Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Tao,Buddhism and Mindfulness


The third and final (for now) episode of Gloria on the Tao owes much to one of Melvyn Bragg's excellent "In Our Time" Radio 4 programmes a year or more ago.

The Dao wasn't originally, it seems, a god-following religion, more like a philosophy and a way of thinking and living.In its early form (the "Tao Te Ching") it is a teaching that involves recognising the way the universe works, and following that, rather than trying to force your way against nature. Water is a frequent symbol in the text - if you come across a boulder, then like water, flow round it, over it, under it, to get where you want to be; don't try to move it. You won't smash the boulder, but it will in any case be worn away into a small pebble in a few thousand years. Seems a clear enough symbol to me.

Following the way of the universe is how to live in the world. The people ruled by the best rulers - those who follow the Dao - hardly notice they are being ruled and guided.

Buddhism teaches an escape from the world, from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth. (First off, you have to believe in re-incarnation, clearly, in order to escape from it!) Meditation is the technique through which this escape can be earned.

But in our own lives, I can't see any particular conflict in what contemplating the Tao offers us, and what we can learn from Buddhism. I was fascinated to discover that the origins of Mindfulness meditation were derived from Buddhist meditation techniques, and Buddhism, especially Zen, owes much to the Tao. So there is a line through here from an ancient Chinese philosophical/mystical text, through Buddhist traditions and practices, to something you can no doubt study in an evening class in Shepherd's Bush or Droylsden.

Mindfulness meditation is a training in how to live more of the time in the present moment. To achieve, or approach, a mindful awareness of the present moment and nothing but it, you do need to retreat, as it were, for an hour or so - or five minutes, even. So to this degree, a temporary escape is necessary. And mindfulness practitioners, like followers of traditional Zen Buddhist schools, often seem to favour occasional retreats, for a day or a weekend.

But the state of mind, this "presentmomentness" enables one to deal better with the world beyond the room you meditate in - to move through it a little more like the water round the boulder. It encourages tolerance, sharpens understanding of the situations of other people, helps one to keep things in perspective. It calms.

So occasional temporary bits of escapism enable one to emerge and deal with "the world" better. The little I know of these two great strands of East Asian religious philosophy and practice seem to me to work more as complementaries than opponents.

And in all this, there is no need (unless you want it) for god-centred religion, for dogma and scripture. No wonder a professor of religious studies sneered at mindfulness as "Buddhism-lite." He's right - and that's exactly the point. It sidesteps dogma-based argument, and says simply "if you do this, properly, your life will be better for it." You can do it and still follow a religion, you can follow it and be a nature-worshipping pagan, you can follow it and be a stroppy atheist (though if it works for you, you'll probably be a bit less stroppy, whatever your beliefs.)

So is it The Answer To Life? Well, it certainly helps e.g. with tensions, anxieties, uncertainties and sadnesses. But if it works for you, it's part of ordinary life, not an alternative to life. We all know there's only one alternative to life -  and facing that is also something mindfulness can help with.