Oy! The Eternal Dao

The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.
-Daodejing 1:1

Many cultures come to be shaped by titanic struggles between the legacies of great thinkers. Plato and Aristotle. Madhva and Shankara. Hillel and Shammai, or the Rambam and Moses de Leon. In China, it is without a doubt Confucious (Kongfuzi, 551-479 BC) and Zhuangzi (one of the two great sages of Daoism, 369-286 BC). Both were concerned with the way (the Dao) which they conceived as the great pattern, or cosmic harmony, which human beings must align themselves with for the sake of health, peace and wisdom.

Confucious and Zhuangzi (pronounced joo-ang-tsih) differed over how and where this Dao was to be found and what it meant to be in harmony with it. For Confucious the Dao was the human way, or the way of culture. It was expressed in human life in two principles: li (ritual) and ren (humaneness). Li is not just correct ceremony, though it includes that. It is civilization itself- it is the symphony of etiquette, self-control, the arts, and educated refinement which thoroughly civilized behaviour requires. For Confucious li must always go together with ren, or humaneness. Humaneness is kindness, consideration for others, warmth of heart, other-centredness. To follow li and cultivate ren is, for Confucious, to be in harmony with the Dao- the human way.

Zhuangzi couldn’t disagree more. Zhuangzi felt that the way of harmony for human beings is not the way of humanity but the way of nature. For him the Dao transcends personal, or even human concerns. Harmony with it is not cultivated by learning but by un-learning. For Zhuangzi the Confucian way of encouraging learning, ritual and the intentional cultivation of personal virtues was disastrous, an illusion. Critiquing the politics of the bureaucratic state (which came to implement Confucian principles more and more), Zhuangzi wrote:

The Yellow Emperor began to confuse the mind of man with “benevolence” and “righteousness”. In their great exertions to satisfy the physical needs of man, Yao and Shun scraped the hair from their legs….when the age of the dynasties began, the world was in for a real shock….the equal share that all men had in potential was destroyed, and the natural order of things burdened and sank…the world loved Confucian wisdom and became insatiable in its desires. The executioner’s ax and saw carried out their task. Death was dealt out according to guidelines. Men proceeded with hammer and chisel and the world was torn asunder and driven into extreme disorder.”

Zhuangzi, like his spiritual ancestor Laozi (571 BC-?; author of the Daodejing), idealized simple village life far from cities and state machinery. Where Confucian self-mastery was won by disciplined thought, Zhuangzi advocated “fasting from thought”, spontaneity, simplicity, detachment from social norms and expectations, and personal freedom close to nature.

I don’t think anyone would debate that Judaism has favoured the approach of Confucious over the approach of Zhuangzi. I don’t think this is a mistake. I would argue that both individuals and societies, even if they occasionally dip into the chaotic waters of Zhuangzi, must most of the time strive to live in the rule-bound harmony of Confucious. This pursuit of etiquette and virtue is called, in classical Judaism, derech eretz. It is civilized behaviour. Interestingly the Maharal (R. Yehudah Loew of Prague, 1520-1609) made a distinction between derech eretz and derech olam, the latter of which he characterized as the way of nature. The phrase derech eretz literally means the “way of place” and implies contextuality and locality, ideas central to civilized behavior. Derech olam means the “way of the cosmos”. The word “olam” suggests expansiveness and open-endedness in Hebrew. Zhuangzi’s argument boils down to saying that derech eretz does not to lead to social peace or wellbeing, but to hypocrisy, tension, and alienation from our true natures. Zhuangzi felt that if human beings returned to derech olam the “nightmare of history” would end and humans would return to our naturally good state, a kind of self-organizing, benevolent childlike anarchy.

This idea is not strange to inheritors of European cultural history. Zhuangzi’s thought finds echoes in anarchism and romanticism and more recently in the cultural movements of the 60’s. In many ways, in fact, aspects of our social culture in North America (not our political culture) seems to move towards Zhuangzi. Formal manners and social etiquette are ever more disappearing, and there is a seemingly ever growing anti-intellectualism, amoral relativism, and focus on individual freedom.

In my own family the fight between Confucious and Zhuangzi played out in several mundane ways, one of which was conflict over table manners (which Confucious would have taken very seriously.) My grandparents, who were from a British background, valued them and insisted on various details such as not putting elbows on the table, moving the fork and knife in a certain way, etc. My Dad, who grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood as a typical anti-authoritarian baby boomer, thought all of this was ridiculous. On the way home from dinner at their house he would often mock their instructions, punctuating his comments with a “hm, yes, quite so” said in a campy Brit accent through a screwed up face. My Dad thought, not without validity, that focusing on such things missed what was really important in human relationships. Zhuangzi would have agreed.

It is important to realize, however, that the disagreement between Confucious and Zhuangzi is not just social and political, but more importantly concerns what makes a person whole, or truly human. Jews call this shleimut (wholeness). The Mussar movement of the Lithuanian Jewish world would agree with Confucious that it is learning and discipline that bring a person to shleimut. It is possible, however, that some Hasidim, at least some early Hasidim, might lean a little closer to Zhuangzi. It was the Hasidim, after all, that championed the devotion of the simple Jew against the learned mastery of the talmid chacham (scholar). It was Hasidim like Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) and Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1767-1827) who lauded temimut (wholeness, simplicity) and pshitut (honesty, straightforwardness) above all.

In fact, Zhuangzi might find a surprising defender and advocate in Rebbe Nachman, the Hasidic mystic and writer. As scholar Zvi Mark discusses at length in his masterful Mysticism and Madness, Rebbe Nachman advocated the need for a return to a childlike, foolish state of mind in which one forgot everything they knew and was willing to “roll on the ground like a madman” in order to serve God. He stated that in this frame of mind one would “throw away one’s daas (knowledge)” and attain a state of consciousness which went “beyond that of Moshe (who represents daas or Knowledge).” In this state of mind one would not be able to speak words of Torah and be in a state “before the Torah” like the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now one should be clear that the ideal for Rebbe Nachman was not to remain in this state all of the time. Far from it. As well as being a very grounded and pragmatic thinker (despite occasional appearances to the contrary!) Rebbe Nachman taught that one should study the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) every day without fail in order to clearly distinguish appropriate and good behaviour from the bad. You can not get more li than that.

Nevertheless, Rebbe Nachman seemed to assert that shleimut required the ability to occasionally “walk on the wild side” and howl at the moon with Zhuangzi (especially if the moon is understood as the shekhina). Perhaps something is lost when we spend all of our time cultivating our left brains, no matter how important that cultivation is. The place without thought, where nature is nature and the world is seen afresh through child-like eyes, was where Zhuangzi sought to live. Maybe we would be better off if we out down our books and occasionally joined him there.

How? Not through self-indulgence, whimsy, or chaos, which Zhuangzi was not advocating. For Zhuangzi the Dao was found in the quiet, natural mind which silently and brightly illumined itself and the flow of nature around it. It was found in restoring natural vitality to the body and “breathing through the feet”. Zhuangzi beckons us to the fields and forests to walk and look and listen quietly. Interestingly, Rebbe Nachman beckons us to the same place. The Rebbe was constantly admonishing his disciples to leave town and wander in the forests and fields singing and talking to God. “When you do so”, he advised, “The grasses and trees sing to God along with you.”

As Jews we put a great premium on derech eretz, and we should. In the loud, increasingly brash and vulgar world we find ourselves in, it is more important than ever. Let’s not forget, however, that we may need to walk outside the city gates, to pray without form, and to look and listen quietly, letting the derech olam course through our bodies. There may be another face of God waiting for us there.


Beyond Us and Them

Jesus and Gandhi on the Politics of Polarization

When I was younger I used to go to protest marches. Although initially energized by the solidarity and sense of positive power that gathered around the protesters I usually found that by the end of the march I felt alienated and dispassionate. I felt that way not about the cause, but about the gathering. It was hard to put my finger on what the problem was at first. Something about the tone: angry, self-righteous. Confrontational. In one phrase: us against them.

I don’t deny the existence of bad guys in the world. But I do think they are exceedingly rare. Duplicity, self-absorption, ignorance, opportunism- these are very real, and all of us are guilty, or at least I am. But real villains- they are few and far between. What I disliked about the energy of the protests was the sense that we were on the side of heaven- righteous, possessed of the truth, and in a holy wrath- and our opponents were benighted, evil, ignorant, and even subhuman- “pigs”, as one common slur goes.

There are three things I dislike about this approach. 1) It is not true. 2) The sense of righteousness- the sense of moral and intellectual superiority- can itself become an addicting brew, intoxicating the conscience and leading one to a view life through a distorting glass that renders everything falsely black and white. 3) This approach, so often hostile and dehumanizing, is both violent and ineffectual. It is violent because it is tainted with ill-will, and ineffective because it blocks off communication between parties in conflict and instead of reaching out to and activating the good in the other side. It provokes defensive postures with all the blindness they also bring.

Of the three the last may be most serious. As long as we demonize our opponents we will provoke them to withdraw behind defences and in turn demonize us.

Gandhi developed a strategy of political transformation which worked in precise opposition to the above dynamic, which he called satyagraha. It consisted of a combination of a commitment to non-violence with an appeal to what was highest in one’s opponent. “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion….there must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure.” (Prabhu and Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi).

Interestingly, Jesus used a similar method. A case in point is the story of Jesus and the tax collector Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In this story Jesus is passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, having avoided the town’s desire to give him hospitality. A tax collector (ie. a wealthy Jewish collaborator with the Romans) runs ahead of Jesus and climbs into a tree to see him. Jesus, seeing Zaccheus, tells him that he will stay at his house. The crowd, up until now in love with the new celebrity preacher, becomes incensed. They would have expected Jesus to upbraid Zaccheus for being of the “1%” and lecture him on how he should quit cooperating with Rome and make restitution to his own people, a people afflicted with poverty and crushed beneath the heel of the Romans. But he doesn’t do that- instead, recognizing the potential good in Zaccheus, he appeals to that good point, showing the man honour and going into his house. Zaccheus, moved, in fact does pledge to make restitution to those he impoverished. He decides this his own free will, as a transformed man.

As the great African-American mystic Howard Thurman, a colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in Jesus and The Disinherited, it is surely a very important fact that when the great messenger of God arrived he was born as a dirt poor member of an oppressed minority living under colonial domination. As such Jesus made three important choices: 1) between resistance and accommodation he chose resistance; 2) between violence and non-violence he chose non-violence; and 3) rather than hating his enemy and cataloguing their wrongs he preached, “Love your enemy” and catalogued his own people’s wrongs.

This takes courage. When the Roman government is taxing you to death, outlawing your religious freedoms, killing your leaders as political dissidents, and who knows what else, it takes amazing hutzpah to wander the villages pointing out to your fellow Jews what they need to do to set their own spiritual and moral integrity in order.

What most interests me this approach is the way it undercuts the us versus them approach on two counts: 1) it slays the two-headed beast of self- glorification and denomination of others, with all the blindness it brings in its wake; and 2) makes room for dialogue through appealing to common humanity.

It is so nice to feel one is on the side of angels. Canadian and not American is how it sometimes goes where I live. A worker and not a boss. With the Palestinians and against the Israelis. A treehugger, not a resource manager. An atheist and not a religious nut. Or vice versa. But people, and life, are endlessly more complicated. Only with a careful, loving understanding can we come to anything like the truth of our common humanity, common needs, and common guilt.

And why do we need the truth? An old Jewish saying points out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת) when written in in Hebrew, uses three letters that all have two legs. Falsehood, by contrast (שקר) is written with three letters that each have one leg or sit on a curve. The lesson? Falsehood is a bad foundation; only truth lasts. Denomination, half-truths, and manipulative propaganda will not produce lasting good. That can only arise from the complex and humbling truth.

A Word From Jean Klein

There is not only hope, there is the certainty that we will one day live in beauty. We come from beauty and beauty cannot but look for beauty.

-Transmission of the Flame, Intro p. xxii

The Moon Viewing Party

Soto Zen and the Way of Breslov

I was recently at a Zen sesshin led by Norman Fischer in Bellingham where he gave a talk on the following koan (Ch. kung’an, a record of a spiritual dialogue). It reverberated in my mind afterwards and I wrote the following in the Greyhound station on the way home. Here is the case as I remember it:

Mazu Daoyi (709-788), Baizhang Huihai (720-814), Xitang Zhizang (735-814), and Nanquan Puyuan (749-835) went out to view the full moon.
“What should one do at a time like this?”, asked Mazu.
“It is a good time to cultivate practice”, said Baizhang.
“It is a good time to recite scriptures [and make spiritual merit]”, said Zhizang.
Nanquan flapped his sleeves and left.
Mazu said:
Meditation returns to the ocean
Merit goes into the treasury
Only Nanquan goes completely beyond.

In Zen symbolism the full moon often represents the awakened mind: the Buddha nature which is luminous, free, and ever present but obscured by our ordinary grasping mind. The meaning of Mazu’s question, in Zen code, is: “At a time when the Buddha nature is evident, what should one do?”

The other three monks (Baizhang, Zhizang and Nanquan) were students of Mazu. Baizhang answers: “A good time to cultivate practice.” It is a good time to refine our minds further, to remove subtle obstructions to the clarity of our awakening awareness.

Zhizang answers, “It is a good time to recite scriptures (literally, sutras) {and make merit}.” This is a more indirect approach to developing awakening. Zhizang believes that the awakening mind must unfold naturally and that the chief obstacles to such unfolding are karmic obscurations (bad psychological and moral habits which cloud consciousness and impede spiritual progress). Therefore when the awakened mind does manifest, there is nothing one can do to develop it. One should instead engage in meritorious activities which purify one’s karma and the awakened mind will unfold on its own. Zhizang and Baizhang have diametrically opposed responses. Zhizhang suggests willful refinement of one’s state of mind. Baizhang suggests taking your mind off the development of your state of consciousness and engaging in virtous actions which bring blessing and remove the obscurations which prevent the awakened mind from unfolding naturally. And what of Nanquan’s abrupt and cryptic response?

Nanquan shakes out his sleeves and departs. This symbolizes simply dropping the idea of doing anything in particular and moving on without attachment. Nanquan says, in effect, “Do not cultivate the mind or engage in purification. Simply let things be and continue, neither pursuing nor rejecting.” These three views are reflected in Mazu’s poetic response to their answers:

“Meditation returns to the ocean” refers to Baizhang. It is a play on his Chinese name, which contains the word “ocean”. Meditation is helpful for Baizhang, but…

“Merit goes into the treasury” refers to Zhizong, whose name contains the word “treasury”. Reciting sutras is helpful to Zhizong, but…

Only Nanquan goes completely beyond. “Going completely beyond” is, of course, the purpose of Zen practice. The other answers are good, but it is Nanquan who embodies Zen.

What do we see through a Jewish lens? The full moon might be equated to the attainment of a direct experience of God. What should one do at such a time? Zhizang says: Deepen it. Refine it. Cleave to it in d’vekut (union).

Baizhang says: You yourself cannot bring on such an experience. Rather you merited it through your Torah and mitzvot (study of truth and good deeds). Increase your study, prayer, and good deeds. Through them you will draw the light of the shekhina (indwelling presence of God) upon you and warrant perceptions of Godliness.

Both seem like good kosher advice, and wise too. What of Nanquan’s advice? At first glance his answer doesn’t seem to make much sense. You experience God’s presence and you just drop it and move on? You’re joking! Equanimity and non-attachment may be the ultimate goals of Buddhism but they’re not the ultimate goals of Judaism. One doesn’t treat an experience of God as no better or no worse than any other experience and move on, prioritizing one’s freedom of mind!

But perhaps we are reading Nanquan superficially. Does Nanquan really believe that an experience of the awakened mind is no better and no worse than any other state of consciousness? Or is it that he understands that clinging to the experience and trying to perpetuate it is in fact an obstacle to its realization? The awakened mind is not a simple “peak experience” or samadhi, it is the experience of radical clarity and non-attachment itself. Similarly the experience of God’s presence is not any particular ecstasy or vision, although these may be included, rather it is a revelation of reality itself and of one’s place in it.

It seems to me there are two ways to understand Nanquan’s approach. The first way to understand Nanquan is that his gesture communicates that any attempt to perpetuate the experience of the ultimate is in fact an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To serving God in the next moment.

Reb Nosson of Breslov (1780-1844), the great disciple of the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) points out that one must continuously renew one’s service of God. In Devarim 6:6 it speaks of the mitzvot “that I command you today”. Similarly Rashi writes, on Devarim 27:9, that one’s serving God should always be as though one were starting anew “today” (Likutey Halachot Tefillin 5:5). The Arizal taught that God does not just renew Creation every day, but every second, and that each second the universe is a completely different universe (The Seven Beggars, note, p. 12). Therefore one’s service must be new every moment. It was for this reason that King David was compared to the moon, which is always changing and ever renewed. Like the moon so is life. Thus the Jewish calendar is based on the moon to teach us that we muct constantly renew ourselves and our service of God (Ibid). The insights of the last moment are not the insights of this moment.

A second way to understand Nanquan’s gesture is as communicating that when one experiences God, whether in Torah study, prayer, contemplation, in the face of another, or the unfolding of one’s life- is that a place where “God is” and other places where “God is not?” Perhaps Nanquan’s response is equivalent to a level of d’vekut where it is understood that every experience is God. Thus there is fundamentally nowhere to progress to. A dialogue I had with a (Jewish) Zen teacher comes to mind.

I commented to Peter Levitt, sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle, that a Sufi parable teaches that religions are like crafts which carry one to the other shore of a river. Some people disdain such crafts and sink in the water. Some love the crafts so much that they spend all their time maintaining them, repairing them, elaborating them, and forget about crossing the stream. Peter smiled and said, “How does the water cross?”

Water is of course already there. The water is the true basis of one’s travel, and God is the true basis of all experience and all practice (or non-practice). God is already there.

So, is Nanquan right and Baizhang and Zhizang wrong? Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the great Japanese Soto Zen founder, comments on this case in the Eihei Koroku: “All of them together make a nice moon viewing party.”


The Many Things Are Good Friends

Shunryu Suzuki and Lurianic Kabbalah

I had an insight into Kabbalah today while reading the words of a Zen sage, Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971). Suzuki Roshi (as he is called by his North American students) was instrumental in bringing Soto Zen spiritual practice to the United States. I have some slight connection to his lineage, having practiced Zen meditation with students of his lineage- Peter Levitt and Norman Fischer. Like many people in North America who have practiced Buddhism (perhaps most) I have read Suzuki Roshi’s beloved book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Today, however, I was reading a lesser known book of his called Branching Steams Flow In The Darkness. It is a transcription of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings in the 70’s on an ancient Japanese poem called the Sandokai, which can be translated as “The Interpenetration of The Ultimate and the Relative.” This, like all of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings, is marked by gentility, humour, maturity, and an enticing combination of nuance and directness. As I read it I am struck both by how I resonate with many aspects of his teaching and not with some others, which don’t fit my own deepest intuitions. In any case, as I read it today I was struck by something which shot like an arrow through my mind and hit a surprising and seemingly distant target: a teaching by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century Ashkenazi-Israeli Kabbalist known as the Arizal, who reshaped Jewish mystical teachings in his brief life (1534-1572). The Arizal was also much concerned with what could be called the “interplay of the ultimate and the relative” or the interplay of the being of God, “The Endless One Blessed Be” and the being of phenomena- “materiality” or “the shell (kelipa) which conceals divinity”.

The passage from Suzuki Roshi I was reading is this one: “Kai means to shake hands. You have a feeling of friendship. You feel that the two of you are one. In the same way, this one great whole being and the many things are good friends, or more than good friends because they are originally one.”

According to the Kabbalah of the Arizal, when the Holy One, Blessed Be created the universe it burst into a million fragments racing madly away from eachother. From an original point which was so unified, so whole, that it transcended our mode of existence entirely, came being and being implies beings. These quanta of being raced away from eachother, sparks of light becoming enclosed in the “husks” (klipot) of materiality. These energetic threads thus spun forth to become a great web of interdependent moving, humming, transforming strands of materiality concealing divine light within. With the birth of phenomena of greater and greater complexity came, paradoxically, greater and greater individuality for each compounded phenomena. This apparent individuality is the essence of the Arizal’s idea of klipa as understood by the Alter Rebbe ( R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad Hasidism). Klipa conceals Divine Oneness because it appears to be independent phenomena.

In the world of the senses- the sensual universe which reveals materiality to us- we perceive a complex field of disparate objects with no obvious relation to each other besides contingent functional relationships. Our toaster and our running shoes appear to be unrelated inanimate objects with separate origins and purposes. It appears that way to me even when I consider the existence of the running shoe a miracle (why does it, or anything, exist at all?) or reflect that every moment, according to Torah, the whole of creation is willed into being by the Creator. The individual objects in my perception still seem alienated from each other. But perhaps they shouldn’t.

Rashi ( R. Shlomo Yizhaki, 1040-1105), commenting on the story of the Garden of Eden, asks why we are told that Adam was formed “from the dust of the earth”. He answers “To tell us that we all have a common origin- no descendant of Adam can claim higher rank.” In a similar way, all material phenomena- the running shoes, the oven, the flower on the table- are all united by a deep internal bond. A familial bond.

According to Lurianic Kabbalah all of the phenomena of our world were born from the same “singularity”- the singularity of Hashem’s willing of the Creation to arise in the womb created by tzimtzum. In that sense all things, no matter how high or low, are one family, deeply intimate with eachother, sharing an infinite bond and identical internal signature in their hidden recesses- much like human beings. This was what I was struck by while reading Suzuki Roshi’s comment “the great whole being and the many things are good friends…because they are originally one”.

If we reflect on this we can remove the illusion of being an alien in the universe, trapped in an expanse of lifeless, impersonal objects. We can contemplate the truth of the kinship of all things, that they are “all good friends”. Our apparent individuality is a common inheritance from a common parent.

We are united in our common origin in a way deep beyond our imaginations. In the end, paradoxically, even the fact of our individuality, as well as its nature, unites us as something we share.