Shi Tao – Van Gogh, 1998
Oil on canvas
Tradition was once function.
But today there is no tradition.
Where is there a true path?
In the past, people didn’t question the teachings of Tao. There was a living tradition, and if one followed it, one could reasonably expect to walk a good path. But today the traditional teachings of Tao have been dimmed by civil wars, political persecution, and the death of masters. Wealth and technology hold the attention of most people, and few have time for Tao. Adopting arcane methods will not lead to success.
We must discover Tao for ourselves. Seeking it in the here and now means fulfilling the spirit of tradition instead of merely copying it. How can we ape the past? The old ways are gone.
Tao means different things to different people in different times. Indeed, we might say that the Tao of today leads in unprecedented directions. We have to adapt, but being contemporary should not be an excuse for adulteration and shortcuts. Once we find the true path of today, we must walk it with the same determination of the ancients.
Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao
All religion, as theologians – and their opponents – understand the word, is something other than what it is assumed to be. Religion is a vehicle. Its expressions, rituals, moral and other teachings are designed to cause certain elevating effects, at a certain time, upon certain communities. Because of the difficulty of maintaining the science of man, religion was instituted as a means of approaching truth. The means always became, for the shallow, the end, and the vehicle became the idol. Only the man of wisdom, not the man of faith or intellect, can cause the vehicle to move again. — Alauddin Attar (Shah 261)
Mankind passes through three stages.
First he worships anything: man, woman, money, children, earth and stones.
Then, when he has progressed a little further, he worships God.
Finally he does not say: ‘I worship God’; nor: ‘I do not worship God.’
He has passed from the first two stages into the last– Rumi
What I have learned as a Sufi is something that man cannot credit because of what he has already been taught. The easiest thing to grasp in Sufism is one of the most difficult for the ordinary thinker. It is this: All religious presentations are varieties of one truth, more or less distorted. This truth manifests itself in various peoples, who become jealous of it, not realizing that its manifestation accords with their needs. It cannot be passed on in the form because of the difference in the minds of different communities. It cannot be reinterpreted, because it must grow afresh. It is presented afresh only by those who can actually experience it in every form, religious and otherwise, of man. This experience is quite different from what people take it to be. The person who simply thinks that this must be true as a matter of logic is not the same as the person who experiences that it is true. – Khwaja Salahudin of Bokhara (Shah 287)
My religious traditions growing up were in the Presbyterian church in Arizona. I got married in the church of my childhood, planning a wedding long distance from San Diego. My parents’ funerals were there. As a kid, I didn’t really appreciate much of the church services, they seemed pretty boring. As a teenager, I loved the music and was in the choir. I loved to sing, and still do, even though I don’t do it often these days. The beauty of choral music amazes me. I’ve even sung at a full Latin Catholic mass, which was amazing. I certainly appreciate the traditions of religions, and understand why they exist and the effects they can have on people at their best.
But I think many people lose sight of what those effects are intended to do. They create a oneness, a feeling of completeness with the spiritual. You feel a part of the community around you, a part of everything. And you are supposed to take that feeling outside the church and share it with everyone else you meet. At the beginning of the next week, you do it again, to renew the connection. You don’t go twice a year to church and pretend you are Christian. You don’t go and spout hateful things at other people in the meantime between services. You don’t go and chastise other people for not believing what you do, for not thinking exactly the same way about religion as you do. You don’t go into the public forum and demand that all the country’s judges have to believe what you believe, or they must be against your religion. You go out and you help people, and make their lives better, and share God’s love with the people you meet who need help, not just the ones you happen to like.
Have the religious lost sight of the very reason their faith exists? Then no wonder that so many have lost their faith in the religion.
My mother’s church community said ther goodbyes to her and forgot their responsibilities. Other than a few very good people, no one came to help us clear out my mother’s home. No one helped my nephew to readjust to life without her. Other than one person, no one helped my sister out in her readjustment. My mother helped so many people in her life, did so much for others, and in the end they all said, “Oh, we didn’t know she was so sick. We didn’t know her house needed cleaning. We didn’t know…” How could they not know? I was angry with my mom for not asking for more help, angry with myself for not being able to be there for her, but also angry with the church for not knowing what she needed. It was, “oh , our membership is all so old…” Well, why hadn’t they reached out to the younger community, found out their needs, helped them out? If they had, the young would have stayed involved. That is what the evangelical churches have done. It wasn’t at all the church I remembered from my youth, that had been so involved in every part of our lives. It was just a place that had services once a week and funerals now and then. It was a dying church, not a living one.
Religion can’t just focus on tradition and not change. It can’t alienate itself from the real world – it must change with the world. Tao means change – Tao is change. That’s the whole point. Certainly there are traditions of Tao, of all religions – but to focus on tradition in any area of life, without considering change, is a fool’s focus.
So, now I look at change itself – in my work, in my own life, and to study it in the world around me. I’ve never feared change, like a lot of people do, but I don’t go chasing after it just to make changes happen either. I let things change as they need to, naturally. I try to teach other people to allow change into their lives, not to be afraid of it, but also not to force change just for the sake of change. I guess I”m not too worried about whether or not I’m on a true path – I do what needs to be done, and let the rest take care of itself. That’s as true a path as anything else I’ve found, anyway.