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Module Assignments

  • Study the assigned curriculum — both Parts 1 and 2.
  • Submit your essay (or your contracted alternative), which must include thoughts on both parts of each module.
  • Your peer exchanges are due two days after your essay is due.

The essays are designed to be meaningful exercises of self-exploration (reflections) rather than busy work (summaries).

The practice of philosophy is a major goal of your essays and exchanges. This practice promotes and supports independent, creative and original thinking.

Essays Due by 11:00 PM on Mondays and Thursdays.

  • Your essays need to be a thoughtful “journal-like” reflections.
  • Essays must address both part 1 and part 2 of each module’s curriculum.
  • A good reflection is one that I could not have read before. This is because it is the essay that only you could have written — due to your unique set of life experiences.

Minimum Requirements

  • Essays are not summaries. That is busy work.
  • Summaries do not receive credit because they do not require serious thought — simply the ability to record information.
  • Your essays must be more than 700 words to receive credit and be eligible for a C, more than 800 words to be eligible for a B, and more than 900 words to be eligible for an A.
  • Your assignments are not eligible for A’s if they require proofreading.
  • Assignments that are partial (not meeting minimum requirements) do not receive partial credit.
  • Late assignments are not eligible for credit.

Essay Prompts

You are not required to use the following prompts, but they may help you think about what you are studying:

  • What did you learn? What surprised you and/or caused enough doubt that you were inspired to do a little research and fact checking?
  • Did you find any specific ideas confusing or difficult?
  • Did you have an emotional response, negative or positive? Do you know why?
  • Have you had any experiences you are willing to share with our class that help you relate to and understand any of the material in this module?
  • Did this assignment contain any “awakening” ideas, those that inspire you rather than depress you?
  • Did you find any of the ideas surprising? Why?

Final Assessment Prompts

You do not need to use these final assessment prompts either, but they may help you put what you are studying this semester into a larger perspective.

  • Can you give an example or two in your essay that demonstrates you were engaging with, and thinking about, our curriculum in a serious way?
  • Did you study everything required or did you rush and skim?
  • Did you find yourself thinking about class content when you did not have to, such as finding yourself discussing ideas with friends or family?
  • Did you seek clarification about class material that confused you? If not, why not?
  • Have your studies contributed to any increase in self-knowledge (how you understand the world and your place in it) or a deeper understanding of one’s current world view?



Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is almost as old, but it tends to be less conservative and more open to adaptation then the “Way of the Elders.” These Buddhists wanted to be more open to lay people and they wanted to be able to incorporate some of the teachings that surrounded them, such as Taoism in China and the native Bon religion in Tibet.

Even though there were different emphases and practices between the two types of Buddhism, the defining difference is really a textual one. The Mahayana Buddhists accept more literature as scripture.

What makes these sutras so interesting? “These scriptures start from a universal rather than a historical perspective, holding that there is a universal true reality everywhere – known variously as the Void, Nirvana, Buddha-nature – that is capable of being realized by anyone. Gautama Buddha realized it at the moment of his enlightenment, and so he manifests it and comes from it – but there are an infinite number of other Buddhas, too, and in a deeper sense everyone is actually an unrealized Buddha. Any means of attaining this realization is acceptable insofar as it works; the gradated practice of Theravada may be dispensed with, and techniques of devotion, chanting, even quasi-magic, brought in from bhakti yoga and folk religion, can be employed” (MPMF, p. 141.) So you can see that this type of Buddhism is pretty universal and accommodating to new and different practices.

One of the most profound changes happened in regards to what is called a bodhisattva. In Theravada Buddhism, the goal was to reach enlightenment. With the emphasis on monasticism, the focus would often be on the individual becoming enlightened. There was not so much emphasis on how this might influence others or be part of a compassionate plan for service.

In other words, if there was no check on the system, some people might accuse Theravada Buddhists of being selfish, only concerned with their own enlightenment, and not concerned about the world and all of the suffering that was in it. Mahayana Buddhists wanted to correct this tendency.

“The bodhisattva is on the way to Buddhahood but holds back at its very threshold out of compassion for the countless beings still in ignorance and suffering; the bodhisattva dwells both in Nirvana and in the phenomenal world, having the power and reality of both. As a borderline figure, he or she also imparts grace and receives devotion” (MPMF, p. 141.)

How did Mahayana Buddhists justify this teaching? They did it by understanding where the Buddha was coming from. That is, after enough disciples of the Buddha were able to realize enlightenment for themselves, they were able to understand his teaching from the “inside,” so to speak.

What they discovered can be described as awareness, mindfulness, wakefulness or consciousness. The focus moves from the historical Buddha to a state of consciousness and what we can do to facilitate this greater awareness. In other words, if something helps you find enlightenment then it is good, if it holds you back from enlightenment then it is, obviously, more of a problem. The Buddha is understood to have lived at a certain time and place. If other ways, not taught by the Buddha, are seen to be helpful, then it is assumed that the Buddha would approve.

The Bodhisattva

The bodhisattva is to Buddhism what avatars and gurus are to Hinduism. That is, they are a living example of everything we wish for. They show us it is possible, and therefore, they offer not only teachings and practices, but hope as well. These are the great enlightened beings who could disappear into Nirvana, but who decide to stay and help. They refuse to fully enter Nirvana until everyone else goes in ahead of them. In this sense, they are great symbols of compassion.

As a result of this, the bodhisattva is the central element of Mahayana Buddhism. In fact, most Buddhists of this persuasion take a bodhisattva vow. This means they dedicate the fruit of their practice and their own enlightenment to the welfare of other beings.

“Virtually everything that is distinctive and of general interest in Mahayana is related to the bodhisattva and the bodhisattva’s path. To understand this class of being, his or her meaning and methods, is to have the surest key to understanding Mahayana teaching, symbols, and practices” (MPMF, p. 145.)

The nature of Buddhist focus becomes compassion rather than enlightenment, service rather than wisdom. But it is only a change in emphasis. It is not that enlightenment and wisdom are no longer of extreme value, for they are, but the perspective has changed.

The bodhisattva teaches by example the importance of the reality of emptiness. The bodhisattva shows us that it is possible to live a life of compassion and joy, while at the same time, continually letting go of everything. The paradox of caring deeply about everything while understanding that nothing matters is brought to life: the paradox of trying to end suffering with all of one’s being, while at the same time understanding that suffering is an illusion. These things are almost too hard to grasp, and that is why we need bodhisattvas to demonstrate this truth to us.

Chan Buddhism

If Buddhism combined with Shamanism in Tibet to form Vajrayana Buddhism, then what would happen if it moved to China and combined with Taoism? Out would pop Chan Buddhism! Chan is better known under its Japanese name, Zen. It comes from the Hindu word for meditation, dhyana. Zen is also the form of Buddhism you are most likely to think of if you picture a person sitting in the lotus posture on their cushion meditating.

One of the interesting things about Zen is that it relies least on the scriptures. What it wants is a “direct seeing” into the nature of reality, and to facilitate this intuitive leap into nonduality you need a master to help you. Often the master uses humor to get you to have this breakthrough.

“A Chan master was once asked what the “First Principle” is. He replied, “If I told you, it would become the Second Principle!” (MPMF, p. 155.) Sometimes they use koans, which are puzzling questions used to frustrate the ordinary mind to the point where it will finally “break open” and allow this direct awareness, this pure seeing to shine forth.

This work with a master is traced back to the Buddha himself, who is said once to have held up a flower and smiled. Only one monk of many who were there smiled back because in that moment, he “got it.” What did he get? The whole teaching! Everything all at once. Chan traces itself back to that moment. The Buddha’s giving the monk “the flower and smile conveyed a universe of wisdom indefinable by any words or books” (MPMF, p. 155.)

Of course there is an irony here. On the one hand, the enlightenment is “sudden,” but on the other hand, there is a good chance that the monk experiencing sudden enlightenment has been practicing for many years. Part of the suddenness is that the experience, we are told, is like waking up in the morning. One moment you are dreaming vividly and it seems so real, and the next moment you are awake and the dream is gone. Does anyone teach you to awake? No, you just do it.

Taoism and Confucianism

It is traditional to study Taoist and Confucianist philosophy separately, because they have different founders and are in many ways, very different. On the other hand, it can be a problem to separate them in an academic way, because most Chinese people practice them together. That is, a person growing up in China would have been Confucian in their family and social responsibilities, and Taoist in their more personal awakening practices. And even that division rings false.

Very simply, they would have been both Taoist and Confucian, and we need to remember this if we are to truly understand these religions of China. In addition, China has a long history of Buddhist philosophy. It is good to keep in mind that many Chinese people had a third strand to their religious view, that of Buddhist ideas and practices.

Philosophy in China

Many, if not most, of the philosophies we will study in this class, are the ideas and practices of people who have been moved, or at least been influenced, by the migration of ideas. We saw how Hindu philosophy was impacted and partially created by the Indo-Europeans. Buddhist philosophy has traveled throughout the world, adapting and changing the peoples and cultures that it has met.

We all know how big a role immigration has played in the American story. With China we encounter something different. “One of the most distinctive features of the Chinese mentality is its feeling that the Chinese people and the soil on which they live are inseparable and have been together as far back as tradition goes” (Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw, Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, Seventh Edition, [Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002], p. 181. Hereafter referred to in the lectures as MPMF.)

There are no stories of the ancient people of China invading China and taking it over from another people. They seem to have always been there. “Consequently, a sense of place, of the cycles of nature, and of lineage were fundamental to the religious outlook of the earliest known Chinese, as they have been ever since” (MPMF, p. 181.) The land impacts all indigenous religions. China’s relationship to its land will be no different.

The earliest philosophy of China was the Shamanist one we find all over the world in the prehistorical period. This is a time when people are closely connected to nature and magical rites to control the earth and the weather, and things of that kind.

“The cultural line that led to Chinese civilization began around 4000 B.C.E. in tiny villages in the Yellow River basin where millet, vegetables, and pigs were raised. One of the oldest motifs of Chinese religion is the Earth-god. The central sacred feature was often a stone or mound, like a concentration of the forces of the soil into a central focus. These mounds are the ancestors of the city-god temples of today, as well as the great Altar of Heaven in Beijing, built like an artificial mountain where the emperor offered worship at the Winter Solstice. Worship was also offered very early to the spirits of rivers and of rain, the latter immemorially represented as the dragon, for the rivers and rain bless the fertile earth with moisture” (MPMF, p. 181.) And as with all nature-based philosophies, there was an openness to and relationship with the feminine that is never entirely lost in Taoist philosophy.

One of the areas where we can still see the connection with early philosophical ideas is in the respect the Chinese people have for their ancestors. Many of the earliest philosophies seem to have felt that the people we love who die can influence our lives for better (or worse!), and therefore, it is important to respect them and do the necessary rituals to keep the peace.

“In burial and ancestrism, continuity of the three identity-giving factors of family, ancestors, and place was emphasized. Burial, the return of the tiller of the earth to its bosom, has always been very important in China” (MPMF, p. 181.)

Perhaps people felt that just as a seed must be buried to sprout into a new plant, so people must be buried correctly to be reborn in the afterlife. All we know for sure is that the first signs of spiritual attitudes in human beings are usually found at burial sites.

Many of us may be familiar with the great pyramids in Egypt. You find similar customs in China, where great care was taken to assure the dead, especially the mighty, of a good afterlife. No expense seemed too great or costly.

“The concern with burial goes as far back as Chinese culture. Neolithic farmers buried children in urns under the house and adults in reserved fields. In the first period of real civilization, the Shang era, great pits were dug in the earth for the burial of a king. In what must have been a scene of incredible barbaric horror and splendor, the deceased monarch was interred brilliantly ornamented with jade, together with the richly caparisoned horses who had borne his hearse, hundreds of sacrificed human retainers and prisoners, and a fortune in precious objects” (MPMF, p. 182.)

Scholars have learned a great deal about these past times from archeological digs in China, where they have uncovered enormous wealth that was preserved for ages.

Some of the most profound ideas in Chinese philosophy and religion have their roots in these earliest cultures. “The Shang Dynasty and its successor, the Zhou Dynasty, lasted from about 1750 to 221 B.C.E. The basic motifs of religion in these eras represent in developing from the fundamental ideas of Chinese religion and philosophy” (MPMF, p. 182.)

The Chinese did not have a personal monotheist God, but they did have a sense of a great and mysterious force, perhaps something like the Hindu Brahman.

Probably one of the first things people noticed in this world was that underneath the constant changes in life, there seems to exist a pervading order and law. The seasons followed one another, and the same stars could be watched at night. “The thinkers of those days talked of a supreme ruler or moderator of the universe, Di or Tian, usually translated as “Heaven,” who gave rain, victory, fortune or misfortune, and regulated the moral order. All things ultimately derived from Tian, but it was more a personification of natural law than a real personality and was not directly worshipped; Heaven was like the high god of many archaic peoples – understood as being remote” (MPMF, p. 182.)

Most tribal people had this sense of a high god or ultimate ruler, but in terms of everyday relationships, people found gods closer to home. This makes more sense than we might at first think, if you grew up in a monotheistic Western culture. For example, many of us might know that our boss has a boss who has a boss all the way up to the Chair of the Board of our company (or school in my case).

For most of our regular interactions and for things such as job evaluations, we deal with the next person “up” from us. We may have never even met some of the people higher up in the company who we ultimately work for. I imagine it was something like this for peasant people. Who had the most influence and impact on your life? Your immediate ancestors first, and then the local gods and goddesses, and only eventually did you think or concern yourself with the ultimate authority.

Once you had honored your ancestors, who did you turn to next? Most of the local gods seem to be representatives of nature. “Other gods, lesser but more accessible to worship, were those of sun, moon, stars, rivers, mountains, the four directions, and localities. These were given offerings, some seasonally, some morning and evening. Above all were the ancestral spirits, treated to meals and remembrance and expected to intercede on behalf of the living with Tian” (MPMF, p. 182.)

What becomes clear is that there was a perceived hierarchy of being, from the human and natural world to the ancestors and then the forces of nature, until eventually you reached the top of the pyramid, where you found Tian.

Closely associated with these early magical rites were the attempts of people to control their futures, or at least be informed about what to expect. “The Shang era is most famous for divination with the “oracle bones.” The procedure was that kings would ask their ancestors questions, and the answers would be determined by cracks made in a tortoiseshell when it was heated over a fire. Thousands of these shells, with the questions and sometimes the answers inscribed on them in an archaic form of writing, have been preserved” (MPMF, p. 182.)

In shamanistic philosophy, one of the tasks of the shamans was to foretell the future, help people avoid disasters and seek out good fortune. This interest even continues today, in the modern interest in astrology and psychic phenomena, as well as sprouting in secular concerns, such as trying to foresee what the stock market is going to do or looking ahead to what the weather will be like in a few days.

While scholars do not know as much as they would like to know about early Chinese philosophy, they know enough to help us discover certain principles in modern Chinese thought that go all the way back to the dawn of history.

“Divination, the seasonal cycle, and ceremonialism all suggest one basic principle that has run through Chinese thought from the beginning – that the universe is a unity in which all things fit together. If humanity aligns itself with it, all will fit together for us as it does for nature. On this assumption, traditional Chinese lived with the turning of the seasons, and in their ceremonies strove to make life into an image of their harmony. Divination is based on the same worldview, for it presumes that if the world is a unity, each fragment of it – like a tortoiseshell – must contain clues to what is happening or will happen in other parts” (MPMF, pp. 182-183.)

This perceived unity would be fundamental to Chinese thought in both Confucian and in Taoist philosophy. The ultimate goal will always be to find a way to bring one’s own life into harmony with this greater unity. That is the place of contentment and serenity.

The Tao – Foundational to Confucian and Taoist Philosophy

Before the formation of what has become known as Confucian or Taoist philosophy, the Chinese had the concept of the Tao. “The unity in which all things fit together harmoniously is called the Tao” (MPMF, p. 183.) Both of these traditions refer to it.

The differences between them consist in how they perceive we can best work with the Tao, not whether the Tao exists. Perhaps it is simply a more philosophical understanding of the early belief in Tian. Tian and the Tao seem closely related.

While the Tao is not personal like the God of the Bible, it does become the great focus. “Tao – how to know it, live it, and construct a society that exemplifies it – is the great theme of Chinese thought and the religious expressions closely related to it” (MPMF, p. 183.)

What is interesting is that Confucian and Taoist philosophy come up with such different approaches. That is when it is important to remember that the Chinese people never fully bought into only one approach. Most of the people seemed to realize that it was only in using both approaches together, that one could best live out this sought-for harmony.

While you could not have a personal relationship with the Tao the same way you could have a personal relationship with the gods in devotional Hindu philosophy, it was believed that you could come to know the Tao by studying it in the three places it was most readily observed.

“In asking how to get back on the track of Tao, the Chinese believed there were three realms where Tao could be experienced: nature, human society, and one’s own inner being. The question was: How are these to be lined up, with what priorities, and with what techniques for ascertaining the “message” of the Tao?” (MPMF, p. 183.) In many ways these are still the questions of any earnest seeker after the truth.

Just as there have been many seekers, so there have been many answers. For various reasons, these answers, which became schools of thoughts and philosophies of life, eventually sorted themselves out into the two basic approaches we are studying, Taoist and Confucian ideas and practices. What are these differences?

“The basic difference was that Confucianists thought the Tao, or Tian (the will of Heaven), as they often called it, was best found by humans within human tradition and society and so was explored through human relationships and rituals and by the use of human reason. The Taoists thought that reason and society perverted the Tao, that it was best found alone in the rapture of merging with infinite nature and the mystical and marvelous” (MPMF, p. 183.)

Even today, we can often divide people by their temperaments into introverts and extroverts. Perhaps the earliest division was based on something similar, because it seems certain people find meaning in interaction with others, while some people need more time alone in quiet and solitude to find what they are looking for. Those seeking solitude would find themselves leaning in the direction of Taoist philosophy, and those needing to interact and serve others would look for community life in Confucian philosophy.

More specifically, even those leaning in one direction or another will often apply certain religious teachings to parts of their life and other teachings to other parts of their life. This is another reason why people in China tended not to be “Just one way,” because even those who love solitude must sometimes interact with others, and those who love people will find themselves alone at times.

“In the lives of most people, features from all sides would have a place. Confucian attitudes would undergird family and work ethics; Buddhism would help to answer questions about what happens after death; a dash of Taoist color would meet esthetic and spiritual needs in family and personal life. (It has been said that Chinese officials were Confucian at work and Taoist in retirement)” (MPMF, p. 184.)

This is really not so strange. Many of us work in one field, and as a result of this emphasis, we seek out hobbies and pastimes that are very different. We have one way of interacting with our fellow employees and another way of interacting with our families. This is not necessarily a situation of inconsistency, it is a different emphasis of what is important and valuable in different situations.

This will become clearer as we proceed with our study. So far we have been thinking about early Chinese tradition and some of the common ground, such as the Tao, shared by all Chinese thought. Now it is time to look at these two different traditions in detail, and we will start with Taoist philosophy then move to Confucian philosophy.

Fundamentals of Taoist Philosophy

Confucian philosophy (as we will see), puts a great deal of stress on living a virtuous life. Sometimes this can seem like too much of a burden. Where is the joy? Where is the mysticism? Where is the transcendence? Taoist philosophy comes along like a breath of fresh air and lets people know that there is a way of nature that is just as important, if not more important, than the way of social relations. Taoist philosophy speaks to another side of the Chinese character and sensibility.

“It is the side that feels for communion with nature and aspirations of the mystic rapture, imaginative works of art and letters, rebellion against social conformity, inward fear of evil, and love for gods. This side affirms the needs of personal life against the demands of structured society, and it affirms the place of the feeling, symbol-making, nonrational side against the cool, word-oriented rational side. In China, all this side has danced about under the broad umbrella of the Taoist tradition” (MPMF, p. 196.)

Because of these qualities, Taoist philosophy has more appeal to many modern people than Confucian ideas and practices. As we will see, either tradition on its own tends to lack the very balance that both are seeking, but together they work very well.

Because Taoist philosophy is so open to different ideas about reality and it embraces so much, it can be quite confusing to a novice. Taoist practices have divided up into a more popular religious form and into a more philosophical form.

“As one would expect from this, Taoism has been many things to many different people and has taken an immense variety of forms over the centuries. It has included hermit poets, temples with lavishly robed priests burning clouds of incense before resplendent gods, and “underground” secret political societies. It has ranged from nature mysticism to occult quests for immortality to the rites of spiritualists who call up the dead” (MPMF, p. 197.)

Taoist ideas include everything that might fall under traditional spirituality, but they also include things that many of us would call superstitious and magical. This is because Taoist ideas and practices include the way of philosophers, as well as the way of the common people and their folk religion.

“Some commentators have talked about a ‘pure’ philosophical Taoism and a ‘degenerate,’ ‘superstitious’ religious Taoism. But such presuppositions get in the way of real understanding. It is more instructive to comprehend how all of Taoism forms a unity of experience around a single pole, focusing on the feeling-oriented, nonrational side of life. Here it is simple to move rapidly from mysticism to occultism to revolution and back, and from ‘nature’ to the most elaborate religious robes and rites, so long as they express something imaginative and personal. Taoism in China is really a tapestry of countless strands of folk religion, ancient arcane going back to prehistoric shamanism and private vision” (MPMF, p. 197.)

In some ways, it makes a great deal of sense that if the Tao is the great and ultimate mystery that contains all of life and more, then it will also embrace as many different ways of relating to it as there are people.

Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching

Where does Taoist philosophy come from? We know that the idea of the Tao goes back to pre-historical times and is foundational to both Taoist and Confucian philosophy. “Taoism’s supposed founder is the sage Lao-tzu. Appropriately for such a romantic tradition, he is more legend than fact, and his very name suggests anonymity, for Lao-tzu just means “The Old Man.” Stories say that the bearer of this epithet was an older contemporary of Confucius” (MPMF, p. 198.)

There are even stories of Confucius and Lao-tzu meeting, and that while Confucius found Lao-tzu fascinating, he was not sure how one could actually live out the values being propagated by Lao-tzu. We will see why in a moment!

While we cannot be sure of the historical fact of Lao-tzu’s existence, we have not only a name but also a story. “Lao-tzu was, according to tradition, a “dropout.” It is said he was an archive keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court and a popular fellow who kept a good table. But he became disgusted with the grasping and hypocrisy of the world, and at the age of 80 left his job, mounted a water buffalo, and wandered off to the West. At the Western portals of the empire, the gatekeeper is reported to have detained him as his guest, refusing to let him pass until he had recorded his wisdom. So the Old Man wrote down the book called the Tao Te Ching and then departed in the direction of Tibet, becoming mysteriously lost to the world” (MPMF, pp. 198-199.)

This is a perfect ending to this story, because if Taoist philosophy is about anything, it is about being intuitive and spontaneous, and not simply doing what people expect. To drop everything and leave society, especially a corrupt society, for a closer relationship with nature is an excellent example of Taoist philosophy in practice.

The Tao Te Ching is an amazing book, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about. Scholars continue to study and debate whether it was meant only for individuals or for society as a whole. Was it meant only for hermits leaving the world behind them or is there a practical use for all people? There are parts addressed to leadership. That would make it obvious that it was to be put to use in society. And yet, how could one really lead a society to put these principles into practice?

“In sum, the origin of the Tao Te Ching is as mysterious as its meaning; each reader must get from it what he or she can” (MPMF, p. 199.) People have learned very different things from it. It is a beautiful and mystical book and I hope that you will enjoy and learn from it.

What is the Tao Te Ching about? It is a book about the Tao, that universal way or track down which all the 10,000 things roll, and which is their substratum and the only lasting thing there is; the name Tao Te Ching means something like “The Book of the Tao and How to Apply Its Strength” (MPMF, p. 199.) Even though it is about the Tao, the book starts off by saying that you can’t talk about the Tao! In other words, it is a book that embraces paradox.

he Tao is beyond the power of words

To define:

Terms may be used

But are none of them absolute.

In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words.

Words came out of the womb of matter” (MPMF, p. 199.)

In many ways, it is a good way to begin a book. We would probably all be better off if we could remember that words have limitations. Limitations are finite, and spiritual terms, such as the Tao, represent the infinite.

“Add to the limitations of our experience the fact that language by definition cannot really apply a meaningful label to the whole because the purpose of words is to categorize the particular. We use words to distinguish one thing from another. To call something rice implies there are other things that are not rice from which it needs to be distinguished” (MPMF, p. 200.)

We live in such a word-oriented society, it is sometimes very easy to forget that words are only pointers. The word “tree” is not a real tree. In fact, the letters of the word tree don’t even look like a tree. The word is just a symbol, but in fact people kill each other over the words we use to describe the sacred.

We need to use words gently. That is, we use words, while at the same time not taking them too seriously, especially when describing spiritual realities. “Even to use a word ostensibly for the whole, such as Tao or existence, does not avoid this limitation. All these words can do is point in a certain direction of comprehension, but they cannot make clear that there is really nothing comparable to Tao or existence from which it could be distinguished” (MPMF, p. 200.)

This is probably why some of the greatest teachers, such as the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus, never wrote anything down. They probably understood all too well that once words are put in writing, they become fixed in stone and people become inflexible about them.

Once you accept the limitations of words, you can use them, while at the same time letting them lead you to the place beyond words. The truth has a way of silencing us if we let it. The Taoists want us to practice this deep openness to the mysteries revealed by silence.

“Once you realize that the Tao, which flows in and through everyone and everything, cannot be labeled and put in a box, you can respond to it in a different way, with simple wonder, turning to it as an infant turns to its mother. The first chapter ends, ‘From wonder into wonder the Tao opens” (MPMF, p. 200.)

We see, in reading the Tao Te Ching, that Taoist philosophy takes a very different view of human society. Nature is the place where we see the Tao flow effortlessly. It only gets blocked when we bring people together and all of their artificial rules and regulations and uptightness block the free flowing of this energy that is described as the Tao. As a result, the Taoist does not fit into society as well as the Confucian. He or she sees how false it can be and turns away.

“And again, the writer, seeing himself as a misfit in artificial society, although marvelously near the Tao that others miss, says, ‘All these people are making their mark in the world, while I, pigheaded, awkward, different from the rest, am only a glorious infant nursing at the breast.’ In contrast to the Confucian cornerstone – the father-son relationship – the Tao Te Ching, which emphasizes the natural, biological, and spontaneous as being better than the social manifestation of the Tao, makes becoming feminine, or becoming a child in a mother’s arms, a basic image for the relationship of the individual with the great Tao” (MPMF, p. 200.)

In this embrace of a more feminine perspective, we see how the Chinese tried to find a way to balance the overly rigid and masculine perspective of Confucian philosophy. And thus we see again why it would have been so difficult to be only Taoist or Confucian.

We also see the beginning of a teaching that becomes important in the martial arts. In some forms of the Chinese fighting schools, you learn to use the other person’s strength, rather than your own. You start to work with a different kind of energy that sees water as its example. There is a book by Alan Watts that describes Taoist philosophy as the “watercourse way.”

“In the seemingly weak stance of the female or the child is tremendous strength – the strength of water that wears down the hardest rock, or wind and rain that can come and go as they wish. In yielding, bending with the wind like a supple tree and then springing back renewed, is a vital strength that will weave its way subtly through all the permutations of the Tao. But that which is stiff like a man standing on tiptoe will break and fall. We are told that the best ruler is he who guides his people unobtrusively, so that they say, ‘We did this ourselves” (MPMF, p. 200.)

It is interesting to think that true leadership might be so subtle that people do not know they are being led! This is a very different model of what it means to be active in the world.

When you think that some of the most unlikable people are those who are often working hard on themselves and trying very hard to be spiritual, you get a glimpse of what the Taoists are saying. It seems sometimes we can try so hard that we miss the point entirely.

“Needless to say, this approach was quite at odds with the Confucianists’ earnest talk of cultivating virtue and their moral norms such as filial obedience. Lao-tzu instead refers back to a primordial paradise where people lived simply in harmony with the Tao spontaneously. Only when deterioration sets in, he thought, did rules and norms appear, and they were both cause and effect of the deterioration” (MPMF, p. 201.)

And yet, this is not always true. If you let little children play with no adult supervision, you will see things quickly get out of hand. Kids can be very good, but they can also be mean and cruel. There is something to being touched with what is pure and natural and spontaneous. The Confucians also have a point that we need good models and we need some training. It seems to me that neither Chinese way has a monopoly on the truth. In the real world of our lives we probably need discipline, but we also need flexibility and humor so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously!

Because the Taoist rejects many of the conventions and rules of ordinary society, it also becomes easy to say “yes” to just about anything, simply because it is out of the ordinary.

“Here we can see clearly the Taoist reaction against ordinary conventions of thought and behavior. It is but a step from this generalized sense of wonder and of the limitations of ordinary words and attitudes to the affirmation of the most extraordinary seeming ideas: the possibility of deathlessness, the reality of fabulous secrets, powers, and worlds. In fact, even the Tao Te Ching appears to affirm that one who is in inseparable harmony with the Tao is as immortal as the Tao is, and that through the way of yielding one can find mysterious powers so great as to seem miraculous. But it remained to subsequent Taoist writers to make this potential of Lao-Tzu’s vision more explicit” (MPMF, p. 202.)

In this sense, I am reminded of my favorite and most influential teacher – Professor Jacob Needleman – who told me it was important to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out!

The Development of Taoist Philosophy

Lao-Tzu may be more legend than reality, but one way or another, the Chinese came into possession of the Tao Te Ching. Later Taoists used that as their basic text. “The first and greatest of the Taoist writers to expand on Lao-Tzu’s vision more explicitly is Chuang-Tzu (died c. 300 B.C.E.) Little is known of Chuang-Tzu apart from his book, The Chuang-Tzu, but it is enough. Written in a vivid, fanciful, and humorous style, it immediately brings the reader into a world of expanding horizons” (MPMF, p. 202.) Part of the value of the book is to shock people, to wake them up, to get them to think “outside of the box.”

Chuang-Tzu recognized that we take ourselves too seriously, and as a result, we get lost in our own ideas and opinions. We seem to think that if we think something is right, then it must actually be right. We forget the warnings in the Tao Te Ching that the real truth can never be pinpointed down and limited by our words.

“Chuang-Tzu wanted a person to be free – above all, free from oneself, one’s own prejudices, partial views, categories, and from judging everything in terms of oneself. To this Taoist, man is not the measure of all things. The way the universe happens to appear to a biped six feet tall is no more the way it is than the way it appears to a fish, a mote, an eagle, or a star. Only the Tao itself is the measure” (MPMF, p. 202.) The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao! If we could only remember our limitations we would save ourselves much trouble.

We put so much trust in our ordinary consciousness. We think that the way we see things is the way they really are. Now we have science telling us that our perceptions are faulty and selective. Even the strong sense of solidity we have towards objects is false. A table seems hard, but we know from our microscopes that there is actually nothing solid there. It is composed of spinning atoms, which are themselves mostly space.

Chuang-Tzu was aware of this long before the discoveries of modern science, and so he taught us to be aware of how easily we can be deceived by the appearances of things and our subsequent conclusions.

“In the same way, ordinary rational waking consciousness is no more the measure of all things than the world of dreams and fancy and of the improbable. Chuang-Tzu tells us he once dreamed he was a butterfly, and when he awoke he did not know whether he was Chuang-Tzu who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang-Tzu. The dream world, in other words, is just as real as any other” (MPMF, p. 202.)

You can see why this teaching would shake people up. It makes us question ourselves about what is real and why we believe the things we do. Taoist philosophy, much like the Greek philosopher Socrates (my favorite philosopher), is much more interested in questions than in answers.

The world of children is close to the world of the Tao. Perhaps Jesus was making a similar point when he taught that unless his disciples become like children they couldn’t enter the Kingdom of God. There is a childlike openness that is needed, otherwise we can’t see.

“The world of the unconscious and the imagination, he is saying, is just as much a manifestation of the Tao as the rational – and may indeed better lead us to comprehending the Tao. At least it opens us to that sense of wonder and infinity beyond all limits that is necessary to comprehend the Tao – for the Tao is precisely the unbounded” (MPMF, p. 202.)

It would make sense to remember that if ultimate reality is infinite, then we must expand our ideas of what is real and what is possible. At the same time, this openness can be taken to such an extreme that people will believe almost anything, so always we need to seek balance. Living in the modern world, where rationality is often put on such a high pedestal, we need to remember that rationality has its purposes, but it also has its limits.

Confucian philosophy places the emphasis on rationality and sobriety. Taoist philosophy puts the emphasis on openness and intuition. “The consequent distinction between Confucian and Taoist styles of thinking is very clear in a fictional debate that Ge Hong [a later Taoist thinker] composed between a Confucianist and a Taoist on the possibility of immortality. The Confucianist argues that every living thing that anyone has ever heard of dies and that belief in immortality is therefore untenable nonsense. Baopuzi, the Taoist, responds that there are exceptions to every rule, and that just because things of which we know die, we cannot say that everything in this universe, of which we really know so little, must die. In effect, the Confucianist says, ‘You can’t prove immortality,’ and the Taoist says, ‘You can’t prove there isn’t immortality.’ Perhaps little is proved in this particular argument except that, for Confucianists, the instinctive response to a query is the safe, rational, common-sense answer, and for Taoists, the romantic, speculative approach open to nonrational, ‘mind-blowing’ possibilities. The cleavage is temperamental and comparable to the gulf between Enlightenment rationalism and the Romanticism that followed it in the West” (MPMF, p. 203.)

An integral approach will encourage us to see that we will do our best and most creative thinking when we are open to both ways of thinking. Some people need a little more rationality, while others need a little more intuition and creativity.

We have stories of Taoists really trying to put this lifestyle of freedom into practice. It must have been a shock to their Confucian friends! “To them, living with the Tao meant a feng liu (“wind and stream”) life, acting according to the movement of what was happening day by day. Many were artists and poets, or at least aesthetes; the unplanned life, which savored the beauty of each event and the richness of each impulse, well suited the temperament of their callings. Philosophical works that went with this Taoist stance made much of Tao as being wu-wei, nonbeing or not doing, in the rather technical sense that the Tao is not a ‘thing’ or a ‘cause’ and does not produced by plan or through work. Instead, all things just flow out of it freely or spontaneously in an endless stream of flux and change; the person who is attuned to Tao lives life in this way” (MPMF, pp. 203-204.)

When you hear people talking about “going with the flow,” this is the philosophy they are referring to. So much of our lives can be taken up with trying to control people, places, and things, that we can drive ourselves crazy. It sometimes helps to get in touch with this Taoist perspective and remember that we really have very little control of the outside world, and so our energy might be better spent doing something else.

Women in Taoism

Taoist philosophy was much more open to the feminine and the virtues that were believed to be associated with women and Yin energy. “Taoism has taken an immense variety of forms over the centuries, which include philosophical and religious forms, the latter incorporating mysticism, shamanism, sexual practices, and magic in a syncretistic blend that is virtually indistinguishable in many cases from Chinese popular religion. We can find Chinese women in most all of Taoism’s manifestations, perhaps because of Taoism’s emphasis on nature and the feminine, which opened the pathway for women’s participation” (MPMF, pp. 218-219.)

It is not surprising then that women would turn to Taoist philosophy to meet their spiritual needs. It offered them a deeper validity than the “masculine” emphasis found in Confucian philosophy.

Where order and control are the imagery associated with Confucian philosophy, nurturing and natural growth are associated with the imagery of Taoist philosophy. “As we already have seen, the Tao Te Ching makes ready use of feminine symbolism to describe the Tao. The Tao is the creative source, which is potential itself and out of which flows existence – an existence sustained by the Tao ‘stream,’ just as a mother gives birth out of her womb to a child, who is then nourished at her breast. As said in the Tao Te Ching.

The breath of life moves through a deathless valley

Of mysterious motherhood

Which conceives and bears the universal seed,

The seeming of a world never to end,

Breath for men to draw from as they will:

And the more they take of it, the more remains” (MPMF, p. 219.)

This imagery of the Tao is like a mother who gives birth and feeds her child. She gives and gives, with no thought of return. We are told that this is a good way to view the Tao. Always giving, but never running out. It is infinite in its capacity to serve and bring forth new life.

“Because the feminine symbolism is so pervasive in Taoism, some scholars, such as Ellen Marie Chen, have concluded that Taoism has ties to an ancient Mother Goddess and the Tao itself is the Great Mother” (MPMF, p. 219.)

Female imagery represents some of the earliest spiritual symbols we have going back into prehistoric times and the tribal philosophies. Considering the fact that the concept of the Tao goes back further than either Taoist philosophy or Confucian philosophy, this theory of the Tao being a symbol of the divine feminine makes a lot of sense to me. I read a book where Taoist philosophy is described as the “way of the Mother.”

With all of this emphasis on the feminine, you have to wonder why China was so caught up in the patriarchal world. In an ironical way, it played into patriarchy by stressing the Yin aspect against the Yang aspect of Confucian philosophy. Yin’s role is not to fight Yang, but to move with it as in a dance one person leads and the other follows. It goes against the nature of Yin to be belligerent.

“Taoism seeks a balance of the Yin and Yang just as does Confucianism, but for Taoism that balance is struck by grounding it in the Yin. Thus, the way of the Tao is wu-wei – going with the flow, which is associated with the ‘natural’ passivity and flexibility of women. Thus, women were deemed to be naturally good Taoists. But Taoism does not appear to have moved women beyond patriarchal norms. Instead, perhaps because Taoism was a reaction to the rigidity of Confucianism, and perceived Confucianism as ‘too Yang’ in its striving to construct a structured society, Taoism used the patriarchal stereotype of Yin as an antidote. Significantly, whatever influence Taoism had, it never had much of an impact on the social order prescribed by Confucian norms, and thus generally did not move women out of their subordinated roles. Still, Taoism’s emphasis on the inner self, feelings, and imagination must have provided a spiritual outlet for women – the ‘inside’ members of the family” (MPMF, p. 219.)

Taoist philosophy, ironically, may have actually encouraged a political and social situation of suppression, while at the same time helping women find some serenity and peace with their situation and some means of expressing their own desires and aspirations.

In a limited way, women were able to take part in Taoist spiritual practices and even leadership that was completely impossible in Confucian philosophy. “Religious Taoism drew from shamanism (which had been central to Chinese popular religion) the belief that women especially are receptive to Divine inspiration. This, together with the perceived need for a complementary balance of Yin and Yang in all aspects of life, paved the way for an openness toward the participation of women in nearly all levels of religious Taoism, despite the patriarchal norms of mainstream Chinese society” (MPMF, p. 219.)

Women were the healers and channels of messages and insights from the other side of life. This was of such primary interest for people that if a woman showed talent in this area, she could experience a great deal of freedom that might have otherwise passed her by.

The highest positions in Taoist practice were never in the hands of women, even those who were highly recognized. The fortunes of women also varied with the times. Some epochs were more open to women than others.

“Early on Taoism developed a patriarchal leadership with the Celestial Masters, who were the highest administrators, and who were and are men. However, even then women held prominent leadership positions equally with men as libationers (who provided the ritual and moral leadership of Taoism) and as officials over the districts. Women were ordained equally with men in all ranks, except the highest rank – that of Divine Lord. Women also founded Taoist sects and were revered adepts, masters, alchemists, and scholars. And convents were founded so that women could be free of ordinary social ties in order to pursue spiritual lives” (MPMF, pp. 219-220.)

Taoist philosophy provided some balance in China to the patriarchal customs that were a part of the times and enforced by Confucian views on the nature of social harmony. “Taoism provided an alternative view that venerated women and thus opposed the subjugating tendencies of the primarily patriarchal society. Moreover, it offered significant leadership opportunities for women and provided an option for women outside the strictures of mainstream, patriarchal Confucian society as Taoist priestesses, nuns, and shamanesses. But in all this we must take note that Taoism as religious institution was marginal at best in Chinese society, relegated to the lowest levels. Consequently, the participation of women, even at the highest levels, did little to raise the social status of the women involved” (MPMF, p. 220.)

Real freedom for women did not come in China until the Communist takeover, and even that freedom has only slowly and sometimes haltingly progressed.

The Negative Side of Taoist Philosophy

The negative side of Taoist philosophy is apparent in the history of China. Despite this great and important teaching, China has had a hard time putting these principles into practice. China has had times of peace, but it has also had horrible times of war and pillage and destruction. Because China’s history is so long, it has much to answer for. I don’t think this is unfair.

If we ask Christians to answer for historical injustices, including the witch hunts and the Crusades, and more recent problems such as the general silence of Christians during the Holocaust, then it is fair to ask China why this great teaching has failed to bring about its promise of a good and decent society, and spiritual fulfillment for the majority of the people.

Once again, we are thrown back upon the human condition. We have to ask ourselves why the great ideas of the world do not seem to touch our core, where they can work their magic. What prevents us from putting these great teachings into practice? One thing seems for sure, and that is that no one religion has a monopoly on this failure to realize its potential.

We find this problem wherever we find people. In the end, I think the philosophies sometimes get blamed for what is ultimately not a philosophical problem, but a human problem. This is a human problem because we find the same situation outside of the various established philosophies as well as in them. Just think of the secular ideals of countries such as the United States, which has had such a difficult time living up to its own Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Because Taoist philosophy was so unstructured, loose, and open, it tended to allow, and even promote, the worst beliefs and practices of a naïve and gullible people. How many people wasted their hopes and resources paying for fortunes that were lies, and for amulets that did not work? How many people spent their life savings on miracle cures, or heightened hope for immortality that was promoted by the unscrupulous? Taoist philosophy promoted a profound philosophical view of reality, but often the Taoist practices taken up by the unlettered peasants were simply a retreat into superstition and magic, rather than a march forward into greater spiritual consciousness and compassion.

Taoist philosophy played its role in keeping Chinese women oppressed as we have already seen. This is a continual problem with all of the patriarchal philosophies. We also have to be aware of the role Chinese philosophy played in keeping all of the people so oppressed that when Communism came in, the people welcomed yet a new oppression, thinking it would lead them where they wanted to go. The heart of all philosophy seems to have an ideal of liberation, however that is expressed. We must ask religion to be accountable for all of its oppression and failure to bring about its promised liberation.

The Influence of Taoist Philosophy in America

Taoist practices have played a limited role in America. “Taoism in the New World has had two kinds of vehicles: the practice of religious Taoism by Chinese-Americans, and the general cultural influence of Taoist themes” (MPMF, p. 225.) Taoist philosophy has played a much larger, although subtle, role.

Many of us are becoming interested in “alternative” medical cures and treatments and preventive health issues. So much of this new understanding of medicine in the West is actually old medicine in the East. I place a lot of hope in what is called Integral Medicine. This will be medicine practiced by those who want to combine Western and Eastern understanding of health, so that the best of both is made available, while the worst of each is eliminated.

It is not as easy to find a Taoist teacher as it might be to find a Buddhist teacher. Most major cities, and many smaller ones, have any number of Buddhist temples and teachers of various schools available. We don’t see this same availability with Taoist schools.

“A few centers and movements teaching philosophical and spiritual Taoism, sometimes including Taoist yoga and meditation, have appeared in America. Much more widespread have been martial arts studios. While certainly not exactly religious, the martial arts centers often help students prepare for training through meditation and ‘centering’ of consciousness, and above all emphasize the importance of releasing the chi and the intuitive direct insight that goes with it – all fundamentally Taoist, whatever the nationality or formal affiliation of the center. Somewhat the same can be said of clinics practicing Chinese medicine. Its premises are that health is recovered through opening clogged channels through which the chi should pass, using such techniques as acupuncture, and through restoring a proper harmony of Yin and Yang and the five elements in the body” (MPMF, pp. 226-227.)

It is good to keep in mind that one of the most popular forms of Buddhist philosophy in America, Zen Buddhism, is really a marriage of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. They have much in common, and it is another way that Taoist philosophy is influencing us, sometimes without our even being aware of it.

For these reasons, “it may be that Taoism has really had more cultural influence in America than other Eastern religions whose temples and centers are far more visible” (MPMF, p. 227.) But then if Taoist philosophy has such a powerful, but subtle, influence, this would play into Taoist self-understanding perfectly. For Taoism is the “watercourse way.” It is the way of leading without people being aware that they are being led!

The “Han Synthesis” and Yin-Yang

At the same time that Confucian philosophy became more formal, it also started to blend with Taoist philosophy and other native traditions of China into a more holistic pattern of daily life that integrated different insights into the life of the people.

“The ‘Han Synthesis’ generously incorporated Taoist and other traditional motifs into Confucianism…This was the work of Dong Zhongshu (c. 179 – 104 B.C.E.)” (MPMF, p. 190.) This man wanted to expand the ideas of the five relationships into understanding how everything was related.

Dong sensed that there was a connection, not only between human relationships and our happiness, but that our harmony with the Tao was connected to the harmony of the whole universe. This takes us back to some of the key shamanistic ideas that we are all related and how we live influences everything, just as everything is influencing us. “Dong presented a doctrine of correspondences, in which humanity and nature are parts of an interwoven web. A portent in heaven may be related to a forthcoming event on earth, and the moral decisions of a ruler may affect the prevalence of rain in his nation’s fields” (MPMF, p. 190.)

In the monotheistic traditions, this insight tends to be put into the language of blessing and curse. If people obey God and follow his will, they are blessed, and if they disobey they are punished. Because Confucian philosophy lacks this sense of the divine will being so personal, it is interesting that it comes to the same practical conclusion.

Chinese people never left behind the thought of the earliest philosophies that everything is connected. Interestingly enough, we are finding similar insights emerging from modern science.

“Unlike many moderns, traditional Chinese did not see people and nature as separate, going by different laws. Instead they assumed that humanity, human history, and government cooperate with nature and are controlled by the same laws. It is as though we were to say that perpetual motion is as impossible in the history of a nation as it is in mechanics, if it is a true law. To further the comparison, it would be as though we then said that the nation must have a public ritual once a year to counteract its slowing down and to wind the energy up again” (MPMF, p. 190.) Rituals are sacred because they help with the realignment process that is necessary to keep everything balanced and in harmony.

Now that we have brought up the idea of balance, it is time to introduce the important Chinese concept of Yin-Yang, a symbol you are all probably well aware of because it has become so popular in our culture.

“In this view, the Tao – that is, all the 10,000 things – is divisible into two great classifications: Yang things and forces, and Yin things and forces. Fundamentally, Yang is associated with the masculine and Yin with the feminine. But their respective meanings go far beyond gender. Yang is what is male, but also day, sky, spring, and all that is bright, clear, hard, assertive, growing, moving out. Its symbol is the dragon. Yin is female, and also night, earth, moisture, autumn and harvest, spirits of the dead, and all that is dark, underneath, recessive, pulling in, connected with the moon, mysterious. Its symbol is the tiger, which may be thought of as Blake’s “Tyger, tyger burning bright/In the forests of the night” – emblematic of the arcane, inward, unfathomable, yet unescapable in human life” (MPMF, p. 190.)

This is a fascinating concept because it deals with a perennial philosophical problem in a very creative way. This philosophical problem is phrased in the West as the problem between the dualists and the monists. The monists see reality as made up of one substance, and the dualists tend to see reality as divided up into two basic substances, matter and spirit.

The Chinese also recognized this problem, but they found that neither answer was fully satisfying. To say that everything is one makes understanding changes and relationships difficult, but to say everything is two is to put a fundamental divide into the middle of the cosmos.

So the Chinese talk about two, but the two are not opposed, as in duality, but complementary, as in polarity. Night and day are not opposed to each other, but different aspects of one twenty-four hour period. And there are even times in this twenty-four hours when they blend into each other, such as at dawn, when it seems to be neither day nor night.

In the same way, good and evil are not two opposed forces, but

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