Dreaming Butterflies

Chuang Tzu was a great Taoist sage during the Chinese era of the Warring States (475-221 BC).  Over the years, I’ve posted a number of stories from the book that bears his name.   And the “butterfly dream” is probably the most famous of those stories.   Hopefully, you won’t mind reading it again, or perhaps it is new to you…

James Legge, one of the first to render the Chuang Tzu into English, wrote in a footnote to an anecdote, “To sleep in untroubled ease beneath a large, sheltering tree can be a memory of a lifetime also.”

According to tradition, Chuang Tzu was a government official in a small town. While his duties kept him busy, he enjoyed sneaking off every so often to loll away an afternoon lying beneath a nice shady tree.

One afternoon, as he was dozing:

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly just flying about. I had a great deal of fun, doing whatever I pleased. I did not remember I was Chuang Tzu. I was aware only of my happiness as a butterfly. Suddenly I woke from the dream and found myself to be Chuang Tzu. I could not figure out if Chuang Tzu had dreamed he was a butterfly or if a butterfly was dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This we call ‘the transformation of things.’”

What Chuang Tzu means by “the transformation of things” is that with our ordinary mind we look at the world and perceive differences and distinctions between things.  This way of seeing is a delusion that is not unlike a dream state, and we want to transform our way of seeing.  With awakening mind, we realize that differences and distinctions have no real foundation; they are impermanent, transitory.  Through inner transformation we bring ourselves closer in harmony with the way of transformation of nature.  We find the balance between dreaming and waking states, the middle way in which a man dreaming he is a butterfly and a butterfly dreaming he is a man are both possibilities.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

– Seng-ts’an, Verses on the Heart-Mind

Find more of my Chuang Tzu posts here.

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World Happiness Report

The annual World Happiness Report is out.  This year Norway ranks as the happiest place on earth.  That’s strange because I always thought it was supposed to be Disneyland.

At any rate, each year the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations initiative, measures world happiness country by country based on such factors as “income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”  The United Sates is now number 14.

According to SDSN, social well-being is the best gauge of a country’s progress.  John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the report, told the Associated Press:  “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, is it worth it?  The material can stand in the way of the human.”

To read the World Happiness Report, go to their website.

It seems to me, though, that happiness is a difficult thing to measure.  At least on a personal level.  While happiness means generally the same thing to most folks, each of us can have a slightly different definition.  And, of course, since time immemorial, philosophers and other folk have been weighing in with their take on the meaning of happiness…

Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

And Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Both of these “definitions” correspond with the Buddhist/Taoist notion of happiness, which is not the absence of suffering, but rather the ability to find joy and tranquility in the midst of suffering.

Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher from around the 4th century BCE, believed that happiness or the ultimate satisfaction in life came from doing nothing, that is, the practice of wu-wei (not-doing, non-action):

“I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this.  It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise.  The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong.  And yet doing nothing can determine it.  Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way.  Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace.  Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life.  Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere!  Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction.  So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done.  But who among us can attain this inaction?”

In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is one of humankind’s basic rights.  It’s guaranteed by the Constitution.  But this is not the greatest goal in life.   When we calm our mind and when what we do is in harmony, we do not need to seek happiness, for we realize that it is already all around us.

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Women Don’t Shoot

Friday night I watched “Michael Moore in Trumpland.”  The title is a bit deceptive.  It has very little to do with Trump, and a lot to do with feminism.  It’s funny, educational, moving, and it is a spirited discussion of the struggles of Hillary Clinton, through which, it touches upon the struggle of all women and extols their power.

trumplandMichael Moore’s film is a record of a one-man show he performed in October at the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio.  Over the course of sixty minutes, Moore spends a considerable amount of time going over the attacks, the abuse Hillary Clinton has endured over the years, most all of it, of course, coming from men.  I remember how she was humiliated for heading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in the 1990s.  But I had forgotten how nasty it was, and perhaps dulled to how nasty it has been ever since.

In 1994, at a rally in support of the health care campaign, as the First Lady spoke, protestors held up signs that read “Heil Hillary” and nearly booed her down.  For the first time, the Secret Service was successful in persuading Hillary Clinton to wear a bulletproof vest.

It is obvious that Michael Moore likes Hillary, he admires her because she has character, that is, good character, one thing many voters doubted.  She took all the abuse heaped on her, never complained (at least not in pubic) and kept moving forward.

About halfway through the performance, Moore looks into the camera and says,

hillary-clinton-019bMy hope, my optimism for this . . .  Hillary, if you’re watching this right now (I have a feeling that someone is going to slip you a tape of this), I just want to tell you something, I know you’ve been waiting . . . but you’re not alone, a whole  bunch of the rest of us have been waiting for that one glorious moment when the other gender, the majority gender, has a chance to run this world, have some real power and kick some righteous ass.”

We men have been in charge far too long, and as a result, our world is out of balance.  We need to adjust the axis in favor of gender equality.

Now, it’s amazing how certain things fall in place . . . Just Friday morning I was reading these words by Barbara E. Reed: “The Tao Te Ching uses feminine imagery and traditional views of female roles to counter destructive male behavior.” *

Tao is a complex principle.  Tao means “road or “path”.  Philosophically, it is the “Way”, and for now, let us just say that it is about the way of living.  The classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, can be translated as “The Way and its Virtue.”

According to one scholar, the origins of the Tao Te Ching were “ideas from anonymous people (not intellectuals) of the 6th – 4th centuries BCE, probably including local elders (“lao-tsu”), possibly including women . . .” He mentions also that the early layers of the teachings emphasized “natural simplicity, harmony, ‘feminine’ behaviors”.  **

I am intrigued by the notion that women may have influenced the formation of these teachings.  The doctrine of Taoism has always showed a preference for feminine “behaviors”, and at times, it seems the Tao Te Ching is saying that the feminine is the purest form of life.

In ancient China, women were largely illiterate and subjugated.  Yet, there were periods in China’s history when Buddhist and Taoists movements welcomed women as both practitioners and leaders, and there were teachings (“Inner Alchemy”) specifically for women.

One modern woman, Ursula K. Le Guin, an American author known for her works in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, published a translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1998.  In an interview some years later, she said,

Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else.  These are not “feminine mysteries,” but he makes mystery itself a woman.  This is profound, this goes deep.  And the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine.  This is something women need, I think, and long for, often without knowing it.  That’s undoubtedly one reason why all my life I’ve found the Tao de Ching so refreshing and empowering.”

This is something that everyone needs, and that everyone has.  Feminine energy (yin) is not separate from masculine energy (yang).  The feminine and the masculine give rise to each other; they are interdependent and universal.  Water and the earth symbolize feminine energy.  The feminine is soft, yielding, receptive, fluid, creative, intuitive, transformative, and nurturing.

The masculine is associated with activity, creativity, hardness, logic, and control.

tai-ji-symbol3As we seen in the tai ji symbol, yin and yang are enfolded within one another.  Every person has yin and yang energies.  For instance, I’d say Hillary Clinton has some significant yang energy, while her former opponent has too much.

In chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching says, “All things carry yin and embrace yang. They achieve harmony by balancing these energies.”  The best way of living is living in harmony with nature and each other, and the more we can harmonize the feminine and masculine within ourselves, the more effectively we can check compulsive and extreme behavior, the more we can counteract negative forces within the mind and even the body.

Gentleness is another quality of feminine energy, and in the film, Michael Moore points out that women are mostly non-violent.

“Women generally don’t shoot you,” he says.  “Unless you deserve it.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* Barbara E. Reed, “Taoism”, Women in World Religions, Ed. Arvind Sharma,  SUNY Press, 1987 162

** Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Psychology Press, 2004

Hillary Clinton photo: Wellesley College Archives

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When Black Elk Spoke

It’s Columbus Day, a really stupid holiday if you ask me. There’s no banks open, no mail, and government offices are closed, all in honor of the arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492 of Christopher Columbus, a guy who didn’t know where he was going and didn’t know where he was when he got there. He thought he landed in India, that’s why Native Americans were called Indians.

It seems this year there are more voices than ever calling for the abolition of Columbus Day and the establishment of an Indigenous People’s Day. It’s not a bad idea.

I think there are interesting correlations between Native American wisdom and Eastern philosophy, and it’s probably more than a coincidence.  I believe recent DNA studies have revealed Native Americans are descended from Asian ancestors.

Much of Native American wisdom reminds me of Taoism.  Both involve the healing arts and mental discipline, and they have tremendous respect for the earth and knowledge of natural laws.

The great symbol of Taoism is the Yin-Yang or Taiji, a circle divided into two halves, one white and the other black. In Taoist philosophy, reality is cyclical. Nature is like a circle, and the circle represents wholeness and the harmony between forces that appear to be opposites. Understanding cyclical nature is the key to living a full life. Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.), considered the founder of Taoism, wrote: “Just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their natural course.”

An important chronicler of Native American wisdom was a Nebraskan named John G. Neihardt (1881-1973). He was a writer, poet and historian. In 1930, Neihardt interviewed an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) medicine man named Black Elk, who at age 13 witnessed the massacre of Custer and his troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and later toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Black Elk shared with Neihardt the story of his people, the destruction of the buffalo, Little Big Horn and the Battle of Wounded Knee, and talked about his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and another Lakota holy man, the great chief Sitting Bull.

Neihardt put Black Elk’s word into a book, Black Elk Speaks. In this excerpt, Black Elk shares the Native American vision of the circle of life:

black-elk3[The] Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round . . . The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop.”

The Medicine Wheel and the Sacred Hoop are other important symbols found in Native American wisdom, and the circle, of course, is an essential element of other cultures and philosophies.

Nature does not proceed in a straight line, nor does the universe. Space is curved. If we follow the circular course of nature – such as the sequence of the seasons, the orbits of planets and stars – we place ourselves in rhythm with life, touching wholeness and wellness.

 

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Nature is transcendental

Most of us realize that spending time in nature is good for mind and spirit. A new study by researchers at Stanford University more or less confirms it, according to a paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.”

Honestly, I was confused by the title.  I always thought nature enhanced rumination or contemplation. But I didn’t know that in psychology, rumination means to focus excessively on one’s problems and to brood on why you might be depressed. So,  nature reducing rumination is a positive.

The researchers say their study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

IMG_4821bEvidently, walking in natural areas simulates activity in a section of the brain that’s known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is connected to negative mental conditions and a negative pattern of thought the paper calls “morbid rumination.” They sent study participants to various areas on the Stanford campus and when the participants returned, the researchers scanned their brains. The result: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”

In other words, walking in nature is good for mind and spirit, and walking in urban areas is not so good. As I suggested at the top, this only confirms what most people already know.

I have written a great deal about how the sages and poets of the East found nature to be beneficial in this way. Naturally, they are not the only ones.

Two prominent naturalists from America’s past, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, had connections to Eastern philosophy but their appreciation of nature was firmly in place long before they became interested in the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu.

Thoreau’s name is practically synonymous with Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts formed by glaciers some 10,000–12,000 years ago. The place itself is famously associated with Naturalism. Emerson also wandered around Walden, and in 1846 he bought a wood-lot there, consisting of “more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake a half a mile wide and more, called Walden Pond,” as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher.

In his 1836 essay, Nature, Emerson complained that far too many people do not recognize the full worth and beauty of nature. In the essay, Emerson also set down some of the fundamentals of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement linked to both Emerson and Thoreau. In another essay, The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote a phrase I like: “Nature is Transcendental.”

Emerson’s view of nature differed a bit from the Eastern view. He saw nature as something outside the life of the individual, “all that is separate from us . . . the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” The Buddhist/Taoist concept of “Not me” goes further and nature is viewed as profoundly  inter-connected with inner life.

Nature is transcendental (note the small ‘t’). And, when we use any of the forms of the word “transcendent,” we do not necessarily mean metaphysical. Transcendent can mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience, what cannot be expressed in words, or realization that “goes beyond,” which in Buddhism refers to Prajna-Paramita or Transcendental Wisdom.

I would suggest transcendental can also be “going back,” in that it we can recapture a quality of childhood, the innocence, the sense of wonder, the “original mind” we had before our brains became cluttered with all the disorderly and tangled notions we’ve acquired as adults. I think others have commented on the same child-like orientation connected with spirituality, and judging by this passage from Nature, Emerson would seem to have been one of them.

ralph-waldo-emersonTo speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Note Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”

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