Tuesday, 15 July 2008


At times, it seems to me that we are living a lie. No, I'll rephrase that. I think we are existing a lie. What's the difference between living and existing? I suppose it depends on your point of view. To me, existing is being alive on the most basest of levels: having just enough of the basics to sustain you, and without the opportunity for growth, each day the same as the one before with little chance of things changing. In other words, being static: the opposite of Tao.

Living, on the other hand, is the opposite of that. Living means having purpose, where the basics of life are readily available in abundance, and there is opportuni
ty for growth in every direction. Living is being able to express yourself naturally, and not going against your true nature. Living is being in Tao.

I feel that most of us just exist. We get up every morning, go to work, whether we want to or not; often we go in ill but feel some pressure to soldier on, that the job is more important than we are. By the time we get home, too tired to play with our children or make any effort in our relationships with our loved ones, we simply want to relax, to lose ourselves in in some sort of escape, be it television, computers, drink, drugs or whatever it is that blots out the meaninglessness of our lives. And we do this, week in, week out, for the majority of our lives. Occasionally we get a break from this tedium. We change jobs or even careers, we get promoted or move into a new part of the country or even emigrate. But the fact is, to feel that we are a part of society, to enable us to buy the things we think we need so we can forget the hours we spend at work, to reward ourselves for putting up with the responsibility of our jobs, to feel like our lives have any meaning, we trudge onwards and (we think) upwards, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. This is not living.

So what is the lie? Simple. The lie is that which we tell ourselves to justify what we do. That what we do everyday for someone else (i.e., our employers) is important. That we are bettering ourselves. That we are making our lives easier because we can afford to do the things we want to do. The lie is that we think we are living when in reality we are just existing, because we don't grow in any meaningful way as people or as human beings.

As I was getting ready for work this morning, I thought of Philip Larkins' famous poem, Toads:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -

Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting

The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

I think Larkin really struck a chord with this poem. I think that the reason that the poem is so popular is because most of us can relate to what Larkin was feeling when he wrote these words, that (to paraphrase) "something sufficiently toad-like squats in them too".

So how can we get out of this lie? Simply giving up our job, our responsibilities, our ties with each other is too radical a step to take: the easiest way to destroy something is to take it to its' extreme. Besides, to just give up our commitments to those we love would be selfish. But by acknowledging that it is a lie, and therefore trying to seek reality; by realising that we can "live" whilst going about the routine of our lives; by living in the truth of our own inner nature, then we will be taking the first tentative steps along the Way.

Your name or your person.
Which is dearer?
Your person or your goods,
Which is worth more?
Gain or loss,
Which is a greater bane?
That is why excessive meanness
Is sure to lead to great expense;
Too much store
Is sure to end in immense loss.
Know contentment
And you will suffer no disgrace;
Know when to stop
And you will meet with no danger.
You can then endure.

Tao Te Ching, Section 44.
Translation: D.C. Lau, Penguin Classics.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

What is Tao?

The Tao Te Ching begins with:

The way that can be walked
is not The Way
The name that can be named
is not The Name

The word Tao can have a number of different meanings, but it does not have a literal translation (for a really good version of the Tao Te Ching try Jonathan Star's version The Definitive Tao Te Ching. This is the main source of my translations). Usually it is translated as "the Way", but it can also
mean path, "the absolute" or "nature".

The term "way" could mean a direction or, by association, a method (a "way" of doing things). It can also mean a state of being, like in the term "that's the way it is". However, I am a little sceptical of this last suggestion, as it is too close to "te" or "virtue".
So, what is Tao or "Way"? Lao Tzu indicates that it is not a physical object, or at least it has no physical manifestation1. Neither is it an idea or an emotion, for they are human concepts. Some call a principle, the principle of nature or the principle on which the Universe exists. Lieh Tzu refers to it as the "Absolute"2.

I have had only glimpses of the Tao, but I find it impossible to say what it is. The best that I can describe it is a "clarification" or "illumination" coupled with a overwhelming sense of unity. These glimpses are rare, but I try to live in readiness for them. This is the reason for my attempt at recording my life as a modern Taoist - to share my experiences and findings with, hopefully, others who have also seen the Tao, and to try to seek the Tao where and when I can. In the world we live in today, it is difficult. I am no different from anyone else: I have a family, a mortgage, a job and all the pressures that come from
modern living. However, I seek the Absolute, which according to the Masters involves living simply and in harmony with nature. I do not think that this is impossible, but it can be difficult today. However, I am most fortunate as I have many guides on my journey: my family, my close friends, everyone I come into contact with and, of course, the Masters who left their legacies in their writings. How I use these guides is up to me, and I try to listen to them wisely. And I will gladly share all that I learn on my journey, all my mistakes, fumbling and illuminations, hopefully going in the right direction. I will look for signposts on the way (no pun intended!) from the Masters, from my Tai Chi Sifus, brothers and sisters, and from simple contemplation.

And if you wish to share too, then I welcom
e your wisdom.


1: see Tao Te Ching - Chapter 14
2: The Book of Lieh Tzu - Book 3: "Dreams"

Monday, 30 June 2008

A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step...

Ever wonder what it's all about? Why we live like we do? Me too. Maybe I'll find some answers along the way, maybe I'll find some kindred spirits or some who are out of step with the Tao. Before I take that first step though, maybe I ought to clarify a few things.

I am a Taoist. That does NOT mean I have a "religion" in the usual sense. I don't believe in God or a God-like being. I do not seek to preach or convert to anyone: each human being has to find their own path through life, believing what they will.

What I do believe in is the Tao. I cannot tell you what this is - you have to find that out for yourself. An excellent place to start is in any of the three major texts of Taoism:

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

The Book of Chuang Tzu by Chuang Tzu

The Book of Lieh Tzu by Lieh Tzu

And if these are too esoteric for you, try Benjamin Hoffs' excellent The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet.

The purpose of this blog is to share my insights into what being a 21st Century Taoist is all about as I stumble on in life, making my share of mistakes, trying to use the principles of wu wei to see me through. It's also to try and help me make sense of the writings of the founding trilogy of Taoism, and to share any nuggets that I might find with the world.

You are most welcome to join me on this journey, and any guidance, thoughts or sheer frippery will be glady received.

As the Tao Te Ching says:

If I had the least bit of wisdom,
I could follow the Tao quite well

(Verse 53)