Wise & Playful & Rascally Taoist Sages
Taoist sages – whose archetypal representations include Laozi, Zhuangzi and the Eight Immortals – are frequently portrayed as being extremely child-like: playful, innocent, free-roaming rascally sorts who delight in telling stories, wandering aimlessly through mountains and valleys, playing hide-and-seek with the village children, enjoying (alone or with friends) a cup of tea or a jug of wine, and all variety of other simple pleasures.
And yet, within this child-like way of being is also a profound wisdom. They’re not simply children. Rather, they’re sages who somehow are able to resurrect and abide in the innocence, wonder and freedom of childhood in a way that simultaneously embodies deep levels of emotional and spiritual maturity. Their movements in the world exemplify wuwei – spontaneously perfect non-volition action. Their words are often paradoxical – nonsensical in a way that, mysteriously, are able to open those who listen to or read them to their own freedom and child-like wisdom.
What Is Spiritual Maturity?
Perhaps we’re used to thinking of “maturity” as the defining characteristic of an adulthood in clear distinction to the childhood which, upon becoming mature, we leave behind forever. However, in relation to Taoist practice, this isn’t quite the case. Like all nondual traditions, Taoism resists this kind of black-and-white thinking. And yet, it seems useful to retain some notion of spiritual maturity – as a guiding light, a set of principles (however fluidly defined) providing a sense of direction or purpose. Is there a way, more precisely than with the broad brush-strokes provided above, to describe what constitutes “spiritual maturity” for a Taoist practitioner?
In his book, Taking Our Places, Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer explores also this question of spiritual maturity. The book (which, by the way, I highly recommend) is based upon Fischer Roshi’s experience of mentoring four adolescent boys, exploring together what means to “become an adult.” As part of their process, they articulated qualities that they
“… felt were present in most people whose emotional and spiritual lies were deeply mature. Most of these people, we found, seemed to be responsible without being boring, experienced without being close-minded, self-accepting without being shut off to change and improvement, loving without being corny, stable without being inert, and strong without being brittle.”
Qualities Of Maturity In Taoist Practice
This list of qualities rang true to me as qualities one finds also in Taoist practitioners – martial artists, meditators, qigong practitioners – as they manifest what I might call “maturity.” There is responsibility in the sense of an ability to respond, with freshness, clarity and precision, to whatever is arising in the moment. There is experience with a particular form of practice, which allows them to adopt the form with great skill; as well as a mastery based in knowing when to let it go, to allow something greater than any specific form to flow through.
There is a sense of honor, dignity and confidence which comes with deep self-acceptance in union with an openness supportive of continuing exploration. There is a love rooted in nondual compassion, knowing the infinite interconnectedness of all beings, and our essential not-two-ness. There is stability and strength grounded in flexibility and spaciousness: how water’s softness and persistence somehow has created the immense beauty of the Grand Canyon; so it is that persistent gentle-fierce engagement with a practice form can, over the years, manifest a human bodymind replete with great beauty and vast wisdom.
Implicit within all of these, though perhaps for Taoist practitioners a more explicitly-cultivated quality, is spontaneity: being alive, awake, surrendered and welcoming of whatever is arising, without conscious preconception, in a way that makes possible responses that are fresh and potent, infinitely more skillful than the egoic “me” could ever have manifested. And somehow this seems connected also to Taoism’s sense of “absolute value” of each and every phenomena – how the perception of absolute uniqueness, within repeating patterns (of perception/conception) lends to each manifest being a beautiful integrity, as an aspect within the whole.
Each moment then is honored as utterly unique, and entered fully – with the playful wonder, trust and excitement of a child, in concert with the deep maturity of a Taoist sage.