Monday, January 25, 2016



The Way of Lau Tzu

In my previous talk on Taoism I mentioned that Taoism is concerned with letting your mind be free, and realizing whatever you are doing. It is learning from nature and adjusting your life to existing the natural way.       That means accepting what is and letting go of what was or what might be.

From that viewpoint Taoism and Zen are related.

Aside from the many branches and splinter groups within Taoism, there are two main schools, usually termed "philosophical Taoism" (Tao-chia) and "religious Taoism" (Tao-chaio). Philosophical Taoism tends to focus on the writings of Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, and other early sages. Religious Taoism emphasizes mystical rituals aimed at achieving immortality.

Philosophical Taoism is closer to Zen than religious Taoism because it deals with the real world rather than with fanciful legends. By “fanciful” I mean such myths that Taoist masters learned to extend their lives indefinitely, to fly through the air, and to become invisible.

I won’t spend much time with religious Taoism other than mention that it has to do with mystical practices, fortune telling, and pseudoscience. Such stuff has strayed far from the original concepts of natural living.

Fortunately, the original Taoism has endured.

The prime mover of Taoism is believed to have been a man named Lau Tze Tung, or Lau Tzu, who lived around 604 to 531 BC. He was a librarian in the Chinese royal court and is assumed to have been the author of the book Tao Te Ching, the classic manual on the art of living.

One day while working in the library Lau Tzu became disenchanted with government work and fed up with society in general. According to legend, he straddled a horse and headed for the remote regions of China. At the border of the next province he got into a conversation with a friendly gatekeeper who asked him to make a record of his philosophical thoughts, which he did. Then he gave the guard the manuscript and rode into the desert like an American cowboy riding into the sunset. He was never seen again.

Lau Tzu believed in living in harmony with one’s essential nature. He referred to this as the Tao, and he taught that the Tao is not capable of being described. Rather, it must be experienced through practicing the natural way of existence.

That natural way is known as “The Tao,” or “The Way.”

Essentially it means to think for yourself.

Of course that is too simple for most people. The ancient Chinese venerated Lau Tzu as a "saint" and made sacrifices to him. Then they spun off a bunch of divinities they venerated as gods. Taoism lurched away from a simple way of life into one more organization of flimflam and religion.

In the words of a contemporary writer, Taoism is in some ways a personal or individual philosophy. In other ways it is a mystical school of religion or oriental magic, depending upon the word's use and the century in which the word appears.

At its core, the Tao is beyond language. As I said earlier, it is an experience rather than a definition. It’s a path of adapting to constant change. 

In the literature on Taoism three terms pop up that are worth mentioning: YinYang, Wu Wei, and Ch’i.


Ch’i, spelled Ch’i or Qi, literally means life energy. It’s a quality of all living things from a human being to a clam. Ch’i is often referred to as the natural strength of the universe. It is an important factor in such practices as acupuncture (the balancing one’s energy through the insertion of thin needles into key points of the body), qi gong (a system that combines physical posture, breathing, and meditation), and feng shui (a method of harmonizing objects with the surrounding environment).

Wu Wei

Wu wei involves discarding complex plans to improve oneself and everything else. Instead, it entails accepting the world (and oneself) as it is. That means giving up selfish desires and living an unplanned life rather than becoming trapped in preparing for the unrepairable, avoiding the inevitable, or seeking the unobtainable.


YinYang: The two words together signify the contrasting principles in nature that complement each other. Suffering, pain, and misery are basic for contentment, pleasure, and happiness to exist. Sickness and health are the equivalent phenomenon. Masculinity and femininity are mutual. When the imaginary space between such concepts is understood, extremes of either sort are seen as unnatural. It is the cycle of nature for the pendulum to swing back and forth.

As Lau Tzu says:

When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016



Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay balanced

by accepting whatever you are doing.

Those words were written around the 4th century BC by a Chinese man named Chuang Tzu. He was known as a sage, a philosopher who was revered for his perceptive understanding. The words describe a way of life called Taoism.

Taoism is the system of living one’s life harmoniously. In English the word Tao is spelled with the capital letter D or else the capital letter T.  It is usually translated as The Way, with a capital T and a capital W. The Tao refers to the way existence is interrelated and how it works.

The Tao is not a person, a place, or a thing, and it is not deified. The Tao has no supreme being, no sacred texts, no prophets, no saints, no miracles, no exalted leaders, no rules or regulations. The Tao deals with life and the manner of living it without turmoil.

The concept of Taoism began in China almost three thousand years ago. In later times two Chinese men were credited with its advance: Lao Tzu, also known as Lao Tze Tung (6th Century BC) and Chuang Tzu (4th Century BC). Both understood that the Tao was not some sort of a religious belief but harmony with the universal workings of nature.  

Neither of these men created Taoism any more than Christ created Christianity or the Buddha created Buddhism. Instead they recognized it and made an effort to keep it simple.

But our group is a not a Taoist group, it’s a Zen group. Is there any connection?

Zen is about living in the moment. Taoism is about living with the life-giving aspects of nature, right now. There are no dues to pay, no rules to follow, no pledges to make, no acts of faith. All it takes is certainty in one’s own self.

This may sound like a pitch for a self-improvement manual, or an appeal for donations. Banish the thought. All that’s essential is an open mind and a willingness to use that open mind.

Speaking of closed minds, several years ago I was invited to give a public talk on Zen. For half an hour or so I stood before a sizeable group and described Zen in simple terms. When I invited comments and questions a woman up front shouted “Well, I’m not buying it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m not selling it.

When human nature is in tune with the rest of nature, harmony results.  From this viewpoint, self-cultivation is a return to an existence that is natural and not messed up by the rules and regulations of social conditioning. That doesn’t mean going back to horses and buggies. It can be realized in any era, even in an age of computers, cars, and interstellar rockets.

It’s interesting how a philosophy starts out as a simple, unified system of thought. Then it becomes warped and twisted with the addition of complex opinions and ideas. That phenomenon has happened with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and even Zen. Human beings apparently cannot be content with something basic but it must mess around with the concept and transform it into something else that results in a slew of points of view.

Taoism is no exception.

Taoism began as an informal way of life. It was a way of deep reflection and learning from nature, a way of contemplation and meditation that required nothing and involved nothing more than an individual’s quiet, open mind. Unfortunately, in human thinking one system is never enough.  From the 12th and 13th century onwards many smaller branches and side-schools of Taoism developed. Most of them had jazzy names to attract people who are attracted by glitz.

To name only a few, there is The Way of the Five Pecks of Rice, The Way of the Celestial Masters, The Way of the Right Oneness, The Way of the Great Peace, and so on and on. Each school has its own teachings, its own observances, its own theories and practices, its own promises. Such separations belittle a good thing.

Chuang Tzu describes Taoists as persons who do not load their mind with anxieties, and are flexible in their adjustment to external conditions.

What more could anyone wish for?

Today’s talk is an introduction to Taoism and its relationship to Zen. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, January 04, 2016



Mind is the Way

      "However eloquently I may talk about all kinds of things as innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, the mind shows no increase. You may talk ever so much about it, and it is still your mind; you may not at all talk about it, and it is just the same your own mind. Let each of you see into his own mind.”

Those are the words of Mazu Daoyi.

          Mazu Daoyi was a Chinese Zen master who lived from 709 to 788. He is celebrated for initiating Rinzai Zen and championing instant awakening. According to Mazu, seeing into one’s nature meant understanding who you are and what you are, and that realization comes not gradually but suddenly. He declared there was no one way of teaching this truth, and whatever method seemed appropriate at a given moment was the best method.

        According to Mazu, anything was fair in love, in war, and in Zen study. He expressed his Chan not in lofty philosophical terms and foggy wisdom, but in simple, everyday language. He believed there was nothing that could be done to speed up the occurrence of sudden enlightenment, other than use traditional practices to make the psyche as uncomplicated as possible and then wait for the moment to strike.  Interestingly, he did not encourage meditation. Instead, he declared the grasping of truth was the function of everyday mindedness.

          Everyday mindedness is free from intentional action, free from concepts of right-and wrong, free from taking and giving, and free from the finite or the infinite.

          All daily activities—walking, standing, sitting, lying down—response to circumstances as they arise. This is what Mazu referred to as Tao.

          Mazu apparently was the first master who developed tricks for nudging a disciple into the state of "no-thought."  He was an experimenter, and he pioneered a number of methods that were later used by his followers.

        He might ask a novice an unanswerable question and then, while the person struggled for an answer, to shout in his ear hoping to jolt the pupil into a non-dualistic mind state. Another technique was to call out the novice’s name just as that person was leaving the room, a bombshell that seemed to bring the person up short and cause him to suddenly experience his original nature. A similar device was to deliver a student a sharp blow as he pondered a point, using violence to abort reasoning and focus attention completely on reality.

        The scanty records say Mazu's Chan community was an incubator for the greatest thinkers of the eighth century and the setting for some of the finest Chan anecdotes.

        He believed in stories as the perfect Chan teaching device, since they focus the listener to find its meaning in his own inner experience. A sermon may have provided the theoretical basis for an idea, but an anecdote showed the theory in action and made the listener share in a real experience if only vicariously.

        The following two anecdotes are included in the collection of koans called the Wumen Kuan (Japanese, Mumonkan).


          Case 30

          Question: "What is Buddha?" (That is, what is the unworldliness that all seek?)

          Mazu: "Mind is Buddha."

          Case 33

          Question: "What is Buddha?"

          Mazu: "No mind, no Buddha" (That is, unworldliness is in the mind, and for its realization one must realize the mind.)


          Trying to reconcile those seemingly contradictory responses will likely tip your own mind upside down, which is the whole point of shaking it loose.

          Mazu discovered and refined something that seems to have escaped earlier teachers such as Huineng and Huairang, namely, a trigger mechanism for sudden          enlightenment. He originated the use of shouting and blows to precipitate          enlightenment, techniques used in later decades by such masters as Huangbo and Linji, masters who shaped the Rinzai sect.


          I have talked about Zen Master Dogen’s concept of time before. It’s a mystifying but fascinating view that bears looking into again.

          Probably the notion of time as a measurable concept developed in prehistoric times from the human observance of dawn and dusk, or of the phases of the moon, or of seasonal changes.

There seems to be no hard evidence that living things other than humans actually quantify time and keep close track of it. Of course, a squirrel stores acorns when it senses winter is approaching. Some furry creatures shed their natural coat with the seasons, or they undergo a color change. But do rabbits and bears and earthworms have a sense of the passage of time? Do they have an awareness of past and future? Or are humans the only beings that consciously demarcate intervals and durations of experience, think about the past, and worry about the future?

          If you want to overwork your brain, think “what if.” That is, what if there was no notion of time? What would existence be like?

          Zen monks separate themselves physically and mentally from the everyday world, and its pressures of time, in order to focus on their training to reach spiritual truth. However, they can’t escape time altogether. In a monastery drums and bells sound off to mark the beginning and ending of meditation sessions, to signal work periods and mealtimes.

          About the only individuals who manage to get away from time completely are hermits who live a solitary life in a forest or on a mountain. Their lives are regulated by the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset and by their bodily needs. That is, they eat when they’re hungry and they drink when they’re thirsty.

          They don’t look at their Timex to see if it’s six o’ clock and time to sit down to beans and rice.

          Excluding recluses, most of us live a life that’s controlled by an allegiance to time. We cause ourselves to wake up at a certain hour so we can be at work, or at school, or at a meeting. As much as we might like to forget the constraints of minutes, and hours, and days, time is important to living our lives.

          We can moan and groan about time, but we can’t reject it.

          One value of the concept of time is that it gives us something to talk about. Time is as much a topic of conversation as is the weather. Remember Charles Dudley Warner’s declaration that everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. The same can be said for time.

          Zen doesn’t deny time any more than it ignores the laws and rules of society. But Zen sees time uniquely. Zen sees time as right now. Neither the past nor the future exists. Only now is actual, and now doesn’t last long.

          Dogen wrote at some length on the concept of time in a Dharma presentation called Uji. Uji is a Japanese word that has been translated as “Being and Time, or “Just for the Time Being.”

Dogen said, in essence, that the whole of time is the whole of existence.

          “Uji” is a common expression in Japanese, equivalent to several common wordings that are used in the west: “For the time being,” “Now and again,” “At a time when.” According to Hubert Nearman, a translator of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Dogen based his Uji talk on his experience of becoming unattached to a self that exists independent of time and independent of worldly things. This is the aim of Zen, the dropping off of body and mind.

          Time is not a thing. But by devising hours, and months, and years, and keeping track of such intervals, humans have made time something out of nothing. They have made time something to be reckon with.

          You are probably familiar with the basic law of physics that says matter can neither be created nor destroyed. But laws are overturned and broken because they are made by humans to suit their own logic and convenience.

          Take snowflakes. Physics says it’s not possible for any two snowflakes to be exactly alike. This is hard to swallow. Can we accept as fact that snow has been falling on earth for some four or five billion years and never has there been, or ever will be, no two identical snowflakes?

          How about grains of sand? Or human fingerprints?

          To get back to uji, time and being are two aspects of the enactment of seconds, minutes, hours, and the absence of a permanent self in the passage of time. Let me say that again. Time and being are two aspects of the enactment of seconds, minutes, hours, and the absence of a permanent self in the passage of time.

          Don’t ask me to explain that. Either you get it or you don’t get it.

          Putting this in Zen terms, there is no permanent self. I say again: There is no permanent self. There is uji, the time when some form of being persists.

To quote Dogen, “The phrase ‘is for the time being’ implies that time in its totality is what existence is, and existence in all its occurrences is what time is.”

          Dogen’s words are not only about uji—the time when some form of being persists—they come from an individual who lived uji. Nothing is definite, nothing is certain. Every thought that comes up is just for the time being.

          Again I quote Dogen:

          “Mountains are of time: oceans are of time. If there was no time, neither mountains nor oceans could be. Do not think that time does not exist for the mountains and oceans of the present moment. Were time to cease to exist, so would mountains and oceans cease to exist?”

          And a final word from Dogen, “When one looks up and unbolts the barrier gate, ‘arriving’ refers to the time when body and mind are dropped off, and ‘having not arrived’ refers to the time when this ‘dropping off’ is left behind.”

          What does this mean?

          It means one should always go onward, becoming Buddha. Whatever arises one should constantly apply oneself without thinking of arriving or not yet arriving.