Posts tagged ‘Taoism’

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

Standing on Others’ Shoulders – Part 2

Having written six books that have had as their starting point someone else’s writings, I feel it is time I write a book that is entirely mine (if you can ever say a book is entirely your own). In a way, this blog is that book, and I wonder if I will really write another book?

A publisher friend suggested I write about my experiences with the Pythons- my involvement with the Holy Grail, the dispute over Spamalot, and the subsequent court case. I’m not certain I have the energy to do this now, but if I were to do it, it would be quite an undertaking. Two parts of the book would be difficult to write. One would be the need to examine my own personal feelings and relationships around the making of the film and our breakup. That was a painful time for me. Secondly, I would want to explain the case in a lot of detail, as a kind of litigation manual.  That would take a lot of time to put together, and perhaps the events are too recent for me to take this on.

Instead I may decide to do more guided meditations. I created one called The Age Of Anxiety for people suffering financial stress, and I liked how that came out. I’d like to do one for people who think too much. That would be a useful tool .   

There is one Taoist philosopher called Lieh Tzu that I have wanted to write about. I suppose if I do that I would be again standing on his shoulders. But since he had a reputation as a man who could ride the wind that might be quite an exciting trip.   

He wrote,

My mind concentrated and my body relaxed, bones and flesh fused completely, I did not notice what my body leaned against and my feet trod. I drifted with the wind East or West, like a leaf from a tree or a dry husk, and never knew whether it was the wind that rode me or I that rode the wind.

Standing on those shoulders would really give me an incredible view of the world! Maybe I’d better do that one, after all.

July 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm Leave a comment

Standing On Others’ Shoulders – Part 1- (don’t hold your breath for Part 2)

I think it’s time that I started standing on my own creative feet and stop standing on the shoulders of others. In my case that means old philosophers – both east and west.  My first 5 books were all about philosophies or philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Taoism, Yoga and Socrates. I explained the ideas behind the philosophy, followed by key texts I had referred to.

My latest book – I Survived A Secret Nazi Extermination Camp – is entirely different. The first part of the new book is a short introduction to  the little known but infamous Nazi death camp called Belzec. In this isolated, forested camp in SE Poland,  the Nazis killed an estimated 650,00 Jews and Gypsies.  The time between arrival by freight train to death in a gas chamber was only two hours. Rudolf Reder, a Polish Jew, managed to stay alive for four months as a worker in the camp, before making a miraculous escape. By the end of the war, Reder was the only survivor of the camp, and he gave a Witness Statement recounting his experiences.

It is this Witness Statement of Reder’s that forms part two of the book. He recounts the horrific, pathetic and harrowing events that took place in Belzec, and the cruel and criminal acts of the Nazi and Ukrainian guards.  It is a difficult account to read – one man recounting the hell that the Nazis’ madness had created, and which he saw first-hand.

Part three is an account by me ( a kind of memoir ) about how and why I came across this Statement of Reder’s. It’s partly about my family and partly about my relationship to the holocaust, and its victims.  A few years ago, I decided to search for my Grandparents’ roots online via JewishGen which led me to discover hundreds of ancestors. This search ultimately led me to Lublin, and it was on a visit to the Majdanek Concentration Camp that I found Reder’s Statement. At the same time I learned the fate of my grandfather’s family – those who he left behind had been sent from their homes in Lublin to be killed in Belzec .

How is this book different to the other 5? Of course it’s much more personal. I am not writing about dead philosophers but about the terrible fate of my own (newly discovered) family. It’s about history, but told in a personal way. I’ve set out my reflections on what I was learning, and my own memories were part of this discovery.   Obviously I am not a survivor of the camps and no known relative of mine had been one either. We were Americans, not Europeans. All my grandparents emigrated to the USA in the early 1900s, and my parents and all of our family had been born in America. Growing up, I never realised that my grandparents had left family behind – parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. It is the fate of those family members that my search revealed, and my memoir reflects how I came to terms with this dark knowledge.

June 28, 2013 at 9:26 pm 1 comment

A Chuang Tzu Story

In my last post I wrote about a line I found in Chuang Tzu on ancestor worship. I was actually looking at Chuang Tzu to find this story (quoted in my book, The Spiritual Teachings of the Tao),

Tzu Kao, the Duke of Sheh, was about to leave on a mission when he decided to consult Confucius.

“The King is sending me on an important mission to Chi. The Prince of Chi will probably treat me with great respect, but will be in no hurry to deal with me. It’s difficult enough to hurry an ordinary man, much less a prince. This worries me no end. You have always told me ‘Only through following Tao can most things, great or small, be managed successfully. If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. Only the virtuous man, even in the face of failure, can avoid distress.’ 

My diet is plain and simple, I eat no spicy dishes that  make me thirsty. Yet only this morning I received my orders, and this afternoon I’m already gulping iced water. My body’s burning up, and the mission hasn’t even started! If it fails, I’ll be judged harshly. I suffer on two fronts and don’t feel capable of carrying out this commission. Can you give me some advice?”

The Master replied, ”In the world there are two great principles: one is the requirement implanted in our nature and the other is the conviction of what is right. The love of a daughter for her parents is implanted in her, and can never be erased from her heart. That a minister should serve his ruler is what is right, and he can’t escape this obligation. These are called the great universal principles.

Therefore a daughter finds peace in serving her parents wherever they may be, and this is the height of devotion. Similarly, a minister finds peace in serving his ruler, whatever the matter, and this is the height of loyalty. When you simply obey the commands of your heart, thoughts  of sorrow and joy don’t arise. There’s no alternative to acting as you do, and you accept this as your destiny. This is the perfection of virtue.

As a minister and a son you must do what can’t be avoided. Absorb yourself in your mission and ignore your own self. When will you have time to think of loving life or hating death? Act like this and all will be well.

Let your mind be content with the situation you’re in. Stay centered, and resign yourself to the inevitable. This is the ultimate you can pursue. What else can you do to fulfil the charge of great Tao? The best thing you can do is also the most difficult- to let things take their natural course.”

I wanted to read this story, because I had remembered these lines,

‘Only through following Tao can most things, great or small, be managed successfully. If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. Only the virtuous man, even in the face of failure, can avoid distress.’ 

I was wondering how well I was doing in following Tao in relation to my law suit against the Monty Python group. A Taoist would say, ‘Don’t go to court. Forget it. It’s not worth the hassle and pain.” This is right. Don’t get embroiled in affairs is the Taoist way. Affairs, whether legal, business or sexual, get you entangled in them, and this leads to endless thoughts and strategies for either disentangling them, or finding a successful way through. The results of these actions are characterised correctly by Chuang Tzu- If affairs turn sour, criticism follows, and even if successful, yin and yang is disturbed and anxiety can’t be avoided. You pay the price for engaging in these activities, whether you win or lose.

You will not be surprised if I tell you that I have not avoided distress during the 8 years of pursuing this case.  I did suffer and lost the even-tempered and tranquil Taoist mentality that is both difficult to find and hard to maintain. I suffered stress, illness and it probably took years off my life. Very un-Taoist.  So why did I take on this battle? In a couple of weeks I will have the Judgement on the case, and after that has come in I will try to explain why I undertook it. Till then, I had better stay silent.

June 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm 3 comments

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

Newer Posts


The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.

Categories