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The Tao of Dante

Approaching the pilgrim poet's path to Paradise from the Chinese East
Serti Gompta, Langmusi


In our ongoing tour of Dante’s Paradiso on this blog, one of you the other day, Liam, said you can see the seeds of nominalism within these late cantos of Paradiso, by which he meant (correct me if I’m wrong, Liam) that the metaphysical system Dante constructs here is so complex and baroque that it collapses under its own weight. That is, it makes sense that people would be attracted to a simpler way to understand the relationship between God and the world than the “metaphysical realism” of Dante and the Scholastics.

I can see the point, but what if metaphysical realism is true? Yes, Dante’s construct in Paradiso is quite complicated, but is there a way to make it simple enough to be understandable, and in a way that the ordinary reader can make use of in his life? This is a question I’m going to have to face when I sit down this fall to write my Dante book.

This week, I stumbled across a book that gave me real insight into this problem. As you know, we moved to a new house recently. The moving process unearthed, so to speak, books of mine that have been out of sight and out of mind for a while. One of them is a book I bought five years ago, when I was reading about Taoism and its parallels to Orthodox Christianity. The contemporary Orthodox priest-monk Damascene wrote a book called Christ The Eternal Tao, in which he interprets the basic Taoist message in Christian terms. The basic idea is that outside of the Hebrew tradition, Taoism is the most complete understanding of what Christianity teaches, and, rightly understood, prepares one to accept the truth of the Gospel. The book by no means teaches syncretism, but rather identifies aspects of Taoist thought that correspond to the way Orthodox Christianity understands the spiritual path. Tao simply means “the Way”; in Chinese bibles, Jesus’s words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” come out as, “I am the Tao, the Truth, and the Life.” For Taoists, yielding to the tao is the path to restoring harmony between body, soul, and the cosmological order, which isn’t necessarily deistic.

You can easily see how this corresponds to what Dante has been after: life as a struggle to reconcile our own souls to the cosmological and metaphysical order, which is laid down and undergirded by God. In the beginning of the Commedia, Dante finds himself in a dark wood of confusion and fear, his escape routes blocked; he has lost the “straight path” — that is, the tao. In Dante’s thought, as in Christianity, if we follow the tao of Christ, we will find our way out of our own dark wood, and move steadily toward enlightenment — which is to say, union with God — culminating in gaining heaven.

Anyway, the volume I found on my shelf the other day is called Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary. It is a collection of essential writings from the Taoist tradition. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up, or why I turned to the pages that I did, but what I read there illuminated the Dantean teaching in a way that I want to share.

There’s a section in the book of the translated sayings of Ancestor Lü, a Taoist sage who lived during what in the West was the early medieval period. Here are some passages to consider:

The Great Way is very difficult to express in words. Because it is hard to speak of, just look into beginninglessness, the beginninglessness beginning. When you reach the point where there is not even any beginninglessness, and not even any nonexistene of beginninglessness, this is the primordial. The primordial Way cannot be assessed; there is nothing in it that can be assessed. What verbal explanation is there for it? We cannot explain it, yet we do explain it — where does the explanation come from? The Way that can be explained is only in doing. What is doing? It is attained by nondoing. This nondoing begins in doing.

Ancestor Lü explains that establishing communion between heaven and earth begins with contemplation, with emptying out the self and coming to understand the autonomous self as part of Nature’s order. Think of how the damned in Dante share a single characteristic: they all reject the tao, and think of themselves as the end of all striving. That is, they perceived their selves as sovereign, and did not see themselves as ultimately connected to others, except in an instrumental way, and did not see all souls as part of a cosmological and metaphysical order established and sustained by God. What the Ancestor says here, understood in Christian terms, is that it is impossible to attain the Way by reason alone; it cannot be encompassed by our rational minds, nor fully captured in our language. It can only be recognized. Think of how in our recent Dante readings, the poet has been saying that ultimate reality lies beyond the ability of reason to access unaided by revelation, and how language cannot convey it adequately.

We can establish a relationship with the Way, however. The Ancestor says that to begin the contemplative path under the authority of a true teacher. It is important to have an orthodox spiritual master so you can rely on the integrity of the path revealed through him. Through “true transmission,” the student experiences “an opening up in the darkness,” which reveals the true path of illumination. This may be said to correspond to an infusion of divine grace, granting the gift of faith.

The Ancestor says that the Way is revealed to others through our righteous deeds. But good works are not the same thing as the Way. That is, you can’t be said to possess the Way without good works as the fruit of your spiritual labors, but good works alone are no guarantee of having found the Way. “Without learning the Great Way there is no purpose to accumulating deeds,” he writes. This is also something we discern in Dante: Good works — which I would say includes works of art as well as moral deeds — only have value insofar as they are grounded in consciousness of God, and lead us to greater unity with Him. Being a humanitarian is a fine thing, but if our ultimate goal is unity with God — or, in Taoist terms, the Way — then we must not see deeds as ends, but as means to an ultimate end.

For the Ancestor, those who have achieved union with the Way must be evangelical about it:

Then they came back [from enlightenment] and sat, silently carrying on mystic work, gazing above and examining below, realizing the mystery of mysteries. Yet they still did not become complacent: they mixed in with the ordinary world and carried out various undertakings and performed various deeds in the cities, towns, and villages. Thinking their works were still shallow, they made yet broader commitments, to carry out unlimited undertakings and accomplish unlimited deeds. They vowed that all people throughout the ages, those with knowledge and those without, would hear of the Great Way and ascend to the ultimate goal.

As we have seen, and as we will see in these final cantos of the Commedia just ahead, Dante receives a prophetic charge from heaven to return to earth and tell everyone what he has seen and heard on his journey. The pilgrimage was for his benefit, true, to bring him back to the Way, but through him, the Way must be revealed to others. He must testify to it. This he does by writing the Commedia.

Ancestor Lü says that everyone has within himself “the primordial,” but the sense obscure it. All five senses, and the body, are called “the six robbers,” because they hide the Way from us. Through asceticism, the soul disciplines the body, making the senses subject to the spirit. Without asceticism, says the Ancestor, you cannot attain the Way. This, of course, is thoroughly Dantean. Sensuality produces confusion. It’s not that the body is evil — it certainly is not — but rather that our senses cannot be relied on to show us what is really real. They produce confusion unless rightly ordered by the spirit.

And the great enemy of those who would attain the Way are the passions — that is, desire. Ancestor Lü:

Once fundamental reality is lost sight of, then emotions run wild. But the seed of all emotions is craving. Why is this? Because craving is at the root of emotion. If you don’t crave anything, you don’t want anything; if you don’t want anything, how can you be attracted to anything [cf. the nun Piccàrda in Paradiso 3 and 4: “Brother, the power of love subdues our will so that we long for only what we have and thirst for nothing else”]? If you are not attracted to anything, you are not repulsed by anything; if you have neither attraction nor repulsion, what anger can there be? When there is no anger, fear does not occur; without fear, sadness disappears.

So we know that craving is the root of emotions. If you try to control emotions forcibly without extirpating the root, you control nothing but outgrowths. This is like a flood of water: if you try to dam it without stopping the source of clearing the flow, eventually you’ll be drowned. It is also like a blazing fire: if you try to beat it out without removing its fuel or cutting off its path, you’ll just increased the force of the flames, so that you’ll be threatened at every turn. It is also like the waves of the ocean, one following another, endlessly.

The Ancestor continues:

The emotions are a huge bolt, and craving is the lock on the bolt. When you cut through the lock and take away the bolt, you can get beyond the barrier and go in peace, freely, without hindrance. Mastering understanding of the ultimate Way, you then ascend to exalted reality.

Recall Dante at the summit of Mount Purgatory, in Canto 27, after he has been purged of all his passions. Virgil says: “I crown and miter you lord of yourself.” The pilgrim has achieved complete mastery of his own passions. But this is not the same thing (in Dante) as discovering the Way. It is only the necessary precondition for ascending into perfection. In Dante, desire is not a bad thing; in fact, through desire God’s love moves through the world. Desire — passion — is not to be cast out, but rather perfected in love. That’s what the journey through Paradiso shows. Ancestor Lü makes a wise, and thoroughly Dantean, observation when he says that we will get nowhere along the Way if we fail to see that our problems come not from particular passions, but from passion itself — that is, understanding that disordered desire (loving the wrong things, or loving the right things in the wrong way) is the source of all our troubles.

We must govern our minds to guard against the passions, says the Ancestor:

What is governing the mind? The mind is originally pure, the mind is originally calm; openness and freedom are both basic qualities of the mind. When we govern the mind, this means we should keep it as it is in its original fundamental state, clear as a mountain stream, pure, fresh, unpolluted, silent as an immense canyon, free from clamor, vast as the universe, immeasurable in extent, open as a great desert, its bound unknown.

In this way, the mind with nothing in it is like charcoal or still water: charcoal can burn, still water can reflect. It may also be likened to a clear mirror, with no images in it once objects are gone. It is also like enlightenment, constituting the root of the Way. When the clear mirror is always polished and enlightenment is refreshed from time to time, the clear mirror is cold, and the heart of enlightenment leaves its impression. Being cold means all objects disappear; when the heart leaves its impression, all paths arise.

Again, I think of Piccàrda here. But her inner stillness is not for the sake of emptiness, but rather to create a space within, a space that is filled by God, who is Love. Taoism, I repeat, is not Christianity; we shouldn’t expect Ancestor Lü to agree with Dante, or with Christianity on this point. But it is remarkable how the Ancestor says that emptying oneself out, as he prescribes, can be an obstacle to realizing the Way. The Ancestor says that for the Confucians, good deeds, respect, and duty can also be obstacles to true understanding, because the Confucians mistake a part for the whole. The Buddhists seek emptiness for its own sake, not realizing that achieving emptiness is only meaningful if one seeks to fill the empty space with something. Similarly in Taoism, achieving complete detachment from the passions is not the same thing as the Way, any more than Dante’s reaching the Earthly Paradise at the summit of Mount Purgatory is the same thing as finding heaven. If we think that being “good” (mastering our passions, doing good deeds, etc.) is the realization of the Way, we fall into error.

Scripture and Tradition can also be obstacles to the Way, says the Ancestor. The “writings” exist to help us grasp the ultimate. If you take Taoist Scripture literally, you can lose the way to the Way:

So what ancient adepts set up as truths were mostly in the form of indirect allusions. For example, the terms water and fire, furnace and cauldron, girl and boy, dragon and tiger, yin and yang, and mysterious female — all are allusions to something else. … So writings are not real explanations of the Way. When you personally realize the Way, you can dispense with all the writings.

Another way to think of this point is to say it is a warning against making an idol of sacred writing, and of sacred books. The ultimate cannot be fully expressed in language. Sacred language, and sacred writing, exist to serve as a map to lead us to the Ultimate (which, of course, for Christians is the living God). In the same way, says the Ancestor, beginners had better make sure to start on the way to the Way in the care of a reliable tradition. Tradition, like Scripture, can be an obstacle to the Way if it is unorthodox. Dante believed that in Roman Catholicism, he had found the only orthodox authoritative tradition. This is why he affirmed it in spite of the great corruption of the popes and the priests of his era.

In Christian theology, the apophatic tradition points to God by saying what He is not — this, as opposed to the cataphatic tradition, which points to God by saying what He is. Here is an apophatic statement from the Ancestor about Ultimate Reality, which the Taoists cannot call God, but which Christians, and readers of Dante, will recognize:

The mystery of mysteries is nonexistent, yet exists; it is empty, yet substantial. It is not more in sages, not less in the ignorant. Heaven is within it, yet even heaven does not know it; earth receives its current, yet even earth does not recognize it. It penetrates the depths of all things, yet they go on unawares. Its presence is not presence, its passing is not passing. how can this mystery of mysteries be conceived of, how can it be imagined? If you penetrate the essence, it is mystery upon mystery.

In Christian metaphysical terms, this paradoxical language can be understood broadly to say that God is the ground of all being; there is nothing that is not in God. God cannot be encompassed by reason; we can never hope to understand Him, though we can hope to unite with Him. His presence is in all things; therefore, the great mission of all of us is to harmonize our wills with His, which is to say, recognizing our place in the created order, and opening ourselves to the “current” of the Holy Spirit, which passes through us as love.

Finally, this passage from Ancestor Lü struck a resonant chord within me as a reader of Dante:

The Tao is entered by way of sincerity. When you reach complete sincerity, the Tao is not far off. Therefore a classic says, “Before practicing the way of immortality, first practice the way of humanity.”

In Dante, the Way is entered by way of humility. When you reach complete humility, the Way is not far off. Before practicing the way of immortality, first practice the way of humanity — which for the Christian who wants to achieve holiness, means doing plain things, like making changes in one’s everyday life to put humility into action. That means refusing arrogance, egotism, selfishness. I believe someone — C.S. Lewis? — said that if you find that you struggle to believe in Christianity, try humbling yourself intellectually and living for month as if Christianity were true. You might be surprised by the Way that opens up before you once you humble yourself enough to admit that It’s Not About You. By doing these things, and humbling yourself enough to be sincerely open, you may find that “nondoing” — the movement God’s grace — may illuminate you and show you the Way.

To be perfectly clear, Taoism is not Christianity, and Dante was a Christian, not a Taoist. Nevertheless, reading these passages from Ancestor Lü gave me added insight into what Dante’s way, which is the traditional Christian path to holiness. Dante is philosophically heavy, but as we have seen all along, and as we will especially see in these last four cantos of Paradiso, the philosophical weight and complexity are attempts to illuminate Ultimate Reality, which goes far beyond our finite ability to speak of. Recall Thomas Aquinas’s mystical vision near the end of his life, which caused him to put down his pen and write no more; as far as we know, he never told anyone what was revealed to him, but he did say that it made all his theological and philosophical writings seem “as straw.” In this way, Dante tells us that a world exists beyond what we can physically sense, that it is God, and that it encompasses and interpenetrates all being. We humans have fallen out of communion with God, and therefore with cosmic order.

Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the incarnation of the Way; through Him, the cosmic order is revealed, and the Way is made flesh. Through knowing him, through uniting ourselves to him, we establish a living relationship with God and all His creation. Good deeds are important, but they are not the Way, and if we think they are, will not find the Way. Right thinking is important, but it is not the Way, and if we think orthodoxy is sufficient, we will never find the Way. The Way is not a proposition; it is a way of life. But it is more than a way of life; it is a living, dynamic relationship with God, who is everywhere present and fills all things, but who is in his essence also transcendent (that is, nowhere present, outside of time and creation) and is no thing. The Way is a transformative relationship with Him, one whose ultimate end is theosis, that is, to be perfectly filled by the Holy Spirit, and made like God. We can only achieve this perfection in Heaven, but the road toward it begins right here, right now, with humility, and ascetic labor (prayer, fasting, self-denial) to allow the Holy Spirit to change us, to draw us out of ourselves and toward the Way.

I believe Dante would say that poetry, theology, philosophy, metaphysics, are all helpful maps pointing to the Way, but they are not the Way. There is only one correct end in all existence, and that is God. Anything else — church, country, Scripture, tribe, family, art, scholarship, and above all, the Self — is an idol, if treated a sufficient in itself, as a whole truth, not a partial truth. Treated, in other words, as God. The beginning of theosis is to recognize, in humility, that only God is God, and we only become ourselves by submitting to Him, and to the order He established, which is an order based on dynamic Love. Only in Him is our peace.

For non-Christians, I hope this post connecting Taoist teaching to the Commedia shows the consonance of traditional thought. The Commedia is an irreducably Christian work, but there are truths accessible within it to readers who do not share the Christian faith. For readers who feel confused by all the metaphysical particulars we have been exploring in these past few Paradiso cantos, perhaps going at it from a Taoist point of view can restore perspective.

As for Christians, it is perfectly understandable that, frustrated by the spiritual dryness in the churches today, they would look to the East for enlightenment. But by doing so, they neglect the great treasures within the ancient Christian tradition. I believe this way of thinking and transformation has been best preserved in Orthodox Christianity; the book The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides is a terrific introduction for modern people to the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. But it is also a way that is present in Western Christianity, though it has become obscured by the centuries since the Great Schism. Dante’s Commedia is unquestionably a masterpiece of the Christian civilization of the West — Dante was faithfully and loyally Catholic, not Orthodox — but it is also a poem that explores the path of ascesis and theosis in a way that, in my view, has far more in common with Orthodoxy than with contemporary Christianity, Catholic and Protestant. By embedding in a poem of matchless beauty and ingenuity in metaphysical realism, and in a very old way of thinking about and living out what it means to be fully human and fully Christian, Dante reveals a path of spiritual healing, of harmony, of integration, and of wholeness that can change your life.

It did mine.

UPDATE: A couple of you have reported lost comments on this thread. I can’t find them. Something strange has happened to the comments thread. Please don’t leave one; for some reason, they’re not posting. I apologize.

UPDATE.2: Franklin Evans tried to post the following comment, which didn’t go up. He saved a copy and sent it to me:
1.        [holding up hands in signal of surrender] I’m going to read Dante’s , all of it, I really am!! Actually, I read parts of it so long ago that I’m sure I’m going to be finding all of it new, and that’s a Good Thing.

This non-Christian fully endorses Rod’s attempt here with Tao and Confucianism. This excerpt from Rod’s extensive quoting of Ancestor Lü is an excellent focal point for my further comments.

The primordial Way cannot be assessed; there is nothing in it that can be assessed. What verbal explanation is there for it? We cannot explain it, yet we do explain it — where does the explanation come from? The Way that can be explained is only in doing. What is doing? It is attained by nondoing. This nondoing begins in doing.

This is a serious point of confusion (ahem) for Westerners. Those of us who’ve studied Zen for very long find that moment of revelation in it, and it’s that moment I’m going to attempt to describe here.

The “I” who is thinking, acting and speaking about it is not the “I” who finds the door and walks through it.

My personal experience offers this insight that others may find instructive if not valuable. As always, YMMV.

The “I” that is my ego exists to create, be and protect my sanity. It creates, uses, discards and replaces filters and defensive measures that one simply cannot be without even in mundane life’s moment-to-moment existence. This is the “I” that stands in our way, that locks that door from our side and keeps it locked despite even egregious efforts (like using entheogens, look up that word). The term I’ve settled upon is ego disengagement. It is deliberately at odds to older usages like ego loss. It puts my ego at rest temporarily, letting the entire perception enter my conscious processes.

It doesn’t solve the problem Ancester Lü aptly describes using those maddening serial contradictions. It simply doesn’t let it happen for a brief time. It doesn’t solve the problem of coming back from it, re-engaging the ego and struggling to express what was learned to others.

The Zen master never guides or even points out the beginning of the Way. He or she has but one obligation to the seeker: to dissuade from any notion that the master is a guide. The master’s sole value is in being the proof that it can be done. It is the essence of this bit of fiction most people will find familiar:

– Yoda: “No. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

And, when Yoda succeeds where Luke fails:

– Luke: “I don’t believe it.”

– Yoda: “That is why you failed.”

Faith is not the destination. It’s not the answer to everything or even anything. It stands with you at the door and guides your hand to unlocking it, and perhaps gives you the courage to step through the opening.




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