An act of pure faith
Living in harmony with the Tao is essentially an act of pure faith. It is the unquestioning acceptance of the total mystery that is Tao.
Faith is a bridge to unity with Tao. It is the most direct way. All other ways are digressions fraught with disappointment and suffering.
The Tao recedes from the slightest scrutiny. It disappears at the least sign of doubt. It is outside the reach of the insincere. It is non-existent to the skeptic. It is beyond reason and logic. It is invisible to the intellect. Not even its name is real. Trying to explain it can only alienate you from it. Only faith brings you directly to it.
(The Way is Tao, 68)
Faith in Tao is never blind. It is faith in the power of the true self. As such, its approach is one of compassion and wisdom.
Why write about an act of pure faith?
If it is true that harmony with the Tao can only be reached through faith in something that cannot be explained, then what is it that is being explained in this text?
Analyzing faith is moving dangerously close to theological argumentation anyhow, isn't it?
The last thing needed in Taoism is traditional theology and its dogmatic offspring.
Should we not just shut up and leave it to people to find harmony with Tao on the experiential sphere?
The Tao certainly does not need our help, does it?
There are compelling reasons why one should write about faith in Tao.
The aim of this essay
This essay is an effort to point at the Tao and give direction, to explain how faith in Tao can be lived in everyday life, to encourage and to give strength.
Of course, the final "act" of faith will have to be taken by oneself.
Everything talked about in this essay will only be really understood if it is lived..
There is no other way.
A unique faith
Faith in the Tao is unlike any other faith in religion.
Faith in the mystery
In Christianity, for example, you invest faith in the concept of a personal God who will protect you and guide your soul to heaven. In Taoism, you have faith in a "concept" that no concept can define the Tao.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1)
It is a faith free as free from ideology and dogma as is possible for human beings living on this planet. It is faith in the total mystery of Tao.
Men craving holiness
(The Tao is Tao, 139)
Faith implies an element of trust.
In Christianity, it is a trust not unlike the trust you will have in a trustworthy friend, who will do you all kinds of favors and support you when necessary, even take your side against enemies.
In Taoism, this trust is of a different nature, for the Tao - as the impersonal, underlying principle of all things - cannot be given human qualities, and cannot be seen as a friend. In fact, the Tao does not discriminate and it "treats" you and your enemies identically. The trust you have in the Tao is more like the trust you will have in, for example, the Law of Gravity.
There is a big difference, though. Unlike the Law of Gravity, the Tao is vague and indefinable. Basically, you are expected to trust something you will never really understand. So, in a way you do need faith, and lots of it.
(The Tao is Tao, 22)
No divine assistance
Many Christians believe that they are incapable of succeeding in their spiritual quest without some kind of divine assistance.
The Taoist accepts that he and he alone is responsible for his deeds and his fate. There is no god that has died for him and has neutralized the effects of his evil actions. He fully accepts the principle of causality in his actions and his thoughts.
He needs faith in himself and his own abilities to succeed. It is more about confidence than faith, and there is nothing mystical about it.
No soul to be "saved"
Christians need faith that their souls will be "saved".
The Taoist does not need this kind of faith, for he carries only emptiness in himself: there is nothing to be "saved".
No dogma of salvation
The Taoist sage does not need to tax his own credulity the way adherents of many religions have to. His security does not depend on intricate doctrines of salvation, which you find in so many religions.
Small wonder that many people dependent on religious doctrines feel threatened when their doctrines are challenged. To them, challenging their "logical" structures of "faith" is equal to threatening their chances of salvation. They cannot else but live and die with closed minds.
The only dogma that the Taoist sage accepts is the dogma that no dogma exists. He therefore has an open mind, for he has no dogmas he can feel threatened by.
The sage's fearlessness comes from his acceptance of the mystery.
(The Tao is Tao, 46)
The insecurities that come with trying to explain the inexplicable do not occur with him. He does not try to explain the mystery. He simply has faith in it.
The Taoist sage has less fear to overcome than someone who has either the rewards of heaven or the threats of hell awaiting him beyond the grave. He has not subscribed to a dogma evoking fear in him to keep him in line.
The Taoist sage has no dogma which turns death into such a momentous, decisive occasion with such a potential for disaster or glory, as it does in Lamaist Buddhism.
To the Taoist sage, death is a natural part of the process called Tao.
On his death bed,
There is only the endless flow of Tao.
The man of Tao has no fear,
(The Tao is Tao, 154)
The courage of the Taoist sage is based on his total acceptance of the Tao as a total mystery. His faith is true and pure faith.
(The Way is Tao, 2)
In what do you need to have faith?
The above question is justified. In a way, answering it could be hazardous, for it could easily become what could be construed as the outlines of a dogma.
Many aspects of faith are indescribable and unprovable. One cannot argue about them. Differing on them does not matter significantly. The quality of life of someone living in harmony with the Tao will hardly be affected by whatever he believes or does not believe.
The questions are therefore limited to "Do you need to ...?" formulations. The implications of these questions are clear. If you need not believe, it does not mean you may not. This approach ensures tolerance. The moment the emphasis is shifted to "may not", we will have become prescriptive, and will have started formulating prohibitive dogma.
Do you need to believe in karma or reincarnation?
People of eastern cultures find it easier to believe in karma or in reincarnation.
Among westerners, karma and reincarnation are contentious issues. There are historical reasons for this.
The idea of reincarnation was accepted and tolerated to a certain extent in Christianity until the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 533 AD, where belief in any form of reincarnation was declared a heretic act, punishable by death at the stake.
Even a thousand years after it was strictly forbidden, this belief in reincarnation persisted among Christians, as the trial of the famous philosopher, Giordano Bruno, in 1592 proves. At his trail in Venice, Bruno declared:
Bruno was burnt at the stake for this statement, which he refused to retract, even though it would have meant saving his own life.
For more than a thousand years, debate on this aspect was totally forbidden in Christianity, and in many churches, it is still taboo today. It is therefore amazing that among Christians, various forms of belief in reincarnation still persist even today.
The same is true for karma, which in its pure Buddhist form has been anathema to Christian authorities for over a thousand years.
Even if they should agree that some form of karma exists, people often differ on the scope of karma. Most of my students, for example, reject the watertight concept of karma found in many schools of Buddhism. They would agree that karma may function in a limited way in this life, but they would argue that life is nevertheless unfair and unjust.
Many skeptics would argue that karma is difficult to believe, and they would point out that their observations often contradict the concept of causality. Too many crooked people seem to get away with their crimes, or too many people who have caused misery seem to die happily in their luxury beds, escaping the results of their evil deeds. And again, too many innocent people suffer seemingly without cause. What have the thousands of babies dying of hunger in some godforsaken desert done to deserve their terrible deaths?
Another objection raised is that the concept of karma can easily become just another discreet and heartless ideology to justify suffering and inequality. You can easily argue that those starving babies deserve what they get. It is their karma. And that you who live in luxury deserve what you have. It is your karma. Does this not easily become a way to justify injustice and callous disregard? Does this not provide many people with a way to sidestep compassion? It has in this way become part of the incredibly unjust caste system practiced in India.
Many Buddhists argue that karma can only be understood if reincarnation is accepted. So does this mean that you must, somehow, also believe in reincarnation, to believe in karma? Karma does not seem to function properly within the short span of a single life, does it? Of course, many people will argue that there is no real proof that it functions within the span of several lives either.
Christianity has tried to solve this problem by providing for a just reward or punishment after death. You only have a single life - one chance - and that's it. Then you go either to heaven or hell for all eternity. Christians argue that God's justice does not reveal itself on earth, but only becomes evident on judgement day, where one will be rewarded or punished according to how one has lived on earth. So, the fact that life on earth is unjust does not contradict God's goodness, according to Christians.
In Buddhism, you have many lives, during which you have enough opportunity to improve until you have reached enlightenment. In some schools of Buddhism, even the blades of grass will become enlightened ultimately.
The Taoist sage is not particularly bothered by karma and reincarnation. His faith goes beyond karma.
The Taoist sage lives
(The Tao is Tao, 39)
The Taoist sage is not interested in self-gain, not even on a spiritual level. He could not give a hoot whether whatever he does or does not do will turn him into a worm or some totally "superior" being in his next life. He does not think of gaining some spiritual merit when he acts.
(The Way is Tao, 37)
He simply moves in natural harmony with the Tao, and he does what compassion and wisdom inspire him to do, and nothing else.
The person craving blessedness
( The Tao is Tao, 144)
The Taoist sage would suffer for the sake of others if it were necessary. He has all the attributes of a Bodhisattva, but he is thoroughly unaware of it.
He does not need faith in any karmic doctrine.
He does not need karma, nor is he afraid of it.
He has too much faith in the Tao to bother.
Do you need to believe in enlightenment?
The word "enlightened" is not mentioned once in the Tao Te Ching. So does this mean that enlightenment does not play a role in Taoism? Of course not, but the person close to Tao has the wisdom to know that if enlightenment becomes your focus, your dedication turns into an egotistical devotion, and harmony with the Tao will never be reached.
(The Tao is Tao, 9)
The Taoist sage is wary of the kind of emotional satori, in which the emotional intensity of enlightenment is seen as directly proportionate to the depth of insight and change achieved. He knows that - even though emotions may play their part - wisdom, compassion and harmony with the Tao have little to do with something so fickle as emotions.
The Taoist sage is not particularly bothered by enlightenment. He lives in total harmony with the Tao without striving to do so. If he is enlightened, he will be unaware of it. His unity with the Tao is organic, unsentimental and real. He does not show any sign of the vanity often accompanying the feeling of "mystical union" with "higher" forces. There is not a trace of awareness in him of an elated status. He does not walk around with the airs of a "master" or a "guru". In fact, he shows the true humility of someone who does not spend time evaluating his own worth. He does what he does because he is the way that he is.
Those not in harmony with the Tao, who search for external and superficial signs of enlightenment, will not recognize the Taoist sage for what he is.
His humility is not of the false, demonstrative kind designed to draw attention.
His humility is true humility, which is invisible to all but the truly humble.
Do you need to believe in the mystery of emptiness?
Emptiness is a great mystery as long as you are battling to reduce your ego, and before you have reached harmony with your true self, which is emptiness.
What you really need to believe at first is that the ego causes tremendous damage. It does not, however, take much to see the truth of this when you look at life itself.
Initially believing that a permanent core does not exist in you could strengthen your resolve to get rid of the ego which is an illusive invention of your own mind. Once you have eliminated the ego, you will have experienced that there is no real unchanging, permanent entity in you, and you will not need the kind of faith that covers your lack of knowledge and experience.
Even when you have reached harmony with emptiness in you, emptiness nevertheless remains mysterious. It is the mystery of total identity with all of creation, which cannot be expressed in words, and only becomes real once you have experienced it.
Even though he is in total harmony with it, the Taoist sage accepts the mystery with the kind of faith a child has in his mother.
Do you need to have faith in the Tao?
Living in harmony with the Tao is essentially an act of faith, for the Tao can never be intellectually understood or verbally defined.
The only form of faith essential to spiritual development is faith in the mystery which is Tao.
You should not devise some form of theology or dogma to explain the Tao. Explanation is an act of non-faith. Many confuse faith in a dogma with faith in their god.
Do you need to have faith in the Tao?
Yes, you certainly do.
Everything else is ignorance.
Who can think the unthinkable?
(The Tao is Tao, 94)
How do you acquire faith?
Harmony between the rational and the spiritual
The more rational and skeptical you are, the more difficult it becomes to have faith in the incomprehensible. Faith comes the easiest to children who still have the unclouded vision of open minds directly experiencing reality.
The intellectual person will attack the mystery with his intellect, and try his best to turn mystery into logic.
Many superstitions have been destroyed in the development of thinking from the Medieval Age, with its strictly Biblical paradigms, via the Renaissance, the hyperactive rebirth of the intellect, to the modern age of science.
Is it good that many superstitions have been discarded? Of course it is. Most superstitions are the result of ignorance. Science could prove that lightning is not the work of some evil force, but a natural and predictable phenomenon, and it has therefore decreased the fear and the risks of the unknown.
Theologians have often made fools of themselves by trying to explain scientific facts with "spiritual tools". The Bible, for example, is quite simply not a book of science, and should never be used as such. No matter what Solomon wrote in his magnificent verses, he quite simply did not know that the earth is round and not flat. Not that it matters, for the Bible is a book dealing with the spirit and the human being's relationship to God and the universe. As long as it functions within the realm of the spirit, it can be of great benefit. The moment it oversteps its boundaries, it creates superstition, doubt and fear, and it hurts the very religion it is supposed to serve.
There is a place for science and a place for religion, but ultimately they should function in harmony and not in competition with each other. Science expands the frontiers of knowledge; religion gives direction to knowledge. Isolating these two can only have tragic consequences for the world.
It is important, though, that the rational aggregate is restricted to functioning within its own boundaries in a world of knowledge and survival. The moment it oversteps its boundaries and invades the world of the spirit, confusion ensues.
As much as doubt and skepticism are crucial to scientific research, they are sheer poison in the world of the spirit, for they destroy faith essential to harmony.
An act of courage
It is, indeed, an act of courage, to leave your intellect behind when you enter the world of the spirit. You need courage to take this step, and plenty of it, particularly when you have grown up in an intellectual tradition.
To a certain extent, the spirit can still be understood with logic. Take for example the idea of the "altruistic ego", which seems so compellingly logical. If you help others, you indirectly help yourself. It is true, isn't it? It does not always work, by helping others, you also make friends, who would in turn help you. Helping others could even increase your influence, and therefore your wealth. Many companies will use charity to boost their own image and increase their sales in this way. Altruism may easily become just another form of cleverly camouflaged egocentrism.
But the spirit goes much further than just to help others in order to help itself. It goes to a point where logic does not play a role, and where benefit, or even survival, becomes irrelevant. The true spiritual act does not expect anything in return - not even spiritual benefits. It is beyond the comprehensible and the explicable.
Compassion - the gateway
There is only one quality that can give you faith to cross the point where logic fails: it is compassion. When you are truly compassionate, you will overcome your own egocentric focus and acquire faith as a product of wisdom and insight.
Moved by compassion,
The heart moved by compassion is in itself a mystery to the intellect, for it moves outside the realm of rules, laws and predictability. It is spontaneous and anarchic.
Test this statement in real life and you will find it is true. Compassion gives faith. If you are sad and lonely, and friends go out of their way to comfort you, your faith is renewed and strengthened. If you become compassionate, and you help others, you can escape depression and become positive about life again.
In the same way, hatred can destroy faith. People who have been the victims of violence, for example, often lose all faith in relationships, and they need tremendous amounts of care and love before they are able to trust again.
Betrayal, disloyalty, letdowns and disappointments in love do tremendous damage, because they destroy our faith in compassion. To lose faith in compassion can easily lead to a loss of faith in the mystery that is Tao.
Bitterness and cynicism are products of a loss of faith. They are the results of the take-over of negative emotions and thoughts in someone's mind. A bitter person has allowed his hatred or disappointment to become a permanent state of mind. Bitterness is often accompanied by destructive tendencies, such as acute materialism, or acts of revenge and spitefulness, or in extreme cases the lust to see others in pain.
Lack of faith is also the loss of any hope. This is a terrible state of mind, for it is the acceptance of the belief that ultimately nothing good will come from the Tao. People without faith become passive, for they have abandoned the common sense fact that you cannot expect anything from nothing.
(The Way is Tao, 32)
The Taoist sage's faith in Tao is unshakable. Nothing can separate him from Tao. Hatred and violence might hurt him, for he is, after all, human, but they will not touch his faith. His faith goes beyond hope. You could say that he does not need hope, for he expects nothing, and therefore cannot be disappointed and fall into states of bitterness. His faith in the power of compassion is strengthened by his own experience. He has the wisdom not to judge according to short-termed perspectives. His perspective is vast, and at times when evil seems to be predominant, his faith is not shaken.
He has so much faith that he does not need to think about it. He does not even need to pray for it. It is a natural part of him, and it guides him in his actions.
The power of the sage emanates from his faith. It frees him from spiritual attributes people tend to cling to. He does not need hope or the compassion of others to nourish his faith. Defeat and punishment do not shake his faith. The hatred of others towards him does not shrivel up his heart. He does not serve some ego-soul that needs to be nourished perpetually. He has found harmony in emptiness, where the ego has no hold on him. His faith is the faith of someone who knows silence and emptiness are the essence of power.
Yet his power is the power of someone disinterested in power.
Those with faith have power,
(The Tao is Tao, 150)
Faith as a "network of trust"
Faith also has a social component. It can establish trust within a community. It can be depicted as faith in a "network of relationships". Members of this community will then trust one another, and feel at home in one another's company.
Often this trust is based on certain values and modes of behavior. The moment, however, common values become dogmatic and prescriptive, trust can be perverted to distrust through control and repression.
The spirit needs space and freedom to develop, and dogma tends to limit and repress, and it often inhibits rather than promotes spiritual growth. This has happened in many religious communities - with all its terrible extreme symptoms of exclusion and persecution, as we have seen so often in history. Dogma can turn compassion into hatred. In fact, the moment a religious community becomes intolerant, their religion can easily be turned into a thinly veiled disguise of pride and injustice.
The basis of a "network of trust" should not be agreement on concepts, but the mutual commitment to live a life of compassion and wisdom in close harmony with one's true self. Integrity and harmony with the Tao are the first priorities. In such an environment, agreement becomes less important than care and support. This kind of community will discourage repressive measures and encourage independent thinking and honesty.
It does not mean, though, that they would shy away from conflict where compassion is at stake, or where the weak need to be defended. But their defense of compassion will be done with compassion, and without the symptoms of ego.
The Taoist sage
(The Tao is Tao, 78)
What would be important is a kind of vigorous, creative and robust "unity in diversity". This is only possible if the community accept that "the truth" cannot be captured by language or dogma. Complete truth lies beyond our conceptual reach. This social form of humility and tolerance will provide everybody with the freedom and space to find harmony with Tao in their own way.
This kind of ideal is only possible with a community who have invested their faith in the total mystery of Tao.
In theory at least, Taoism provides the basis for such a community.
Is this kind of ideal unity possible in practice? I do not know. The larger the group, the more difficult it will probably be. There are some dynamics involved in social groups that are often destructive and hard to control, particularly when these groups are embedded in a larger community dedicated to materialism and greed.
But it does not mean we should not spread the ideals of a Taoist community. Like the Tao, perfection is unreachable, but striving towards it brings you closer to it.
The spirit has a way of ignoring logic and taking on the impossible, hasn't it?
The power of faith in Tao
Faith in Tao turns mere philosophy into a life of harmony
All this talk about faith would not be worth the paper it is written on if faith did not bring you closer to Tao.
But that is exactly what faith in Tao does. Provided that it is linked to compassion and wisdom, faith in the mystery as a form of unity with the true self turns mere philosophy into a life of harmony with the Tao. This claim can, of course, only be verified by experience.
True faith is nothing else but to accept the mystery that is Tao, and to live in harmony with it.
Faith in Tao opens the door to ultimate freedom
Accepting the mystery sets you free to move in harmony with the Tao. Not being preoccupied with encapsulating Tao in language sets your mind free. You move past logic and away from the contrived and artificial to the spontaneous and the intuitive, where rules, dogmas and laws exert no influence over you as you move intimately with the Tao. It is a tremendous form of freedom.
Faith in the Tao opens the door to ultimate freedom.
Faith in Tao creates courage, detachment and compassion
Liberation through faith gives you tremendous courage fueled by compassion and wisdom.
It is the courage of someone who lives in harmony with the source of all things. It gives you the power to overcome the ego and escape ignorance, and to embrace emptiness. As such, it brings you in harmony with the universe.
Faith in the Tao gives you the courage to be independent and liberated from any sociocentric influence. It gives you the detachment to be truly compassionate and wise. As long as you lack faith, you will cling to opinions and objects in your effort to find the security you think you lack. When you accept the mystery, and reject the concept of security, your faith will give you courage to live outside the comfort zones of materialism, social acceptance and religious dogma. Without this need for material, social and conceptual security, greed will disappear. Only then will true compassion become possible.
The man filled with greed,
(The Tao is Tao, 98)
Faith in Tao brings humility, tolerance and peace
Accepting the mystery brings true humility. This humility is based on the insight that the essence of Tao can never be captured.
Faith in the absolute mystery of Tao is also the source of tolerance and true peace, for it acknowledges that the truly important aspects of spiritual life lie beyond our intellectual grasp, and cannot be argued about. It is the wisdom to know that no dogma is worth fighting over. It is the realization that dogmatic debate without compassion leads to hatred and despair.
Faith in man-made dogma has been the source of much human misery. True faith in the absolute mystery of Tao is the source of peace and harmony.
Faith in Tao brings optimism
Faith is filled with optimism. It is the belief in ultimate liberation: no matter what devious routes our minds may take, and what ignorance our various cultures may have loaded upon us, ultimately we will all prostrate ourselves before the total mystery that is Tao.
True faith in Tao is infallible
Intellectual activity in the sphere of the spirit creates doubt and causes weakness where one needs it least.
True faith in the mystery that is Tao never fails, for it does not need proof and is indestructible.
Unlike mere concepts and fickle emotions, faith in Tao will always be there when you need it most.
Faith in Tao is the entry to the spiritual realm
Faith turns the rational intellect into something obsolete as we become part of the experiential, non-dualistic sphere of the spirit.
Faith gives us the power to abandon discriminatory thinking, and it evokes in us the wildness to step over the precipice:
To step into the realm of the spirit
(The Tao is Tao, 17)
Faith in Tao conquers fear
Once we have stepped over the precipice, we discover power that goes beyond the power that knowledge and science can offer. It is a world where fear has truly been conquered.
Knowledge based on ignorance
(The Tao is Tao, 109)
Faith in Tao overcomes ignorance
Faith in the Tao gives us the momentum to overcome ignorance.
Enlightenment is a product of faith, not of knowledge.
Should ignorance be carried by faith?
(The Tao is Tao, 107)
Faith in Tao establishes harmony with the true self
Faith in Tao puts you in direct touch with your true self.
It gives you the courage and the freedom to live a life of wisdom and compassion loyal only to the impulses of the Tao throbbing in you.
The sage in harmony with Tao
(The Way is Tao, 71)
© Jos Slabbert 2001