The Buddhist and Taoist worldviews 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 sorrow. Birth is sorrowful, growth is sorrowful, illness is sorrowful, and death is sorrowful. Sad it is to be joined with that which we do not like. 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 the net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of sorrow. He who conquers self will be free from lust. He no longer craves and the flame of desire finds no material to feed upon. Thus it will be 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 Comprehension [*] 5. Right Living 2. Right Resolution [*] 6. Right Effort 3. Right Speech 7. Right Thought [*] 4. Right Action 8. Right State of Peaceful Mind [*]
Note: These eight steps above match a Taoist view well. See Right state of peaceful mind, for the details.
Whichever view you lean towards, Buddha’s or the 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. ‘Common’ in that everyone is drinking the same Kool-Aid, be that simply instinct or one’s cultural story. At times, the Taoist ambiguity may not help when we need a clear path to solving our problem. In fact, the Taoist worldview can feel like non-sense. Indeed, just as existence and nothing give birth to one another (#2), so also do the solution and the problem. 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 disease.
Commentary on Some Key Terms
— For in depth commentary see, Buddha’s Truths Pertain To All Life —
Sorrowful vs. Suffering
All living things feel pain. This sensation motivates living things to move away from harmful stimuli. The other side of this coin is pleasure. This sensation motivates living things to move toward beneficial stimuli. Sorrow and sorrowful are labels for the stress living things feel in their struggle to move away from pain (aversion) and move toward pleasure (attraction).
Suffering is the additional pain and sorrow that we thinking animals undergo. This additional stress is a result of expectations arising from desire and worry. The plants and non-human animals act upon the attraction or aversion (need or fear) they perceive in the moment. Humans do this also, but we also react to a multitude of cognitive projections arising out of primal attraction and aversion. In other words…
Primal attraction (need) + thought ≈ desire, lust, positive expectations.
Primal aversion (fear) + thought ≈ worry, anxiety, negative expectations.
Desire (crave, yearn, lust) is central to Buddha’s Truths. In fact, all religions view desire as problematic. But why? After all, life would be impossible without need, the precursor of desire. Indeed, need is not a problem in nature. The circumstances of civilization are what make need and its offshoot of desire problematic. For example, an appetite 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 and surplus, overeats.
As naked primates on the savanna, we lived simply with little to cling to but each other and nature itself. Leaving this wild state 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 worldview that further validates this perception of self. This experience of self is so compelling that it easily overshadows awareness of our innate nature — our original self.
Truth ≈ Dharma in Buddhism
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 the cause of humanity’s problem and offer a solution. Comprehending the cause and solution helps us know our innate nature more deeply, and what can give life genuine meaning. A mystery to bear in mind, to paraphrase chapter 1, The nature possible to express runs counter to the constant nature.
Duty ≈ Dharma in Hinduism
Ultimately, duty is simply living true. However, confusion over conflicting and pressing desires makes this difficult. Slowing down enough to ponder our life’s priorities (desires), allows us to better sense our innate nature and know what we ought to do, or not do, to give life meaning.
Fortunately, 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 allow action to follow intuitive knowing. No matter how meager this knowing is, it plunges deeper than any urge to act… or not act. Thus, our best chance for resolution exists in how closely we can conform to what we know in our heart right now to be our truth. This is deep, intuitive, constant knowing. As chapter 16 hints, Returning to the root cause is called stillness; this means answering to one’s destiny. There is only one problem here, as Buddha’s Second Noble Truth reveals … “The surrounding world effects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction… ”, and off we go!
I must mention a slight hoodwink in the 4th Noble Truth where it says, “He who is wise will enter this path and make an end to suffering”. That puts the cart before the horse and appears to imply free will. Perhaps alluding to an ability to ‘freely’ choose is an example of chapter 65’s, Of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, They will use it in order to fool them. Thus, I would instead say, “He who is wise has entered this path…”.
The Eight Steps
Given that need + thought ≈ desire, it is natural that half of Buddha’s Eight Fold Path relates to thought. See the [*] placed next to those steps. Given that our perceptions determine how we react to life’s circumstances, it is natural that “Right Comprehension” is the 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 Resolution” to always remember what we comprehend… and so on.
You may wonder what “Right” means, especially in light of chapter 2’s All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already. “Right” does not carry the same moral weight as right does in a 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, i.e., stumble and make mistakes first, in order to realize what “Right” is. Sorting out this “Right” way from the other ways is our life’s journey.
Putting principles to work
Taking on a solvable problem that you innately feel “duty” bound to resolve is uplifting—joy. Conversely, taking on an insolvable problem that you innately feel “duty” bound to resolve is depressing—sorrow. Applying this ‘obvious’ principle (and Buddha’s 4 Truths) to real life world issues uncovers heretofore baffling facets of those issues, and can reveal a practical way forward in one’s personal life. (Note, of course, one person’s solvable is another person’s insolvable.)
Put simply, intrinsic life meaning for all living things comes from feeling tangible achievement, i.e., life advances; death recedes. Civilization makes pulling this off much more complex than it was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Now, wisdom must play a role in ‘choosing’ solvable problems to tackle, i.e., we no longer have inherently solvable hunt and gather matters to fill our days. The challenge for each individual is figuring out a realistic and enduring solvable problem to take on.
This solvable vs. insolvable dilemma explains the mental health benefits of taking on life-long spiritual practices. This also explains the longevity of religion in general. The only hitch here lies in how it is a learned pursuit, not innate. Thus, many people have difficulty being consistently genuine in their faith of ‘choice’. Hypocrisy is the natural result of this attempt to fit Cinderella’s slipper onto our ape feet.
Balance — Counterbalance
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. 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 complicate it? Nature is very straightforward in its mystery. Thus, regarding our perceptions as reflections and symptoms of our own inner surpluses or deficits helps us cut through a lot of rationalized nonsense.
Nurture the child within
Over the decades, I’ve gradually plumbed deeper and deeper meaning from Buddha’s Four Noble Truths—just a few short paragraphs, yet guidance for a lifetime. The point is, knowing appears to rest within us and bubbles up into awareness as we mature enough to handle 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. We try too hard until we wear ourselves out. Only then are we able to begin letting life happen naturally. As chapter 36 hints,
In desiring to inhale, one must first open up.
In desiring weakness, one must first strive.
In desiring to let go, one must first begin.
In desiring to get, one must first give.