Tao Te Ching Teachings: The Importance of Timing

folk

“The best actions are well-timed”

The universe has rhythm. It has beats, breaths, spans, cycles, grooves and a gradually reoccuring network of ever-evolving revolutions. Though on a transcendent level all things are timeless, on a practical level we still have to function within the confines of linear time, even if we no longer feel its restrictions. So, for this reason, it is essential to investigate and comprehend the overlapping cycles of life so that we can harmoniously align ourselves to them.

It is not just enough to act in the right way; we must also act at the right time. The right time is when all of the appropriate factors are properly in place; though, sometimes, when these factors our lacking, if our aim is s selfless one, then it is necessary to create these salubrious factors through our own doings.

In living life, it is necessary to respond to life. But a large portion of our response is based not just in responding to what arises, but in being prepared for their arising to begin with, and so cultivating a sense of vigilant alertness; always remaining in a state of fluid alacrity, ready and prepared for any circumstances we might have work with.

A good example would be a martial arts battle. Naturally, you need to respond to the blows your opponent throws at you. If you only defend after you’ve been hit, then you’re doing things in the wrong order! In order to be effective, it is not only necessary to respond, but to be prepared to respond. If you have this prescience, then you can see the arising of things before they actually arise, thanks to your comprehension of the simple natural principles that cohere everywhere.

A man who does not see a blow coming, or even suspect one is coming, will be completely overcome, because it will have occurred when he was most vulnerable. Not being prepared for sudden swift changes in life keeps you in a state of perpetual vulnerability. However, if you make one move, and know your opponent is likely to respond to this in a given way, then you can use the momentum of his response against him. Being prepared for the sudden swift transformations of life, we ride the wave instead of being overcome by it, using it to our advantage.

For those who want to search out these transformations further, study and use The I Ching, astrology, tarot, and any other relevant divinatory practices, in addition to regular meditation.

 

 

 

Tao Te Ching Teachings: Being Efficient

mah jonh

“The best work is efficient”

The reason Taoism has survived for so long, despite its secrecy and obscurity, is because of how practical and pragmatic it is. In our deeds, tasks, duties, and all the other manifold actions of our daily life, we should always strive to be as efficient and competent as possible.

We hear the word ‘efficiency’ a lot. But what does it really mean? Efficiency means doing everything as directly and accurately as possible, with no superfluity or wasted effort. Directing all your energy to one purpose, and performing your function in a gentle, detached, concise and skilful way – this is true efficiency.

If you want to be efficient, analyze your own actions and practices. Always ask yourself ‘Is everything I’m doing necessary? Are certain things slowing me down? What can I do to cut away the excess fat, and keep everything taut and lean?’ If you get into the habit of asking and applying these questions to everything in your life, you will lessen energy expenditure, function more fluidly, and prevent the arising of obstacles before they’ve even occurred. So many obstacles are generated from oversights made early in the game. If you learn to follow your intuition, and are mindful of dangerous possibilities in advance, you avoid a lot of trouble and hardship by being prepared for it.

Of course, just because efficiency helps you accomplish things quicker, that does not mean always doing things quickly is necessarily efficient. I’m sure your lover would find that very disappointing if that were the case! It is more important to do things slowly and carefully than in a self-conscious rush. Things that take a long time to build up and come to fruition are also those that tend to last the longest. Those that are swiftly set up, are swiftly knocked down. According to cosmologists, the universe took billions of years to reach its current state. After all that time, and earth is still here! Why? Because earth does not rush things. She just let’s things take as long as they take.

Humans, however, seldom live older than a century. Rushing around, afraid of death, trying to achieve as much as possible to try and appease their frightened egos, they wear themselves out through constant striving which they think will get them somewhere, but which only further entrenches them in misery.

Be efficient and concise. Work when you need to. Rest when you need to. Stick to these two things, and then you will be close to The Way.

 

 

 

 

TAO TE CHING TEACHINGS: Balanced Leadership

vision

“The best leadership is balanced”

Leadership also has the additional meanings of government, administration, and management. What I translated as balanced also has the meanings of peaceful, righteous, just, and harmonious.

In order to understand why these are essential qualities for leadership or government, we need to investigate why one seeks to become a leader to become with. The principle requisite for becoming a leader is that you possess something that others do not. The Buddha was enlightened whilst others were not, so he used his leadership to lead others to enlightenment. Lao Tzu comprehended The Way, whilst others had forgotten, so he used his leadership to lead them back to The Way. The enlightened man wants others to be enlightened. The happy man wants others to be happy. The liberated man wants others to be free. In all these instances, the desire to lead is inspired by the desire to share what the leader has. As such, like these people, leadership should always be grounded in mutuality, selflessness and compassion. That is why we say ‘The best leadership is balanced.’

This balance exists not just within the being of the leader, but also the balance between him and whom he teaches. Teaching others, I accept that they will also have much to teach me. Leading others, I take it for granted that they will have much to show me too. So, leadership is humble and just. Just because you are leader, that doesn’t mean you are greater or more important than others – it means you have an even greater responsibility to do good for others. Leadership is a sacred function, and not one to be accepted lightly. Many Taoists were so cautious that they avoided all government appointments, and were very selective in taking on pupils.

Question the motivations of every leader. Are they working for others, or working themselves? Are they leading others towards happiness, or just leading themselves to greater wealth, fame and luxury? Ask these questions of yourself. If you can be peaceful and balanced in the government of yourself and others, than you will be doing alright!

 

Tao Te Ching Teachings: Speaking the Truth

lady tiger

“The best words to speak are the truth”

Truth is the only thing we should allow to lead our lives. But how often does it just seem like too much of a tall order? How often are we too cowardly or closed off to say what we really mean, instead just resorting to those convenient stock phrases, the artillery of etiquette? Telling people what they want to hear?

But, if we only tell people what they want to hear, and only hear what we want others to say, then the whole world will be clouded by delusion. Somewhere along the line, someone has to give, take the lead, and just tell the raw, honest truth.

This takes practice. It takes a lot of deprogramming – getting rid of all the fear, adherence to social norms, and self-repression that has allowed us to live and speak dishonestly for so long. But, once we get more confident and certain of ourselves, the truth will flow more readily. We have to be true to ourselves before we can be true to others. Then the internal will naturally be reflected in the external.

What’s the best way to speak the truth? Be direct, forthright, gentle and equanimous. Tell the truth as soon as it becomes too clear. Speak too rashly, and you might be telling a lie, inadvertently formulated on ephemeral feelings that passed as quickly as they arose. Speak too late, and the damage may be too entrenched to reverse.

We are often frightened of telling the truth, because we’re afraid of how people might respond. But, I can vouch from my own experience, that when you learn to tell the truth concisely and without artificiality, your communication and communion with others will become infinitely more effective and intimate. The people you speak to will be so relieved to hear the truth for once, that you will be doing them a greater kindness than all the false words in the world combined.

Tao Te Ching Teachings: Living in Compassion

beautiful ducks

“The best relationships are compassionate”

Our conception of what the word ‘relationship’ means is rather limited today. We tend to think of it as a designation exclusively used for those we love or are close to. But, as we exist relative to all things, in an interconnected and interpenetrating web of life, we have a relationship with absolutely everything. Some of those relationships are intense, obvious, and immediate; others are much more subtle and distantly removed.

Our relationship with The Way is the same. To begin with it is weak, erratic, and unstable, only here now and then, but seemingly absent much of the time. These numinous concepts seem so lofty and far-off. But the more one practices and perseveres, the more stable, regular and close at hand our relationship with the Tao appears, until it is, indeed, everywhere we look. We realize it was not Tao that was distant from us – how can the omnipresent ever be distant? Rather, our distorted and deluded consciousness was far-off from seeing it. This is how a relationship with the unknown can become the most immense and intimate thing we will every experience.

The word jen which I have rendered as compassion, here includes all the concepts of humanity, benevolence and kindness, which were strongly associated with Confucianism. When we allow these qualities to be at the root of our relationship with everything, then all of our relationships will be the best they can be.

This might sound too obvious to state, but how many of our relationships are actually rooted in humanity and kindness? How often do we associate with other beings only out of self-interest, personal gain, hostility, or bitterness? If you can cherish that which you share with others, and not that which distances you from them, then you will automatically feel closer to all beings.

The Bottomless Heart

redon_birth_of_venus

“The best hearts and minds are fathomlessly deep”

Most people have a limited conception of themselves. How we describe and conceive of ourselves often shackles us, preventing us from being so much more than we tepidly imagined. Whenever we have reached the limits of our mind, we must always know there is more; whenever we reach the bottom of our heart, we must realize it carries on without end.

People cling to tiny hearts and minds because infinity scares them. Not comprehending the patterns of Heaven, it all appears chaotic to them; a frightening morass, beyond comprehension. Thus, they dwell in confined personalities, restrictive social structures, and rigid classifications, because they are too afraid to confront the majestic spontaneity of the boundless.

The Wayfarer is not like this. He does not shirk things just because they do not give up their secrets readily. He is drawn to the fathomless like a magnet, for that is where he makes his home. Always approaching what he does not understand, and venturing into places he has never known, he consistently expands the purview of his heart/mind until it is without limits. With such depth within him, he is able to see that same depth within everything. What to others seems ordinary and prosaic, to him openly confides the enigmatic secrets of life. Being fathomless, he is a mystery to all around him. Incapable of being comprehended by narrower men, he cannot be corrupted, exploited, or understood. Only those who follow the Way will understand.

How can we cultivate minds/hearts of fathomless depth ourselves?

  • Meditate
  • Overcome attachment to material things, materialistic viewpoints and assumptions
  • Take emptiness as the foundation of your mind. Do not presume to know anything until you have investigated it carefully; and even then, proceed with caution
  • Be impartial – reject attachment to preferences – show kindness and compassion to all beings without exception
  • Refuse to let fear prevent you from seeking the truth. Losing boundaries and definitions is always scary –you must learn to love loss

TAO TE CHING TEACHINGS: Living in Stability

desolate

“The best places to live are level.”

This is also usually  translated as ‘the best place to live is the earth.’ Or ‘Where the Way dwells becomes good ground.’ Either way, it is not a literal teaching. Many Taoists favored living in difficult mountains and terrain that were anything but level! So what does this phrase mean?

In Taoist alchemy, Earth represents our centre, which, like the earth, should be stable and balanced. It becomes our internal crucible. A large portion of alchemy consists of generating and preserving energy or chi. If our centre is not stable, then as soon as we are upset, or our emotions arise, then our energy flies off. It is like pouring water into a cracked bowl – not matter how much we keep filling it up, energy will just keep leaking out of it. If we want to stop that energy from leaking, we must nurture our stability as much as possible.

What is stability? Stability is a harmonious state of inner strength. Remaining calm and placid at all times, we take precautions to prevent anything that could destabilize us. As Ancestor Lu taught:

“When you do not get confused,

Your nature naturally stabilizes;

When your nature naturally stabilizes

Energy naturally returns;

When energy naturally returns

The elixir spontaneously crystallizes

This is what we meant by living in stability

Tao Te Ching Teachings: Living Lowly

sewer.jpg

“Dwelling places most people loathe

It is therefore close to the Way!”

Water is everywhere. An indiscriminate wanderer, it resides wherever it can – in valleys, puddles, ditches, toilets, bellies, bladders, swamps, sewers, and just about anywhere else it able to squeeze itself. Being one of the core constituents of most earthly matter, it can’t help living within the lowest of the low, the most ungainly of the ungainly. Living in men and animals, it can be found inside criminals, junkies, alcoholics, corrupt statesmen, and evil warlord; in animals, it can be found in a fox’s asshole, an elephant’s trunk, a horse’s penis, a whale’s spiracle, a badger’s ear. Excepting the most dry and arid of deserts, it’s difficult to find a place on earth where it does not reside.

The same is true of the Tao. Interpenetrating and manifesting in all things, it makes no difference between living in a king’s palace, an alien’s coffee pot, or grizzly bear’s colon – it all the same to Tao. As Chuang Tzu put it in an amusing dialogue:

Master Easturb inquired of Master Chuang, saying, ‘Where is the so called Way present?’

‘There’s no place that it’s not present,” said Master Chuang.

“Give me an example so that I can get an idea,” said Master Easturb.

“It’s in ants,” said Master Chuang.

“How can it be so low?”

“It’s in panic grass.”

“How can it still be lower?”

“It’s in tiles and shards.”

“How can it still be lower?”

“It’s in shit and piss.”

Master Easturb did not respond.

The Way is the greatest force in the universe – it is the force of the universe. If this great force is able to indifferently dwell everywhere, even in complete repugnance, what does this say about the follower of Tao?

We should be no different. The greater and more powerful we become, the more humility, selflessness, and impartiality we should accumulate. We should not consider one place as sacred, and another as profane, as one person as being beneath us, and another as worthy of our respect. If Tao does not make such distinctions, why should we? If you turn your nose up at another, you’re only mutilating your own face. Live in harmony with all beings, not just those you like. Be at peace wherever you are, not just in mountains and valleys.

This is what Zen Masters call overcoming likes and dislikes.

Tao Te Ching Teachings: Water

water course

“It greatly benefits The Ten Thousand Things”

How does water benefit the ten thousand things? Scientists believe that water is one of essential components required in the gestation of life. Biologists believe that the very first physical organisms on this planet would have arisen from bodies of water. Whilst I believe there are plenty of organisms throughout the universe that are not dependent upon water for their survival, that it is integral to the proliferation of physical beings on our own planet (and dimension) is without question.

Most of us are composed largely of water. We need to drink and consume it on a regular basis just so we are able to function. Wherever there is water on planet – whether in the form of pools, rivers, the ocean, or rainfall – there is sure to be a hyper-abundance of life. A large percentage of the air we breathe comes not just from trees – which also need water to survive – but from the infinitesimal phytoplankton that resides in the world’s watercourses. Truly, water enriches and sustains the lives of all beings.

The Master of the Way also seeks to nourish and benefit all beings. But, rather than giving them water, he guides them back to the wateriness of the Tao. If water is the basic building block of life, then The Way is the basic building block of eternal life. It is the substance of everything. The Taoist guides people away from attachment to their physical forms, and helps them return instead to this.

 

Tao Te Ching Teachings: The Supreme Goodness of Water

dragon water

“Supreme goodness is like water”

Supreme goodness is like water. Here, the word shan refers not just to moral goodness and virtue, but supreme excellence in all its manifestations – excellence in wisdom, excellence in action, excellence in being.

Why do we this say this manifold excellence is like water? Water is fluid, flexible, yielding, and unconquerable. It is immensely powerful because it can adapt to every possible circumstance. If it gets too cold, it simply transforms itself into ice. If it gets too hot, it transforms itself into steam. Nothing can kill it – it just keeps changing form.

The reason water can keep changing its form is because it is essentially formless. Its form is determined by what is around it. Put it in a cup, and it will be cup-shaped. Put it in a ravine, and it will be river-shaped. It needs no form of its own, because it harmonizes with everything around it, taking other beings as its outline, instead of imposing itself upon others.

The sage strives to mirror these qualities. Fluid and flexible too, he adapts to every situation. When faced with untoward events, he simply transforms himself to suit the situation. Because he is selfless, he has no fixed personality, and can take on whatever personality is most appropriate to his needs. If he needs to be wise, he will be wise. If he needs to be silly, he will be silly. If it were better that he remain unseen, he will remain unknown. Like a great actor, he puts on the right mask to fit the mood.

This might sound insincere to some. Isn’t it wrong to pretend to be something you’re not? But, the sage has renounced his identity, so he can have any identity he likes. Knowing that he is part of the eternal, there is nothing he is not. But, in the same way as the celestial design, however he manifests himself, he does not do so out of self-interest, or with personal profit in mind – only with the ideal of helping enlighten other beings. Thus, any act that helps point beings towards the truth is a compassionate act, no matter how strange it may see on the surface.