Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
This week’s service is going to be a departure from my usual order of service. There will be a series of readings from the Tao Te Ching (mainly using Stan Rosenthal’s translation) each followed by a short exposition on that reading, and prayers.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Edwin C. Lynn)
We light the flame of knowledge;
May understanding be with us.
We light the flame of love;
May caring be among us.
We light the flame of holiness;
May the unifying spirit be within us.
Spirit of Life and Love,
be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
and the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
and help each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
who are grieving, lost, alone,
victims of violence and war,
suffering in any way, Amen
Reading from Tao Te Ching, Chapters 1 and 42: The embodiment of Tao and the transformation of the Tao (Stan Rosenthal translation, slightly adapted)
1 Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself. Even the finest name is insufficient to define it. Without words, the Tao can be experienced, and without a name, it can be known. To conduct one’s life according to the Tao, is to conduct [it] without regrets; to realise that potential within oneself which is of benefit to all.
Though words or names are not required to live one’s life this way, to describe it, names are used, that we might better clarify the Way of which we speak, without confusing it with other ways in which an individual might choose to live.
Through knowledge, intellectual thought and words, the manifestations of the Tao are known, but without such intellectual intent, we might experience the Tao itself. Both knowledge and experience are real, but reality has many forms, which seem to cause complexity.
By using the means appropriate, we extend ourselves beyond the barriers of such complexity, and so experience the Tao.
42 The Tao existed before its name, and from its name, the opposites evolved, giving rise to three divisions, and then to names abundant. These things embrace receptively, achieving inner harmony, and by their unity create the inner world of humankind.
No person wishes to be seen as worthless in another’s eyes, but the wise leader describes themself this way, for they know that one may gain by losing, and lose by gaining, and that a violent person will not die a natural death.
Exposition: What is Taoism?
In order to understand something about Taoism, it is first necessary to understand what the Tao is. The word Tao means a path or way, and hence a way of acting, or a principle or doctrine. There is a Tao of heaven, the way the universe works; and also a Tao of humankind in harmony with the universe. It is necessary to hold both these ideas together to understand the principles of Taoism.
On one level, Tao is the ultimate reality and unity behind the diversity of things. This is the meaning behind the first few lines of Chapter 42, which we’ve just heard. The Tao is the origin beyond the original. From Tao comes origin. From this origin come the two forces of yin and yang, which represent the great opposites. They are opposing but interdependent concepts – for example, without the idea of cold, we would not be able to describe heat. The aim is to achieve a balance between them. From yin and yang comes the triad of heaven, earth and humanity. From these come all forms of existence. In Taoist thought, life is kept spinning by the constant tension between the two opposing forces of yin and yang.
On another level, Tao is the way by which human beings live, and by losing which they die. Benjamin Hoff, in his wonderful book, The Tao of Pooh, writes, “basic Taoism… is simply a particular way of appreciating, learning from and working with whatever happens in everyday life. From the Taoist point of view, the natural result of this harmonious way of living is happiness.”
Reading from Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32: If the Tao were observed (Stan Rosenthal translation, slightly adapted)
The Tao is eternal, but does not have fame; like the uncarved block, its worth seems small, though its value to humankind is beyond all measure. Were it definable, it could then be used to obviate conflict, and the need to teach the way of the Tao. All people would abide in the peace of the Tao, sweet dew would descend to nourish the earth.
When the Tao is divided, there is a need for names, for like the block which is carved, its parts are then seen. By stopping in time from torment and conflict, strife is defeated and danger averted. The people then seek the wisdom of the Tao, just as all rivers flow to the great sea.
Exposition: P’u: the Uncarved Block.
Chapter 32 of the Tao Te Ching mentions an important Taoist concept – the Uncarved Block. In one way, the Tao is the ultimate uncarved block – the unity behind all multiplicity; the argument being that if the block is carved, there will be distinctions and names, and opposition to the unity of nature.
Benjamin Hoff’s way of explaining this principle is to say that, “things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.” He goes on to say that the average Chinese dictionary will define the written character P’u as “natural, simple, plain, honest.”
So what? you may ask. Well, in Taoism, this principle applies not only to natural beauty and function, but also to people. Simplicity is the key – an ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. The other side of this is more mysterious, perhaps, “the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times.”
To quote the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 67 this time) “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures – simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate towards yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
Prayer by Richard M. Fewkes
Source of life and death, ground of all being, Spirit of our spirits, whose we are in life and death – Life itself is the great mystery and death a part of it. In truth, we know not the one nor the other. We live and die in the mystery of being from moment to moment, till at the end we merge with the universe and marry the All in One, the One in All.
We pray for ourselves this day.
May we be more kind, tolerant and charitable toward one another,
and all with whom we share this globe of love and laughter and tears.
Knowing our mortal frame, that we have no given day with certainty,
may we be more ready to lend a helping hand,
to make someone’s life a little easier and happier,
by what we do or say,
bequeath a kinder and fairer world than we have received,
and at the last, bless the giver and receiver of life
for all we have and are in this world and in the world to come.
Reading from Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29: Taking No Action (Stan Rosenthal translation, slightly adapted)
The external world is fragile, and one who meddles with its natural way, risks causing damage to themselves. One who tries to grasp it, thereby loses it. It is natural for things to change, sometimes being ahead, sometimes behind.
There are times when even breathing may be difficult, whereas its natural state is easy. Sometimes one is strong, and sometimes weak, sometimes healthy, and sometimes sick, sometimes is first, and at other times behind.
The sage does not try to change the world by force, for he knows that force results in force. He avoids extremes and excesses and does not become complacent.
Exposition: Inner Nature: Things are as they are.
I spoke earlier about the concept of the Uncarved Block – the natural power contained by things and people who keep to the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Closely allied to this is the idea that everything and everybody has their own Inner Nature, and that it is important to recognise Things Are As They Are. Taoism teaches that we need to learn how to go with the flow, not meddling with the natural way, the Tao.
Benjamin Hoff explains this quite deliciously by using the Winnie the Pooh song, Cottleston Pie, in which Pooh poses three riddles: “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly; a fish can’t whistle and neither can I; and Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.”
“A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly” is another way of saying that we can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are. In other words, everything has its own place and function in the world, according to its own Inner Nature. If we pay attention to the Inner Nature of things and other people, we know where they belong. We also know where they (or we) don’t belong.
Second, “A fish can’t whistle and neither can I” is a simple recognition that everyone has their own limitations and it is the wise person that knows them. Then we won’t waste time doggedly trying to do what we are not designed for. Once we face and understand our limitations, we can work with them, instead of them working against us.
Last, “Why does a chicken, I don’t know why” is a celebration of the fact that actually, we don’t have to know why things work as they do, just rejoice in it. Everything has its own Inner Nature. The trick is to work with it and recognise that Things Are As They Are.
To conclude in the words of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. If powerful men and women could centre themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” (Chapter 37, Stephen Mitchell translation).
Musical Interlude Still We Rise by Elizabeth Harley
Reading from Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8: The Way of Water (Stephen Mitchell translation)
The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content simply to be yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.
Exposition Wu Wei: Non-Action.
Closely related to recognising Things Are As They Are is the principle of Wu Wei, the way of water. Translated literally, Wu Wei means “without doing, causing, or making”. But practically, it means, “no going against the nature of things.”
As Benjamin Hoff explains, “The efficiency of Wu Wei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path [an approach] that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.” The idea is to work with the natural order of things and to operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made by people, we ignore the natural law and interfere with things, trying to control them.
To quote Hoff again, “When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and [vice versa]. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about [such things]. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.”
The trick of Wu Wei is that we don’t have to try to make things work out, we simply allow them to do so. And somehow, things happen in the right way at the right time.
Put another way, Wu Wei is the art of being. It is the art of being in such harmony with the Tao that everything happens as it should – not forced, not sought after, not planned, not bought, not desired – it just happens.
Prayer The miracle by Sydney Knight
Greater Spirit, we pause for a moment to consider the strange miracle of our present prayer:
that we are here, alive, aware, conscious of ourselves, of each other, of Thee.
We are immersed in a great mystery, the mystery of living being.
We, who once were not, who have no memory of our beginnings,
who know not when our individual awareness began,
who sometimes wonder whence we are,
yet feel within us the unbroken thread of
that life which goes back to the beginning of time.
We did not ask for life, yet we are here,
and life is ours.
We love life, for within us is the Spirit of Life.
Help us, we pray, to treasure this mysterious, miraculous gift,
neither despising nor neglecting any opportunity for good,
neither spoiling nor avoiding any moment of beauty,
neither marring nor falsifying any vision of truth,
never shunning any possibility of love.
Increase in us awareness of ourselves as
privileged custodians of a life which is not ours alone;
of a life which we inevitably share with others,
in which all hurts are felt by all,
and in which all good is shared by all.
Give us always to remember that our life is also thy life.
O God, the constant miracle of our very being,
day and night, from before our birth
until the end of our days. Amen
Reading from Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11: The Utility of Non-existence (Stan Rosenthal translation)
Though thirty spokes may form the wheel,
It is the hole within the hub
which gives the wheel utility.
It is not the clay the potter throws,
which gives the pot its usefulness,
but the space within the shape,
from which the pot is made.
Without a door, the room cannot be entered,
and without windows, it is dark.
Such is the utility of non-existence.
Exposition T’ai Hsü: the Great Nothing
This Taoist concept may perhaps be the most difficult for us to comprehend, because it goes most against the grain of Western society and Western thought.
Taoists associate Empty Minds with clarity of vision. Benjamin Hoff illustrates it like this, “while the Clear Mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness Mind wonders what kind of bird is singing. The more stuffed up it is, the less it can hear through its own ears and see through its own eyes. Knowledge and Cleverness tend to concern themselves with the wrong sort of things, and a mind confused by Knowledge, Cleverness and Abstract Ideas tends to go chasing after things that don’t matter or don’t even exist, instead of seeing, appreciating and making use of what is right in front of it.”
Our use of meditation techniques are perhaps an attempt to embrace the concept of T’ai Hsü: we are required to clear our minds and centre down and be present in the here and now. The problem with our society is that we tend to equate Emptiness with Loneliness and spend our time desperately trying to fill in all the spaces in our lives. Whereas the Taoist would say that we should sit back and appreciate those same spaces.
Hoff argues that, “the human mind is a marvellous thing. It can gather, analyse, sort and store information so automatically, skilfully and effortlessly that it makes the most sophisticated computer look like a toy. But it can do infinitely more. The power of a clear mind is beyond description.”
The idea is that there is a stage of development beyond the adult – that of the independent, clear-minded, all-seeing child. Hoff suggests that, “the wise are Children Who Know. Their minds have been emptied of the countless minute somethings of small learning, and filled with the wisdom of the Great Nothing, the Way of the Universe.”
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Gordon B. McKeeman, adapted)
How does one address a mystery?
Cautiously — let us go cautiously, then, to the end of our certainty, to the boundary of all we know, to the rim of uncertainty, to the perimeter of the unknown which surrounds us.
Reverently — let us go with a sense of awe, a feeling of approaching the powerful holy whose lightning slashes the sky, whose persistence splits concrete with green sprouts, whose miracles are present in every place and moment.
Hopefully — out of our need for wholeness in our own lives, the reconciliation of mind and heart, the conjunction of reason and passion, the intersection of the timeless with time.
Quietly — for no words will explain the inarticulate or summon the presence that is always present even in our absence.
But what shall we say?
Anything — any anger, any hope, any fear, any joy, any request, any word that comes from the depth of being addressed to Being itself – or perhaps nothing, no complaint, no request, no entreaty, no thanksgiving, no praise, no blame, no pretence of knowing or of not knowing.
Simply be in the intimate presence of mystery, unashamed — unadorned — unafraid.
And at the end say – Amen
Closing Words by Mark Belletini
Go in peace. Live simply, at home in yourself.
Be just in your word, just in deed.
Remember the depth of your own compassion.
Do not forget your power in the days of your powerlessness.
Do not desire with desire to be wealthier than your peers, and never stint your hand of charity.
Practice forbearance in all you do. Speak the truth or speak not.
Take care of your body, be good to it, it is a good gift.
Crave peace for all peoples in this world, beginning with yourselves, and go as you go with the dream of that peace set firm in your heart. Amen.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley