31 January 2017

A letter

I have been away from class tonight with a sore throat, swollen glands and a sore foot. Rather than spread a lurgy I have been at home sorting out a few books to recommend a Zen friend as he'd asked about our approach. I have just emailed him and was just about to send him the book list, but quite a few folks at class over the years have asked the same thing. So, here's most of the letter. If it's of help, great. If not, ignore it. Any mistakes are purely my own, and it does not necessarily reflect the views of my teachers...

Dear B,
   Regarding the intro to Cleary's Taoist I Ching, it's as good an intro to 'Complete Reality Taoism' as you'll find and has lots of insight from Liu I Ming, who seems to have been a real reformer and opener of Tao, somewhat like Dogen of Zen. There are scathing remarks for 'armchair Taoists'. Somehow he both keeps me on my cushion and on my toes.

Zen and our sitting practice are not different things. They feature slightly different terms and emphases. Nothing beats Buddhist terms like 'grasping' or 'aversion' for clarity and they translate so well in T'ai Chi. Taoist alchemical terms can seem unwieldy at first, but I have learned to appreciate them, especially those referring to 'the firing process', that huge change and undoing of the self which is precipitated by the path.

'Sitting forgetting' or '9 years facing the wall' is like in Zen, basic practice, and describes the same struggle to rest the mind on the breath and the breath on the mind. However, one must not then become a 'quietist' (which is a great old Taoist put-down for Ch'an Buddhists who only emptied their minds then left it at that). Instead: 'Kill the stirring mind, do not kill the Shining mind'. From what I understand, the goal, if I may dare use that word, is to live in the world and yet not be attached, decrease entanglements, to respond spontaneously and appropriately, to be natural and not full of cleverness.

In hard times, the Wayfarer is advised to stay on the edges, be a bit of a hermit, live simply in one's surroundings. In easier times it is possible to be part of general society, and to be incidentally of great benefit. Here for me is the real difference between the Dharma and the Tao. Both recommend pretty much the same practice, mental hygiene and view of mind, yet the Mahayana Boddhisattva vow sets it apart, from Tao (and Theravada), I feel. In much Buddhism, one vows to attain enlightenment and then to help all sentient beings do this, even by returning in another life to help them. With the Way, it is stressed that only by non-interference, nurturing of the natural and non-doing (wu-wei or 'uncontrived action') that the most beneficial outcome can be reached for all, human and non-human alike.

I was for so long drawn to the 'do good' side of Buddhism, but over years of noticing myself and others wreak chaos with our goodwill, I changed my mind. To a person of many faiths, even Humanism, our unwillingness to make big actions in the world, even when given the opportunity, may seem like nihilism, but it is far from it. Over 20 years of T'ai Chi partner work and relationship, it is only when I don't act from my will or my 'brilliant idea' that something really natural, fresh, or beneficial happens. Likewise, if I am not empty, not fully present or am unconnected in push hands, I get hit or caught or spun out. Discomfort and embarrassment have been two of my biggest teachers.

Awake, mind empty, body relaxed, connected to everything around, resting in the heart-mind (hsin), outreaching with my energy: this is rare and wonderful. It happens in T'ai Chi partner work, usually when I am under just the right amount of pressure. Sometimes too in nature, especially when making things with my hands out in the open, or hiking and then suddenly resting under a tree, say. Once or twice on my cushion (I live in hope!). A few times in the company of exceptional people or living beings. 

Modern writers such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb touch on responsiveness in 'Anti-Fragile' and John Gray and Yuval Noah Harari are similarly insightful in their work regarding the wider geo-political and historical spheres. The incomparable Ursula LeGuin has written alternative worlds in which the Way is occasionally the norm. In the Western lineage, the Stoics are a great source of wisdom, especially Marcus Aurelius. Greek Taoists! Rumi, The Cloud Of Unknowing, and other apophatic works also strengthen the resolve not to cling to things as they appear. Rather than the Buddhist term 'emptiness' (shunyata) I like Mark's take on it: 'no - thingness'.

Excepting in our T'ai Chi family, and on Zen retreats, most of all I have found fellow wayfarers since discovering Dark Mountain.

Well - one hour later and there - I have done exactly what Lao-tzu says don't do!
'The Way that can be told...'

Ah well. 
With respect, caro x

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