Updated: Apr 25, 2022
The title is taken from The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu... and I would like to say it is an accurate foreshadowing for this entry. It certainly is a true statement, but sometimes more words are needed to help bridge the gap between concept and understanding. That said, what follows is my understanding. It is my journey... what I have come to know through the unique twists and turns of my life.
To begin the observation, we need to consider a bit of history. Taoism, like most philosophies, probably had its start as the first two humans realized the need to work together to survive. Communication became crucial to try and explain every piece of human existence; it was only a matter of time before philosophical thought would take center stage.
The Spring and Autumn Dynasty in China ran from about 770 BC to 476 BC. In early years, there were roughly 140 feudal-like fiefdoms that comprised China – the remnants of the lords/families who were rewarded with land and power for their support of the Chou Empire. What ensued next was like a full-size game of Risk; each kingdom was both anxious to annex the next, while simultaneously fearful of being conquered.
476 BC began the Warring States Dynasty that would run for another 200 years until about 221 BC. During this period, the number of ruling families was reduced to seven, and at the end, the only one to survive was the House of Ch’in.
It became apparent that a strong and standing army with great generals would not be enough to guarantee survival, much less conquest. What was needed was détente. Kingdoms were in need of thinkers; they needed philosophers to assuage the masses, guide the nobles, and communicate with the other kingdoms.
During this 700-year period, there lived some of the greatest thinkers that China, and for that matter much of the rest of the world, would come to know: Confucius, Mencius, Mo Tzu, Han Fei Tzu, Kung Sun Lung, Sun Tzu, and Lao Tzu from the southern Ch’u Family, and Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu near the end of this period. Often these itinerant statesmen would travel from kingdom to kingdom offering their services.
It was Lao Tzu who, when leaving the family of Ch’u in the South, wrote the book, the Tao Te Ching at the request of a guardian at the kingdom’s gate before disappearing, never to be heard from again. This book, translated as The Natural Way and Virtue, was written in about the 6th century BC, and is considered to be the foundation of Taoist philosophy.
There are 81 chapters in this book – each relatively short pieces of philosophical poetry that is both beautiful in its prose and powerful in its perspective. Interestingly, it is perhaps the most translated book of all time next to the Bible.
I first became aware of Taoist prose watching the premier and early episodes of the 70s television series, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a monk trained in the now famous ShaoLin Temple in mainland China, circa 1860.
The parables used by the ShaoLin Temple Masters to instruct and guide the monks were most often direct translations from the Tao Te Ching. I would venture to say that the vast majority of the viewers of this program, probably tens of thousands if not substantially more, were unaware of the reference source.
Listening to them over and over again in my mind was a testament to the impact they had on me. Along with the romanticized presentation of the Temple itself and the amazing martial arts skills performed by the ShaoLin monks, I became enamored with the philosophy of life presented there.
The second contact I had with these wise words was when I encountered a small paperback book in a Korean import business on 4th and Wisconsin in downtown Milwaukee. This shop had a few Chinese weapons that drew me into the store like a fly to flypaper. We are talking about a more than 50-mile round trip just to look at these weapons.
I might add that the quality was terrible… but what did I know at the time? The store also had a collection of books for sale. Almost all of them were featuring some aspect of karate, because this is what was popular in the early 70s.
However, I would page through almost every book there, regardless the topic. I do not remember the name of this particular book, but it was a small, thin paperback with parables of Chinese philosophy or wisdom on every page. There were no explanations, no suggested meanings… only beautiful words that resonated with me. A few years later, as a teacher in a Catholic school, I would write one of these poems on the blackboard weekly.
This was more for generating thought than discussion. There were no lessons shared regarding these words. Or were there? I would like to believe that a number of my middle school students were moved just a bit by what was displayed in front of them weekly for two straight years.
One of my first ShaoLin teachers was ShiFu Glenn Hart in Massachusetts. Prior to beginning my instruction, ShiFu Hart requested that I memorize the first 10 chapters of the Tao Te Ching. He even suggested a new translation: Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching, by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English, published in 1974. Here they were again… these same words that had been guiding me philosophically for years were now in the original book. And the book was in my hands. This was certainly more than a coincidence. This was the Tao. It was prophetic. It was as it was supposed to be.
For me, memorization is quite easy. In fact, much of my success in my formal education was simply research, and then memorization. But with these words it was different. These words did not only share concept and fact, they had resonated within me for years in a way that stimulated me to question the very basis of my thoughts and actions, beliefs and behavior. Quite simply, I began to question even more deeply – and yet therefore less, as I would come to realize – because it is “the natural way,” or because “it is.”
Knowing by not knowing… the polarity of yin and yang.
“Under heaven, all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
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;
Front and back follow one another. …”
You cannot really understand left without an understanding of right. Down means little without up. Happiness cannot be understood without having also experienced sadness. What is health without illness?
These are not, however, perceived as being polarized opposites on a linear continuum. Rather, these are seen as opposites, as yin and yang, in a mutually arising and dynamic cyclical continuum. Picture the static Taoist yin and yang symbol, three dimensionally and in constant motion. Therefore, one feeds into the other, becomes the other, and vice-versa. Day (yang) becomes night (yin), and night in turn becomes day.
Which way is the right way?
“The shape changes, but not the form….”
I heard one of my martial brothers ask our teacher/father, SiFu Kwong Wing Lam, about the differences in the technique and subsequent application of another martial arts teacher within our system – the same system, but a different family lineage. Which application, which interpretation is better?
After years of study martial artists, like all professionals, want to know that we “have it right.” Master Lam told him that if the essence of the movement was correct in all ways – the “form” itself – then the specific application or interpretation, or the “shape,” may appear as different.
Regarding this lesson another way: To look out the back of my home presents a park-like setting. When all is in bloom in the summer, you cannot see other homes. It is living in rural nature, perhaps with no neighbors for miles. To look out the front is to look upon a street lined with other homes. It is living in a city with one house on a lot immediately next to another. Which perspective is true? Perhaps things are not so black and white.
What we think is what we see. What we see leads to what we believe. What we believe determines what we think.
“The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.”
As a science teacher, I would ask students to accept the idea that science is actually a way of looking at the world. Science is another perspective – another prism – through which we can connect with and hopefully better understand our world. The scientific method outlines a process of observing, questioning, postulating, theorizing, and then testing to either validate or invalidate one’s theory.
Such investigation requires an astute use of not only properly calibrated and functioning equipment, but also an astute and careful use of our five senses. It is through the use of these senses by which we gather and evaluate the data. Those results should ultimately lead to understanding.
Honing these senses, these skills, is essential. Unfortunately for most of us, those senses are seldom used effectively or efficiently. Most of us see only what we want to see. We are often distracted by everything around us, or blinded by that ‘something shiny.’ Focus, mindfulness, and clarity are often missing. Hearing everything around us has taught us to not hear.
In essence, much of the sound around us becomes white noise. Many smells decrease our ability to distinguish specific odors. As we learn to eliminate those distracting colors, smells, and voices within our heads, we may actually begin to understand. In the western world, we believe that every day we must learn something new. In the Taoist philosophy, every day we must let go of something.
Practice QiGong to bring balance to the world around us… to strengthen our bodies and to free our minds.
“Not exalting the gifted prevents quarrelling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies,
By weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If people lack knowledge and desire,
Then intellectuals will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done then all will be well.”
Within the Tao Te Ching, we see that classical, philosophical Taoism describes two methods for cultivating life. First is developing a sound body through specific physical exercise: QiGong, or internal energy exercise. The second is through developing a sound attitude – clearly “seeing” the world around us in its most simple and natural way.
By controlling desire we can reduce confusion and the fire within us. ‘Stuffing bellies’ refers to learning how to breathe to the lower abdomen and exercise accordingly, thus enhancing the quantity and quality of the Qi, or life force, within us. By reducing the distractions and manifestations in our minds, the “intellectual within us” will not interfere with our growth and development – physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. All will be well.
So many examples come to mind. And so I write. And rewrite. And then write some more. I know this piece cannot be finished; it does not have an end. “To be or not to be, that is the question.” No, dear Hamlet… that is the answer. That is Tao.