"Tao fundamentally assumes that an inner cultivation of character can lead to an outer resonance. ... When confronted with the mysteries of the universe and the adversities of life, those who follow Tao think first to secure their own inner characters. This is directly at variance with a great deal of modern thinking." - Excerpt from "365 Tao," a book by Deng Ming-Dao.
Can a philosophy that arose in ancient China have relevance for people today? Deng Ming-Dao thinks so. Through his books, visual art, poetry and martial arts instruction, he demonstrates how the ancient philosophy can be helpful in life today. He says Taoism can help us continue to do the work necessary in our lives and to see how to live with greater clarity.
'Tao Te Ching'
The concept of the ancient philosophy called Tao was crystallized in a book called "Tao Te Ching" (pronounced "Dow Deh Jing"), which was written by Laozi (also known as Lao-tzu) in China. Although there is no wide agreement on exactly when it was written or who Laozi may have been, the book has been respected as a source of insight into how to live a life of harmony for more than 2,000 years. It is difficult to capture the essence of Tao through words. Indeed, the book begins, "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is eternally real."
The path and its benefits
Although difficult to describe in words, the study of Tao, also known as "the Path," helps those who pursue it to have a way to move forward in their lives, building strength and perspective. If there are physical or spiritual challenges, author Ming-Dao says, "I am not stuck; I have a way forward. Life is tough; sometimes to the brink of insanity," he says. "There can be illness and death. There can also be good health. All of life flows and moves; the good and the bad; [yin] and the yang."
In his book, "365 Tao," Ming-Dao writes that while other spiritual traditions offer heaven, forgiveness, power, wealth and even ecstasy, "Tao offers only three things: sound health, a way through the bewilderment of life and liberation from the fear of death."
Founder of Ru Yi Studio of Multicultural Arts in Taos, Pearl Huang says, "To be alive is to be on the path of Tao." She explains that this is not a religion, but a way of thinking and self-cultivation that is open to everyone. It can be expressed in any number of ways, including music, art, calligraphy, poetry, literature, awareness of nature and attention to physical health.
One practice used on the path of Tao is qi gong. It is a 5,000-year-old movement practice that helps maintain and increase life force, known as qi (pronounced "chi"). It is a system of coordinated breathing and physical movement. According to Huang, "Qi gong has been applied for preventive medicine, as well as rehabilitation and stress management. With diligent practice and progressive studies on external physical training, along with internal meditative cultivation, a qi gong practitioner can hope to achieve higher levels of self-awareness, to gain expertise in managing energy and experience spiritual growth."
Another practice is tai chi - a Chinese martial arts form focusing on using inner cultivation and energy work for self-defense, health, healing and meditation. On a physical level, such practices help with stability and strength. They build balance, prevent falls, reduce stress and lower blood pressure. "It is not just physical. The mind and the body work together to become stronger through regular exercise when the mind is fully invested in the physical," says Ming-Dao.
Harvard Medical School research supports these findings. "There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating and preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren't in top shape or the best of health," according to Harvard Health Publications. Among the benefits cited are building muscle strength in the core, abdomen and upper extremities and improving flexibility and balance.
Workshop in Taos
Ming-Dao has become known through his role as a teacher of Chinese martial arts and his nine books focused on Tao. For the fifth year, he will come to Taos from his home in San Francisco, California, to co-lead a workshop called "Building a Taoist Practice," from Oct. 20-22 in cooperation with Ru Yi Studio. The workshop will focus on one-stroke tai chi chuan - the continuous and relaxed movement of tai chi and calligraphy combined. "Brush calligraphy is a moving expression of beauty, emotion and primordial life force - a mediation to harmonize with nature and the Tao," says workshop co-leader Huang.
On Friday (Oct. 20), "A Storyteller's Tao" will be presented from 6-8 p.m. - open to workshop attendees and the public for $15 at the door. "Taoism is often conveyed in pithy, irreverent stories that showcase how Taoism speaks the truth," Ming-Dao says. "The stories are a non-confrontational way to convey the philosophy and often carry a spiritual meaning. They can be entertaining and intriguing, as well."
Ming-Dao says that in studying classical Chinese history and culture, certain themes keep coming up: the same issues that we face today, including corruption and abuse of power. "There is no greater laboratory than Chinese history," he says. "We can see that there is never any success in abusive ways of leaders. There is always a rebalancing."
After the storytelling evening, the following two days of the workshop will include demonstrations and practice of tai chi, along with calligraphy. Huang says that everyone is invited to participate at their own level of physical fitness.
Time to write a book
Among Ming-Dao's most recent books is "The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons." The book focuses on the festivals and stories associated with the lunar calendar in China.
When asked how he knows when it is time to write a book, Ming-Dao says that it is almost a shamanistic practice. He seeks to write a book that is true. "I look for the spark of an idea. If it is really true, I feel inspired to write. I need to feel engaged and want to share the ideas for the right reasons."
In the case of his earlier work, "365 Tao," Ming-Dao had not seen the Tao applied in a way that showed how the traditional thinking was relevant to today. "We can follow the ideas and until we take the chance, we don't know what will come out. It can be greater than what we hoped." He says that among the readers of "365 Tao" are people in recovery from addiction, a surprise to him and not an audience that he had anticipated when he wrote the book.
Although the challenges may look a bit different today than they did in ancient China, we still face fundamental human issues: anxiety about the times, health problems and coping with difficulties life brings our way. Tao offers a path that connects the heart with nature, health and harmony in order to build both physical strength and inner tranquility. It is one means of bringing more grace and clarity into the daily experience of living.
"The Storyteller's Tao" is planned for Friday evening, Oct. 20; cost is $15. It will occur at Quail Ridge Inn Conference Room at 88 Ski Valley Road (State Road 150). The following two-day workshop is scheduled for Oct. 21-22; early registration fee is $275 before Oct. 6. After that date, the cost is $300. For more information or to register for the workshop, go to ruyistudio.com or call (505) 660-9131 or (575) 776-5126. For more information on Ming-Dao, visit dengmingdao.com.