November 6, 2016:
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Two brothers were walking home from church after hearing a pretty strong sermon on the devil. The older brothers said to the younger brother, ‘What do you think about all this Satan stuff?’ The younger brother replied, ‘Well, you know how Santa turned out. It’s probably just Dad.’
Wake up! Says the Tao. And see the confluence between reality and delusion. Awareness is the antidote to the delusion. Wake up and allow the scales to fall from our eyes, the scales that preclude us from seeing the oneness of everything that is; from embracing the mystery of the eternal.
As you know, each week this fall we have replaced our weekly reading of an Epistle from the New Testament with some scripture from a faith tradition that is not our own as we honor and celebrate the diverse ways in which God speaks to God’s people in this multicultural, interfaith world in which we live. This week, we heard a section from the Tao Te Ching, the central text that grounds and guides the tradition known as Taoism.
And I cannot think of a better faith tradition than Taoism to get us through this last weekend before the most contentious election in our memory.
Taoism is an Eastern tradition. It is not centered on faith in a God, but rather adherence to a way of being. And it is not exclusive in its way of being. That is, it does not require that the follower embrace any given doctrine or belief that excludes any other. There is no right way or wrong way of being. This Eastern religion has over tens of million followers, many of whom also follow other traditions; many of whom also claim to be Buddhist/Taoists, and Confucian/Taoists, and even Christian/Taoists.
Many scholars believe that the founder of Taoism was Lao Tze, who is thought to have been a record keeper in the Zhou Dynasty in China in the 6th century before the common era. That means that Lao Tze, who is the purported author of the Tao Te Ching, was very possibly a contemporary (in China) of the prophet Daniel who wrote today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible. These two texts were likely written within a few years of each other, over 2,500 years ago. One in the east and one in the west.
The Tao Te Ching is the map of the way. Toaism literally means “The Way.” Tao Te Ching literally means – the way (Tao) of virtue (Te) in the canon (Ching). Tao Te Ching. The Way of Virtue in the Canon. It is a relatively short canon comprised of 81 short sections, a poetic flow of aphorisms that illuminate and instruct our way toward wholeness through this broken and diametrically divided world.
The Tao is the source of many familiar wisdoms such as “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” From the Tao. And, “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” Not a great bumper sticker for a sermon. But like the parables of Jesus, the wisdom of the Tao strikes a deep chord of recognition in every human heart, regardless of the tradition to which you belong.
The graphic image that best illustrates the Tao is the familiar yin and yang. The symbol in which the light side and the dark side are perfectly matched, dynamically nestled into one perfect whole. The imagery is indeed dynamic, that is, it suggests the constant interaction of opposing forces: light and dark, sun and moon, active and passive, soft and hard, sorrow and joy, even and odd, liberal and conservative…….This is the Way it is. And according to Taoism, this is the Way it is meant to be.
Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other.
It is a truism that we in this deeply divided nation would do well to contemplate and embrace.
As we heard in this morning’s reading. The Tao is a philosophy that is predicated, above all else, on harmony and wholeness. And so it has come not a moment too soon in our worship this morning. It is a philosophy that accepts and embraces life’s difficulties, the trials and tribulations, the bumps in the road as necessary complements to the delights and joys of this life. I don’t know about you, but I am ever reminded that my best qualities can be my greatest challenges. I work hard, AND I risk burning out. I have a friend who is wonderfully, enviably honest, AND she occasionally hurts people’s feelings with her candor. We want to welcome all who needs refuge, AND we need to be mindful of our security. We want to be rewarded according to our labor AND we want no child to be left behind, no mouth to be hungry. We respect everyone’s right to bear arms, AND there is no earthly need for any citizen to have easy access to automatic weapons.
This dynamically double edged sword is the stuff of the Tao. It is the original BOTH/AND tradition. A tradition where opposing forces are not only embraced, they are necessary. There would be no light without the dark. There would be no odd pages with out the even ones. There would be no joy without sorrow to define and delineate it. There would be no comfort without hardship to relieve it. The tension between forces that often makes us uncomfortable, is the life blood of the Tao.
Within this overarching notion of yin and yang, of dynamic oneness, the Way toward that wholeness is paved with three simple teachings, or so says Lao Tze in section 67 of the Tao Te Ching. These three teachings are known as the three gems, three treasures, of Taoism. Section 67 of the Tao te Ching reads:
I have Three treasures: guard them and keep them safe.
The first is Love.
The second is, never too much.
The third is, never be the first in the world.
Love. Moderation. Humility. Those are the cornerstones of the Way. Love. If you throw a loving God into the mix, this Way is not too far afield from the Way walked by our Saviour. In fact, these are very close to the Way of being instructed by Jesus. Love each other. Live simply within God’s economy. Put God first. And so Taoism and Christianity are not at all mutually exclusive. They are, possibly, Both/ And. That is, it is possible to be both Christian, followers of Christ, AND Taoist, walking the way of love, and simplicity and humility toward wholeness and harmony, that we Christians believe is grounded in God’s creative love.
And we might pray on this election Sunday that it is also possible to be both Taoist and American.
Besides this grounding in the yin and yang of things, another central tenet of Taoism is the notion that reality and illusion are….one. If black and white are dependent upon each other for their very existence, then neither can exist independently. And it begs the question: can anything exist independently? And if nothing can exist independently, maybe there is no clear line between reality and illusion.
Chunag Tze is another pillar of Taoism who lived in the 4th century b.c.e., about 200 years after Lao Tze. And he is credited with one of the quintessential stories of the Taoist tradition. It is the story of a butterfly that comes to him in a dream. And Chuang Tze tells his friend about the dream. A dream that he dreams as he dozes off under a leafy lotus tree on a warm summer afternoon. And it goes like this:
I found myself flying up above the field. I looked behind me and saw that I had wings. They were large and beautiful, and they fluttered rapidly. I had turned into a butterfly! It was such a feeling of freedom and joy, to be so carefree and fly around so lightly in any way I wished. Everything in this dream felt absolutely real in every way. Before long, I forgot that I was ever Chuang Tzu. I was simply the butterfly and nothing else….but gradually I woke up, and I realized that I was Chuang Tze. And that is what puzzles me.
Chuang Tze’s friend asked him why he was puzzled. It was a lovely dream, and he himself remembered once having such a dream of his own. What was so puzzling?
Chunag Tze squinched up his eyes and scratched his head and asked: “What if I am dreaming right now? This conversation I am having with you seems real in every way, but so did my dream. I thought I was Chuang Tzu who had a dream of being a butterfly. But what if I am a butterfly who, at this very moment, is dreaming of being Chuang Tzu?”
His friend, losing patience, and becoming somewhat agitated snapped back: Well, I can tell you that you are not a butterfly. You are Chuang Tze.
Which is when Chuang Tze smiled and said: “You may simply be part of my dream, no more or less real than anything else. And if you are just a part of my dream, there is nothing you can do to help me identify the distinction between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly. This, my friend, is the essential question about transformation and existence.”
Comfort with mystery and transformation. IT is the Taoist Way. And it is our Christian Way. And there is freedom in that Way. And not just freedom, hut healing and hope. It seems to me that this Way that leads to harmony and wholeness through mystery and transformation might be an antidote to what we are experiencing in our public arena. What if we focused not on our individual rights and acqusitions, but on the harmony and wholeness of this web of life that supports us all. A butterfly and a human being are at almost opposite poles of the creaturely spectrum. And yet, in Chuang Tze’s dream, they are one, interchangeable identities. Chuang Tze is as much a butterfly as a human being in his essence. So much so that once he has experienced the other (the butterfly in this case) he cannot fully separate himself from that experience and it so becomes a part of who he is. IN our vernacular it is the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. And that experience can forever transform our own understanding of who we are.
Instead of trading insults, maybe we should be trading shoes.
At yesterday’s diocesan convention, Bishop Alan began his annual address with an explanation of why he was rooting for the Cleveland Indians to win the world series. He and Tricia, his wife, had lived in Chicago for 8 years and Cleveland for 10, and so they were equally disposed to each team. But despite the many solid reasons why most of the country was rooting for the Cubs, the Bishop found himself rooting for the Indians. This was his explanation, and I am rading from his address that is posted on the diocesan website if you care to read the whole thing. He explained that:
Cleveland was once the fifth largest city in the nation. But postwar economic transitions were hard on Cleveland. Some of the hits were especially humiliating. Infamously, in the 1960s, oil slicks would catch fire and burn on the Cuyahoga River. The image remained long after the ecological reality had changed.
The point is that too often Clevelanders are stuck feeling either nostalgic or defensive about their past, rather than attentive and hopeful about their future. As long as they are still hoping to reclaim the glory of Fifth-Largest-City Status, or feeling chagrined about flames on the Cuyahoga, they remain insecure about their solid, hopeful identity as a really fine, small city for the 21st century.
And as I listened to this description of Cleveland, my heart softened a bit for those Americans who seem to be supporting……let’s just say the yang to the yin that I am supporting. Because if Chuang Tze and a butterfly are one, then the odds are pretty good that I am one, on some level, with someone whose political choices I abhor. And that might just be enough hope to hold me.
And so my friends, I urge us to ground ourselves in the knowledge that the world is designed toward harmony and wholeness. It is God’s plan. And the evidence thereof, is everywhere. And let that knowledge free us to consider that there just might be a Way forward.
I will leave you with one of my favorite poems that I often hold as my hope in the darkness. It could have been written by the Taosit Chuang Tze, but it was written by Christian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand?
Ah, what then?
© November, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw