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  • Karl Thunemann

How I Shambled into Taoism

My path toward Taoism—ah, such a grandiose phrase! –opened without the least hint of a future tense.

There was no “path.” I was at a party. I had drunk some beer and smoked a little marijuana—just enough to shunt my supposedly rational mind onto a side spur—when somebody put a copy of the I Ching on the table. The yellow book with gray dust jacket struck me as a highfalutin party game. But I was a player. I accepted the proffered three pennies, scrawled my question on a scrap of paper, then tossed the coins six times, and recorded the answer.

This was more than 50 years ago. How old was I—22? 23?  I soon forgot my question and answer. I don’t remember how many of my friends consulted the oracle that night. But I was hooked. I did not care to consider whether the book might have spiritual value. I was satisfied to label it as “uncanny.”

I started buying different translations of the I Ching. I read Carl Jung’s marvelous foreword to the Wilhelm-Baynes translation (he asked the oracle how it felt about being translated into English); I had begun to understand the I Ching on its own terms

The next day my younger brother came to visit, listening avidly. Being very spiritual, he posed his question. He didn’t like the answer. He insisted on approaching the question in a different way, despite the sage counsel of us one-day veterans. The oracle dispatched this second request:

Youthful Folly…

It is not I who seek the young fool:

The young fool seeks me.

At the first oracle I inform him.

If he asks two or three times, it is importunity.

If he importunes, I give him no information.

Perseverance furthers.

Afterward we went to Golden Gate Park to throw a frisbee around. I kept thinking about my brother’s reading. He had been thwarted, clearly. But not rejected: what was meant by “perseverance furthers”? Over time I came to believe it might be saying, try again later. After all, the I Ching is the Chinese Book of Changes. If we ask a question today, it might be answered differently in the future, especially if there is notable change. Why and how did my brother’s reading work? Again, I told myself it was just uncanny, as if that answer could be satisfactory.

Although I was hooked, I did not rush out to buy a copy of the I Ching. As a visitor, I would borrow it, or ask a host if we could have a session with the oracle. Hooked, yet still skeptical. This period lasted for several years, until my brother joined a Hindu monastery and gave me his copy, thinking he would not need it anymore.

I pause here, wondering what happened next. There was no string of events irresistibly leading from point to point. The events often seemed unrelated. I joined a small Unitarian church after our second child was born, following my wife. I became involved. A perfect institution for the resolutely rational, one might suppose. Over a 20-year period I served seven years on the board of trustees, and three as president. The last of those was tenuous. I was on the verge of leaving, but we felt the need to fire our minister. I volunteered. In retrospect, I can see I did a poor job, for I was lacking in compassion.

As these years rolled by, I started buying different translations of the I Ching. I read Carl Jung’s marvelous foreword to the Wilhelm-Baynes translation (he asked the oracle how it felt about being translated into English); I had begun to understand the I Ching on its own terms. I consulted the oracle every morning for several months with the same question: What is my work for today? The answers were intriguing and varied, simultaneously giving me a tour of the book, and returning me again and again to areas where I fell a little short. Then one morning the oracle told me to go away. This did not feel like absolute dismissal, but advice that as a rule I should be able to shape my own tasks for the day.

One day I decided to write a short story about the I Ching. The idea hit an immediate roadblock:  How in the world would I present the oracle as a character? I never found an answer. Instead, I would write a novel following the structure of the I Ching. Each chapter would address one of the book’s hexagrams, following the traditional order. Besides presenting an essay on the hexagram, it would advance the story.  The story recounted the path of a pair of brothers-in-law who highjacked land inherited by their wives to build a Taoist commune around the pond at its center.

In retrospect, this still seems like an intriguing idea for a novel. But nine years of labor wrought an execrable product. One of the brothers died about a third of the way through the manuscript, and his place was taken by a character who—while she had many compelling qualities—was not interested in the I Ching or Taoism.

Nevertheless, when I completed the rough draft, I framed a planned rewrite. I asked the I Ching what it thought, and it said plainly, It’s best not to waste one’s time on empty imaginings.  But the reading concluded with the hexagram Wilhelm called “Waiting.”  So I waited. Later I would undertake another Taoist novel, far more ambitious. But now it lies incomplete and unattended. When I look back on all these years, I am impressed at how promptly I realized how well that first novel had served me. (I had only one or two readers.) Besides deepening my understanding of the I Ching, it changed the functioning of my mind. I remained a lapsed American Protestant, but I also had become a Taoist, mesmerized by the ideal of wu wei. This is loosely translated as “doing nothing,” but it is much more:

 “Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awareness, in which—without even trying—we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.” *

I often feel as if the end of my life lies within hailing distance. Oddly enough, this creates a yearning for a future tense—carrying out projects and tending to relationships. But here is a conundrum—does the practice of wu wei even countenance a future tense? †   ‡

† Early on I read a hilariously witty book about Taoism. I liked it very much, but later I noticed the author was very strict about his Taoism: No mysticism, no way! Next time I looked for the book, it had vanished from my collection. Maybe it didn’t feel at home.

 ‡ One of my early teachers was a family friend, celebrated more for his large collection of toasters than for his short shelf of English translations of Tao te Ching. He loved reading comparative passages that didn’t even resemble each other. The lesson has stuck with me for decades: Translating Chinese to English is profoundly difficult, especially when it comes to spiritual matters


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