The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
This sameness is the mystery,
The door to all marvels.
- Tao Te Ching 1
What is Tao?
There are two translations I have heard in English for the Chinese word “Tao”. One which is the most popular and regarded as the most accurate is “path” or “way”, The other, more interesting interpretation is “all that is”. Both definitions mean roughly the same thing once one realizes that their path or way to them is all that is. This statement is essentially the truth for all of us. We all have a picture in our mind of what we believe is reality. This picture comes to us complete with all of our visual limitations and shortcomings in universal viewpoints. In other words, our perception of reality is skewed by our experience and learning. This is not a fault or failure on the part of Tao, our parents, or ourselves, it is the way of nature. If we could really attempt to grasp the essence and magnitude of Tao in a single breathtaking moment, would we survive the encounter? Could our minds and spirits really absorb that essence? I think maybe not.
The price we pay for being human, is curiosity. We are compelled to try with all of our might to find out what happens to us after we die. We are taught various forms of faiths, belief systems, values, and dogmas from birth by our parents and their respective societies and cultures in the sincere hope that through that learning experience both they and we might avoid some form of eternal punishment. Most children worldwide are taught some form of spiritual retribution for wrongdoing and “sinfulness” from the demons of Buddhism to the eternal hell of Christianity, to the burning valley of Henom in Judaism from their earliest possible memories. They are dressed up and paraded before their congregations like pretty lambs right before they become cutlets. But have they learned the truth? Have we? I believe there is not a soul alive who will read this who does not identify with this paragraph, and in whom the control mechanisms of modern western faith and culture to this day do not tug strongly at their heart. In so much as these folks genuinely believe and practice what they say they believe, I have no problem, after all, I could die tomorrow and find out I should have been a Mormon.
There’s the truth. Hiding right behind the theory. Should I be a Mormon, a Jew, a Christian, Islamic, Buddhist? Do we really know? How many people from behind how many altars of various descriptions claim to know absolutely one hundred percent what it is we should believe? I know of several. All different and all right. How can this be? The truth is, it can’t all be right, but it all may still be valid. There are a few simple truths that I personally believe are the underpinning of theological and philosophical Taoism. This may or may not reflect the feelings, thoughts or teachings of anyone else on the subject, and that’s just fine.
First and foremost, I know that in the final analysis I do not know what will happen to me when I die. I know what I believe, that is different than knowing what will happen as a fact.
Second, I know one day I absolutely will die. That is a fact. It is also the way of nature and the way of Tao. Since this event is unavoidable, I choose not to dwell on it. I would not hasten that moment by so much as a second. I will admit, sometimes that moment scares me.
Third, Knowing those two things, I also know some things are supposed to be mysterious and not readily or clearly understood, if they are to be understood at all. The Tao is one of those things. To paraphrase, the God you can name is not God, no matter what name you give that entity. The God you can touch, label or box up, is not God. Naming is what we do, labeling is what we do, categorizing and subdividing and organizing, those are things we do. Why? Because we’re human, it is in our nature, the curiosity drives us to do these things in the hope that we will understand and somehow be enlightened. All of that activity for sure, has brought about some remarkable things and wonderful events, but it has also brought about the very worst in us. At some point, to have peace, and true understanding, it is necessary to realize that some things are just not meant to be grasped and analyzed. The Tao is one such thing. In the naming, we see the creations of the source (Tao), in the separation we see the created things of the source (Tao). In the nameless and empty, seen only with the heart and spirit, we see the eternal.
Fourth, Everything happens when and how it should whether we want it to or not. This is an absolute truth, immutable and carved in granite. We do not have the power to alter Tao by so much as an atom. The difference between an event happening when it should, and when it should not, is perception, not reality. The sage realizes that his path is his path, so he gives no worry to where his feet go. In this way, there is no conflict, no competition, no derision, no delusion, no inappropriateness, no right, and no wrong. There only is the way. The sage does not explain himself, ever, even if he did, the explanation would likely not be understood, other peoples paths are their own, not his. The sage does not judge the path of another, it is not his journey. Since the sage does not label, judge, compete, or fight, and, since the sage follows what is his true nature the sage is eternal, and in spirit, and truth, and wisdom, deals with the eternal. This is the mystery of oneness with Tao. There is no way to work one’s way up to Tao, but many ways to follow Tao peacefully.
Fifth, Once again, the opinion and belief of an old Sifu, I do not judge anybody else’s faith or path. Since we all are right where we are supposed to be, there is no need for judgment.
Buddha said “When we act with sincerity, everything we do is right” better perhaps not to worry so much about the what, but about the why. If the intent of your heart, mind, and spirit, is one of peace, compassion, and wisdom, with respect towards all living things, it is difficult to make too much of a mistake, no matter what anybody else says. Always be true to your own path.