Ceremonial Taoism & Bhakti Yoga
There are, as we know, ceremonial forms of Taoism, which include: rituals (enacted with others in Taoist temples or solo in front of ones personal altar) such as Baibai; various traditional festivals; and veneration of Taoist Deities such as Laozi, the Eight Immortals, and the Three Purities.
But is there, within the Taoist path, something akin to Hindu Bhakti-Yoga or Tibetan Buddhist Deity-Yoga or Guru-Yoga: a formal avenue for purely devotional worship, a “way” rooted deeply in an overflowing of ecstatic love?
Balance & Harmony v. Devotional Fervor
Such an approach would seem to be, almost by definition, excluded from a Taoist path whose highest ideals are balance and harmony, serenity, simplicity and gentleness, and which sees (through the lens of Chinese Medicine) the “overflow” of emotional energy as being perhaps the most common cause of dis-ease. How could such a framework possibly accommodate, in a positive light, the seemingly excessive emotional expressiveness of the bhakta? Perhaps (say within a Five-Element acupuncture approach), it might recommend -- as a short-term skillful means -- a kind of “radical action” to move stuck emotional energy. But as an actual spiritual path? -- It seems unlikely that there would be a place within Taoist practice for a purely devotional approach toward the Divine/Tao, and toward the ten-thousand-things (all our fellow beings).
Sri Anandamoyi Ma & The Hua Hu Ching
To get a sense of the differing sensibilities of the Taoist way and a Hindu Bhakti-Yoga path, let’s compare and contrast statements made by Sri Anandamoyi Ma -- a Hindu saint/Bhakta and “Joy Permeated Mother” -- and those drawn from the Hua Hu Ching: the so-called “later” or “unknown” teachings Laozi, which many scholars assume simply to be attributed to rather than actually written by the historical/mythological Laozi -- but which, in any case, express deep wisdom consistent with the general tone and content of the Daode Jing.
On the importance of devotion, Sri Anandamoyi Ma says:
“Single-minded devotion engenders deep thought, which expresses itself in action. The Lord’s Light descends on the devotee, His power awakens in him and, as a result, profound inner inquiry blossoms forth.”
And, in relation to a specific ritual practice (to ones Ista-Devata or “cherished Divinity”):
“The true progress in one’s spiritual experience depends on the sincerity and intensity of one’s aspiration. The measure of a person’s spiritual advance will be reflected in the manifestations that are vouchsafed to him of his Ista (object of worship), who will by no means remain inaccessible or separate from His devotee, but let Himself be contacted in an infinite variety of ways.”
In comparison, in verse 51 of the Hua Hu Ching we are encouraged to manifest “unconditional love and respect” not within a context of devotional intensity, but rather within a context of simplicity, gentleness, kindness and peace:
“Those who want to know the truth of the universe should practice the four cardinal virtues. The first is reverence for all life; this manifests as unconditional love and respect for oneself and all other beings. The Second is natural sincerity; this manifests as honesty, simplicity, and faithfulness. The third is gentleness; this manifests as kindness, consideration for others, and sensitivity to spiritual truth. The fourth is supportiveness; this manifests as service to others without expectation of reward. The four virtues are not an external dogma but a part of your original nature. When practiced, they give birth to wisdom and evoke the five blessings: health, wealth, happiness, longevity, and peace."
And, in verse 17 of the Hua Hu Ching, the Taoist practitioner is encouraged to eschew formal religious worship, or devotion to external deities, as ultimately untrustworthy:
“Do not go about worshipping deities and religious institutions as the source of the subtle truth. To do so is to place intermediaries between yourself and the divine, and to make of yourself a beggar who looks outside for a treasure that is hidden inside his own breast. If you want to worship the Tao, first discover it in your own heart. Then your worship will be meaningful."
And yet, what about Sri Anandamoyi Ma’s insistence -- representative of a view shared by many other devotionally-oriented Teachers -- that it is the “fire of devotion” that is absolutely necessary, as fuel for the spiritual process:
“You should kindle fire by any means, either with clarified butter or sandalwood or even straw. Once alight, the fire burns on; all worries, darkness and gloom gradually disappear. The fire will burn to ash all obstacles.”
And then, on the other hand, coming back to the Hua Hu Ching, whose verse 78 sings (almost devotionally) the virtues of “the plain, natural, immutable truth” of the Integral Way of Taoism, with its utterly simple path, devoid of overtly devotional flourishes:
“There are many partial religions, and then there is the Integral Way. Partial religions are desperate, clever, human inventions; the Integral Way is a deep expression of the pure, whole, universal mind. Partial religions rely on the hypnotic manipulation of undeveloped minds; the Integral Way is founded on the free transmission of the plain, natural, immutable truth. It is a total reality, not an occult practice. The Integral Way eschews conceptual fanaticism, extravagant living, fancy food, violent music. They spoil the serenity of one's mind and obstruct one's spiritual development. Renouncing what is fashionable and embracing what is plain, honest, and virtuous, the Integral Way returns you to the subtle essence of life. Adopt its practices and you will become like they are: honest, simple, true, virtuous, whole. You see, in partial pursuits, one's transformation is always partial as well. But in integral self-cultivation, it is possible to achieve a complete metamorphosis, to transcend your emotional and biological limitations and evolve to a higher state of being. By staying out of the shadows and following this simple path, you become extraordinary, unfathomable, a being of profound cosmic subtlety. You outlive time and space by realizing the subtle truth of the universe."
Different Strokes For Different Folks
Perhaps, in the end, it’s just a difference of focus, or of the particular flavor of joy and love that is preferred: the understated Taoist sensibility, which strives to avoid excesses of any sort -- physical, emotional or mental -- in favor of balance and harmony, carefree ease and relaxation; versus the devotional fervor of the Hindu (or Tibetan Buddhist) Bhakta, which delights in maintaining the tension between the lover and the Beloved (Krishna & Radha, Padmasambhava & Yeshe Tsogyal) -- as an evermore transparent polarity, manifesting simply for its own enjoyment, whose intensity in the end consumes any and all remnants of dualistic ignorance?