Posts filed under ‘Ancient wisdom’

The Seeker – Pt 1

The Seeker is taken from the writings of Chuang Tzu and appears in my book The Spiritual Teachings of The Tao:

1. The Reluctant Sage

Among the students of Lao Tzu there was one, Keng Sang Chu, who understood some of his master’s teaching, and wanted to put it into practice with his followers in the north, at the hill of Wei Lei.

Students he judged pretentious know-it-alls he sent away, and concubines who were overly kind he kept at a distance. He decided to live only with those who were off-hand and rude, and employed only the rough and ill-mannered.

After three years there were great harvests in Wei Lei, and the people remarked, “When Master Keng Sang first came here, we were alarmed by his strangeness. We thought he couldn’t do us any good, but now we’ve known him for three years, his presence is extremely beneficial. Surely he must be a sage? Why don’t we revere him as the representative of our departed ancestors, and build an altar to him as our god of the earth and grain?”

Keng Sang heard about this and was unhappy. His students thought this odd, but he said to them, “Why do you think this strange? When spring’s breath arrives, vegetation grows; when autumn arrives, fruits of the earth ripen. Do spring and autumn do this without a cause? It’s just the processes of Great Tao in operation.

I was taught that the Real Person keeps calm deep within his house, while the people rush around, unthinking and crazy, not knowing what they are doing.

Now these petty people of Wei Lei want to present their offerings to me and place me among the wise men. But should I be set up as a model? This is what makes me unhappy, especially when I think of the teaching of my Master.”

His students said, “You mustn’t think like this. In a ditch eight yards wide, a big fish can’t turn around, but minnows and eels find it very congenial. On a small hill a large animal can’t hide, but foxes find it excellent cover. Besides, the wise should be honoured, and the able rewarded, while preference should be shown to the good and beneficial. The ancient Emperors Yao and Shun acted like this. How much more should the people of Wei Lei do so! Please Master, indulge them!”

Keng Sang replied, “Come nearer my children, and listen. Suppose there was an animal so big that it could grab a carriage in its mouth. If it left the hills, it wouldn’t escape the danger of being trapped in a net. Or if a whale that could swallow a boat was left stranded on the shore, then even ants would be able to bother it. That’s why birds and animals aim to be as high as possible, and fish and turtles dive as deep as possible. In the same way a person who wants to preserve his body and life keeps concealed, and does so in the remotest place possible.

Besides, what did those Emperors do to deserve your praise? In their arguments it was as though they reck-lessly tore down walls to plant wormwood and brambles in their place, or thinned their hair before combing it, or counted the grains of rice before cooking. They did everything with finicky discrimination, but how did that help the world?

If you promote the talented, you create disorder, making the people compete with one another. If you employ the wise, the people steal each other’s reputation. Those who calculate life can’t make the people good and honest. Indeed, the people are very eager for gain – a son will kill his father, and a minister his ruler for it. People steal in broad daylight, and at midday tunnel through walls. I tell you the root of this great disorder was planted in the times of Yao and Shun. The branches of it will remain for a thousand ages, and after a thousand ages people will surely be found eating one another.”

2. The Perplexed Student

Nan Jung Chu was an older student and seeker of Tao, and he asked Keng Sang Chu, “What means can an old man like me adopt to become a Real Person?”

Master Keng Sang said,

“Keep your body intact,
hold on to your vital energy,
don’t let your thoughts be turbulent.

Do this for three years, and you may become a Real Person.”

Nan Jung replied, “Eyes are all formed the same, there’s no difference between them, but the blind can’t see. Ears are all the same, no difference between them, but the deaf can’t hear. Minds are all the same nature, no difference between them, but the insane can’t use theirs.

My body and mind is formed like yours but somehow there is a gap between us. I’d like to find myself, but I’m not able to do it. You’ve now said to me,

‘Keep your body intact,
hold on to your vital energy,
don’t let your thoughts be turbulent.’

With all my efforts to learn Tao, your words reach only my ears.”

Keng Sang replied, “I have nothing more to teach you.”

Then he added, “There is a saying, ‘Small flies can’t transform the bean caterpillar; fowls from Yueh can’t hatch geese eggs, but fowls from Lu can.’ It’s not that the power of these fowls is different, but their ability or inability comes from the differences of big and small. My ability is small and isn’t sufficient to transform you. Why don’t you go South to see Lao Tzu?”

3. The Three Dilemmas of Nan Jung Chu

Nan Jung Chu prepared some food, and walked seven days and nights, arriving alone at the house of Lao Tzu.

The Master said to him, “Have you come from Keng Sang Chu?”

“I have,” said Nan Jung.

“Why have you brought this crowd with you?”

Nan Jung was shocked, and swung his head round to look behind. Lao Tzu said, “Don’t you understand my meaning? You’ve come here with your mind stuffed full of ideas and problems, instead of coming here empty.”

Nan Jung lowered his head and sighed, then lifted it up, and said, “I didn’t understand your question, and I’ve now forgotten my own question.”

“What do you mean?”, asked the Old Master.

‘I have a predicament. If I’m not wise, people say I’m stupid, and if I’m knowledgeable, this disturbs my body. If I’m not good, then I harm others, while if I am good, I cause myself distress. If I’m not just, I’m accused of injuring others, while if I am just I upset myself.

These three dilemmas bother me and I walked here to ask your advice.”

Lao Tzu replied, “When I first saw you and looked into your eyes, I understood you, and your speech confirms my judgment. You look bewildered and confused, as if you’ve lost your parents, and are using a pole to try to find them at the bottom of the sea. You’ve gone astray and you’re at wit’s end. You want to restore your original nature, but don’t know the first step to take to find it. You’re in a sorry state!”

December 26, 2013 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

Advice from a Sage

Lieh-Tzu, the Taoist sage who rode the wind, was a student of Hu-Tzu and he prided himself on his learning. But one day he realised that he had actually learned nothing, and all the time he had spent with Hu-Tzu was wasted. It was not that Hu-Tzu was a bad teacher. No, it was Lieh-Tzu’s problem. He realised that he wore learning like a blanket, that it was too external and superficial, and that it had not penetrated inside. He was not fulfilling his true capacity and needed to do something about it.

So the story goes,

He went home, and for three years did not leave his house.

He cooked meals for his wife,

Served food to his pigs as though they were human,

Treated everything as he did his family,

From the sculpted jade he returned to the uncarved block,

Till his original self stood forth, detached from all things.

He was free of all tangles

Once and for all, to the end of his life.

This story contains good advice for everyone, but especially parents in how they treat their partners and children. If you imitate Lieh-Tzu you too can have his outcome. Why is that ?

When we read a story like this, we assume that Lieh-Tzu was a sage and therefore a good person. A sage is wise, so he should know what he wants from life that will truly satisfy him. And someone like that would be happy, we assume. But here we see that Lieh-Tzu does these things out of unhappiness. He does not like himself, and wants to change. He leaves his teacher and goes home because he has an intuition that he needs to do this to become whole again. And it is the doing that does it.

The paradox is that Lieh-Tzu undertakes these totally selfless actions, serving only others, and yet the result is that he returns to his original self. This renewal removes all the tangles, obstructions and blockages of mind and body that were stopping him from finding his true capacity.

He did not act selfishly, but his self gained immeasurably, by becoming renewed through his actions. There is a good lesson here. I hope to learn it.

August 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm Leave a comment

Dregs And Sediments

I’m preparing my book, The Spiritual Teachings Of The Tao (long out of print) as an e-book, and came across this story from Chuang Tzu that I have always loved. I’d like to share it with you. I title it Dregs:

The world thinks the most valuable exhibition of Tao is found in its classic books. But books are only a collection of words. Words are valuable: what is valuable in them is the ideas they convey. But those ideas are a sequence of something else, and that something else can’t be conveyed by words.

When the world, because of the high value it attaches to words, commits those words to books, the thing it so values them for may not deserve to be valued. Because what the world values isn’t really what’s valuable.

That’s why what we look at and see is only the outward form and colour, and what we listen to and hear are only names and sounds. How sad that people should think that form and colour, name and sound, are enough to give them the real nature of Tao.

Form and colour, name and sound, are certainly not sufficient to convey its real nature, and that’s why ”the wise do not speak and those who speak are not wise.” How can the world know the real nature of Tao?

Duke Huan, seated high up in his hall, was reading out loud, and the wheelwright Pien was making a wheel in the courtyard below. Laying aside his hammer and chisel, Pien walked up the stairs, and interrupted him,

“May I ask your Grace what words you are reading?”

The Duke said, “The words of the sages.”

“Are those sages alive?”, Pien asked.

“No, they’re dead,” was the reply.

“Then”, said the wheelwright, “what you, my ruler, are reading are only the dregs and sediments of dead men.”

The Duke, a lover of wisdom, became upset at this and said, “How can you, a wheelwright, have anything to say about my book? If you can explain yourself, well and good. If you can’t, you shall die!”

The wheelwright said, “Your servant will look at the subject from the point of view of his own craft. In making a wheel, if I go at it gently, it’s certainly pleasant enough, but the workmanship isn’t very strong. If I have to push forcefully, that’s an effort and the joints won’t fit well. Neither too gentle nor too forceful: my hand knows how to do it in harmony with my heart, and a fine wheel is produced. But I can’t tell you how to do it in words – there’s a certain knack to it. I can’t even teach this knack to my son, nor can my son learn it from me. That’s why I’m seventy years old and am still making wheels.

Now these ancient sages of yours must have been just like me – they also had a certain knack that it wasn’t possible for them to convey in words. If you’d been able to sit and learn from them, then perhaps you could’ve picked up that knack. But now they’re dead and gone, and all you’re reading is their dregs and sediments!”

Like the wheelwright, I am nearly 70 years old and am still at the coalface.

August 8, 2013 at 8:54 am Leave a comment

The Secret Of The Wise Kings

There is a famous story in the Book of Chuang Tzu of Confucius’ advice to his disciple Yen Hui. Yen Hui planned to go to the Prince of Wei to try to reform this ruler’s wild and wicked ways by using Confucius’ teaching. After Confucius shoots down all of Yen Hui’s proposals, and tells him that the Prince will probably kill him for his intervention, he offers him some advice,

You must fast. I’ll tell you why. Is it easy to work from pre-conceived ideas? Heaven frowns on those who think it is easy.”

Yen replies that his family is poor and he hasn’t eaten meat in ages, but Confucius explains that the fasting he is talking about is not fasting of the body but fasting of the mind. Yen asks him to explain what fasting of the mind is,

“Your will must be one. Do not listen with your ears but with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but with your chi. Ears can only hear, mind can only think, but chi is energy, receptive to all things. Tao abides in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

He goes on to say,

“It is in emptiness that light is born. There is happiness in stillness. Lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering. If you are open to everything you see and hear, and allow this to act through you, even gods and spirits will come to you, not to speak of men. This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings. “

Yen Hui was going to Wei to apply the ‘pre-conceived ideas’ that he had learned from Confucius. But Confucius wanted to teach him how he could find new and spontaneous ideas, applicable in the moment,  to use with the Prince. We see in this dichotomy between pre-conceived ideas and spontaneous ones, the difference between reaction and response. In reacting to events we use our conditioned mind, the pre-conceived ideas that experience and learning have taught us. But this isn’t fresh enough. We need to respond not only from experience, but also to be alive to emptiness, to the spirit of the event unfolding in front of us. This is why Confucius tells Yen that he must use his chi to listen to what is happening, and not just his eyes and ears.

This story is similar to the well known story of the Professor who comes to visit a Master to discuss Zen. The monk offers tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor asks him what he is doing, and the monk replies that the cup is just like the Professor’s mind, overflowing with pre-conceived ideas and knowledge. The fasting of the mind is to empty it of old and stale ideas so that it can respond with fresh insights to what is happening in the moment.

We assume that the Confucius story is about sitting meditation, since Confucius says that ‘lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering.’ When we enter into a deep meditative state we enter stillness, but if our mind fails to settle then although we are formally sitting in meditation our mind is actually wandering all over the place and it’s not really meditation, it’s agitation.

The Fasting of the Mind is a Taoist meditation practise called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? Shi Jing, in an article from Issue Number 1 of the 2006 Dragon’s Mouth, says about Zuowang,

A meditation retreat is not about acquiring and filling, but is a process of releasing and emptying. What we forget is the thing we hold most dearly: self, with all its opinions, beliefs and ideals. We can be so caught up in the concept of self that we only see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire.

To forget the self means to forget the mind and body, since our ideas of self come from our awareness of having a body and of being conscious. So when we sit in meditation we forget our self, our body and our mind  – we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty? And what is this emptiness for?

In the West, the influence of Descartes has led us for 300 years to separate the body from the mind. The body was seen as low, crude and inert and the mind as the higher repository of thoughts and emotions. This dualistic view was never part of Eastern thought, so the Chinese view has always been to see the human organism as a unity, with body and mind working together. This is reflected in the old Chinese medical texts where the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, emotions and sensations, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’, an inseparable compound of the body and the mind. The heart is the link between the body and the mind, and is the only organ with two meridians relating to it- the heart meridian and the heart protector.

In their books, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee write about this view of the heart/mind. They say that Chinese classical literature sees the heart as the mind, the intelligence and the spirit. There are two aspects to the heart. It has a double meridian and a double presentation. It is both a void or place of quietness which allows the spirits to dwell within, as well as the activity which allows the spirits to circulate everywhere throughout the body via the blood and chi. It is the latter aspect which reflects the heart as the governor or master of the body. So the spirits reside in the heart and it is the heart’s function to send the spirits flowing and spreading out to the other organs of the body.

I recently attended a few Transformational Breathing (TM) workshops. Transformational Breathing uses a technique of sustained circular breathing through the mouth to attempt to open up your respiratory tract to the largest possible extent. In doing this it has to break through any blockages or obstructions that are stopping you from having a full open breath. These blockages are both physical and emotional. When I was going through this process, the facilitator asked me to try to open my heart.

After the session, I thought about the process of opening the heart, and how to go about it. Obviously it’s possible through breathing control to direct chi into the heart area, as well as to force breath into it to try to expand the heart and loosen or free it. But that’s purely on a physical level. What is it on a mental or emotional level?

I decided to ask the I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. Throwing the stalks I got the answer hexagram 35: Advance, but with no moving lines. The commentary of the 5th    and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching reads,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open. If one knows how to empty  and open the heart, one can thus seek from others, and so be able to fill the belly. Once one has filled the belly, fortune, misfortune and stopping at sufficiency are all in the palm of one’s hand. One can thereby be free from worry about loss or gain, and go straight  ahead without doubt, going ahead in advancing the fire and working, with good results beneficial in every way. This is the illumination  of becoming empty to bring fulfillment.

The sixth yang line says,

The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind. If one does not empty the heart/mind but relies on adament strength alone, strength must overcome strength – there is bound to be danger before getting good results and becoming blameless.

The Taoist I Ching is quoting the Tao Te Ching (Ch 3),

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the belly

So to empty the heart/mind is to lose regret, make oneself open to others, cease having anxiety about loss and gain, as well as losing rational discrimination and  intellectual knowledge. Instead we fill the belly with breath, lose self doubt, gain will power and strength, which enables us to live out our destiny.

I thought about the line,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open

Where does regret come from? To me regret is made up of frustrated desires, the things you wanted to accomplish but could not, or the things or people that you desired but could not hold on to. It is in a sense the past tense of desire. We know that desire is always a problem. Eastern religions ask us to reduce our desires in order to find contentment and tranquillity. But desire is always present, firstly because we have a primary desire to live, and this means that the desire for food and drink are basic desires necessary for survival. But even if we reduce or sublimate our desires we remain in the grip of desire. Any spiritual desire – to be one with the Tao, or to be enlightened, is still a desire.

We always think of desires as in the present tense, of the desires that we either have or are trying to control and reduce. When we think of desires it is usually the obvious ones, which the Taoists call the Three Poisons: greed, anger, and stupidity; And you can add to that list a couple of others: hatred and  lust. But to see the reduction of desire as something negative, as a renunciation of the self, misses the mark. The Tao te Ching says (Ch 1),

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

Lao Tzu says that if we can reduce desire we are able to perceive the subtle, whereas if we stay obsessed with desires we can only see the surface of things. We remain in the world of form and cannot break through to the world of emptiness and of essence. A life made up of endless desires is too shallow and can never get deep.

If my heart is not open enough, then it must be full of desires both old and new, and to open my heart means that I have to empty it. When you desire something or someone, you either feel fulfilled or unfulfilled. Either you accomplish that desire or fail to achieve it. The failure to achieve a desire leads to feelings of loss, lack, bitterness and regret. Even if we manage to accomplish our desires and have a feeling of joy these feelings do not last, do not remain for all time. Life is transient and impermanent. We lose even the things we have gained, so that loss is also part of success. All desires, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, lead to feelings of attachment and dependency, to a sense that we can only feel whole when we can bring outside or external things into our being, our heart.

So the heart is full of the corpses of desire. We harbour past feelings of hurt and betrayal, as well as the seeds of new desires that we want to pursue. In such a state our heart overflows like the cup the Zen monk poured. If we can empty the heart of these old feelings and reduce our present desires, then we make room in the heart. Through this fasting of the heart we create an emptiness that will allow other and better feelings, like compassion and love, to take up residence.

We need to transform our hsin, our heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, sitting and forgetting. What we need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that the heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless we houseclean our heart, we are being dragged down by our past, and are not able to move forward in a unified way. We are victims of self-doubt and self-esteem, and can’t utilise our energy in a powerful way. This is what Confucius means when he says,

“Your will must be one.”

Mencius said (2a2),

When will is unified, it moves the breath.
When the breath is unified, it moves the will.

And Chuang Tzu tells us,

There is no weapon deadlier than the will.

So my aim in emptying my heart is to unify my will and breath, so that breath and mind act as one, and my spirit can become liberated. This is the job of overcoming myself by overcoming the heart/mind.

In The Heart Claude Larre and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallée talk about the role of the spirits,

We exist in a way that develops. We have a future. As long as we are living, we are living for something, we are living for tomorrow, and for the years to come. However long, life is not without prospect. Is there any power to take care of this ‘becoming’ (our future, our development). Yes, there are leaders within us, and we call them spirits.

The role or function of the spirits is not to give us some spiritual high or a wonderful transcendant experience but to utterly infuse our waking and sleeping being, so they are able to give us specific guidance for every moment and activity in daily life. This is what Confucius was advising Yen Hui, not to rely on his learning and knowledge but to rely on his spirits. And the reason we sit in meditation, the reason we sit and forget, is that we want to empty the heart of all the old and outworn ideas and emotions that we have stored there, in what WB Yeats called  “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Once we have emptied it out we have created a home for the spirits to take up residence. This is the same idea as in ancient Greek religion. They created a beautiful temple, made an altar, devised rituals and sacrifices in the hope that the God would come down and make it his worldly home, to protect and guide their life. For the Chinese the hsin, the heart-mind, is a kind of fleshy temple. Keep it empty of desires, void of regrets and the spirits will have a suitable resting place.

So the advice Confucius gave to Yen Hui was: sit in meditation until you find stillness, and remain in stillness until you find happiness or joy; continue sitting until you find emptiness, and at some point light will emerge from emptiness, the light of awareness. At this point you will have transformed yourself, and you will be a sage, able to advise the Prince of Wei without having your head chopped off.

This is ‘The Secret of the Wise Kings’.

Copyright 2010 Mark Forstater

July 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm 1 comment

Breath Of The Gods- The Origins of Yoga

On Friday I went to see a film about the origins of yoga called Breath of the Gods at the ICA in London. Besides the fact that the cinema subjected us to a tsunami of ads before the film started, the screening was quite interesting. It was good to see some of the places where the yoga teacher Krishnamacharya worked and lived, to see his brother-in-law Iyengar teaching and talking, and to have Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son) act as the filmmaker’s guide. However the film left out so much about the history of yoga, and even of Krishnamacharya’s own story. It would have been good to see the cave (if it still exists) at Mt. Kailasha where K. learned yoga from his guru, and it would also have been interesting to see the ruins of Mohenjo Daro, the ancient Indus Valley civilization where the seals of Shiva sitting in a yoga pose were discovered.

Seeing the actual places where K taught and lived gave a reality to his life, especially with the extensive use of old b/w footage of the yoga that was taught at the Maharaja of Mysore’s palace. These sequences were quite evocative, and I could have watched them all night long.

The film inspired me to re-read Desikachar’s book, Health Healing and Beyond, which was about his father’s life and teaching. The book reveals that K was quite short even though in pictures you get the impression of a tall and powerful man. I think it was his own power and steely determination that gives the impression that he was tall. I had forgotten that Desikachar was Krishnamurti’s yoga teacher, after Krishnamurti approached Krishnamacharya for lessons. Father passed the sage to the care of his son.

Krishnamacharya was as much a healer as he was a yoga teacher, and his influence in helping yoga to be a therapy in the west is not widely know. He was also a great Sanskrit scholar.

The film has given me impetus to doing something similar about Taoism, something that I have been thinking about for a number of years.

March 3, 2013 at 5:10 pm 1 comment

The Lagging Sheep

I recently did the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. This is a detailed questionnaire that reveals 24 different strengths rated from your strongest down to your weakest. Martin Seligman, who helped devise the survey, says that if you lived your life according to your top strengths that everything you did would be accomplished with ease and pleasure. One  example he gives is of one of his students who worked (unhappily) as a bagger in a supermarket. However, once she used her prime strength – Social Intelligence – in her work, she had a much better time of it. She turned the bagging of groceries into the high point of many a shopper’s day.  You can take the test at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/tests/SameAnswers_t.aspx?id=310

There’s a story of Chuang Tsu’s which also looks at strengths and weaknesses, but unlike Martin Seligman’s point of using your strengths, Chuang Tsu recommends working on your weaknesses. Here is the story which I called The Lagging Sheep in my book, The Spiritual Teachings of The Tao:

Tien Kai Chih was talking with Duke Wei of Chou, who asked him, “I understand your Master Chu Hsien has studied life. What has he taught you about it?”

Tien Kai Chih replied, “While I am busy sweeping his courtyard, how can I hear my master’s teaching?”

Duke Wei said, ”Don’t evade the question, Mr. Tien. I’m very interested in what you’ve learned.”

Kai Chih said, ”I’ve heard my master say ‘One who skilfully nourishes life is like a shepherd, who rounds up the sheep that lag behind.’”

“What did he mean?”, asked the Duke.

Kai Chih replied, “In Lu there was a man named Shan Pao, who lived in the wilderness, and drank only water. He didn’t share anyone’s work or the benefits from it. Though he was seventy years old, he still had the complexion of a child. Unfortunately he encountered a fierce tiger, who killed him.

There was another man called Chang Yi, who spent all his time consorting with the wealthy and powerful, paying his respects. When he was only forty, he came down with a fever and died.

Of these two men, Shan Pao nourished his inner self, and a tiger attacked his outer, while Chang Yi nourished his outer self, and disease attacked his inner. According to my master both of them neglected to round up their lagging sheep.”

Maybe Chuang Tsu would say that your strengths will look after themselves, whereas your weaknesses need some attention. Keeping them in balance may be the way to have a centred approach to life.

December 8, 2011 at 12:44 am Leave a comment

Meditation Opens The Heart

There is a famous story in the Book of Chuang Tzu of Confucius’ advice to his disciple Yen Hui. Yen Hui planned to go to the Prince of Wei to try to reform this ruler’s wild and wicked ways by using Confucius’ teaching. After Confucius shoots down all of Yen Hui’s proposals, and tells him that the Prince will probably kill him for his intervention, he offers him some advice,

You must fast. I’ll tell you why. Is it easy to work from pre-conceived ideas? Heaven frowns on those who think it is easy.”

Yen replies that his family is poor and he hasn’t eaten meat in ages, but Confucius explains that the fasting he is talking about is not fasting of the body but fasting of the mind. Yen asks him to explain what fasting of the mind is,

“Your will must be one. Do not listen with your ears but with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but with your chi. Ears can only hear, mind can only think, but chi is energy, receptive to all things. Tao abides in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

He goes on to say,

“It is in emptiness that light is born. There is happiness in stillness. Lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering. If you are open to everything you see and hear, and allow this to act through you, even gods and spirits will come to you, not to speak of men. This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings. “

Yen Hui was going to Wei to apply the ‘pre-conceived ideas’ that he had learned from Confucius. But Confucius wanted to teach him how he could find new and spontaneous ideas, applicable in the moment,  to use with the Prince. We see in this dichotomy between pre-conceived ideas and spontaneous ones, the difference between reaction and response. In reacting to events we use our conditioned mind, the pre-conceived ideas that experience and learning have taught us. But this isn’t fresh enough. We need to respond not only from experience, but also to be alive to emptiness, to the spirit of the event unfolding in front of us. This is why Confucius tells Yen that he must use his chi to listen to what is happening, and not just his eyes and ears.

This story is similar to the well known story of the Professor who comes to visit a Master to discuss Zen. The monk offers tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor asks him what he is doing, and the monk replies that the cup is just like the Professor’s mind, overflowing with pre-conceived ideas and knowledge. The fasting of the mind is to empty it of old and stale ideas so that it can respond with fresh insights to what is happening in the moment.

We assume that the Confucius story is about sitting meditation, since Confucius says that ‘lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering.’ When we enter into a deep meditative state we enter stillness, but if our mind fails to settle then although we are formally sitting in meditation our mind is actually wandering all over the place and it’s not really meditation, it’s agitation.

The Fasting of the Mind is a Taoist meditation practise called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? Shi Jing, in an article from Issue Number 1 of the 2006 Dragon’s Mouth, says about Zuowang,

A meditation retreat is not about acquiring and filling, but is a process of releasing and emptying. What we forget is the thing we hold most dearly: self, with all its opinions, beliefs and ideals. We can be so caught up in the concept of self that we only see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire.

To forget the self means to forget the mind and body, since our ideas of self come from our awareness of having a body and of being conscious. So when we sit in meditation we forget our self, our body and our mind  – we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty? And what is this emptiness for?

In the West, the influence of Descartes has led us for 300 years to separate the body from the mind. The body was seen as low, crude and inert and the mind as the higher repository of thoughts and emotions. This dualistic view was never part of Eastern thought, so the Chinese view has always been to see the human organism as a unity, with body and mind working together. This is reflected in the old Chinese medical texts where the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, emotions and sensations, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’, an inseparable compound of the body and the mind. The heart is the link between the body and the mind, and is the only organ with two meridians relating to it- the heart meridian and the heart protector.

In their books, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee write about this view of the heart/mind. They say that Chinese classical literature sees the heart as the mind, the intelligence and the spirit. There are two aspects to the heart. It has a double meridian and a double presentation. It is both a void or place of quietness which allows the spirits to dwell within, as well as the activity which allows the spirits to circulate everywhere throughout the body via the blood and chi. It is the latter aspect which reflects the heart as the governor or master of the body. So the spirits reside in the heart and it is the heart’s function to send the spirits flowing and spreading out to the other organs of the body.

I recently attended a few Transformational Breathing (TM) workshops. Transformational Breathing uses a technique of sustained circular breathing through the mouth to attempt to open up your respiratory tract to the largest possible extent. In doing this it has to break through any blockages or obstructions that are stopping you from having a full open breath. These blockages are both physical and emotional. When I was going through this process, the facilitator asked me to try to open my heart.

After the session, I thought about the process of opening the heart, and how to go about it. Obviously it’s possible through breathing control to direct chi into the heart area, as well as to force breath into it to try to expand the heart and loosen or free it. But that’s purely on a physical level. What is it on a mental or emotional level?

I decided to ask the I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. Throwing the stalks I got the answer hexagram 35: Advance, but with no moving lines. The commentary of the 5th    and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching reads,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open. If one knows how to empty  and open the heart, one can thus seek from others, and so be able to fill the belly. Once one has filled the belly, fortune, misfortune and stopping at sufficiency are all in the palm of one’s hand. One can thereby be free from worry about loss or gain, and go straight  ahead without doubt, going ahead in advancing the fire and working, with good results beneficial in every way. This is the illumination  of becoming empty to bring fulfillment.

The sixth yang line says,

The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind. If one does not empty the heart/mind but relies on adament strength alone, strength must overcome strength – there is bound to be danger before getting good results and becoming blameless.

The Taoist I Ching is quoting the Tao Te Ching (Ch 3),

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the belly

So to empty the heart/mind is to lose regret, make oneself open to others, cease having anxiety about loss and gain, as well as losing rational discrimination and  intellectual knowledge. Instead we fill the belly with breath, lose self doubt, gain will power and strength, which enables us to live out our destiny.

I thought about the line,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open

Where does regret come from? To me regret is made up of frustrated desires, the things you wanted to accomplish but could not, or the things or people that you desired but could not hold on to. It is in a sense the past tense of desire. We know that desire is always a problem. Eastern religions ask us to reduce our desires in order to find contentment and tranquillity. But desire is always present, firstly because we have a primary desire to live, and this means that the desire for food and drink are basic desires necessary for survival. But even if we reduce or sublimate our desires we remain in the grip of desire. Any spiritual desire – to be one with the Tao, or to be enlightened, is still a desire.

We always think of desires as in the present tense, of the desires that we either have or are trying to control and reduce. When we think of desires it is usually the obvious ones, which the Taoists call the Three Poisons: greed, anger, and stupidity; And you can add to that list a couple of others: hatred and  lust. But to see the reduction of desire as something negative, as a renunciation of the self, misses the mark. The Tao te Ching says (Ch 1),

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

Lao Tzu says that if we can reduce desire we are able to perceive the subtle, whereas if we stay obsessed with desires we can only see the surface of things. We remain in the world of form and cannot break through to the world of emptiness and of essence. A life made up of endless desires is too shallow and can never get deep.

If my heart is not open enough, then it must be full of desires both old and new, and to open my heart means that I have to empty it. When you desire something or someone, you either feel fulfilled or unfulfilled. Either you accomplish that desire or fail to achieve it. The failure to achieve a desire leads to feelings of loss, lack, bitterness and regret. Even if we manage to accomplish our desires and have a feeling of joy these feelings do not last, do not remain for all time. Life is transient and impermanent. We lose even the things we have gained, so that loss is also part of success. All desires, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, lead to feelings of attachment and dependency, to a sense that we can only feel whole when we can bring outside or external things into our being, our heart.

So the heart is full of the corpses of desire. We harbour past feelings of hurt and betrayal, as well as the seeds of new desires that we want to pursue. In such a state our heart overflows like the cup the Zen monk poured. If we can empty the heart of these old feelings and reduce our present desires, then we make room in the heart. Through this fasting of the heart we create an emptiness that will allow other and better feelings, like compassion and love, to take up residence.

We need to transform our hsin, our heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, sitting and forgetting. What we need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that the heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless we houseclean our heart, we are being dragged down by our past, and are not able to move forward in a unified way. We are victims of self-doubt and self-esteem, and can’t utilise our energy in a powerful way. This is what Confucius means when he says,

“Your will must be one.”

Mencius said (2a2),

When will is unified, it moves the breath.
When the breath is unified, it moves the will.

And Chuang Tzu tells us,

There is no weapon deadlier than the will.

So my aim in emptying my heart is to unify my will and breath, so that breath and mind act as one, and my spirit can become liberated. This is the job of overcoming myself by overcoming the heart/mind.

In The Heart Claude Larre and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallée talk about the role of the spirits,

We exist in a way that develops. We have a future. As long as we are living, we are living for something, we are living for tomorrow, and for the years to come. However long, life is not without prospect. Is there any power to take care of this ‘becoming’ (our future, our development). Yes, there are leaders within us, and we call them spirits.

The role or function of the spirits is not to give us some spiritual high or a wonderful transcendant experience but to utterly infuse our waking and sleeping being, so they are able to give us specific guidance for every moment and activity in daily life. This is what Confucius was advising Yen Hui, not to rely on his learning and knowledge but to rely on his spirits. And the reason we sit in meditation, the reason we sit and forget, is that we want to empty the heart of all the old and outworn ideas and emotions that we have stored there, in what WB Yeats called  “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Once we have emptied it out we have created a home for the spirits to take up residence. This is the same idea as in ancient Greek religion. They created a beautiful temple, made an altar, devised rituals and sacrifices in the hope that the God would come down and make it his worldly home, to protect and guide their life. For the Chinese the hsin, the heart-mind, is a kind of fleshy temple. Keep it empty of desires, void of regrets and the spirits will have a suitable resting place.

So the advice Confucius gave to Yen Hui was: sit in meditation until you find stillness, and remain in stillness until you find happiness or joy; continue sitting until you find emptiness, and at some point light will emerge from emptiness, the light of awareness. At this point you will have transformed yourself, and you will be a sage, able to advise the Prince of Wei without having your head chopped off. This is ‘the secret of the wise kings’.

Copyright 2010 Mark Forstater

January 23, 2010 at 8:43 am 4 comments

Tao Te Ching: Passages on wealth

Chapter 1

Empty of desire, perceive mystery
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations

Ch 2

The sage lives but does not own

Ch 3
Don’t treasure rare objects, and no one will steal.
Don’t display what people desire
And their hearts will not be disturbed

The sage rules

By emptying hearts and filling bellies
By weakening ambitions and strengthening bones

Ch 7

The sage steps back,
But is always in front.
Stays outside,
But is always within

No self interest?
Self is fulfilled.

Ch 8

Live in a good place
Keep your mind deep.
Treat others well.
Stand by your word.
Make fair rules.
Do the right thing.
Work when it’s time.
Only do not contend,
And you will not go wrong.

Ch 9

When gold and jade fill the hall,
They cannot be guarded.
Riches and pride
Bequeath error.
Withdrawing when work is done: Heaven’s Tao

Ch 11

Having leads to profit,
Not having leads to use.

Ch 12

Exotic goods ensnare human lives.
Therefore the sage takes care of the belly not the eye,
Chooses one, rejects the other.

Ch 15

Those who sustain Tao
Do not wish to be full.

Ch 23

In following Tao:
Thise on the way become the way,
Those who gain become the gain,
Those who lose become the loss.

All within Tao:
The wayfarer, welcome upon the way,
Those who gain, welcome within gain,
Those who lose, welcome within loss.

Ch 29

Trying to control the world?
I see you won’t succeed.
The world is a spiritual vessel
And cannot be controlled.
Those who control, fail.
Those who grasp, lose.

Ch 32

Know when to stop: avoid danger.

Ch 33

Knowing others is intelligent
Knowing yourself is enlightened
Conquering others takes force
Conquering yourself is true strength
Knowing what is enough is wealth

Ch 42

Humans hate:

To be alone, poor and hungry.
Yet Kings and Princes use these words as titles.

We gain by losing
Lose by gaining.

Ch 44

Name or body: which is closer?
Body or possessions: which means more?
Gain or loss: which one hurts?

Extreme love exacts a great price
Many possessions entail heavy loss.

Know what is enough-
Abuse nothing.
Know when to stop –
Harm nothing.

This is how to last a long time.

Ch 46

There is no greatrer calamity
Than not knowing what is enough.
There is no greater fault
Than desire for success.

Therefore, Knowing that enough is enogh
Is always enough.

Ch 53

The government is divided,
Fields are overgrown,
Granaries are empty,
But the nobles’clothes are gorgeous,
Their belts show off swords,
And they are glutted with food and drink.
Personal wealth is excessive.

This is clled thieves’ endowment,
But is not Tao.

Ch 67.

I  possess Three Treasures
to maintain and uphold

first is compassion
second is frugality
third is not presuming to be first under heaven

compassion leads to courage
frugality allows generosity
not presuming to be first
creates a lasting instrument

if I renounced compassion for valour
austerity for extravagance
reluctance for supremacy

I would die

Ch 77

Heaven’s Tao
Is a stretched bow,
Pulling down the top,
Pulling up the bottom.
If it’s too much, cut.
If it’s not enough,
Add on to it:
Heaven’s Tao.

The Human route
Is not like this,
Depriving the poor,
Offering to the rich.
Who has a surplus
And still offers it to the world?
Only those with Tao.

Ch 81

The sage is not acquisitive-
Has enough
By doing for others,
Has even more
By giving to others.

January 8, 2010 at 10:52 pm 1 comment

Views of Wealth – Epicurus

After meeting Saul Djanogly, I decided to start a long-term (ie slow) research project into ancient ideas of wealth. I started by looking at Epicurus, the Greek philosopher from the 4th century B.C. Here are a few of his thoughts:

She who is not satisfied with little, is satisfied with nothing.

Self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth. And the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom.

Nothing is sufficient for the person to whom the sufficient is too little.

A life of freedom cannot acquire many possessions, since to accomplish this requires satisfying the crowd or the powerful; but a life of freedom possesses everything in unfailing supply. If somehow such a life does happen to acquire many possessions, it will also know how to distribute these  to win others’  good will.

Great abundance is heaped up as a result of brutalising labour, but a miserable life is the result.

A person is made unhappy either by fear or by endless and vain desire . The person who curbs these can attain for herself the blessed gift of reason.

Many people, fearing poverty, are driven, through their fear, to adopt practices that will bring on greater fear.

The possession of the greatest riches does not resolve the anxiety of the soul or give birth to remarkable joy – nor does the greatest fame, nor all other things arising from unlimited desires.

Many people who acquire wealth do not find relief from dissatisfaction but an exchange of their present dissatisfaction for an even greater one.

Happiness and blessedness do not belong to abundance of riches or high status or power, but to freedom from pain and gentleness of feeling and a state of mind that sets limits that are in accordance with nature.

It is better for you to be free of fear and lying on a bed of straw than to own a couch of gold and an overflowing table and yet have no peace of mind.

The thankless greed of the soul makes the creature forever hungry for refinements in its mode of living.

January 7, 2010 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment

The Three Treasures

I recently met Saul Djanogly, a lay Rabbi who lectures on The Kabbalah of Money. Saul wondered if I would join him on a lecture about wealth and money as seen in the Jewish, Greco-Roman and Eastern traditions. It’s an interesting idea, and I started to re-read some of the Eastern classics looking at references to money. Looking at my old favourite the Tao Te Ching I came across these lines from Chapter 67,

I possess Three Treasures
to maintain and uphold

first is compassion
second is frugality
third is not presuming to be first under heaven

compassion leads to courage
frugality allows generosity
not presuming to be first
creates a lasting instrument

if I renounced compassion for valour
austerity for extravagance
reluctance for supremacy
I would die

compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack

what heaven creates
let compassion protect

Now I understand how frugality leads to generosity, because if I am frugal then I have created a surplus that I can share with others. I can also see how not presuming to be first, that is, not wishing to contend with others, leads to a ‘lasting instrument’, that is a personal power acquired through individual achievement and not by contending or opposing others. However why does compassion lead to courage? How does compassion win every battle?

We are here on a similar path to Jesus’ saying, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ The strong and aggressive do not prevail in the long term, and the soft and yielding win out over time. In the Taoist view softness and yielding are always compared to water which flows around everything and whose surface is easily broken. But we have recently seen the power of water in the floods at Cockermouth where trees were uprooted, cars lifted and floated downstream and ancient stone bridges were taken to pieces, all by the power of water.

I looked at some of the quotations in Red Pine’s translation, to see what older commentators had to say about compassion leading to courage.  Here are some,

Te-Ch’ing says, “Compassion means to embrace all creatures without reservation.”
Wang-an-Shih says, “Through compassion, we learn to be soft. When we are soft, we can overcome the hardest thing in the world. Thus we can be valiant.”
Wu Ch’eng says, “Compassion is the chief of the three treasures, All people love a compassionate person as they do their own parents. Hence he who attacks or defends with compassion meets no opposition.”
Mencius says, “He who is kind has no enemy under heaven.”
Su Ch’e says, “The world honours daring, exalts ostentation and emphasizes progress. What the sage treasures is patience, frugality and humility, all of which the world considers useless.”

So it is the softness of compassion that wins out in the end as it ‘outlasts every attack’. Therefore compassion both creates and allows courage. Since courage is an energy coming from the heart (cour) any feeling or thought that strengthens and encourages the heart, as compassion does, leads to a stronger heart, one that expresses itself valiantly.

December 9, 2009 at 1:48 pm Leave a comment

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