ARTICLE: July 2010
"Taoism & Zen: Life, Death, Status, Reverence"
With the arrival of Buddhism in China, it’s not so surprising that it was met equally and readily by the indigenous Taoism of the time. What also wasn’t so surprising was that these two doctrines – which both emphasize the immediacy of the present moment – might discover an inter-kinship that often felt as if they were twins who had been separated at birth. Both Taoism and Buddhism (what would ultimately become ‘Zen’) are ways that skillfully guide adherents towards lives of greater peacefulness, ease, and freedom. In many ways their meeting was far more than friendly, it was a marriage.
Much of what guides these two great streams of thought and practice might be termed ‘things natural’, nature herself. In addition to this emphasis upon the ‘active’ hand of nature is also an acute appreciation and priority given to spontaneous, direct experience. And it is for this latter reason that interpretations, inductions, and second-hand accounts of things are not usually given much credence in the long run; this idea very much acts to form Taoism’s attitude towards a possible afterlife, which it views as a lure and a hoping for a sort of ‘false salvation’. For myself, these sentiments ring true; for one only needs an endlessly good and fulfilling future if the present moment does not deliver fulfillment, and one’s experience of the present moment can only deliver if one is actually in it, is present to it. Hoping endlessly keeps one looking outside of their direct experience (the present moment), and thus their direct experience is understandably unfulfilling – a vicious cycle indeed.
With regards to death, and a view that encourages wishing for an afterlife, Taoism would go on to say that one’s ‘departure’ from the present moment and it’s resultant denial of death itself, acts as a war against nature and all of its laws. Nature is thus viewed generally as a death trap; as we will see, Taoism and especially Zen view the mind’s departure from the present moment (via hoping, etc.) as the trapping that most people are unknowingly caught in. Taoism ultimately believes that nature as spirit individuates (or undergoes evolution) during a given person’s ‘lifetime’, and upon bodily death reenters the more fluid flow of spirit (what might be termed dissolution). Or, as each wave crests for a given period of time, it then meets its temporal end as it crashes into the shore, and this only to then be reabsorbed into the entirety of the ocean. For Taoism, this is the nature of life and death.
Zen mirrors much of what Taoism endorses with regards to nature – much of which Zen absorbed from Taoism itself. Zen however more fully emphasizes the importance of present moment awakening via insight – an emphasis that designates Zen as a school of Buddhism viewing awakening as something occurring suddenly (subitism – ‘sudden illumination’, as opposed to gradualism schools). This sort of an understanding with regards to reality does two very distinct yet related things: 1) there is a really real reality that one can awaken to, and 2) one’s not seeing actual reality is the result of a distortional perception on the part of the individual. Awakening thus is not an ‘addition’, but rather a removal of misperception so that the truth, which is perpetually revealed in the present moment, can fully be known.
As an offshoot of Zen’s emphasis upon present moment awakening, all else is rejected as potential distraction from said emphasis. Things like authority, status, and the resultant reference only act to say that awakening is ‘there’ and ‘then’, rather than here and now. Even if another being has fully realized the truth of reality, how might this serve any of us in the longer run? Of course Zen encourages association between ‘teachers’ and ‘students’, but only if the student understands their own crucial and personal role in awakening. We have all known very awake beings – it’s wonderful to be in their company; but what about when we are not? And this is the reason for Zen’s emphasis upon the present moment, whatever it may include; and thus also it’s de-emphasis upon authority and reverence. Reverence for awakening and the path/practice, but not reverence of/for external forms.
Again, reverence most often empowers externals, and often thus also dis-empowers individuals. It is important here to conclude with a distinction between reverence and respect; Zen would say that a skillfully measured respect is likely to aid in one’s awakening – respect of mentors, respect of the process, respect of nature. Hold this distinction for yourself – does respect feel more balanced, whereas reverence instead tips heavily towards some ‘unreachable’ pole? Zen is this checking in with one’s present-moment felt sense of things. For if there is a reality that is right before, after, within, and without us, then surely it might only be where we in fact are. Here, now, this.