience, you can erode them.

So, to have faith like flowing water is to always to keep going and move in a forward direction. People rarely stop practicing because it doesn’t work. They quit because they run into obstacles they can’t seem to get past. Then they chase after something else thinking it may hold the answer, or they end up doing nothing at all.

Life requires faith like this. To be like water. There are times when flowing water meets turbulence, but after the rapids, there is a return to a calmer flow.

Sill water represents a tranquil mind. Peacefulness. The abandonment of attachments and desires – the whitewater in our lives.

Whether still or flowing, water is always adaptable and able to conform to the shape of anything it meets.

Again, the Tao Te Ching says,

The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.

So the sage:
Lives within nature,
Thinks within the deep,
Gives within impartiality,
Speaks within trust,
Governs within order,
Crafts within ability,
Acts within opportunity.

He does not contend, and none contend against him.

Be like Water.

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