As usual in the wintertime, I’ve been pulling out my books on Taoism, Buddhism and Zen to thumb through as the snow keeps falling and falling. The book, I-Ching, stays out for me so that I may ask the Cosmos questions when I am stumped or looking for reinforcement.
Recently, I decided to read over my father’s translation of the Tao te Ching, an endeavor that took his attention for the last four or so years of his life. He died in 2008 and was well known for his research in the field of astrogeology but it was a spiritual quest that included meditation and his work on the 81 verses of the Tao te Ching that consumed him at the end of his life. He was quite deliberate about it because he felt that Western translators who were not native Chinese and unable to read the ancient texts themselves were usurpers or worse. “Interpretations,” not even translations like Stephen Mitchell’s widely acclaimed version of the “Tao te Ching” just drove him crazy.
One of his footnotes to the first page noted his disdain for Ursula Le Guin and others who had used the word “power” as a translation for the word “te” (Tao te Ching) rather than the word/concept of “virtue.” In hindsight, it almost seems comical that someone could be that furious about something like this, but hey–isn’t that what academia is all about? They love to argue about these kinds of things all the time.
I tend to enjoy translations and writing by a writer who calls himself “Red Pine” (aka Bill Porter.) That’s because he took seriously the idea of Taoist hermits and went searching for them in the wilds of the Sian mountains and wrote a book about it. One of my favorite parts is when he writes that these hermits are not invisible nor necessarily to be found in remote shacks in the wilds but are hiding in plain sight. In other words, there are tons of such Taoist hermits but you just don’t know by looking at them straight on that that’s who they are. I love that.
The reason I wanted to read my Dad’s version of the Tao te Ching is that I wanted to see what he was about in doing this work. Some of his wording belies his training as a research scientist in that he seems to feel compelled to explain everything about everything so thoroughly that you can’t miss it. Of course, if you’ve ever read any of this stuff, it’s almost just the opposite. In fact, in reading articles in a journal called “Buddhadharma” and looking at Zen Monastery websites, I’m at a moment close to shouting that “the Emperor’s Has No Clothes On” because honestly, (and I went to college!), it seems, sounds like and looks to me to be gobbledygook most of the time.
Zen enclaves offer retreats, courses and ask for donations all the time. They are marketing their wares just as much as say, MacDonalds is hawking hamburgers. Buddhist and Zen Priests, Roshis and hangers on congregate, fall in love with each other, have affairs with others (some of the Senseis are notoriously more famous for that than their spiritual leadership.) Deepak Chopra is a rich man. They are not ego-less, that’s for sure, because they’re writing books, making audio CDs, getting published and they care very much about their reputations and how they appear to the world. What’s wrong with this picture, I wonder?
In any case, I trust the I-Ching and its wisdom helps me out all the time as long as I don’t read into it what I think I want to hear. Which brings me back to what all this Tao stuff is all about. Simply put, I believe that the Tao is the Cosmos or the Universe. It is a belief in something greater than ourselves. And to me, it has been beneficent and guiding, not harsh and punishing like some religions that inculcate the young they will go to hell if they eat pretzels during Lent or something. Or that adultery can be worked off by saying X number of “Hail Mary’s” or lighting candles at Mass, for example.
My life has been an exemplar of a greater good guiding, rescuing and helping me every time I’ve been in a difficult life situation. There have been many, and I’m not exaggerating either. I have been helped when it seemed it was fruitless to hope for a positive outcome. I remember when I gave in or up to this higher power when I realized I could not “fix” things just by myself. The rest is history, as they say.
So, whether one wants to read about Spirit in a religious context, in a philosophical context or whatever, it’s really about faith and belief. I’m not sure if that huge Cosmic force works for someone if they don’t believe in it first. I just know that its presence in my life has been constant and has had a huge influence on how my life has turned out. I don’t pray to it per se. But I do ask for guidance and for help. I believe that Helpers are available just waiting to be asked. There’s some level of activity involved in engaging with this Tao–you just can’t rely on things happening without some belief or some giving energy going back and forth. Gratitude is a big component of this spiritual engagement. Asking for help and thanking the Helpers when it arrives serves to activate the belief that one’s life has more to it than just what I can do by myself by sheer will and effort alone.
So, my father’s writing is very verbose, at least in the translation version that I have. It’s a little less so in the draft that my sister has in her possession. And it’s nothing at all like the rather sparsely poetic translations that Red Pine and Stephen Mitchell have published.
As for reading about Zen and the Buddha dharma, it’s a true mystery to me and I’m no longer interested in looking for hidden meaning when I can’t even fathom what the unhidden words are saying outright. As for meditation, my physician said to me that it’s a lot more helpful to practice it than to read about it. Point taken.
So, that’s all the mystery I can think about writing in this post today. Either you believe because you have experienced it or you don’t. Either you have faith in a beneficent Universe that looks over your life or you don’t. It doesn’t really matter to anyone else. It can be a big influence on your life or absent altogether. We’re all different, right?