You could labor ten years under a master
Trying to discern whether the teachings are true.
But all you must learn is this;
One must live one’s own life.
When one starts out learning a spiritual system, there are many absolute assertions that the masters make. They must be accepted with a provisional faith; each must be tested and proved to yourself before you can believe in them. You will be exposed to all types of esoteric knowledge, but you need only be concerned with whether or not you can make them work for yourself.
There will come an intermediate, joyous point where you find that certain techniques work even better than the scriptures claim. In the wake of these discoveries, you will also find that life continues to be just as thorny and problematic as ever. Does this mean that the study of Tao is useless? No. It only means that you have been laboring to equip yourself with skill. You must still go out and live your life to the end.
When you look back and realize that you have been absorbed the teachings so thoroughly that they have become routine, it is not the time to reject the system you have learned. It is time to utilize what you have learned. You must express yourself, take action in the world, create new circumstances for yourself and others. Only then does the long acquisition of skill become worthwhile.
“Any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question…Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t it is of no use.”
— Carlos Castaneda
I grew up in the Presbyterian church, and that was a church and faith that had a lot of heart. I’ve attended the Community Church near my home, which is a Unitarian church.
But I’ve studied a lot of other faiths as well – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam – and eventually came to realize the message is always basically very much the same, what differs are which gods and which prophets the religion tells you to accept. And I got to the point where I realized that each of these various faiths posits itself as The One True Religion, and began to ask why they couldn’t *all* be equally “true”. Then I read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (all highly recommended), and realized that all the hero’s journeys of the various religions (Buddha, Christ, Mohammed) were very much the same.
Then I remembered what Jesus said about there being many paths. And thought about how many cultures have never heard of Jesus, or how many people lived well before that period in time. Christianity is so tied to western thought, so dismissive of eastern thought, even though the Jesus mythology is based on Egyptian mythology and other mythos. And I guess it kind of crystallized for me that this must simply be a way of filling the basic spiritual needs people have, and all the ways religion has been used as a tool for power and control.
What originally attracted me to Taoism is that Jesus referred to himself as “The Way, the truth, and the light”. Tao is translated as the way. I think of it as the process, the way things work, rather than an actual pathway. There is a process to finding one’s spirituality. The problem with religion is that it shortcuts the process, gives you an easy answer rather than making you think about things for yourself.
Taoism doesn’t do that. Taoism says, here’s an idea, think about it, go look for yourself in the world and see how this works. And that is how I think spirituality should operate. There are reasons all the religions come back to the same points over and over. They are operating manuals for life. And taken in this way, they work. But trying to force others to operate in the world exactly the way you do is ridiculous. We are all different, and what works for one won’t work for all. If you use religion as a tool to run society, you can apply one rule to everyone — but you will still have rebellion, you will still have individuality and the special case, and eventually the society becomes corrupt. If you offer a spirituality that allows everyone to be spiritual in their own way, you give people a choice.
Of course, there are many who just want to be told what to do, and for them, religion is the answer. But for those who seek and need a choice to learn how the world really works, Taoism is a belief system that can work.