The Buddhist view and the Taoist view complement each other. Buddhism is as rational in approach as Taoism is non-logical and mysterious. These two paradigms are complementary which gave rise to Zen (Chán). Take what appeals to you from each and make your own Zen. Here now are Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:
The First Noble Truth is the existence of suffering. Birth is suffering; growth, decay, and death are suffering. Sad it is to be joined with that which we dislike. Sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which cannot be obtained.
The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is lust. The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering. He who extinguishes self will be free from lust. He no longer craves and the flames of desire find no material to feed upon, thus they are extinguished.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Middle Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty. He who is wise will enter this path and make an end to suffering. Eight steps on the Middle Path are:
1. Right Understanding [*] 5. Right Living 2. Right Mindedness [*] 6. Right Effort 3. Right Speech 7. Right Attentiveness [*] 4. Right Action 8. Right Concentration [*]
Whichever view you lean towards, Buddha’s or Taoist, it helps to use the other to get the ‘big picture’; this also applies to other scriptures, e.g., Jesus’s teachings (the Gospels), the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on.
The Tao Te Ching points to an underlying mystery and simplicity that challenges the foundations of ‘common sense’. At times, the Taoist ambiguity that allows this may not help when we need a clear path to solving our ‘problem’. In fact, the Taoist world-view can feel like ‘non sense’. Indeed, because they give birth to one another, the ‘problem’ is the ‘solution’. Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, on the other hand, identify our ‘problem’ and offer us a ‘solution’ in an obvious cause and effect way. Remarkably, there is also no need to believe they are true. In fact, as in science, it is better we not believe. Any ‘truth’ these express hinges entirely upon you proving them through personal experience!
Of course, this is true of the Taoist view also. The ‘non sense’ of its “profound sameness“ is unbelievable until you prove it for yourself. The Taoist view points to how nature works behind the scenes “only suddenly, only indistinct“. Buddha’s truths, on the other hand, offer straightforward hypotheses for how human nature works. Thus, proving Buddha’s hypotheses requires nothing more than self-honesty and self-understanding. The Taoist view requires nothing less than “realizing I don’t know is better“ and that “not knowing this knowing is dis-ease”.
Commentary on Some Key Terms
Desire (thirst, need, lust, crave,…) is central to these Truths. In fact, all religions view desire as problematic. But why? After all, life would be impossible without desire. Indeed, it’s not a problem in Nature. It’s the circumstances of civilization that make desire problematic. For example, desire for high energy food (fats and carbohydrates) directs us to eat healthful food in Nature. Civilized man, however, refines fats and carbohydrates to make pizza and then, driven by desire, overeats.
As naked primates on the savanna, we lived simply with little to cling to but each other, and Nature itself. Civilization began with stone tools and fire, out of a desire to increase our security and comfort. And it continues, for this pursuit ostensibly gives life meaning. As our tools continue to liberate us from Nature’s dominion, our ability to pursue this desire steadily increases, but does life meaning? Maybe religion is simply an attempt to cope with the loss of life meaning caused by our ‘liberation’ from ‘mother’ Nature’s bosom?
Clinging to things (objects and thoughts, attractions and aversions…) re-enforces our conception of self. The fleeting sense of security and comfort this gives, lures us in and promises us life meaning. Anything that enhances this is irresistible…and so we cling still tighter. Trapped emotionally in this self perpetuating cycle, we unwittingly adopt a world view that further validates this perception of self. This experience of self is so compelling that it easily overshadows awareness of our innate Nature.
Truth is the innate Nature of things, how things are—not how we think they are, nor how we want them to be. Buddha’s Truths diagnose humanity’s problem and offer a solution. Knowing this helps us know our selves more deeply—our innate Nature—and what truly gives life meaning. A mystery to bear in mind, to paraphrase the Tao Te Ching: ‘The Nature that can be spoken of, is not the constant Nature’.
Ultimately, duty is simply living true. However, confused by conflicting and pressing desires makes this difficult. Slowing down enough to ponder our life’s priorities (desires), allows us to sense our innate Nature and know what we ought to do (or not do) to give life meaning. Then contentment is possible.
The Eight Steps
Half of the eight steps above relate directly to the mind. Our perceptions determine how we react to life’s circumstances. So obviously Right Understanding is a critical first step. For example, if we understand through the Second Noble Truth, that buying things won’t bring contentment, we are less likely to go into debt for them. Next, we need Right Mindedness to keep us mindful of what we understand… and so on.
Also, what does Right mean? Right is what lies between the extremes, i.e., the Middle Path. It doesn’t carry the same moral weight as ‘right’ does in a linear Judeo-Christian sense. Right refers to that which works. For example, the Right way to open a jar of pickles is counter-clockwise. To do other wise is futile. However, we usually need to do it ‘wrong’ (make mistakes) first in order to realize what’s Right,. Sorting out this Right way from the other ways is our life’s journey.
Personally, I’ve find the Four Truths above sufficient. Over the decades I’ve gradually plumbed deeper and deeper meaning from those few short paragraphs. The point is, knowing appears to rest within us and ‘bubbles’ up into awareness as we mature enough to ‘handling’ it (as we are truly children, we continue to mature throughout life).
Being children, we are impatient and want to make important things happen as soon as possible. And, what is more important than our quest for happiness and salvation from suffering? This results in our taking innumerable by-paths, from ‘righteous’ to ‘wicked’ and everything in between. Basically we ‘try’ too hard until we wear ourselves out. Only then are we able to ‘let it’ happen. As we say, “if you would have a thing weakened, you must first strengthen it“.
If You Are Worn Out Trying, Consider These Observations:
(1) We yearn to ‘know’ more in the belief that this will help us ‘do’ more. In truth, we already ‘know’ enough to take us to the next step on our life’s journey. Thus, the weakest link in our quest for happiness is our inability to ‘let’ action follow knowing. No matter how minuscule that knowing is, it always surpasses the will to do, or not do, as the case may be. Thus, just do, or refrain from doing, what you know in your heart right now to be your truth, and your path will unfold naturally. (Important: ‘Know in your heart’ refers to silent intuitive knowing, not the self righteous and moralistic dogma we pass around among ourselves.) So what is the hitch? Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, i.e., “The surrounding world effects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction…”. And off we go!
I have my hands full just doing, or not doing, what I intuitively know to be ‘right’. Am I any different from you? Don’t we always tend to jump ahead of ourselves onto by-paths, over complicate and rationalize instead of turning back to accept what we simply know to be so. This is true of all human endeavors. We also complicate to obfuscate, not intentionally mind you, but as a way to avoid the ‘void’ within. This is ironic considering that our innate ‘right’ knowing awaits within.
(2) How we perceive the world, and how we act in it, reflects our inner nature. You might say this is a dynamic balancing act. Our perceptions and actions seek to counterbalance our inner surpluses or deficits (which underlies the difficulties we face in (1) above!). You seek water when you are thirsty, shade when you are hot, company when you are lonely… and so on. Many will say life is much more complicated than this. Is it? Or does the mind just see ‘it’ complicated? Nature is very straight forward in its mystery. Thus, regarding our perceptions as reflections (symptoms) of our own inner surpluses or deficits, helps us cut through a lot of rationalized nonsense. Jesus alluded to this when he said, “For every tree is known by his own fruit”. Happily, I also find that regarding my perceptions as reflections helps me to set my ‘self’ aside and be more neutral.
Now, to be my own devil’s advocate: Aren’t I ‘under-complicating’ life for the same reason others complicate it? Although my observations arise out of the same ‘balancing act’, I’m not under complicating it. To the contrary, while the principle of balance / counterbalance is simple, how it plays out is profoundly subtle and mysterious. Names always ‘over complicate’ it. Thus, saying anything at all ‘over complicates’ it.
(3) We tend to look to an authority figure (i.e. the alpha-male tribal instinct) with standing in any area of life that concerns us deeply. If you are drawn to Taoist thought, you are no doubt losing some faith in this innate pull. That means you are going to be in charge! The only way to bear this burden is to let go of the assumption that we choose the course of our life. Abandoning this belief in self and its free will helps you to return to the void naturally. Of course, you can’t choose to abandon this belief, but you can meditate on it and see what ‘bubbles up’.