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Taoism The Tao Of Englightenment


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
William Horden

"Within the mind there is yet another mind." --Nei-yeh, trans. Harold D. Roth

The concept of the Tao (the Way) has profoundly impacted world culture, most notably through the many translations of the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu. Its impact on ancient China was foundational, in the sense that it gave rise to Taoist religion, spirituality, cosmology, theory of statecraft and war, social relationships, painting, poetry, medicine and alchemy. Moreover, Taoism became interwoven with Buddhism from India, giving birth to Chan Buddhism (later known as Zen when transplanted to Japan). It is also closely associated with the I Ching (Book of Changes).

What has most fascinated me about Taoist thought, though, are its roots in mysticism and efforts to establish a protocol whereby practitioners might experience the personal awakening often referred to as enlightenment. This is a tradition that can be traced back to Taoism's earliest written text, the Nei-yeh (Inward Training), which was produced well before the more famous Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu.

The Tao, as the Way, may be best conceived of as the Way of Nature. Practitioners are encouraged to increase their sensitivity to the more subtle forces both within their environment and themselves (for example, through feng shui and t'ai chi, respectively). This recognition of the similarity of forces at work externally and internally proves instrumental in providing a first-hand experience of the unity of subject and object, which forms the very basis of the mystical experience.

This particularly shows up in the Taoist appreciation of naturalness. When turned outward, this appreciation produced some of the most sublime art and poetry based on a spontaneous identification with the places and seasons of nature. When turned inward, on the other hand, naturalness was used to make practitioners aware of their own original nature that exists prior to any familial or cultural conditioning. This inward training forms the basis of Taoist mind-body-spirit exercises aimed at returning the practitioner to the natural state of enlightenment.

"If you are able to cast off sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking,
Your mind will just revert to equanimity.
The true condition of the mind
Is that it finds calmness beneficial and, by it, attains repose.
Do not disturb it, do not disrupt it
And harmony will naturally develop."
--Nei-yeh, trans. Harold D. Roth
The true condition of the mind is something we already possess -- all that is needed is to empty ourselves of the conditioned reflexes we've acquired being raised in the historical era in which we are born. This emptying process is undertaken in a meditative state in which all the various objects of thought are progressively withdrawn from attention, until we arrive at an open awareness that is not clouded by habitual thoughts, emotions and memories. This is not conceived of as something necessarily difficult: The mind and body naturally tend toward this empty state when all the external stimuli are withdrawn.

"There is a numinous [mind] naturally residing within;
One moment it goes, the next it comes,
And no one is able to conceive of it.
If you lose it you are inevitably disordered;
If you attain it you are inevitably well-ordered.
Diligently clean out its lodging place
And its vital essence will naturally arrive.
Still your attempts to reflect on it and control it.
Be reverent and diligent
And its vital essence will naturally stabilize.
Grasp it and don't let go
Then the eyes and ears won't overflow
And the mind will have nothing else to seek."
This "cleaning out its lodging place" is the emptying out process, a stilling of the conditioned mind so that the original mind might be fully experienced. As the above text demonstrates, it is not just our habit thoughts that need to be stilled but even our own imaginings of what the enlightened state is.

"The Way fills the entire world.
It is everywhere that people are,
But people are unable to understand this.
When you are released by this one word:
You reach up to the heavens above;
You stretch down to the earth below;
You pervade the nine regions.
What does it mean to be released by it?
The answer resides in the calmness of your mind.
When your mind is well-ordered, your senses are well-ordered.
When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.
What makes them well-ordered is the mind;
What makes them calm is the mind.
By means of the mind you store the mind:
Within the mind there is yet another mind.
That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words."
Here we encounter what may be the original protocol for awakening upon which later Taoist practices were based. First, we are encouraged to make ourselves sensitive to the Way that fills the entire world. This leads us to the experience of being released from our strictly human perceptions by identifying with this one word, the Way, so that our own awareness suddenly fills up the entire world along with the Way. This release into a higher awareness is established through a profound calmness of mind that is mirrored in the body's calm. By reverting to this natural state of tranquility and then cultivating it through repetition, we experience the deeper awareness beneath the ordinary consciousness that we have come to think of as "mind."

It is at this point that the really remarkable insight emerges to point us toward the awakened state: The original mind is an awareness that exists before language. Now we see that the early Taoists concentrated on experiencing the all-at-once kind of spatial awareness that exists prior to the linear thinking-in-words, timebound, consciousness of daily life. Nearly a thousand years after the Nei-yeh was written, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, Huineng, would be spontaneously enlightened upon hearing a similar teaching from the later Diamond Sutra: "Enliven your mind without producing a single thought." More than 500 years later, the great Zen teacher, Dogen, would further this teaching: "Think not-thinking."

Taoism is, for all its esoteric roots, a practical philosophy of life, one in which enlightenment is not seen as an end unto itself but, rather, a naturally occurring state of profound harmony with all things that manifests as the purest form of participation in life.

"Those who can transform even a single thing, call them 'numinous';
Those who can alter ever a single situation, call them 'wise.'
But to transform without expending vital energy; to alter without expending wisdom:
Only exemplary persons who hold fast to the One are able to do this.
Hold fast to the One; do not lose it,
And you will be able to master the myriad things.
Exemplary persons act upon things,
And are not acted upon by them,
Because they grasp the guiding principle of the One."
Having awakened to the enlightened state, the sage is one who returns to daily life while maintaining contact with that transcendent awareness. By holding fast to the one Way that fills the entire world, sages are spontaneously and un-self-consciously participating in life as instruments of the Way: like the Tao, they act upon things and are not acted upon by things. They are able to change things for the better without clinging to concepts like "being spiritual" or "being wise." They have grasped the Way of the One and returned to the natural state of uncontrived and unpremeditated benevolence.

As I hinted at in the beginning of this post, Taoism is a wide-ranging tradition with different forms of expression that have multiplied over the millennia. The material presented here is intended to point back to the original teachings of the Tao, in particular its practices of awakening individuals to their full potential. There is no better entry into those original teachings that Harold D. Roth's highly esteemed translation and exposition of the Nei-yeh in his book, Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism.

I had the very great pleasure of interviewing Dr. Roth on my radio show a while back (that file can be downloaded here).

Brief as this overview of the Way of Enlightenment is, it is my hope that it echoes the essential teachings in a way that both those familiar and unfamiliar with the Tao find useful.