• Tag Archives Taoism
  • Hail, La Nina

    Imbolc                                New (Bloodroot) Moon

    A while back I asked John Harstad, then the naturalist at Cedar Creek Nature Center, a wonderful place run by the University of Minnesota and only about 15 miles from home, about first signs of spring.  His answer coincided with a local master gardener, “Bloodroot blooms.”  Since that should happen within the waxing and waning of this moon,  I’m choosing Bloodroot Moon for its name.

    The snow began to come down this morning and has some legs.  The sky has turned sheet metal gray and the wind blows in from the northeast.  If I recall correctly, such wind direction can foretell deep snow.  Not predicted though.

    This is the half-way point in my stay here at Blue Cloud.  I’m feeling it, too.  I’ve been working almost twice as long each day as I usually do when I write at home.  Though I love it, I’m getting tired.  Might be another 10 am nap coming on, too.

    Conspirata, a novel about Cicero’s life, has been my casual reading.  I’ve finished 60% of it; I know this because the Kindle gives you a percent read number for each page since you don’t have the sense of the book’s length but its heft.

    The other reading I’ve been doing is Livia Kohn’s introductory text on Taoism.  As with most things that interest me, I find as I get deeper into it that my opinion begins to change, split along certain lines where my own sensibilities face challenges.  In the instance of Taoism I find myself drawn more and more into the mystical, physical aspects:  the Dao, the exercises, meditation practices and pushed further away from the political implications, or wuwei (inaction) applied to political affairs.

    This doesn’t bother me as I’ve learned, quite a while ago, that I don’t have to swallow the whole message to be enlightened by a school of thought.  Part of the creation of dogma comes as an institutional base emerges around any school of thought.  The dogma supports the creation of certain organizational structures, then the structures become a conservative force clinging to the original dogma, thoughts most often far removed from what Max Weber called the original “charisma.”

    Thus, by the time most of us enter into a body of religious or philosophical thought the original genius behind it is hidden by layers of defensive structure and dogma hardened over time, often hardened against the danger of the original charism.

    And so forth. Time to pick up the tablet and get to work.  Bye for snowy now.

  • Let There Be Darkness

    Fall                                                Waxing Harvest Moon

    Let’s try darkness again.  In Taoism the familiar Taiji makes my point about the essential and complementary nature of light and dark.  Taoism gives equal weight to the yin and yang* represented in the taiji, the small circle of yin within the yang and of yang within the yin, emphasizing the Taoist belief that all things contain their opposite to some degree.  So, one part of my argument simply notes that light and dark are both necessary, necessary to each other, nothing apart from each other.  In the Taoist taiji they represent the dynamic movement of heaven to which all things must conform.

    In our Western cultural tradition, though, light has taken precedence over darkness, both in a physical and in an ethical sense.  Jesus is the light of the world.  Persephone goes into Hades and the earth mourns her absence until her return when it blossoms into spring.  Eurydice dies and Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve her.  Dante’s Divine Comedy finds Dante wandering, lost in the dark wood of error, before he begins his descent, guided by Virgil, into the multiple layers of hell.  The traditional three-story universe also reinforces these ideas:  Heaven above, earth, and the infernal regions below. Milton’s Paradise Lost follows the rebellion in heaven and the casting out of Lucifer, the Morning Star, into hell where he builds his enormous palace, Pandemonium.  Our common sense understanding of death involves hiding the body beneath the earth.  Why?

    Coming out of the spiritualist tradition represented by Camp Chesterfield (see below) death involves a transition into the light, the spirit world.  Ghost Whisperer, a TV program, uses the trope from this tradition, as dead souls are led into the light.  It is, perhaps, no wonder that darkness, night and the soil come off badly in our folk metaphysic:  up and light is good; down and dark is bad.

    I wish to speak a word for the yin, symbolized by the moon, the female, the cold, the receiving, the dark.  The moon illustrates the taiji perfectly.  In the dark of night, the moon, yin, reflects the sun’s light, yang, and offers a lambent light, neither yin nor yang, but the dynamic interplay between the two.  So we could look for art that features the moon as one route into the positive power of darkness.

    Also, any seasonal display in a work of art, whether of spring, summer, fall or winter can open the question of each season’s value, its role in the dynamic of growth and decay, emergence and return.  This can lead to a discussion of the importance of the fallow season, the season of rest, the earth’s analog to sleep.  This can lead to a discussion of sleep and its restorative powers.

    Art work of mother and child, or especially, mother and infant, can stimulate a discussion, in this context, of the womb, of the fecund nature of the dark where fetuses and seeds develop before their emergence into the world of light.

    Similarly, death focused works of art can open up a discussion of birth and death as dynamic moments of change, yin and yang of human (or animal) development.  This could lead to conversation about the Mexica (Aztec) belief that life is the aberrant condition and that death is the vital, regenerative moment; we are here, goes one Mexica poem, between a sleep and a sleep.

    Winterlight festivals represent a western imbalance focused on the light, the yang, and a tendency to cast the yin in a negative light, something to be avoided or eliminated or held in check.  As I said previously, this is understandable given the pre-historical science which made the return of the sun doubtful and therefore terrifying.  Many of these festivals are, too, our favorites:  Christmas, Deepavali and for a different traditional reason, Hanukkah.

    In my own faith tradition, roughly pagan, I look forward to the dying of the light and celebrate as my most meaningful holiday, the Winter Solstice.  Of course, I also celebrate the return of the light that begins on that very day, but first I immerse myself in the long night, the many hours of darkness.  This affords me an opportunity to acknowledge the dark, to express gratitude for its manifold gifts.   In this way my idiosyncratic faith has a ritual moment that honors the taiji, utilizing the cues given by the natural world.

    To find art that emphasizes this aspect of darkness I plan to walk the museum from top to bottom, searching for images and objects that can help our visitors understand that when they celebrate the festivals of light that darkness is the reason for the season.  I would appreciate any thoughts or ideas.

    *In Chinese culture, Yin and Yang represent the two opposite principles in nature. Yin characterizes the feminine or negative nature of things and yang stands for the masculine or positive side. Yin and yang are in pairs, such as the moon and the sun, female and male, dark and bright, cold and hot, passive and active, etc. But yin and yang are not static or just two separated things. The nature of yinyang lies in interchange and interplay of the two components. The alternation of day and night is such an example.

  • How We Discover Who We Are

    Summer                                         Waxing Grandchildren Moon

    Sl-o-w-i-n-g dowwwnn.  Ah. Life returns in the emptiness.  Doing gives us fuel, puts us in life, covers our lives with experience, action, momentum.  Without doing we would not live, not be different from the rock in the garden.  But.  Without emptiness, without ceasing from action, from planning, from expecting, from measuring ourselves against markers important only to us or, worse, to others, we will not see the experience, we will not see where our all our momentum and flurry takes us, we will have no way to tell the movement of heaven.

    On a blog about Taoism I read that Taoism says the universe is our body and the tao of the universe our nature.  I don’t know if this accurately reflects taoism–so much I birthplace-of-starsdon’t know–but no matter, it does speak a truth, at least a truth that speaks to me, to my journey.  This Hubble telescope photo of the birthplace of the stars–Star-Birth Clouds in M16: Stellar “Eggs” Emerge from Molecular Cloud–is our own fertile womb, our own site of elemental fecundity, our own inner world changing and becoming the outer reality, the 10,000 things.  Fertility lies at the heart of our nature, then, and we need not worry for our nature will see us born and reborn, this time as queens, that time as infant stars, the next time as stellar dust.

    Our purpose as humans lies not in the doing, but in the opening of ourselves to wonder, to the awesome majesty of our nature, letting it guide our being and our doing.  How?  By being still, by sitting in emptiness, by slowing down, by waiting, by humbly accepting the matters and tasks that come to us.

    The doorway and the window, the room and the tea cup are all useful because they are empty.  To discover our own way we need to become empty like the room in which we sit, the doorway through which we move, the tea cup from which we drink.

    This lesson has come, or should I say, comes, to me with some difficulty, born a man, a white man of privilege, a man of whom things are expected, for whom life has a path governed not by my nature but by accident of birth. Note that in this I differ from no one.  Each of us has a life path laid down by the circumstances of our family, the particularities of our person, the exigencies of our time, yet this path is not the way, it is not our way.  Our way lies in waiting upon our body, the whole universe, to reveal our nature, the nature of the whole universe, to us.  Then our life will unfold as a flower in the spring sun.

  • Beltane: 2010

    Beltane                               Waning Flower Moon

    The old Celtic calendar divided the year into two seasons, Summer and Winter.    Summer began on Beltane, May 1st, and ended at Samhain, Summer’s End, at October 31st.  Summer is the growing season, the time when a subsistence farming economy like that of the Celts in Britain and Ireland raised food stuffs that had to last throughout the long, fallow season of  Winter.

    As my inner journey has  changed over the years since Alexandria, Indiana and my received Methodist Christianity the wisdom of these early earth based faith traditions means more and more to me.   The technology of food raising and preservation has changed dramatically, it is true, but the human need for food has not.  We still need enough calories to sustain us throughout our day and most of those calories still start out in the form of plant material.

    Taoism emphasizes conforming our lives to the movement of heaven.  At its most obvious level this means making the rhythms of our lives congruent with what the Celts called the Great Wheel of the Seasons.  If you care for flowers, have a vegetable garden or raise bees, then the biological imperative of their seasonal needs tends to pull you into the season.  If you enjoy the gradual and beautiful transition in Minnesota from the growing season to the depths of Winter, the cool days and leaves may call you outside, perhaps to hunting and fishing, perhaps to hiking and birdwatching, perhaps just for the changing colors.  As fall changes to winter, you may, like the bears, begin to  hibernate, turn away from the cold and begin to do inside work.

    Taoism also encourages us to conform our lives to the possibilities of the moment.  That is, when standing in a river, pushing it back upstream is foolish, but it is possible to dig channels for it and divert it’s energy.

    The Great Wheel is often seen as a metaphor for the human journey:  baby (spring), youth (summer), adulthood (fall), elderhood (winter).  The tao of human life is to act as the moment in life you are in suggests.  A twist on this might be to consider what the adult stage finds calling to it when the season of summer is upon us.  There are many levels.

    Beltane offers us a chance to reflect on those things in our lives that have begun to take on real form, that seem poised for a season of growth.  In my case bee-keeping and the translation project come to mind.  I’ve done preliminary work with both of them and it may just be this summer that they grow into regular parts of my ongoing journey.    I hope so.

    Whatever it is for you, whatever things in your life  need a long hot summer for maturation, give it to them.  This is the movement of heaven.

    Kate’s colleague Dick, whom I have mentioned occasionally here, has come close to the end of his painful last days.  The cancer has proved more than his body and the medical wisdom we have now could defeat.  What comes to maturation for him in these first days of summer is the whole of his life and the transition of death.  None of us know what lies on the other side of the grave, or even if there is another side, but all lives end.  Vale, Dick.

  • Don’t like the weather? Tough.

    Imbolc                               New Moon (Wild)

    We have more snow.  Not a lot, maybe a couple of inches.  It makes the whiteness fresh.

    Some folks have begun to complain that this winter has gone on too long and that this snow insults us.  The weather is.  It neither goes on too long, nor stops too soon.  Our food may run out before the winter ends, but that’s our dilemma, not the weather’s.  Our patience may wear out with weather too cold or too snowy or too icy, but the weather comes and it goes, our attitude toward it is what needs to change, not the weather.  The weather may wreck our garden, ruin our crops, or give us bounty.  Again, the weather causes rain, heat, drought, cool days and hot nights, what use we can make of them or what harm they may create for our horticulture or agriculture reflects our needs, not those of the planet’s air and water circulation systems.

    Better for us to adapt ourselves to the changes, to find in our lives the place for adjustment.  As Taoism teaches, we need to align ourselves with the movements of heaven.  This is even true of our political work.  We need to act politically in a way that utilizes the forces and realities of the moment rather than railing against their injustice or patting ourselves on the back for their justice.  This too is aligning ourselves with the movements of heaven.

  • Leaving Denver

    Winter                          Waxing Cold Moon

    The decompression has begun.  My suitcase awaits only my dopp kit to be ready to go.  A shower, final packing and I’ll be ready.  Ready, that is, to drop off the rental car before noon then spend three hours at the Denver Airport before my 3:00 pm flight back to the Twin Cities.  When I arrrive around 5:45, I’ll still have one more leg to go:  Super Shuttle, in a ride on which I will be the last one delivered home.  All in all it will probably be between 7 and 8 hours before I get home after leaving the hotel.

    I’m reading a book called Stealing the Mona Lisa, discussing it comes next, at a gathering of docents, dining at the Namaste Restaurant.  I would describe it as a difficult book, written by a psychoanalyst for whom style seems an afterthought and clarity a bother.  Having said that though, it is a profound book, digging deep into the meaning of art and, surprisingly, into the meaning of art’s absence.

    Why I mention it this morning is an aha from the section I read over breakfast.  In describing psychoanalytical attitudes toward drives the author, Darian Leader, makes clear that sublimation is NOT a replacement for the act of sex, fucking as he so baldly puts it, rather it is an expression of the individuals need to fulfill the same desire as sex fulfills, that is, in Freudian terms, a return to the pleasure of direct bodily manipulation, pleasures lost as we adapt to cultural definitions of who and what we are.

    Also, and most interesting to me, for Lacan, drives are an attempt to get to the state Freud describes as pleasuring the body, but Lacan describes as The Thing, a vast emptiness that exists just outside our capacity to reach.  Therefore our drives are attempts not to fill this emptiness, but to reach it, to find it, to discover what was lost when we became creatures of culture.

    Lacan’s emphasis on emptiness as the defining state for our humanness, and as a state forever beyond our reach, yet felt and desired in every moment, struck me as a link to both existentialism on the one hand and Taoism on the other.

    In existentialism we admit the reality of this emptiness, admit it’s definition of life as meaningless, then proceed to construct our life both in spite of and because of this emptiness.

    In Taoism, we recognize the creation of the universe to have come from emptiness, the Tao, and we also recognize it as a vivifying impulse behind each moment.  It may be that Lacan’s more tortured and dark view of emptiness as The Thing exactly misses Taoism’s great point about emptiness as the very reason for a door, a cup, a vase.

    There is, too, one other important thread that I don’t find so far in the book and that the is the realm of rationalist philosophy.  In this idea we construct our reality through sensory data, but our sensory data is not reality in the same way that a map is not the territory.  This means, according to Kant, that we can never know reality, the ding an siche, the thing-in-itself.  Sounds pretty Lacanian to me.

  • The Tea Ceremony on Tour

    Beltane                 Full Flower Moon

    Two tours this morning.  The first, a Visual Thinking Strategies, for third graders from Maxfield school in St. Paul went well.  The kids attention petered out after about 45 minutes and we went on search of things they found interesting like guns (flintlock rifles) and a painting of a small dead boy wearing a dress.

    The second, a public tour, had the Museum given title, Steeped in Tradition:  a tour of Chinese and Japanese art.  I thought, well, why not talk about the origins of the Japanese tea ceremony.  We began in India with Vishnu and the Ghandara Buddha, stopped by the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in China and smaller statue of the Buddha, then went into the Taoist gallery.  After the Taoist gallery we visited the Song dynasty ceramics for a Chan Buddhist inspired tea cup, then onto Japan for our fine statue of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of the Pure Land.

    We first hit the tea ceremony proper with the shoin audience hall, used by Shoguns as well Buddhist abbotts for ceremonial occasions including the first, elaborate, large and showy tea ceremonies.  After that we went to the tea wares gallery to look at tea cups and discuss the notion of wabi-sabi.  The tour ended at the tea-house and brief walk through of the purpose of the tea ceremony.  There was only one woman on the tour but she had an interest in Asian art and knew something of China and Thailand.

    Back home.  Nap.  Now, workout.

  • Eat a Peach, Live Forever

    75  bar falls 29.75 1mph WSW dewpoint 41  Beltane

                          New Moon (Hare Moon)

    I chose the English medieval name for the moon this month because of a wonderful incense burner in the Weber Collection.  It is a bronze bunny, eyes lifted toward the moon, ears erect.  There are holes where the ears meet the head and at the mouth.  The label copy says this rabbit watches the moon to see her sister, a white rabbit, who, according to Taoist thought, lives on the moon.  There she brews up an elixir of immortality. 

    This focus on immortality is typical of religious Taoism, not philosophical.  My interest is in the latter.  Religious Taoism grew from the intersection I mentioned a few posts ago between Buddhism and Taoism.  Going in the Buddhist direction one outcome of this convergence created Chan Buddhism (Zen in Japan).  Going in the Taoist direction Taoists began to create anthropomorphic gods in emulation of the Mahayana form of Buddhism that came into China.  Mahayana picked up deities and demons and guardians from the Hindu and Bon (Tibetan native religion) religious pantheons.   

    The focus on immortality occurred at some point along the way, though I’m not sure when since I have not studied religious Taoism.  Another way to gain immortality involved a peach tree that bloomed once every 3,000 years.  If you were around when it bloomed and ate a peach, presto Immortalito!  I’ve hunted for places to by a 2,999 year old tree, but so far no joy.

    Our generator is online and ready to rock.  Jim, the service guy who explained it all to us, said, “Now you’ll never have another outage.”  Sounds about right.  But, at least we’re ready if it  happens.

  • A Burning Tree

     65  bar falls 29.94 0mph S dewpoint 30 Beltane

                  New Moon (Hare Moon) 

    The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life and activity; it affords protection to all beings. (Buddhist  Sutra)

    Though this comes from a Buddhist sutra (thread) it resonates with Taoist thought.  These two ancient traditions crossed paths over and over again in China.  At least one of those occasions created Chan Buddhism, which, in Japan became Zen Buddhism.  

    The Buddhist element I see here is the notion of unlimited kindness and benevolence, an attribution to the forest that I do not believe my brother Taoists would make.  They would agree that the forest is a peculiar organism (among many) and would further concur that it makes no demands for sustenance (on humans) and does extend its product of life and activity (generously–well, maybe to a Buddha, but probably not to a tree) and would also acknowledge its protection to all beings (except those plants killed by competitive toxins and the small prey animals killed by predators).   

    Taoism is a fascinating (to me) blend of reason and organismic thinking which produces a vibrant metaphysic understandable at the tinest particle of matter and at stages of complex organization from thence upwards to the Heavens themselves, the 10,000 things.

    Mostly clean up outside today.  Getting ready for the more ambitious projects that will soon occupy my time.

    From the deck last evening I looked at our Magnolia.  It stood against the seven oaks like the flame atop a Thai Buddha.  Its white glinted, mirrored back by white daffodils.  This evening, for this moment, the Magnolia had a nimbus, a sacred aura, as if it had transcended its treeness and become another living entity all together a vegetative, blooming fire.  A burning tree.

  • The Wollemi Pine–Live From the Carboniferous

    33  bar steep rise 30.06 5mph N dewpoint 22 Spring

                    Waning Gibbous Moon of Growing

    The workshop I attended today had two co-sponsors, The Institute for Advanced Studies (UofM) and the Arboretum(UofM).  This was the culminating workshop in a two-year long effort by the Institute for Advanced Studies to explore time from many perspectives.  Today we examined time in three different, but related, botanical areas:  phenology, paleobotany and time from the perspective of trees. 

    The phenological, by definition, is the chronological study of events in nature.  This strikes me as an odd definition since it seems to impose a human mental construct, linear sequencing, on what is cyclical.  The notion is a good one, though, since it involves paying close attention to changes in the natural world, day by day, and making a record of them.  Phenologists know when the ice goes out lakes, the first robin returns, the dates that various spring ephemerals like the bloodroot, snow trillium and scylla bloom. 

    Over several years I’ve tried my hand at phenology.  It is something an amateur can do.  So far, I’ve not had the discipline to continue my observations day after day, year after year.  Perhaps as I get older and slow down a bit this will come to me.  I hope so.  The woman who was our teacher for phenology was a lively Cantonese woman named Shirley Mah Kooyman.  A Smith graduate in Botany she has a direct and engaging teaching style.  Shirley took us outside and showed us the spring ephemeral garden they have planted.  It gave me ideas.  Our field was cut short by blowing winds, snow and cold.  On April 26th.

    Over  the long lunch break I wandered the bookstore and picked up books related to aspects of permaculture I want to pursue in more depth:  pond building, fruit and nut trees and landscape design.

    In the afternoon Tim started us out with segments of trees so we could tree rings.  This lead into a discussion of the time and stories that a tree knows, sometimes revealed in its growth rings.  He showed an amazing graphic created by an arborist who actually dug up tree roots and followed them, painting them white as he went so he could measure accurately.  He discovered that almost all trees have relatively shallow, but very broad root systems.  I learned, as did Tim, that tree roots stop at the dripline and that what’s below the tree roughly parallels what’s above in size.  Nope.  We measure a double centurion outside the learning center.  You measure at breast height, compute the diameter with everybody’s favorite mathematical constant; in this case it was 52 inches, then multiplied by a factor for white oaks, 5.  This gives a rough estimate of 260 years for the trees age.  Cutting back a bit for optimal growing conditions, experts feel this oak is 225 years old.  That means it was an acorn in 1780!  Whoa.

    The last session focused on the evolution of plants.  In some ways this was weakest session, yet in another it astonished me.  Randy Gage, the guy in charge of school groups for the arboretum, took a trip to Australia to investigate the Wollime Pine.  Here are some fast facts from the Wollemi Pine website:

    Fast Facts

    Claim to fame One of the world’s oldest and rarest trees

    This is a tree that, prior to its discovery in 1994 was known only in the fossil record.  It was a coelacanth or stromatolite like find.  Remarkable.  But I missed it.  Maybe you didn’t.

    The time related stuff here was somewhat cliched with the 24 hour clock and an arm span as metaphors.  The Wollemi Pine story is the stuff of science fiction.

    Taking this symposium at the same time I learned about a book, Reinventing the Sacred, which attempts to reinvent spirituality from within a scientific perspective, but one that discards scientistic thinking (reductionism, empiricism) has really set the wheels turning.  So many things clicking.  We’ll see where it all goes.