Chinese Memories: Reflections of a Western Taoist

Published in The Empty Vessel, Fall 2006

by Linda Brown Holt

I can’t remember a life without the influences of Eastern culture. Growing up in the 1950s in rural and small town New Jersey, that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I think it may go back to my parents’ honeymoon in New York City’s Chinatown after the end of World War II. My mom rubbed the belly of a large statue of the Buddha and wished for a wonderful future. Thereafter, in whichever farmhouse or suburban bungalow they lived, there was always a dime-store incense cone burning before a small green Ho Tai.

After I was born (their only child), “dinner out” invariably meant fried rice and oolong tea served in blue willow cups without handles in Lido Gardens, a small restaurant on a side street in Trenton. On the walk from the parking lot to dinner on Thursday nights when city shops stayed open late, we would pass an international shop, where I’d press my nose against the glass and stare in wonder at rich silk kimonos and painted fans. Intimations of the East, as filtered through the lens of the West, fed my imagination and gave me a glimpse of beauty, truth and understanding that expanded the traditional teachings of school, church and blue-collar society. There was never the slightest sense of conflict or difference. A sense of cultural balance permeated my childhood.

I read voraciously as a child and at 13, with savings left over from lunch money, purchased a copy of The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. The intervening decades have greatly lessened the impression once made by this book and its author, but at the time it was a moon gate opening my eyes to a world of thrilling ideas and indelible images. The striking Chinese endnotes (I later learned that Watts didn’t speak or write Asian languages) were indescribably beautiful and mysterious. How could such an elegant-looking script develop without the strictures of an alphabet? And here, in Watts’ text, I first encountered the word “Tao,” and the concept of yin-yang, the opposite poles between which the energy of existence crackles and sparks.

Watts’ book was followed by small volumes of haiku published by the Peter Pauper Press, and a large volume of Chinese poetry translations by Arthur Waley available at my library. I am surprised the librarian didn’t limit the number of times I renewed it! The haiku shocked my senses . At first, I laughed derisively; then, my rational mental resistance yielded to their power and impact. The scoffer became the enthusiast.

Around the same time, I stopped eating meat and began practicing yoga with the guidance of Indra Devi, engaging in a meditation practice I continue to this day. But as one who loved to wander in woods and hills, beside streams and to write poetry and draw with a brush dipped in black ink, my life most perfectly accorded with the way of Tao.

As life continued to unfold, with college and work, marriage and parenthood, the culture of the East, as filtered through my narrow Western existence, continued to nourish and sustain me. I discovered the writing of John Blofeld, who had (and continues to hold) for me the most personal and intimate feelings of empathy. The Secret and the Sublime, Beyond the Gods and other works revealed the magic and imagination of Taoism as well as its deepest truth. In the 1980s, as the Internet became a tool for exploration, I discovered on user groups that three distinct online communities of Taoists were emerging:

  1. Scholars who studied texts in the original language and were analytical and critical in their assessment of Eastern texts;
  2. Generalists with no particular knowledge of Taoism except what they picked up in the Kung Fu TV series (probably the number-one source of information and inspiration about Taoism for American seekers at the time); and
  3. “Beer and Taoism” party animals! For these ‘Netsters, Taoist perspectives on individual freedom meant nothing more than a license to behave like fraternity boys on spring break.

Hidden at the time and possibly not active in Western languages were the followers of religious Taoism, those liturgically based practices involving ordained priests and prescribed rituals.

Because I didn’t fit into any of these expressions of Taoism, I quickly left the online community for “free and easy wandering” in hills and by streams and lagoons frequented by bitterns, blue herons and great egrets. Increasingly, I became attracted to the observation and companionship of the large water birds who so often show up in Taoist poetry and tales of the immortals. One thing I craved most, though, was additional Taoist texts in English. The stock of even the best bookstores consisted of little more than a dozen different versions of the Tao de Ching and nearly as many interpolations of the I Ching. I knew there had to be much more. And then the first translations of Thomas Cleary began to appear.

Cleary’s work was like manna from Taoist heaven. The Harvard-educated academic provided eloquent translations of important Eastern texts in Buddhist and Taoist traditions, demystifying the language of alchemy and providing insights based on a combination of scholarship and a personal meditation practice. The works of Chang Po-tuan and Ancester Lu not only came alive for thousands of eager readers, but became tools we could use in our own cultivation and in our understanding of the world.

Other translators and teachers followed, inspiring greater understanding of Eastern truth. Most notably in recent years, I have been impressed by Bill Porter (Red Pine) for his outstanding translations of Chinese poets. Magazines and journals such as Solala Towler’s The Empty Vessel with the latest scholarship by Livia Kohn and other scholars, artists and writers began to emerge and to spread the Taoist message of harmony and individual practice.

For many seekers in the 1970s and 80s, the works of Master Ni provided a helpful point of reference. Readers who were confused by the ending of my novel, Black Tortoise, Red Raven, need only read Master’s Hua Ching Ni’s intriguing book, The Way, the Truth and the Light to understand what it means to be a master in the Taoist sense, whatever one’s religious heritage.

New Taoist translations and original, contemporary Taoist works continue to enrich our lives. Where once there were copies of only the Tao de Ching, now bookstores and libraries carried the works of Daniel Reid, Eva Wong, Charles Luk and Stuart Alve Olson. The radiance of a Golden Age of Taoism was beginning to dawn in the West.

As for my own continuing growth and evolution, I’ve come to realize that not everyone on this path craves an exact, scholarly knowledge of the history, philosophy and theology of the Far East. Many, such as myself, value the present moment in the present place, and welcome this growing influx of ideas and culture from the East into current conditions in a Western context. We don’t belong to any of the three user groups I first encountered on the Internet, nor to the fourth group of religious Taoism. We have emerged into a fifth form, a distinctive Western Taoism that reflects the flavor of our own culture and values.

In terms of my own journey, there are issues that still need to be resolved or answers that will reveal themselves with time. While Western Taoism perfectly addresses the need for individual integrity and an appropriate challenge to authoritarianism, it does not fully address our need to help each other and build community. I like to think that we Taoists are doing so, however, in our own neighborhoods and from our own hearts, rather than because a controlling “church government” tells us we must do so.

And as a woman, I have often felt the lack of sympathy for traditional female values, even though Lao Tzu goes to great lengths to celebrate the Tao as the Mother of All Things. Eastern thought often enters the West through the martial arts. While many women are masters of these demanding disciplines, there are many women (and men) who have no interest whatsoever in fighting, even fighting with their internal demons! The traditional female arts of homemaking, child rearing, domestic and fine arts, nurturing and healing, and community building are pathways equally accessible to men and women, and should have a place of equal importance in the development of Western Taoism. Perhaps what we need is a Taoist Martha Stewart to celebrate and promulgate these values!

Be that as it may, the contributions of a new breed of Taoist to the West are incalculable. We may not be obvious as a social force, but our presence is deep and pervasive. Whenever we hear the words integrity, organic, authentic, we may think Taoist. And not necessarily in a religious sense. We may remain partners with the “church of our fathers (and mothers)” and still have what I call the Taoist attitude. We are the people who attempt to move wisely and effortlessly through life, without interference, leaving behind traces of art, harmony and peace.

Our lives change. In my own life, I have lost my husband and a parent, and my child is married and living on her own, but my life is rich in birds, music, flowers and the community of all people. A lifelong immersion in the Tao sustains and lifts me up. I see myself as a very small piece of a larger whole that flows in the rhythms of the natural world, in the pattern of hours, days and seasons. What is more pure than winter light? What is more promising than spring? Where is there greater hope than in summer and in the eternal reiteration of time? These, and others, are the reflections of a Westerner happy to live in the light of the Tao.