Text © 2013 Sean M. Madden. All Rights Reserved.
This interview coincides with the publication of Deng Ming-Dao's The Lunar Tao. Click here to read my review, published last Friday, of Deng's latest book.
I first learned of Deng Ming-Dao ten years ago this year. A friend with whom I lived in Annapolis, Maryland gave me a copy of Deng's 365 Tao, a book of daily Taoist meditations. While I was touched by the gift, it took some time for me to move beyond HarperCollins's New Age-seeming cover design to recognize a credible voice within. The cover has since been replaced with a more suitable design; unfortunately, it's printed on paper scarcely better than newsprint, rather than the sturdy, acid-free paper of the first edition. This might be suitable for throwaway romances and thrillers, but it's sub-par for books containing timeless words of wisdom which many might wish to read throughout their lives. HarperCollins, are you listening?
I had been introduced to Taoism by way of another book given to me by another friend 14 years previously, while living in Amsterdam. That book was a well-loved copy of Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh, which I've since loaned out to many friends.
The Tao of Pooh, in turn, inspired me to read Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, and later Hoff's follow-on book, The Te of Piglet.
These books have impacted me vitally. They spoke to my heart and helped to set me not so much on a road but a winding path less traveled — a path of simplicity, a path of adventure, and a path of living an uncommon life, much as Henry David Thoreau's Walden inspired me in my pursuit of simplicity of purpose, and, too, to read classical works of literature and philosophy.
Eventually, this interest in Taoism led me to studying Eastern philosophy and classics at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a year after having previously studied their Western counterparts at St. John's in Annapolis, during which time I was given the copy of 365 Tao.
Unexpectedly, this book grew on me, and I realized over time that I had grown with it. It seemed almost magic in its capacity to deliver just the right message at just the right time. And no matter how many times I read it, somehow a new entry — the very one I needed, one I didn't recall having read — would suddenly appear to offer words of wisdom, and comfort.
After the simultaneously short, unimaginably long, sometimes serene and sometimes turbulent ten years since first reading Deng, to be in regular contact with him the past couple years has been an ineffable boon, like a homecoming. And it's been a great pleasure to introduce Deng's books to students who've taken my various creative writing and mindful living courses and workshops, and, too, to have been able to give copies of 365 Tao to loved ones down through the years. May they, and you, get as much out of Deng's works as I have this past decade.
Without further ado, here's my interview with bestselling author, successful artist and world-renowned Taoist master Deng Ming-Dao ...
SMM: You say in The Lunar Tao that the purpose of the book is "to help people follow Taoism until they find a master", yet you contrast this with a discussion which emphasizes "self-discovery after long effort". Two questions, then, come to mind, the first, as you say, being amongst the most commonly asked questions by your readers. That is, what do you suggest interested folk do to find a master in today's world?
DMD: If someone wanted to be a dancer and wanted to study from a master teacher one day, she'd prepare by taking many classes. Master classes are for students who can immediately use what's being taught. In the same way, people who wish to study with a spiritual master need to familiarize themselves with the tradition so that they can understand the master's references. That's why The Lunar Tao is constructed with sidebars — the masters will recite a line of poetry or mention a historical event and not only expect the students to understand but to use that as a basis for the actual lesson. It's cumbersome to stop and explain the background because the larger point gets lost.
Aside from being well-read, a student interested in Taoism can study many allied arts: Taijiquan, calligraphy, painting, music, poetry and so on. Progress in any one of these fields contributes to progress in Taoism. Just today, my current Taiji teacher said how much she enjoyed teaching an older woman student. The woman had no athletic background at all, but she was a calligrapher and was able to understand every point the Taiji teacher made. She could do this not because she knew martial arts, but because she understood her own art. So even if one doesn't have a spiritual master right away, one chooses to delve as deeply as possible in a related art.
Studying with a master is different from our usual sense of education. It's not like getting trained in how to use machinery. It's more about confirming our feelings about living, discovering truths about ourselves, and finding more viable ways to live. It's not just about the subject. The art of living is always behind the technical aspects of the subject being studied.
Once all that has been established, be vigilant. Search for the master, be open to the master, be ready for the master. The master initiates the student. This applies to all subjects, not just Taoism. Unless you have a mentor to open the doors for you, you can't progress, whether it's art, writing, carpentry, science, martial arts — or the spiritual.
The master helps you do things you haven't been able to do. The master can get you to do things you haven't wanted to do. I frequently complain to myself that at every class my teachers ask me to do something I can't do. When do I get to be glorious? Instead, studying is a constant confrontation with my faults, shortcomings, inadequacies, and doubts. However, if you add up all those days, years, and decades of struggling to master skills that did not come naturally to me, you can see how much progress is possible because of masters.
SMM: And, secondly, what signs might signal that it's time to depart from the master to continue one's journey on one's own?
DMD: A true master never binds a student. The student is always free to leave. Master and student walk the path together and share the same fortune. When it comes time to part, like any other travelers, one says farewell and travels on.
How does one know it's time to leave? One should have acquired a sound working knowledge of the subject, and one should be able to express it. Returning to the analogy of the ballet student: when the student can dance to an expert level, it's time for her to move on.
Master Kwan's definition of a master was this: someone who can answer any question, who can fend off any attack, and who can heal any person. If you can do that, then, yes, it's time to move on.
None of my teachers have ever had only one teacher themselves. They've all had many teachers, and I would urge anyone else to follow the same example. But one shouldn't flit from teacher to teacher. One has to spend years of studying so that the knowledge is deep rather than scattered.
SMM: For years, I hunted to learn something about you beyond the brief author's blurb accompanying each of your books, but to no avail. Given the influence 365 Tao and your other books had had on my life, I wanted to know more about you as a person, what your background was, what you were doing today beyond the business of writing books, etc. Finally, two years ago I found your email address via your (then new?) website. But now you're far more accessible, with a public presence on Facebook and Twitter. And it's clear from the comments left by various folk that many had previously thought you some sort of ancient Taoist relic, scarcely, if at all, existing as a living, breathing human being. What can you tell us about why you have decided to appear more publicly on the world's stage, if perhaps close to the wings? Put another way, why have you left the relative safety of your (metaphorical) Taoist cave to mix it up with the people?
DMD: I was once scheduled to speak to a college class, and one of the students knew his girlfriend was a fan of mine. He went home and asked her, "What do you know about Deng Ming-Dao?" She replied, "I don't know — he must be dead."
It's not surprising that people think that the only writers of Asian spirituality are antique. But that's really my point. Taoism is for the here and now, and perhaps it's needed more than ever. It's always been for the nonconformists, the free thinkers, the creative people, and the outsiders. As society's value on innovation and creativity increases, we need Taoist philosophy. Taoism is really about what it means to be a creative human in this world of turmoil and struggle. As our grappling with war, violence, disaster, and the question of existence continues unabated, it makes sense to look into a tradition that has grappled with these questions for thousands of years.
Dialogue has always been a part of Taoism. What's more, dialogue with other spiritual traditions has been equally important — the twelfth century painting, Laughing Three Times at Tiger Brook, shows the friendship of a Taoist, a Buddhist, and a Confucian-Poet. I view having a web presence as an opportunity to find friends, and I've been fortunate that people from all around the world have joined in conversation.
My first book was published in 1983. In the beginning, I tried to follow the Taoist ideals that shy from publicity. But to take that literally is misleading: Taoists were well recognized in ancient Chinese society so they didn't have to do much publicity. If people wanted to find Taoism, there was a temple and master within walking distance, and there were only a few sacred mountains where the high masters dwelled. That isn't true today. I've had to adapt to the way the world works now, even as I am determined to remain true to the tenets. Someone helped me by saying that a stronger web presence was another way of offering. "Let those who want it take part, and don't worry about those who don't." Since people come to my Facebook and web page voluntarily, all I need to do is remain true to my own voice.
SMM: As noted in my review, I'm particularly impressed with the way you've threaded together each of The Lunar Tao's entries by way of the opening and closing aphorisms. Can you give readers — and, in particular, we writers — some insight as to how you came to organize the book in this fashion?
DMD: When I published 365 Tao in 1992, I started combining verse with prose. All I wanted to do then was find the most succinct way to get at my subject, but it was also inspired by the fu form of Chinese prose-poem. I later realized that this form helped readers get quickly to the content of what I was saying, and it allowed the easy re-quotation of parts of the book. Since then, I've always tried to innovate in form as much as content with each successive book.
For The Lunar Tao, I first decided to bring more structure to this process by sticking solely with opening couplets. This was a reference to the New Year's couplets that flank the doors of households. Each couplet is written in syllabics: I counted the number of syllables in each line and matched them because each part of a Chinese couplet usually uses the same number of words. But I also saw the page format like jazz: the couplet was the "head" of the song, the prose was the "solo." By that view, the sidebars were the chord changes — they gave a background to spring off of in the prose, and that left me free to take oblique angles to the subject without being afraid that the reader wouldn't know the meaning of my references.
It was only late in the process that I realized that I could have a closing couplet made of the last line of the opening couplet combined with the first line of the following couplet. I tried the combination using the couplets as they had already been written and in almost all the cases, the juxtapositions fit together into new couplets that expanded the meaning of the book. I had two precedents in mind for this. In my previous book, The Living I Ching, I had tried to find a link between one hexagram and the next, because the order of the hexagrams seemed to carry important secrets. My second precedent was a writerly one: I had always admired Dante's terza rima with its interlocking pattern, and I wanted to have something like that to tie all 365 days together. You'll see at the end that the last couplet ties back to the first day's couplet. By doing this, I could make form reflect the message: that all days were joined, that Tao was a path through the days, and that everything was cyclical.
SMM: The breadth of your Chinese and Taoist knowledge is vast. You've obviously studied, closely, countless classical texts from various traditions, learned much by way of having attended Chinese school — in addition to the San Francisco public schools — when you were young, and as a practicing Taoist martial artist. But I'm curious to know how much time you've spent in China over the course of your life, and how engaged you might be with folk presently living there?
DMD: I've been to China three times, but I never succeeded in meeting anyone I wanted to study with. I have a peculiar belief: that I should be able to find whatever I need to know of spirituality "in my own backyard." Besides, learning takes a long time and that means constant study over a long period of time.
I am American born. Whatever I need to know of Taoism is not to be on a Chinese mountaintop — I saw enough of China to know that it's nothing like the United States. I need to know the spirituality that can work for my life and in my hometown and that shows me how to meet my challenges in my country and my own life.
SMM: You mentioned in a recent email that you've deliberately decided to make your next book project a simpler affair. What more can you tell readers about your next book, after The Lunar Tao, that is?
DMD: I'm not sure what my next book will be; I have two or three floating around in various drafts. But one takes its beginning from Laozi's famous line, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step." Travel is one of the ultimate spiritual acts: you're guaranteed to change in a very short amount of time, everyone can relate to it, no one can deny that you've gone on a journey, and it's enjoyable. Everyone uses the journey as a spiritual metaphor, but I decided to make it the basis of a book. As it almost writes itself, references to all sorts of spiritual traditions and places cropped up by themselves. So I've decided to just let this book go and see where it leads.
SMM: And, finally, how does it feel to be Deng Ming-Dao, a bestselling and widely translated author — not to mention successful artist and art director — in his fifties with a large body of influential work under your belt, all the while continuing to deepen your Taoist practice and understanding?
DMD: I continue the work I'm doing. It's what I feel drawn to and I still feel that there's more for me to discover. I continue to take classes and lessons, I write every day (a discipline I only recently managed to accomplish), and I continue to try to deepen my understanding. The reason I follow Taoism is that there are fresh insights that come to me, and I look forward to sharing them.
Like every artist and writer, I know the anxiety of being a creative person. I still worry, "What if the ideas stop coming?" But I'm fortunate that they still come. The daily work is about being there to receive those new ideas, and developing the technical means to express them.
My work is really about the nexus between creativity and spirituality. There aren't a lot of people working in this area, and it's hardly the path to fame and fortune. But I feel that there's something I'm supposed to accomplish, and every creative person has to commit honestly to his or her field. The field chose me as much as I chose it, so that means I work every day and trust the reasons will still be revealed in the future.
SMM: Thank you so much, Ming-Dao, for all the time and consideration you put into your responses to my questions.
And thank you to all the Mindful Living Guide visitors who took the time to read this interview as well as my review of Deng's The Lunar Tao. As always, I encourage you to leave comments, below — to ask questions, to share your thoughts about anything which Deng Ming-Dao shared with us, about any of his books, etc. How, for instance, have Deng's works influenced you? Which of his books are particularly dear to you, and why?
I'd also greatly appreciate your taking a few moments to share this interview, as well as the review, with your own friends and follower folk via the social share buttons below. Thank you.