A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Taoism and The I Ching

Paradox -- n. 1) a statement that sounds absurd or seems to contradict itself, but may in fact be true.  2) a person or thing that combines contradictory qualities.  (The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary)

Definition of "I" in "I Ching":  "The name I has three meanings.  These are the easy, the changing, and the constant."  (Understanding The I Ching:  The Wilhelm Lectures On The Book Of Changes by Hellmut Wilhelm and Richard Wilhelm)

Verse One of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu:

Transcending


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

In the infancy of the universe,
there were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
into ten thousand things
and their manifestations.

Yet mysteries and manifestations
spring from the same source:
the Great Integrity
which is the mystery within manifestation,
the manifestation within mystery,
the naming of the unnamed,
and the un-naming of the named.

When these interpretations
are in full attendance,
we will pass the gates of naming notions
in our journey toward transcendence.

(translated by Ralph Alan Dale)


In the past couple of weeks I've returned to consulting the I Ching after many months away from it and I've made a new online friend who is a student of Taoism (pronounced Daoism).  Recently he asked me for my perspective on Taoism and it is logical that he should ask considering my blog is named Yin And Yang and I have written about the I Ching and its philosophy before here, but frankly I was at a loss as to how to respond to him.  I see myself more as a Tibetan Buddhist than as a Taoist and yet I feel a deep connection to the Taoist and Confucianist aspects of the I Ching, most especially the Yin and Yang symbol itself.  To me the symbol is a perfect representation of the potential and the actual balance in all life.  It uses the essential dualism of light and darkness and surpasses it in an ingenious visual combination.  It is organic in design yet a symbol and thus somewhat artificial.  In a sense it is a paradox.

When my friend sent me a link to a Taoist scholar's interpretation of Taoism, the first thing that struck me, after years away from studying any Taoism, was the paradox of the language and explanation.  This led me back to the most major text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, which is why I cited the first verse of the book.  The word Tao means literally path or way, but in the words of the scholar and practitioner Ken Cohen, it means "the divine life that moves through all things...Tao is everywhere."  So regardless of whether you practice Taoism or not, all beings are intimately connected to the Tao.  In typical and wonderful Chinese fashion the word has multiple levels of meaning that are all interconnected.  To follow the Tao, is to stay on the path, a path of harmony and natural sense, to stray from the path is to lose that natural harmony with all things.  The word Te means power or virtue and I believe the symbol associated with it is of a farmer in his field.  In that sense it has to do with both strength of character, simplicity, usefulness and harmony with nature.  Finally the word Ching means book.  So the Tao Te Ching means essentially the path of virtue book.

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

So here is the paradox:  if you can name it, conceptualize it, somehow pigeon hole it, then you've not truly understood what Tao is.  Universal means present everywhere, so if you see the Tao as one thing or at most several things, you are excluding so much of it.  It is "the divine life that moves through all things." It is similar in some ways to Moses asking the Judeo-Christian God's name and God replies, "I AM THAT I AM" and leaves it at that.

In the infancy of the universe,
there were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
into ten thousand things
and their manifestations.

In the beginning there were no names, no language at all.  Language is something that developed over time to make communication between human animals more efficient and direct.  It was also ironically a way to define and hold on to "the mysteries of life," but what it often does is to take some essential meaning out of what it chose to describe in this fashion, thus fragmenting it.  To say "I walked by a person" is to leave out the essence of that person.  To say "I sat beneath a tree" is to rob that tree of all its beautiful individualistic attributes.  It is to flatten and minimize life.  Yes, you get your point across in a bare bones way, but you do not get to "the mysteries of life".  Writers all over this world work damn hard to try to overcome that essential failing of language and a lot of times they don't get it, don't get the Tao of their subject matter.  The result is that instead of taking in the wonder of the full moon, people get hung up on the finger that is pointing to the moon and miss the point entirely.  And so language gives us "ten thousand things and their manifestations," but without the higher spirit that is contained within those things and manifestations.

Yet mysteries and manifestations
spring from the same source:
the Great Integrity
which is the mystery within manifestation,
the manifestation within mystery,
the naming of the unnamed,
and the un-naming of the named.

And yet language, too, is part of the mystery of life, part of the divine order, which is why despite its drawbacks it can be like magic.  This particular translator (and there are many) of Lao Tzu's verses, Ralph Alan Dale, writes of this verse:  "What is implied here is nothing less than the healing of the split between the two hemispheres of our brain which have become separated, alienated and at war with each other during the past few thousand years." (p. 9)  Left brain, logical and right brain, intuitive.  With the left brain we devised the system that is language, a manifestation of our human will and intelligence, but with the right brain we appreciate the subtleties of the sacred.  What came first in our human development?  Right brain, our animal brain, our lizard brain, our instinctual brain.  That's where the sacred lies, in the essence, in survival, in the immediacy of the present moment.  Very powerful stuff which is why in so-called primitive cultures animals become totems, spirit gods and goddesses.

Anyone who has been near wild animals knows the kind of respect that the experience engenders.  Especially potential predators: the bear, the panther, the elk, the alligator, particularly when they are with their young.  I've seen a bear outside my house twice and it nearly took my breath away.  It was a nervous kind of privilege to be so close to an animal that guards its privacy from humans most of the time.  The bear and I were both part of "the Great Integrity which is the mystery within the manifestation, the manifestation within the mystery, the naming of the unnamed, and the un-naming of the named."  My first impulse is to say "There's a bear!" but the next impulse is to really look at that particular bear and, from a safe distance preferably, really get to know that bear's essence.  The bear I saw defied the stereotype of some circus bear lumbering along.  This bear was quick, agile and acutely aware of my presence.  This bear was ALIVE, vital and mysterious all in one.  The name "bear" says nearly nothing of what the experience of being near the bear was like and yet the bear and the act of naming the bear are all part of the great whole.  

When these interpretations
are in full attendance,
we will pass the gates of naming notions
in our journey toward transcendence.

To be in "full attendance" is the goal of the Tao as far as I can see; it is to be fully awake, fully experiencing the present moment, which is why meditation is so important in so many spiritual practices. My Taoist friend, who is a very good meditator, has said that he can rest in the place and space of no-thought, watching, listening, feeling the "hustle and bustle" of the world go by him.  It is then that the dualism falls away and yet the paradox remains.  That very paradox, which can be so frustrating to understand on first glance, is the spice of life and well worth exploring, especially in this instant gratification world of ours.  

The I Ching generally is translated as The Book of Changes, but the I also means the easy and the constant.  Again, the paradox.  How can change also be constant, and yet we all know intuitively that it is, even as we resist the changes and go astray of the Tao, the path.  The practice is to go with the flow of nature, what in Chinese is referred to as Wu Wei.  This is what the I Ching tries to teach:  to stop when it is time to retreat or rest and to go when it is time to engage in life.  There is such harmony in that.  It is when we go when we should stop and stop when we should go that problems of the heart, mind and body occur.  This is what is meant by the easy, knowing with both sides of our brain when to act and when to not act.  This is the choice we're given and what a great privilege it is to learn it.

The I Ching combines both Taoism and Confucianism and both are concerned with ethical behavior.  The Taoist aspect, which is much older of the two, uses the symbolism found in nature.  The hexagrams, which are the six yin or yang (usually both) lines of the oracle are made up of trigrams, or three lines that are broken (yin) or solid (yang) and each of these trigrams represents eight combinations: Heaven, Earth, Thunder, Wind, Fire, Water, Lake, Mountain.  These trigrams also simultaneously represent the members of a family, mother, father, sons and daughters.  So there is both the organization of nature used to elaborate subtle truths as well as social organization within the family.  And there is more than that, but I'll leave those who are interested to figure the rest out themselves.  Just think, thousands of years (maybe five thousand or so) before the 0 and the 1 of computer language, there was the yin and the yang of this amazing Chinese oracle.  So rich in history and so flexible in meaning and so much a part of the Tao.  So this is "the journey of our transcendence" if we choose to follow it in one way or another.  
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