July 15, 2000
Smoke billows into the air from dozens of sticks of incense, burning on the altar, surrounded by plates of fruit, laid out as an offering. Larger than life, a robed figure of an "immortal" stares down at me. His long, thin beard and two strips of hair from beside his ears hang all the way to his waist.
Well, sorry, you guys. I guess I can't write a dispatch today. The Eternal Tao cannot be talked about. It says so right here, in the first book of Taoism, the Tao Teh Ching. And I came all the way up here, to this sacred Taoist mountain in the Sichuan Province of China, just to learn about Taoism, China's only native religion.
Even though there are now more Buddhist temples than Taoist temples in China, Buddhism originated in India, and only came to China many centuries later. But Taoism started here with this little book called the Tao Teh Ching, which was written around 600 BCE. That is about the same time that Buddha and Confucius lived, and the Romans were busy spreading stories about their gods, too! It was a big time for religious development throughout Asia and Europe.
Tao means, more or less, "the Way." Of course, we know that the Eternal Tao can't really be named or talked about. It is the way of nature, of balance and order, which can only be understood through mystical insight or meditation, not through studying or reading dispatches on the internet about it. The Tao Teh Ching instructs you to be quiet, humble, and still, and not to strive or grasp for things.
Hundreds of Chinese tourists flock to this mountain daily, to ride the fancy cable cars to the top and look out over the lush greenery, dotted with monasteries and temples. Still, it is a quiet and beautiful place. I climb up to a rock, off the main pathway, to sit and read my copy of the Tao Teh Ching. The clean fresh air, the solitude and beauty, seem all the more wonderful in contrast to the dirty, noisy city of Chengdu, where I just was.
Ah HA! I know this concept. It's the Yin and the Yang. You know, the symbol of the black and white circle that is so popular these days. It's Taoist. The Yin is the black little fish-like half of the circle, and it represents the female aspect: dark, mysterious, passive, and nurturing. The Yang is the white side, and stands for the male aspect: bright, active, and strong. Life consists of a balance of opposites, and you can't have one without the other. Could I appreciate the beauty of this place without first seeing the industrial pollution in Chengdu? Would I know Chengdu was polluted if I had never been to a place like Qingcheng Shan Mountain?
Even though the smog is black, I think that the industrial area is represented by the Yang: the active need to create and change the environment, as opposed to the nurturing, passive female Yin, represented by this Taoist mountain. What do you think? Can you come up with other examples of opposites and decide which one is Yin, and which one is Yang? If you were a Chinese traditional physician, or if you practice Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi and Chi Qong, then you would use this concept as a basis for your practice!
The Tao Teh Ching was meant as an instruction book for the ancient Chinese rulers and not as the scriptures for a new religion. In it, Lao Tzu recommends a passive, "feminine" approach to ruling. He speaks strongly against war, over-taxation, gluttony and pride.
Of course, even if you're not an ancient Chinese ruler, you can learn a lot from Lao Tzu's words. For example, replace the words "ruler" with "teacher," and "people" with "student" in the chapter above, and then think about the different teachers in your school. Who is more effective, the teachers you fear, or the teachers who encourage you to take ownership of your schoolwork, and pride in your education?
I want to ask some of the monks that I see, who live on this mountain. They wear simple, long-sleeved Chinese shirts and have long hair tied in a knot on the top of their heads. There aren't very many of them, none I've met seem to speak English, and they refuse to let me even take their picture - but I promise they're here. At odd times in the day, I hear them chanting and ringing bells, or see them bowing before the statues and burning incense. And at night, before retiring to the simple room I'm renting in the temple, I see them sitting around playing a Chinese domino-like game called mah-jongg.
I have to take the bus back to Chengdu today. I'm not looking forward to the city, but I am excited about my next adventures-Yin and Yang remain balanced! See you there!
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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