Understanding the Tao

By Aaron Hoopes

The word Tao (pronounced daü) in Chinese means "way," indicating a path of thought or life that is the essential unifying force of everything that exists in the universe. Taoism is following the way. Many martial artists embrace the idea of the Tao without actually understanding the basic principles behind it.

m_taoThe Tao-te Ching is the earliest document in the history of Taoism. It is a viewpoint that emphasizes individuality, freedom, simplicity, mysticism, and naturalness. Considered one of the great philosophical works of ancient China, Tao-te Ching literally means “The Classic of the Way and Its Power.” The book is less than 5,000 words long and is very likely one of the oldest written texts in the world. Authorship of the Tao-te Ching is generally credited to a man named Lao-Tzu but knowledge of him is so scarce that only legends remain. Seeking to learn more about Lao-Tzu only distracts us from his teachings. His name itself, means “old master” or “wise sage” – which only leads back to his writings.

The Tao is all encompassing. Despite the appearance of differences in the world, within the Tao everything is one. Since all is one, matters of true and false or good and evil are irrelevant and only arise when people cannot see beyond their narrow perception of reality. Taoism is a system of philosophical thought that puts emphasis on the spiritual life instead of the material world. The Tao is considered unnamed and unknowable.  Followers of the Tao avoid wasting their energies on the pursuit of wealth, power, knowledge and other distractions. Instead, they concentrate on the reality of life itself of breathing, moving and living in harmony with the natural world. Because all is considered one, life and death merge into each other and immortality can be achieved.

Living the Way of the Tao can be expressed by the term wu-wei which means doing – not doing. This concept does not signify non-action, instead it hints at action without attachment to the action, action without thought of the action. Sounds a little like Zen, doesn’t it?

The roots of Zen are based in ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese word for Zen is ch’an. In Sanscrit, the ancient language of India, it is dhyana which can be roughly translated as pure human spirit. It can be imagined as the integration of the disparate aspects of the self into one complete and divine being. Zen was eventually brought to Japan where it was elaborated and “perfected” by the Japanese samurai. It is the foundation of the Bushido code, the way of the warrior. The samurai, who lived their lives at the edge of a sword and could die at any moment, were taught to concentrate on and immerse themselves in the here and now in order to connect with the fundamental core of their being. It helped them develop the powers of concentration, self-control, awareness and tranquility. If they approached each battle as if it were their last, they would be able to have every part of their being at their disposal.

Zen itself has no theory. It is not meditation. It is not thinking. It is not not-thinking. It is not something you learn. It is simply something you are. To practice Zen is to live fully and completely, not in the past or the future, but right here and right now. Zen is, in fact, the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream. It does not move, only the water flows by.

As with Zen, the power of the Tao is in simplicity, and yet it teaches one to become a master of all things by learning to go with the natural flow of the universe. Trying to walk upstream against the river is pointless. It is better to accept that change is inevitable, learn to embrace it and make the most of it when it comes.

The fundamental teachings of the Tao present basic wisdom to live by. They are as follows:

-As if you were crossing a stream that is covered with a layer of ice. Stepping too hard on the wrong spot can lead to misfortune.

-As if you were a warrior entering enemy territory. Spies and traps may be hidden anywhere. Pay attention.

-As if you were a guest. There is no reason for anger or hostility; it only clouds your judgment.

-As if you were melting ice. Always ready to act or react as the situation or need demands.

-As a block of wood. The shape is pre-existing, allow yourself to be carved.

-As a mountain valley. Water flows down the mountain. Let things come to you. Be patient, warm and inviting.

-As a glass of water. Allow the mud of the mind to settle and see things as they truly are.

Absolute happiness comes from erasing the distinctions that separate the self and the universe. Union with the Tao is embracing a higher wisdom, freeing the mind and expanding into the fullness of existence.

Experiencing the Tao is about existing in the present moment. It is enjoying life regardless of the circumstances. Have you ever met someone who is unhappy with their situation and continuously gripes that if only they could change this or that they would be happy or feel that if they lived somewhere else things would be better? Unfortunately, a darkness of the heart is not cured by moving the body from one place to another. Chances are they would be just as miserable even if they got the change they were looking for.

Living the Tao is about finding the freedom to enjoy whatever you have at this present moment. True freedom is adapting to the infinite variety of life conditions without losing confidence in your ability to connect to the deeper spiritual essence within.
This philosophy is based on simplicity. If you have no expectations, then everything that happens is a surprising success. If you have no desires, then everything you get is a bonus.

This is Zen, the true meaning of following the Tao. It is being alive in the present moment, experiencing life as it happens and reacting to it in a calm and natural way. It is living fully and completely.

Defining the spirit is difficult because no definition can come close to the truth. The more it is defined the less it resembles the true spirit. Some attempt, however, at definition can help set you on the path toward greater awareness of it. From my personal perspective, I would define the spirit as the state of being totally conscious and alive. When you are living life and experiencing it at every moment, you are touching your spirit.

These ideas are not new. Chinese masters have spoken of it for years. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, one of India’s most widely respected spiritual teachers, calls it “aliveness.” It is a feeling independent of any outward forces. It is being happy without having a reason to be happy. The difficulty lies in reaching this state of being and experiencing it. It is easy to speak of it. Living it is another story.

Lao Tzu, in writing the Tao Te Ching, observed that plants, animals and humans are born supple and soft, yet when they die they are stiff and brittle. In order to experience the kind of “aliveness” Lao Tzu and Rajneesh are referring to, we must be supple and soft. We must be a disciple of life.

We need to learn to allow the soft and supple aspects of life to prevail. That which is hard and stiff will be broken. Fighting against the natural flow of life will only lead to difficulty and disaster. It is not the way. Relax and take the time to observe things as they are especially when you cannot control them. Allow things to take their course and happen naturally. And, of course, pay attention to the present moment. Then you will be well on the journey towards freeing your spiritual nature.

Any art is but one path to travel along on this journey. None of them can claim to be the only answer. Whatever art you choose may, however, assist you in understanding the question. In the words of Lao Tzu…The words in this book are like fingers pointing at the moon. If you concentrate your attention on the fingers, you miss seeing the moon.

This article has been reproduced with the permission of Aaron Hoopes and was first published in Kung Fu Magazine Online in 2004.

Visit his website www.artofzenyoga.com to purchase copies of his books visit www.artofzenyoga.com/store.htm

aaron_hoopes2Aaron Hoopes is a native of Vermont and the founder of Zen Yoga. He is the author of: Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movement and Meditation, Breathe Smart, and Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit. He has studied the martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and alternative medicine in the United States, Australia, and Japan for over twenty-five years. He has a degree in Asian History and Japanese Culture from Tulane University and spent a number of years in Japan studying under Masatoshi Nakayama, the chief instructor at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association, until his death in 1987. He holds a third degree black belt in Japanese Shotokan Karate and is a certified instructor and one of the Hoitsugan Instructors. He is also certified as an instructor of Shanti Yoga and Meditation as well as Tamashii Tai Chi. He is trained in Chinese Qigong (Chi Kung) Energy Healing and studied Shiatsu Finger Pressure Therapy under Hitoshi Koeda in Japan. In addition, he has extensive knowledge of Iyengar Yoga, White Crane Qigong, Okinawan Karate, Shorinji Kenpo, Wing Chun Kung Fu and Zen Meditation.



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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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