taijiquan: rooted in Taoism (Part 3)

January 2, 2015

Chen Bing

Statue of Chen Wangting in Chenjiagou (Chen Village), with Chen Bing in the foreground.

Chen Wangting (1600-1680) was a Chinese military officer during the last years of the Ming empire. When the Ming dynasty collapsed, he retired to Chen village (Chenjiagou), and created Chen Family Taijiquan.  The following passage is from C.P. Ong’s book, Taijiquan: Cultivating Inner Strength:

“Practicing daoyin and tu’na, reflecting on the I Ching and Tao, and contemplating life, Chen Wanting had an awakening on Zhuangzi’s discourse on Tao. He saw the wantonness of lawless killings and the vagaries of officialdom. Honor, heroism, fame, fortune, and the many things he strove for, suddenly rang hollow. He felt a release from the fetters of human follies. Savoring the waters and the mountains, he soaked in the tranquility and grasped the bliss enjoyed by the immortals…

“The beauty of Taiji unfoleded and manifested in his body. Inspired, Chen Wanting created a radically new “soft” training methodology of wushu, drawn from the cultural stew pot of daoyin and tu’na, Chinese medicine, and taiji. The creation ushered in a new epoch of the Chen family marital arts—the birth of Taijiquan….

“Chen Wanting had finally found his calling. His musing is expressed in the poem of “long and short” verses, Changduan Ju.”

–from C.P. Ong, Taijiquan: Cultivating Inner Strength, Bagua Press, 2013, pp. 85-87.

Changduan Ju (Uneven Verses)

By Chen Wangting

Ah, of those years

Clad in armor with resolute valor

Countless brigands and bandits I had slain,

And many a times faced death in the eye!

The honor and glories bestowed

All now seem so hollow and vain!

In feeble old age I can only sigh

And find refuge in my volume of Huangting [a classic book in neidan, the Taoist alchemy of internal energetics]

Which I keep close as a constant companion.

In idle times, I forge new methods of quan [boxing]

In busy times, I tend the fields.

Whenever there is leisure

I teach my offspring and students quan

To be “dragons and tigers” as they wish.

I pay my grain taxes early

And never leave debts uncleared.

I have no use for pride and flattery,

T’is easy to yield and tolerate.

People call me silly

Or think me crazy

The words only cleanse my ears.

I pay no heed to officialdom.

Lo! The high officials in noble regalia

Always worried and fearful

Not to wrong their superiors.

How can it compare

With the peace and comfort in my heart.

I covet neither fame nor fortune.

Of worldly affairs,

I’ve seen the ploys and intrigues.

I imbibe the mountains and streams

Happy and carefree as a fish in water,

Worry not of rise in fortune

Nor of fall in misfortune,

But only of peace and health.

I live a plain and simple life

Envying not and resenting none.

I avoid the vagaries of ups and downs

And care not who wins or loses.

If this is not how immortals live

Then what is an immortal?

–from C.P. Ong, Taijiquan: Cultivating Inner Strength, Bagua Press, 2013, pp. 85-87.


taijiquan: rooted in a Taoism (Part 2)

January 2, 2015

Chen Xiaowang14

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang

“Taijiquan is a teaching of the Dao. The Dao is not far from man, but it is man who distances himself from the Dao. The Great Dao is without a gate. If you pursue it with insistence and perseverance and if you enter the depth step by step, you will finally reach it and enter it, just like fire ascending from water, just like a flower blossoming amidst the snow. Hence he who has the determination is indeed going to complete the task.”

–Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, quoted on the back cover of The Five Levels of Taijiquan by Chen Xiaowang, Singing Dragon publisher, 2012

“Taijiquan is Taoism. Tao is not far away from people. It is neither far nor near to anyone. It does not involve such emotions. Anyone who pursues it can get it. Tao is not far from people. You have to strive for it, then you can attain it. People make themselves far from Tao. Today, before you reach it, you cast it aside. Then you are far from Tao. If you turn back to pursue it, you can achieve it.”

–Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang during an interview on Chinese Cable TV, 2012

a mind that lets go

November 15, 2013

“Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little, you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you, will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely, you will have complete peace. ”

~ Ajahn Chah

taijiquan: rooted in a Taoist view of nature

September 11, 2012

In several posts, I’ve touched on the roots of Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) in Taoism.   Taijiquan is a great way to put Taoist philosophical principles into practice, to make these principles a part of you, and to internalize them as your natural way of responding to the world.  I follow the terrific blog of Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB, written by David Gaffney, an author of The Essence of Taijiquan.  I recently read a post (26 August 2012), reprinted immediately below, in which Gaffney eloquently discusses the relationship between Taijiquan and Taoism (Daoism):

“Natural is the First Principle

The Daoist sage Zhuangzi advised – “It takes a long time to do a thing properly… Follow with whatever happens and let your mind be free; stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate… It is best to leave everything to work naturally…” Chen Fake is reported to have frequently advised his students to ting qi ziran, literally to “listen to nature” or perhaps more accurately to “go with what is natural”.

During my recent visit to the USA I had the good fortune to visit the pristine wilderness of the Olympic National Park’s temperate rainforests.  On the flight back to the UK I reread the following passage from The Essence of Taijiquan:

‘Taijiquan is rooted in Daoist philosophy. Daoist thinking holds that nature is as it is and that within the cosmos everything has its natural place and function. This can only be distorted and misunderstood when it is defined, labelled or evaluated. “The object of human wisdom is to fall in line with the Dao or the ways and laws of nature and live in harmony with them”. Trying too hard is the surest way not to achieve – for example the Taijiquan practitioner who makes the mistake of “trying” to relax instead of just relaxing. Generations of teachers have instructed their students to practice according to the correct principles and let nature take its course’.

It is important to be clear what it is we are trying to achieve in our Taijiquan practice. Take the training method of zhan zhuang (standing post) – why do we do this exercise?

-mental calmness
-postural awareness & structural integrity
-lower body stability,/upper body lightness
-etc etc

Every Taijiquan student knows this, but how many achieve it? A saying in the Taijiquan classics states that we must go through the process of calming the mind – from this the emotions become stilled – from this the body begins to relax. An inevitable and inviolable sequence. Watch the masters standing – they look comfortable, often stirring slightly, readjusting their positions – clear in what they are trying to achieve. Contrast this with many people who turn standing into a kind of penance. Is someone standing rigid and unmoving really engaging with this process (calm mind/emotional stillness/bodily relaxation)?

It is important to sometimes let go of the desire to over-analyse. Get back to nature and experience its forces instead of reading about them. For a short time perhaps see the world a little more like the Daoists whose thinking shaped the art we practise:

Back to the forest.- the concentric circles within the trunk of a fallen 400 year old tree aptly illustrates the idea of inward to outward expansion (Taijiquan’s peng jin). Also the layers of circularity hidden within the straightness of the trunk.

– trying to cross the Queets River my legs were taken by the power of the water. Not in a predictable direct push, but in a swirling uprooting motion – instantly finding any weakness of balance or moment of indecision as I try to find a firm foothold.

– watching the branches of the 10,000 year old forest move with the breeze – neither before nor after – neither purposive nor pre-emptive -but exactly in accord.  Isn’t this a perfect example of Taijiquan’s listening skill or ting jin?

Respect to our friend and guide Kevin Fetherson (right) – ecologist/professor/man of the forest – for a great wilderness Taiji lesson.”

Re-printed from the blog of Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB, with permission of David Gaffney.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet-philosopher of the Tao

July 3, 2012

Lately, I’ve been exploring some of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and finding resonances to Taoism over and over.  I get a funny sense of euphoria, when I stumble upon these resonances.  It’s amazing to me to find ideas that sound so Taoist, not from a shadowy author in ancient China, but from 1800’s America, and to hear these ideas expressed so beautifully, so powerfully and boldly, in an American voice.  The idea of resonances between Taoism and Emerson and other American Transcendentalists is not original to me, of course.  Many others have noted this before—for example, Richard Grossman has edited a book, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet, called The Tao of Emerson:  The Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching as Found in the Words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he juxtaposes quotes from Lao Tzu and Emerson.  But there’s still a bit of a thrill to me about stumbling across seemingly Taoist ideas in Emerson.

Lately I’ve been listening to an excellent course on CD by Professor Ashton Nichols entitled “Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement” (course 2598, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company).  In the course, Professor Nichols reads a passage from Emerson’s essay “Nature,” which struck me very powerfully:

“Standing on the bare ground, –my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,– all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)

There is so much Taoist resonance in just these few lines.  The first sentence—in which he describes himself standing with the bare ground below him and his head uplifted into infinite space above him—-sounds very much like the Taoist idea of humans being profoundly affected by the energies of “heaven” (i.e. the cosmos) and earth.  Caught up in the swirl of these natural energies, Emerson lets go of a sense of egotistical self-importance, and in fact his very selfhood seems to virtually dissolve in that moment.  He reaches a state of heightened awareness in which he sees all, but no longer feels like a separate self.  Instead, the “currents of the Universal Being” circulate through him—which sounds very much like the Taoist concept of the energies (qi) of heaven and earth which circulate through us.  While the importance of his separateness from the natural world around him diminishes, he realizes that he is part or particle of God.  Because Emerson’s view of God was not necessarily of a personified being, one might say, in Taoist terms, that he is talking about a feeling of being a part of, or even merged with Nature, merged with Tao.   Please see my earlier post liberation from the fear of death in which I discuss this Taoist idea of our being part of Tao, i.e. of there being no real separateness of ourselves from Tao.

Although, in an ultimate sense, he sensed the unity of his self with Nature, Emerson, like the ancient Taoists Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, emphasized the importance of living your life in a such a way that you can be and express your authentic self, rather than slavishly following social conventions.  It is your authentic self—not your facade of conformity–that is ” part or particle of God”, that is Tao.

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

“The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841

And, as Emerson stated succinctly in the same essay,

“Whoso would be a man [human] must be a nonconformist.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841

Much like Taoists, Emerson finds value not in the pretentious, the affected, or the ornate, but in the simple, in those things that are seemingly common and low.


“I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Scholar

…which reminds me of this quote from the Tao Te Ching


“The supreme good is like water,

which nourishes all things without trying to.

It is content with the low places that people disdain.

Thus it is like the Tao.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, Stephen Mitchell translation

In an earlier post, nonstriving, I wrote about what I see as the problems with the excessive striving and grasping for external signs of “success” (money / power / prestige) in 21st century American culture, and contrasted this with the Taoist value of simplicity.  About 150 years earlier, Emerson, though he loved America, was lamenting essentially the same tendency among many of his fellow Americans to revere and strive for money for its own sake….

“It is the vulgarity of this country to believe that naked wealth, unrelieved by any use or design, is merit.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1854


“All the toys that infatuate men— houses, land, money, luxury, power, fame— are the self-same thing. The man whose eyes are nailed, not on the nature of his act, But on the wages, whether it be money or office or fame, is equally low. Nature arms each man with some faculty which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, And this makes him necessary to society.  The peril of every fine faculty is the delight of playing with it for pride.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

In contrast to the life of striving for superficial signs of success, Emerson described a Transcendentalist ideal of a life of self sufficiency and meaningful accomplishment without excessive striving:

“We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example.  I mean, we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands.  Only in the instinct of the lower animals, we find the suggestion of the methods of it, and something higher than our understanding.  The squirrel hoards nuts, and the bee gathers honey, without knowing what they do, and they are thus provided for without selfishness or disgrace.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Trancendentalist, 1842

This conception of “trusting to his sentiments,” of providing for oneself and achieving without excessive striving, “without selfishness or disgrace,” with the naturalness of a squirrel hoarding nuts or a bee gathering honey, sounds much like the Taoist idea of wu wei.

A paper by He Jing comparing Lao Tzu’s “Tao” to Emerson’s “Oversoul,” provides an useful outline of similarities and distinctions between the work of Lao Tzu and Emerson:


An essay by David T.Y. Ch’en (in Narasimhaiah, C.D., ed., 1972, Asian Response to American Literature, Delhi: Vikas, pp 406-16.) argues that another American Transcendentalist and protege of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, may have been directly influenced by Taoist texts, and draws parallels between the writings of Thoreau and Chuang Tzu:


Linda Brown Holt has also written an excellent post on the parallels between Thoreau and Taosim:


It is unclear whether Emerson was influenced directly by Taoist texts, such as the Tao Te Ching.  However, there were almost certainly indirect Taoist influences on Emerson, since he did read Buddhist texts, and of course Buddhism mixed with Taoism in China and Japan (Chan and Zen Buddhism).  But in addition to any influences through Buddhist texts, it seems that Emerson re-discovered many of the same principles by observing Nature and human society, and, perhaps most importantly, by looking inside himself.  These principles are not uniquely Chinese.  Like Emerson before us, we contemporary Americans can look around us, and inside ourselves, and discover them anew.  Happy 4th of July!

©2009-2012 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

a counterpoint to the culture of emergency

March 16, 2012

“Blue Buddha–Microcosmic Orbit” by Ren Adams


At my workplace, it feels like there’s a simmering state of crisis most of the time, punctuated by full blown “emergencies.”  It all seems unnecessary, since I’m not working at as a fireman, air traffic controller, or trauma surgeon.   But never mind the rationale…the culture of emergency is firmly in place.  Everyone is always extremely busy, rushing around, meeting deadline after deadline, Microsoft Outlook calendars overflowing, barely keeping up…and I’m right there with them, doing my best to keep pace.  Of course the internet is supposed to make us more efficient and productive, and probably does….but at a cost.  Things that used to take a long time can now be done in an instant.  But, ironically, this does not give us extra time, but rather seems to clutter up our time more than ever.  The faster you can do things, the faster the demand piles up.  If you focus on getting one thing done, it feels like you’re neglecting 10 other pressing items that need attention.  If you’re not paying attention to your email for an hour or two, at any time of the day or night, there will be a hefty pile of work emails when you get back.   I find myself trying to stay on top of them, to avoid being up to my neck in them.  We’re conditioned to remain alert, virtually around the clock, for incoming messages and pieces of electronic news.  Then, in our time off, we get sucked into the fun and addictive aspects of the internet.  Of course, I love it, just like everyone else.  The action on our smart phones, whether work or play, often seems more compelling than the world of people and things that are physically near to us.  News spreads immediately on the web–the good, the bad, any new scandal, gossip, violence, disaster, or even rumors or possibilities of those.  There’s a feeling that if we don’t keep up, we might be left out of the action online, left behind by the virtual party.  The demand for continual electronic connectedness, vigilance, and rapid responsiveness has become the new normal, the expectation we have of each other.  Everything seems urgent.  The adrenaline flows and flows.  And, bounced around on these waves of adrenaline, it becomes harder to do anything that takes prolonged concentration and reflection, or to have awareness of ourselves or those that are really near to us.  And, while spending more and more of our time paying attention to a screen, and less and less time paying attention to each other or what’s around us, we gradually, insidiously become more alienated from each other and the natural world, and drift away from relationships and experiences that can buffer our stress, perhaps without even realizing it….or remembering any other way of being.

There is some backlash against this, a search for a counterpoint to the continuous adrenaline rush of modern life.  The popularity of Yoga and other mindfulness practices shows that many people seek some sort of respite from the speed and stress, seek to regain a sense inner quiet and calm, an inner space to breathe.  Given my interest in Taoism and Taijiquan, I was excited to read Jan Diepersloot’s beautiful discussion of these issues in his book Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1.  He describes an antidote to the stress of modern life, one based on principles of the internal martial arts.

Diepersloot accurately points out, as have neuroscientists like Robert Sapolsky, that chronic stress has many adverse effects on our bodies and brains.  Diepersloot refers to our neurophysiological systems that deal with stress and fight or flight (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system) as the “neurophysiology of emergency.” On the other hand, he refers to systems that mediate a relaxed, low stress state (parasympathetic nervous system) as the “neurophysiology of harmony.”  He writes,

“The dilemma of post-industrial civilization is the widespread (psychological) internalization and the (social) institutionalization of the neurophysiology of emergency.  We have literally incorporated the fight-flight syndrome in our bodies and minds, perpetuating our adrenaline addiction… Unbalanced because deprived of sufficient parasympathetic stimulation…we are sorely lacking in the necessary tools to deal with the endemic social stress we have embodied in our systems.  The quest of the next century, indeed the quest of the next millennium, will be to learn how to cultivate our own individual neurophysiology of harmony.”

— Jan Diepersloot, Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1, 1995,Introduction, p. xvi.

Diepersloot goes on to argue that this internalization of the neurophysiology of emergency has become so pervasive and so “normal” that we don’t even recognize it anymore, or understand that there is another way of being. He also argues, quite compellingly I think, that this chronic state of stress and anxiety, compromises our ability to perceive and empathize with each other (see my earlier post listening).  Therefore, although the adrenaline can be exciting, it doesn’t enhance our freedom or true pleasure, because its pleasure is entrapping and addictive, and impairs our ability to see other options for ourselves, other ways of being, and impairs our ability to connect with others.

The meditative traditions in the Chinese internal martial arts are a counterpoint to this culture of emergency, Diepersloot argues.  The internal martial arts don’t require one to withdraw from the modern world, nor do they provide only occasional and temporary respites from the stress of life.  Rather, if ones studies them consistently and diligently, they train the practitioner to deal with external stresses while simultaneously holding on to an internal calm and harmonious state, engaging with whatever occurs in the external world without substantially engaging one’s own “neurophysiology of emergency”.  Part of what distinguishes training in the internal martial arts (e.g. Taijiquan), from other types of meditative mindfulness practices (e.g. Yoga) is that the former trains you not only to achieve inner calm by yourself in stillness, but also to maintain this inner calm while in action and even while engaged in inherently stressful interactions (confrontation, sparring) between two people.  As this is practiced repeatedly, over time, and becomes a part of you, it can be generalized to the stresses of everyday life, enabling you to maintain a sense of inner stillness while engaged in outward activity.

“The accomplishment of the training in the meditative and martial arts is precisely the ability to transcend and suppress the functioning of the sympathetic, pituitary-adrenal system and continue to operate with calm equanimity in the face of extreme danger, including, ultimately, the encounter with death itself.”

— Jan Diepersloot, Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1, 1995, Introduction, p. xv.

This quote sums up one of the main reasons that I find Taijiquan and the internal martial arts endlessly fascinating.  How can someone face extreme or chronic stress, taking active and effective steps to deal with it, while maintaining an inner sense of calm equanimity?  Although I can think of fictional movie or novel heroes who can do this easily, it seems really hard to me to actually do this in reality.  But it certainly seems like something worth aspiring to, worth learning, and practicing, and training deeply.  So, at their root, the internal martial arts are not just about learning to fight (which few of us will really have to do, hopefully), but about a way of finding the stillness in the often chaotic action of life.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang in Standing Meditation

The ways of cultivating our neurophysiology of harmony that Diepersloot proposes include a form of standing meditation (zhan zhuang) derived from the Chinese internal martial arts to cultivate internal stillness, as well as exercises in Taiji movements and push-hands practice with a partner.  He uses the term “wuji-taiji method of awareness” to encompass this set of practices.  First you cultivate a sense of your own stillness and awareness…then you learn to maintain this stillness while moving…and then you learn to maintain this inner calm and stillness, yet awareness, while in interaction with others. As Diepersloot writes,

“First you practice stillness in order to discover the structure of your Being.  Then you learn how to Move this Being, and third, this Being learns how to Interact with Other Beings…the wuji-taiji method of awareness slowly instills in its practitioners a new way of being with and in themselves, a way of inner peace and security predisposing them to deal with equanimity and empathy in their social relations… By transcending the psychophysiology of emergency it teaches us how to use the power acquired through our practice to interact with/in the world in a responsible and wise manner.”

— Jan Diepersloot, Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1, 1995,Introduction, p. xviii-xxi.

A similar interest in maintaining equanimity even during activity is found in Zen practitioners who focus not only on sitting meditation (zazen) but also on meditation during activity.  For example, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes the following:

“Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity.  Real calmness should be found in activity itself.  We say, ‘It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, it is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness.'”

–Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 2010, Weatherhill, p. 46.

What this approach reflects is the idea that it is impossible to remove all external sources of stress that can negatively affect us and our ability to relate to each other.  But an area over which we have much more influence is our own reactions and responses to the stresses of the outside world.  By cultivating our own neurophysiology of harmony, we can modify our own responses to the external sources of stress, and then can deal with them more efficiently, with less damage to ourselves and our relationships.  The Mahayana Buddhist sage, Shantideva, set out this principle in a beautiful metaphor, hundreds of years ago:

“Where is there enough leather to cover the entire world?  But when I put on my leather shoes, that is to cover the entire world.  Just so, I cannot control external things, but I can control my own mind.  What need is there to control anything else?”

–Shantideva, How to Lead an Awakened Life, Chapter 5, verse 13

This may seem like a very inward-looking view—the view of working primarily on yourself, rather than trying to change world.  But, ironically, if more people became committed to working on themselves and cultivating their own neurophysiology of harmony,  that would go a long way towards changing the world.

©2009-2012 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

Ed Lewis: a scientist with the heart of a Taoist

January 6, 2012

Edward B. Lewis

In the current era of brutal competition for scare research funding and recognition among scientists, it may seem, at times, that the only scientists who rise to the top of their fields are those with an unhealthy share of narcissism, self-aggrandizement, hyper-competitiveness, and, frankly, ruthlessness.  In the midst of a scientific culture rife with understandable anxiety about survival of labs and never-ending fretting about “getting ahead,” it is easy for scientists to begin to lose sight of what fascinated them about science and nature in the first place (see my earlier post Finding Tao in science).  That’s why the life and career of Ed Lewis (1918-2004) can be so refreshing to recall.  How is it possible that this man who was so successful, ultimately winning the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work on genetic control of embryonic development, also could be so kind, so generous, so unconcerned with external signs of prestige, so lacking in unhealthy narcissism, and so focused on his love of nature itself, rather than artificial measures of his own glory?  Could adopting Lewis’s attitude, his values, still be a possibility for us today?

As Welcome Bender describes in an obituary, Lewis was independent-minded, yet humble, and was guided by his own observations of the fly model of embryonic development that he was studying:

“Lewis was guided by what he saw in his flies and was rarely directed by the models of other biologists.  He generally avoided molecular explanations for his observations, in part due to a feeling of humility towards most things biochemical, and in part from a suspicion that the available molecular mechanisms couldn’t explain the complexity he saw in the flies…No doubt Lewis’s mutations hint at other molecular phenomena yet to be discovered.”

–Welcome Bender (2004) “Edward B. Lewis:  1918-2004,” Nature Genetics 36:919.

This reminds me of a quote from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

“A good scientist has freed himself of concepts

and keeps his mind open to what is.”

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation, chapter 27

In another obituary, Matthew Scott and Peter Lawrence recall that Lewis seemed to lack interest in the competition to get papers published in the highest-prestige, highest-profile scientific journals, a major preoccupation of many modern scientists, whose self-esteem seems to ride so much on the impact factor of the journals in which they publish (see my earlier post non-striving):

“For those who suspect that the present emphasis on publication [in science] is overdone, Lewis provides a superb role model.  He published rarely and did not seem to care where.  Some of his papers came out in such obscure journals that they were exchanged, like samizdat, as faded Xerox copies…A sweet, courteous and humble man, Ed worked in his lab to the end, probing possible connections between Hox genes and the cancer from which he was suffering.”

–Matthew P. Scott and Peter A. Lawrence (2004) “Edward B. Lewis (1918-2004),” Nature 431:143

I find the last paragraph of Bender’s obituary for Lewis, quoted below, especially moving.  In  Lewis’s personal qualities and values, there is so much resonance with the values of Taoism—-kindness, generosity, humility, cheerfulness and lack of anxiety, a deep-seated fascination and love of nature, rather than of empire-building—qualities that seem so rare, so precious, and so needed in our world:

“Those who knew Ed regarded him with something between affection and devotion.  He was exceeding generous; it was impossible to pay for any meal shared with him, he readily gave away compound mutant chromosomes that had taken years to construct.  His modesty was genuine and was not the least eroded by the attention that came with his honors.  He was cheerful by his genetic constitution; even his final affliction with cancer he took on as an interesting problem.  Mostly we will remember Ed for his infectious enthusiasm for the study of life…he avoided academic politics, and he did most of his science by himself, in the middle of the night.  Ed reminded us of the challenge of a good problem, the delight of a surprising result and the wonder that first drew us to science.”

–Welcome Bender (2004) “Edward B. Lewis:  1918-2004,” Nature Genetics 36:919.

©2009-2012 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

beyond words

November 9, 2011

“Pastel Plum Blossoms” by Ren Adams


Although I love words and spend much of my time reading and writing, words seem limited in their power to communicate.  Some things can’t be described, and just have to be experienced directly.  I don’t think 1,000 words or more could ever be adequate to describe the feelings evoked by looking at the art by Ren Adams above, or could be adequate to describe the experience of listening to certain music that you love, or being with someone you love.  Writers know this.  I was struck when I came across this quote by the great American writer, William Faulkner:

“I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, since it came first in man’s experience and history.  But since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.  That is, music would express better and simpler, but I prefer to use words as I prefer to read rather than listen.  I prefer silence to sound, and the image produced by words occurs in silence.  That is, the thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence…”

–William Faulkner, from an interview conducted by Jean Stein.  Jean Stein, “The Art of Fiction XII:  William Faulkner,” Paris Review, 4 (Spring 1956):28-52.

The ancient Taoist masters, particularly Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, were great writers, and made masterful use of language to describe Taoist principles.  Yet despite this, they recognized and repeatedly pointed out the gross limitations and inadequacy of language for conveying the meaning of Tao.  Lao Tzu states this in the very first lines of the Tao Te Ching:

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, Stephen Mitchell translation

Language tends to define things by contrasts and dualities, and these logical distinctions can be more of a hindrance than a help in developing a deep understanding of Tao.  Lao Tzu indicates that those individuals who have gained insights into Tao tend not to talk much about it, as their understanding is at a level beyond words:

“Those who know don’t talk.

Those who talk don’t know.”

—-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56, Stephen Mitchell translation

Even our most sophisticated science, with its technical language, symbols, and mathematics may well be inadequate to fully describe and comprehend the reality of nature, as Albert Einstein pointed out (these Einstein quotes also appear in my earlier post Finding Tao in science):

“All our knowledge is but the knowledge of school children.  Possibly we shall know a little more than we do now, but the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.”

–Albert Einstein, quoted in “The Expanded Quotable Einstein,” Princeton University Press, p. 207

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein

Perhaps the closest we can come to approaching the Tao is not by talking, but by doing—by practicing a way of living and way of being that is attuned to Nature.  This way of being involves opening ourselves to a sense of awe at the beauty and power of Nature, without struggling too hard to express it in words.   To quote Einstein again,

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

–Albert Einstein – “The Merging of Spirit and Science”

In my earlier posts awareness, tranquility and bare attention, I discussed a meditative state of awareness, which Alan Watts described as an “idealess, wordless state,” (Alan Watts, Tao:  The Watercourse Way, 1975, chapter 2, p. 36) that may be particularly useful for attuning ourselves to the flow of Nature, including our own inner experiences.  A fundamental principle of Chan or Zen Buddhism, which was highly influenced by Taoism, is that the highest truth is inexpressible in words.  The Chan Buddhist, Bodhidharma, described Chan in this way:

“No dependence on words and letters, a direct pointing to the human mind, seeing into one’s own Nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

–Bodhidharma, quoted in Lecture 20, “Zen–The Moon in a Dewdrop and Impermanence,” by Professor Jay L. Garfield, The Meaning of Life:  Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions, The Great Courses, course 4320, 2011, The Teaching Company.

The Taoist, Chaung-Tzu, pointed out that language is useful as a signpost pointing towards meaning and experience, but can’t fully capture and covey meaning and experience:

“The fish trap exists because of the fish.  Once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.  The rabbit trap snare exists because of the rabbit.  Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.  Words exist because of the meaning.  Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.  Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words, so I can have a word with him?”

–Chaung-Tzu as quoted in Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition, Lecture 8, Professor Grant Hardy, The Great Courses, Course 4620, The Teaching Company

I’ll keep writing this blog to help myself, and hopefully other people, to explore Taoist principles…but I’ll remember the limitations of these words…and, as Chuang-Tzu said, once you and I have gotten the meaning, we will have gone beyond the words and can let them go….

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

Claudio Abbado: leading orchestras in harmony with the Tao

June 20, 2011

In the high-powered world of professional symphony orchestra conductors, outsize egos and domineering leadership styles have been the stereotypical characteristics of many conductors, at least, perhaps, until quite recently.  One who helped to break this mold is Claudio Abbado, one of the great conductors of our generation, the former conductor of the La Scala Opera House, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the founder and current conductor of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.  He also is a leading interpreter of the music of Gustav Mahler (see my earlier post Gustav Mahler—a Taoist?).  Despite his lofty career accomplishments, Abbado has a soft-spoken, gentle, and warm-hearted manner.  His conducting has been motivated not by a desire for power or fame, but by a deep love of music and a commitment to encouraging orchestra members to listen to each other and work together to create great music.

In the DVD Claudio Abbado:  Hearing the Silence, members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra note that, instead of being autocratic (a discrete reference to Abbado’s predecessor, Herbert van Karajan, and other earlier conductors of the orchestra), Abbado was more democratic, and changed the culture of the orchestra to one that emphasized music-making as a joint enterprise, and emphasized mutual respect, and above all, listening to one another (see previous post listening).  This emphasis on mutual respect and listening tends to defuse the competitiveness that can be rampant in the world of classical music, and brings the musicians closer together, making it more enjoyable to work together, and allowing the musicians to reach new heights together (see previous post following).  This passage recently appeared on the website of the Berlin Philharmonic:

“‘I am Claudio to everyone.’  With these words, Claudio Abbado introduced himself in 1989 to the Berliner Philharmoniker, who had just elected him as their chief conductor.  With this invitation to use his first name, Abbado made it immediately clear that his working methods were different [from] those of his more aloof predecessor, Herbert von Karajan.  The Abbado era was indeed a departure from both a personal and an artistic perspective.”

An article by Daniel J. Wakin entitled “Not Just Another Pickup Band,” in the September 30, 2007 New York Times focused on the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which Abbado founded, and Abbado’s leadership style:

“Here, ‘every day has an optimistic beginning,’ [a player] said. ‘You can guarantee that it will be a good day. Nobody is against another colleague.’…What comes through in conversations with dozens of orchestra players, staff members and other musicians is the degree to which Mr. Abbado’s presence brings them together…”

Abbado has been committed to fostering the careers of young musicians, and founded and conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.  Members of Mahler Youth Orchestra also knew him as “Claudio,” not the more formal Maestro.  He is unpretentious, un-authoritarian, and has no interest in intimidating (see previous post child and parent, student and teacher ).  In an Amazon.com customer review of the DVD Claudio Abbado:  A Portrait, the reviewer refers to Abbado’s goal of conducting without forcing, without dominating:

“This set of four videos presents a wonderful insight into the spirit of one of the greatest conductors of all time. He has lived up to his goal, stated early in his career, of discovering a way to conduct an orchestra ‘without all that bullying.’ With the greatest of respect for musicians (especially young ones), Abbado leads elegant performances with monumental knowledge, vision, and love.”


“The Tao nourishes by not forcing.  By not dominating, the Master leads.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 81, Stephen Mitchell translation

The genuine connection between Abbado and the orchestra members is visible, and when the orchestra plays well, Abbado has a smile that is so warm, so genuine, so filled with joy in the music and pride in the orchestra, that it’s the kind of smile that anyone would wish from their parent.

As the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, starting in 1989, Abbado was at the very pinnacle of the position that any conductor could have, the most “powerful” position in orchestra conducting in the world.  This was an appointment for life.  However, in 2002, in his 60’s, still a relatively young age for conductors, Abbado decided to voluntarily resign his position.  This came as a shock to the orchestra and the music world, because no previous conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra had voluntarily resigned.  People don’t tend to give up their position at the top of the heap voluntarily.  In retrospect, it became apparent that this decision was due to health concerns.  But many others, in this same situation, would have clung to this highest of positions at all costs.   Abbado’s decision to retire engendered a feeling of respect and admiration among the orchestra.  As one orchestra member said in Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence, his decision impressed upon them his qualities as an independent spirit.  After leaving the Berlin Philharmonic, he founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which performs during summers and whose players are “friends” of Abbado’s from the Berlin Philharmonic and other great ensembles.  I have no idea if Abbado has any feelings of kinship with Taoism.  But it seems to me that his work, life, and leadership style illustrate the value of principles that resonate with Taosim–that it is possible to achieve without forcing, to lead without dominating, and, even in an elite, competitive field, to foster a culture in which listening to others carefully and working together are among the highest values.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

wu wei

May 6, 2011

“Plum Blossoms Green Wash” by Ren Adams


In my earlier post like a tree in the wind, I described a Taoist approach to dealing with stress and adversity.  An important part of this approach involves the Taoist concept of wu wei—translated as non-acting, or spontaneous, effortless acting—which has come up in several other previous posts, such as non-striving.  As I’ve mentioned before, wu wei often involves following and yielding to the forces of nature, but it does not imply passivity or lack of any response.  This is a difficult and subtle distinction that is hard to describe, but you can start to feel the meaning of wu wei more deeply by studying and practicing Tai Chi Chuan.  In addition to taking lessons in Yang style Tai Chi Chuan (Cheng-Man Ching form), I’ve recently started to take lessons in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan, and have been reading an excellent book recommended by my Chen teacher entitled Chen:  Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style by Master Jan Silberstorff.  In the chapter “Taiji—A Philosophy,”  Master Silberstorff does an excellent job of describing this subtle concept of wu wei, and how it applies to dealing with incoming forces or stresses in the context of Tai Chi Chuan, but also in many other contexts.  Below, I quote several paragraphs from Master Silberstorff’s description of wu wei in Chen, because I can’t do justice to it by summarizing it or paraphrasing it.  I really like this passage because it ties together many themes that I’ve tried to address separately in previous posts.  For example, he uses this analogy of a tree, with a strong root, powerful trunk, but flexible branches that reminded me Lao Tzu analogy’s about a tree in the wind (see my post like a tree in the wind).  He also touches upon the theme of following (see my previous post following) and becoming one with nature (see several previous posts on Becoming Tao).

“Following the natural course of affairs, not to intervene but to act spontaneously instead means WuweiWuwei, mostly translated as ‘non-acting,’ doesn’t necessarily mean to lie back and view things from outside… One principle of Taijiquan is to give way, receding however without losing personal stability.  This is not like a piece of cotton flying away, but giving way on the basis of a strong centre, a strong root with a powerful trunk and flexible branches…It involves yielding out of a strong structure, without having to abandon my own centre…

“Non-acting indicates a condition of spontaneity, namely, acting in accordance with the actual situation, backed by all my expertise, but within the here and now.  Therefore my actions are never rigid, not following any stiff dogmas established in the past; instead my actions grow afresh within the situation they arose from…”

–Jan Silberstorff, Chen:  Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style, 2009, Singing Dragon,  pp.50-51

By developing a strong sense of our own center, our own root, together with our flexibility and spontaneity, we can remain solid within ourselves and yet flow with the ups and downs and changes of life, while having a sense of inner peace.  Chuang-tzu, the great Taoist master and disciple of Lao-tzu, described this state.

“The Master maintains his balance

whichever opposite he enters.

He lets things go through their changes

And stays focused on what is real.

He is like the ocean:

though there are waves on its surface,

in its depth there is perfect calm.”

–Chuang-tzu, quoted in the The Second Book of Tao, Chapter 17, by Stephen Mitchell

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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