3. Philosophy and Practice of Dao

What does it mean to practice Dao? It is the same as following our conscience. We all know that we have a conscience. The conscience is the voice inside that comes from our God-given Nature—what we call our True Nature, Original Nature, or Buddha Nature. So in essence, our conscience is the voice of God that tells us what is right and wrong, proper and improper, etc. It also makes us feel guilty or ashamed when we've done something wrong or improper. We must listen to this voice, because this is God warning us to rectify our conduct and behavior. Unfortunately, some people have either chosen to ignore their conscience or are so lost in their emotions and ego that this voice is not heard.

Therefore, the purpose of cultivating our True Nature is to learn to listen to our conscience and to conduct ourselves accordingly. Our conscience must not be relegated to the background, but instead we must bring our conscience to the forefront of our consciousness. For example, feeling guilty and ashamed is the consequence of wrong or improper behavior, but we must elevate ourselves to the point where we never have to experience such a consequence. In other words, we must prevent the wrong or improper behavior (recall the discussion on karma and cause and effect). And in order to do this we must understand the underlying principles of our conscience and True Nature so that we can naturally and automatically behave and conduct ourselves correctly and properly in every situation.

The Five Human Relationships

Over 2500 years ago Confucius was a leader in moral and social thinking. His insights into human and social conduct are profound indeed, for today Eastern and Western cultures alike are embracing his philosophy more and more. With moral decay not only in society but also within the family, Confucius's teachings are ever more important today. What he realized is that we have five basic bonds or relationships within family and society, namely, the relationships between:

    1. Ruler and subject, leader and follower, employer and employee, etc.

    2. Husband and wife

    3. Parents and children

    4. Siblings

    5. Friends

These five relationships are universal and exist regardless of one's cultural heritage. Therefore, it is important that we understand the rules of conduct in each of these relationships. This is a brief overview of the relationships:

1. According to Confucius, the ruler must love and care for his subjects. When there is war, the ruler must protect the people. When there are calamities, the ruler must help and provide for the people. By serving the people with virtue, the ruler is also serving in the interests of the state. A population that is content and has what it needs is a population that is loyal to and will support the ruler.

2. Traditionally, the husband is the head of the household, and the wife has a supportive role. The husband worked and made a living, so the wife took care of him and the family at home. The husband made the decisions while the wife supported his decisions. But at the same time, the husband must also treat the wife with respect and provide for her well-being. In return, the wife did what she could to serve and provide for the husband at home. But today this relationship is one in which husband and wife are treated more as equals and they may share the same duties towards each other.

3. The responsibility of parents is to provide for and to teach their children. In return, the children must respect and obey their parents. This is where filial piety must be practiced by the children. Although the children must obey the parents, the parents must also treat the children with love and understanding.

4. Among siblings, there are always the older and the younger (except when they are twins). The younger siblings should respect the older ones and follow their examples. The older siblings should help care for the younger ones and set a proper example for them. Siblings should maintain harmony and look out for each other (shouldn't be selfish, etc).

5. The relationship among friends revolves around trust. To one's friends, one should be trustworthy and dependable. The reciprocal relationship is one of having trust in friends. Only when there is mutual trust among friends can the relationship last. Friends should also love and respect one another.

Although the first four relationships are somewhat asymmetrical, they cannot be maintained unless each side upholds their duties to the other. Each relationship also depends on mutual respect. Therefore, all of the relationships are mutual (two-way) and reciprocity must be maintained. Whenever, one side of a relationship fails to uphold its responsibilities, the relationship suffers. Most people are also part of several, if not all, of these relationships. This makes it even more difficult to perform one's duties. Also note that three of the five relationships is within the family. This just demonstrates how important the state of the family is to the overall state of society. If the family is dysfunctional, problems also will arise within the greater society. But if everyone can do as they should in each relationship then the family and society as a whole can live in peaceful harmony.

The Five Constants and Other Virtues

Confucius also espoused the five constant virtues that people have. These are:

    1. Benevolence (compassion, mercy)

    2. Righteousness (justice)

    3. Propriety

    4. Wisdom

    5. Trust/Faith

These are not the only virtues, of course, as there also are other important virtues such as filial piety, brotherly love (brotherhood), loyalty, integrity (honesty), sense of shame/regret, modesty (humbleness), tolerance, forgiveness, etc. But according to Confucius, these are the five basic virtues that every person should manifest.

1. Benevolence is compassion, mercy and kindness. It is the ability to be unselfish and to be considerate of others. It is really the manifestation of unselfishness, tolerance, forgiveness, and sympathy. It is to consider oneself and all things as part of a greater whole. When we see suffering, our True Nature and conscience reacts with sympathy and benevolence. This is because we are connected with all living beings and with Nature as a whole. So it is natural for us to be kind to others and to help others in need.

2. Righteousness or sense of justice is innately knowing or intuiting what is right and wrong in the moral/ethical sense. True morality does not have to be learned. Our conscience (which is the voice of our True Nature) tells us what is right and wrong (usually after the fact by way of the virtue of shame/regret). Although a young child does not know that killing is wrong, the child may feel sadness or that something is not right when an animal or insect is killed. This is because the child instinctively knows that a sentient being should be alive. The knowledge aspect of morality is to know that the act of harming or killing a sentient being is wrong, because it affirms what our conscience tells us. Also, when we see or hear about wrongs being done, we get a sense that something must be done to correct the wrongs—this is the sense of justice.

3. Propriety is doing what is proper and appropriate for any given situation. Where there are moral, social, or legal rules, regulations, or laws, we must abide by them. In the ideal world there are no explicitly stated laws, because ideal people would behave properly and appropriately. But since people are far from perfect, we have rules, regulations and laws to restrain inappropriate or improper behavior. Even without such man-made rules, however, we already should have a sense of propriety due to our sense of humanity.

4. True wisdom is definitely not learned. We can learn from others' wisdom, but true wisdom comes from within (our True Nature). What we typically call common (or common sense) wisdom comes from our experiences and knowledge. What we typically call a sixth sense, gut feel or intuition are a part of our true wisdom. We can say that true wisdom comes from the awareness of our True Nature. The more we practice each of the other virtues, the greater our true wisdom. On the other hand, pursuing all the things that are contrary to our virtues will only suppress our own wisdom.

5.Trust/faith and trustworthiness are two sides of the same coin depending on whether we are the source or recipient. In a scientific world, faith may be disparaged and forgotten, yet, it is essentially the same as the scientific use of the word "confidence." When we take others for their word, we are expressing confidence, faith or trust in their word. Just because we cannot scientifically prove something 100% does not mean that it is not true. For example, the spirit or soul or True Nature cannot currently be scientifically proven to exist. Yet, we have a sense or awareness that they do exist, and consequently we can have faith/trust that our spirit or True Nature exists as part of a greater whole or "oneness."

The other virtues are also important in conducting ourselves as human beings. All these virtues are manifested from our own True Nature. Although they are innate and do not have to be learned, there is an external aspect (knowledge) to each virtue. The knowledge allows us to more fully conduct ourselves with virtue and without regrets.

“Mankind differs from the animals only by a little, and most people throw that away.”—Confucius

Humans can manifest all of the virtues, whereas animals can only manifest one or two. For example, dogs manifest loyalty and crows manifest filial piety.

“Humanity (Chinese character 仁 "rén") is the distinguishing characteristic of man. As embodied in man’s conduct, it is called the path of truth.”—Mencius

As Mencius so succinctly states, humanity is what distinguishes man from animals. Simply put, it is the sum of all the virtues. If we can respect and be considerate of others and put it into practice then we can be considered to be humane. So if we do not manifest our humanity in everyday life then how can we be considered human?

"Non-action" or True (Motiveless) Action

The philosophy and practice of Dao would not be complete without a discussion of Lao Zi's principle of "non-action" or "true (motiveless) action" (Chinese 無為 "wú wéi"). This is one of the guiding principles of all of Nature. As human beings, we tend to have a strong sense of "self." It is this "self" that tends to be in control of our thoughts and conduct. However, this sense of self (or ego) is an illusion according to Buddha. This sense of self is also contrary to our own True Nature, which is really without "self." We can say that true intentions are not motivated by the self or ego.

We can see that there is no concept of self involved in the workings of nature at large. The concept of self exists only in human beings and perhaps in some animals. The universe follows the laws of nature. Human beings should also follow the laws of nature. In addition, humans have other natural laws—what we call laws or principles of humanity (virtues)—to guide and govern our conduct. When we conduct ourselves according to these natural laws, we are in harmony with Dao and Nature.

For most people, acting without motivation may be a contradiction in terms. Yet, a large portion of our everyday actions is in fact without motivation. We call these unconscious or just instinctive actions. For example, we breathe without consciously thinking about it. However, when it comes to conscious actions, clearly, it would appear that our consciousness is synonymous with one's identity—the self or ego.

As mentioned above, Buddha said that this self and the mind of the self is just an illusion. We think that this self or conscious mind is who we are. And from the mind comes desires and other attachments from which selfishness derives. If in fact we live according to this "false self" and suppress our True Nature, then it is like the tail wagging the dog. The slave has become the master and vice versa. This is clearly contrary to the way it should be.

So true intentions and actions are those that arise and are manifested from our True Nature. The act of sacrificing one's life to save another is a prime example. Or feeling sympathy and compassion and helping a stranger in need. These are certainly unselfish and selfless actions. But selfless action is only part of what it means by 無為 (wú wéi). There is no conscious thought involved in 無為. In other words, we can say that the action or "non-action" just comes about naturally (according to our True Nature) and is therefore in accordance with Nature.

We talk about something being second-nature (e.g., walking, riding a bicycle, driving, etc.). These can be considered to be unconscious efforts, but they are the result of learning, conditioning and habit. However, 無為 action really can be called first-nature, because they arise directly from our True Nature. To be a Buddha means that everything we say and do is 無為.

We have a long ways to go to get to the point where we can do everything according to our True Nature without a conscious thought. By naturally and genuinely practicing the virtues of humanity mentioned earlier, we are conducting ourselves in accordance with the principle of 無為. Even Buddhas make vows (arguably, a vow implies motivation). The purpose is to use selfless motivation to lead us toward the goal of ultimate 無為.

Purpose of Rituals, Rules and Regulations

After reading the above discussions you may wonder whether rituals are necessary. Shouldn't everything just be done naturally? Certainly, rituals without purpose or meaning are not very useful. Confucius also questioned many of the rituals of his time, because no one seemed to know or understand the purpose or meaning behind the rituals. In other words, the rituals had become simple traditions and customs passed down through the ages without anyone knowing why they were still being performed. We should always try to understand what and why we do what we do—the same is true for rituals.

Rituals exist everywhere—from the home to the workplace to social gatherings, etc. Many rituals do serve some useful purpose. In our personal daily lives we may perform our own idiosyncratic rituals. Perhaps it is because of the sense of order that these rituals provide that we perform them. Or we might perform them as a way to instill discipline in our lives. It is no different when we practice rituals in the temple. The purpose of such rituals are to practice discipline of the mind, body and spirit, to show reverence to others, to show our own humbleness, and to calm and focus the heart and mind.

So if you feel that there is too much bowing and prostrating in the temple, then you do not understand the purpose of such rituals. Because once you truly understand, then practicing such rituals becomes natural. The same applies to the rules and regulations in the temple. They serve a useful purpose in guiding us to the proper way of conduct and instilling discipline in our practice. The bowing and prostrations that we do can also be thought of as a meditation in motion. Normally one associates stillness and calm with meditation, and that would be traditionally correct. But true meditation does not require that the body be at rest. The truly meditative heart/mind should be in such a state of calm and awareness that you are not affected by what is going on around you. That no matter what is happening, you have the presence of mind and wisdom to deal with the situation appropriately. The bowing and prostrations (or meditation in motion) that we do helps us to attain that state of mind by letting us focus on our true essence and reflect on our thoughts and actions. It is through such self-reflection that we can attain a greater awareness of our True Nature.

Another related question comes up about the statues or other forms that may be prominently displayed in the temple. The truth that we seek is not in these physical forms—they just serve to remind us that in fact other historical figures have become enlightened and found a way to transcend the suffering of living in this world. Therefore, we can learn from them as we seek the same truth and transcendence. We do not worship idols and statues. There is no requirement that a temple must display these forms. But only because people tend to reinforce their belief or faith with tangible forms, that these forms serve some useful purpose. Buddha, saints and sages never told us to worship them, but rather to learn from and to follow their example.

To reiterate, it is important to understand the meaning and purpose behind the forms (statues, rituals, etc.) that we see and practice. Only when such meaning or purpose is forgotten does it become a meaningless or dangerous thing. In other words, as the purpose of cultivation is to return to or regain our true essence, we should also focus on the true purpose and meaning behind the rituals, rules and regulations of our practice (understand and focus on the truth or principles rather than the outward appearance or forms).

Next: 4. Discovering Your True Nature

Previous: 2. Basic Concepts of Dao