“The Nature of Things” ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
Join us for our Sunday Gathering as Rev. Melanie explores contrast, balance and wholeness from the Tao perspective.
Talk starts at 17:46 – Watch this talk on YouTube (high-speed available)
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings and songs from this week’s service are provided below.
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Guest House, by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.— Jalaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks (The Essential Rumi)
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
A Blessing, by Miriam Therese Winter:
May the blessing of God go before you.
May her grace and peace abound.
May her spirit live within you
May her love wrap you ‘round.
May her blessings remain with you always.
May you walk on holy ground.
“The Nature of Things” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Oct. 18, 2020 talk
Welcome, and thanks again for joining us.
My talk today is entitled “The Nature of Things” – which I have to say is pretty ambitious for 20 minutes. It’s one of those topics you either expound on for hours, or answer in one word – we’ll be somewhere in the middle.
So far this month we’ve spent some time talking about our tendency to see our world in terms of opposites, or dualities. Today I’d like to share some wisdom teaching suggests that this way of perceiving ourselves, or our world, doesn’t really capture the truth of the way things are. It doesn’t capture the essential nature of things.
Further, and this is the good news, our lives are happier, and kinder and more genuinely engaged with others, when we can part with this illusion.
Take a look behind me, and you’ll see a taijitu, the symbol of the Tao, the yin and the yang. What do we see? We see a circle within which are two complementary images, each different and yet each including the energy of the other. Religious historian and scholar Huston Smith tells us that these halves are not opposed, but are in tension: they balance and complement each other.
Looking further, you see that their tension is resolved by the circle that surrounds them both, which is the encompassing and reconciling wholeness of the Tao, or the Way. This is a symbol of balance and of wholeness, achieved by incorporating what we see first as opposites, or polarities, into the whole.
It’s easy to accept that when we look at a symbol. We can agree that yes, life’s like that – it’s full of experiences we first see as polarities, but perhaps they’re not. We can agree that yes, this is the nature of things.
However, what happens when we come up against actual life? Do we remember that truth? Do we accept that a life that is whole includes challenge and ease, sorrow and joy, confidence and fear? Do we understand that awakening to that wholeness requires us to move past easy definitions and false classifications? That’s maybe not so easy. However, sages tell us that if we can manage it, we achieve harmony and peace.
This is one of the lessons of the Tao Te Ching, the classic work that gave us the philosophy of Taoism. It’s a work attributed to the sage Lao Tsu, even though that wasn’t his name. in his classic “The World’s Religions”, Huston Smith tells us that the name Lao Tzu translates into “Old boy” or “grand old master” – a designation of affection and respect, not the name of a person. We have no details about his life, except scholars believe he was born around 604 bce in eastern China in the province that is now Henan, lived a quiet and introspective life, did not prosyletize and made no effort to found a religion. Huston Smith calls him a “shadowy figure.”
He was a contemporary of Confucius, who legend tells us once visited Lao Tzu because Confucius had heard of his deep wisdom. Historian Ssu-Ma Chien writes that Confucius was amazed by Lao Tzu – he didn’t know what to think. He is reported to have said “I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run. Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can be hit by arrows. But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the clouds and the wind. Today I have seen Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon!”
Legend has it that, seeking solitude in his last years, he started out of town on a water buffalo and headed toward what is now Tibet. He was stopped at a mountain pass. After some conversation the gatekeeper realized that this was an exceptional person and he asked Lao Tzu to dictate some of his philosophy to give to the civilization he was leaving. So he stopped there for three days and ultimately gave the gatekeeper the Tao Te Ching, translated as The Way and Its Power, 81 verses that can be read in under 2 hours. He then got back on his water buffalo and wasn’t seen again. Again, this is legend, and we don’t know for sure. I think part of the point of the story is to tell us that the spread of this wonderful philosophy didn’t depend on a concerted effort by Lao Tsu to spread it, or institutionalize it. Perhaps it spread because its message rang so true to so many.
So, what wisdom does the Tao Te Ching teach us, and how does it help us toward wholeness in a world of so many competing polarities? In a word, it encourages us to realize and see that there is a natural harmony underlying all things, encompassing all things, and that our highest good comes from living in alignment with this truth.
This philosophy rings so true for me. I remember that when I left traditional houses of worship one of the principles that drove me away was the search for what I called the harmonic behind all things – the one true note that sings through all creation, that animates all creation. The Tao calls this the Way.
As I get older, I think that this true note can be found in more traditional worship, and perhaps I just didn’t see it. Perhaps it was a question of what I could see, not what was missing. This also is a lesson of the Tao.
So how does this understanding change our lives? The word used by the Tao is effortless – effortless action, or wu wei.
We continue to act, but the difference is that we do it without meeting resistance, or friction, because we are acting in harmony with the way of all things. The image used frequently is that of water – it flows without effort, bearing up all that it carries. If we are in the river and we fight, we struggle to stay afloat, what happens? We become exhausted, we sink. However, if we surrender, we are borne along.
Verse 8 tells us:
The best way to live
is to be like water
for water benefits all things
and goes against none of them
it provides for all people
and even cleanses those places
a man is loath to go
in this way it is just like Tao
one who lives in accordance with nature
does not go against the way of things
he moves in harmony with the present moment
always knowing the truth of just what to do
The word used is effortless, which in our world of working and striving and heavy lifting sounds amazing. How can my life become effortless? Where is that door? The Tao teaches it’s right here.
Our lives become effortless when we live aligned with the eternal Tao. Simply put, it’s the nature of all things. It’s a philosophy that rejects absolutes or dichotomies, seeing what we may take to be opposites instead as phases in an eternal rhythm, each necessary for the continued flow. Each flows into the next – connected and continual, and all is one.
Listen to verse 2:
Everyone recognizes beauty
Only because of ugliness
Everyone recognizes virtue
Only because of sin.
Life and death are born together
Difficult and easy
Long and short
High and low
All these exist together
Sound and silence blend as one
Before and after arrive as one.
Taoism encourages us to live with the polarities we see, to be comfortable with ambiguities. Not to grasp this, or that, reject this or that. The Tao terms this grabbing and stuffing, and it leads to suffering. This sounds a great deal like Buddhist philosophy and in this particular it is. Huston Smith writes that it was Buddhism influenced by Taoism that became Zen.
We see beyond the surface distinctions, to the essential truth beneath, that all is one regardless of outer manifestation or effect. We gain peace when we can hold the tension of the opposites in harmony, realizing they all flow from the one.
This is not easy, and I’m not sitting here making it easy. That’s a real temptation, because we like clear paths and lists of how-to’s, even on our spiritual journeys. Taoism does not give you that. Today I am not giving you that. Instead, I am inviting you to open yourself to this wisdom and find out for yourself where it takes you.
No Taoist writing, including the Tao Te Ching, gives you a practice, or a rule, to achieve this wisdom. There is no 8 fold path, no 613 Mitzvot such as you’ll find in Torah, no 10 commandments. Taoism would reject any such lists or rules as an unnatural distinction and separation of an element of the whole – a carving out of a section of what it calls the Uncarved Block, which cannot be divided.
Grasping at a practice or a rule, even one intended to make you more virtuous, will ultimately devolve into pain as you focus more on the practice, or the rule, than the universal Way that prompted you to adopt it.
We must see past the rules, past the practices, to the unnamable truth at the center of all things. One pointed, we keep our vision there.
So what do we take away? I am surely not a master here, but for me, a central takeaway is a way of seeing which impresses itself on our awareness. As we read and consider this wisdom, we raise our heads and look at our world through different eyes. We see truths that speak to us and we change the way we perceive. We can say – “yes, that it true.” I remember now.
Our reading today is from the Tao Te Ching, and it reflects this wisdom. I’m going to do something a little different today, and invite you to listen to the reading now. Afterwards, ’ll be back to unpack it a bit with you. Many thanks to Muthu Muthusubramanyam for giving us this reading.
Hold your male side with your female side
Hold your bright side with your dull side
Hold your high side with your low side
Then you will be able to hold the whole world
When the opposing forces unite within
there comes a power abundant in its giving
and unerring in its effect
Flowing through everything
it returns one to the First Breath
It returns one to No Limits
It returns one to the Uncarved Block
When the Block is dividedTao Te Ching, Verse 28
it becomes something useful
and leaders rule with a few pieces of it
But the Sage holds the Block complete
Holding all things within himself
he preserves the Great Unity
which cannot be ruled or divided.
Translated by Jonathan Star
Many thanks to Muthu for that reading. Let’s talk about it for a minute – this great articulation of reconciling what we take to be opposites, to realize the unity in all things.
“Hold your male side with your female side, your bright with your dull, your high with your low, and you will be able to hold the whole world,” not until. Use the energy of one side to hold the other, reconciling both into the whole. Don’t grasp the one, rejecting the other. Instead, realize that divine flow encompasses both, and all. Remember the taijitu.
When we can make that reach, power is released abundant in its giving, and flowing through everything. It returns to the First Breath, the origin of all.
In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was the first breath.
It returns us to what Lao Tzu calls the uncarved block – pure potential, containing all.
The sage holds the block complete – preserves the great unity, which cannot be divided.
When I read these verses, they make intuitive sense to me. I read them and immediately agree, life encompasses all ambiguities, all polarities, all elements of all things, and is yet beyond them. When I insist on duality, on distinction, I am skimming the surface and turning my face away from what is the deep truth. I often do that nonetheless, because we live in the world and feel its pull. However, the Tao te ching gives us a reminder of what is true, real and beautiful about ourselves.
Taoism gives us a way to see, and it also gives us a way to live, with simplicity, openness, the lack of pretension that comes from knowing what is real and what is illusion. It gives us a way of relating to each other, seeing all as arising from the one just as we do.
Now, some may look at this approach and say no – some things are right and some are wrong, and what you’re talking about is a world of complete relativism where anything is ok.
If one lives according to the Tao, the divine way, virtue follows. Our own connection to divine flow, if we can call it that, leads us to lives of simplicity, kindness, compassion, and integrity, because there is no option. To take it a step further, rules only become necessary because we have lost touch with this internal guidance.
In verse 18, we read:
When the greatness of Tao is present
action arises from one’s own heart
when the greatness of Tao is absent
action comes from the rules of “kindness” and “justice”
if you need rules to be kind and just,
if you act virtuous,
this is a sure sign that virtue is absent
thus we see the great hypocrisy
only when the family loses its harmony
do we hear of “dutiful sons”
only when the state is in chaos
do we hear of “loyal ministers”
Human virtue is innate. To quote a different tradition, “the kingdom of God is within.”
What is the takeaway here? I can’t give you a list, a rule, a practice. Instead, I can tell you that here is this wisdom that will give you a way of seeing that is healing, that is comforting, that is deeply true.
If you haven’t read the Tao Te Ching, I really encourage you to take an hour and do it. The translation I like is the one by Jonathan Star, but there are surely others. In this time we live in now, it offers me insight, comfort and courage.
We are so fortunate in this day and age to have access to such treasures as the Tao Te Ching. Its influence has spread beyond its geographic or philosophical beginnings. For example, we see its influence in the Christian mystics such as Thomas Merton, who wrote a book on Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, called The Way of Chuang Tzu.
Why would a 20th century Trappist monk devote an entire book to the wisdom of a 4th century BCE Chinese philosopher who wrote from a very different tradition? Because Merton saw a kindred spirit. He wrote:
“If St. Augustine could read Plotinus, if St. Thomas could read Aristotle and Averroës (both of them certainly a long way further from Christianity than Chuang Tzu ever was!), and if Teilhard de Chardin could make copious use of Marx and Engels in his synthesis, I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse who shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and who is my own kind of person.”
He went on: “His philosophical temper is, I believe, profoundly original and sane. It can of course be misunderstood. But it is basically simple and direct. It seeks, as does all the greatest philosophical thought, to go immediately to the heart of things.”
Across culture, language, and time, Merton saw a brother who experienced the world in much the same way he did. In the Tao, Merton recognized a vision reflecting the truth of divine creation, of the world around us. Merton articulated it this way – he wrote “There is in all visible things . . . a hidden wholeness.” Despite all the teachings on sin and salvation, despite all the rules he was obligated to live by , Merton believed we are not here to be perfect. We are here to be whole, and to rejoice in the truth that we are.
We live in a time of such division, such polarization. We line up on one side, or the other, of so many divides. How wonderful it is , even just for a time, to remind ourselves that all these polarities are encompassed within one great circle, that the great River flows, bearing us all to the same ocean . Far from removing us from our world, we find a foundation for compassionate, genuine engagement that truly brings our light to others.
I encourage you to explore this wisdom for yourself, and you will see that this brief discussion is only a beginning. I leave you with verse 25:
There is a being, wonderful, perfect;
It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!
It stands alone and it does not change.
it moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer .
all life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and yet it claims no honor, it does not demand to be Lord. I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao, the Way, and I rejoice in its power.
Thank you for listening.
“Love Carry me” written by Asha Lightbearer
“It’s a Beautiful Day” written by Asha Lightbearer
This service aired on October 18, 2020.