Friday, December 19, 2014

Discovering Taoist China



It began with three books - Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching purchased as a Penguin Classic, when still at school, to add to my eccentric collection of those black spine books that were three parts fascination to one part pretension. I never did finish Nietzsche's 'Ecco Homo' though I did the Koran (though I confess to never wanting to make a second attempt - it is a text so wedded to the rhythms of its Arabic origin that its truths fail to sing in any other language, not for nothing was the Angel's first command to recite). I now have no less than four translations of this enigmatic, endlessly suggestive text. The second was John Blofeld's beautiful, whimsical yet profound study 'Taoism: The Quest for Immortality' with its entrancing accounts of visiting Taoist hermitages in 1930's China. The third was the 'beat philosopher' Alan Watts' 'Tao: The Watercourse Way' a dazzlingly opinionated contemporary appropriation of philosophical Taoism for the West.

It was a thought world that percolated through my young unformed mind - the importance of observing the unfolding flow of things, trying to discern when to act at the most beneficial, harmonious moment, knowing the world was an unfolding offering of gracefulness, beautifully just so; and, the importance of not taking anything too seriously. Perhaps after all I am only a butterfly dreaming that I am Nicholas - to use Chuang Tzu's illuminative illustration. Taoism must be the only 'philosophical/religious system' whose two key founders (one of whom may or may not have 'existed') that has a consistent, present, upfront sense of humor.

Over the years this 'thought world' has continued to bring out its treasures, from time to time. I discovered that both Martin Buber and Thomas Merton made 'translations' of Chuang Tzu - and the latter rests by my bedside still - and were necessarily influenced. Who cannot see a resonance between Buber's stance of 'I and Thou' of allowing each and every particular thing to speak its uniqueness and that of 'li' recognizing the inherent unique patterning of every form coming to birth?

But this year, I have noticed, it has taken on a wholly renewed presence (and force, if that was not quite the right word, for the reality that flows). It has been obviously present in reading David Hinton's beautiful translations of Chinese wilderness poetry but less so in Charles Williams' 'The Great Trumps' where the remarkable Aunt Sybil (quite unconsciously to Williams) emerges as a beautifully exemplar of a follower of the Way. http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2014/08/aunt-sybil-taoist-sage.html.

Now I find myself reading Edward Slingerland's 'Trying not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity' - his popular accounting of 'wu wei' (effortless action) and te (virtue that arises from being aligned in the Way) and its relationship to modern cognitive psychology.

I think this may be a trend...and I have still never visited China!

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon
 
Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.
 
Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,
 
though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.
 
Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,
I've found a joy that must infuse spring:
 
I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.
 
Sober, we're together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:
 
intimates forever, we'll wander carefree
and meet again in Milky Way distances.
 
Li Po (translated by David Hinton).

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