Archive for September, 2010

liberation from the fear of death

September 16, 2010

“Plum Blossom Curve” by Ren Adams

In his 1992 book 365 Tao:  Daily Meditations(p. 57), Deng Ming-Dao writes, “Of all the spiritual traditions, following Tao is among the least popular…many traditions offer heaven, forgiveness, comfort, ecstasy, belonging, power, and wealth.  Tao offers only three things:  sound health, a way through the bewilderment of life, and liberation from the fear of death.”  Fear and horror of death is a powerful, if often avoided, feeling in many of us.  In Helen Liang’s ordeal with cancer, described in the last post, she was able to let go of her fear, even as she was facing what seemed to be imminent death.  By meditating on the Taoist idea that there is no separation between her and the universe, on the idea that she is Tao, there seemed nothing to be frightened of anymore.   From a Taoist perspective, each of us came from Tao, is a manifestation of Tao, and returns to Tao upon death.   In that sense, there is a continuity between the time before life, life itself, and the time after life.  Taoists sometimes say that the life that we are living now is only a dream.  Buddhists speak of “no self,” that is, the idea that our perception of ourselves as separate individuals is not really real.  What do these ideas mean?  From the modern, American perspective, they sound virtually delusional.

Here’s my beginner’s take on this, my work in progress toward understanding the Taoist point of view.  When you adopt the long view and contemplate the immensity of space and time, our separateness as individuals begins to seem less prominent, and you can start to let go of your deep attachment to the importance, the centrality, of yourself as a separate from everything else in the world.  Imagine taking off from a rocket ship from earth, going from the perspective of a small place and time on earth and rising up to the a view of the big, big picture, and looking back at the earth in space.  When you have the long view, then maybe all of our daily worries and conflicts, even our identity as separate from all other beings on earth, doesn’t seem so crucially important anymore.  Yes, each of us is unique and precious, and each of our lives should be cherished.  But part of what makes us each so incredibly valuable is that we are manifestations of Tao, the source of all things, which is infinite in space and time, and does not end upon death, even though our consciousness as a separate individual may end.  At death, we return to the source, in some sense, become the source.

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16, Stephen Mitchell translation, 1988

Here is another translation of the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16:

“Empty yourself of everything.

Let the mind become still.

The ten thousand things rise and fall while the self watches their return.

They grow and flourish and then return to the source.

Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.

The way of nature is unchanging.

Knowing constancy is insight.

Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.

Knowing constancy, the mind is open.

With an open mind, you will be openhearted.

Being openhearted, you will act royally.

Being royal, you will attain the divine.

Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.

Being one with the Tao is eternal.

And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter Sixteen, translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

When Taoists speak of becoming an “immortal,” I don’t think that they mean literally living forever in this life, which is impossible.  Instead, they seem to mean achieving a deep realization of one’s unity with Tao.  Yes, we will all age and die, but during our lives we can cultivate the Tao within ourselves, can become “immersed in the wonder of the Tao” through various means, including meditation, qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, connections with other people, music, art, and immersion in the beauty of nature.  By doing so, we can let go of some of the anguish of the inevitable aging of our bodies, and more fully experience life, and realize our deep connection with—our identity with—the Tao that lasts forever.  This mindset and these practices can keep a youthful well of internal energy in us, even as our bodies age.  In the book Kung Fu:  History, Philosophy and Technique by David Chow and Richard Spangler, in the chapter “Taoist Contribution to Kung Fu,” there is a wonderful picture of the Nei Kung master, Kuo Ling Ying, then 85-years-old, in a standing meditation.  In the caption of the picture, there is a quote from Kuo Ling Ying: “Big moves are not as polished as short moves.  Short moves are not as polished as stillness.”  With his shaved head and traditional Chinese garb, he looks, in some superficial physical sense, like he could be in his eighties.  But his face and posture in the standing meditation seem to radiate an uncanny energy and awareness, an openness to life, a blissfulness, and an inner youthfulness rarely seen even in the young.  Anxiety and fear of death appear to be the farthest things from his mind.  I can only aspire to be that way if I make it to my eighties!

The Taoist view of life and death is beautifully described in the book Taoism:  The Road to Immortality by John Blofeld.  The passage from the book below really has helped me to begin to understand the Taoist views on death, views so different from the typical Western perspective.  Because this is difficult for me to do justice to by summarizing, I chose to include a long quotation from the book below:

“…it is possible to understand what is really involved in cultivation of the Way.  Man’s true nature (Mind as it is called in Ch’an (Zen) terminology) is not the personal possession of the individual; rather, individual existence is the prime illusion to be discarded.  Belonging to none, the Tao is present in all.  Therefore, as Mahayana Buddists are also fond of pointing out, the only difference in this present life between realised immortals and ordinary men is that the former are aware of their underlying identity with the Tao, whereas the latter have not experienced that identity.  Cultivation, then, is a matter of unveiling, peeling off successive layers of delusion, each more subtle than the one before.  It is a process of liberation.  When the final delusion of personal separateness has been cast off, only the physical body (soon to be discarded) remains to be mistaken by the spiritually blind for a personal possession.  By then, death has no meaning, except as a welcome release from bondage to an ageing carcass.  The adept’s real nature—-the nature of all being—cannot possibly be diminished by the loss of an identity that has had no reality from the first.  When clouds obscure the sun, its orb is not diminished; when they are blown away, its brightness is not augmented; the sun is always as it is, whether visible to the eye or not.  Thus nothing starts with birth or ends with death; the real is there all the time.  However, to understand this intellectually is not enough; it must become a direct perception.  To this end, the would-be immortal (goal-winner) follows a regime set forth very simply some two thousand years ago in a work of the Han dynasty:

‘Taking good care of his human body, perfecting within himself his endowment of the Real, cleansing will and thought, not straying into the paths of ordinary mortals, his mind and senses utterly serene, impervious to the effects of every sort of ill, welcoming life and death as parts of a seamless unity and therefore not clinging to the one or anxious about the other, free from every kind of anxiety and fear, roaming the world imperturbably at ease, he attains the Way.’

“How marvelous to wander through the world ‘imperturbably at ease,’ no matter where one goes or what circumstances arise!  No wonder the poems of the mountain-dwelling recluses are full of joy!  With this philosophy they were able to welcome life’s lovely scents and colours as gifts to be enjoyed from moment to moment, never regretting their transience or their passing, with never a twinge of anxiety or fear.  Where even the prospect of sudden, imminent death has no power to disturb, much less appall, one’s feeling of security is as absolute as that of a child in its mother’s arms!”

–John Blofeld, Taoism:  The Road to Immortality, 1985, pp. 161-162

To relax, to ease up on the excessive striving and anxieties, to “try on” the mindset of “roaming the world imperturbably at ease,” to perceive the Tao inside of oneself and in others, to let go of the fear of death…these are steps towards attaining the Way.

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