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“Robert Rosenbaum manages to restore some of the bite to the Tao Te Ching. His humor, wisdom, personal struggles, and genuine aspirations combine to make it new and make it speak to us with live words.” —Barry Magid, author of Ordinary Mind
“Walking the Way is deeply thoughtful and eminently practical.” —Elana Rosenbaum, author of Here for Now
“In a world already brim-full of translations of the Tao Te Ching, one would think that there isn't room for one more. Walking the Way, however, should immediately put such reservations at rest. To read these lovely and tender versions of this breathtaking text is in itself a process of questioning the 'givens' of one's life. Combined with the profound and provocative Zen-based commentary of Robert Rosenbaum, they fold seamlessly into a book that is indispensable to any true seeker's roadmap for the path.”—Chris Faatz, Powell's Books
“This charming book is an oasis of truth, compassion, laughter, and beauty. Welcome!”—Michael F. Hoyt, author of Brief Psychotherapies
“A book full of wisdom—a gentle breeze, pointing you in new directions.”—Arthur C. Bohart, author of How Clients Make Therapy Work
“A warm, thoughtful companion for life’s journey.”—Peter Levitt, poet and author of Fingerpainting on the Moon
“Fresh and poetic. A wonderful book that brings the Tao Te Ching up close. In sharing his open-hearted love of these verses, Rosenbaum gives them to us anew, as if Lao Tzu were speaking directly to us through him.”—Susan Moon, author of This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity
“A pearl of wisdom, filled with deep insights to the most fundamental issues we all encounter in our lives. You will find the truth in every paragraph, in every page of this book.”—Moshe Talmon, author of Single Session Therapy
The way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way;
the name that can be named is not the Immortal Name.
Nameless the Source of earth and sky,
names engender every thing.
Unfettered by desire, the mystery reveals itself;
wanting this gives rise to that.
Beyond named and nameless, reality still flows;
unfathomable the arch, the door, the gate.
Names are motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense around an object. But you are not an object; you are just the Way you are.
You are always yourself, moment to moment, in nonstop flow. Your Way is not a becoming but a being, not a matter of now and then, but always: you are the time of your life.
You are not what others think of you; you are not even who you think you are. Thoughts label, but do not live. You cannot be summarized in a song, much less captured in a name.
You are not what people call you. Racial slurs and noble honorifics, whether they slander or celebrate you, are mere labels on a garment of identity that is less than skin deep.
You are not even what you call yourself. Names are just ways of pointing. Names give the illusion of some unchanging essence “underneath” the name but don’t be deceived; the real you does not stop nor start, but swirls and flows.
Sometimes, angry with yourself, you call yourself names. Sometimes, proud of yourself, you style yourself with sobriquets. You need not deny any part of you, but no single part can stand in for your whole self. You are greater than the sum of your parts, vast in your unique whole-some-ness.
Awake or asleep, articulate or mute, you rest on a wordless foundation, a living language rather than a dead letter. How the Way expresses itself through the doorway of yourself is an unfathomable mystery.
Feel free to amuse yourself with appellations, but don’t feel entitled to your titles or hemmed in by your handles. Affixing labels is just a game of tag. Are you It?
After I earned my Ph.D., I worked in clinics as a psychotherapist and neuropsychologist. My clients called me “doctor,” but my internist colleagues were not so certain. I was “sir” to people wanting to sell me something; “honey” to my wife, “Dad” to my children, “Bob” to my friends. Taking Buddhist vows, I was given the name Meikyo Onzen, (“Clear Mirror Calm Sitting”). Some of my qigong students call me “Teacher.”
My daughter attended a ceremony affirming me as a senior student at Berkeley Zen Center. Now, when she sometimes wants advice to fend off, she begins her phone call with an affectionate teasing address: “Oh wise one. . . .”
When you call yourself to your Self, do you address yourself that Way?
Oh Wise One, Dear Reader . . . . . . .
Point to beauty, then ugly must arise;
distinguishing the good, the good and bad are twinned.
So this makes that: if life, then death.
If long, then short;
Difficult, and simple produce each other;
High and low shape each other;
Front and back fulfill each other;
First and last subsume each other.
Duets are counterpoints of harmonies.
True people teach without a word;
they are themselves, thus act without exerting effort.
Immersed in flow, no starting and no stopping;
no placing claims, no holding on;
no merit and no fault.
Your Being is beautiful. This beauty does not rely on good looks: beauty rests in being becoming to yourself. Your beauty is unique but nothing special, since beauty is inherent in all existence. If you stand out, your beauty comes in standing out: if you blend in, your beauty comes in blending in. We get confused, though, when we set up relative standards of beauty. We sing “I am pretty” when we feel happy; when we feel unattractive we hope we’re ugly ducklings who might later transform into white-plumed Cygninae or perhaps we take secret pride in the role of a nonconforming black swan.
If you identify with one particular characteristic, you constrict yourself and set the stage for nightmares of its opposite. Investment in appearing lovely invites you to dread losing your looks. If you seek beauty in the fashions of the times you will go in and out of style; if you make up your attractiveness it will wear off.
Beauty is not a commodity; when it is turned into something manufactured, marketed to be bought and sold, it is no longer beauty. How you come to be your lovely self is not a matter of your scars or beauty marks, so clinging to these temporary trademarks is patently unwise. Beauty is not something that we own, but are: the converging of our pasts and our possibles, presently appearing in a transient form.
All being is absolutely itself. Beauty and ugly are just labels, markers of the whims of personal preference; your true being cannot be captured in such relative concepts. Big and small, pretty and plain, are merely comparisons; when you shift your reference point, your standards shift as well. As Chuang Tzu says,
From the point of view of differences, if we regard a thing as big because there is a certain bigness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not big. If we regard a thing as small because there is a certain smallness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not small.
Discrimination looks for differences; it finds meaning in contrasts and value in evaluation. Being, though, need not justify itself with meaning. The beauty of being yourself is poetry not prose—the poet Archibald MacLeish advises us that “a poem should not mean, but be.” If you’re attached to being meaning-full then significance can separate you from connectedness.
Beauty is being fully yourself, without being full of yourself. When you share generously of yourself, you are beautiful. When you know the beauty of yourself as you, then you know the beauty of others as themselves. You allow others to discover themselves in and through you, making no claim on them to be a certain way to satisfy your self-interest. Instead, you discover yourself through the play of being. Self and nonself complete each other, and beauty shimmers.
One of my daughters told me she used to be self-conscious of her large nose. Now an adult, she realizes she is quite attractive and her nose contributes to her striking looks. Before she could realize this, though, she confessed her feelings to her boyfriend. From then on, he took care when he embraced her to always kiss her nose first.
A short while ago they married: two noses, four lips, one love.
By not giving honors to the worthy,
you prevent fights between rivals.
Not prizing anything as a treasure,
what have thieves left to steal?
If you don’t display objects of desire,
minds and hearts are at peace.
Govern by emptying the mind of discrimination,
giving the belly what it truly needs;
without straining muscles in willfulness,
the bones strengthen in their marrow.
Not knowing “this,”
there is no yearning for “that.”
Acting less, harmonizing more
from effortless effort,
order emerges naturally.
You are a whole person, but that does not mean you are not composed of parts. If you give pride of place to one part over another, though, your parts may not function harmoniously.
Most of us like some parts of ourselves better than others. Some of us are ashamed of our nose, others think their ears are too big. Some pride themselves on their voice, others on their brain. We preen ourselves on our prowess and sulk over our fumbles.
As soon as you set up one part of yourself as better than another, prizing that aspect and disdaining others, you establish the stage for internal conflicts. If you treat your volunteering at a local homeless shelter as virtuous, when you feel tired and want to spend a quiet evening at home you may regard your natural need as “selfish” and feel unworthy. Each, though, has its time and place.
Why do you tie yourself into knots between “should” and “shouldn’t?” Your heart pumps blood throughout your body without picking and choosing; every cell gets its fair share of oxygen whether it be in your noble eyes or stinking feet. If you allocated your blood according to what parts of you are desirable, neuropathy would soon set in.
Attention is the mind’s gift to self and world both. When you are free from excessive desire, the beam of your attention widens and it canclarify wherever it alights. . When your interior landscape and the territory right in front of you are both illuminated, action comes naturally without unnecessary striving. You discover whatever is necessary to meet the call of the moment, now this, now that.
After some years of doing qigong, I discovered my tastes were changing. Perhaps it was just part of normal aging, but it seemed that as my body and mind became more coordinated and naturally healthy, I started to learn what was truly satisfying. As I stopped fighting with myself over “bad” food cravings (ice cream! chips! doughnuts!) or telling myself what I “should” eat, fruits and vegetables became genuine treats.
Sometimes, though, when life is difficult, there is no shame in an occasional bag of Doritos. Without the internal struggle, there is neither overindulgence nor skimping, no surfeit and no lack.
The Tao is empty, meaning free;
endless, beginningless like a circle,
inexhaustible, the source and ancestor of all—
it rounds our edges, unties our tangles,
softens our light, settles the dust—
clear beyond clear, dark beyond dark,
whose child it is, being
as it is before Before.
You are a living organism, not some thing. Being no-thing, you must make friends with emptiness.
Emptiness is not a void: it is an inexhaustible well of possibilities and connectedness. Every time you let go of your need to make something of yourself, you are reborn as your actual self, the child being parent to the woman or man.
Whose child are you? Whoever your parents were, portions of their “who” consisted of who their parents were, and so on for your grandmothers and grandfathers and all the prior generations. The parents of our parents’ parents’ parents many times removed would have been members of some other species, and that species descended from another species, and so on back to when life arose through an assembly of compounds. Those compounds were themselves assemblies of elements; elements assemblies of atoms; atoms assemblies of quarks.
Recently, I read Australian researchers have determined that sea sponges and humans share genes and common ancestors. Like sponges, you and I are assemblies of cells and organs, molecules and minds, ps and qs and mes and yous. Are we just these bits and pieces? On the other hand, if we are not made up of our separate parts, what are we?
This is the wrong question: you and I are not whats; our whos are made up of our wheres and whens. Even that formulation can be misleading since it implies “where” and “when” are concrete immutables. Your “where,” though, is a tectonically unstable spinning globe perpetually hurtling through space; you can travel, but never grasp, this flowing conveyance. Your “when” is ungraspable not only as history, but even as a present moment.
We are all the children of our history; without it we would not exist. That history, though, cannot be touched, tasted, smelled, seen, or pinned down to a limited set of facts. Your history is constantly changing as you continue to live. Not only do you change as you encounter new experiences, but neuropsychological research shows your memories of your past are inaccurate. Every time we remember something, we alter it: we do not call up traces of the past but reconstruct our history anew each time we call it up.
Because your history is ungraspable, so is your self. Because it is ungraspable, it is “empty”: it does not contain hard edges of immutable characteristics. The river stone comes from the mountain’s bone: tossed up against other stones by the swirling currents of the stream, its edges are ground away and it becomes beautiful in its smooth roundness.
I devoted about a year in meditation to attempting to “be in the moment.” I failed.
Try it: you’ll find as soon as you say “this moment” it has already passed you by. This has profound repercussions.
The Diamond Sutra points out not only is the past gone and the future not yet here, but the present cannot be grasped. So what time do you exist in?
You don’t pass through time. You are Time, Being!
Walking the Way
Just when it seemed as though no new translations of the Tao Te Ching would be necessary, Robert Rosenbaum provides a fresh perspective on these ancient poems. Walking the Way includes Rosenbaum’s translations, each accompanied by his reflections and anecdotal connections which showcase the existence of the poetry’s truths in everyday life. This juxtaposition captures the sublime balance between Zen Buddhism and Taoism, making this book a delightful and insightful read. Part of the beauty of the Tao Te Ching’s is its fluidity between translations and interpretations. Although countless academic and personal commentaries on the Tao Te Ching exist, Rosenbaum, writing as one who lives the Tao and has studied how others have interpreted it, has managed to create a valuable addition to these previous versions—certainly no easy task. If you enjoy this book, you will surely also like John Stevens's Extraordinary Zen Masters.