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In Zen, we frequently talk about Tao, or the Way, but what is it exactly? Huineng (638-713 C.E.), the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen, stated that “Tao is to flow unobstructedly.” Late University of Hawaii philosophy professor Chung-yuan Chang, described Tao as “unnamable” and said that “to abide with Tao in the world is to be the same as mountain streams flowing to the rivers and to the sea.”

What exactly Tao is, however, remains difficult to say. Impossible actually. Tao is not a thing to which we can point and say, “There it is.” In fact, anything we say is the “Tao” is not the “Tao,” because this puts limits on something that is unlimited. It is more accurate to say what Tao is not.

Although you may not be able to point to it, you can see it all around you in nature: birds flying in the air, clouds moving with the wind, gazelles running across the veldt. And, you can experience it.

Zen Master Taiken Yokoyama uses this analogy: Fish do not feel the current while swimming with it; they only feel the current when swimming against it.

Similarly, when we are aligned with Tao, we do not feel it. When out of synch, however, this is akin to swimming against the current. Or trying to stay afloat while caught in a raging storm at sea. This is when we may well find ourselves stubbing our toe, backing the car into the curbside recycle bin – or worse.

Whether we are aware of it or not, Tao is always present, and we are already and continuously a part of it. When our self, -- our ego -- asserts itself, however, we are going against the current. To return to the natural flow of the universe’s energy, we have to get out of our own way.

But note: This does not mean we “go with the flow.” Rather, it is being the flow itself.

It takes much less energy for fish to swim with the current. For humans, to abide with Tao is a much better way to live than to fight the rhythm. Tao continues to flow, and we continue to be a part of that flow.

It does not matter to the universe if we are in synch, but it should make a difference to us – and our painful toes and battered recycle bin.


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