Taoism, That which cannot be named


Welcome everyone to Sengoku Japan! Thank you for joining us here today. You can get a copy of the notes from the poster behind me, and if you feel so inclined please consider leaving a donation using the flower vase beside that.

Today we are going to discuss that which cannot be discussed – the Tao.

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching, the most comprehensive text on the Tao by Lao Tzu, reads:

“A way that can be walked
is not The way,
A name that can be named
is not The Name

Tao is both Named and Nameless
As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things

A mind free of thought,
merged within itself,
beholds the essence of Tao
A mind filled with thought,
identified with its own perceptions,
beholds the mere forms of this world

Tao and this world seem different
but in truth they are one and the same
The only difference is in what we call them

How deep and mysterious is this unity
How profound, how great!
It is the truth beyond the truth,
the hidden within the hidden
It is the path to all wonder,
the gate to the essence of everything!”

What this is saying, among various other interpretations, is that all of our experiences, including language, are merely a sign pointing to a non-conceptual ultimate reality. It is important to not focus on these sign posts but to focus instead on the ultimate reality (Tao) to experience it clearly.

So what is “Tao”? It’s literally translated to “way,” “path,” or “principle.” It is the underlying ultimate reality to all that is.

There’s a quote from “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff that explains it well:

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.

“What’s that?” the Unbeliever asked.
“Wisdom from a Western Taoist,” I said.
“It sounds like something from Winnie-the-Pooh,” he said.
“It is,” I said.
“That’s not about Taoism,” he said.
“Oh, yes it is,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said.
“What do you think it’s about?” I said.
“It’s about this dumpy little bear that wanders around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures, without ever accumulating any amount of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness. That’s what it’s about,” he said.
“Same thing,” I said.

As this tradition comes from Chinese philosophy which is steeped in the concept of yin and yang, or opposites coming together to form Truth or Reality. They are not necessarily two different things, but rather opposite and complementary qualities of the same basic Reality.

Within this philosophy is the concept of Wu. This is translated as “nothingness,” “emptiness,” or “non-existence.”

Verse 11 of the Tao speaks of this as:

“Thirty spokes of a wheel all join at a common hub
yet only the hole at the centre
allows the wheel to spin
Clay is moulded to form a cup
yet only the space within
allows the cup to hold water
Walls are joined to make a room
yet only by cutting out a door and a window
can one enter the room and live there

Thus, when a thing has existence alone
it is mere dead-weight
Only when it has wu, does it have life.”

Juxtaposed to this is the concept of Yu. These represent being and non-being. There are many philosophers who believe that Wu can be directly experienced by humans in certain forms, though I tend to prefer the idea that both are existent in all things, and one can perhaps not exist without the other.

Building from this is the concept of Wu Wei, or “actionless action.” Contrary to popular thought, this does not mean inaction or lack of action, but rather going along with the natural flow of things, acting in spontaneity and not obstructing the natural Tao.

The most common quote in the Tao Te Ching about this is as follows:
“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

The last verse of the Tao, Verse 81, read as follows:

“Words born of the mind are not true
True words are not born of the mind

Those who have virtue do not look for faults
Those who look for faults have no virtue

Those who come to know It
do not rely on learning
Those who rely on learning
do not come to know It
*
The Sage sees the world
as an expansing of his own self
So what need has he to accumulate things?
By giving to others
he gains more and more
By serving others
he receives everything
*
Heaven gives,
and all things turn out for the best
The Sage lives,
and all things go as Tao goes
all things move as the wind blows”

This can be a lot to take in. Some people will follow the Tao for their entire lives and not necessarily understand. But, any comprehension is beyond language, study, and even maybe experience. It’s said to be a kind of dropping away into nothingness, while still being fully here.

This makes it difficult to discuss, but let’s try anyway. What do you think about this? How does it relate to your own experience of the world?

I open the floor.

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Yūgen, Profound Grace


Yūgen, Profound Grace

This term was first found in Chinese texts (as much of Japanese philosophy tends to be) and was later evolved into a more solid concept in Japanese aesthetics (the nature of art, beauty and taste; sometimes the study of sensory and/or emotional values). Yūgen originally meant “dim,” “deep,” “dark” or “mysterious.”

A famous poet, Kamo no Chōmei (1212), wrote about yūgen in this way: “It is like an autumn evening under a colourless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Another description is by Hume: “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly.”

It can also be described as “an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.”

This concept has been used in various types of poetry over the years including waka poetry and it’s own form known simply as yūgen. It has been used in Noh theatre (traditional Japanese theatre) and dramatic theory (Kadensho). To attain yūgen, or profound grace, in the arts takes many years of dedicated practice. It is a sort of highly refined culture or way of being or relating in and to the world. When acquired, one has a sense of “higher naturalness,” with a sense of something even perhaps supernatural.

However, as abstract as speaking of things beyond semantics may be, yūgen does not refer to another world or plane of existence, but rather it is about experience in this world, namely the mysterious beauty of the universe and the juxtaposed sad beauty of human suffering.
I’d like to break down these two concepts. In art we are exploring yūgen through the abstract methods of music, painting, poetry, drama, etc. We are always hinting at something which cannot be named, expressing feelings and sensations, thoughts, wonder, even awe. But beyond all that is a sense of lack of fulfillment. It is argued that we require art to fulfill some sort of longing or absence which cannot be filled with non-abstract things. We all know there are deeper meaning to things than may first appear. We’ve all heard the saying “do not judge a book by its cover.” The way things appear may not be the way things truly are.
In juxtaposition of this, we have this concept of the sad beauty of human suffering.

This relates to the Buddhist idea of samsara, or cycle of birth, life, and death. In this philosophy, suffering is not a necessary human condition, but one which is meant to be transcended. The Buddhist doctrine of experience as an expression of dharma was an emerging idea in Japan when the concept of yūgen was being developed. This holds to the idea that all phenomenal worldly experiences are fundamentally expressions of Buddhist law, which inherently implies that all experiences can be a means to enlightenment (ceasing of suffering) which ends the cycle of samsara through specific realization or awakening to truth.

There are two schools of Buddhism which emerged in this time. The first was Tendai, a school of Mahayana Buddhism, which claims that each and every sense phenomenon, when realized to be ‘just as it is’ is a means to enlightenment which is intrinsic in all things. The second is the school of Shingon, a school of Vajrayana Buddhism, which believes that through the help of a genuine teacher and through training the Three Mysteries (body, speech, and mind) we can recognize the Buddha-nature, or enlightenment, which is already existent within each one of us, for the benefit of ourselves as well as others.

These both come back to the idea of yūgen as they work with both the inner worlds and outer worlds of deeper meaning or purpose. If you’ve ever experienced a tea ceremony or geisha dance, you have perhaps experienced a bit of yūgen in expression. Yūgen is both the subtle and the profound. It values the power to evoke rather than the ability to state directly, and perhaps expresses that which cannot be stated or experienced directly.

“Cannot the beauty of Grace be compared to the image of a swan holding a flower in its bill, I wonder?”

It is through these poetic experiences, the philosophers argue, which we tap into something perhaps greater than ourselves. It evokes a sense of humility and humbleness. A sense of unity, maybe. It can manifest in grace within us and also the inherent grace of nature. Beauty in itself is controversial and relative, but perhaps yūgen is more closely related to an essence.

Were they on to something? What do you think? I open the floor.

Buddhism on “Do Humans Exist”?


Buddhism on “Do Humans Exist”?

True emptiness is that which transcends all things
and yet is imminent in all.

Thomas Merton

One of the most controversial ideas in Buddhism is the idea of emptiness. This is the idea that everything is empty of inherent essence. Meaning, there is nothing that is part of who I am that is different than the things that are part of you. There is nothing constant that defines us as individuals. This leads to the next idea, that everything is impermanent and forever changing. This is proven by modern science with things like particle decay and our bodies replacing themselves completely every seven years or so (no cell in our body is the same as seven years ago). So, having an essence would apply to something like the Western idea of soul or spirit, the “us” that inhabits our bodies. The Buddhists believe that there is no such thing.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu over on Tricycle Online, summed it up nicely as far as experience goes: “Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them.”

The idea of emptiness necessitates the idea of interdependence, meaning nothing can exist on it’s own. That everything and everyone depends upon everyone else for it’s existence.

How is it, then, that we are reborn? If there is no part of us that carries on after we die, what is reincarnating?

This very idea has birthed many schools of Buddhism over the years, none of which have a perfect answer that can be agreed upon by everyone else. BUT, I will try to break this down for you. Karma is a creative force which has been around since the beginning of all things. It is the cause and effect principle, where every effect had a cause, and every cause had an effect. This also relates to he idea of interdependence.

Now, Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha we all know and love, never tried to answer metaphysical questions such as “what was the original cause?” So, we won’t get in to that as we are strictly looking into the present and future. As individuals, we generate karma, and have for many past lives. Every single moment has the potential for everything. We make a decision in every single moment of our lives. Since we know that every cause has an effect, we can understand how many effects have to play out from even just the time we’ve spent reading this! Because it would be impossible for all these effects to play out in one life time they continue to happen for many lifetimes to come. So, the aim of some buddhists is to create as few effects as possible so they don’t have to be reborn. (As being reborn is a continuation of samsara, or cycles of suffering, as all life brings with it suffering…a different topic all together.)

In a perhaps more logical sense, then, it isn’t a soul that is acquiring a new body, but rather a process of causes and effects that are continuing to cycle through all of time on a particular wave length. So, if all we are is a cycle of cause and effect, and there is no essence within us, do we really exist? For that matter, does anything really exist?

I open the floor.

Confucius on What Makes us Human


Confucianism and What Makes us Human

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
-Confucius

Confucianism is attributed to a man named Kong Qiu (K’ung Ch’iu) who was later named Confucius by latin interpreters, who lived 552 BCE – 479 BCE. He believed he held the ideas that would create an ideal world, but considered himself a failure as in his lifetime he was not well known. He travelled between provinces in China with a group of students who would later become important government officials.

The main ideas he put forward were mercy, social order, and fulfillment of responsibilities.

http://confucianism.freehostingguru.com lays out the ethics and morals with their Chinese titles:

“Li: includes ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc.
Hsiao: love within the family: love of parents for their children and of children for their parents
Yi: righteousness
Xin: honesty and trustworthiness
Jen: benevolence, humaneness towards others; the highest Confucian virtue
Chung: loyalty to the state, etc.”

The central principle is voiced by Confucius when he says, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” (sound familiar…?)

The social aspect is considered more important than the personal aspect as each individual has a certain place within the social realm that includes responsibilities that they must uphold. This includes respecting your elders (teachers, parents, older siblings, etc.) as well as upholding your duty within your family dynamic, work dynamic, and political/social dynamic.

However, Confucius also taught that we should learn from the people around us (be attentive), and honor other’s cultural norms.

There is a system laid out called “Li” which reinforces certain rules of interaction. This emphasizes a control of emotions, restraint, obedience to authority, conformity and how you present yourself (“face”). But, the strict guidelines of unquestioning obedience and hierarchy of authority we associate with him today weren’t introduced by Confucius himself, rather they were added later by authoritarian sources.

According to Confucianism, only through engaging with society and playing your role will you excel on a personal level. They consider three conditions of being human: the self, community, and tradition.

“The fundamental concern of the Confucian tradition is learning to be human.” –Tu Wei-ming.

There are considered three aspects of being human:
1. Cheng – inactivity, stillness, authenticity. Could be linked to our true Self.
2. Shen – spirituality (interesting here that in traditional Chinese medicine there are the five Shen which make up the psyche…) This could be linked to our ability to concieve of a larger existence (macro vs. micro)
3. Chi – the energy which allows transformation and desicion making, ultimately driving a person to conduct good or bad acts. The energy which makes up all activities of our bodies and minds.

What determines whether an act is good or bad? According to Confucius, the community. Through politics, collective memory, ritual, and our responses to the world, we cannot escape the necesity for interdependence. Therefore, mainting peace was of utmost importance.

Do you think it is important to have ethics and morals? Do they define us as human beings? Does our ability to interact with others determine our humaneness?

What are your thoughts? I open the floor.

Welcome back from Summer & A Short History of Japanese Philosophy


Well, it has been a beautifully long and busy summer, and in all of it I seem to have neglected posting my discussion notes. So, over the next few days you will get a few updates! This first post was not used for intro notes, but rather a guideline to some of the topics we’re discussing at the 5pmSLT Sunday meetings on Sengoku.


 

Japanese Philosophy

In the West we typically approach philosophy from finding the space between a set of opposites – for instance mind and matter, or self and other. In the Japanese traditions, rather, they try to find where these philosophies overlap, essentially negating that anything is separate from anything else, but rather everything is a process of apparent opposites.

Before 7th Century CE – Yamato Period
⁃ Shintoism, a native form of animism that addressed an essence within each of us and in every living thing known as “kami,” which governed the world.
⁃ respect for animals, weather, nature, and ancestors.

7th-9th Centuries CE – Asuka and Nara Periods
⁃ Confucianism and Buddhism imported from Korea and China.
⁃ “Confusianism addressed the “social self,” influencing government structure and patterns of formal behaviour.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ Buddhism focused on the workings of the inner self. The most common ideas in Buddhism are impermanence, emptiness, dependent co-origination, and the impermanence of the self.
⁃ Shotoku Taishi, the then crown prince, declared in the “Seventeen Article Constitution” (604 CE) that the goal of “philosophy as well as government was harmony, rather than competition or separation, between the traditions.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ Buddhism and Confusianism came together to allow the people to view the universe as a constantly fluctuating process, and acquire an understanding of the self as “interdependent with the social and natural worlds.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)

9th-12th Centuries CE – Heian Period
⁃ Kūkai (774-835) and Saichō (767-822) were two primary thinkers of this period. They influenced the Shingon and Tendai Buddhist schools. The main ideas they brought about were of every phenomenon as an expression of the cosmos (macro mirrored in micro) and that enlightenment, a goal of Buddhist practitioners, was not able to be attained as a concept but “was an act of the full complex of mind, body, and spirit as transformed through ritual practice.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ It was in this period that the miyabi (elegance) and (okashi) charming aesthetic themes emerged.
⁃ The philosophical ideas of impermanence (mujō) and deep ontological being or mystery (yōgen), poignancy (mono no aware) and sensitivity (ushin) were further developed.

12th-16th Centuries CE – Kamakura Period
⁃ Samurai class takes over the court life seen in the classical period, turning people to search for a religious philosophy which would lead to peaceful everyday life rather than big-picture answers. Buddhist schools such as Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren were established.
⁃ Thinkers of this time were Hōnen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1263), Dōgen (1200–53), and Nichiren (1222–82).
⁃ Hōnen and Shinran each founded a school of Pure Land Buddhism which focuses on faith in Amida Buddha, “the buddha of light who promises rebirth in the Pure Land to the faithful.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy) They critiqued the idea of self as an isolated ego.
⁃ Dōgen was a main figure in Zen Buddhism, known for his ideas of the self and consciousness, with a focus on zazen, a particular form of seated meditation. Zazen was developed not as a means to enlightenment but as a form of discipline as an end in itself.
⁃ Nichiren focused on the Lotus Sutra and its ideal of the bodhisattva.
⁃ The native Shintō ideas and practices were absorbed into the Buddhist traditions during this period.

17th-19th Centuries CE – Edo and Tokugawa Periods
⁃ Confucian ideas reemerged to encourage peace and stability, unifying the state to political centrality.
⁃ Bushidō, the Code of the Warrior, emerged. This code expressed ideals of loyalty, stoic self-control, and personal virtue. These are in line with, respectively, “Confucian propriety, Buddhist self-discipline, and Shintō purity of heart.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ There are two main groups of Confucian thinkers:
⁃ First are those who emerged from the neo-Confucian philosophies of Zhu Xi (Shushi; 1130-1200), Wang Yangming (Ōyōmei; 1472-1529), Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and Nakae Tōju (1608-48). This group had some members who thought that the neo-Confucian philosophy was too abstract when detailing ri (metaphysical principle) was the structuring force of the universe – they emphasized that qi (vital force) was the main structuring force of the universe.
⁃ The next group was the school focused on the “traditional” ideas of Confucianism as presented by Confucius, which emphasized a less metaphysical view and was more concerned with the functioning of everyday lives than answering the greater picture. This school is known as the kogaku school.
⁃ During this period, a school of thought known as kokugaku emerged which held the idea of returning to the original “ancient ways” of Shintōism. They wanted to renew the ideas of mono no aware – a sensitivity to or sympathy for the things that constitute the world.

19th-Current Centuries CE – Taisho and Heisei Periods
⁃ A new word was coined during this period that was meant to be a direct translation of the English term “philosophy” – testugaku, comprised of wisdom (tetsu) and learning (gaku).
⁃ Here is when the Western constructs started to influence Japanese philosophers. The first major Japanese philosopher to use the Western style of philosophy was Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945) in his “An Inquiry into the Good” (1911). He introduced a philosophy he called “Nothingness” (mu), which fuzed the ideas of Zen and William James to come to an idea of “pure experience” based on experiential and logical experiences of judgement and action. His ideas inspired the Kyōto school of philosophy which explored the differences and similarities of Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions.
⁃ Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) explored the idea of Nothingness and brought the ideas of Martin Heidegger (who he studied under), which was already arguably similar to Japanese ideas of being and existence.
⁃ Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960) disagreed with the ideas of Western individualism as well as Confucian collectivism, and instead posited an ethical idea of “betweenness,” as if each individual exists on a sliding scale of “individual freedom and socially imposed norms.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy).
⁃ Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962) also found a sliding scale between the universal and particular ideas, feeling that the schools of either ignore the fact of specific species. For instance, the respective schools would emphasize a person’s universal human nature or atomistic individuality. What Tanabe introduced was the idea of a person as an ethnic, national and cultural being, having an individual role as well as a universal role.
⁃ Some modern philosophers that have stuck to the traditional philosophies are Tamaki Kōshirō (1915-1999) and Nakamura Hajime (1911-1999) who follow a Buddhist tradition. Some others, such as Yuasa Yasuo (1925-2005) and Ueda Shizuteru (1926-current) focus on integrating ideas to establish a universal or global perspective rather than monocultural.