Friday, December 2, 2011

two of my favorite Taoist passages

If someone were to ask me who my favorite philosopher was, I'd say it was Chuang-tzu (known as Jang-ja in Korean). Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching may be more well-known than the Chuang-tzu, but both works should be taken together as complementary: the dead-seriousness of Lao-tzu needs the lively playfulness of Chuang-tzu.

From each work I have a favorite quote. Let's start with the Tao Te Ching, which contains one of the most powerful summations of the religious outlook I've ever encountered. From Chapter 29:

Try to make this sacred world
into more than what it is,
and you ruin it.

Try to grasp it,
and you lose it.

It's a concise statement of reality's dynamism, and of how useless it is to hold on to things or people. Like trying to grasp water by tightening one's fist, such an attempt is doomed to fail. You can't grasp reality and force it to stop: you're part of reality, and you're moving, too!

The Chuang-tzu, though, it more humorous in its approach to the question of how we relate to ultimate reality. Through words and concepts, the classic demonstrates the uselessness of words and concepts when you're attempting to integrate yourself with the Absolute. In that spirit, then, my favorite passage from the Chuang-tzu:

Now I am going to tell you something...

There is a beginning. There is no beginning of that beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing. But between something and nothing, I still don't really know which is something and which is nothing. Now, I've just said something, but I don't really know whether I've said anything or not.

--Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, 1974, p. 35

Zen Buddhism, which often takes its cue from philosophical Taoism, speaks of the nondualistic, nondiscursive "don't-know mind," or "beginner's mind," that makes life worth living. In the Christian Bible, the Sermon on the Mount alludes to this non-discriminatory state when Jesus says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:14, Matthew 19:14) Jesus isn't speaking of the childish mindset, but of the childlike mindset-- one that doesn't waste time and energy drawing boundaries and creating separation.

A recent Korean Seon (Zen) proverb that can be seen on the wall of Hwagye-sa, a temple in Seoul, says, "All 24 hours of the day, don't make anything." The making, in this case, means the manufacturing of dualistic boundaries: this and that, yes and no, you and me, etc. Such boundaries may have their uses on a practical level, but they obscure the fundamental nonduality of reality.

We're all part of Something Bigger. Whatever that Something is, it's moving. We can't hold on to it, and it's folly to try to explain it. Sure, we can try-- but that Something will elude our grasping minds every time. Better to go with the flow, no?


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