Why I Am a UU Taoist

Rev. Don Beaudreault
First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist
November 29, 2015

Opening Words: “Existence is…”

Existence is beyond the power of words
To define:
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.

Lao Tzu, from The Way of Life – translated by Witter Bynner

“What is bountiful?” the ancients asked. True bounty was not the treasury of the emperor, but the generosity of the earth. The golden hills provided home, country, belonging. The rich, black, fertile-smelling soil gave grain, vegetables, and fruit. The blue-shadowed mountains gave shelter from wind and storm. And the seemingly endless plains and deserts provided ample room for exploration and adventure. Why worry about the abstruse, the ancients asked, when everything we require has already been given to us?

If you want to follow Tao, the ancients said, first understand the perfection of heaven and earth. Wind, rain, and sun come to us through the sky. The earth gives us our home, our nourishment, jewels for our adornment, minerals for our use, places for travel. As the old saying goes, “Why look far away for what is close at hand?” You, like the young students of the ancients, may want to study Tao. Doing so may be as simple as bending down to pick up a clump of earth.

So many of us look and look for Tao. The masters, it seems, are still pointing one hand to the sky and the other to the earth.
Deng Ming-Dao, from Everyday Tao
Sermon: “Why I Am a UU Taoist”

Documents containing the essence of Taoist teachings can be dated to 5,000 B.C.E. So as we approach the subject, we must me aware of this vast and varied tradition out of which many spiritual practices sprang.

One of these traditions is what our world-religion scholar Huston Smith calls “Esoteric Taoism,” a version of which evolved into Zen Buddhism of Japan.

Let us begin, then, with an image from the Zen tradition, as articulated by that great scholar, D.T. Suzuki who, in answering the Zen koan (or question) “Does a dog have the Buddha nature?” answers in the affirmative with:

Let us observe the dog and see how it devours its food. When he is hungry and smells something to eat he goes right to it and finishes it in no time…When finished he goes away. No saying, “Thank you.” He has asserted his natural rights, no more, no less, and he has nothing further to worry about – not only about his being but also about the entire world around him. He is perfect. The idea of sin is an altogether unnecessary blemish, whether intellectual, moral or spiritual, on his being what he is. He comes directly from God. He might declare: “I alone am the most honored one on earth.” In truth, he does not require any such “ego-centered” statement. It is enough for him just to bark and run away from any sin-conscious human beings who try to do harm to this “innocent” creature still fresh from the Garden of Eden. (Zen and Parapsychology, D. T. Suzuki)

So then, the dog illustrates nature. He is neither good nor bad. He does what he, as part of nature, is supposed to do; he is what he is supposed to be. He is of the earth.

As are we.

Saying this, we then are affirming the basic thought of Lao Tsu, who according to legends was born in China in 604 B.C. Said he of the supreme virtue:

Giving birth and nourishing, having without possessing, acting with no expectations, leading and not trying to control. (Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell)

In effect, we can look at Taoism in this way: as an approach to living which is based upon our being creations of nature.

And being aware of this, our true nature, Lao Tsu urges us:

Be humble; you will remain yourself. Be flexible, bend, and you will be straight. Be ever receptive and you will be satisfied. Become tired and weary and you will be renewed. Have little, you will have enough; to have abundance is to be troubled. (The Book of Tao, translated by Frank J. MacHovec)

In other words, the opposites – which are the determinants of our nature – are forever moving toward, then away from each other; blending, separating, but truly not opposite at all, but joined. The Yin-Yang – the paradox of nature, and of ourselves as an aspect of nature – illustrates that the opposites are really a unity.

So that to attempt to change this interlacing dance of opposites – to control the movement – leads to disharmony.

A description of China’s ancient society tells of a time when life was lived most naturally, without the rules and regulations, the titles and the honors. It was a time when life simply was. According to Thomas Merton’s translation of The Way of Chuang Tzu:

In the age when life on earth was full, no one paid any special attention to worthy men…they were honest and righteous without realizing that they were “doing their duty.” They loved each other and did not know that this was “love of neighbor.” They deceived no one yet they did not know that they were “men to be trusted.” They were reliable and did not know that this was “good faith.” They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know that they were generous. For this reason their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history.

Is this not a far cry from how we live today?

Taoist teaching would have us go beneath the surface of who we think we are, to get to the essence of self – and to understand that we are nature; we are the earth. We are of the Tao. We are the blend, the unity of opposites. Still:

The Tao described in words is not the real Tao. Words cannot describe it. Nameless it is the source of creation; named it is the mother of all things. (MacHovec)

Existence is beyond the power of words to define:
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute. (Bynner)

Now this might sound very abstract, but Taoist teaching has a wonderfully poetic way of connecting the abstract with the concrete – or, said in another way – heaven with earth.

For us this means that by following the Tao, the “Way” – by attempting to follow our true nature, by living on the earth in respect to all other aspects of nature – we are then living according to the principles of the universe.

In other words, Taoism is not a metaphysical approach to life. There is no body-spirit dualism. It is a practical approach to existence – and stops in attempting to explain higher purposes. It deals with the here and now in relationship to our lives.

In this blending of opposites, it values differences. There is value and dignity in each entity, for each is part of the whole. Each is connected to the other.

In knowing this, then, Taoism asks us to be not just respectful of life, but to hold reverence toward it.

Sounds like the ideal of Unitarian Universalism to me!

In reverencing life as part of nature, Taoism tells us to respect, not fear death. Both life and death are perceived as part of all creation and its ever-changing nature.

Another aspect of Taoism is its focus on community.

In understanding one’s relationship with the community, it is important to accept the idea that everything is a microcosm of the universe. So the self and society are really the same thing. Taoism seeks to balance the self in its dealings with the community and expects the community to do the same in relationship to the individual selves of that community.

Again, the emphasis is on simplicity; on doing what is natural, as an individual, or as a community:

And Taoism stressed the ethical commitment of the individual – and his/her accountability – to the community – and trusted the individual to do this.

Another aspect of community was religion – but Taoism is not a “religion” if we mean a way that includes ritualistic practices and a leader. It is a way which speaks of individual and societal ethics without ritualistic trappings:

When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend upon authority. Therefore the Master steps back so that people won’t be confused. He teaches without a teaching, so that people will have nothing to learn…. (Mitchell)

Hearing this from Lao Tzu, I think at this point I can best serve your purposes in your spiritual enlightenment by heeding the master’s words – therefore, at this time I do most humbly step back, so that you “won’t be confused” by me any longer.

But before I do, let me say one more thing:

Let us now receive our morning offering!
Closing Words: “There is no need…”

There is no need to run outside for better seeing,
Nor to peer from a window. Rather abide at the center of your being;
For the more you leave it, the less you learn.
Search your heart and see if he is wise who takes each turn:
The way to do is to be.

Lao Tsu, from The Way of Life – translated by Witter Bynner