Old River

An rather aimless ramble

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.....I’m reluctant to begin because it’s such a long way back to the beginning -- and besides, which beginning? -- there are so many.  I moved back to the Nashville area a couple years ago in 2014, which was a traumatic year for me in many respects (my dad's death after a long struggle with cancer, resigning from my job just months before it folded, among other losses).  I had lived here before back in 2005-06.  I lost a great deal of people and things in my life in 2014, and only this year have I begun to find my feet again, and I’ll finally have a place of my own again (sans roommate!) in mid-June.  


I was amused to read recently that Annie Dillard has said of herself what I have often said of myself, that I have been “spiritually promiscuous” -- in my case, over the past 20-odd years, but always with reservations with certain religious traditions and philosophies for one reason or another.  Whereas previously I saw this as a deficiency in myself, finally I now dispense with this “need” to root myself in any one tradition or a particular philosophical outlook-- rather, I accept the differences and simply take what suits me at a given point in my life.  To be sure, this is not to preclude the possibility that having such roots may be beneficial for others-- different personalities are often better suited for different approaches.  My own difficulty in the past has been thinking such roots are necessary for myself.  Perhaps I am too much the typical INFP.


I’ve done a fair amount of exploring in this regard: Christian mysticism (Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart), Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Quaker tradition, Judaism (Buber, Heschel), Buddhism (primarily Zen, and somewhat deeply involved in it for a few years), Daoist philosophy, existentialism, metaphysical nihilism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, a variety of other philosophical ideas, etc.  It’s tiring just to list them all now!  


But there are certain things that I always circle back to, feeling most at home with the Daodejing and also 19th century American writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman (and their few modern inheritors).  I see both philosophical Daoism and American transcendentalist literary movement functioning as unintentional commentaries upon one another.  At any rate, I have found this “dialogue” fruitful in my own development.  For the ancient Chinese, this might not seem so unusual, where Confucianist, Mohist, Daoist, and Buddhist was not strictly segregated in the lives of many individuals (Westerners seem to have more difficulty with such “inconsistencies”).  


My introduction to the Daodejing (in 1994) came from an unlikely source: an older Greek Orthodox priest who gave me a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s version (severely flawed, but serviceable at least to some degree).  The priest and I became friends -- he had actually amassed several dozen English translations of the Daodejing.  


In terms of praxis, I have carried over my zazen but minus the Buddhist framework which concerns me less (though I still read Dogen from time to time), and the attentiveness which often spills over off the cushion.  Though I do not practice Buddhism any longer, it has played a deeply vital role in my own development, beyond a doubt.  


Going on nature walks I find quite meditative as well.  I used to do walking meditation at a local Vietnamese monastery (affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh)-- not strict kinhin-- but a more relaxed approach characteristic of the Plum Village tradition.  But for myself, I think it was less the meditation itself than it was the natural environment which I found conducive to contemplation.  I have planned a “retreat for one” in a small cabin in the woods for a week at the end of May-- a little reading and writing, meditating, much walking, and stargazing are on the itinerary.  I can never tire of nature's goings-on.


I have a natural inclination for living as simply as I am able (many would say “ascetic” though I find it quite pleasing, and in truth it is hardly “ascetic” at all)-- I’ve been attracted to Thoreau’s writings since I was 16.  I also wholeheartedly agree with Leon Wieseltier when he writes: “I cannot imagine anything more revolutionary than to slow things down.”  Perhaps this has more to do with age, but I enjoy meandering about, preferring things at a much slower pace, ambling and rambling along-- nowhere to go.  Perhaps the most meaningful thing about life is precisely in that it is purposeless-- understood this way, such purposelessness is liberating.


Rarely do I bother to get out-- for my own amusement, I reversed my welcome mat-- though I do have to go out for work.  I often think human civilization (as we know it) is nothing but hubris-- maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.  I probably won’t live long enough to find out anyway.  Other than rare, limited  excursions on the internet, going to work, and rare visits with friends, I’m mostly oblivious to what’s going on in the world.  I was once highly political (heavily left-leaning, with some anarchist sympathies), but I’ve happily given up on all of that now.  What happens will happen, however good or terrible, regardless of my own thoughts about it.  I’ve become something of a “part-time hermit.”


My diet was vegetarian for about a year (not too difficult), gradually going vegan.  I’ve strayed from vegetarianism, and I am just returning to it.  But I keep my eating practices to myself, for myself-- I’m not an “evangelist” about it.


I keep a journal (with some inconsistency) which is a part of my “practice” I suppose.  Writing out thoughts, whatever they might be, seems to help me to understand that moment for myself more clearly.  I have recently returned to an old version of the Daodejing I’ve been working off and on with over the past 15 years.  I don’t know classical Chinese, but I’ve found writing your own version is a way to read the Daodejing more closely, and to discover its many inner resonances.  I’m happy to have started this up again.


One of the things that attracts me to the Daodejing is that it is non-anthropocentric.  This is a difficulty I have with many religions and certain philosophies-- humanity is part of the landscape, but there is no “foreground” or “background”-- at best, we participate in a larger whole.  


I have a peculiar relationship with language and its ability to describe reality.  When I first read chapter 1 of the Daodejing, it made immediate sense to me.  If we can speak of any "transcendence" at all, it is not really a transcendence of the material world so much as it is a transcendence of our reifying grammar which we superimpose upon the world (and ourselves). Language is far too clumsy to "capture" reality (whatever that is)-- at best it "works" within certain limited contexts.  It may be that what we call metaphysics is really just the result of misused grammar.  


Supernaturalism makes little sense to me—but so does two-dimensional, empirical reductionism (I am not opposed to science per se, but certain assumptions of religion or science being capable of “explaining” the cosmos).  I think the common notion of “miracles” is an impoverished one because it excludes so much of what is already before us-- we are swimming in it.  We too often (myself included!) fail to recognize how wondrous this debased and slandered material world truly is.  Should we be so ungrateful, seeking something "flashier" than what is already present before us?  As far as I can see, what is central is not a belief in any particular object (including any god), but rather to allow a certain attentive attitude toward the rising and falling “ten thousand things” as expressions of Dao.  What can be more miraculous than this realization?  John Cage put it beautifully: “There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing.” 


I apologize for all this verbiage, but I think (I hope) it conveys a sense of the person sitting here at the keyboard.  I tend to be much more reticent in actual verbal conversation-- written words come more easily for me when I allow myself the time and space to do so.


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Many thanks Old River for your insights.  Welcome to Dao Bums! You're obviously far from a beginner on this path. Most, if not all, of what you've written could be me speaking of my own realisations. 


( An excellent avatar.) 

Edited by Yueya
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Yes, I read quite a bit of myself in your intro too. And I particularly enjoyed your comments about purposelessness and your welcome mat.


You don't read classical Chinese -- does this imply that you do read modern Chinese?


Either way, I'm sure many would be interested to read your long-considered thoughts on any number of chapters of the Laozi / TTC...

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Dustybeijing, I do wonder if there is a thread here where members have tried their own hand at rendering the Daodejing.  It was my Greek Orthodox priest friend who encouraged me to try it out (we co-edited a small local spiritual magazine back in the mid-1990s).  


It wouldn’t even have to be all 81 chapters-- but I think it is a great way to look closely at the ideas embodied in the text for one’s own understanding -- and then to share them in a thread.  After all, the Daodejing is one of the most translated books in the world, so why not add more individualized versions out there?  


I haven’t seen any thread(s) like that here, but I’ve likely just missed it.

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Well, to be sure of clarity:



The Daodejing forum is full of individual chapter studies, where many of us have come together to discuss translations / interpretations / understandings...


But there is no reason one cannot make their own topic in there, as Flowing Hands as done, for example, here:



where he talks of his unique understanding of the text, or as I did here:



where I outlined how my understanding of the text had changed since studying it more closely on this site.


Then we even have a topic


where a member (again, Flowing Hands) has shared some apparently hitherto-unknown verses.


So you should certainly feel free to share your own, or jump in to any existing topic and get a discussion going again.

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