Brief Thoughts on Taoism

Since deconverting from Christianity, I’ve felt new freedom to explore other faith traditions. My quest isn’t to find a replacement for Christianity, or to exhaust all of the possible supernatural and theistic views one-by-one to see if any of their truth claims are valid (if that was my goal I would never finish!). Instead, my goal is to enrich myself and to learn more about my global neighbors. I want to broaden my perspective of the world and the people in it while applying my critical eye to the religious and philosophical texts that hold deep meaning and comfort for millions.

This is the attitude with which I have approached Taoism since I began studying this ancient philosophical and religious system in 2013. I wasn’t expecting to find anything life-changing, but if I could glean some practical wisdom then all the better.

Here are some basic ideas that reading the Tao Te Ching (two times through) and Chuang Tzu (just once) have instilled in me. This isn’t a comprehensive list of Taoist beliefs, by any stretch. And, it should be noted that my observations and understandings of ancient Taoist philosophy are colored by my Western upbringing; someone raised in a home that practiced Taoism as a religious discipline would likely have a very different perspective. There are also dozens of important Taoist texts which I haven’t read due to their limited availability and translation in the West.

Gleanings from Taoism:

  • Don’t be concerned with fame, fortune and influence over others. Focus on developing yourself and meeting your needs before seeking to benefit others with your “wisdom” and leadership. This theme is prevalent in both the Tao Te Ching (TTC) and Chuang Tzu (ZS from here on out, “Zhuangzi” is closer to the actual pronunciation). From my brief research it seems that aristocrats and rulers were the main audience for these works. This makes them similar to the book of Proverbs and it makes sense that in a bronze-age/iron-age society the those few people who were literate, the ones with wealth and power, would have works written for their benefit. Despite being written to people in power, these works emphasize humility when it comes to the pursuit and exercise of power.
  • Wu Wei – This is a very deep concept in Taoist thought. I don’t know if I have a good grasp on it, but it is related to the ideals above. Instead of rulers being bossy, tyrannical or moral busy-bodies, rulers are encouraged to practice “wu wei” or “action through inaction.” In the Western world of thought we might call this policy “laissez-faire” though I don’t think the main concern of Taoist sages was economics ;) . The Taoist sages, especially ZS, wanted people to live according to their “inborn nature” and not be forced into habits which were unnatural to them. Sometimes this means that rulers should ignore bad behavior. This concept can be applied more broadly to one’s personal actions and life. Sometimes exerting tons of effort to reach a goal is very fruitless and one would be better off following this principle. Sometimes it’s more productive to act, than not to act.
  • Limiting desire – like some other important ancient philosophies, Taoism advises followers of the Way to limit their desires. Fewer desires means less angst and anxiety when those desires are unmet due to factors outside of one’s control. Fewer desires also means less ambition and a life which is able to be preserved more easily. Some of the justification for this is tied up in ancient medicinal knowledge about the yin and yang in one’s body needing to be balanced. I think the principle of not stressing out too much over acquiring new things and new positions is worthy even if the “science” cited by the Taoist sages is no longer valid. Taoism seems to take this concept very far, into a sort of supreme ideal. The “Perfect Man” in Taoism is one who cares very little for their own desires or even their own comfort and this, paradoxically, allows them to gain incredible power and mastery over other men and nature. [Side note – I say men here, because as far as I can tell, ancient Taoism is concerned with male rulers and sages. There are many dialogues in ZS and I can’t recall any dialogue spoken by a woman, though they are occasionally referenced (as wives or concubines) by other characters. I don’t know how much agency women had in ancient China, but I would wager it was not much.]
  •  Everything is One – Though they are written in very different styles, one of the unifying features of the TTC and ZS is their focus on what they call The Way (the “Tao” in Taoism).  What seems to make the Tao special is that it encompasses all of reality. Is it divine? It seems to be, since out of it springs forth creation and a myriad of gods and spirits. But, it is also present in humble things, even “the piss and shit” as ZS says in a rather startling and (to my ears) poetic passage. In the TTC various allusions and illustrations are given to attempt to define the Tao, but ultimately the sage reminds us over and over again that the true nature of the Tao cannot be grasped. It’s an ineffable reality, something more to be experienced than spoken about in long treatises. You can’t buy it or sell it. What I like about The Way in Taoist thought is that it reminds us to pay attention to the little things…don’t scorn the bugs and the dirt and the poor things of the world. Don’t see some things as “beneath” and others as “above” when we all share the same Universe together as living beings. I don’t accept Taoist cosmology because it is tied up with ancient myth and makes many unsupported assertions. In my view what the Tao actually does is indiscernable. It is functionally supernatural and outside of objective perception, though in the texts I read it is not described as a being, a “who” like Thor, Zeus, Yahweh, Baal and the other ancient tribal gods. The “Tao” is more like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” or even Plato’s perfect realm of forms. It’s an inaccessible, un-circumscribable thing…or quite possibly everything. The Tao is described as both bringing forth and sustaining all things. There is no requirement to worship it or offer it sacrifices, but rather the expectation is to simply be aware of it and to seek to live one’s life in such a way that finding balance within the Tao becomes natural. Finding balance in this way should lead to inner peace. ZS offers few guarantees though. Some of the “heroes” of his story end up dying tragic deaths despite their humility, their wisdom and their separation from vain pursuits. Loss is inevitable and it seems that the role of the Taoist sage is more to prepare for loss, rather than to try to vainly prevent it.

lonely tree

 

Photo credit: Jasper van der Meij

“All history becomes subjective”

Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts. No anchor, no cable, no fences, avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon, Troy, Tyre, Palestine, and even early Rome, are passing already into fiction. The Garden of Eden, the sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry thenceforward to all nations. Who cares what the fact was, when we have made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign? London and Paris and New York must go the same way. “What is History,” said Napoleon, “but a fable agreed upon?” This life of ours is stuck round with Egypt, Greece, Gaul, England, War, Colonization, Church, Court, and Commerce, as with so many flowers and wild ornaments grave and gay. I will not make more account of them. I believe in Eternity. I can find Greece, Asia, Italy, Spain, and the Islands,–the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.

We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,–must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good of verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself. Ferguson discovered many things in astronomy which had long been known. The better for him.

norwich cathedralA Gothic cathedral affirms that it was done by us, and not done by us. Surely it was by man, but we find it not in our man. But we apply ourselves to the history of its production. We put ourselves into the place and state of the builder. We remember the forest-dwellers, the first temples, the adherence to the first type, and the decoration of it as the wealth of the nation increased; the value which is given to wood by carving led to the carving over the whole mountain of stone of a cathedral. When we have gone through this process, and added thereto the Catholic Church, its cross, its music, its processions, its Saints’ days and image-worship, we have, as it were, been the man that made the minster; we have seen how it could and must be. We have the sufficient reason.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Essays (1841)

Image of Norwich Cathedral by “Rror” available under a Creative Commons license.

My 2014 Year in Review

A lot happened to me in 2014. I did quite a bit of WordPress freelancing work in the first part of 2014. At the end of October we moved into a three bedroom duplex (more spacious than our previous residence). In November I began a new seasonal job doing online customer service from my home (could become a regular, year-round job, we’ll see). Best of all, as of this week (end of December) the newest little Hood is now 18 weeks old in the womb! (see pic below)

baby hood

Other stuff:

I’m still attending Blue Hills UU and enjoying the fellowship there. We had a reserved but joyful Christmas Eve celebration.

In September I went from being a lacto-ovo vegetarian (no meat but eggs and dairy) to being a vegan (abstaining from all animal products for ethical reasons). I’ve learned a lot about cooking since then.

Caroline and I have spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and family this holiday season and we even got to host Christmas for the first time. It was a pretty full house after two of my sisters came to visit with spouses and kids.

Below I’ve arranged a quick recap of my posts in 2014 in case you missed anything (this list includes pretty much all my posts that weren’t just a link and one sentence). I hope those of you reading this enjoy a happy and safe New Year celebration.

Peace and Freedom for 2015!

January 2014

February 2014

  • Curse Your Branches? – A very personal post which was also published on exchristian.net.
  • Church Without God – This is a sort of “draft” post which I still need to follow-up on. I want to discuss the ways in which non-believers can still participate in “church” (whether it is explicitly called that or not) and how our culture talks about religion and belief.
  • A Free and Responsible Search… – In which I talk about the 4th Principle of Unitarian Universalism and why it matters to me.

March 2014

  • I Believe… – This post covers a lot. I wrote this close to the one year mark of my own personal deconversion from Christianity to atheism. It’s an attempt to reconcile my new skeptical outlook on life and truth with my continuing love and appreciation for deeply religious people. I also briefly explain my current understanding of religion and the labels that I choose to identify with (atheist, skeptic, Humanist).

April 2014

  • Reflecting on Cosmos – I really enjoyed watching the new Cosmos TV series. I still need to catch up on the last several episodes on Netflix!
  • Observing Evolution – I short science-y post on evolution (a topic which I have grown to love since my deconversion).
  • The ‘Straw Vulcan’ – Reflecting upon a common stereotype for atheists, skeptics and individuals who place a high value on reason.
  • Personal Relationship – I’m pretty vulnerable in this post where I explain some of my feelings about letting go of God. It seemed to resonate with a lot of people.
  • When Murder isn’t Murder – In which I critique the double standard applied by Evangelicals who condemn mass murders by Biblical “villains” while apologizing those committed by Biblical “heroes” following Yahweh.
  • The Narrow Path – An ironic warning against dogmatism. Not one of my brighter posts.

May 2014

  • Becoming UU – I reflect on the process (both inward and outward) of finding and joining a local Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

June 2014

  • I believe in firewalking…and magic! – Is it better to believe in “magic” or in “real magic” and which is which? This post was inspired by a conversation I had (in real life, yes) where someone was shocked that I accepted a natural, rather than supernatural, explanation of firewalking and the “protection” against flaming coals (firewalking is an ancient shamanic practice now practiced by some New Age leaders).

August 2014

Dec 2014

  • Problems with Christianity – I put together a page of info for those who might want to see my intellectual arguments against Christianity (at least the ones I’ve written about on this blog) laid out in one place.
  • Jesus Loves Me, This I Know? – Another post about that favorite phrase among believers, but from a different angle this time.

Worn out paths…

Lao Tzu said, “It’s lucky you didn’t meet with a ruler who would try to govern the world as you say. The Six Classics are the old worn-out paths of the former kings–they are not the thing which walked the path. What you are expounding are simply these paths. Paths are made by shoes that walk them, they are by no means the shoes themselves!”

Chuang Tzu: Chapter 14

 

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know?

I know people mean well when they say it, but it’s still disconcerting for me to see or hear the words “Jesus loves you” coming from people who also believe that their friend Jesus will send me to a place of eternal torment and sorrow if I don’t believe/accept that Jesus loves me. I also find it strange that people sincerely believe their loving god directly commanded the murder of thousands (possibly millions) of innocent children and babies. Somehow those contradictory sentiments did fit into my brain side by side when I was a Christian so I know it is possible for a person to believe in both the irrationally hot wrath of the Christian* god and in the supposedly unconditional, completely perfect love of that same god. I guess, since I’m using my free will (and Christians would say my ‘God-given brain’) in order to be a skeptic I’ve got hellfire coming to me and I deserve it…but I just don’t feel it. Even on my worst, most down-in-the-dumps-regretful days I don’t feel that guilty. I don’t feel that bad. I don’t feel that I’m so bad that somebody perfect had to die an excruciating death for me. I don’t feel that I’m so bad that rather than simply snuffing me out of existence, God would require that my resurrected body/soul be eternally tormented as a just punishment.

And if I was tortured for eternity, what would be the point of it from God’s perspective? It certainly doesn’t make up for any of the bad things I have done in my life. From the perspective of Evangelical Christianity it wouldn’t bring me any closer to God or to repentance. It’s been nearly two years since I deconverted and I have to admit that the whole thing just makes no sense to me. Some people really do feel horribly bad about themselves and their actions, and I can’t judge the negative thoughts and feelings in their heads to say if those are accurate or inaccurate…but for myself I’m simply unable to see my frail mortal actions (for good or for bad) as being that important in the grand scheme of things.

*note – the term “Christian” here is used in reference to beliefs which are recognized as orthodox for most Catholics and Protestants and is not a commentary on progressive/very liberal Christians, whose theological opinions lead them to hold very different ideas about the nature of God, the nature of the afterlife, and the nature of the Bible.