A 19th century Protestant missionary was trying to convert a Taoist farmer in China, but was having great difficulty imparting all the rules and doctrines of Christianity, especially the part about nonbelievers God sending them to Hell. ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ the farmer asked.
‘No,’ said the missionary, ‘not if you did not know.’
‘Then why,’ asked the earnestly Taoist farmer ‘did you tell me?’
Our Universalist forebears went one step forward and decided that loving God would not even create a Hell! Our Unitarian ancestors decided that God was so great and mystical that God also didn’t require creeds and doctrines! One could argue that Emerson and Thoreau and others exploring Transcendentalism are more Taoist than anything else. The incredibly long history of China and three religious traditions that came to fruition there, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are humanistic and don’t seem to need God at all.
The First chapter of the Taoist scripture, the Tao Te Ching sounds suspiciously like present day UUism:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be told is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery. (Trans.Gia-Fu Feng)
This is the beginning of Taoism, the first page, if you will. How, then can I explain Taoism and our Purposes and Principles in the light of this paradoxical reading? I can’t, of course. I can talk about Taoism as a religion or philosophy; I can give you history and details, read from Taoist books, even try to share what Taoism means to others and to me, and why I think some aspects are very Unitarian Universalist, but I cannot tell you exactly what the Tao is. Lest you think me illogical, let me say that no religion is logical. Is love logical? Is life logical? Some will say yes, some will say no, and some will say that is the wrong question. It is neither rational nor irrational, but what my colleague Forest Church calls ‘trans-rational.’
The old Chinese sage, Lao-Tsu saw the world, not as a series of traps and suffering but as a teacher of valuable lessons. Mistakes as ‘valuable learning experiences’ soon leads us to pray, ‘Oh, Lord, save me from any more valuable learning experiences!’
Lao-Tsu talked of the Tao, which has been translated in a variety of ways- God, Nature, The Absolute, the Path, the Way, Cosmic Consciousness, That through which all things have come into Being, the Cosmic Mother, the One, Primal Unity and Source, or The Infinite and Ineffable Principle of Life. The concept of Tao can be compared to the Greek word “logos”, and in a modern translation of the Christian New Testament into Chinese, The Gospel of John begins,” In the beginning was the Tao.” But it’s important to keep in mind what the contemporary philosopher Wittgenstein said about language: “Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.”
Indeed some say that when we Anglos use the Native American term, ‘Great Spirit,’ for God, we should more accurately translate it as ‘Great Mystery.’
So our Purposes and Principles are what I will describe ironically as ‘Taoist without knowing it!’ Buddha said, ‘Be ye lamps unto yourselves.’ I’m more comfortable with the idea of Great Mystery or the Taoist translation of ‘path.’
Emerson says we must receive religion first hand through intuition. He and his Transcendentalism sounds like the beginning of injecting Eastern religion into Unitarian Christianity more than a 100 years ago.
From his book, Emerson The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson, Jr. wrote that Virginia Woolf said of Emerson that ‘what he did was to assert that he could not be rejected because he held the universe within him. Each man, by finding out what he feels, discovers the laws of the universe.’
Indeed, on the Discovery channel recently was picture of part of the universe and these words: ‘The universe has no edge; it has no center.’ Can we fathom that-the scientists are now saying that the universe is infinite?
As the year, 1830, began, ‘Emerson was working out a new and strikingly modern theology. He started from the premise that ‘Christianity is validated in each person’s life and experience or not at all.’ Following Coleridge’s life-giving observation that ‘Christianity is not a theory or a speculation, but a life — not a philosophy of life but life itself, not knowledge but being’. ‘What is God?’ he now replies, ‘the most elevated conception of character that can be formed in the mind.”
Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism developed more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus, and about a century before Jesus’ birth, Buddhist missionaries brought Buddhism from India, another mystical country, to China, where it became one of the three most important religions, It is said that China is a blend of these three, that when you’re born and die, you’re a Buddhist, At work or in Government you follow Confucius, but on the weekend you’re a Taoist.
When it comes to defining religion we can only look at central tenets of belief, at symbols and outward expressions of faith. The primarily Western Religions, called Religions of the Book, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have, beside being based on a holy book, at least one central tenet in common, obedience to God, but perhaps even more important was the right belief in God and its corresponding laws and doctrines.
None of the three Chinese ways even speak about a God, instead Taoism stresses being in harmony with the Tao, more of a mystical union with the universe, a sense of being connected intuitively not rationally. Evil is the absence of harmony, not satanic magic. Taoism does not urge us toward striving, but just the opposite, emphasizing Wu-wei, non-action, nothingness. in speaking of remaining in harmony.
- We join spokes together in a wheel,
But it is the center hole
That makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
That holds whatever we want.
We hammer a roof for a house,
But it is the inner space
That makes it livable.
We work with being,
But non-being is what we use. Trans.-Stephen Mitchell
Lao-Tsu was supposed to have debated Confucius; indeed the writings are often anti-Confucian. While Confucius was concerned with rules and rigid rituals for living, much like the Law of Judaism found in the Jewish Bible, the Taoist mythical sage, Lao-Tzu, like Jesus in his reaction to legalism, was more concerned with a spiritual way of living that could not be attained by following certain religious rules. We could say the same thing of Buddha’s teachings to reform the castes and rules of Hinduism.
- Throw away holiness and wisdom,
And people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
And people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
And there won’t be any thieves.
If these three aren’t enough,
Just stay at the center of the circle
And let all things take their course.
Sometimes these rules, doctrines, and dogma of religion seem to be the antithesis of religion. Spirituality comes not from rules, or from the intellect, but from feeling, from intuition, from experiences we dare not name for fear of reducing them to ordinary things. R.H… Blyth, the Haiku scholar, says-“The intellect can understand any part of a thing as a part, but not as a whole. It can understand anything which God is not.”
Taoism has as its religious symbol the yin and the yang in a circle, red and yellow with seeds of each color in the other. It sees not dualism but polarities. Male is not opposite of female, but united in the yin and the yang in swirling circle. Indeed, Taoism has been described as more of a female religion, but always describes connectedness rather than dualism.
“The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement”
- Know the strength of man, but keep a woman’s care!
Be the stream of the universe!
Being the stream of the universe, ever true and unswerving,
Become as a little child once more.
Know the white, but keep the black…
Know honor yet keep humility.
I first discovered Taoism in college, while taking a comparative religion course and feeling frustrated with the professors who didn’t seem excited about any religion except conservative Christianity, but had to be listened to for the all important grade. Perhaps it was when I read the line from Lao Tzu that said, “Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles,” that I began to resonate to Taoism. Confucianism was the religion of learned scholars; Taoism was a reaction to the cold, dry, unexciting scholarship, a reaction against the rational, intellectual, left brain. “Those who know don’t talk; those who talk, don’t know,” says the scripture called the Tao Te Ching and described many of my professors.
Taoism is mystical, and like Zen Buddhism, which it greatly influenced, often spoke in paradox. I sometimes think of Emerson as a Taoist Unitarian with his transcendentalist reform of Unitarian Christianity.
- The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron, it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony.
The world would become paradise.
All people would be at peace and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms, know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions, know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop, you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea. (Trans. S. Mitchell)
There are three books on Taoism which I have found especially helpful and especially relevant. The first is The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra, who writes: “The Tao is the cosmic process in which all things are involved; the world is seen as continuous flow and change… One of the most important insights of the Taoists was the realization that transformation and change are essential features of nature,” and quotes from Chaung-tzu: ‘In the transformation and growth of all things, every bud and feature has its proper form. In this we have their gradual maturing and decay, the constant flow of transformation and change’….
Capra goes on:’Acting in harmony with nature thus means for the Taoist acting spontaneously and according to one’s true nature. It means trusting one’s intuitive intelligence, which is innate in the human mind just as the laws of change are innate in all things around us the careful observation of nature, combined with a strong mystical intuition, led the Taoist sages to profound insights which are confirmed by modern scientific theories.”
The second book is The Tao of Pooh, (as in Winnie the), by Benjamin Hoff, is a perfectly delightful combining of the playfulness and many meanings of Taoism with the childhood simplicity and many meanings of children’s stories, especially Winnie the Pooh.
Hoff writes, “From the Taoist point of view, the natural result of this harmonious way of living is happiness. You might say that happy serenity is the most noticeable characteristic of the Taoist personality, and a subtle sense of humor is apparent even in the most profound Taoist writings.”
Why is Lao-Tsu the one smiling in the traditional Chinese picture of the ‘Three Vinegar Tasters?'(Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu) “After all,’ says Hoff, ‘that vinegar that represents life must certainly have an unpleasant taste, as the expressions on the faces of the other two men indicate. But through working in harmony with life’s circumstances, Taoist understanding changes what others may perceive as negative into something positive. From the Taoist point of view, sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of ‘The Vinegar Tasters.'”
To understand Taoism, reread Winnie the Pooh and all his friends, because like Jesus saying that we must become as a child again to enter heaven, that is to gain enlightenment, so Taoism says, “Return to the beginning: become a child again.”
‘Why”, asks Hoff, “do the enlightened seem filled with happiness, like children? Because they are. The wise are children who Know. Their minds have been emptied of the countless minute somethings of small learning, and filled with the wisdom of the Great Nothing, The Way of the Universe.” Perhaps A.A. Milne was a Taoist for his characters teach us much, ‘while Eeyore frets, piglet hesitates, Rabbit calculates, and owl pontificates, Winnie the pooh, says Hoff, “just is. And that’s a clue to the secret wisdom of the Taoists.”
And from a psychological point of view are words of wisdom from Jungian Psychiatrist, Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her book, The Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity and Self: “Psychologically, choosing a path with heart, achieving a sense of wholeness, making choices that lead to greater consciousness, and becoming fully human all have to do with being in touch with the archetype of the Self. Then our actions come from flowing with the Tao- our choices then are based on love and on faith that love is the best inner compass.
In one form or other, practically everyone at one time or another has experienced the Self, intuitively knowing that love and wisdom occur. Most often it has happened in one’s youth, when a person is much more open and trusting. But the Self is experienced from time to time throughout life. The difficulty is in maintaining an awareness of Self once it has been experienced.”
Bolen speaks of Herman Hesse’s great book, Journey to the East as having Taoist overtones in Hesse’s story of spiritual journey. I also remember discovering Hesse’s many spiritual novels in college, and how I seemed to have a religious experience each time I read one; they always seemed to be speaking right to me, right to what I was going through, as I began my journey away from traditional Christianity towards a Unitarian Universalist Taoism. Reading his book, titled, Siddartha, was when I definitely became a Taoist Unitarian Universalist without knowing it!
“The journey to the East…,” writes Bolen, “is a personal analogy for a great many people who once trusted intuitive feeling, knew that a path with heart existed, were in touch with the underlying Tao, and then, in their later cynicism and rationalism, proclaimed that ‘God is dead” -when what was dead was the spirit within them… “
“What is known intuitively,” she continues,” through experience of the Tao, is that we are not lonely, isolated, insignificant, and meaningless creatures, accidentally evolved from organic rubbish on a miniscule dot in the vast cosmos. Instead, the Tao experience gives us the direct knowledge that we are linked to all others and to the universe, through which underlies everything and which some call God… In that timeless moment, when the Tao is experienced, we know this is more significant than the tangible world around us and far more meaningful than our usual, everyday concerns. At that moment, everything and everyone seems synchronistically connected, linked by an underlying spiritual meaning.”
- A good traveler has no fixed plans
And is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
Leads him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed herself of concepts
And keeps her mind open to what is. (trans.-S. Mitchell)
I want to argue that we take a Taoist approach to religion; there’s no mention of God or creed and that all theo-logical, sacred, even pagan orientations come from within us, not from the heavens or a particular exclusive to one way interpretation could fit under the heading, Taoist, perhaps we are really ‘Taoists without knowing it!’ If there is one central character to Taoism, and I will argue, to the Purposes and Principles, it is that concept of harmony with oneself, with each other, and with the world.
Even Mother Teresa, the most recent epitome of what a saint should be like has admitted to being somewhat Unitarian Universalist when she confessed to unworthiness because she sometimes had a hard time believing in the Doctrine, even in God him, her, itself. No, I don’t mean she confessed to being a UU, but we now have reason to suspect that she was. She gave her life for the service to humanity and God, and perhaps she might have come to the conclusion that she had to try to save the poor, because God sure wasn’t! Indeed, after her speaking of doubt, she loved even harder. perhaps not despite her religious doubt, but because of it If there is no God, whatever that means, then isn’t it all the more reason to believe that we are responsible for saving the world?
In today’s scientific day, in a world of global warming that affects us all and puts the world out of harmony, it is that many of us can no longer believe in the old ways of creedal religious requirements, from 2000 years ago, but Taoism goes back even further!
Our Purposes and Principles are neither creed nor doctrine, but a way of living in the world with harmony, and even giving us guidance from the world’s great stores of wisdom and spirituality. These words come not from a divine being etching commandments in stone, unchanging forever, but was part of a process of countless discussions within all our churches and fellowships, as well as District conferences and national General Assemblies, finally voted on by delegates from congregations all over the US and Canada. They were and are about harmony-how to religiously live in the world and how to be in religious relationship.
So the Tao Te Ching says:
- Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
This nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
This loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
You return to the source of being.
Patient with both your friends and enemies,
You accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
You reconcile all beings in the world.
Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting- the divinity in me greets the divinity within you)’ Blessed Be, Vaya con Su Dios