as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, May 6, 2018
This morning I thought I would offer you a sermon reflecting on some religious texts and stories that I have found to be helpful in my own spiritual practice. I want to share with some lessons I have found in the Chinese religion of Taoism. Or at least, the lessons I have discovered in the interpretations of Taoism offered by European and Euro-American thinkers.
One of the things that I appreciate about our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that it has an openness that encourages us to explore scriptures and practices from outside of the European cultures. This openness though should also be exercised with a certain amount of humility and respect. Religious practices develop in particular contexts. When we take those practices and place them within a different context then we change them. We change them in ways that sometimes can make people from the cultures that they came from uncomfortable. To offer an example from our own congregational life, the Seder that this congregation hosts each year is quite different than the Seders held in the homes of Orthodox Jews. I have no doubt that many of the orthodox would be quite uncomfortable with the Seder. And yet, for members and friends of Ashby’s liberal Jewish community the Seder is a meaningful ritual that is a highlight of the year.
Religion is not something that is fixed. Even the most conservative of religious traditions changes over time. To give one example, the Roman Catholic church more-or-less permitted the marriage of priests until the eleventh century. And yet, one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalism is the belief that despite the transient nature of religious tradition there is a certain core religious experience that persists across time and culture. There’s a line from the Hindu Rig Veda that in my reading makes a similar point. It states, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
Liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher have made a similar point when they have argued that religion stems from our experience of connection to something larger than ourselves. As he put it, we experience “everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite.” The experience of connection is a universal human phenomenon. Exactly how we interpret it is influenced by the particular cultures we find ourselves in.
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that there is wisdom to be gained from each particular expression of the universal experience of connection. I can learn from talking with you about your experience. I suspect that you can learn from talking with me about my experience. And I know that we can gain something by discussing the experiences that others have had in other places and in other times.
There’s a certain way in which I think that the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion might be summarized by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you know it? A few verses from it read:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
In the poem Stevens offers thirteen different descriptions of the blackbird. Each is different. Each offers a different understanding of the bird. However, despite the different descriptions there’s only one bird.
In the Unitarian Universalist view, religion is a bit like the blackbird. The world’s different traditions are all offering descriptions of something that is ultimately beyond description: our human place in the great disorder of things.
Now with that set of overly long caveats aside, I want to turn our attention to one of some of the Taoist stories that I have found helpful in my own attempt to lead a more faithful religious life and make my way on this confusing, muddy, planet we call Earth.
The first story is perhaps one you have heard before. In one version it reads, “I, Chuang Tzu, once dreamed I was a butterfly–a butterfly fluttering here and there, without worry or desire, unaware of being human. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, again ‘my own self.’ Now this is unclear to me: was I a man who dreaming he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams he is a man? There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.
On first reading, it is a slippery story. The point is difficult to grasp. The Chuang Tzu does not know whether he is man or butterfly. He is, however, one or the other. He is either a man dreaming he is a butterfly or he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. I suspect that the key to the story is found in the last two sentences: “There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.” Chuang Tzu can either be a butterfly or a man. He cannot be both.
The story communicates one of the core ideas of Taoism, at least as it is understood by European and Euro-American scholars. Everything is understood to have its own nature, its own way of being in the world. Butterflies flutter here and there. They lack worry or desire but instead seek milkweed nectar or quest for sunflowers. People worry about whether or not they are butterflies. The Taoist point seems to be that it does not matter which you are as long as you try to uncover your own nature. But then, it is a slippery story. Your interpretation might be somewhat different than my own.
Much of Taoism a bit slippery like that. Unlike a lot of other religious traditions, it lacks a meta-narrative, an overarching story of existence. There is no central text with a creation story like those found in the Hebrew Bible or Hindu scriptures. And there’s no salvation narrative suggesting that we are somehow flawed beings that need to be saved. Such narratives are found in the Christian New Testament or in the life of Buddha. All of this might suggest a challenge to the motto I suggested earlier, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” However, as the Euro-American scholar Thomas Cleary has argued, “Taoism is based… on the experience of… [the] universal Way, the essential reality which all derivative ways might be comprehended.”
This is quite similar to the liberal theological assertion that at the core of religion is the the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. In Clearly’s interpretation of Taoism, we are part of the universal Way (the Tao), the nature of everything. And we each have our own individual ways, or natures, that stem from it. The purpose of Taoism is to uncover or discover our individual way and live in harmony with the greater way of which we are a part.
I read the contemporary classic the Tao of Pooh in high school. Have any of you read it? It is a charming book that attempts to communicate the core teachings of Taoism in a fashion that is accessible for those unfamiliar with the tradition. It uses the characters from the Winnie the Pooh children stories to share insights its author has gained from Taoism. It has been criticized by scholars as presenting a European reading of Taoism that strips it of its original cultural context. Nonetheless, I find its core insight appealing. It suggests that the authentic religious life is about being present with the self and present to the world around the self. Or, as the text says, “While Eeyore frets… and Piglet hesitates… and Rabbit calculates… and Owl pontificates… Pooh just is.”
Another Euro-American interpreter of Taoism named Alan Watts tried to express the same insight with these words, “What we are seeking is, if we are not totally blind, already here.”
Taoism itself is an ancient tradition that originated in China more than two thousand years ago. It emerged as a body of written teachings around the fourth century BCE. I say as a body of written teachings because like most traditions it had a lot of sources. If it is about uncovering what is already here then that is something that people have been uncovering and discovering for as long as there have been people.
The first Taoist text is generally thought to be the Tao Te Ching, the book of changes. It was compiled by someone called Lao Tzu, whose name translates into old master. It is debatable as to whether he was a historical figure or a mythical one. Some claim he was a royal librarian in an early Chinese dynasty. He is said to have eventually grown tired of the intrigues of court life. He quit his position and left the kingdom to seek a life of contemplation. On the way out of the kingdom he stopped to spend the night at the last gate before the wilderness. The gatekeeper recognized him and asked him to leave some of his wisdom behind. And that wisdom was the Tao Te Ching.
The other great Taoist teacher was Chuang Tzu. He almost certainly was a real person. There are records of someone with the same name that appear in the second and third centuries BCE. Chuang Tzu’s text bears his name. It is a book of stories. Some, like the butterfly story, are cryptic or enigmatic. Others make their point a bit more clearly.
I have read the Chuang Tzu numerous times and found in its advice about being who we are to be useful. One story suggests that it is good to have a healthy skepticism of technology. The story is about an old gardener and a young engineer. One day the young engineer was walking back to the capital city. As he walked he came across an old gardener, drawing a bucket of water from a well. He watched the old man. The old man walked over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. Then he walked over to his garden, some distance away, and dumped the water on his vegetables. He repeated this process many times. Walking over to the well and returning with the heavy bucket filled with water until his garden was finally watered.
All of this seemed like a lot of effort to the engineer. He approached the gardener and told him, “Hey, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden much better and with a lot less effort. Would you not like that?”
“What is the contraption” replied the gardener.
“It is a wooden lever. It is heavy in the back and light in the front. It draws water from the well, as you do with your bucket, but in a steadily flowing stream. It is called a well sweep.”
The gardener is said to have looked at the young engineer with an expression of annoyance. And then he is said to have laugh and told the young man, “I have heard my teacher say that those who use tricky tools are tricky in their business affairs, and those who are tricky in their business affairs have trickery in their hearts, and those who have trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure and unspoilt, and those who are not pure and unspoilt have a restless spirit, and those who have a restless spirit, in them Tao cannot exist. Not that I am unfamiliar with such a contraption–I would be ashamed to use one.”
Supposedly, the engineer bowed his head in shame and left the gardener to his buckets, well, and garden. The point of the story seems clear enough to me. Technology can distract us from our inner nature, the experience of what it means to be human in this wild world. Now, if that was true in Chuang Tzu’s day, it is certainly true in ours. How easily do we get distracted by all of the technological devices that surround us. I will admit that my cell phone can provide constant distraction. It can take me away from my surroundings and my relationships. It is easy to get immersed in the little rectangular screen. And when I do I frequently find myself feeling disconnected from the world immediately around me. What about you? Do you ever find technology distracting?
One way I remind myself of my connection to something larger than myself is through my own practice of foraging. It is spring and good things to eat are starting to grow everywhere. They can be found in the woods and in the roadside ditches. Collecting mushrooms and wild greens reminds me of how our earliest human ancestors found their sustenance. It gets me a little closer to the early human experience of the world.
Foraging I have learned to see the world as filled with abundance and scarcity. Viewed this way, the world becomes a place where survival depends upon connection to and understanding of the landscape that surrounds us. And this is very different from the way I inhabit the world much of the time. Sometimes when I am not foraging it does not matter if I am distracted by the glow of a screen. When I am foraging it absolutely does. There is no way I could find dandelion greens or fiddlehead ferns or morel mushrooms if I spent my time in the woods gazing at my cell phone.
Foraging helps me to be present in the moment. It reminds me that being present can be its own reward. And that being present requires me to accept what there is rather than what I desire. And that when that when I do that I can discover things that I might not otherwise discover.
I am reminded of this almost every time I go out foraging. I remember one instance when a friend and I went traipsing through the woods looking for morel mushrooms. It was a frustrating experience. We went to our favorite morel patches and found none. We found elm trees but no morels. We found an abandoned apple orchard but no morels. We looked under ash trees. We looked under oak trees. No morels. This went on for several hours. Suddenly my friend yelled, “Ramps!” And there they were, a large patch of ramps, wild leeks. There was enough for dinner, and the next day’s dinner, and dinner for the day after that.
It was a good reminder that when we are present to the moment we might not find what we are looking but we will find something. And that something is often good in and of itself and worth celebrating. Have you ever had a similar experience? Where you were looking for one thing and then found something completely different? And that thing was glorious?
This, to me, is the message of Taoism, or at least the message of Taoism seen through its European interpreters. As the scholar Alan Watts tells us, “What we are seeking is… already here.” Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church put it another way, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.” Let us say that last phrase together, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”
We cannot be both a butterfly and a human. There is some essential nature to both the butterfly and the human that is unique. Let us accept that nature and, in doing so, open ourselves to the present moment in which we are immersed.
May it be so for each of us.