Dao Du Jour: Day 16

Chapter 16

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings,

but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe

Returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Every year I teach Genesis to college students. One thing that often puzzles them is the lists of names; why take a whole page to list all of Noah’s descendants?

I tell them a story about when I worked at the Grand Canyon for a summer when I was their age. During orientation, a park ranger was giving a talk about the Native American cultures indigenous to the region. He started by asking how many of us know who our grandparents were?

Everyone raised their hand.

Next, he asked how many of us know who their parents were?

Almost everyone raised their hand.

Finally, he asked how many of us know who their great grandparents’ great grandparents were? One man in the back—who revealed himself to be of Navajo descent—raised his hand. Imagine, Ranger Roger said, knowing your precise place in a family history reaching back hundreds or thousands of years. For the Jews, the Biblical narratives reminded them who they were and where they came from. What we moderns may deride as “ancestor worship” in primitive cultures serves a vital purpose.

The word “religion” is related, etymologically, to the word “ligament.” To remember where we came from is to literally re-member ourselves—to restore the connection that the emergence of self-consciousness severs. The term sin tends to be loaded with moral weight, as a personal failing for which we feel guilty, a red balance sheet we are forever trying to clear. But a better way to understand the term is “separation.” Religion, in this sense, means healing the rifts that rise up within our minds, between our minds and bodies, between each other, and with the world.

We are great at watching the turmoil of beings, but terrible at contemplating their return. “If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow.” Religion, at its best, reverses this existential entropy.

But what does it mean to be religious?

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2 Replies to “Dao Du Jour: Day 16”

  1. I’ve been fascinated with this notion of “return” ever since I found out about it in a quite unexpected place. But even more I wonder what it is. What is the ·return· of things to the ·source·? If someone asked me, I could say something, but always with the impression that I do not really understand. What would you say? What is the return of things to the source?

    I’m reading you every day. Great job! 🙏🙏

    1. Carlos,

      I see “return” having two senses here–one is cosmological, another psychological. Cosmologically, I think it’s more or less the notions of impermanence and dependent arising, as they’re elaborated in Buddhism. Every thing in the cosmos emerges from Dao/emptiness, and returns to/dissolves back into nothingness. But also, every “thing” is never really separate, i.e., each form is also empty, dependent on every other “thing” for its arising. So to see a being in the context of its impermanence and dependence is to see beyond turmoil (samsara) and see its return (nirvana, its extinction as a separate thing).

      Psychologically, I think it refers to how we relate to our thoughts. To not be captivated by our thoughts–to allow them to pass and see them as passing, to let them “return” to the abyss of no-mind, etc.–brings serenity.

      Either way, I see return as pointing toward the yin side of reality, and yielding to that brings serenity.

      What do you think?

      Great to hear you’re digging the project!