I had intended on making blog posts about the Chico Taoist Study Group's discussions of the Tao Te Ching when we started again with Chapter 1, but as luck would have it, a combination of illness and weather prevented me from going over to Chico until the group was on Chapter 4. I don't intend for these posts to be a in-depth analysis of the text, but rather a report of the kind of discussions we have in the group, along with my own thoughts.
After meditation,the Front Cushion (i.e. the guy who leads the group) read a koan from the Rinzai Zen tradition which, as far as I understand it studies koans as a means for sudden enlightenment. (There is more than a dollop of Buddhism in this Taoist group.) Koans are designed to stop logical thought; they don't make sense, so they kind of make you crazy trying to figure them out. Part of this one goes “Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is confusion.” So . . . we're royally screwed, right? No, it's that enlightenment is transcends knowing and not-knowing. As long as we think we know, we don't. As long as we keep things open, we have a shot at real understanding.
Now, here is Chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching, Derek Lin translation:
The Tao is empty
Utilize it, it is not filled up
So deep! It seems to be the source of all things
It blunts the sharpness
Unravels the knots
Dims the glare
Mixes the dusts
So indistinct! It seems to exist
I do not know whose offspring it is
Its image is the predecessor of God
We usually look at more than one translation, but always include one from Derek Lin's Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained, which is said to be the most literal interpretation of the Chinese text. I'll only give one translation here, to save space.
One lady in the group said she's so fond of this particular chapter that she has it posted on her refrigerator. I have no idea why this particular one stands out to her, but why a text strikes one person and not another is just one of those mysteries. After all, I was a Baha'i for around 27 years largely because I was attracted to the Baha'i Writings and I'd be hard put to explain exactly why.
Getting down to basics, a young woman who I had not seen before asked the Front Cushion what the Tao is. “Is it life? Is it energy? Is it spirit?” The answer to all of those questions is “Yes.” He explained that it is as vast as the Universe and as minute as atomic particles. “It is a universal concept.” And, in any case, as another new member of the group pointed out, if you can explain what it is, you have missed it entirely. My own contribution was to refer to my previous blog post and to explain the idea that the Tao is essentially a moving target that you can't pin a precise label on. Another lady elaborated on this determined imprecision of language by talking about the word “seems” in the translation. It seems to be the source of all things rather than “It is . . . .”
Yet another woman talked about how she came to grips with her health difficulties when she simply gave up – when she stopped fighting the illness, she felt peaceful about it. These personal stories have only the most tenuous relationship to the text, but it's fairly common for people to share this way. They need to, and we all listen. In fact, there are times when I feel like my whole presence there is an exercise in listening-- something we could all do a bit better. It's not uncommon for me to say nothing at all.
Another man talked about the recent science questioning the Big Bang theory, saying that he found a certain comfort in the beginnings of the Universe being a complete mystery. He related this to his trip to Macchu Picchu and how he looked down at a blanket of fog covering the ruins, which he poetically described as being “like the Mother's nightgown”, that he really didn't want to peek behind, but to leave it obscure.
The final bit of wisdom was from one of the older members who said, “If there's no Big Bang, then time doesn't exist. So, can I have a beer?” We all laughed, of course. Now that I've had time to think about it, the comment sounds very much like a koan, and thus the perfect way to end, as we began the discussion.