A few weeks back, one of my friends in USA, LB, wrote me 'a long, sort of a personal, stream of conscious philosophical exercise'. I tried to enter in a dialogue with him, through e-mail correspondence, by responding point by point to his musings. The whole write-up might interest my other friends, I thought. And hence these pages... CSS.
LB: I think that when we speak of the Tao Te Ching, it is important to recognize that because of the poetic nature of the text, it is naturally, conducive to multiple interpretations.
CSS: Multiple interpretations do not relate to poetic nature or otherwise of any scriptural text; there is no escape from such a predicament because of the multiple levels at which different people comprehend the same truth. These texts are composed or they come into existence not because someone thought over of Tao Te Ching and wrote them as concepts, but because the seer had intuitive realizations of these already existent truths, which he out of love and benefit for future human race brought out as written text.
LB: But surely the meaning of the Tao is more than a matter of interpretation.
CSS: Of course, they mean much more (or say much different) than what we make out of them. However, every interpretation is valid and useful for the person engaged in knowing the truth therein, in so far as they take him/her from lower truth to higher truth. The journey is not from 'error to truth', but from 'lower truth to higher truth (or from one kind of truth to another kind of truth).
LB: Isn't it possible that each person makes the Tao what it is through his or her interpretation of it?
CSS: Yes, let him! In the final analysis, such steps become the rungs of the ladder to climb up.
LB: I don't think so. I don't think that you can examine a text and make it what you wish; you can't take a text and twist it into saying something that you're more comfortable with.
CSS: Twisting is not deliberate; it depends upon the faculty of evolved consciousness in the person who undertakes the study or the spiritual practice to realize the text. Yes, the mind always tries to prevent our journey to the new and higher, and thus creating a state of complacency that is comfortable to us. We therefore, feel that we have either correctly interpreted the text, or else give it up as not useful 'for me'.
LB: I agree. We must try. And discover what Lao Tzu was truly trying to say in his Tao Te Ching. Not what we want it to say.
CSS: Therefore, one must clearly realize the limitations and trickiness of mind in pulling us back from gaining higher spiritual knowledge. Initially at least it rebels, but perseverance and honesty helps in subduing it. Sri Krishna in the Gita says: "By repeated practice and renunciation alone, O Arjuna, this unsteady and reluctant mind can be brought under control."
LB: But there are different ways of approaching a text to study it.
CSS: The prerequisites are 1) faith, 2) commentary on such texts by realized souls, the persons we call saints, who have realized or experienced the truths in/of these texts. Thus, one alone can proceed, but the help from the Teacher acts as a steamer that can pull your wavering boat across the shore.
LB: Because it is such a rich text that addresses many things, I think we should start by isolating certain concepts and exploring their meaning; we should analyze it.
CSS: I doubt, for all the concepts in the final analysis are interrelated. But as a strategy or as a plan of study this can be undertaken. For a professor in a college such 'isolating certain concepts' might work, but not for the true seeker after the truth. It is much better to accept our limitations and persevere. The period/time taken is immaterial, for there is no difference between one minute and one birth.
LB: I think that there are certain, definite things we can say about Lao Tzu's concept of the Tao. I think that Lao Tzu's concept of the Tao is a presupposed concept; that it is not empirically verifiable, but rather, a grand idea gleaned from studying the processes of the tangible world.
CSS: It is already verified! Otherwise how could it have become a concept? Lao has not invented Toa; he has just discovered it, a la Newton discovered principles of gravity. Gravity was before Newton, is present today, and would remain even if whole world perishes.
LB: But what does this 'grand idea' say? What is the Tao? If it is an idea that Lao Tzu abstracted from his observations it must be something definite.
CSS: The grand idea tries to put forward in words the interrelationship between the individual, this world, and the absolute Principle. But this is extremely difficult, for the text is trying to describe that is beyond the speech and the mind.
LB: I think that by the Tao, Lao Tzu was referring (in a nutshell) to the idea of a mysterious, ultimate and incomprehensible Really/Truth that embodies as well as transcends nature.
CSS: Yes, this is so.
LB: If this definition is accepted, the trickier question that arises is 'What is Nature?' The answer will have great implications on what it means to live in harmony with the Tao.
CSS: Nature can be understood in three ways: 1) as illusive superimposition of ignorance or apparent on the One Real Existence. Allegory of superimposition of a snake over the rope is well known. The snake never existed, the rope never changed into the snake. The illusion is caused by misapprehension of reality. When the real Knowledge of rope dawns the snake vanishes, but till such a desirable state is achieved one has to live in fear of the non-existent snake. The sattva guna, power to reason and see through the ignorance, is helpful to see the Truth. 2) As the modification of the same Truth or Reality in multifarious world of name and form. When ignorance is removed by way of sadhana the shining unifying Truth behind the 'name and form' becomes known. 3) Nature and Reality are distinct. One can approach and reach the Truth but cannot become one with It.
LB: So then what is nature?
CSS: One can attempt to find the answer by holding on to the first or the second belief as mentioned in the above para. Nature then reveals its secrets to us. Nature in its primordial aspect is so subtle that it can teach us about our true nature in course of practices directed to achieve the subtleness and refinement of mind; for our mind is but the most refined part of Nature.
LB: According to Lao Tzu, nature is Te, the manifestation of the Tao that is the phenomenal world.
CSS: This is only logical and possible position one can take. Even the realized souls when come to human plane of consciousness are limited by the subtle mind, and they can go thus far and not further to proclaim Tao and I are one. Only Shankaracharya dared such proclamation.
LB: So is everything in the phenomenal world a manifestation of Tao? Or do there exist things that are not manifestations of the Tao?
CSS: Madhvacharya, of dualistic school of Vedanta, posits three distinct realities, namely, (a) God, (b) individual soul, and (c) this world. Qualified Monists (Ramanujacharya) says this world is modification of One Truth, and c) Shankaracharya says, the Truth would not remain Truth if gets modified! And there cannot be three absolute truths. What we see around us is but the One Truth appearing as empirical truths (this universe of names and forms); like one white light appears broken into seven colors through the prisms. Time, space, and causation are the prisms.
LB: If there did exist things that were not part of the Tao, Lao Tzu would contradict his own metaphysical concept of the Tao as everything.
CSS: This is the whole of the difficulty, the doubts and dilemma, which have turned themselves into glorious and erudite philosophical debates and discussions, scriptures and the Books of past so many centuries.
LB: But does Lao Tzu really assert that the Tao is everything? I thought he just said it was the ultimate reality?
CSS: Both are one and the same thing. Only the ultimate Reality can be everything; all intermediaries can at best be the milestones pointing to that all encompassing Reality.
LB: Are the two not one and the same? Is there anything other than reality? There is not reality and 'non-reality,' for if 'non-reality' existed, it would be part of reality simply because of the fact that it exists.
CSS: Yes. The nescience or non-reality is but the primordial "Ignorance" that has no beginning, but it comes to an end when Knowledge of Tao dawns.
LB: Therefore there is nothing other than reality, and everything that exists is part of reality. There is nothing that exists that is not part of really. If the Ultimate Reality is called Tao, then there is nothing that exists that is not part of the Tao.
LB: This still does not tell us what nature is. Perhaps a better definition of the Tao would be "The ultimate, mysterious and incomprehensible reality/truth that embodies as well as transcends the Te.
CSS: And in the process makes us aware the transient nature of Te!
LB: Substitute Te for 'nature'?
LB: Yes, while we may discriminate within the Te, we are ourselves but a part of it. So how can we say "What is nature?' and respond by 'this is...' and 'this isn't...'; it is impossible to exclude anything because everything is a part of Te.
CSS: Yes, till we transcend the nature. In samadhi, nature appears divine and effulgent as the manifestation of one Divinity.
LB: Is war a natural phenomenon? What about man-made technology?
CSS: Wars would be inevitable, as the world is based on duality. The differences of opinion would sometime or the other lead to rattling of sabers. But soon it would be forgotten, and new life and higher evolved ethics and intellect ensues. Finally, at an individual level, Ethics merges into Absolute Truth or Beauty or Compassion, and the person becomes Free. But at a collective level the things continue to evolve; for 'creation, sustenance and dissolution' is the very nature of Primordial Power. Please read the article "Science Vs Spirituality":
LB: Whenever we ask whether a thing is a natural phenomenon we are forced to define what is natural and what isn't.
CSS: If for the birds to build a nest is natural, then for humans to build, invent, discover, or to fight etc. all becomes natural. We tend to obscure this fact, for we are afraid of the terrible aspect Shakti, which manifests as cement jungles (degradation of the environment) and weapons of mass destruction, and so on. To eat roots or fruits is natural, to take herbal medicine is natural; how can it then be artificial to take canned food or modern scientific medicines? Every human act is natural, for it springs from his inner nature that we call character or personality. Growth is good when it represents unselfishness, it is evil when expresses selfishness. One takes us towards our true divine nature, other away from it.
LB: Yeah ... So what IS natural?
I'm asking whether it can even be defined. Can one make that distinction?
That X is natural while Y is not? What could justify such a distinction?
To define it would be to do just that; by defining what is and is not natural I am asserting that there is some sort of justification for the definition.
For example, if I say that what is natural is all things that are not man-made, and that those things that are man-made are unnatural...
That seems to be a very simplistic definition of what is natural. It infers that any natural substance, once manipulated by man, becomes unnatural.
CSS: Exactly ... we do not simply 'create' something, for everything we do has a natural source. Even 'synthetic' materials are made by synthesis of natural substances.
LB: So it is the act of man manipulating or 'synthesizing' natural 'things' and the result of that manipulation that is unnatural, not so much the initial substance that is unnatural.
CSS: The man manipulates out of the need for self-preservation, however that soon merges into selfishness, and the distinction between natural and unnatural ensues. This is possible because the means of production develop with the progress of human intellect and science that allows technological innovations for the comfort of human race. This allows spare time and spare capacity in all human endeavors, which should be utilized only for self-realization. However, our genetic system lags behind, for it remains selfish and thus intellect and reason take back seat at popular or mass psychology. Manipulations get restricted to sensory pleasures at individual or group level. Ethics makes it national patriotism, but still limitations are obvious in the distribution of wealth and values and produce to all, and indeed to the needy.
LB: I think so but does that make sense? That some processes are unnatural? What makes it unnatural? Beavers manipulate their environment but we do not consider them to be unnatural. Why is man so different? Why is human technology not considered a natural process; just one aspect of a changing world, neither good nor bad? Do we morally judge the beaver? Do we say his dam is intrinsically 'good' or 'bad'?
CSS: I have already commented above.
LB: We don't call it good or bad. But it is called good in respect to a certain end; a dam can contribute positively to a healthy forest system. So if we parallel this to technology, we can deem it good or bad according to its ends; whether or not it contributes to a healthy environment.
CSS: I have already commented above.
LB: But what constitutes a healthy environment? Them is a romantic and very appealing idea of pure meadows and waters absent of human intervention, but would it really be 'better' than a, oh let's say, nuclear winter type scenario? We all think, "of course it would be better." But isn't that just because it appeals to us Mom? It could be that it is. Just different and them is no 'other realm or identity' that sanctions it 'good' or 'better.'
LB: If that is true, then the earlier definition basically boils down to calling 'natural' that which is most appealing to us.
CSS: Perfect naturalness and perfect knowledge is one and the same thing. That is the quest of human endeavor; it is immaterial whether the acts are conscious or unconscious. Knowingly or unknowingly each one of us is treading the path to the same Final Goal. If we do it consciously we are called spiritual, and of course we enjoy the journey by remaining non-attached to the world around us. We are in the world but not of it, like the lotus leaf we are in the water, but not affected by it.
LB: Seems a bit arrogant and controlling?
CSS: The search for Truth is like walking on a 'razor's edge,' so says one Upanishad.
LB: The concept is simultaneously appealing and repulsive; on one level you can let go of stress and succumb to being part of the natural flow of things- it brings a certain peace and an absolving of responsibility. (as you would only do what comes naturally). Yet, it also forces you to detach yourself from your own values and the things you hold most dear.
CSS: This path is not escapism, although initially it might appear so. It has its own value and utility. The things that are dear to us should be sublimated and enriched to accommodate universal perception of reality, truth, beauty and ethics.
LB: Unless you can categorize your values as that which comes naturally to you...
CSS: The source of values is not mind or ego, but these values of compassion and generosity, altruism and morality stem from Atman, our real nature.
LB: But doesn't that leave the door open to extreme relativism? Doesn't that way of thinking justify all manner of thing we find repulsive? That Usama is not evil and neither is the KKK because they are simply doing what is natural to them? That sort of thinking sets off alarm bells in my head. The concept that hate and the actions that stem from it are simply natural phenomena, neither good nor evil that are manifested in certain people?
CSS: It may be correct or right or justifiable from their point of view, agreed, they may be all sincere about it, but in the final analysis such acts and thoughts are narrow in their encompass and outlook. Therefore, they are selfish, and would not find universal acceptance.
LB: Our reaction of repulsion is also then natural. On one level, our concepts of good and evil is just that... concepts that are a result of only being able to comprehend an ideal of truth. We should accept this natural perspective. But then there is also an absolute truth, that which truly 1S and we should respect.
CSS: Those who think their approach correct are with them, just as Christians would follow their approach; the point is to go beyond Christian as well as Muslim concepts of Truth and righteousness.
LB: So it can still follow that there is nothing that is unnatural.
CSS: It is unnatural to think what we are not! We are not this 'body-mind complex'; we are divine. Eternal consciousness is our true nature.
LB: If the Te is what is natural then it does follow that there is nothing that is unnatural.
CSS: Te is truth reflected from a mirror that is covered with dust; or wavy water that reflects distorted image of the Sun. the natural process is to remove the dust or to still the lake of mind for proper perception so as to be come able to build correct conception about the truth.
LB: But what if the manifestation of the Tao (as Te) is in itself unnatural?
CSS: Indeed, then you come in the realm of Advaita!
LB: Kind of like in Hindu philosophy, where the perceived world is a result of imbalance, a manifestation of disharmony?
CSS: What you can do about it? This body or taking birth itself is full with grief, as some scriptures say.
LB: But by definition it is impossible for the Tao to be unnatural because it's essence embodies what is natural. Lao Tzu writes, "The Tao emulates that which is natural to it." It cannot be what it is not.
CSS: Tao is and will be, ever. That is the only truth for it is simple (not compound), and therefore unchanging, eternal, without attributes, and ever-existent Reality.
LB: Basically it does what it does; it is what it is. I think this says a lot about struggle. Just as a chicken can be nothing other than a chicken, a human can be nothing but human.
CSS: A human can be what he really is, if he wants to be.
LB: Yeah... a human cannot be a god!
CSS: Human is none other than God.
LB: It's like "well duh" but profound at the same time. But again this does not seem right; surely there are unnatural things. Oil spills are unnatural. We put something where it was not supposed to be.
CSS: "Paranchi khane…" meaning "The Lord has so injured the senses that they can look only outwards; they have lost the capacity to look inward," so says one Upanishad. Therefore, it requires a very strenuous and conscious (deliberate) effort to turn to God/Self/Truth/Reality/Atman.
LB: Didn't we already address this?
CSS: Yes, the crux of the matter is the necessity and efforts to have transcendental or near transcendental experience!
LB: But Even Lao Tzu, by stating that one should strive to live naturally implies that there is an unnatural way to live. His distinction creates this implication.
CSS: Emphasis on Natural and unnatural is apparent; not real. Every act and thought is natural, in so far as it touches consciousness first and then becomes manifest. The idea is to accept this fact first as a heresy (of course based on the authority of Lao or Sri Ramakrishna etc.), which is what faith is all about. Then trying to convert 'faith' in 'knowledge' becomes the natural way of living.
LB: Well, let's examine that.
CSS: Yes. Let's do it.
LB: In the context of Taoism expressed by Lao Tzu, what does it mean to live naturally?
CSS: To expand our consciousness to accommodate the welfare all beings one way; to strive to seek the knowledge of absolute is another. To try to achieve perfection in our endeavor/duty/job/profession that has come to our lot or that which we have chosen as our aim in life may be the third meaning of 'living naturally'.
LB: I think he was making a political statement (that his metaphysics supplied the basis for). Lao Tzu saw living naturally as a living without the constraints of government and allowing individuals to live up to their 'natural potential' (whatever that may be.)
CSS: Politics represents the aspirations of influential section of the society that control and want to remain in control of the means and mode of economic activities to gain power, prestige, and privileges. Metaphysics abhors such trends for economics is the antithesis of spiritual aspirations. Here the 'natural potential' means in spite of politics how one tries to seek the way towards realizing Truth.
LB: Maybe he had a vision of human realizing and appreciating what it means to be human, hmmm.... without external forces.
CSS: Yes, human first, which by necessity in the ensuing process leads to higher perceptions of inherent divinity.
LB: But again, if all that exists is Tao, Is there even such thing as 'external forces'?
CSS: External forces are our own projections; the intriguing bondage between sense organs and sense objects. You have to hear the music if record is playing nearby, the organ of hearing attaches itself to the object of hearing!!!
LB: But this 'emulating what is natural' business is kind of tricky. The 'it is what it is' concept evolves into a certain ideal. The fact that Lao Tzu establishes an ideal in his 'sage' seems to completely undermine his own metaphysics.
CSS: Lao is not establishing an ideal for others; he is musings about his own realizations. It is your stage of spiritual progress that makes it appealing to you and appear imposition of an 'ideal' on others.
LB: How so?
By establishing an ideal (the sage), a point or way to be aspired to, one must struggle to rise to that ideal. One would be struggling to become what he is not. And because he is struggling, he is not doing what is natural to him. He's not going with the flow.
CSS: One will be in fact struggling to become what he really is! Yes, he will not be going with flow, for that is the way initially.
LB: But isn't there a difference between being and qualities of being? Is there?
CSS: Substance and quality is an illusory complex or concept. When one experiences quality he fails to comprehend the substance, and vice versa. Snake is a quality and the rope the substance.
LB: Let's get back to that.
CSS: Please read "The Basic Point about Philosophy"
LB: But what if it is natural to struggle?
CSS: Nothing. It is a fact.
LB: Why do I feel like I am thinking in circles?
CSS: Doubts would remain till last; for the analysis we undertake comes under the realm of mind, and all the faculties of the mind including reason and logic, speech and words have limitations as described previously.
LB: You probably are ANYWAY
CSS: Yes, we are. This is because the Truth is ever existent.
LB: That wouldn't make any sense! If it is natural to struggle and there are no 'external forces,' because nothing exists that is not emulated by the Tao then what is the point of even discussing what is means or how to live naturally.
Because by definition the Tao it is all-encompassing! Good and evil, compassion and cruelty, competitiveness and generosity are rendered one and the same. Lao Tzu writes:
Man emulates earth emulates heaven emulates the Tao
And the Tao emulates that which is natural to it.
They would remain in the realm of relativity, but not in the transcendental state of being.
LB: That explains Yin/Yang. It is all balance and harmony.
CSS: Yes, to some extent.
LB: And again we can recognize that our reactions to everything, even these concepts, are just natural, lt just is.
CSS: Concepts and reactions are the milestones on the path to Tao.
LB: By saying 'just natural' we are failing to appreciate the grandness and glory of nature.
CSS: Sublimation of nature by way of deification of the same and trying to see (realize) the unity behind its various names and forms as based on one substratum does not harm the glory of Nature.
LB: Perhaps Lao Tzu is giving us a tool by which we can realize what it means to be human.
CSS: Human is the stage on the evolutionary ladder to divinity.
LB: Maybe he didn't mean nature as a thing (mountain, river, beaver) but rather as a 'state of being' in which there is no forced control and where everything is permitted to pursue it's own 'natural' course.
CSS: Yes, but rather as a 'state of being'. This is true. The humanity expresses all the weaknesses because it is divided, that we call 'natural course' for one individual. But when one person finds the source of strength he pushes the level of intellect and aspiration at a higher plane to which the whole humanity is raised.
LB: But isn't that just one side of the coin? For destruction is just as much a natural part of things.
CSS: In the meanwhile, the process of creation, sustenance and dissolution goes on, eternally.
LB: From what we've discussed, it can be said there exists no good or evil, Only Tao, from which springs Te and harmony.
CSS: Acharya Shankara says so, yes.
LB: Could it not be argued that there is room for an absolute ethic? For if we call Tao God, (not in the Judeo-Christian bearded guy sense of the word but in the Tao = God sense) There exists a part of God that is incomprehensible and transcending of us. Is it not possible that there is standard by which human conduct is judged?
CSS: Standards are social ethics that apply to majority, but not to revolutionaries, including those in the field of spirituality. These are revolutionary people who revolutionize the world of concepts and symbols, art and culture.
LB: Even if we could speak of such things (which I don't think we can) I don't think so, because if this 'Tao-God' is a judge, then 'Tao-God' would be judging and possibly condemning manifestations of himself. (As everything Te, which we are, Te is a manifestation of Tao or 'Tao-God')
CSS: Try to look at Tao-God as a Principle and not as anthropomorphic existence.
LB: Tao-God would be on the ultimate guilt trip. Tao-God the Ascetic!
CSS: Tao-God the Absolute.
LB: Tao-God enters stage left and proceeds to bang his head on the brick wall: 'Why do I keep making the same mistakes over and over!'
CSS: These are not mistakes; you are trying to analyze lower truth but cannot admit the necessity and reality of higher truth to which the analysis logical leads.
LB: Nausea Revulsion Self Doubt I never want to turn anything in. I am not worthy. Arrogance is writing things down.
CSS: This is not the way of self-criticism or introspection!
LB: What does it mean to act by 'non-action'?
CSS: As Lord Krishna says in the Gita, "When others are awake the yogi is sleeping, and when others are sleeping the yogi is fully awake!!!
LB: It must be something good. Look at all the beautiful Taoist art.
CSS: Yes, it is indeed Blissful, Truthful, and Divine. O Lord, lead me from darkness to Light, from falsehood to Truth, from mortality to Immortality.
c s shah