BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 7 Jan 2019
Throughout the world, Japan is famous for unique cultural traditions, which, strangely, all end in the suffix “do” [pronounced like “dough”!]
Do, or Tao, or Taoism, is the root of Zen—that philosophy or discipline that characterizes so much of the culture of Japan. We all know about Judo, for example, which means “the way of self-defense.” There is also Aikido, “the way of the meeting of force and spirit.” And Kendo, “the way of the sword.” There is Sado, “the way of poetry”; and several others. Obviously, do means “the way of.”
But, what exactly do we mean by “the way of”?
Westerners are certainly comfortable speaking of the practice or discipline of an art or sport. But this suffix embraces so much more.
“Do” is derived from “Tao,” the “Way,” and it is at least as old as the writings of Lao Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher of the sixth Century B.C.. He is a quasi-mythic figure and little is known about his personal life, but he was, we discern, rather anti-rationalist: “He who knows, does not say; he who says, does not know,” he declares, and he would have been the last to attempt a pin-me-down and pin-it-up definition of so slippery a thing as Tao. In fact, his enduring masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching [“The Book of the Way”] is basically a teasing, poetic intimation of the ways in which Tao eludes exposition!
In his popular translation of the I-Ching [“The Book of Changes”] Sam Reifler writes: “Tao…is a gateway. It is the gateway through which we are constantly passing. We are never before the gate, nor beyond it. Nothing exists except there, with us, at the moment, in the gateway. We are always on the path, we are always in the Way, we are always in Tao—even if we don’t feel that we are.”
That’s a pretty elusive definition in itself, but it will serve. The gateway implies discovery, and to be “in Tao” is to be in a state of perpetual discovery; and that would imply a state of openness to the world’s wonders.
The gateway is both the end of one world and the beginning of another. But when we stand in the gateway, we are in both worlds at once. The gateway is what exists between the future and the past; it is, in other words, this very ungraspable present.
I say ungraspable because, as soon as we think we have it, it is already a moment in the past. And until we have it, it is merely a dream of the future. The redoubtable poet and questioner, T. S. Eliot, wrestled all his life with the conundrum of time. In Four Quartets he had an epiphany:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
That is the balm of understanding that eliminates regret. Every moment is ripe for action and discovery—if we are paying attention! “The readiness is all,” Shakespeare tells us. “Ripeness is all.”
Grasping this too-fluid moment is exactly what Do, or Tao, or Taoism is all about. It’s about bringing the past and future together—the whole enchilada!—and reconciling opposites; bringing light and dark, good and evil, male and female, Yin and Yang together in balance and in harmony. It is, moreover, about converging the everyday, humdrum world and the miraculous.
“A special contribution of Zen to Eastern thought,” Kazuko Okakura wrote in her classic, The Book of Tea, “was its recognition of the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual. It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe.”
(When I read that I thought of “The Big Bang Theory”—the idea that, at some moment in eternity, an atom took it into its infinitesimal noggin to explode into a Cosmos! And, it is still expanding!)
French philosopher Pascal looked up at the night sky and cried out: “Oh the terror of those infinite spaces!”–a cry of separation, wounded by vastness and incomprehensibility. (Centuries later, Joseph Conrad cried out similarly, contemplating our human hearts of darkness: “Oh the horror!”). Tao recognizes the mundane, fleeting and incomprehensible…and reminds us that all time and all space were contained within the first atom of God (or, we need not masculinize nor feminize–call It “the Infinite,” “the Eternal.”). Another epiphany from Four Quartets:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Within an infinite, eternal universe, there is either no center, or everywhere is the center. The “Big U” expands and contracts over eons, and the miracle is that we are part of it. Male flows into female and vice versa. We are constantly becoming.
This truth within thy mind rehearse,
That in a boundless universe
Is boundless better, boundless worse.
Tennyson wrote in “The Two Voices,” after the death of his BFF Arthur Hallam—a self-dialoguing poem about suicide. And that, too, is the nature of our lives—ever expanding, ever contracting. And who has not thought about the end of it all? With all the challenges, with all the storms, how to keep a steady keel? We are constantly becoming, expanding into greater awareness, knowledge, strength, honing our edges; and we are constantly contracting, wilting, shrinking, aging…compelled to re-write the script.
It all depends on how one looks at it. Perceived properly, every atom has the same potential as the first atom; every atom—including ourselves—contains a new universe within. Perceived properly, we also have the potential to lose ourselves, in one way or another, in a moment. (The Bard again: “Nothing is but good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”)
I would like to provide a framework for the Spirit of Tao. The task reminds me of a song from the ‘60s. The rock-group, “Earth, Wind & Fire” transformed a simple Zen poem into an incantatory refrain:
First there is a mountain
then there is no mountain
then there is. (repeat)
When we approach this subject, it is like approaching a great mountain: it seems we could never climb to such a summit, that the goal must ever elude us. (First there is a mountain.) But, gradually, as we study the matter, as we discipline our minds, hearts, and bodies through Judo, Sado, etc., it seems that we just may be able to understand, we just may be able to glimpse the view from the top. (“Then there is no mountain.”) Then, as we climb still further, and go a little deeper into ourselves, the mountain seems to rise up again, challenging us anew.
We in the Western world like numbers and formulae: 2 + 2 = 4 and E=mc2, for example. In the Eastern world, there’s a preference for hinting and suggesting. This causes all sorts of trouble when negotiating business deals. Westerners like the firmness of handshakes and contracts; Easterners prefer all that a bow, a nod, a tone of voice may imply. Of course, there are implications in facial expressions and vocal tones—and all people would be wise to consider them. (Darwin even wrote a book about the evolution and importance of facial expressions!) But, generally, in the East, more attention is paid to such. The English language is the international language of science, technology, hard facts and precision. Yet, one cannot find a word or expression like hira-hira in the English language. But there are many such words in Japanese; many such words with meanings like, “the sound of the beating of butterfly wings.”
One way is not better than another, only different. Now more than ever, as we swirl around quicksand pools of “social media,” and the House of Mirrors of “mass media” and the “MSM,” while we reap the fruits and countenance the challenges of these eternal and momentary times, it behooves us to understand the differences and sameness of the Tao.
“Those who say, do not know,” Laot Tzu said. And, “Those who know, do not say.” A few centuries later, the Chinese poet and comic wit Po-Chu-I noted that Lao Tzu then continued for some 5000 words saying what he did not know! (But, to be fair to Lao Tzu, he had tried to suggest another way of thinking and feeling, another way to be within the mystery of life. Thinking and feeling and being!)
So, today, in the footsteps of the Chief, I would like to do what most Asians would never presume to do: I would like to attempt a framework for Tao! I do this based on my lifetime of learning and experiences; and based on my inscrutable follies!
In my framework, there are six sides. (One could have more or fewer, but six will do.) I like six because the central image of the Tao is the torii, or gateway. Now, when we imagine this gateway, let us not imagine the simple garden gate of the white picket fence that one passes through. Let’s imagine, instead, the grand gateways or toriis of Japan: the large, red, wooden or metal structures before temples or shrines that one passes under and through. One could also pass around these toriis; there is no attempt to close off the temple or shrine from the mundane world or the circumambulating tourist!
These toriis call our attention to the presence of the divine. They “frame” the temple, the ambient world, ourselves, and the moment. They come in various shapes and sizes, but all have the general pattern of two pillars supporting a horizontal bar that overlaps each pillar. Imagine two capital “t’s” put together thus: TT; now imagine another cross-bar a bit under the top one, like this: tt.
Of all the toriis I’ve seen in my peregrinations during five years of teaching and traveling around Japan, my favorite is the massive one at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima. The shrine and temple complex there is set at the water’s edge, and when the tide comes in, the huge torii—16 meters high, with cross-beams of 22 meters—appears to float in the sea. Its vermillion reflection floats like a dream upon the azure, dusk-tinged water—a spectral gateway between the worlds. Viewed from the sea-corridor leading to the shrine, with the mountains behind it and the white clouds scudding above, it seems the very embodiment of the symbolic meeting of spirit and matter.)
And it has six sides. Its horizontal cross-beam is doubled—like the first two lines of a musical score, as though it waits for the grace notes to be written. Its two massive pillars, with the girth of great firs, are buttressed by two orthogonal structures that rise halfway to the top cross-beam and reach backward to the shrine and forward to the mountains, rippling like scarlet silk in the gentle waters. This six-sided torii has stood its watery ground these seven hundred years. It stood its ground when nearby Hiroshima was shaken to death. And it has heard “the sound of the beating of butterfly wings.”
So let me use this as my symbol; let me use this as the frame for Tao.
The first side of the frame is humility, the sine qua non. When one enters a Japanese teahouse, one bends low and creeps through a three-foot-high door into a small room. The mighty shogun warrior-monarchs of Japan entered in this way, and so did the wandering monk. In the eyes of the universe we are all equal and each of us has an equal chance to attain enlightenment.
Beginning with the Renaissance, when Westerners re-discovered the Greek virtues of individualism, we have tended to glorify the artist above the art. The trend became pronounced during the Romantic Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. In our own times, it appears that celebrity is the main thing, not art and not character…, and the idea is to get famous however one can and as fast as one can.
(I recently heard modern art defined by a “serious” critic as “whatever the artist does.” Or was it, “whatever the artists says it is”—which is even worse…far too “top-down”! Such circuitous definitions have nothing to do with the spirit of Tao. We need to remember that the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were built and ornamented by nameless artisans. Always remembering and reverent, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote at the beginning of each of his compositions the Latin words Soli Deum Gloria (“Only to God is the glory.”) That is the spirit of Tao.
The second side of our frame is related to the first. It is the idea of refined poverty. That is a hard nut for Westerners to crack: How can poverty be refined? A society based on material well-being castigates poverty and those who are poor. But one remembers Henry David Thoreau living in a cabin—about the size of a teahouse—on the edge of Walden pond. Thoreau said that the secret of life could be expressed in three words: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” He said he had three chairs in his cabin: one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.
Taoism, and its related branch of Zen in Japan, can deeply understand the vows of poverty taken by Saint Francis of Assisi. Burning with an inner fire, Francis made his life his art.
But only a handful of mortals can ever achieve such grandeur. In Taoism, the refinement of poverty means making the most of what one has available, using simple, clean lines, being unafraid of silence and emptiness; not wasting—money, food, others’ patience, one’s own and others’ time.
Out of silence and emptiness, new life sprouts. The refinement of poverty is the spirit of acceptance with which the haiku poet wrote:
The barn has burned down!
Now at last I can enjoy
the sight of the moon.
The third side of our frame I’ll call process. Since we are always standing in the gateway, the actual arrival is less important than how one gets there. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Traveling hopefully is better than arriving.” The greatness of life lies in its potential. In America, we rarely consider how a work of art is made; we concentrate on the finished product. In the East, the process is at least as important. Those who practice Tao believe that we train the spirit to be receptive. True beauty comes from mentally completing the incomplete.
One of my favorite stories is about a painting contest in which the Emperor urges the greatest painters of the day to paint a flock of geese just taking flight. Many masters presented delicate and beautiful works, but first prize was awarded to a painting that was mostly blank space. But…in the upper right corner of that nearly blank canvas was the webbed foot of the last goose taking flight. The master Taoist painter allowed the viewer to fill in the details. He knew exactly which strokes to make to suggest flight. Just as the Swiss sculptor Giacometti suggested the range of human suffering, alienation, and triumph in the thinnest of human figures, so the Taoist speaks volumes with silence. The Taoist believes that the finished product, “the art,” is the expression of the sublimity of the process. Getting the process right means properly aligning the spirit and the work.
In New York City, I had the good fortune to have a wise high-school principal named Louis Schucher (I’m not sure of the spelling). Addressing our junior class assembly one day, he taught with metaphors and similes like so: A father sees a map of the world in a magazine, cuts it out and cuts it into pieces, then gives it to his son to Scotch-tape it together.
The father thinks he will keep his studious son busy for a while and he will test his geography at the same time! Dad settles into his favorite reclining chair to read his evening paper. (Yes, people still read newspapers in reclining chairs back then!) Dad is astonished when the clever young boy completes the test in ten minutes!
“On the back of the picture of the map of the world,” the boy explains, “was a picture of a man…. I put the man together, and the world came together.”
Though my principal did not call it such, that is the process of Tao….
The fourth side of our frame is age and tradition. The Taoist reveres these. It has been said that the Japanese merely copy other cultures—Korea first, then China, now the United States—and that they cannot invent anything. This, of course, is nonsense. I would say instead that the Japanese artist is constantly inventing—if we think of “invention” as “refinement.”
Japanese culture stretches back some 1500 years, and the Japanese see no reason to constantly reinvent the wheel. In Japan, temples and shrines are re-built; there are none of the ancient ruins one finds in Greece or Italy. By re-working the traditional forms, Japanese artists pays homage to those who preceded them. The wild originality that may provide each of us in the West with fifteen minutes of fame is incomprehensible and would be undesirable to the Taoist artist.
The fifth side of our frame is focus. Describing the art of calligraphy, Tessen Horino wrote: “Do…means to pursue a certain purpose at the risk of forfeiting one’s life.” Genuine artists know that when they are truly within their art, they enter a new dimension of time. I’ve had this experience myself. I know I’m writing my best when I can look up from the page or computer screen and two hours have passed, but I have a sensation of a few minutes having passed. (Sometimes it feels like I am merely taking dictation!) When one is totally immersed in the work, absorbed by the work, one is practicing Do. Lovers gaze and gaze into each other’s eyes; a mother and her baby bond with tickling, giggling, and the fragrance of skin; children pass their days playing hide-and-seek, finding each other and finding themselves. This, too, is focus. This, too, is Do.
The sixth and last side of our frame hinges upon the fifth: I’ll call it the commingling or union of artist and art. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” William Butler Yeats wondered. In the spirit of Do there is no separation. The artist achieves spiritual revelations through the everyday practice and discipline of her work.
But, this state of oneness is more than discipline or practice. It involves the body, spirit and intuition as much as the analytical mind.
This is how do transcends the idea of mere practice or discipline. When embroiderers speak of Nuido, they imply a state of oneness with the art, a state of grace achieved through practice or discipline. This state of oneness connotes much more than the analytical words “discipline” or “practice.” In this state, art seems to call forth itself: the target calls the arrow to its center; the implicit design calls forth the Master’s hand for actualization. It is the same state of grace and oneness which Michelangelo achieved when he remarked that he had merely “released” David from his prison of marble.
These, then, are the six themes that unite the culture of Do, the culture of Japan: humility; refined poverty; process; age and tradition; focus; and spiritual union. As we bring these themes and this practice into our everyday lives, into our business and personal relationships, we spiritualize the everyday, realize and manifest our connections to the infinite and eternal, to ourselves and each other.
Only a handful is as gifted as a Michelangelo, a Saint Francis, a Lady Murasaki. Yet, each of us is born with the capacity to consecrate our daily lives, to simplify and focus, to be the artists of our own creations. It requires attention to detail, and a surpassing knowledge that we are standing in the gateway now and forever.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Quest magazine in 1997.
Dr. Gary Steven Corseri is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He has published/posted poems, articles, fiction and dramas at Transcend Media Service and hundreds of publications and websites worldwide. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta. He edited the “Manifestations” literary anthology. He has published 2 novels and 2 poetry collections, has taught in US public schools and prisons and in US and Japanese universities. Contact: Gary_Corseri@comcast.net.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Jan 2019.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Six-Sided Tao, is included. Thank you.
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