The Taoist Druid

I walked into a bookshop and looked at the religion and spirituality section, and there before me were two scriptures from the East: the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, so I bought them and read them. Out of the two the Tao Te Ching spoke to me the most, and I soon became enthusiastic about its philosophy.

One allegorical painting, The Vinegar Tasters, depicts China’s three main philosophies and their reactions to life: Confusianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucius, the Buddha and Lao-Tzu are standing around a vinegar pot and they have each stuck their finger in the pot, taken a taste and are left with different expressions on their faces. Confucius has a sour look, seeing life as out of harmony with Heaven and thus needing the proper rules and institutions to regulate it. The Buddha has a bitter look, seeing life as something we suffer (First Noble Truth: “Life is suffering”) and from which we should seek liberation. Lao-Tzu has a happy look because he realised that vinegar (or life) is as it should be, and it is our meddling in it that causes problems for us. The taste of vinegar is not pleasant, but that is as it should be; it is vinegar being vinegar!

Here was a philosophy that affirmed that life and nature are fundamentally good, and not something we should control or seek liberation from, which really clicked with my Pagan and Gaian sensibilities.

There is a principle of harmony and unity at work in nature, called the Tao, or Way. It is not one particular way, it is the Way of All Things, of Heaven and Earth and the “ten thousand things,” so it cannot be constricted or encapsulated by any one belief or thought system, which are all partial and limited.

Each being has its own contact with the Tao, called Te meaning virtue, the inborn nature of each being that has its source in the Tao. A mountain has its Te, as do the stars, as do ants, as does a rock, as does a flu virus, as does a water molecule, as do human beings! All things have their own Te, which is, by nature, in harmony with the Tao. If we are in harmony with our own Te, we are in harmony with the Tao, and if we are in harmony with the Tao then we are in harmony with the Te of All Things. No need for control, no need for liberation. All things can happen “Self-so”, if we let them.

But I cannot now say this is my philosophy, because this is something that is “done without doing”, a concept known as wu-wei. It has become a non-philosophy for me, because it is something achieved without contrived effort, it is something we are born with and not something we can achieve, it is something we simply are – if only we would let ourselves! What is the Uncarved Block? It is the form of the block in its naturalness before human hands took it and shaped it, it is the tree in its natural state. This is the Uncarved Block. Wu-wei is simply letting the Uncarved Block be what it is, a tree in its natural state.

In considering wu-wei, Taoism is not a system that can be applied like other philosophies, it cannot be thought out, planned or systemised, because it represents Nature as it is. Its goal is Harmony with Nature, except that Nature is Harmony, and so it is impossible to achieve with the usual goal-driven manner of thinking. It already exists. But even the goal-driven conscious ego has its own Te, its own function in the nature of things. It is not a matter of denying this ego, to stop it interfering but to observe nature (including the Nature within the human mind) and learning from and applying its principles, and let Nature transform our way of thinking.

We can plan, scheme, manage, invent and have goals and expectations, because that is simply the nature of the conscious mind, and how we evolved, but we can do it in harmony with nature. The conscious mind can consider itself as one function within the wholeness of the human psyche, and the human being can consider itself as one part of how Nature functions, instead of somehow separate from, better than or above it.

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The Buddhist Druid

Buddhism has had a great impact on my thinking, and though I may not officially take refuge in “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha”, or adopt the Buddhist precepts as a rule of life, many of its ideas have helped me overcome many philosophical tangles, simplifying and clarifying many of my thoughts.

The appeal of Buddhism for me is its universalism, that the Buddha’s teachings weren’t simply directed towards a specific tribe, ethnicity or culture but were used to describe the human condition, in much the same way as I see Christ and his teachings. Of central importance to both is love or compassion, conceived of and practiced in slightly different ways, but essentially the same. Bodisattvas delay complete release from Samasara (cycle of rebirth) in order to help others in their search for enlightenment and the cessation of suffering. For me enlightenment and compassion have become closely allied if not synonymous.

The concepts that really underpin what I’ve received from Buddhism are the three signs of being: dukkha, anicca and anatta, roughly translated as suffering, change and no-self, respectively. All beings suffer, all beings are subject to change and all beings are lacking in any permanent sense of self. The sense of self itself can change over time, but also it can appear and disappear, much like the light in a light bulb (science seems to confirm this: “I” am a cluster of neurons that serves the purpose of identity in this organism). I think in the realisation and acceptance of dukkha, anicca and anatta, I suffer less, I worry less about these things and learn the meaning of The Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The Buddha originally sought a way to cease suffering through spiritual means, and this culminated in his enlightenment, Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, but what he taught was the Middle Way, moderation between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism, that both extremities can become obsessions and thus sources of suffering instead of liberation from it. Perhaps even the pursuit of moderation can become obsessive, so we can say “All things in moderation, including moderation.” The Buddha offered a way to help the world, and so he encouraged people to take what they felt was helpful in their lives and not obsess over or accept all his teachings.

Recently, I saw a picture of the Buddha “going to Nirvana”. It was an image of his death and around his body were his followers in various states of mourning. We tend to think of Buddhism as encouraging detachment and dispassion, yet here is a scene of pain and passion! Buddhism certainly isn’t about denying these feelings, but just not becoming attached to or obsessed over them. Feelings come and go like the tides, like the tides of change. In the acceptance of this we can find a measure of peace, even in extreme times, and develop a mindful attitude of acute observation. For me, Buddhism is a deeper and clearer way of feeling and living, and not letting ourselves become overcome by our passions.