The ‘small “t” taoist’ within us can find it difficult to decide who to trust, especially if both the advocates and critics feel convincing. Conversely, the partisan within us seldom bats an eyelash before favoring one side or the other.
Sincere advocacy for anything is a projection of one’s own beliefs. That sounds obvious I know. Ironically, sincere belief naturally blinds a believer to that obvious fact. We believe what we desire, and we desire our belief given that we trust the belief to be true. Doesn’t that smack you as a vicious circle?
Sincere criticism, on the other hand, is a projection of ignorance. Perhaps that is not as obvious. Ironically, ignorance is less a lack of knowledge, and more a type of belief-induced blindness, so to speak. Our criticisms arise as a counterpoint to our belief. Clearly, it is problematic trusting either advocate or critic, so again, who or what can we trust?
Buddha said we must experience ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be) to truly know (1). Alas, we can’t test out everything in existence, so what shall we do? I find it’s helpful to be as impartial as possible and examine either why I feel drawn to the positive or the negative story I hear. If I haven’t actually experienced the circumstance, then I can be reasonably sure some underlying bias is swaying me. It doesn’t end there however. That bias is the result of deep seated needs, which stem from even more primal fears — ultimately the fear of loss and death. That makes personal experience the only clear path forward. Yet, trust through experience feels like an unattainable Holy Grail. The universe is too vast, and a lifetime too short. I am still stuck. Who or what can I trust?
True experience of anything external is only possible if ‘I’ become ‘it’. First, ‘I’ must internalize ‘it’ to the point where ‘I’ cease to exist. Only ‘it’ remains, or does it? In this ultimate singularity, ‘I’ merges with ‘it’, until there is neither an ‘I’ nor ‘it’. That certainly sounds like a superhuman feat! Fortunately, this is an outside-of-nature fantasy. However, it points a way back to the possible.
Seeing the impossibility of a perfect answer to the question, ‘who do you trust’ tells me that perfection is an unnatural fantasy outside reality. That’s a relief! This quest for truth and trust is merely a birth to death journey toward what chapter 56 calls, nearly rising beyond oneself. To summarize all this:
- We start out as infants passionately taking issues at face value and choosing sides. We all begin here precisely as nature intends. It is the full-blown bio-hoodwink.
- Later on comes withholding judgment somewhat until gaining some personal experience with the issues. The more we realize how jumping to conclusions leads us astray, the easier it becomes to wait and see.
- As life’s struggle wears down the ego, the illusion of self softens, breaking down the prideful barrier separating “I” from “That”. This parallels the Hindu, “You are that” (Tat Tvam Asi), or as chapter 56 puts it, This is called profound sameness.
- The last half of chapter 16 sums this journey up…
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
(1) This is my boiled down interpretation. Buddha was apparently very diplomatic as this entry from Wikipedia suggests…
[From Wikipedia:] According to the scriptures, during his lifetime the Buddha remained silent when asked several metaphysical questions. These regarded issues such as whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal (or whether it is finite or infinite), the unity or separation of the body and the self, the complete inexistence of a person after nirvana and death, and others. One explanation for this silence is that such questions distract from activity that is practical to realizing enlightenment and bring about the danger of substituting the experience of liberation by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith. Another explanation is that both affirmative and negative positions regarding these questions are based on attachment to and misunderstanding of the aggregates and senses. That is, when one sees these things for what they are, the idea of forming positions on such metaphysical questions simply does not occur to one. Another closely related explanation is that reality is devoid of designations, or empty, and therefore language itself is a priori inadequate.
The last explanation, in italic, is right in line with the Taoist point of view. When one ‘becomes that’, designation becomes impossible. Objective reality vanishes, as does any ability to be either a critic or an advocate. This is one reason Taoist points of view are not very popular. People like to get excited about something and choose sides. Taoist impartiality, even in small measures, impedes that thrill. Fittingly, during the 80’s and 90’s when we were having weekly Taoist meetings someone came up with the motto for the group: “be bored again”. To be sure, “be born again” sounds a lot more fun and exciting.