This essay is an effort to clarify Faith in Mind, a text of seminal importance to Ch'an, Zen and Taoism.
The essay does not paraphrase or explain so much as illustrate how Faith in Mind can be applied to everyday life in the modern world. In this way, the essay follows the author's intention, which is to guide the sincere person in her quest to live in harmony with the Tao.
The advice given is not designed for passive consumption.
You have to live it.
There is no shortcut.
Only when you apply this in your life, will you gradually begin to understand.
1. Do not pick and choose
The first couplet of Faith in Mind is emphatic and simple. There is not a word about the intellect, or studying scriptures intensively. It does not refer to any particular dogma you must subscribe to, or any ritual or ceremony you will have to perform. Its instructions are ridiculously simple. You must not pick and choose.
Our ability to live in harmony with the Tao, according to this text, is based on the absence of our tendency to live according to our desires. "Pick and choose" is a consumer term. Isn't it exactly what modern life is about? Do we not even link such a beautiful word as "freedom" to it? Youth want to leave the stifling environment of their parents so they can earn their own money and buy whatever they want to buy, without anybody else's interference? We have been brainwashed by an omnipresent advertising industry into believing that living is mainly buying. Freedom has degenerated into a shopping spree.
Desire is the fuel on which our economy runs, and our consumer impulses have perverted our relationships too. 'Friendship' is often seen as an investment guaranteeing influence and endorsement. Even our emotional lives have become an exhaustive process of selection. I like her, so I'll smile at her. I don't like him, so I will not be friendly.
2. Neither love nor hate
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Acting or reacting according to the two basic emotions of love and hate is the same as treating human beings like products in a shopping mall. It is a form of picking and choosing. You become a consumer of human beings, and your relationships turn into products that gratify your needs, and that are dumped when they have lost their usefulness, or bore you, or do not fit your new image.
Some husbands treat their wives that way. They would discard their old wife for a newer model. Emancipation to some women mean that they can now do the same to their husbands. All kinds of psychological terminology are used to explain their consumerism: "mid-life crisis", "death fear", etc. Do you want to know the truth? Ask their discarded children. They know what it really is. You are never too young to understand desertion.
The passage clearly states you should not allow love to interfere if you want to understand. This is almost impossible with close friends or family. It is more possible to love and hate them simultaneously than to neither love nor hate them. That is probably why parents have such a hard time understanding their children, and children develop such warped ideas about their parents.
This passage has often been misunderstood. It does not say you should not love. It actually shows you how. You can only truly understand your children, or your friends, or any living creature for that matter, if you do not allow such emotions as love or hate to interfere. Only if you really understand, will you truly love - and love here is seen as real support and not a cheap emotion.
Easy, isn't it? And yet so difficult.
3. One hair's breadth
You have probably experienced it yourself. Just when you think you have finally taken a substantial step forward, something small and embarrassingly trivial throws you totally off your course.
Being thrown off course by a large catastrophe is not as disturbing. Weeping bitterly at an open grave does not destroy a person's self-esteem. Small but venomous jealousies evoking mean actions can be far more destructive, particularly if you have assumed immunity from them, for they point at your unheroic vulnerability. What shatters your self-confidence is the fact that your fall has been ridiculous. If you are willing to admit the puniness, it will be a truly humbling experience. Which is good. All good things come from the Tao, don't they?
If you accept your defeat humbly, you will discover something else. No matter how far you may seem to be removed from compassion, you are in fact only a hair's breadth away from it, and you can return to your former closeness in an instant. In fact, every time you return, you will be closer than before. A hair's breadth closer maybe. But isn't that like the space separating heaven and earth?
4. The mind's disease
Again, it seems easy enough. If you keep your desires and animosities in check, things will become clear. You will understand. You will know what to do.
If you allow your ambivalence to control your mind, you will never see clearly. Your mind will not function properly. You will be confused. You will not know what to do.
Yet, it is so difficult, isn't it? Not being for something, nor against anyone. It can be boring too, you might say. I mean, isn't the kind of life depicted here an existence without passion and excitement? Being for something, or against something, that is what life is all about, isn't it?
A tranquil mind is a form of death, you might add. You want to feel emotions, want to experience rage and sorrow and passion. I feel, therefore I am alive. Isn't this what the youth are often led to believe?
This ascetic approach cannot else but seem unattractive to a society addicted to desire.5. The Mysterious Principle
You cannot blame youth if they believe that thoughts and emotions are life. They live in a world that is selling ideas and emotions for profit. You can even inject emotions into your veins, or buy them as tablets or in liquid form.
It is a fact, though, that thoughts and emotions are not reality, but merely our reaction to it. It is not your concept of the tiger and emotions about it that constitute the real tiger. What the real tiger is you can only begin to experience when you meet a tiger face to face in the jungle, and feel his warm breath on your face. Reality, you will find out, is more real than mental fiction, and often more exciting.
Your thoughts often come between reality and you. You have probably experienced it yourself. When you walk on the beach and your mind is in tumult, the ocean seems distant and you cannot come into touch with it. It is only when your mind becomes tranquil that you can really experience the ocean. It is only in serenity that you seem to become one with nature.
You must accept the mysterious principle. You must trust that you can achieve harmony with nature only if you curb your desire and inhibit your intellectual urge to divide, categorize and analyze. It is only when your overheated mind has cooled off, and you become serene, that you will really come close to things outside your mind.
Unless you accept life as a mystery, your effort to reach out will be in vain. It will be useless, because it will not succeed. Your mind won't let you.
Let go of your analytical urge. Drop the habit of thinking in dualistic terms. Accept the mystery for what it is - outside the reach of your ratio. Only then will your effort to find quietude succeed and will you move closer to everything. If you fail, you will be like an animal in a cage, and that is not real life. No matter how brilliant and intense they may be, your thoughts and emotions are nothing but the bars imprisoning you.
In quietude, you will discover that to be close to creation is more intense than passion; it is real.
6. The Perfect Way
This image of perfection is beautiful. There is something so serene and exciting about a great space. A great space is a striking metaphor of spirituality. It is so full of paradoxes. It seems empty, yet it contains much. It lacks nothing, yet has nothing in excess.
I know one cannot describe the Tao, but I suspect this image of a great space is as close as you will ever come to visualizing it.
The meaning of this passage is clear. Live moderately, it says. Moderation, however, does not mean narrow-mindedness. A great space is all about vision and movement, but without the accompanying desire for excess.
When desire takes over, and you grasp and reject, your great space will become as narrow as your mind, a confine in which you will be trapped with little air to breathe.7. The Middle Path
"Conditioned existence" is an apt description of the infallible and impartial way in which the karmic law of cause and effect operates. There is no escape from it. We exist because the conditions permit us to live. These conditions can change in such a way that we will perish. Yet we play a major part in determining the direction our lives take. We will reap what we have sown. We are responsible for our fate.
Often we will tackle this external existence as if it is the only thing worthwhile living for. We live as if the world of body and material objects is something solid and permanent; as if it isn't ephemeral and illusory. If we lose ourselves in life in this very materialistic way, we will be totally lost.
Trying to escape this conditioned existence by fleeing totally into yourself is just as harmful. One of the great insights in Ch'an is that we are essentially empty. There is no such thing as an autonomous, permanent core to be found in us. The idea of a permanent entity in us is illusory. It is as delusory as seeing the world around us as consisting of autonomous, permanent entities. Not penetrating this illusion of permanence is the core of ignorance and the source of much suffering. We human beings actually consist of several aggregates in perpetual fluctuation, very much conditioned by things around us. There is nothing autonomous in us. Apart from our senses, our ability to register and interpret what our senses record, our volitional abilities and our consciousness - all of which are conditioned, interdependent and in perpetual motion - there is nothing in us. We are transient and empty. A fleeting manifestation of energy. A void.
Many people, particularly in the West, are unnerved by this idea of transience and emptiness. However, once you get used to this idea, there is something wonderfully reassuring about it. What it does show is that all this effort to gather and cling to things is, well, silly. Who are you doing it for? And to strive for fame, too, is absurd.
One can easily flee into this emptiness, and refuse to participate in the often tiresome struggle associated with conditioned existence. Yet this form of total withdrawal into emptiness is just as wrong as wallowing in conditioned existence.
This is all very well, you would respond, but where does it leave you? Again, the passage is clear.
Follow the middle path. Neither immerse yourself totally in conditioned existence to the exclusion of everything else, nor reject reality by fleeing into emptiness.
You may, however, use emptiness as a temporary retreat. It will allow you to deal with existence - and you have no choice but to deal with it - without losing your perspective. You will gain the humility and compassion that will give your existence meaning. You will lose your selfishness, for you will know that there is no self, but only emptiness.
Ideally, you should dwell in both conditioned existence and emptiness simultaneously. They are not separate, but one. This is a great mystery, I know, and difficult to understand. But if you live it, you will know it is true. In this oneness of your inner emptiness and outer existence, your confusion will disappear. Things will become clear to you. The way will lie before you in all the simplicity only equality can bring.8. Patience
You cannot force your mind to become still. The more you try to suppress your thoughts, the more they will pop onto the surface. Your mind will only become more agitated and active.
It is like trying to calm a small unruly pond by hitting it with a spade. You cause even more waves. The only thing you can do is to practise patience and wait:
Just concentrate on the form of meditation you have chosen, and do not be in a hurry to see results. The moment you are worried about progress, you regress.
Relax. Practise your method. If it is Tai Chi Chuang, then do it with patience and calmness. If it is to count your breath, then count your breath. The kind of method you choose is not as important as your approach to it.
Be patient. Practise serenely. Don't worry about reaching aims. Just practise. Remember: Enlightenment is a by-product rather than the main goal.
Development comes as it comes. Enlightenment comes when you expect it least.9. Oneness
What is wrong with duality? one could ask. Why does the mind's analytical abilities cause stagnation? Haven't we always been told that our mind's ability to distinguish, categorize and divide represents progress?
We spend years in educational institutions to refine our analytical abilities. And now this passage claims that what we have acquired with so much trouble is in fact the very cause of our stagnation.
Of course we must be able to distinguish and to analyse if we are to survive. Our analytical abilities have allowed us to survive even when the odds were against us. Our brain power has allowed us to land on the moon, and to reach out to the stars.
This passage does not expect us to abandon these essential skills. It just does not want us to utilize them on the wrong level. On the level of the spirit, your ability to divide and to categorize separates you and isolates you from the rest of the universe. Of course you need to know the difference between a dangerous shark and a non-dangerous one: it is essential to your survival when you are swimming in the ocean. But you should realize that this division is artificial. You and the shark are part of the organism we call Earth, as much as your left eye and right eye are part of you. Categorization is a mental act. It separates what is essentially a totality. Things exist separately only in our minds. In reality, we are all part of an indivisible whole.
Our minds' obsession with duality has caused our loneliness. If you divide people into races, you - as a member of a particular race - become separate from the other races. It can, if you focus on the differences, easily lead to racism, which would isolate you even more. If you concentrate on the common qualities uniting races, you will again become a member of a greater totality called humanity. Isolation will not be possible, and racism will become obsolete.
We are even further removed from bridging the gap between ourselves and other species - a gap created by our own minds. This gap has not only isolated us spiritually as humans, but has been the cause of much cruelty and suffering. Perversely enough, many human beings have decided that all species except humans are empty, barren of spirit, and that emptiness is a license to abuse and to enslave. We are a long way off from oneness with all life around us.
It is this oneness we long back to. Desperately. It is the root of our restlessness and dissatisfaction. We are lonely. Our mind has separated us from the rest of creation. It is only our spirit that can restore the harmony. To do this, our first step is to eliminate the duality intruding into our spiritual lives.10. No escape
The spirit should never be seen as an escape from life. The moment you try to turn your back on existence, existence will come down on you with a vengeance. There is no escape from reality. When you try to escape inwardly, you will not find peace, but only the turmoil of reality waiting for you. You will search in vain for emptiness, for by turning your back on reality, you will have turned your back on emptiness as well.
It's clear, isn't it? Your movement inwards must be a movement towards life, and not away from it.
There is another dimension to this passage that cannot be ignored. If you turn your back on reality, you are turning your back on compassion, too.
A simple example will illustrate this. If you see a man lying next to the road, bleeding and in dire need of help, you witness reality. He is not a figment of your mind, nor is he a concept. You cannot change reality by getting rid of your visions. His blood colouring the sidewalk is real blood. To turn your back on him would be callous, no matter what excuse you might care to use.
To face reality and to help him would be an act of compassion, and would also therefore be a movement inwards and towards emptiness.
Do you see? You cannot preoccupy yourself with meditative practice and ignore reality, and still hope to progress in any way.
What I have explained here is also true on a less tangible social and political level. Suppression, injustice, war, famine in distant places cannot be disregarded while you are busy with your own cosy search for enlightenment.
Without compassion, you will never become wise.
Compassion and wisdom are two sides of the same coin.
They are the central characteristics of the sage.11. Becoming quiet
The operative word here is excessive. There is nothing wrong with talking and thinking moderately, but the modern mind is addicted to it. We think too much and we talk too much. Our education has encouraged us to do so.
We often think and talk too much in a desperate effort to find harmony. But the opposite is usually achieved: disharmony and stress, even distress.
We often think and talk immoderately because we are too scared to become quiet. Have you noticed? The modern human is scared of silence. We would play radios non-stop, or keep the TV running when we are not watching - even the illusion of communication is preferable to silence. We avoid the danger of an involuntary trip inwards. We fear the void. We do not want to face the fact that our sense of self is fiction. It is almost as if we intuitively know that autonomy is an illusion. To preserve this illusion of permanence, we think and talk continuously. To think is to exist? We turn Descartes' axiom "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am") into an escapist formula.
It is only when you are fearless enough to enter emptiness that you learn that permanence is not necessary, and that the "I" we cling to is a mental aberration we do not need. You become part of a transient world with no beginning and no end, and you lose your fear of insignificance and of death. More important, though, you lose your fear of life.
12. The By-Product
You have to start somewhere, don't you? Your purpose, however, should not be to become a sage, or to find illumination. If your action is self-centred, it is bound to fail.
To give an example on a materialistic level.
I asked a nephew of mine once, "What would you like to be one day?"
"Rich," was his answer.
He never became rich, because apart from his dream of wealth, he had no real interest in any form of productive or creative activity.
A young person that I had the privilege of teaching gave a totally different answer to my question. "I would like to create wonderful stories," he said. He was passionate about this, and he had patience and perseverance, and he created wonderful stories in books that became best-sellers. Of course he became wealthy, but this was a by-product of his creativity.
The same principle is true on a spiritual level. If you asked a person what he would like to become one day, and he should give the self-centred answer, "Enlightened," he would be as silly as my nephew.
He would probably never become a sage, for there is no such thing as an enlightened ego.
To go after enlightenment in an egotistical way is like chasing a feather with a fan.
Enlightenment is a by-product of compassion: real compassion, not a self-centred effort to be good.
Enlightenment is like the Tao. The moment you think you have it, you don't.13. Reversing the light
No matter how immersed you are in life in a positive way, you still need time for yourself. You cannot see clearly unless you turn inwards regularly.
Clarifying things - 'reversing the light' - means to get rid of those 'deluded views' that confuse you and stand between reality and you.
You might often feel that you are out of touch, that reality is far removed. Many people feel they have to move physically on a kind of pilgrimage in an effort to come closer to reality. Migration can of course give you new perspectives and help you to understand life better, but it is basically unnecessary. Reality is not a place far away. It is around you and in you. You don't have to search for it. The only thing you have to do is extinguish your views. Then you will clearly see what is real.
It is only when your mind has ceased its turmoil that you can be in contact with the things that matter.
You might have experienced moments of serenity when you see with incredible clarity what is fake and what is real, and recognize where you are wasting your precious life energy, and what you really should be doing.
Unfortunately, these moments of clarity happen too seldom, often only after some traumatic experience, like a near death experience or the death of a beloved. Sometimes, these experiences change people profoundly. More often than not, people soon forget about them and fall back into their blindness as they are engulfed by life and their old habits.
Meditation is a way of reversing the light. If practised correctly and diligently, it can give you moments of sheer illumination. It does not leave your development to chance. You acquire insight without necessarily having to suffer. It sensitizes you to the spiritual dimension. It creates in you an awareness and a sensitivity which enables you to learn from more subtle experiences. It teaches you to live a meaningful life and to experience joy in all its purity, and it prepares you for the inevitability of suffering and sorrow.14. No right and wrong
Isn't anti-dualism being taken too far here? I mean, ignoring right and wrong! Is this text refuting the very moral basis on which society is supposed to function?
This passage can be easily misunderstood. It is talking about our ability to act coherently and compassionately. What it is actually saying is that compassion goes beyond criteria of right and wrong.You may not approve of theft, but you can still have compassion on the thief. If you allow your morals to dictate to you whom you may show compassion to, you will fall into the most destructive form of dualistic thinking. And you will be hypocritical. Nobody is innocent. Does that mean that nobody is worthy of compassion? Is dignity attached to innocence? Then nobody deserves dignity. And yet we know. Dignity is the inalienable right of every living being.
Dignity should never be attached to some condition. A terrible example of this is how we tend to make dignity a product of success, or intelligence, or wealth, or "beauty". Small wonder that the weak are often treated like dirt.
Unless your care for others is unconditional, your actions will not be compassionate, and your mind will indeed be "scattered and lost".
There is another dimension to this passage. In many ways, morality only applies when people have failed to embrace compassion. Like laws, morals are negative, prohibiting rather than inspiring. Laws are necessary when people have ceased to be decent to each other. Morals are essential when people stop caring for each other. Real development, though, is when people embrace compassion.
Morals tell you what not to do. They are negative. They inhibit rather than encourage to be constructive. They bring out the worst particularly in young people, who delight in breaking rules.
Compassion is not prescriptive. It is an anarchic force in you. If you should see a child drowning, you needn't check in some rule book to find out what you should do. You needn't consult with your local pastor to determine whether your actions might be in accordance with the particular dogma of your church. It would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? Even if there should be a sign next to the pool reading "No adults allowed in pool", you would nevertheless jump in to save the child, wouldn't you?
Compassion is beyond rules. If your morals should forbid you to embrace strangers, you would take the child into your arms to save it, wouldn't you? Compassion exists beyond morals.
If an individual should need morals and laws to tell him what is right and wrong, his mind is indeed "scattered and lost".15. Beyond One
Even in emptiness, when your mind has come to rest, you are still aware of yourself. It is only when your awareness of yourself is dissolved that you reach true unity with the emptiness in you and around you, for the void in you is also the void outside you.
All forms of distinction will have finally disappeared. There will be no object, because you have ceased to be a subject. You will be in a world of emptiness in which subject and object have become one. Not even life and death will be distinguishable anymore.
It is in this unity that perfection will be realized. Imperfection exists only in our minds. The moment our mind has been eliminated as we enter emptiness, imperfection will disappear and all things will become perfect.
The above three paragraphs is my effort to explain the poet's effort to explain the inexplicable. The poet and myself are moving on thin ice. It is impossible to really describe something beyond language.
The only way to find out whether this oneness is possible, and whether this is true, is to go there.
The poet can only show you the way.16. Discriminating
Is this passage referring to our tendency to be biased in favour of what we observe as quality? Yes, it probably is. We are obsessed by quality on all levels, yet the sad thing is that we have lost our ability to recognize quality. This is often due to our inability to penetrate the surface of things. We would use brand names - labels - as an indication of what quality is supposed to be. Without these superficial indications, most people are lost.
We are really taken in by appearance. I don't know whether you have experienced this. I have. I once went shopping in my old garden clothes, and I looked, and possibly smelled, like a hobo. How did people treat me? Right. Like dirt.
Just before my niece's wedding, I again went to the same mall, this time impeccably dressed in a dark suit. How did people treat me now? You've guessed it. With respect.
Strange, isn't it? I was just me on both occasions.
You can't blame people for not penetrating the surface, can you? I mean, our whole society is hypnotized by appearance. What bothers me, though, is that people really believe in the surface. They confuse the superficial with the real. They think appearance is reality. Sad, isn't it?
That is probably why people are so preoccupied with possessions. Possessions gloss over the surface. A beautiful car provides you with the appearance of success. Fashionable clothes and make-up might even convince people your beauty is more than skin deep.
The cruel thing is that appearance is directly linked to dignity. Your appearance determines with how much respect you will be treated. But people go even one step further. They even judge abstract qualities according to what you look like. Research has shown that attractive people have a better chance of getting a job than their equally proficient but less attractive counterparts. In this way, beauty has become something superficial and essentially perverted. Our observation of beauty has become something ugly.
Even if you could penetrate the surface, though, you still should not discriminate. It is as bad to judge on qualities below the surface.
The cure? Whether you can penetrate the surface or not, don't judge at all. Neither by appearance nor any other quality below the surface.
Only then will there be no bias, and only then will your compassion extend to everyone.17. Wander at ease
The above passage is simple and profound. If you become too ambitious in your effort to progress, you will inevitably lose sight of the whole, and you will consequently be racked by doubt. You will tense up and try to force your progress, but this haste will actually slow you down.
The moment you become too attached to the Way, you lose your way.
Incredible, isn't it? This passage claims you should not be too attached even to the Tao. Isn't it taking the idea of detachment too far?
Evidence seems to support the text. Holding on to things is almost never good.
Being possessive might be an endearing quality, even essential, to a young mother with an infant, but it can turn into something perverse when the baby has turned into a young adult. His mother's possessiveness could then easily become a barrier to the young adult's struggle for independence, and often it turns love into animosity.
People who are egotistically and unabashedly working only for themselves are, of course, always possessive. They live to possess, and they try to share as little as possible. If they shared, it would only be to improve their situation. And they are suspicious and envious, forever sniffing the air for potential rivals who might take some profit or honour away from them.
What is disconcerting, though, is that you often find that people who are devoting their lives to good causes are in fact not much different from people who are shamelessly working for themselves only. They would treat their cause like a possession which they would jealously guard from being usurped by potential rivals. The ego trip they are on is hardly distinguishable from the one the self-made tycoon has taken. The tycoon is mostly less hypocritical about it, for he does not present his egotism as altruism. It's a pity that virtuous people often become victims of inflated egos. Of course they still do good, but they could have been far more effective, particularly on a spiritual level, if they had not allowed themselves to be focused totally on something non-existent: I.
The message of these four lines is reassuringly clear. Let your ambitions go. Detach yourself. Be spontaneous. Follow your (naturally) good nature. Be yourself. Don't worry too much about progress on a personal level. Just do what your compassion tells you to do.
Relax. Take it easy. Don't let negative emotions run your life.18. Intelligent action
The poet cannot warn us enough, can he? We should not allow our thoughts to alienate us from reality. But in this passage he adds an important warning: don't make this an excuse to sink into a stupor.
"Stupor"? A stupor is a dazed condition, in which you are partially unconscious. The poet is warning us against a very negative state of mind some people reach when they think they are meditating. Being without thought can easily be negative, where things become even more vague.
In true meditation, reality becomes clearer. Meditation is a form of intelligent action.
Emptiness is not a form of idiocy.
19. No aversion
You have probably noticed it often enough. The more emotional you are, the more quickly you become tired. Being too emotional unnecessarily absorbs your energy.
You have probably also noticed the opposite. When you are calm and unaffected, you will relax more easily. You will have more stamina to devote your energies to priorities. You will see clearly, and you will find solutions more easily.
20. Acceptance of the Whole
I tend to think this part of the poem is not aimed at beginners. It is directed at people who have already walked the path for some way.
Why do I think so?
Well, the problem that many beginners have at first is to get rid of their addiction to the sense realm, and not their aversion. After all, we live in a world dedicated to sensuality. I needn't elaborate on the obvious immersion in sexuality and thrills. What is disconcerting is that this absorption into the senses pervades even our so-called spiritual world. We would take up a religion that thrills us. We want to feel what we believe is God pulsating in our veins. If we cannot feel God, we believe he is not there. Even our preoccupation with intellectuality is part of it, for we have turned our brain into some pleasure giving organ. We are thrill-seekers.
Once you have started going the Way, you will inevitably come to a stage where you try to rid yourself of your addiction to the senses. You know that your brain - which is in fact a kind of sense organ picking up ideas - distorts. In your desperation to move closer to emptiness and what is real, you could develop a tremendous feeling of revulsion towards the sense realm. This revulsion, we are told, is an obstacle.
It has been said before, hasn't it? If you reject the sense realm, which is part of the world, you also reject the spirit. You cannot ignore one part of the world and hope to become one with the whole. It does not work. You must include all aspects of reality, or else you cannot hope to understand the whole.
Only when you accept the world of the senses and are not repelled by it, will you reach "true enlightenment".
There is that word again. "Enlightenment". Does it have a place in Taoism? Stupid question. Everything has a place in Taoism. Even the things that revolt you. Everything comes from the Tao. The moment we think exclusively, we are far off the mark. But I am nevertheless going to insist on dealing with this question.
So much mischief has been done with the idea of enlightenment. I am always wary of someone who claims he is "enlightened", but then refuses to explain it, using the very solid argument that you cannot really explain enlightenment, which is perfectly true. This reminds me of the fable of the emperor who was fooled into walking naked before his subjects, thinking that he was wearing fine clothes, and at first nobody had enough honesty to tell him he was naked.
Descriptions of moments of enlightenment do nothing to soothe my suspicious mind. The 'enlightened' often react like Pentecostal converts. Very emotional, to say the least. Why do I suspect that enlightenment is often confused with just another cheap thrill?
Or perhaps I am totally wrong. Maybe I am suffering from an attack of aversion to the senses.
Or maybe I am just a typical example of someone who has been fed too much ratio in my education.
I confess to all of these things. And yet I cannot help but still think that enlightenment is not confined to a single incredibly emotional moment. It could possibly have its brilliant moments, but mostly it is a process of small steps that need time and patience.
Enlightenment constitutes moments of vision and insight into the unity of all things. Its real proof, though, is not how emotional it is; what makes it true is that it changes not only your understanding, but your actions.
If what I say is true, then enlightenment has an important place in Taoism.
If what I say is not true, it will still have an important place in Taoism.
21. No hidden agenda
I must make a confession. I am attached to this passage. Badly. It is brilliant. It gives me satisfaction reading it. I can read it everyday. It never loses its freshness to me. It is beautiful. I am emotional about it.
I cannot understand that anybody reading it won't immediately experience some moment of intense enlightenment or at least elation.
The beauty lies in its clarity. Isn't it so true? The moment you have a hidden agenda, you become a prisoner of your own ambitions, and you will be very foolish, and miserable, too.
The wise act without self-interest. They act spontaneously. They do what their compassion tells them to do. They are not interested in manipulating anyone to reach their aims, because they have no aims to reach. And even if they had an aim, they would never allow it to interfere with their compassion. They would rather give up the aim than manipulate anyone. The world would probably see them as weaklings. And yet, if their way to compassion is obstructed, they become a force of nature.
I hope my effort to explain this passage has not spoilt it for you.
If it has, then forget my explanation, and read the text again tomorrow. You can even read it with me, if you like, but this time, I promise you, I won't say a thing.
Are all forms of desire wrong? I mean, desire for justice is a noble desire, isn't it? Isn't it essential that we desire to do good?
What is desire else but a very strong urge? Desire is the emotional fuel that provides us with the impetus to turn thought into action. You desire justice, and therefore you actively campaign against racism or sexism. What is wrong with that?
To take the argument one step further: You can distinguish between harmful and virtuous desire, can't you? Shouldn't we therefore reject those desires that are harmful to us, and embrace those desires that will improve us and the world around us?
The trouble about desire, though, is that it is not very reliable. People who live according to their desires often fluctuate between various desires, clinging to whatever is on their minds at that moment.
Compassion should not be dependent on any emotional basis, least of all something so intense as desire, for then it will not be constant. Compassion should be as natural as breathing. You cannot say that your breathing is dependent on desire. But you breathe, no matter what emotions prevail in you at that moment. Even when you are despondent and don't feel like continuing your life, you still breathe. The alternative is too terrible to even consider. Compassion, likewise, should be your natural state. Not being compassionate should be like suffocating. You should show compassion, no matter what you feel. Then your compassion will be constant and something people can truly rely on.
23. The Great Mistake
We are preoccupied with our minds, aren't we?
Not that we really have a choice. I have read that a morning newspaper contains more symbols than a Medieval peasant was confronted with in a lifetime.
This glut of symbols inflate our minds. Our age is guilty of intellectual gluttony. As never before, we are force-fed with ideas and concepts.
Audio-visual sensations are honing in on us, and information sweeps us away in a random, incoherent flood.
Ideologies do their more subtle and often sinister work of transforming and manipulating us into behavioural patterns serving the interests of the ideologues and propagandists.
Like never before, artificial worlds are being created in our minds. In these artificial worlds, artificial craving for artificial products is being evoked, and artificial life-styles destroy the very meaning of life. Artificial needs are created to serve an economy that can only survive by methodically ruining the ecological basis of life itself.
As never before, we are using our minds to inflate our minds to such an extent that we are lost and isolated.
Is this not a great mistake?
24. Utilitarian meditation
The warning in this passage is clear enough. Just quieting down the mind is not enough. You need to change your ways as well.
Meditation is often presented in a very utilitarian way as part of something hostile to it. An example is where it is presented as part of a managerial course which contradicts everything you could associate with true meditation. Meditation would be presented as a way of sharpening your mind, of psyching you up so you can act even more ambitiously, aggressively, sometimes even ruthlessly.
Needless to say, this form of meditation with its focus on the ego only increases the confusion of the mind.
25. False discriminations
If we accept the world as inherently dualistic, we are confused. The world is not dualistic. Our discriminatory minds have made it so. Our mind turns reality into our own virtual reality. This "reality" in our minds is of a very volatile nature, and drives us to action.
For example, a man may see a forest. In his mind, the forest becomes a source of profit. This will drive him to exploit the forest and cut down the trees for profit. He will have become a servant of his idea of the forest, and not the forest as it is in reality. In our minds, we often change reality to conform to our desires, and then we serve our desires and their corresponding concepts of reality as if they were real. In truth, though, we are serving an illusion - "a flower in the sky".
If the man who saw the forest had let go of his desires and discarded the idea of profit, he would have seen the forest for what it really was, and he probably would not have dared to touch it.
Often, we interpret society in a particular way. This abstraction of society then becomes our driving force for action. Ideologies are nothing but abstract ideas of right and wrong in society, and what society is supposed to look like. People tend to fall in love with ideologies to such an extent that they prefer to accept their ideologies as real. In the Twentieth Century, we have seen with what devastating results people have tried to change the world according to their own ideologies. In the distant future, people will shudder when they refer to the Twentieth Century as the Dark Age of Social Engineering.
26. Perfect unity
By living according to our inner ideas, we are actually closing our eyes to reality. This is what the passage implies.
Discrimination does not make reality clearer, but it tends to obscure it. When we use our intellectual faculty to the exclusion of the spirit, we are actually entering a dream world of our own making.
These two lines give us the solution. To get into real touch with reality, we need to stop our minds from discriminating. Only then will we focus on what unites us, and not what separates us.
These two lines are emphatic. The realization that all forms of life are of the same essence is a deeply spiritual experience. It gives us the ability to see life as it is, and not as an illusion of stability and permanence.
These four lines describe perfect unity. If you see all things as equal, you will experience things as they are. Your unity will be so complete that you will cease to be a subject separate from the objects around you. There will be no subject and no object. All measuring and comparing will stop completely. You will be in perfect union with the universe.
27. No rest
I find this passage difficult. The first two lines are still easy enough. The text is actually telling us that you do not necessarily find rest once activity has stopped. You can be restless without being active. I have experienced this, so I can relate to it.
It is the jump that the text makes in the next two lines that is more difficult to understand. One explanation is that since activity and rest (= two) are not in opposition, no real oneness of the mind can be reached. No matter how much we try to bring our mind to a standstill, it would always be moving subtly. No matter how unaware we may become of ourselves, there will always be a level where our consciousness, no matter how faint, will exist.
Even when it seems to be totally at rest, our mind is still moving. I can relate to this, because, I must confess, I have never experienced the total immobility of my mind. In fact, after meditation, I have often discovered that some of my problems have been solved. I would suddenly see things clearly and know how to act. Isn't that a clear proof that my mind has been moving? In fact, I don't even think it essential that your mind should come to a total standstill.
Emptiness is not a form of escape from life.
This passage again repeats and emphasizes that a life of compassion does not use rules and standards to determine action.
This passage, however, brings in a new aspect. For the first time, the word "equanimity" is used. It is one of my favourite words, the way Tahiti is one of my favourite destinations. I love Tahiti, because I know it is beautiful and yet so far away, and I will probably never be able to go there. This is what I truly feel about equanimity. I think it is a condition that is beautiful, but which I will never really be able to reach.
I must confess. I love life. I love my wife. Life without her is unimaginable to me. I will be shattered if I should lose my daughter. I have just lost one of my dogs, Lorna, a wonderfully sweet and loyal companion. Everywhere I bump into her empty spaces. I mourn her intensely, no matter how much I tell myself not to cling to things. I love my small garden and every plant in it. I am even attached to my comfortable old slippers, hoping they would still last long. Equanimity? I haven't got a chance.
This passage, though, refers to equanimity on a different level. It is referring to our control over our emotions when we judge our actions and ourselves. We should not be too bothered about our past actions, agonizing over where we have not succeeded. It does not mean that we should not learn from the past. But we should not get stuck in it either. If we accept our past with equanimity, we will be able to lay our deeds to rest, and continue with life. Isn't it so true? Doesn't laying your past to rest clear your doubts and restore your faith?
Mercifully, this equanimity is less difficult to learn, and it gives you the courage to continue, even when you have lost confidence in yourself.
29. Bright and empty
This passage describes the perfect state of mind. The mind is totally focused here. It reflects phenomena as they appear. Not for one moment does it allow previous moments to distract from what it is performing now. It literally functions totally in the present. Unclogged, it is "bright and empty", and relaxed, not giving itself over to reminiscing the past or pondering the future. It mirrors only the reality it is dealing with at one particular moment. It is like a mirror. Once the moment has gone, the moment will disappear from the mirror, and the next moment will be mirrored.
This effort to describe the mind "functioning naturally" is breathtaking. Only a mind not controlled by its own concepts can perform in this way. Most of us only experience brief moments of this. How wonderful it must be to be in this state permanently.
30. True suchness
I will have to take a moment to explain "suchness". The word is actually a desperate effort to translate the untranslatable. The suchness of a being is its real essence, what it really is, its true nature, what makes it unique and yet part of the whole.
Do you see? The moment I try to describe its meaning, I get desperate myself. It is actually something that you can understand only on an experiential level.
Go and look into a dog's eyes full of innocence, so different and yet so much the same as yours, and you will have experienced its suchness. See a cat move, or lazily sleep on a couch the way only cats can, and you will have experienced the cat's suchness.
So what does this passage mean? It says that in a world where beings have their true suchness, there is 'no other' and 'no self'.
What it means should be clear enough. The true nature of all living beings lies beyond their uniqueness. Whenever we make real contact with other species, we are actually sharing what we have in common with them. The truth is that all sentient beings are part of a whole - that we all share the same suchness. There is - on the spiritual level - a common ground shared by all beings. Experiencing this oneness, I believe, is the essence of enlightenment.
The passage refers to "not-two" as a description of this true unity with the whole. It avoids using "one", because we have already learnt that this condition is not really possible for us.
31. One thought for ten thousand years
What this passage clearly shows is that spiritual unity is the key to wisdom. It is only when you have reached this level of spiritual development that you will finally have rid yourself of your ignorance, which is the basis of suffering.
This condition cannot be seen as "hurried", i.e. temporal, yet neither is it "slow", i.e. constant. You can turn the statement around, and say that it is both temporal and eternal. It is temporal, because nothing lasts, and yet it is eternal, because the only thing that lasts forever is change itself.
"Ten thousand years" is a figure used in Chinese to indicate endlessness. The phrase, "One thought for ten thousand years", has been the source of many interpretations.
One explanation is that the phrase describes the mind which has become so clear that it can focus totally. One thought lasts forever. Is this possible? No, as we have pointed out before, the mind always moves, even if it is only subtly, no matter how still you have become.
A second explanation is that there is no individual mind, that your limited mind has ceased to exist as it becomes part of the greater mind, the universal mind, emptiness - whichever words you can find to describe the indescribable. A mind that does not move at all does not exist.
The third explanation is one I cannot give you, and nobody can, and it is most probably the correct one.
This single phrase has inspired many throughout the centuries, and it is rightfully one of the most famous phrases in Ch'an or Zen.
Yet it is remarkably, tantalizingly vague, isn't it? Like the Tao. That is probably why it is so inspirational.
It is as illusive as wisdom itself, of which it is the perfect description.
And yet - I have been assured - it will become clear to you the moment you have reached a state of perfect unity with all things.
32. Nowhere yet everywhere
Once you are at one with the universe, there are no distinctions. In the world of the spirit, you are nowhere, yet everywhere. You see the world as it really is - without artificial boundaries created by your mind.
Only those that have experienced this will understand this. No theoretical knowledge can help you here.
In fact, the paradoxes in this passage point at something that cannot be fully expressed by words.
33. Perfect union
This passage is metaphysical, and the first two lines have the balance of a mathematical equation. There is no doubt what the text is trying to show us. There is in reality no difference between emptiness and existence. They are identical. The world of the spirit and the world of things are identical. Their separation exists only in our minds.
If the emptiness you enter is not identical with existence, and your existence precisely the same as emptiness, then whatever state of mind you're in is not worth preserving.
Lines five and six again emphasize the identity of all things.
The last two lines point at the fact that if you reach this stage of spiritual development, your goals in life will become of secondary importance. Reaching your goals will not be the main driving force in your actions. You will be truly free to live according to the spirit.
34. Faith in Mind
In the final four lines, the two words "faith" and "mind" are connected. The passage tells us that faith and mind are one and the same thing. It claims non-duality is in fact only reached through "faith in mind". This statement is confusing, isn't it? "Faith in mind"? Haven't we been trying our utmost to get rid of mind to enter emptiness? And now we are told we must have faith in mind.
The confusion evaporates when you realize that the mind being referred to here is not your "false mind" of egocentric mental activities, but the state you reach when you have rid yourself of this egocentric mind and entered emptiness - the real mind. You now enter what can be called, for lack of a better description, a "universal mind". The mind here is actually the emptiness which is in you and outside you, in which all are one.
The third line now becomes clear. When you enter this true mind, as opposed to your false mind that you have discarded, you will enter a sphere "where the path of words is cut off", a region that cannot be understood through language. It is a mystical sphere where the ratio has no entry, and where even time has ceased to exist.
When do we really need faith? We need faith when our analytical faculties fail, when there is no way of describing a phenomenon.
To enter this mystical sphere shrouded in mystery we need faith in the universal mind, in emptiness. Without faith, we will not dare to enter the mystery.
Our final step towards enlightenment is an act of faith - faith in mind.
© Jos Slabbert 1999
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This passage or excerpts from it may be reproduced for non-profit motives.
The author acknowledges and thanks anyone who might have observed in the passage echoes of what might have been written or said or thought by him or her, or where translations of the Tao Te Ching are reminiscent of his or her own translation. The translation of "Faith in Mind" used is that of Master Sheng-Yen. Anyone who contacts the author and demands non-anonymity, will be gratefully and explicitly acknowledged by the author.
Faith in Mind
The Supreme Way is not difficult