• Karl Thunemann

Tantalized by a Taoist Dream

Regular readers of this blog might curl their lips in despair whenever the blogger purports to be a Taoist, even though such declarations appear infrequently. Considering how often you write about Buddhist ideas and thinkers, they might complain, you ought to be calling yourself a Buddhist, and probably a heretic at that.


Well, all I can say is that the Buddhists may have my attention, but Taoism still rules my heart. I have written a few posts about becoming a Taoist, so will not repeat that here. For starters, you could look at the epistle “How I Shambled into Taoism.”


Our times have created an extraordinary number of gifted Western writers and thinkers who have shared their exploration of Buddhism. I am particularly attracted to those who share the Tibetan traditions. I was attracted to the topics they chose, such as Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are. I like to think I read with an open mind, with no provision for casting these books aside when they revealed their Buddhist orientation. How else would I have found my way to Loving-Kindness?


Another problem with being a Taoist in the West is that we are such a precious few. How should we behave? What are we “supposed” to do? Where are our standard-setting institutions? After a while, a sense of freedom may replace the frustrating uncertainty. Taoism becomes what we say it is.

In any case I hark back to the observation—I no longer recall where I where I read it, but I know I did not make it up—that religious identity in ancient China was far more fluid than we in the West mandate for ourselves. We have to sign up for one team and stick with it! As a Chinese day progressed, a person might be a Buddhist in the morning, a Confucian in the afternoon, and a Taoist by evening. I think of it as situational spirituality. This idea certainly resonates with my understanding of Taoism—that there are many paths to enlightenment, and we each have the opportunity to search for one that works for us.


Another problem with being a Taoist in the West is that we are such a precious few. How should we behave? What are we “supposed” to do? Where are our standard-setting institutions? After a while, a sense of freedom may replace the frustrating uncertainty. Taoism becomes what we say it is.



Even though the Tao is everywhere, Taoists find comfort in believing it is especially fond of mist.


Lacking this community, we have less opportunity to find Taoist standards. I was certainly lucky to find one such connection in the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes. And later I found another in tai chi, though it was not introduced as “Taoist.” Someone in my small Unitarian church invited a gifted young practitioner to teach tai chi to our members. Within a few weeks, everyone but me had dropped out. So I had more than a year of individual instruction until my teacher was satisfied with my performance (which we might prefer to call “execution!”) of the Yang-style long form.


Tai chi is a form of meditation, as well as a martial art. My first teacher brought one of his own teachers from New York to introduce a handful of his students to the microcosmic orbit, or little circle of heaven. This meditation moved me profoundly, but I also felt so overwhelmed that I could not bear to practice it on my own. I did not know my teacher’s other students. They were all much younger and I did not feel I had much in common with them. So I drifted out of this practice.


Years later my last teacher taught us the Healing Sounds of the Shaolin temple. I loved this meditation, but there were only two of us in the class, and my classmate—still a tai chi partner many years later—was not interested in these sounds. Our teacher showed us five sounds. Later I learned there were six, but my teacher was not interested in the last. Nevertheless, I persevered in this meditation, even teaching it to a younger friend. She is not a meditator, but she was game. Still, this meditation too has lapsed. But just today, pausing to look up a proper spelling of Shaolin, I discover audio entries for six sounds. I intend to give them a listen, for I suspect that my spiritual challenges might respond well to a resounding practice.


That’s the story, though I have failed to deliver the Taoist dream promised in the title of this epistle. Should I ramble on? No, maybe next time. The dream is more than 2,000 years old, and unlikely to dissolve if untended by me awhile longer. And suffice it to say that while I am happy to be a Taoist, I find its meditations a bit challenging to practice on my own—which is no problem for me with many Buddhist meditations.