Loren Discovers Sin

There are probably more important, and definitely more challenging, ideas to be found in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I was most struck by Stephen’s rejection of the Catholic concept of sin. Throughout my life some of my best friends were Catholic, but I never really understood the Catholic concept of “sin” until I read this novel and, subsequently, researched it on the internet.

I was amazed how many things are considered “mortal sins,” though there doesn’t seem to be universal agreement on what are and are not mortal sins. Still, one Catholic web site I went to presented this list of mortal sins which seems pretty representative:

Abortion, Anger, Adulterers, Amending the words of the Holy Bible, Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, (Eternal sin), Carousing, Cowards, Defrauders, Dissensions, Disrespect towards parents, Drunkenness, Enmities, Envy, Factions, Faithless, False witness (liars), Fornicators, Greed, Holy Communion received while in a state of mortal sin, Idolatry, Impurity, Jealousy, Licentiousness, Love and practice falsehoods, Male prostitution, Murderers, Polluted, Quarrelling, Sodomites, Sorcery, Strife, Thieves (steal/robbers).

With a list of mortal sins like that, it’s no wonder conservative Christians see man as inherently evil. If you believed that all of these are mortal sins and that man is doomed to Hell without repenting and confessing these sins it would be hard to believe anything else, especially if you don’t happen to believe in confession and the absolution of your sins.

After reading the novel I understood for the first time in my life why my friend John Connolly had to say so many Hail Marys before going to bed when he stayed overnight in the fourth grade. Heathen that I was, I had no idea why he would kneel at the foot of his bed and incant magical phrases in the dark. Even years later, I could not understand what kind of sins he had committed that would require him to ask for forgiveness because he was probably the nicest kid in the grade school I had just entered. He did well in school and got along with almost everyone. In my eyes his only fault was that the girl I had a crush on had a crush on him instead.

Looking back at the list of mortal sins, I realize I would not have been a good candidate for a Catholic School. My greatest mortal sin would certainly have been anger, for I had a notorious temper that got me into trouble both at home and at school.

When we first moved to Walnut Creek the grade school kids picked on anyone who was new or anyone who was different, and I was having none of it. I’d spent most of my life fighting with an older brother, so I wasn’t about to be bullied by anyone who wasn’t a head taller than me.

I fought more in my first year there than I fought the rest of my life. It probably didn’t help that the teacher seemed to favor me, but I suspect I would have had to fight no matter how well I fared in the classroom. I could never stand bullies, and it was a class where bullies seemed to reign. I ended standing up not only for myself but for classmates who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up for themselves. Since John was always by my side, I suspect he had to confess his part in the fighting.

It’s a good think I wasn’t enrolled in a Catholic school because I’m sure I would have butted heads with those in charge. I didn’t see my anger as a “sin,” though I fought hard to control it later in life. I’m pretty sure no one could ever have convinced me it was a sin. Personally, I prefer to think of my anger as “righteous indignation” rather than “anger,” but I’d hate be a person who wasn’t angered by injustice.

“Knowing yourself is enlightened”

Though I first fell in love with the Tao Te Ching because it pushed my awareness to new levels, I suspect that I love it now and keep returning to it because it reaffirms some of my strongest beliefs. As I said, I first encountered the Tao Te Ching in Grad school, and at that point in my life I was probably proudest of how successful I was in grad school. I was proud that I held 4.0 throughout my Master’s Program and that several professors, including the visiting Korean professor, asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PhD. In other words, I knew a lot more about other people’s ideas than I did about my own. Analyzing other people’s ideas came relatively easy to me; it wasn’t until later that I learned the truth of what the Tao Te Ching says in Chapter 33:

Knowing others is intelligent.
Knowing yourself is enlightened.
Tzu chih che ming

Conquering others takes force.
Conquering yourself is true strength.

Knowing what is enough is wealth.
Forging ahead shows inner resolve.

Hold your ground and you will last long.
Die without perishing and your life will endure.

Perhaps not surprisingly this chapter didn’t leave as great an impression on me in my first reading as the one I discussed yesterday. Now, I do think I’ve always been interested in knowing myself. I don’t think anyone would read and write as much as I have and not be interested in knowing himself. But for most of my life the focus has been on other’s ideas. That’s no longer true. Since I’ve retired I’ve focused my studies on better understanding myself. I still don’t know what it means to be enlightened, but I can’t imagine a more important goal than becoming enlightened. I suspect that what I think is “enough” is way more than any person really needs, but I’ve long felt that not wanting something is better than actually owning it.

Lao Tzu hints at how to attain enlightenment throughout his work. As Burton Watson pointed out in the introduction, quietism is Lao Tzu’s preferred method of channeling the Tao. That becomes even clearer in Chapter 47.

Without going out the door,
Know the world.
Without peeping through the window,
See heaven’s TAO.
Chien t’ien tao

The further you travel,
The less you know.
This is why the Sage
Knows without budging,
Identifies without looking,
Does without trying.

Much to my daughter’s distress, I’ve long believed that I could have been perfectly happy without ever having left Washington State. In fact, given my choice, I doubt I would have ever left Western Washington. As I age, I suspect I could be happy spending most of my time in my backyard or den quietly meditating (he says as he plugs into the internet). It seems obvious that the more you learn about yourself the more you learn about the world because to a great extent we are all reflections of each other. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “The further you travel,/The less you know,” but I do think that for some people travel can be a form of escapism.

Attain Complete Emptiness

After years of reading and re-reading the Tao Te Ching I think I understand it better now than I did the first time I read it, but I’m not foolish enough to claim that I understand it now — and I’m sure that’s part of its appeal. I do remember that the idea that has stuck with me the longest is the idea found in Chapter 11 of Lombardo and Addiss’s Tao Te Ching , the importance of “emptiness.”


Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

Having leads to profit,
Not having leads to use.
Wu chih i wei yung

Seeing the wheel, the pot, and the room from this new perspective was nearly mind-blowing to me. It was like one of those optical illusions where you can never see the figure the same way again after you have seen both the vase and the face, or the beautiful young girl and the old crone. I’m still biased by the culture I’ve been immersed in for my whole life, but reading works like the Tao have helped me to see my life and my society differently than I did before. I can even begin to understand what Lao Tzu means when he says “Having leads to profit, /Not having leads to use.”

Of course, my life style has changed in the years since I first encountered The Tao Te Ching. I’ve been meditating in various forms for nearly 40 years now. I’ve also been regularly practicing Tai Chi for nearly nine years now, and, since it is deeply rooted in Taoism, practicing it has, in turn, helped me to better understand parts of the Tao Te Ching.

In a world that seems to be changing at a frightening pace, it’s sometimes wise to “hold fast to stillness:”


Chih hsü chi
Attain complete emptiness,
Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.

Things grow and grow,
But each goes back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
This means returning to what is. Returning to what is
Means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to TAO.

TAO endures.
Your body dies.

There is no danger.

When events happen too fast or threaten to overwhelm me, I’ve learned to rely on meditation to cope with them. In the past I would sometimes obsess on events, believing that the more I thought about them the more likely I was to come up with a solution. More often than not, though, my efforts would make the problems worse, the stress making me less capable of dealing with, much less solving, the problems that faced me. Stepping back some times allows “problems” to resolve themselves if we don’t make a bigger issue of them then they are. Of course, some problems don’t necessarily resolve themselves just because we step back and observe them dispassionately. Judging from the Tao Te Ching, some “problems” are an inevitable part of life. In those situations, meditation simply helps to cope with them.

I’m not certain how one “understands” the ordinary,” but I do know that learning to appreciate the ordinary makes for a much richer life. Learning to see the beauty in ordinary things may not have enlightened me, but it certainly has made my life better in many ways. I think I’ve got a long ways to go before “heavenliness,” probably longer than I have left, but I’m doing my best to enjoy the journey to the very end.

Apparently it is going to take a few more readings before I understand the lines, “ Not understanding the ordinary:/Blindness creates evil,” but I’m okay with that. Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to read the Tao several more times.

Time Flies

Perhaps not surprisingly, I just missed another anniversary. No, not my wedding anniversary, Leslie me informed me that we both missed that a few weeks back. No, the anniversary I missed this time was the 12th anniversary of this blog. In fact, if I hadn’t been looking back trying to figure out how long I’d been practicing Tai Chi, I would never have known it was the blog’s anniversary. As you’ve probably noticed if you stop by regularly, I’m not much into “Special” days. Other than Christmas, I seldom devote a blog entry to holidays.

Still, it’s hard to believe that I first published a blog entry on September 21, 2001, an entry protesting our invasion of Afghanistan, almost as hard as believing that we are still there fighting a war that will accomplish nothing, despite politicians’ claims to the contrary.

Back then blogs were on the cutting-edge of the internet; now they’re almost ancient history, a mere footnote to the history of Twitter, Facebook, and all those other new medias. Luckily, I didn’t think of myself as cutting edge then, and I don’t think of myself as hopelessly obsolete now. I’m doing what I love, and as long as I can keep doing it as well as I want to do it I’ll be here doing it tomorrow and the days after.

The only thing more important to me than blogging is probably regular exercise, particularly walking and hiking. But I see regular exercise, even when I don’t want to do it, as vital to my health and well-being. Blogging is the mental equivalent of regular exercise. Forcing myself to write here has kept me more alive than I ever thought possible. I suspect I’ve read more for this blog than I read for my undergraduate degree.

Thank you for accompanying me on my journey, no matter how far you’ve walked with me. I sometimes think I bird just to meet fellow birders and to join with them in the appreciation of Nature’s beauty. I keep blogging because I meet the most interesting people here, virtual friends who love literature and ideas as much as I do. I suspect there’s no place in the world where I could find better companions.