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Center for Action and Contemplation

The Way of All Things

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Taoism and Buddhism

The Way of All Things
Sunday, August 19, 2018

The classic Tao Te Ching . . . reveals how both action and contemplation are paths to experiencing harmony, peace, and unity amidst diversity. It exemplifies both the Bodhisattva’s skillful means of being there while getting there, every single step of the way, and the sublime secret that is the inseparability of oneness and noneness. —Lama Surya Das [1]

Continuing our exploration of perennial wisdom traditions, we turn to the ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching. By the time Lao Tzu (or Laozi) wrote his manuscript (2,500 years ago), Tao had been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Translator and annotator Derek Lin writes:

One reason Taoism has such durability is, paradoxically, because of its flexible and inclusive nature. . . . The original conception of Tao [meaning “way”] was simply the observation that reality has a certain way about it. This “way” encompasses all of existence: life, the universe, and everything. . . .

Because of the Tao’s inclusive nature, when Buddhism entered China 1,800 years ago, it found easy acceptance despite its differences from Taoism. A sense of optimism and humor runs throughout the ancient Tao, aptly expressed as “carefree wandering.” Buddhism, on the other hand, saw life as ku hai, the bitter ocean, and focused on suffering. Despite this, Chinese people regarded Buddhist teachings as simply another way to express the Tao. . . .

The ultimate purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to provide us with wisdom and insights that we can apply to life. If we cannot do that, then it doesn’t matter how well we understand the passages. The true Tao must be lived. [2]

Tibetan Buddhist Surya Das writes:

The sublime peace of the Tao [is] something we can all experience by . . . coming into accord with how things actually are—what Tibetan Buddhists call the natural state. Rather than trying to build skyscrapers to reach heaven and bridges to cross the raging river of samsara to reach the so-called other shore of nirvana, we could realize that it all flows right through us right now and there’s nowhere to go, nothing to get, and all is perfect as it is. This deep inner knowing has a lot to do with trust and letting be; there is nirvanic peace in things just as they are.

This should not be misconstrued as a rationalization for mere quietism, cold indifference, passivity, or dropping out. Five hundred years before Jesus, Taoists taught passive resistance, a crucial element of world-changing modern spiritual activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The ancient masters revealed how to be steadfast and supple, like water—flowing rather than fixed, rigid, or static—which is of great benefit, for water is stronger than even stone: water’s constant flow will eventually wear anything down and carry everything away. Like the underlying continuum of reality, the great Tao is groundless and boundless; it is flowing, dynamic, yet unmoved amidst infinite change. “Yield and overcome, and you cannot be broken,” they taught. “Bend and be straight.” These are powerful words, truth spoken to power. Wisdom is as wisdom does. Awakening oneself awakens the whole world. [3]

[1] Lama Surya Das in Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing: 2006), vii.

[2] Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing: 2006), xvii-xviii, xx.

[3] Lama Surya Das in Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching, viii-ix.

Image Credit: Woman Sitting in Front of Monk
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Buddhism can help Christians to be mystical Christians . . . to realize and enter into the non-dualistic, or unitive, heart of Christian experience—a way to be one with the Father, to live Christ’s life, to be not just a container of the Spirit but an embodiment and expression of the Spirit, to live by and with and in the Spirit, to live and move and have our being in God. —Paul Knitter
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