My trip to Southwestern China, the birthplace of a religion, convinced me that Taoism, in addition to whatever it may truly be, is also the philosophy of travel.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
Lijiang, CHINA — On the bus ride across this Tibet-bordering province of Yunnan I read a copy of the Tao Te Ching I bought in a Confucian monastery in Beijing and decided that Taoism is the traveler’s religion. Outside the bus were helpings of mountains, thick with trees and at times carved into tiered rice paddies feeding on streams of milk chocolate water and overseen by mud brick houses with traditional Chinese tiled roofs.
The road, though well-paved, seemed a bit treacherous, especially when we passed a slow truck while going over a blind pass or when the preceding 10 feet were thick with fog. This was the same cliff road that Kate and her family nearly slid off of at the hands of a novice driver five years ago. I was the only non-Chinese on the bus and the only one wearing a seatbelt. The rest of the passengers watched the in-coach Kung Fu film while I noted the lack of guardrails. At least, I thought, there are retaining walls for this region’s biggest killer — landslides.
The current death toll this rainy season is nearing 800. News stations broadcast scenes from towns where bicyclists push their Flying Pigeon-brand bikes through waist-deep water. While I write from my room in the pretty canal-strewn section of old town Lijiang, it has been raining for hours. Kate and I were hoping to hike the fabled Tiger Leaping Gorge but these rains have been known to turn the Gorge into a death trap. So instead, I’ll pull on my warm fleece and write about the Tao.
The Tao (or “The Way” as it is most often translated) is considered to be the one true Chinese religion if you consider that Confucianism is often labeled a secular philosophy and Buddhism is an import from India. I’d be a wise man if I were able to tell you exactly what Taoism means because it’s probably the most enigmatic of the world’s religions. Although the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu (“The Old One”), who may or may not have existed, is available worldwide, the strange little volume of poetry and prose, is not what you would call comprehensive. It speaks of dualistic and hard-to-know natures of The Way and cryptically describes how one should live their life utilizing its power.
If one looks for Tao, there is nothing to see;
If one listens for it, there is nothing loud enough to hear.
Yet if one uses it, it is inexhaustible. (Chapter 35, Tao Te Ching)
The Tao has been reinterpreted so often, by Chinese scholars and Western neophytes (i.e. “The Tao of [fill in the area of interest or cartoon character]”) alike that its meaning has grown more complicated than clear in the last 2,500 years, while the religion itself has taken on the worship of a plethora of gods and fused with Chinese ancestor worship. Like all the great books of man’s religions, the meaning is not found in the text but in the interpretation, based largely on one’s own experience. For example, while reading the Tao Te Ching I kept coming across references that sounded as if George Lucas lifted it for the backbone for Star Wars. “My ally is the force, and a powerful ally it is,” the Taoist-sounding Yoda explains to Luke Skywalker. “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. You must feel the force around you. Between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere.” The Tao is referred to as ‘the force’ several times in the Tao Te Ching, and is said to serve both the good and the bad, although the bad never wins in the end.
My trip down here to Southwestern China, to the region of this religion’s birth and to Lijiang, home to the world’s oldest orchestra that plays preserved Taoist music, has convinced me that Taoism, in addition to whatever it may truly be, is also the philosophy of travel. It’s the inner drive you are always drawing upon when you travel (in contrast to when you “vacation”). Tao manifests itself when you smile your way through foreign language logistics; it’s the energy to find the place you’re looking for on a poorly marked map; it’s a “vibe” you get from a stranger or a strange town. “The Tao smooths over all dust,” reads a selection from Chapter 4, after which a footnote in my translation (by Arthur Waley) explains that ‘dust’ is the Taoist symbol for “the noise and fuss of everyday life.”
Tao is like the unknown road we take. As long as we stay the course and avoid distractions, it will get us where we need to be. Even if you thought you were going someplace else.
He who has the last scrap of sense, once he has got started on the great highway has nothing to fear so long as he avoids turnings. (Chapter 35)
Have you noticed how many of the best things we discover when we travel are not the attractions we sought out in the first place? It’s the cool stranger at the bar, the great little restaurant hidden behind the bad one, it’s the wooded path that leads to unmarked waterfalls, it’s the cutest little guesthouse you’ve ever seen that you stumbled upon when you couldn’t make it to the one where you had the reservation. The origin of Taoism itself is just like that.
According to legend, Lao Tzu was an old man when he left his home to find solitude in the mountains of Tibet and live out his remaining years. Just before he and his yak companion were crossing into Tibet a border guard, somehow recognizing Lao Tzu as an enlightened man, asked him to write down his wisdom before he took off for good. He reluctantly agreed and the result is the 81 short chapters of the Tao Te Ching.
On a long journey (Kate and I are planning to travel for a year) you’re limited by what you can carry. Traveling out of a rucksack forces you to redefine what you really need. As Lao Tzu wisely put it, “…just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.” (Ch. 11) What is the use of not having the familiar? What is the use of not having a television to watch every night? What is the use of constantly learning new towns, languages, customs and people? What is the use of not having all your things folded on shelves and hung in closets all around you, all the time? If you can’t answer these questions, stay home.
Truly, ‘A man of consequence though he travels all day
Will not let himself be separated from his baggage-wagon,
However magnificent the view, he sits quiet and dispassionate.’ (Ch. 26)
Real travel is replete with challenges and unknowns. Things are never precisely as you think they’ll be and rarely are they easier. Your ability to cope with constant change and learn to go with the flow are perhaps the most important lessons of leaving the familiar and embracing the unfamiliar. Which brings me, in a Tao-like full circle return, back to the idea of water (which continues to pound outside as I write this). While reading the Tao Te Ching on the bus and watching the silty water stream down the mountains and turn the landscape into a verdant backdrop of ferns, pines, grass and crops, I thought about Taoism’s central element.
The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. (Ch. 8)
Water is a common metaphor in Lao Tzu’s explanations of The Way because of its metaphoric ability to be flexible yet strong, to destroy as well as give life, and to easily move around obstacles. Water-like behavior means not striving to get on top but just going along with how things are.
When I arrived here in Lijiang I had no reservation. All the places in Lonely Planet either didn’t answer their phone or were full. So I had the cab driver drop me off in the old section where my first choice accommodation was listed. Overloaded with gear I had little patience or stamina for finding the place but I pressed on, going back and forth along the uneven stone walkways through Old Town. After a lot of vague pointing from Chinese and help from an American, I concluded the place must be gone. So I then had to find a new place. Door to door I was having no luck. Until finally a young girl, standing outside what looked liked a temple, asked me if I needed a room. She took me through the temple courtyard and way in the back there was a beautiful room with a big bed and duvet, along a stream and insulated from the noise of Old Town’s pedestrian traffic. The price was fair and I happily dropped my bags. I’m writing from here now. I later found the shuttered doors of the guesthouse I’d been looking for and it had closed. There I had been, looking for something illusory when I found what I wanted, this lovely temple guesthouse with no English writing anywhere on it, by accident.
Going along with the flow and not resisting reminds me of another anecdote as well. A couple of years ago I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru with two friends. After we spent a day at Machu Pichu we were to take a train back to the town of Cuzco where we started. There was some misunderstanding about our seats. We were led to believe we had seats in the first class compartment but the porters were insisting we sit with everyone else. I found a window seat next to a sweet little Peruvian family and watched as my two friends on the platform huffed to the authorities in their broken Spanish how they won’t sit in the third class compartment. One friend was taking names and threatening letters of disgruntlement while the other simply insisted that the matter be taken care of immediately. A few minutes later they took the last two seats in my car, unhappy for much of the ride (compounded by the fact that while my side overlooked rivers and mountains, their side of the train had a view of rock face for most of the trip). Like the water, I didn’t resist and as a result I was much happier with my lot.
I also employ this strategy when boarding airplanes, especially when everyone is trying to get on at once. I simply read my book or write in my journal until the masses get through butting each other out and annoying one another while jockeying for boarding position. I get on at the end, my seat always waiting for me. “What is of all things most yielding/Can overwhelm that which is most hard.” (Ch. 43) The Taoist master understands the order around him or her, and patterns their life around that order.
The annual flooding in China (no doubt made worse every year by increased industry, poor environmental regulation and damn construction) reminds me of a Taoist theory that heaven shows its disapproval of leadership through natural disasters, like flooding. The idea manifested itself in an old Chinese concept called “The Mandate of Heaven” that brought many an emperor to his knees, literally, praying that the heavens give no justification to the end of their reins. Perhaps the Taoist heavens are showing their disapproval to China’s Communist leadership, which was largely responsible for the destruction of most of China’s Taoist temples.
Finally, I leave you with this little traveler’s mantra from the Tao Te Ching. A follower of the Tao (and I’d add, travelers alike) should be…
Watchful, as one who must meet danger on every side.
Ceremonious, as one who pays a visit;
Yet yielding, as ice when it begins to melt.
Blank as a piece of uncarved wood;
Yet receptive as a hollow in the hills. (Ch. 15)