I had this post in mind for the last week or so. The original title was something like “How Studying Daoism Led Me to Buddhism.” This new title is better.
The Dao is a Way
Dao is translated into English as Way. What’s interesting about Way is that it can mean a method or a path. If this post was titled “The Dao of Buddhism,” it would be about the hows (method) of Buddhism. The current title is reflective of the path to Buddhism, specifically my own. I happened to walk the path (way) of the Way (Dao) to get to Buddhism. This came to me while walking to a Buddhist Temple in the mountains of Neihu (Taipei County). This map says it all:
See the little guy in the lower right. That was me. Follow the red path breaking left at the fork and you’ll run into the character 道 (the Tao/Dao for Taoism is the same character as the Tao/Dao for path/trail). Keep going to the end (far left side of the map) and you’ll run into what looks like a Nazi symbol. If you didn’t know, the swastika is used in a bunch of religions and cultures. The Wikipedia entry about swastikas is worth a scan. In this case it was in reference to the Buddhist Temple I was walking to. Even though Taiwanese Buddhism is one of the loosest versions of Buddhism being a fusion of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and local practices, it was still good inspiration for the title.
A Brief History of My Daoism
A friend from church gave my brother a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the “Tao Te Ching.” I gave pretty much any nonfiction book a scan and I eventually got my hands on that book. I recall instantly falling in love with it. I felt like I found THE TRUTH I had been looking for (or at least I would have been looking for had I known it existed). That book became my bible and I read it religiously. When I learned there were several ways to interpret the text, because of the nature of classically written Chinese, I started reading several translations (pretty much any translation I could get my hands on). When I learned Chinese, I stopped calling or writing it Taoism and switched to Daoism as it was a more accurate transliteration from Mandarin.
My Daoism evolved from something based on one, highly subjective, translation of the Daodejing to something based on several translations of several Daosit texts, years of reflection on the principles from those texts and experiences in my own life, years of seeing the parallels between taichi principles and Daoist principles and conversations with casual Daoists all the way up to disciples from the Complete Reality School of Daoism.
I have investigated and dabbled in a number of religions and belief systems over the years, Buddhism included, and none of them held a candle to Daoism. But something was missing…
The Greatest Thing Seems Incomplete
The greatest thing seems incomplete
yet it never wears out
the fullest thing seems empty
yet it never runs dry
the straightest thing seems crooked
the cleverest thing seems clumsy
the richest thing seems poor
activity overcomes cold
stillness overcomes heat
who can be perfectly still is able to govern the world
Red Pine, “Lao-tzu’s Taoteching,” Chapter 45
I’ve certainly felt like Daoism was the greatest thing and it’s also felt incomplete. Daoism has a kind of ultimate completeness within it’s incompleteness in that it gives you space to explore, to fill in the blanks on your own. A perfect example of this is, more than 10 years ago, my taichi and Daoist teacher Master Henry Wang telling me I need to meditate. He never got around to teaching me a meditation though. Instead I was forced to research various meditative practices until I finally settled on learning Transcendental Meditation.
Learning to “dao” seems a lot like learning to walk. You lack the communicative faculties to have someone tell you how, so you watch, try, fall a lot and eventually get the hang of it. Actually, that’s just the first step. Learning to dao is more like learning gymnastics. Except there are no schools, limited teachers, no books with pictures or how-tos. Just a lot of stories and a couple books that tell you about some of the principles of flipping and about how awesome you’d be if you could do it.
You won’t find it in the Daodejing, but as you start plunging into the depths of Daoism you’ll hear or read about concepts like “becoming one with the Dao,” wuwei (without action), weiwuwei (action without action) or Daoist Immortality. Early in my Daoist career I loved the flexibility and adaptability the practice gave me in life. Broke? Awesome! Not broke? Awesome! On top of the world? Awesome! Living at grandma’s, broke, smelly, beard nappy and no light at the end of the tunnel? Not awesome, but at least you understand the ebbs and flows of life from years of reflective study of Daoist principles.
In this later stage of path walking I’ve become seriously interested in Daoist Immortality, becoming one with the dao or at least be able to effortlessly do things with non-effort. The problem with all these things is they reeked of something I decided to let go of pursuing once in the way back when…. enlightenment (liberation, awakening, nirvana, etc.)
One thing I know for certain from both the principles and experience is that effortless effort (whether in appearance or truly effortless) requires a lot of effort in the beginning. I needed with a method for attainment. Problem was the Daoism I’ve been exposed to seriously lacked a method. In fact, this lack of method is the method. It’s hard to put a lot of effort into not having effort…
Here’s a thought I had on the path to the Buddhist temple:
“In Daoism, the path is the method. In Buddhism the method is the path.”
Enter (Theravada) Buddhism
I’m certain I was directly exposed to Buddhism long before Daoism. I knew the Dalai Lama was some kind of Buddhist (Tibetan) and I was familiar with aspects of Zen (Shaolin temple, meditation and Nirvana, even if just looking it up because of the band). These styles of Buddhism never grabbed me like Daoism did. The Dalai Lama seemed like a cool dude but maybe things seemed a little too religious. I loved Zen koans and the idea of meditation but never found a group I connected with and reading koans without a teaching, teacher or practice didn’t seem to be getting me closer to enlightenment. I loved the fighting arts of Shaolin and wanted to be a monk for a large slice of my high school career but it had nothing to do with them being Chan (Chinese Zen) Buddhists.
As the years went by I would pick up Buddhist books every now and then, drop in on temples and groups when I had the chance and dabbled with meditation (eventually decided on TM though). More recently I got hit with the “enlightenment holy spirit” and bought a slew of books on the subject based on the recommendations from a website solely focused on enlightenment. This website also “re-piqued” my interest in Buddhism from a page that detailed the various stages of enlightenment. Buddhism seemed to be very systematic about leading one to liberation. Now I wanted to get down with one of the Buddhist systems and start putting in (the real) work towards being enlightened. I had given up on the idea that I’d be able to logically induce a permanent state of enlightenment.
The stage was perfectly set for meeting Master Adam Mizner. Master Adam possessed all the right qualities to introduce me to Theravada Buddhism. He was, like myself, a martial artist that liked fighting with taichi and he was well versed in Daoism and other spiritual practices. He directly answered all of my questions and succinctly explained to me why he chose Theravada Buddhism over other forms of Buddhism as well as other spiritual practices (ones specifically focused on attaining enlightenment). Having him available to answer my questions for a month, along with reading books on Theravada Buddhism I found myself coupled with ones he recommended led me to agreeing with him. Theravada Buddhism was for me too.
Why is Theravada Buddhism for Me?
Because it’s simple and direct. That’s why. There are clear meditations to practice and reasons for practicing them. There are clear rules to follow and reasons for following them. It’s funny because Daoism can easily be interpreted as a philosophy that lets a person do whatever they like. To enjoy the “ultimate freedom” of totally “carefree” living. This is totally true to a point. The point where it stops being true is when you start seeing an even greater freedom that exists beyond carefree living. A freedom that can only be unlocked through restriction (oh paradox, glad I’m comfortable with you from my years of Daoism).
Daoism is deep. How deep one takes it is totally up to personal preference… or perhaps one’s karma. Daoism has a lot of answers for living life in the “realm of illusion.” Answers that can lead to a very happy existence in that realm. When one starts to peer deeper down the rabbit hole, one will start to notice that Daoism starts sounding extremely similar to stuff the Buddha talked about:
There is no satisfying lusts,
even by a shower of gold pieces.
Whoever knows that lusts have a short taste
and cause pain is wise.
Even in heavenly pleasures one finds no satisfaction;
the disciple who is fully awakened
finds joy only in the destruction of all desires. – The Buddha
no crime is worse than yielding to desire
no wrong is greater than discontent
no curse is crueler than getting what you want
the contentment of being content is true contentment indeed – The Laozi
Daoism and Buddhism both seem to ultimately be fingers pointing to the moon of no desire. One of them tells you to pull the finger and laugh at the paradox of desiring no desire, the other tells you to focus on the moon with great skill, mindfulness and intent.