Tao a Day — Verse 38: The Sage’s Relation to “Self”

To give without seeking reward
To help without thinking it is virtuous–
     therein lies great virtue
To keep account of your actions
To help with the hope of gaining merit–
     therein lies no virtue

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without condition
The highest justice is to see without preference
– Trans. Jonathan Star (excerpt – opening lines)

We live in a time of little virtue. We are told to look out for number one. Famous writers have propounded philosophies in which greed is a great virtue which helps everyone. It seems that all around us, most of the time, people are concerned most about what they will get out of a situation; we are told that this is natural and good to be self-involved like this.

From a certain perspective, spirituality is in utter opposition to such a view. The stance of what can I take, what can I get, is yet another way of maintaining the certain safety of ego. It upholds I, me, and mine, and it furthers the goal of solidifying them as of the utmost importance. According to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, spirituality moves against this but stands in constant danger of falling into the traps of ego-fulfillment. We all too readily fall into spiritual practice as something to hoard, something to show that I’m wiser than others, or something that makes me remarkable and worthy of being looked up to by others as a guru, realized one, or some other egoic hero. The Buddhist emphasis on the practice of compassion is both a means to reach enlightenment, and at the same time, compassion–focusing on others as more important than “me”–keeps us from falling prey to these traps. I’m not implying that Buddhism is superior to other spiritual disciplines. Hardly. I’ve known Christians and pagans who displayed compassion first and foremost, and their spiritual practices and personal virtues were all the more noteworthy and admirable because of this outward oriented engagement with the world.

The Sage also exemplifies the Te (virtue) which does not focus on self above all else. She gives without seeking reward. She does not tally up her great deeds. Instead, she, like water, acts in a way that supports all, rather than herself. This was discussed in a previous post about being in accordance with the flow of nature–the unfolding of Tao. Having virtue, Te, is completely about actualizing the Tao as the microcosm of the macrocosm. That was discussed in my post on inner virtues to some extent. In this case, let’s remember that the Tao continuously gives the 10,000 things. It is both the origin and totality of all. This totality continues to ebb and flow into being. It continually gives. Nothing statically remains as some sort of beloved object that Tao holds onto for itself. Rather, Tao loves bringing forth the ever-arising new of change. So why do we grasp at possessions and holding back that which is mine, when Tao shows us to move and flow: to give and support life without interest in self-bolstering?

Tao supports all. Those seeking to cultivate Te should as well. I heard an interesting Dharma talk last night in which the priest ended in saying that compassion is being able to hear whatever another person has to say without limiting those words to what we want to or are able to hear from “my” perspective. Letting go of oneself enough to be completely present to what appears (in this example, the words of another) is Te–it is being in harmony with nature and being able to act within that harmony, wu wei. Thus, the Sage responds to what arises: recognizing that “The highest justice is to see without preference.” The Sage opens his eyes, sees the world as it is–Tao, and acts skillfully from this proper seeing. Such a proper seeing shows that the “self” is an ever-unfolding process of emergence, one that mirrors Tao: the appearance and disappearance of the 10,000 things of Tao–the mysterious flux of universal becoming in all its myriad forms.

Having “Te” requires seeing and actualizing “Tao”

Here is the rest of the verse for further reading. Have a look at the closing lines if nothing else:

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
And when the high-blown rules of conduct are not followed
people are seized by the arm and it is forced on them
The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty–
quite confusing to the heart
And when men rely on these rules for guidance–
Oh, what ignorance abounds!

The great master follows his own nature
and not the trappings of life
It is said,
“He stays with the fruit and not the fluff”
“He stays with the firm and not the flimsy”
“He stays with the true and not the false”
-Trans. Jonathan Star

A Human Becoming

Heart beats–*ka-thump… ka-thump”
Breath inward/outward–*hnnnn…ahhhh…*
Thoughts zoom by–*”I should go do…”*

Feelings come & go–agony & ecstasy
Days pass–work, sleep, routine, adventure
Years flourish & wither–seasons, periods, phases

Connections are made & lost
Wrinkles appear & hair recedes
Scars & memories accumulate

Birth, birth, birth
Death, death, death
—  In every moment
    With each heartbeat & breath

Tell me:
Where is the static “I” underneath the process of life?
Where is this being that endures
When all else arises and ceases?
—  A story, a fiction, a masterpiece of self-creation & self-deception

You are not a human being.
You are a human becoming
—  A realization of unfolding potential, moment by moment
An emanation of openness, that is: basic goodness

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 3: Wounds

Words have power. We seldom think about it. We throw them around as expendable–of little to no worth. Yet, if there is a magical element of the human being, it’s our ability to express the world through words. Words communicate. Words depict. Words create. Sometimes, words cut–like a weapon. This can leave a wound that festers like no other.

Some things that were said to me in the last conversations of my relationship have remained as wounds. Others recommend to let these things go, but if there is one thing that I have learned in meditation, such things cannot be forced. Whatever comes up, comes up. I can simply sit through it. Pushing thoughts and feelings away is engaging them with energy just as much as grabbing onto them and spinning them around in analysis. No. Letting go is relaxing the hand of the mind and letting the thoughts simply stream out of it. It is tender, and it is brave. It is the way of the awakened warrior.

One cut that has passed as a thought time and again is the moment in which I was blamed for her emotional reactivity. I was depicted as the cause of all negativity. Supposedly, no one else had this impact on her, and hence, I was some sort of emotional cancer–a tumor to be excised from her life in order to be healthy. Otherwise, according to her, she would never know peace. My mind reeled with the bizarre logic, unkindness, and completely victimizing unfairness of such an assessment. My counterexamples were batted away, and it was clear that nothing could be said to her in her dreamy haze of certainty.

Part of why this lingered is that I never fully shared this mind-crumbling bend of a moment in its complete emotional intensity with anyone else. In part, I didn’t because I didn’t want to spew blame and vitriol upon her to others. In part, I didn’t because I didn’t have the words to share such a moment at all, especially from a space of sharing without blame and aggression. I mentioned her words to friends, but the telling didn’t express the emotional nightmare of such a moment (like I said: I lack the ability to fully express)–the person you love the most in the world tells you that you are the cause of all negative feelings in her, and it’s implied that there is nothing good that you offer to your relationship with her.

I think that because of this inexpressibility, something remained held onto on a deep level–aching deep inside. No one could reassure me that that moment was completely whacked. No one could fully agree that those statements and ideas about emotional reactivity were hopelessly lost in the contrivances of a warped narrative. Instead, her words were taken at face value to some extent, and I was left wondering if I really was as horrible as she said I was. There was no one who could hear me and recognize me on the level of my own experience. From my therapy background, there was no one who could share my “felt sense”, and because of this, this sense stayed unfulfilled.

Last night, I was reading about meditation and lucid dreaming. I found unexpected recognition and release from this unlikely source. The book was talking about our perceptions and emotions. The book talks again and again about our “projections” on experiences–that the world we experience is always our interpretation of it, never the world in itself. My experience of the world is always mine, not the one that the world gives to me. I read: “Emotional reactivity does not originate “out there” in objects. It arises, is experienced, and ceases in you.” * I almost cried. Someone understood, and someone said the niggling feeling that I couldn’t quite put into words. Simple as it may be; I couldn’t say it, and the book said it for me. The feeling shifted, and my experience–the kernel of pain in that wound–unfolded.

Sometimes, to relax and let go of the thing that hurts, to allow the swollen inflammation of pain to subside, and to wash away a piece of ego, the thing we need most is to feel heard–to feel that “I” am not crazy. The feeling of an insanity that only affects myself leads to the grasping onto story and analysis of “me” more than anything else. It’s an isolating loneliness that makes a sense of myself distinct in contrast to everyone else. In being recognized, you can let go of those wounds that hurt so deeply, knowing that you are not alone.

May you feel seen, heard, understood, and recognized. May you find peace, love, and happiness. May you not have experiences that create wounds, and if you do, may you find the ability to express them and a person to listen authentically (if needs be, please post below. I’ll listen).

For the benefit of all who read this.

*From “The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep” by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Mark Dahlby, Kindle Edition

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 2: Gentleness Toward Your Experience
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 4: Depression’s World

Tao a Day – Verse 26: Inner Virtues

Heavy is the root of light
still is the master of restless
thus a lord might travel all day
but never far from his supplies
even in a guarded camp
his manner is calm and aloof
why would the lord of ten thousand chariots
treat himself lighter than his kingdom
too light he loses his base
too restless he loses command
– Trans. Red Pine

I present this translation first to show how mysterious the Tao Te Ching can be. Translators often turn it in their own way to express their understanding of it to readers. Let’s ponder this translation which attempts to get as close to the original text as possible before moving on to another translator’s expression of the meaning.

I feel that the first four lines are key to the meaning of the verse. The first two lines tell us that light comes from heavy and that stillness supersedes restlessness. The Tao Te Ching emphasizes time and again this distinction about how certain qualities are primary and represent the more primordial nature of potential — of Tao. A good example is that hardness comes from softness. Here, it seems that the secondary qualities of lightness or restlessness lead away from the virtue of the primary qualities, and it’s implied that a follower of the Way will cultivate the primary qualities of heaviness and stillness. What’s so important about these two qualities? They’re not readily moved. In other words, they are not reactive to the external changes of the world. They work along with the ways of the world without reacting in either the senses of being swept along with them or fighting back against them. Lines three and four complete this personal teaching of Te (virtue) in saying “thus” (not that this implies a conclusion from the first two lines) the lord travels at length without leaving his supplies. The supplies are these qualities which keep the lord stocked for any situation that life brings, no matter how far he may go or what he may do. These virtues are internal strengths of proper relationship with Tao, and no matter what happens, the walker of the Way can bring these along and act in accordance with the Tao.

The rest of the passage emphasizes that the ruler has the proper relationship of treating himself well (treating himself no less than he does his kingdom). This means that he cultivates these inner supplies of stillness and heaviness: not being swayed by reactivity–rather, acting in accordance with his kingdom from this fundamental inner stillness of the potential for perfectly attuned action in all situations, the action in accordance with nature–wu wei. Rather than being reactive and trying to rule her kingdom through force, she sees the Tao and rules in a way that flows with its unfolding. Such virtue is not about imposing his ends or acting in order to impose his story upon the world; rather, her stillness mirrors the manifestation of the world–this is precisely the path of one who walks the Way. The one who walks the Way cultivates the proper relation with the external world of the “kingdom” by developing the virtues of the internal qualities of stillness and heaviness. Being a Sage entails a perfection of understanding of the Tao in one’s own personal character. The Te, your virtue, is a personally perfected mirrored manifestation of the Tao, the origin and nature of everything. Te mirrors Tao. The microcosm displays the secret of the macrocosm.

Now, for comparison, Jonathan Star strengthens this analysis through his own poetic translation:

The inner is foundation of the outer
The still is master of the restless

The Sage travels all day
    yet never leaves his inner treasure
Though the views are captivating and beg attention
    he remains calm and uninvolved
Tell me, does the lord of a great empire
     go out begging for rice?

One who seeks his treasure in the outer world
    is cut off from his own roots
Without roots, he becomes restless
Being restless, his mind is weak
And with a mind such as this
     he loses all command below Heaven
-Trans. Jonathan Star

May you cultivate your own stillness in studying the Way.


Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 1st Precept: Peace

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

– My shortened mantra of the precepts

In this post, I focus only on the first of the five precepts. I spoke about “Just for today/Now” in my “Precursor” post. I recommend reading that post before reading further if you haven’t already. That post sets up the background for the discussions of all the precepts. Just for today (Now) is the injunction that stands before all the precepts and applies to all of them.

We should recall that Usui-sama, the writer of the precepts, was a Tendai Buddhist priest. This is important, as I would say that the first precept is the beginning of the Buddhist spiritual path, and the last is its culmination in terms of practice. When I say this, I mean in terms of the Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) tradition of Buddhism, a subset of Buddhism that includes well-known schools such as Zen and Chan Buddhism. This tradition focuses on the way of the Bodhisattva, spiritual warriors who focus their efforts on the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering.

The beginning of practice is cultivating a presence that supersedes the cyclic suffering of samsara (ordinary existence; the counterpart of the enlightened existence of nirvana–an awakened state that overcomes suffering). One of the Buddha’s core teachings is the Three Marks of Existence (also called the Three Seals). They are: impermanence, suffering, and selflessness (Not-I). First of these, impermanence–everything changes. Nothing is static. From a scientific viewpoint, we could state this in terms of the second law of thermodynamics: the tendency for entropy to increase in a system. This means that the heat energy in a system changes over time. This is a law of physics. From these tenets, even atoms will break down trillions of years from now. Even that fundamental building block will change.

In our lives, we face change all the time–the weather, our physical appearance, comings and goings of loved ones, illness, birth, death, and even the basic bodily functions of breathing and our hearts beating from moment to moment. Change causes suffering for us in a couple ways: we go through life in a distracted manner and fall into changes we could have avoided because of this ignorance. With mindfulness, we can be in sync with our environment and flow with it rather than cause distracted changes which are painful. Also, despite the fact that all changes, we cling to things. We try to hold on to what we want and avoid what we don’t want. Most of all, we cling to habits and anything to bolster a sense of a permanently enduring self. We cling to the masterpiece of our creation that is the ego. This clinging to desired permanence and the unmindful engagement of a distracted mind with the world lead to suffering–the second of the Three Marks of Existence.

The third mark is selflessness (Not-I). Its the counterpoint to the clinging of ego. With mindful presence, we can experience phenomena as they are. If we attend to them in such a way, we can see them as impermanent arising. They come into being, grow, flourish, wither, and dissipate. None of them is constant. None of them endures. Noticing this reveals the oneness of all phenomena and their inherent emptiness. We can see that the separation and permanence of “I” is my own confused perception and desire to resist change. Everything, including the “I” of ego, is empty, “self”-less.

This realization leads us to a hidden gem, a fourth mark that is sometimes added–peace; we could call this realization the opening of the gate to nirvana. This peace comes from seeing our place in the world (or better said–seeing the world as it is, not as we want it to be): from actively engaging on the path of liberation beyond suffering. There is much that can be said about this path which would necessitate a deeper discussion of the Four Noble Truths. For that, I suggest reading Chögyam Trungpa’s book: The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation. I’ll focus on the fact that the path is mindful presence, facilitated by regular meditation. This gets us past the three roots of suffering: desire, aversion, and ignorance (think of the comments above about changes we want and don’t want–desire and aversion–as well as the distracted engagement with the world–ignorance).

These considerations about the Four Marks of Existence (Four, rather than three, as we have added Peace as the culmination of the Three Marks), returns us to Usui’s precepts, particularly the first precept: “Don’t hold onto anger” — “Peace“. He is offering a Buddhist meditation. You are asked to mindfully attend to these precepts twice a day while doing “gassho” as per his instructions. You focus on doing them well for today only (or for now in each and every instant). You then attend to not being angry. This is the first step on a Buddhist path to enlightenment. The heart of the Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle) tradition is not doing harm. To achieve this, anger and pursuing an ego-driven idea of my goals from it are put aside (cognitive psychology shows that anger comes from the obstruction of something we want–think of a traffic jam keeping you from getting where you want to go; in such cases, you act out in anger, and this anger is meant to clear away those obstructions to get things back on the desired path). Not getting angry entails letting go of your own story and opening yourself up to whatever is here right now (even that traffic jam). This is how you do no harm, and this is how you begin working toward compassion, the fifth precept; to realize compassion and to let go of anger, you have to step beyond I, me, and mine. From a different, perhaps more familiar perspective for the standard Reiki student, if you are going to be a conduit for universal energy, surely the first step is opening to it and realizing that there is no separation to begin with: this is also a letting go of “I”, me, mine, my truth, my story, my goals, etc. This letting go of self and opening up to existence is realizing the mark of peace.

Let go of anger. Realize the peace that exists beyond your “self”.

As an after-thought, I thoroughly disagree with the understanding of the first precept in The Spirit of Reiki given by Walter Lübeck . The point is not to harness anger for positive personal ends. Perhaps, you could say the point is to transmute anger into peaceful enlightenment, but it isn’t about “me” and “mine” at all. Quite the opposite. First of all, I think that anger comes from desire, not fear (fear is the opposite of hope, not desire. This is commonly confused, and these are all closely related. I hope for what I desire. I fear that which I do not want to happen. Hope and wanting are closely related as are fear and aversion, but they aren’t quite the same). Overcoming the negativity of anger results in our personal healing, but in taking up a spiritual path, it isn’t about me. It’s about healing everything and realizing that all is more important than I. Here again, the precept of peace points toward the Mahayana method at the heart of the Bodhisattva way: compassion.

May this help you find peace.

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – Precursor
Next Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith

Tao a Day – Verse 8: In Accordance with Nature

The best way to live
is to be like water
For water benefits all things
and goes against none of them
It provides for all people
and even cleanses those places
a man is loath to go
In this way it is just like Tao

Live in accordance with the nature of things:
Build your house on solid ground
Keep your mind still
When giving, be kind
When speaking, be truthful
When ruling, be just
When working, be one-pointed
When acting, remember–timing is everything

One who lives in accordance with nature
does not go against the way of things
He moves in harmony with the present moment
always knowing the truth of just what to do – Trans. Jonathan Star

For comparison:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they
don’t compete
they aren’t maligned – Trans. Red Pine

The flexibility to change and act accordingly

Although these two translations have some differences, I think the message is the same. The best way to live is one that flows along with the changes of life being able to adapt with them (“without competing” “in accordance with the nature of things”). Such a way benefits all by moving in accordance with them, rather than fighting against all out of self-interest. Notice, however, that this flexibility, receptivity you might say, does not mean that you don’t act–being dragged along with the flow. Rather, you act with virtue, straightforwardness, and a simplicity of purpose. For instance: “When speaking, be truthful” (“speaking with honesty”). Speech is meant to communicate, that means sharing the truth with others, not holding back and competing by using words to promote your own self-interest through deceit. Thus, speak to speak: speak with honesty. The same follows for the others. Of these two translations, Red Pine worked hard at compiling the most authentic rendition of the text (what we have is based on various copies hundreds of years after the original, which is lost) and translating that quite close to the words (not poetically). As such, I find Jonathan Star’s take of “thinking with depth” and turning it into “Keep your mind still” interesting. This fits well with the entirety of the Tao Te Ching and Taoism’s emphasis on seeing the Tao rather than conceptual thinking. Thought then, should get to the real heart of things, the Tao, which means keeping the mind still from the distractions and divisions of conceptual thought. However, I find the “governing with peace” of Red Pine a bit more interesting than “When ruling, be just”–“justice” is an impossibly difficult concept (just look at the history of philosophy, such as Plato’s “Republic” if you think I’m off). Who can say what justice is? Thinking of this could create endless discourse of conceptual analysis. However, governing with peace is more in line with the intuitive understanding of the Sage, seeing what fits in accordance with the nature of things and moving along with it, as water does.

Our takeaway: Live in accordance with the nature of things, with the flexibility and sustaining nature of water. This opens the way of “doing without doing” – wu wei, which doesn’t mean inaction, rather appropriate action: speaking fully, working fully, etc. It should be pointed out that being able to act so deftly comes from the sight of the Tao, the ability to see the way of things is necessary to move in accordance with them. Furthermore, moving with the way of things not only meets no resistance, it helps the whole as well: Water “benefits all things” (“bringing help to all”). In these points, we are reminded of the importance of intuitive insight in Taoism alongside a simple compassion found in working with Tao, and we can see the resonance with the prajna (knowledge of the way things are) of Buddhism and the skillful action that comes in acting from that knowledge in showing compassion to all, rather than pursuing your “self”.

May this help you find the Way.


Heartbreak Wisdom Journal – Entry 2: Gentleness Toward Your Experience

“Love Love Love” by Of Monsters and Men


“Reminder” by Mumford and Sons

Until recently, if I heard these songs, I would almost instantly be brought to tears. Such lines, as: “So I watched the world tear us apart. A Stoic mind and a bleeding heart — You never see my bleeding heart…” were enough to bring the depths of my pain and anxiety to the fore, washing over me like a great tidal wave. The other day, one of the two popped up on my phone, and I found myself smiling gently, enjoying the melody and accepting the myriad feelings that bubbled up.

Some might be confused: “Why not just remove them from your phone?” I cannot hide every reminder of my past and my heartbreak. That would be inauthentic, childish, and extremely difficult. It would be like trying to stubbornly deny that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west while doing my damnedest to never look up at the sky.

The tender heart of the warrior makes friends with the feelings that come up, no matter what they may be. The warrior knows that trying to eradicate or obliviate what we feel just keeps us stuck in our painful patterns. Opening to them tenderly allows room for kindness to oneself… and to others.

As a counterpoint, the song that reminds me of this tender, gentle presence is:

 “Megan” by Anesthesia

What helps more than anything is to be gentle toward yourself. Gentleness doesn’t mean being all “poor baby” or coddling yourself in any way. Real gentleness has much more precision and intelligence than that. Gentleness means simply that you acknowledge and embrace your own experience from moment to moment, without judgment. Without trying to fix it. Without feeling ashamed of it or, if you do feel ashamed of it, you do not feel ashamed of your shame! In this way, gentleness is actually an advanced form of bravery. You aren’t afraid to take on your own suffering, even though you don’t know how or when it will end; still, you agree to feel it. Somehow, this acceptance begins to calm things down. On its own timetable, gentleness begins to pacify even the most raging emotions. Gentleness is the spiritual and emotional warrior’s most powerful weapon.

The best way to cultivate gentleness toward yourself, thought by thought and moment by moment, is through the sitting practice of meditation. In fact, meditation, which is sitting with your self, your thoughts, emotions, and yearnings, and simply allowing them to be as they are, is the practice of gentleness itself. There is no better teacher than this.

Most likely, there will be only a few times in your life when you’ll reach the limit of what you can bear. It may be from falling ill, the death of a parent, or even the loss of a most precious possession, such as your home, and of course it can also be because of a broken heart. To face these extraordinary times, you need to take extraordinary measures. Most of the tactics touted as “extraordinary measures,” however, are really ways of escaping the reality of what we must face: our emotions. Certainly drinking, drugging, random sex, and sleeping all the time are ways to avoid emotional pain, but even healthier means, such as positive thought, physical exercise, therapy, or simply forcing yourself to move on are also methods of stepping away from what ails you, rather than toward it. Stepping toward it and going into it do not just mean lying around crying all the time. It means meeting your emotions and relating to them, not as enemies to be conquered, but as wounded friends from the front, needing your loving attention. — Susan Piver, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, pp. 48-49

The Strength of the Warrior

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 1: Wounded Heart’s Tender Flesh
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 3: Wounds

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