Taoism, Part 1:
Pooh & Friends, Seeking Oneness, on the Road to Iraq

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
September 22, 2002

[Follows reading of a Pooh story (Eeyore's Birthday Presents) and Hymn #194, Faith is a Forest.]
If "faith is a forest," then many young people in the past 75 years have found a kind of faith in the forest named "100 Aker Wood" that was created by author A. A. Milne and inhabited by Winnie the Pooh and friends, such as Piglet and Eeyore. As you may be aware, part of the enduring popularity of these mostly animal characters is that they clearly represent the various types of people and personality styles that inhabit our larger world.

One of these storybook animals also happens to embody the spirit of an ancient Chinese philosophy, Taoism. As it says on the back cover of The Tao of Pooh (the book that makes this connection explicit): "While Eeyore frets...and Piglet hesitates...and Rabbit calculates...and Owl pontificates, Poohóthat effortlessly calm, still, reflective bearóPooh just is."

On an even deeper level, these pretty lovable characters can also represent the various parts of self within each of us. At times we act out of one or another of these styles, which together make up the whole of who we are. So the stories and adventures that unfold within the Hundred Acre Wood can have meaning for us on many levels, and the episode just retold will help me with my perhaps overly ambitious task this morning.

I hope to illuminate some of the very old but still active Chinese philosophy of Taoism, showing also how this perspective might sharpen the focus of our postmodern UU lens, and then I'll aim the whole mixture at a fearsome dilemma of our day.

But first, back to our leading story, in which Pooh and Piglet start off with good intentions to honor Eeyore's birthday by presenting him with particular presents that come from their own lived experience. But, along the way, the world of experience intervenes again, due to the very natures of the two characters.

Poohówho almost always "just is"óis just hungry and, living in the present moment as he does, he eats the gift honey before realizing it. Excitable Piglet runs too fast and pops the balloon he would have shared with Eeyore. But, they nonetheless stay true to their natures and still bring good intentions to the fore, even if the results look different.

Pooh simply finds a new bright side to the dilemma, offering the honey pot itself as a gift, and suddenly Piglet's limp balloon actually works even better than if it were inflated. Normally dour Eeyore is even more intrigued with the combination gift than he might have been with the two original but separate presents.

And so everything worked out, even though not precisely as intended. This is a good example of Taoism at work, whereby one does not attempt to exert undue control on events as they unfold, but stays centered within one's own true nature and allows things to work out for themselves. Pooh is a quintessential Taoist model (simple-minded and wise), although I somehow doubt this was author A. A. Milne's purpose when he created Pooh and friends back in the 1920s.

Credit a more recent author, Benjamin Hoff, with noticing the convergence and drawing it out magnificently in his 1982 book, The Tao of Pooh. This little gem is one of the more successful explications of Taoism, and I can see why. It's even become something of a cultural icon, with references made to it, such as in the subtitle of a much more erudite treatise that Nate Rummel offered me for my research: a very thorough presentation about the meaning of a certain TV cartoon show. The book is titled, "The Simpsons and Philosophy," but its subtitle is "The D'oh! of Homer."

Anyway, here's another short example of how Pooh embodies Taoism, and then I'll explain more about the Tao itself. [The Tao of Pooh, pg. 12: Lost, but Honey Pots are Calling...]

Taoism emphasizes that kind of listening: with an inner ear, noticing how the world truly is, and then responding from a place of non-ego that is at once deeply attuned and just intuitively aware. Taoists never try too hard; they accomplish a lot without appearing to do much at all, because what they do is less about themselves and more about moving in harmony with The Way Things Really Areóbasically the way Winnie the Pooh moves through the Hundred Acre Wood.

One doesn't hear much about Taoism in these United States, perhaps because it is so old, first appearing in the 4th century BCE, about 25 centuries ago. But Taoism also doesnít get much play in America because it is rather incompatible with the bulk of our materialist culture. And yet its influence is nonetheless, if subtly widespread. Many of the so-called martial arts are based on Taoist principles, which include the even more familiar notion of Ying/Yang: complementary energies that are opposites but connected.

There is a whole lot of rich history and intricate dynamics to Taoist philosophy, but my brief introduction of it today will center on the word that gives it its name, Tao. In the second sermon of this short series on Taoism (in three weeks time, on Oct. 13), I will explore more of the specific principles espoused in Taoism, its origins and its primary scripture, the Tao Te Ching.

But today, let me just try to focus on the Tao. And I understand that when Chinese is translated into phonetic English, with this particular usage of the letter "T," it is pronounced as a "D." (In other settings, like when used before an apostrophe, it takes the more familiar "T" sound, as in "T'ai Chi.")

The word "Tao" is translated "way" or "path," so that the Tao becomes the Way, a single concept that describes the entirety of life and the universe. While it may seem to be yet another attempt to name the unnamable, it relies on a typically Eastern notion of experience rather than thought. There just is no single, translatable mental or verbal expression that can capture the all-encompassing, balanced totality of the Tao. Thus, the paradoxical description that heads the top of your Order of Service: If one looks for the 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 [The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 35]. The Tao inspires many such seemingly contradictory passages that challenge our Western sense of linear thought.

The Tao's ultimate harmony is the driving force in all nature, and, most importantly, it is not separate from any part of nature. In fact, it is only by intuitively centering fully in the Tao that one achieves a comparable measure of individual harmony. But we must beware of trying to attach Western language on to a very Eastern idea. There is no symbol or direction or being that embodies the Tao; it is not a deity to be worshipped, but simply the fullness of reality to be understood.

According to Taoism, life as we experience it reflects the eternal harmony of the Tao, if we have the inner and outer eyes to see it in its wholeness (even though "there is nothing to see," per se). The eternal harmony of the Tao is there at all times, available to all people at every moment, with no cult-ish boundaries. But it is perhaps most evident when we attempt to interfere with that natural balance of things. That's when trouble appears. When we try too hard to control or force things, the harmony retreats. All things, even opposites, have their own true nature, which, if violated, creates struggle.

The more we move in harmony with the Tao, the more peaceful and productive our journey. Winnie the Pooh, for instance, just flows along with the Tao. So his world of the Hundred Acre Wood and, by extension, our wider world, both become a teacher of lessons to be learned about The Way Things Really Are.

At this point, as I begin to shift my sermonic path a bit, I should also disclaim any impression that I am either an expert in or a practitioner of Taoism. I am merely learning what I can of this ancient philosophy mostly because I'm not entirely comfortable in my own culture. I need some well-grounded lessons about the Way Things Really Are, especially beneath the surface of rampant materialism. So I seek wisdom and insight from the many diverse ways people have come to understand life on this planet.

That said, there is a significant Unitarian Universalist principle that I also am seeking to deepen my awareness of, and I find that its cause is furthered by a Taoist approach to things. We profess, as named in our Seventh Principle, "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." To acknowledge this fundamental interconnectednessóand the theologies for which we are named: universal and unitaryóis to lift up yet another single, all-encompassing word: Oneness.
The reality of our Oneness is, I think, a demanding but unavoidable aspect of post-modernism, which, in case you hadnít noticed, is steadily eliminating all pretexts of objectivity. We now must find new yardsticks with which to make inherently subjective judgements, and very often this includes acknowledgement of our fundamental Oneness.

If, as we (and some quantum physicists) propose, all things are interconnected, then my ceiling, for instance, is not just a ceiling, it could also be your floor. All definitions depend on one's particular angle and perspective. Absolutes are very vulnerable. It may be that Oneness is the final and only reliable absolute left.

So it seems clearer and clearer to me that any sustainable path into a 21st century of peace is going to require that we learn to live increasingly out of our Oneness. But this will be no small task, since our consumer culture rather effectively teaches just the opposite: that we are very separate and disconnected beings. So I look for meaningful allies that can help me discover just what living more out of our essential Oneness might look and feel like. Taoism seems like such an ally, as does Pooh, who, in his simple way, approaches each moment intuitively, without complexity, present to whatever unfolds, in authentic touch with The Way Things Really Are.

The Tao is that Way: a universal and unitary force that encompasses everything; it is Oneness. By deeply centering themselves in this Oneness, Taoists move in accord with the Way; they are in harmony with it, and things ultimately work out. However, in the face of any given situation, they may reserve judgment longer than many of us would be comfortable doing, because they generally expect that there is a larger perspective available. A story helps make this point...

A poor Taoist farmer and his teenage son live together and cherish their one prized possession: a fine horse, which one day escapes and disappears. Their neighbor finds out and comes over to sympathize with the farmer. "What a terrible turn of events," he says, but the farmer simply responds: "How do you know?"

A day later, the runaway horse returns on its own, leading a few more wild horses with it back into the corral. Again, the neighbor visits, to share the good news. "This is a wonderful windfall!" But the farmer again responds: "How do you know?"

Sure enough, while riding a new horse, the son is thrown off and breaks his leg. The neighbor hears of this and comes over to help with some of the chores. "How sad that your son has to be laid up for many weeks," he says to the farmer, who responds: "How do you know?"

And sure enough, later that week, the Imperial Army marches through, taking all able-bodied young men to fight in a far off war, perhaps never to return. The neighbor comes over to celebrate that the farmer's son was spared this duty and exclaims, "You are so lucky to be able to keep your son!"

What do you think was the farmer's response? "How do you know?" And the story has no ending, no conclusion. It just goes on like this...

The farmer's responses may seem like a passive posture to us Westerners, accustomed as we are to being active on our own behalf, often aggressive, forceful and controlling. I, for instance, am a well-conditioned American male. I want to have most things my way. I am comfortable making judgments based on my experience and reasoning ability. A story like this goes very much against my grain.

And so, I pay attention to it, just in case there may be some learning for me. I am part of my culture, which honors and rewards action, not passivity. And yet, I know enough about the power available through, say, non-violent resistance, as taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to know that what looks passive on the surface may not be.

And the martial arts alone should convince us that there can be great power in a focused, centered stance that flows with the Tao, using, for instance, an attacker's aggressive action against itself. One of the principles of most martial arts, but perhaps especially T'ai Chi, is that of conservation of energy, centered and used powerfully but defensively.

I imagine that the confidence bred in a martial arts practitioner comes partly from physical training and good balance, and partly from a deeper understanding of how the universe works when energies collide. Lashing out offensively, while perhaps immediately satisfying as an expression of anger or violent intent, is more often destructive of itself in the long run, if one can see and center in that bigger picture.

Martial artists know just how to redirect, rechannel aggressive energy without responding in kind. They move in harmony with the Tao, and succeed. They are not passive victims, but well-defended activists, who walk away from a confrontation without sacrificing their integrity.

In fact, in studying Taoist thought, I came upon a short, three-word sentence that really caught my attention. It's from the context of martial arts, but points toward a more general philosophical posture that I am trying on, almost as a mantra. It is this: Force Defeats Itself.

Hmmm. Do I accept this as a truism? "Force Defeats Itself"? I wonder. Certainly an act of violenceóphysical or otherwiseócan seem to be effective in achieving an immediate goal. But Taoism would have us consider a larger context, in which such an act ultimately does more harm to its perpetrator. This may be little comfort to a victim in pain, perhaps, but I can imagine the insidiously damaging effect that accumulates to one who resorts to violence. We must look with deeper eyes, but the harm is there.

Who's to judge which damage is greater, ultimately: the pain inflicted by a perpetrator of violence, or the erosion of that person's (or country's) integrity? Is the concept of justice one of those vulnerable absolutes? I imagine that there could well be times when the use of force is in harmony with the Tao, but that decision would have to come out of a place of very centered awareness, not anger or righteousness.

Perhaps you can guess where I'm headed with this line of thinking. Without diminishing all the other violence of our time, let's consider ourselves on the road to a war with Iraq, for that certainly is the buzz. And the more cynical among us suspect that it will begin sooner (like before Election Day) than later. There are far too many angles to this complex beast of an issue for me to get into here, but I wish only to raise the specter that, based on lessons we may or may not learn from a Taoist view of the world, "Force Defeats Itself."

If there is any wisdom in this maxim, applied toward a potential war on Iraq, it seems to be drowned out by the din of a diametrically opposed but much more common slogan, being: "The Best Defense is a Good Offense." The current climate of offensive saber-rattling is deeply disturbing to me, yet I am, like many of us in this country, cowed into quiet by a virulently vocal patriotism that questions any reluctance to fight, fight, fight.

The Republican Party is apparently putting this approach to good political use in its Congressional campaigns around the country, accusing less militaristic opponents of cowardiceóand then watching their poll percentages rise as a reward for such attacks. This kind of opportunistic force may well carry the day, especially if we have troops engaged before Nov. 5, but I wonder if the insidious damage done by such aggressive fear mongering won't come back to haunt its perpetrators. (Look what happened to the politically aggressive fear-monger Newt Gingrich in the long run.)

Unfortunately, the kind of centered, more deeply aware and ultimately defensive stance that would perhaps be encouraged by a Taoist approach to our current dilemma would also require a degree of introspection and patience that seem to be in very short supply. For instance, the most productive discussion I can think of for our country to engage in right now and for the foreseeable future, would be to define for each other just what real "security" means and looks like. But that would take a very different kind of leadership, alas.

Speaking of leadership, the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, William Sinkford, has just issued what he calls " A Pastoral Letter...Responding to the Threat of War." [It is available at the UUA web site at this specific address:


For my part, when I combine what I sense to be the truth of our planetary Oneness with the notion that "Force Defeats Itself," and then mix in even a brief examination of history, let alone the very real possibility that less visible political and economic motives might be guiding certain handsówell, I cannot begin to condone a resort to offensive military violence against Iraq. This would be a use of force that, to my mind, is more likely to cause greater damage than reduce our degree of fear.

For me, the road to Iraq runs through the United Nations, whose great task it is to shepherd the human diversity of our planet. If I could throw one switch to turn things around, it would be that all the near-sighted negativity that currently comes out of our country might be transformed into support for that noble, if complex multi-lateral institution. Ultimately, I believe our country's greatest regret will be turning our back on the UN. Sure, it's an imperfect union of demanding diversity, but today, unilateralism seems like a very vulnerable absolute.

So, I've come a long way from the sweet stories of Winnie the Pooh to the harsh reality of ardent war mongering by many Americans. The vehicle in which I'm trying to navigate such a journey is Taoism, a curious and challenging philosophy made more accessible by kindly Pooh. It invites me to know and rest in a greater harmony as I struggle with the fact of aggression and violence in my world. I must continue to consider that "Force Defeats Itself."

Meanwhile, it helps me to know that my old pal Pooh has not an arrogant bone is his soft little body. He accepts the vicissitudes of his world and flows with the Tao without even realizing it. He is a natural leader, intuitively stepping forward with gusto and affection, finding success amid imperfection.

Many of the stories that unfold in the Hundred Acre Wood are about the everyday adventures of life that present surprises and dilemmas to be faced with personal and interpersonal resources that tell a lot about the character of the characters. The same is true of our lives and our everyday adventures and dilemmas: how we face them says a lot about our integrity.

I believe we can bring our best selves forward?alone and together?to help transform moments of worry into a deeper sense of inner security. We can turn fear into faith by caring for our relationships and holding fast to the greater good. There is much of concern to address in our time and we are the resources of this world, a world that keeps on turning, providing us with new chances to grow daily.

You may have heard that the written Chinese character for the word "crisis" is composed of two elements: the symbol for danger and the symbol for opportunity. May we help turn danger into opportunity by our loving, our healing, and our dreaming.

A song by Ruth Pelham speaks to such Turning of the World...

Let us sing this song for the TURNING of the world, that we may TURN as one.

With every voice, with every song, we will move this world along,

And our lives will feel the echo of our TURNING. (Repeat last two lines.)


"Taoism, Part 2: The P'u Way" is scheduled for October 13.

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