More On The Tao Te Ching

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

Huston Smith, world expert on religions, writes that the Tao te Ching is “a testament to humanity’s at-home-ness in the universe, it can be read in half an hour or a lifetime.” This small volume of 81 chapters, as some call them even though they are brief, comprised of about 5,000 Chinese characters, has been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible. This information might indicate to you that this is something we should talk about here on a Sunday morning.

But there is little guarantee that we will get a clear picture of the teachings of this small book when we read the very first chapter: Chapter 1:

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things. Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.

The understanding that Lao Tzu is writing about is an understanding that defies explanation. It is not something that can be made into a formula, but rather refers to a path, a way, a flexibility of accepting our place in the universe. To get it, I think we must let go of our current understanding, and become one with the Tao, the path, the way. My intuition is that this book leads the serious student into daily reckoning with issues of power and control, with opposites, with the concept of self.

The author of the Tao Te Ching is Lao Tzu, whose very existence is shrouded in myth and mystery. There is only one historical reference to him. Living at about the same time as Confucius, about six centuries before the common era, he expressed the teachings of ancient Chinese philosophy. A glorious past when people were not so caught up in polarities, not so concerned about what the neighbors thought, not so ready to make pronouncements about reality.

Huston Smith describes Lao Tzu as a romantic, who praises spontaneity and naturalness, focusing on what transcends the human, what is beyond society. His romanticism is expressed in his desire that every human yield to an awareness that we are one with all that exists, and that existence supports us in life and in death. Spontaneity and naturalness are expressed over and over again throughout the 81 chapters:

Chapter 10
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

Lao Tzu’s focus on what transcends the human and is beyond society is expressed
in Chapter 14:

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning,
follow it and there is no end.
You can’t know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.

I believe we could spend the rest of my time today looking at the last stanza of Chapter 14. The sentence “You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.” Could we really let go enough in order to be able to achieve this peace, this happiness. Does our Western need for answers and opposites prevent us from entering such a simplicity? You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life. We can be it, be part of the Tao, the path, the way, the mystery and the understanding. It seems so simple and I suppose it is, but also more difficult in the ways we choose to live our lives.

I learned more about Taoism in Seminary through an odd route. During a semester of studying Islam, I decided to do a paper on a book called “The Tao of Islam.” It was written by a Chinese woman and presented a view of Islam that included the flow between the various opposites one sees in learning the poles of the religion. To understand her book, I read a little about Taoism. From then on, it kept popping into my life here and there. It’s embedded in our culture in many ways, although it is mostly something we are not aware of. There is a book entitled “The Tao of Pooh” and another “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra. Recently I have been reading a series of books by William Martin, especially “The Sage’s Tao Te Ching.”

Please read with me Unison reading #600 in our hymnal. This is a version of Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching.

The Space Within:
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there:
Usefulness from what is not there.

Thank you. I will now read the version for the sage, created by William Martin.

What Has Been Cooking Within?
Memories and feelings over the years
have formed an “I” that seems so solid.
But just as the walls of a house form
a protected space where people live,
this “I” merely provides a platform
for the experience of life.

The body has a shape and a form
and seems so important.
But like a cooking pot,
it is the space inside that is important.
The body is a mere pot.
What has been cooking within
all these years?

Martin has attempted to take the wisdom of the chapters of the Tao Te Ching and massage them to bring their words to concerns of various groups of people. He is a long time student of Zen Buddhism and indeed there is a strong component of the Tao in Zen. I have been reading “The Sage’s Tao Te Ching” for about a year now, just picking it up now and then.

In preparation for this sermon I have been reading the Stephen Mitchell translation of the original Tao Te Ching. It is extremely appealing and seems to be very Unitarian Universalist in many ways. There is an emphasis on this life, on everything being here that we need. The oneness of all things fits so well with our seventh principle. I can imagine that Lao Tzu might have fit in well in our church. He might have found people here who were willing to consider Chapter 67:

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Our dualistic view of life is challenged by the teachings of the Tao Te Ching again and again. For example:

Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other,
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other.

This from chapter 21:
The Master keeps her mind
always at one with the Tao;
that is what gives her her radiance.

The Tao is ungraspable.
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.

The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
How can it make her radiant?
Because she lets it.

Since before time and space were, the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

Possibly the most difficult concept of my reading so far is the idea of doing by not doing. Wei wu wei. Huston Smith translates this as “pure effectiveness and creative quietude.” It is not as it may sound at first hearing an excuse for laziness or inaction. Once again we see the combining of opposites in this concept, for it is probably closer to supreme activity and supreme relaxation. If the Tao holds us, sustains us, allows the wisdom of our subliminal selves to rise above our surface self. The Tao Te Ching says that the “way to do is to be.” Action without forcing, never under strain, seeking the empty spaces in life, seeking the low places as water does.

Listen to Chapter 15:

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

Being present – being fully in the present – is where we find the Tao. And more than that we are the Tao. Alan Watts, in his book, “Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking,” writes:

“… you are the universe. Your eyes are apertures through which it is aware of itself—holes in the wall as it were. So you look, you blink: now you see it, now you don’t. It is very simple. And therefore the big questions – What is it? What am I supposed to do? What is human destiny? Why are we here? – will slowly disappear, and their disappearance will be the answer. The answer is that what is going on can’t be described. The Tao cannot be described. It is simultaneously departing and arriving, always flowing, constantly changing. That is the meaning of “The eternal Tao” – the flow, the drift, the process of nature, the Watercourse Way.”

A Zen Buddhist teaching is “As I sit quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and grass grows of itself.”

This reflects the unity of all things, and we understand it without being able to define it. In our deepest intuition most of us sense that this unity underlies everything, underlies the mystery that we can’t understand, a unity that underlies all opposites. We can’t separate one from the other. This is illustrated by the Yin/Yang symbol with its two contrasting colors snuggled against each other, each containing a spot of the other. You can’t divide the Yin/Yang with a straight line without getting part of both sides, just as you can’t rid the universe of any opposite without the disappearance of the entire system. The art of life is balancing the forms of all creation, for it is the eternal pattern of the universe. The children’s story this morning illustrated that we can’t always predict what is good or bad.

I find challenge and comfort in the reading of the Tao Te Ching. It supports my long time awareness of being upheld by the universe and aids my current healing from a “worst case scenario” reaction to events in my life. Lao Tzu would hope that we would “practice” Taoism. He would hope that we would let go of what is getting in the way of our inner harmony. Taoism is the practice of being, being perfectly present to what is happening, as it happens, connecting with all that is, emptying out our prejudices and experiencing directly what is real.

During the late 1960’s we had a cultural revolution in our country. A “go with the flow” movement that included a return to what you might call primitive values, sharing with others, love-ins, sit-ins, happenings, complete with men and women in long flowing dresses handing out flowers and cookies. Remembering my feelings during that time, attending Pomona College in Claremont, California, makes me think that its time for another counter culture movement. Lao Tzu urges that we “manifest the simple, embrace the primitive, reduce selfishness, have few desires.” Imagine having no “ultimates” or “in the ends” or perfection to attain, but rather sitting by a gentle stream, enjoying the warmth of the winter sun, with a peaceful mind, not full or empty but open and receptive to whatever the next moment may bring. The Tao may be unknowable but it is available through experience.

I close with words from Chapter 47:

Without opening your door, you can open your heart to the world. Without looking out your window, you can see the essence of the Tao.