Archive for April, 2010


April 30, 2010

The Tai Chi Chuan that I’ve been studying is Yang Style from the Cheng Man Ching lineage.  My teacher studied Tai Chi Chuan with Ben Lo of San Francisco, Dr. Tao Ping-siang of Seattle, William C. C. Chen of New York, and Maggie Newman of New York, all of whom were students of Cheng Man Ching.  Recently I’ve been looking through a website on Cheng Man Ching that has some great articles in it:  I especially recommend reading one entitled “The Power of Yielding:  Getting it Done by Not Doing It” by Fred Lehrman, who was a senior student of Cheng Man Ching for 9 years.  This article beautifully expresses some of the principles of Taoism and Tai Chi that I’ve been gradually beginning to explore, experience, and try to express in my blog:


©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


becoming Tao: the flow of creating

April 24, 2010

“Plum Flow” by Ren Adams

As I mentioned in my last post, it seems to me that becoming immersed in creative work is a way to become attuned to the Tao, and to mirror the Tao.  After all, the Tao is thought to be the ultimate creator of all things.  “The Tao gives birth to all beings…” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 51, Stephen Mitchell translation).  During immersion in creative work, one can reach a state of mind in which one feels suspended in time, with a heightened sense of awareness of the present moment, and with an unusual mixture of calmness and euphoria.  During this state, one can be surprisingly productive without striving (see my earlier post “non-striving”).  A New York Times article by Daniel Goleman from 1992 describes this flow state in an artist, Gregory Gillespie:

“Consider the artist Gregory Gillespie in his studio in a meadow near Amherst, Mass…At times like this, when he contemplates the intricacies of composition or is rapt, putting brush to canvas, Mr. Gillepsie says he feels “super-alert.”  Time dissolves, and a day passes like an hour.

“That elastic sense of time—vanishing into a kind of hyperspeed or crystallizing into a stop-frame slow motion—is a mark of what psychologists call the ‘flow’ state, an altered awareness found in people performing at their peak….flow is …the thrill that motivates artists to keep at it year after year.

“…when he began he was willing to live in near-poverty rather than work a full-time job so he would have time to paint.  ‘I loved it,’ says the artist…’I felt painting was the greatest job I could have, even though I wasn’t making a cent from it.’

“’Painters must want to paint above all else,’ says Professor Csikzentmihalyi.  ‘If the artist in front of the canvas begins to wonder how much he will sell it for, or what the critics will think, he won’t be able to pursue original avenues.  Creative achievements depend on single-minded immersion.’”

–Daniel Goleman, “Pondering the Riddle of Creativity,” New York Times, March 22, 1992

In this flow state of creating, one lets go, not only of striving, but also of self-consciousness—one forgets about oneself.  It reminds me of the description from the Tai Chi Classics of the state one should reach during Tai Chi Chuan practice:

“It is best to forget your own existence…Your entire body should be transparent and empty.”
–Waysun Liao, Tai Chi Classics, 1990, p. 126

The modern psychological description of the flow state of the artist Gregory Gillespie, quoted above, is remarkably reminiscent of a much older story of Ch’ing, the master wood carver, that was told by the Taoist, Chuang-tzu, during the 4th century B.C.E.:

“ Whenever I begin to carve… I concentrate my mind.  After three days of meditating, I no longer have any thoughts of praise or blame.  After five days, I no longer have any thoughts of success or failure.  After seven days, I’m not identified with a body.  All my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions… Thus I harmonize inner and outer.”

–Chuang-tzu, quoted in Stephen Mitchell “The Second Book of the Tao,” Penguin Books, 2010, Chapter 46, p. 92

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

becoming Tao: awe of the nighttime sky

April 17, 2010

“Everything in the Universe is One Essence” by Ren Adams

As I wrote in my post non-striving, Taoists do not strive for large amounts of money, power over others, status, or prestige.  Instead, what they seek is something completely different:  to reach a state of attunement with the Tao, to be in harmony with the Tao—ultimately, to become Tao.   But what does this mean?  For starters, what, exactly, is the Tao?  That’s a hard question to answer adequately in words, as the Tao Te Ching states in its first lines:

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.”

–Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

Despite the inadequacy of words to fully convey it, the Tao has been described as eternal, infinite, serene, always present, “empty yet inexhaustible” (Chapter 6, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell), invisible, ungraspable, the source of the universe and everything the universe encompasses.  All beings, animate and inanimate, including ourselves, come from Tao, and are manifestations of Tao.  And all beings, including ourselves upon death, return to Tao.  A way one could think of the Tao is as Nature in the broadest sense, i.e. the universe or cosmos as a whole.

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.  Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.  We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

–Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” 1980, Random House, p. 4

But the Tao Te Ching describes the Tao as even older than the cosmos itself.  As Stephen Hawking has written, the universe is thought to have begun with the big bang, and scientists are trying to understand what existed before the big bang…a state of singularity, before there was space or time.  The Tao encompasses even that “pre-big bang” state.

“Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.”

–Chapter 21, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

How can one know this is true by looking inside oneself?  Because, to the best of my understanding, we all are part of Tao and have Tao within us, and have the potential to become aware of the flow of Tao and to cultivate an attunement to it.

“Lao-tzu’s central figure is a man or woman whose life is in perfect harmony with the way things are.  This is not an idea; it is a reality; I have seen it.  The Master has mastered Nature; not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming it.”

–from Stephen Mitchell’s Forward to his translation of Tao Te Ching, 1988

Although I can’t say that I have ever approached a fraction of this state of attunement to the Tao, I feel that I’ve had brief glimpses of it during certain types of experiences, such as immersion in a sense of awe at the mysterious beauty and power of nature, in the aesthetics of a work of art, in carrying out creative work, in closely listening and interacting with others, or in momentary meditative states.  During such experiences, one’s worries about the past or future and any anxious self-consciousness can melt away, and one can feel suspended in time, with a heightened sense of awareness of the present moment, and with an unusual mixture of calmness and euphoria.

One experience like this from my own life occurred many years ago, while participating in a nighttime sky watch led by a very knowledgeable and articulate Park Ranger at the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  Standing on a rocky spot overlooking the darkened Canyon at night, with the wide open, panoramic sky perfectly clear above us, unobscured by any clouds or air/light pollution, I could see far more stars than I had ever seen in my life.  The sky was indescribably full of stars, almost like tiny bits of snow densely sprinkled throughout the vast sky.  The Park Ranger pointed out a portion of the sky that was especially densely glittering with stars, which was our Milky Way galaxy.  She pointed out multiple planets in our solar system, which we could see very clearly.   She pointed out several “shooting stars,” meteors entering and burning up in our atmosphere.  And she talked about the immense sweep of time that we could perceive in this view, since many of the stars we saw were millions of light years away, and many had already likely died, perhaps a million years ago, although the light from them was just reaching us now.   It was all so crystal clear and vivid in the sky, that it felt surreal.  And, even in the darkness, we could sense the Canyon below us.  And in that moment of awe, I had a feeling of the immensity of the universe and a feeling of being part of it and connected to it that I had never quite had before.  In that moment, although I wouldn’t have used these words at the time, I felt an attunement to the Tao that I had never quite experienced before.

This experience of attunement with Tao does not have to be in contemplation of the immensity of the cosmos.  Sometimes this occurs during attunement to a work of art, to what is within ourselves, or to other people.  In my next posts, I will describe some other experiences like those.


©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


April 9, 2010

“Moonlight Bamboo” by Ren Adams

In several previous posts, I’ve mentioned my interest in the martial art, Tai Chi Chuan.  But this interest doesn’t mean that I’m a fan of fighting or violence.  Tai Chi Chuan, which is one among many styles of Kung Fu, was not invented for the purpose of starting fights at all.  Rather, much of Kung Fu, including Tai Chi Chuan, was developed by Chinese Taoist and Buddist monks as a way of keeping the peace, stopping fights, and defending themselves, since these monks were subject to repeated harassment and attacks by outside forces.  Rather than being developed to hurt or kill others, Tai Chi was developed to understand and preserve life, and to enhance the health of the practitioner.

“King Fu was not an art developed to perpetrate violence.  It was designed to be responsive to outside or hostile forces only when necessary, i.e. when the serenity of nature was violated…Kung Fu should be used only to preserve the natural flow of life, to avoid, divert, [or] neutralize … any destructive force….T’ai Chi Ch’uan was not created for the purpose of fighting.  It was aimed at preserving and prolonging life”

–David Chow and Richard Spangler, Kung Fu:  History, Philosophy, and Technique, 1982, p. 19-24

Ping-Siang Tao, the teacher of my Yang style Tai Chi Chuan teacher, notes the true meaning of martial arts in his book, Taiji Push Hands:  The Secret of Qi in Taiji Quan:

“The primary purpose of Chinese martial arts is to improve one’s health and protect oneself—not to show off, or to conquer others.  The Chinese character ‘wu’, ‘martial’, has two parts:  one meaning ‘stop’ and the other meaning ‘weapons’.  Now, weapons stand for war.  So the basic meaning of ‘martial’ is ‘that which stops war’.  This idea of stopping conflict is actually the core original intent of the martial arts.”

–Ping-Siang Tao, Taiji Push Hands:  The Secret of Qi in Taiji Quan, 2007, Blue Mountain Feng Shui Institute, pp. 147-148

In contrast to this Tai Chi philosophy, the degree to which our society glorifies and glamorizes violence and weapons disturbs me.  On the one hand, the media decry the high level of violence in our society, and the degree to which violence is considered cool or chic.   But on the other hand, Hollywood and the video game industry continue to reap tremendous profits by making violence seem fun and glamorous.   Movies and TV are, of course, full of violence, to a mind-numbing and desensitizing extent.  Meanwhile, our country is awash in guns and other weapons.  Recently, I heard a story on the radio about a U.S. Army video game–an extremely realistic combat simulation game–that was designed as a recruiting tool, and is freely available to the public on the internet.  This video game is now the Army’s most effective recruiting tool by far and has also become very popular among the public as a source of fun and entertainment.  A new term has been coined for this strange fusion of violent military combat simulation and entertainment—“milatainment.”  The tremendous popularity of milatainment is disturbing, and seems to me to be a sign of something very unhealthy in our culture.  It’s not that I have something against the military per se.   I see the need to have a military, primarily for defensive and security purposes, and the need to recruit good people into the military.  I generally respect members of the military for their service to the country, and for the sacrifices they make.  But I don’t see the necessity of glamorizing the killing, and mixing killing with fun and entertainment.  Isn’t history filled with repeated examples of young people going off to war, expecting opportunities for glory, only to discover war to be a hell beyond anything they could have imagined?  And do we really need all of these easily available guns in our country?  Taoists and practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan value life, health, and peace above all else.  They would prefer to never use their martial arts skills in a real fight, and would only do so with restraint, in an effort to restore peace.  If compelled to enter a fight or military conflict, they approach it with the sense of restraint and gravity that it deserves.  Taoists don’t view weapons as toys, or killing, or even pretending to kill, as any sort of entertainment.

“Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.”

–Chapter 31, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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