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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Taoism and Confucianism

The Emperors of ancient China did not always follow Confucianism as their ruling philosophy. Initially, it was Taoism they turned to. Unfortunately, they were badly misled by "masters" who themselves did not understand the Tao. Several Emperors died from drinking "elixir of immortality" made with mercury. One Emperor spent his days doing nothing productive and justified it with Tao-sounding excuses, while his government fell apart and the people suffered. These negative experiences eventually forced a switch to Confucianism.

In mainland China, there is a TV show that highlights this turning point in Chinese history. It has become one of the more popular historical dramas there, but it is virtually unknown over here.

In general, Westerners who understand only the surface level of the Tao often cast Taoism and Confucianism as diametrically opposed competitors. Because most people in the West don't know much about Confucianism, it is quite easy to turn it into a convenient villain. This idea is reinforced by the good-versus-evil notion where Taoism represents the people who wish for freedom, while Confucianism represents the ruling elite and their oppressive rigidity. Thus, Taoism gets set up on a pedestal while Confucianism is looked down upon.

This bears no resemblance to how the Asians themselves approach the two traditions. In actuality, real Chinese people living in Asian tend to revere both Laozi and Confucius equally. They follow teachings from Taoism as well as Confucianism and see no conflict between the two.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Be Water

Bruce Lee often emphasized the importance of adapting to one's environment. He pointed out how water would become the cup when poured into a cup; it would become the bottle when poured into a bottle. "Be water, my friend" is one of his most famous quotes. It is a teaching straight from the Tao, which formed the basis of Lee's core beliefs.

This quote has also given rise to some questions, such as: "Derek, don't you think Bruce Lee's actions were inconsistent with his words? Water conforms to its environment, so if we are to be like water, then we should also conform to our environment. Back in Bruce Lee's days it was difficult for an Asian actor in America to find work, but through his persistent efforts he created a niche for himself and changed American cinema forever. Far from conforming to his environment, he had a big impact on it. How can you reconcile that with the Tao?"

This apparent paradox is what can pop up when we touch only the surface of a very deep spiritual philosophy. To find the answer, we need only to observe nature. Look at any river and notice how water has cut its own channel into solid ground. Look at any canyon and notice how water has carved out incredible structures out of mountains. It becomes obvious, then, that while water does indeed conform to its environment, that certainly isn't the only thing it does. Over time, the never-ending persistence of water creates astounding impacts on its environment. Isn't it interesting how water can do this, despite being the softest thing there is?

If we are to emulate water, we would embody not only its flexibility and adaptability, but also its transformational power. Bruce Lee worked within the movie industry in Hong Kong and Hollywood to make his mark upon the world. Applying his example to ourselves means we would also fit seamlessly into our chosen line of work, and then excel from within. We may not necessarily change the entire world, but it is an absolute certainty that we will be able to change our own personal world. We will then understand this Tao teaching in a whole new light....

Be water, my friend.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Think Small

I admire Dr. Wayne Dyer. He has been studying the Tao for years, and now, with his new book and speaking engagements, he is sharing his discoveries with the world. I can think of no one else as capable and influential as he is when it comes to explaining the stunning beauty and practical power of the Tao.

One of the ideas he expresses with great clarity is "think small, achieve great things." Chapters 63 and 64 of the Tao Te Ching speak of this with clear, concise, graceful yet down-to-earth poetry. Rome was never built in a day; a truly great thing is the gradual accumulation of tiny increments. Dr. Dyer uses his own abstinence from alcohol to illustrate this point. He hasn't had a drink for twenty years which, by any standard, is a remarkable record. He was able to achieve this by focusing on only one day at a time, or even just on the present moment, one moment at a time. On any one day, he has no idea if perhaps the next day he will take his first drink in years; what he does know, with complete certainty, is that it won't be that particular day. It's the journey of ten thousand miles - the way to walk the great journey is by continuously putting one foot in front of the other, focusing only on one step at any given time.

Like many other ideas from the Tao, "think small" is the essence of powerful simplicity. It is so simple that we may be tempted to dismiss it with a shrug and "oh, I already know that." This attitude can cause us to miss its tremendous life-changing power. The one can really apply this idea to life, the one who can discipline himself to do a small amount of work toward a worthwhile goal every day - that is the person who shall enjoy great success. This simple idea has, in fact, transformed Jerry Seinfeld from a novice stand-up comic to arguably the biggest, most popular comedian ever.

Tremendous success by practicing "think small" is guaranteed. Not guaranteed by Lao Tzu, not guaranteed by the Tao Te Ching, but guaranteed by the very principles that underlie human existence - the Tao itself!