Monday, October 08, 2007

More books to read

Over the next few weeks, I am intending to start examining Taoism and taoist practices from a more solid academic background.

There are lots of good books of this type to read by a number of different authors, some of which are listed below:

Livia Kohn
Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism, Cambridge, Mass.:Three Pines Press, 2004 [ISBN: 1932483027]

Daoism and Chinese Culture (2nd Ed.), Cambridge, Mass.:Three Pines Press, 2004

Daoist Handbook ed. L Kohn, 2000 [Whole text may be found via Google Scholar]

Laughing at the Tao, ed. Schipper, Kristofer & Verellen, Franciscus, 2004

A much longer reading list can be found on Russell Kirkland's website

Part of the problem with much of the material to be found on the internet and on the shelves of bookstores is that it makes an erroneous distinction between philosophical and religious taoism. Many of the 'translations' available are no such thing. Examples of this dishonesty are Ursula LeGuin's verion of Tao Te Ching and Timothy Freke's version of the same text. Additionally in the West, we have tended to place a great deal of emphasis on the Chuang Tzu and the TTC to the detriment of other more important texts.

A very important text in this area, which I shall discuss extensively is the book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition by Russell Kirkland [which can also be found as a complete text on Google Scholar].

I hope that you will all join me in discovering a better understanding of taoism and what it truly means, rather than what we have wanted it to mean.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Freedom in Burma

I am sure that you have all seen the events in Burma over the past couple of weeks. Although it is impossible for us to do something about what's happening on the ground, it would be a great idea if we could all contact the companies in our countries that are helping to bolster the military regime and ask them to cease trading there.

By cutting off trade links, we can help to put pressure on both the regime and China, the main supporter of the current regime to change.

If you go to the Burma Campaign website, there is a list of 'dirty' companies with full contact details (address, telephone and fax number, email address and often a contact name) that you can write to or email asking the company politely to stop bolstering the military regime in Burma. The link to the list is here:

and I have added a permanent link to the home page of their website in my links list.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Trying too hard

I was having a discussion with a colleague about exam results leading to admission into the university where I work earlier today. A little later on it struck me that I, like those students, have spent a lot of time striving after additional qualifications. Not that I'm suggesting that this is a bad thing and I have done it for a number of reasons, all of which are valid - wanting to give myself a challenge, bettering my chances in the job market etc. But what struck me is that I've always been trying hard - perhaps too hard. And I was reminded of an incident way back in my school career.

It was back in my third year of secondary school and we had taken up Physics that year (later on that year we would have to make decisions as to what subjects we would take on to exam level). In my first report, after the pre-Christmas exams, my teacher wrote 'surprising exam result, considering her class work'. Now I was a bit miffed about this as I'd got 83% and I thought I'd worked very hard and was very pleased with the result. Later on in the year, having decided to give up the subject, I had to take another set of exams before the end of the summer term; this time I achieved only 63%, having done no revision whatsoever, and still he wrote 'surprising exam result, considering her class work'.

At the time, I was just glad that I'd given the subject up as I thought he didn't like me. Today, however, a different thought occurred to me - perhaps we should celebrate those exam results of life where the teacher writes 'surprising exam result, considering her class work'. If we consider the concept of wu wei, everything that needs to be done, gets done, but without any unnecessary straining and trying too hard. Perhaps we'd all be better off if we allowed things to happen in their own time and just added our effort when necessary, without forcing anything and yet achieving far more than if we'd tried to force the issue.

So I have decided to attempt a way of life where I'm not trying too hard, I'm not forcing the issue but acting at the right moment and achieving far more. Then perhaps when my life comes to an end, everyone can say 'surprising exam result, considering her class work'!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Life River Flowing

I was reading "Everyday Tao" again tonight: having opened the book at random I happened upon the entry entitled Flow, which refered to the Chinese character Xing, which was translated as "to march, to walk, pathway, flow, business". In the discussion of the translation, the author talks about the images that come from both the character itself and the meaning of the character. He talks about crossroads, about walking, about movement and I was struck by the contrast between this view, of constant movement, flowing ever onwards with the way that we in the West so often look at our lives.

Take for example the standard CV or curriculum vitae that you send out when you're trying to get a new job. On it you list the basic information about yourself - name, date of birth, address etc.; then you move on to list your educational achievements; then the next list is all the jobs you've had up to now. All of these things have dates against them - they have a start and a finish; there they are, neatly parcelled up. We break up our lives in this document: first we did this, then we did that, then we did the other. Everything is described in a linear way with everything going from A to B in a nice straight line. But life isn't a nice straight line, life is a flowing river.

A flowing river wanders about a bit, doubles back on itself, speeds up and drops down hills and mountains, arrives in a plateau and slows down. A river has eddys, rocks, fallen trees, strong currents below the surface that take us by surprise. A river can overflow due to excessive rainfall, causing disaster in its' wake; a river can dry up when rainfall drops below what is needed.

And I thought, my life has quite definitely been like that river - it's wandered around a bit, in a lazy sort of way, it's speeded up sometimes and dropped me over waterfalls, it's sometimes abandoned me for a time in a long and dreary plateau. As it's flowed I've found a number of rocks, been caught up in fallen trees, been dragged under by unexpected eddys, it has overflowed and caused disasters, dryed up during lack of rain. Despite all this, the river of my life has continued onwards. Eventually it'll reach the sea - but where the coastline is I have no idea nor how far I have to go before I reach it; I'm also sure that my river has quite a number of surprises left in store for me.

What I have to remember is that nature hates straight lines and my river hates them right along with it. Remembering this helps when you look ahead at your goals and suddenly find your river of life going in a great loop around the goals and leaving them behind without ever having touched them at all. We may regret that we passed our goals by, but we can't go back, the river of life won't let us.

The other thing we have to remember, as our river of life takes us onward, is the views that we've seen along the way. Sometimes the scenery has been dramatic - beautiful mountains, lovely sunsets; at other times, it's been calmer as we passed along the wide, flat river valley; on occasions our river has taken us past and through exciting events - wars, death, disaster, great romance, wonderful success and then again it has taken us past events that happen over and over again - our journey to work, repetitive tasks we have to complete. And yet it keeps on moving.

Sometimes as we watch the view, we keep hoping to see those dramatic events; we want a bit of excitement and there's nothing wrong with that, in moderation. But how will we know how to recognise the drama without experiencing the more mundane. The river flows ever onwards, it doesn't take us back to where we started, we cannot do life over again. So enjoy your river of life, even when it does drop you over waterfalls that you weren't expecting, even when it meanders around a wide, flat river valley floor where the scenery is not much to write home about. Be aware of what is happening around you, whilst accepting that you cannot stay.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Hello, again!

Well, hello again all!!

It has been a busy time for me of late as I've moved house and been offline for 6/7 weeks.

For all of those who've moved house before, you know what it's like? You box everything up, room by room, you label the boxes and then you pack 'em on the van and move. At the new house everything gets unloaded and boxes get put into the correct rooms (ha, ha) and you spend the next 2 weeks or more unpacking and wondering where the hell your anglepoise lamp from the study has disappeared to!

However, during the tiring process of unpacking, I was struck by the thought of how like the meditation process unpacking boxes can be (at least for me, anyway). You start at the beginning with lots of boxes; you think you know what's in them, but until you actually open the box, you can't be absolutely sure (a box of kitchen stuff turns out to be ornaments from your living room, for example).

As the process of discovery goes on you find more and more things that you are familiar with, but which have to be placed in different parts of the house from before or which you have to decide to get rid of altogether; so in the meditative process, we unpack our spiritual boxes and discover things weren't perhaps as we thought they were and that we have moved some spiritual baggage with us that in fact needs to be thrown in the bin.

So perhaps we can view our meditation journeys as a house move and start unpacking our boxes, rearranging our furniture and discarding all those old bits of tat that we've hung on to for no good reason at all.

Good luck with your house move!

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Well, here we all are at the end of another year. Many of us will be involved in frantic last minute present buying or tree decorating or food shopping. We may be awaiting the arrival of family from far flung places.

This winter season brings, as it does every year, all the emotions that the human spirit is capable of, the nasty and the nice. After Christmas is over we have a few days to think before we reach New Year's Eve and our opportunity to make our New Year's Resolutions.

Each year, many of us resolve to do new things, make changes, take up new hobbies, do more exercise! The problem with so many of our resolutions is that we make the wish but are unwilling to do the work that would bring these resolutions to fruition. After all, it's easy to wish to be fitter after the Christmas blow-out, but it involves making consistent efforts and sweating a great deal - not such an alluring prospect!

I sometimes think that the reason so many resolutions fail to happen is that we are actually afraid of Change itself. A resolution means that we are unhappy about something or that we want to add something to our lives (whether it's a svelte, new body or a new creative talent). But when we change one thing, we may find other things that need changing too and these things may be a lot more central to our understanding of ourselves than merely going on a diet or doing more exercise can fix.

What happens when these things that need changing are those dark corners that we hide from everyone else? After all, we say to ourselves, nobody is perfect, we all need a few flaws to make us human. But what if changing these things made our lives easier in the long run? My major flaw is procrastination. I will put off things that I don't want to do for as long as possible in the hope that they will go away. I will hope that 'something will come up' that will sort the problem out without me having to do anything. It rarely does (sad, but true).

So, some time ago I made a New Year's Resolution that I would try to work on my procrastination - I've got better, I put fewer things off, but I'm still not as good at doing this as I would like. And while procrastination is not a good thing, rushing into things doesn't work either.

So don't be afraid of Change when you make your New Year's Resolutions - accept that some of the things you attempt to do may not happen over night and may take a great deal of effort. Make small, incremental changes in what you do that will lead you to your goal, it often seems easier that way. Remember a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but you have to take every step after that as well, something that a lot of people forget!

Thursday, November 23, 2006


I took the opportunity today to have another look at a book by Deng Ming-Dao called "Everyday Tao" and I happened upon an entry entitled "Silence".

Silence is not something that happens easily in this modern world of ours. We listen to the radio, watch the TV, talk to others; even when we're walking down the road, there is precious little silence with all the traffic that is around. Even in the countryside, we can often still hear the noise of our modern world in the distance. We seem to be existing in a never-ending stream of noise; the only thing that changes is how loud the noise is. This is very exhausting and can prevent us from making contact with the Tao.

Deng Ming-Dao suggests that we just try to be very quiet for just a second, for a minute, for a few minutes, and then gradually try to increase this time, little by little through practice. We are searching for stillness, for that silence that is beyond the gods. So, take a pause from reading this blog post, and just try to be very quiet for a few moments.

How did that go? How did it feel? Deng Ming-Dao quotes somebody as saying that beyond the gods is silence and that silence can be viewed as Tao. For however long you managed to preserve that silence, that sense of quietness, that is when you touched Tao, all by yourself. There were no priests, no gurus, no leaders, no doctrine/dogma - just you! But remember, this is not a competition as to who can be quiet for longest, this is just about you.

There is a christian hymn that contains the line "a still small voice of calm" and this feeling is close to what we're looking for here, but we need to move beyond the voice, to silence it and embrace the stillness.

Keep trying this every time you get the opportunity; it will not be easy, but with practice we can touch Tao and when we do we may truly come to understand that old saying "silence is golden".