In 2006, I started watching a television show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. In the show, four elements are “bent” to the will of the bender. Each bending style is inspired by one of China’s great martial arts: Bāguàzhăng, Tàijíquán, Hung Ga kung fu, and Northern Shaolin (Běishàolín) kung fu. This interested me, so I searched the Web for information on these martial arts.
The first page I came across was for Bāguà Zhăng , the style of Airbenders. Within the Wikipedia page were references to Taoism, which led me to a search for a good Tao Te Ching translation. The principles that I had gleaned from my web searching — compassion, humility, discipline — felt authentic and compelled me to learn more. This differed from other religious and philosophical texts I had read, which spoke of impending doom, severe mortal punishment, or the myriad ways to be banished to Hell. There was also a large focus on dogma, to believe blindly without questioning. The Tao Te Ching felt like an opportunity to explore something positive in philosophy and maybe walk away a little wiser. The focus on self-improvement and positively influencing the world was refreshing. So it was decided: “Let’s check out this book.”
Finding the Book
Eventually, I found a translation by Derek Lin, someone who I felt was honest in his approach to teaching philosophy. Before getting to the first chapter, Derek lays out the process he took in creating the translation. He explains his methodology, the difficulties of capturing the same concise beauty of the original, and why he chose to put footnotes on the opposite page of each chapter. This level of craftsmanship is part of what attracted me to the book. As a complete outsider at the time, the commentary gave me a much-needed perspective on the text that other translations didn’t appear to have. Also included is an invitation to join the community on Taoism.net, its online meetings, and the forum. This was a welcome surprise to me, and I would later join after finishing my first reading of the book.
Joining the Community
I joined the forum in 2007. That time was tumultuous for me, rife with personal difficulties, romantic troubles, and poor decision-making. In reading the Tao Te Ching and discussing it with others on the Tea House forum, I gained some much-needed perspective on my life. Since I was new, I gravitated toward the easier lessons; things I could apply immediately and see the results. Chapter 76 — dealing with flexibility — was particularly useful to me. Another chapter, exposing the relationship between space and substance, taught me how space and substance interacted in my own life. Other concepts — like “p’u” and “wu wei” — were also interesting, but I wasn’t ready for them. This is an important part to keep in mind, because nobody runs a marathon on the day they learn to walk. The smaller lessons help one learn how to apply the Tao, which gives the learner momentum and insight to the energies of their path. That momentum ripples throughout your life and can bring you to the other lessons, if you are disciplined and sincere.
I faltered in that discipline from time to time, and ignored advice, as can be expected from a younger person. I let my ego get between me and my spiritual and personal goals. I allowed others to control my emotions. In doing so, I brought a lot of pain on myself. Even when I acted in this way, the Tea House members and the Tao itself didn’t change; they were still receptive, compassionate, and concerned. That’s when I learned about unattached compassion, given freely. It was very humbling, I felt almost ashamed. It wasn’t due to anyone’s actions or words but my own, however. The Tea House was always there, encouraging me to apply what I learned, to share my story with others, and set a good example for those around me. I was unaware then, but I was being taught how to live the Tao instead of simply studying it. Knowledge is useless if it’s not applied to become wisdom.
Over time, I would write articles concerning the Tao in my own voice. I’d focus, again, on concepts that were immediately understandable to a reader and could be applied for noticeable outcomes: encouraging one to tidy their home and free it of items they won’t use or enjoy, arguing that homosexuality is not against the Tao, and expressing the binary system of computers as a sort of “technological Tao”. The articles served as a way for me to test my understanding of the Tao and spread a positive or inspirational message.
Some of these articles were picked up by independent journals. It was humbling and exciting to have my words published by another entity. I wasn’t paid for any of these articles or their publishing; I was happy getting the message out and hoping that someone, somewhere would transform their life for the better as a result of my work. I was inspired by the stories and transformations of others, so it only felt right to share my understanding as well. The Tao wants to be shared!
Let’s fast forward a little bit, to May 2017. Over the years I had developed a friendship with Derek, and he knew I was interested in pursuing I-Kuan Tao initiation. He informed me that Master Chen of the El Monte, California temple was coming to my region soon for other initiations, and asked if I’d be able to attend. After ironing out some details, the plans were made. Along the way, we discussed a vegetarian diet, which we’ll get to later. Let’s establish some backstory.
Throughout 2016, I found myself stressed and addicted to energy drinks, my father died prematurely, and my cat died, who had been my primary companion for fifteen years. When I broke this news to others on the Tea House to explain my absence, Derek reached out to me and asked about my health. A simple expression of concern meant so much to me in my time of grief, it motivated me to try to take care of myself. It was a wake-up call, and this time I listened.
The energy drinks were dropped, immediately. I don’t recall telling anyone I had found myself in that rut again, but it was clear my current path wasn’t working for me. Over the past four years, I had gained 60 pounds. I hurt all the time, and work politics were severely affecting my mental and financial well-being. All of this in the wake of two deaths in the family felt like I was being punished for something. “What did I do to deserve so much misery? Did I have a hand in my cat’s death?” Even in grief, my ego remained stubborn and angry. Self-pity and stress clouded my judgment. I wasn’t giving myself the slack I needed to recover and bring order to my life again. This part of the story is relevant, because if I hadn’t started to look at my choices and correct them (again), I might not have felt motivated to attend initiation. That was an important goal for me — to connect with other cultivators in person, learn more of the culture, and formally receive the Tao.
During the scheduling for initiation, Derek asked me if I’d considered a vegetarian diet. To add context, I grew up on a small farm in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, in North Carolina. That means eggs & bacon, sausage gravy, and biscuits were eaten for most breakfasts. I grew up with a meat-heavy but very omnivorous diet, so restricting it didn’t feel like something I could do.
Derek expounded on the diet’s benefits, and told me a little about how he used to eat beforehand. He also shared some resources that shocked me. I never knew that some cattle farms feed candy to their livestock, or the meat of other animals, or corn. Just about everyone hears about heavy antibiotic use and the small quarters for the animals, but seeing pictures and reports on it showed me just how bad it is. Animals living in their own waste, being fed food they aren’t built to consume, and the antibiotic use aren’t just crimes against nature. They contribute to MRSA and other super-bacteria, early or irregular growth in children, and let’s be frank: meat itself has animal waste in it. So even after all of that mistreatment and unsanitary living, the product is hardly fit for consumption. To me, it reads as an unnecessary waste of energy and resources, drenched in blood. That can’t be good for peoples’ karma, either.
Derek and I had some time between e-mails, which gave me the opportunity to mull it over. A visit to TrueTao.org taught me more about Ching Ko, the cleansing ritual.  It’s a vow that a cultivator takes to never eat meat again, showing their respect for all sentient beings in the universe. It translates literally into “To clear up (the) Mouth”. It also deals with how you speak to others, to help you avoid harming others with your words. During the time I spent considering the diet, I took the opportunity to research and “pretend” with it. There’s a surprising amount of meat substitutes out there. I had heard of things like tofu or other soybean products, but what I found was better than I had imagined. So I used these replacements for a week as a sort of test run.
During this trial run, I reflected on my attachment to meat. I often defended an omnivorous lifestyle, clarifying the importance of protein in one’s diet. The only protein replacement I knew of was soy/tofu at first, but finding alternatives was actually fairly easy. Most grocery stores these days should have meat replacements available. I was able to find all sorts of things, from premade “burgers” and “chicken patties” to “turkey breast”, “ground beef”, and other meat substitutes that share the same look, feel, and versatility of meat, but without the necessity of killing an animal to get it. Beans became a more prominent part of my diet, too, since they’re rich in protein.
With protein out of the picture, what was left? Historically I’ve always spoken out against animal cruelty. What kind of person would I be if I continued my omnivorous lifestyle, knowing what I learned? A hypocrite.
I obviously wasn’t attached to the killing, so I asked myself what was left. It was the taste, texture, and versatility of the food. These things were achieved, more or less, by the meat replacements. They didn’t carry the same risk of infection or extra hormones, and were easier on the body in terms of fats, cholesterol, and immune system function. This realization was the impetus for me to begin the diet. I now had the resolve to learn new recipes and new ways of shopping for food. Derek and I had a brief conversation, where he asked if I was sure I was ready to take the Ching Ko vow. I confirmed, and the planning was finalized.
It’s important to mention that Derek asked me if I was sure: the vow is meant to be taken solemnly and seriously; backing out of that vow would be a great disgrace, both to myself and my fellow I-Kuan Tao members. Like initiation itself, one who takes the Ching Ko vow must do it of their own free will, and not due to outside pressure.
June 18th, 2017 is the day I visited the Cheng family’s shrine to be initiated. William Kuo and Michael Cheng, the host, greeted us at the door, and had footwear ready for us. It was very flattering to be assisted. I had trouble fitting my size 13 feet into most of them, but with a little determination, we found a pair that’d get the job done. I was touched by the effort they put into the guest’s experience. Part of me was even a little embarrassed, since generally in America we handle that ourselves. At any rate, the welcome was warm.
The others arrived soon after, and we sat at a round dining room table. We each introduced ourselves, and William gave us a rough agenda for the day, answering questions as they came up. It included a conversation about what initiation means, what Ching Ko is (if there are candidates like I was), the rituals, and a vegetarian lunch to socialize over. Carmen Cejudo generously offered her time to assist in explaining the process, and filled in for a guarantor during the ceremony alongside Frank Lloyd.
Before the ceremony, I suddenly felt beside myself. Around this table were people from different ethnic backgrounds, coming together under a common cause: to celebrate the transmission of the Tao. It reminded me of the famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that many people grow up learning about. For those unfamiliar, his dream was to see people coming together in fellowship, independent of the color of their skin. To me, our group was a (small) realization of that dream. It was a special moment, proving the unifying power of the Tao.
I would normally cover something like this in detail, but initiation is meant to be special and personal. In that spirit, I won’t share any exact processes.
Here’s what I can tell you:
- Every person wishing to join I-Kuan Tao does so of their free will, and must profess that when joining. There is a process to ensure that only willing cultivators ask for initiation.
- The rituals involve standing, bowing, and some kneeling; however, accomodations are made for those who are physically unable to.
- We ask for a meager Token of Merit upon initiation, to fund publishing of literature and other operation costs; there is no tithing whatsoever.
During the Ching Ko ritual, the vow-taker proves their commitment in front of others, symbolizing their compassion for other sentient life. During this phase of the ceremony, I felt an odd warmth. The shrine wasn’t particularly warm that day, and the ritual is a little strenuous, but nothing big. Nevertheless, it was a strange, intense warmth. It brought on some powerful emotions that I can’t describe as anything but gratitude and joy. In a way, I was shedding parts of my former self. By the end of the ritual, I was feeling quite emotional but maintained my composure. I stood beside myself during the closing ceremony, pondering that feeling. I asked myself, “Did it mean something? Was I channeling the Tao I had just received from initiation? Is this the flow of chi?”
A smile wrapped around William’s face when I told him about my experience. We were having quite the conversation over lunch, and he showed interest in telling others about what I experienced. It’s still a mystery to me what exactly happened, but I hope others enjoy reading my story.
Since my initiation, I have lost over 20 lbs. My diet is simpler, more colorful, and more nourishing than before. I’m learning which of my words are harmful, and focusing on activities that enrich my life instead of attracting rain clouds of negativity. In general, my quality of life has improved. Although the Tao can be attributed, it couldn’t have happened if I didn’t come back home and stick to my vow. Living the Tao first hand has brought me to new lessons and helped me past obstacles that I could only dream about years ago. There’s no doubt I couldn’t do it without my own effort, but sometimes a little help is all you need. 🙂
I went into the Tao with innocent curiosity. I expected the Tao Te Ching to be something old, dusty, and a bit boring, like other religious or philosophical texts I’d read before. What I found was a worldwide community of compassion, discipline, and humility. I have studied the Tao for eleven years, and I still feel like a young seedling on the grand stage of life. Just when you feel you’ve got it figured out, the Tao reminds you that over-confidence is dangerous. The Tao teaches us like a mother bird teaches her young to fly. It gives us everything we need to take flight. It’s up to us to make it happen.
I am honored to formally join the worldwide community of I-Kuan Tao members and resume spiritual cultivation on the Great Path. I will always remember the hospitality of the Cheng family, feeding us and allowing us to use their personal home to transmit and discuss the Tao. I will also remember Master Chen and Master Kuo for their selfless sacrifice of time and energy, travelling up to Washington state from Los Angeles for the weekend! Lastly, I am grateful and humbled by the courtesy, respect, and support of fellow Tao cultivators, including Carmen Cejudo, Frank Lloyd, and my fellow initiates: Denise, Werku, Elijah, Nicholas, and Amber. It is one community that I’ve always felt welcome in, even during troubled times. May we meet again, sooner rather than later!
To wrap things up, I’d like to quote Avatar‘s sequel series, The Legend of Korra. In the final episode of the first season, Korra is able to reconnect with her past lives as the Avatar. She was only able to connect to her past lives after suffering a great loss, which shook her sense of identity. Aang is the first of her past lives to talk to her. What he says to her has stuck with me since initiation:
“When we are at our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
Thank you for accepting me and showing me The Way.