On Making Your Own Altar

Every serious Taoist has an altar. It’s a symbol intimately associated with Taoism. In the past, Taoists held “altar wars” where two competing Taoists would set up public altars and duel with each other over ritual and magic. That was silly, of course, but it does underscore how the altar was so much a part of Taoism. The altar is the place for meditation, prayer, offering, sacrifice, remembrance of ancestors. It is essentially the place to dedicate oneself to Tao.

When it comes to Taoism and all things Chinese, there are plenty of local customs and variations. These details are as I learned them from my teacher. Take these as guidelines to make an altar that suits you. Unless you’re following a specific school, create an altar that’s meaningful to you.

You begin with two tables. The larger of the two tables should be high—at least as high as your chest. This is the table where the main deities are placed. Some people have alcoves or high altar cabinets. Temples have entire chapels where the life-sized deity sits in a special enclosure surrounded by carvings. But if one is setting up a home altar, a high alcove or high table should be fine

The smaller table is lower than the large one by at least a few inches and is the place where one presents offerings.

My master told me that the altar tables should be of the best wood available and of the finest quality that one can afford: I built his tables and I’ve built my own altars. This is really all about devotion to your spirituality and your gods, so you offer the very best you can.

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with poverty and simplicity. Those who cannot have a formal altar write the name of the deity on a plank of wood or a piece of paper, set the god on a high place, and making offerings before that simple shrine.

Once you have your altar tables, you have to have gods to worship. In general, the gods are assigned to you by a priest of your master, or, if you’ve had a successful relationship with a god—perhaps you invoked them at a time of need and were answered—then you would go to a temple and ask them to give you instructions on worshipping that deity. I’ve also seen people select gods based on their profession or their needs. If someone was a scholar, for example, then the God of Literature would be a clear choice. If someone was poor, they might understandably make offerings to the God of Wealth.

If possible, your altars and your gods are be consecrated at a temple. The priest will also give you the sutras and mantras to go with your gods.

As soon as your god is consecrated, you treat the figure as a live person. You invite them into your home, and carry them upright and facing forward to your altar.

The god is set at the center and back of the large table. Vases of flowers (never white ones), red candles (people use electric ones for safety), and dishes of fruit are set before the deity and on each side of the table. An incense burner (if possible, incense is always burning, or one can only light the incense during ritual; electric incense is also possible) and three cups of tea are set in the front and center. The tea should be changed daily, and the fruit and flowers must always be fresh.

Once you’ve set up your altar tables and placed the consecrated gods there, what do you do?

The altar is the center for your devotions. Generally, you’ll pray at least morning and evening, bowing to the altar, lighting incense, and then sitting in meditation. The priest may have given you a mantra to chant, and you may have been instructed on reciting sutras. These scriptures contain important precepts and devotional thoughts about the god or gods you are worshipping.

On ritual days, more elaborate offerings are possible—wine, rice, food, pastries, candies, and so on are set on the smaller front table.

Having an altar is quite involved—but that’s really the point. It’s adoration, devotion, and discipline. By having to adhere to a strict regimen, our minds are constantly brought back to the divine.

We who are modern may see ritual as hollow, some mere dutiful enactment. But the ancients saw ritual differently: ritual was the reality itself. Worship was not supplication or insincere form. Worship itself was the goal. Some people view worship as a means to get something: “I’ll ask this god to help me.” But the greater view is that worship is our expression of who we are.

Devout worship gives expression to the sacred in our hearts.

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The Canon of Purity and Tranquility

太上老君说常清静经全文
Lao Zi speaks of the Canon of Purity and Tranquility (Qingjing Jing)

1

老君曰:
大道无形,生育天地;大道无情,运行日月;
大道无名,长养万物;吾不知其名,强名曰道。

Lao Zi said:
The great Tao is formless, it gives birth to heaven and earth.
The great Tao does has no sentiment, yet it moves the sun and moon.
The great Tao is nameless, yet it always nurtures everything;
I do not know how to name this: I name it Tao.

2

夫道者:有清有浊,有动有静;天清地浊,天动地静。男清女浊,男动女静。
降本流末,而生万物。

This Tao: 
We can have clarity or turbidity. We can have movement or stillness. Heaven can be clear and the earth can be turbid. Heaven can move and the earth can be still. The male can be clear and the female can be turbid. The male can move and the female can be still. What flows from the root births the ten thousand things.

[Notes: 1) The word for “clear” is the same as the word for “pure.” 2) None of the descriptions—clear, turbid, movement, or stillness—should be read with any value judgments. 3) The associations with male and female do not carry any value judgments or imply any superiority. The canon is establishing a yin-yang duality; both sides are integral to the whole. 4) All of the associations are reversible. For example, the reverse is equally true for “The male can move and the female can be turbid.”]

3

清者浊之源,动者静之基。人能常清静,天地悉皆归。

Purity is the source of turbidity, movement is the foundation of stillness.
 If people can be pure and tranquil, all in heaven and earth will know returning.

[Note: 1) The word for “purity” is the same as the word for “clarity” in the previous passage. 2) Note the duality of purity and turbidity, movement and stillness. That one leads to the other means that yin and yang create one another. 3) Again, all attributes are reversible, so that turbidity can just as easily lead to purity and stillness, or that stillness is just as easily the foundation of movement. 4) “Return” means that all will revert to the natural source, which is pure.]

4

夫人神好清,而心扰之;人心好静,而欲牵之。常能遣其欲,而心自静,澄其心而神自清。

The human spirit is quite pure, yet the mind disturbs it. The human heart can be quite tranquil, yet desire leads it. If one can vanquish desire, one’s mind will be tranquil on its own,
and when one’s mind settles, the spirit will be pure on its own.

[Notes: 1) The word for “heart” also means mind, intelligence, and soul. It’s important to read the phrase using all meanings. 2) The word for “settle,” means allowing sediment to settle to purify water.]

5

自然六欲不生,三毒消灭。
所以不能者,为心未澄,欲未遣也。

Then on its own, the six desires will not arise, and the three poisons will vanish.
If you are unable to do this, it is because the mind is not yet settled, and desire has not yet been vanquished.

[Notes: 1) The six desires are what the five senses lead us to crave plus what the ego wishes to possess and control. 2) The three poisons are lust, anger, and greed. 2) Chinese pronouns are not specific. “You” is used here as a matter of choice. 4) The use of the word “settle,” implies that stillness and calm allow the mind to return to its inherent purity without any special effort. Just as sediment in water will settle, so too will the mind settle simply by taking the time to be still.]

6

能遣之者,内观其心,心无其心;外观其形,形无其形;远观其物,物无其物。

If you can vanquish in this way, and you look inside at your heart, it may outwardly have a form, but that form will be formless. If you look widely at all things, things will have no substance.

[Notes: 1) “Vanquish” is the overcoming of desire, as mentioned in the previous passage. 2) Remember the multiple meanings for “heart,” which also means mind, intelligence, and soul. 3) Things having no substance signifies that nothing has inherent or independent meaning; we project our values upon them.]

7

三者既悟,唯见於空。
观空亦空, 空无所空 。

Once you realize these three situations, you indeed see emptiness, and observe that emptiness is also empty, and that nothing more can be emptied from emptiness.

所空既无,无无亦无。
无无既无,湛然常寂。

Such emptiness is already nothingness, nothing is not-nothing. [When there’s] nothing [but] nothing from nothing, [all is] placid and constant stillness.

[Notes: 1) Following from the previous passage, the three situations are to vanquish desire, look inside to see the formless heart, and seeing that all things are without substance. 2) This passage uses both the word for “emptiness” (空) and “nothingness” 无。3) In saying that “emptiness is also empty,” the canon is careful not to set up a duality between emptiness and our normal world. Emptiness is not “superior,” it’s just a state in which there is nothing truly to contend over. 4) In the second sentence, I’ve inserted more words to try to make the passage clear. I understand this to mean, “when all is seen as complete nothingness.” 5) The word here translated as “placid” also means deep, profound, clear, and tranquil. Thus, it’s a synonym for the tranquility in the title of the canon. 6) Stillness can also mean silence.]

8

寂无所寂,欲岂能生?欲既不生,即是真静。

When quiet has no more to be quieted, how can desire arise? If desire does not arise, that is immediate and real quietness.

9

真常应物,真常得性;常应常静,常清静矣。

True constancy in all things, achieves true constancy of character. Such constancy means constant stillness, achieving constant purity and tranquility.

[Note: The use of the word “constant, or “chang” (常) in so many different ways is interesting because of its echo of the opening of the Daodejing: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the constant Tao, the name that can be named is not the constant name.”]

10

如此清静,渐入真道。既入真道,名为得道,虽名得道,实无所得。

If you have purity and tranquility, you will gradually enter the true Tao. Once you enter the true Tao, it may be called “gaining Tao,” but while it may be called gaining Tao, in actuality, there was nothing to gain.

为化众生,名为得道;能悟之者,可传圣道。

To helping all living things to change, we call it gaining Tao. If you can realize this, then you can transmit this holy path.

[Note: The canon grapples with how to talk about a non-dualistic subject in a dualistic way. One has to grasp the idea of working toward purity and tranquility, but accept that there was nothing to work toward in the first place. Why? Because we are already pure and tranquil. We may be disturbed by worldly involvements, but there was nothing wrong with us to begin with. One realizes that there was nothing that had to be done—thereby avoiding dualistic entanglements. Only when you are clear on this can you transmit the holy path—because it flows through you.]

11

老君曰:
上士无争,下士好争;上德不德,下德执德。执著之者,不明道德。

Superior persons do not contend. Inferior persons contend. Superior virtue is beyond morality. Inferior virtue keeps to morality. Those who cling solely to morality do not comprehend the virtue of Tao.

[Notes: 1) The word translated here as “person,” has many meanings: feudal lord, senior official, scholar, bachelor, military rank (and part of the word for warrior). The advice is intended for someone who is wanting to be cultivated. So one might read this as “cultivated person.” 2) Many people have trouble with Taoism’s attitude toward morality, sometimes accusing it of being immoral. But the canon is attacking dogmatic and petty morality exercised without critical thinking.]

12

众生所以不得真道者,为有妄心。
既有妄心,即惊其神。既惊其神,即著万物;
既著万物,即生贪求。既生贪求,即是烦恼。
烦恼妄想,忧苦身心。
但遭浊辱,流浪生死,常沉苦海,永失真道。

Therefore the reason that people don’t realize the true Tao is because they have confused hearts. If they have confused hearts, it quickly unbalances their spirits. Since their spirits are already unbalanced, they immediately attach themselves to everything, promptly giving rise to desire. Once desire arises, there is anger. Once there is anger, your thinking becomes reckless, and grief and bitterness fill your body and heart. Yet you still stay in the muddy and abusive, drift wastefully through life and death, always sunk in the sea of suffering, forever missing the true Tao.

真常之道,悟者自得。得悟道者,常清静矣。

Realizing the truly constant Tao must be gained yourself. Realize the Tao, and you will have everlasting purity and tranquility.

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Christianity, Qigong, and Bodybuilding

I came across two different stories today that intersect for me.

The first was called Christianity, Taoism &Qigong, http://annayork.ning.com/page/taoism-christianity.

I haven’t been able to verifty all of the information elsewhere, but it’s an intriguing story. According to Ms. York, the Christian church was established in China in the seventh century, close to the legendary site where Laozi wrote the Daodejing. Located near Xi’an, these mountains are home to many Taoist and Buddhist sites.

The Christian church in those days was apparently more open to other beliefs—or perhaps it had to appear more Chinese to find adherents. It was called the Religion of Light, and according to Ms. York :

Texts reveal that the Chinese Church differed from the Western Church in being multi-cultural, pacifist, vegetarian, and egalitarian in terms of gender and class. Thus, in some ways, it was a unique expression of Christianity that could have been closer in some ways to what Christ intended than what has developed in the Western Church.

While the Church of the West developed as a monolithic entity, the Church of the East was more a confederation of churches. The fact that they did not force doctrinal agreement allowed more openness in their interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. One result was that Christianity was able to adapt certain parts of its message to the unique aspects of many different cultures. For example, it addressed issues that were prevalent in Chinese culture but were absent in the West, such as karma and reincarnation.

Ms. York believes that the part of that cultural adaptation would have been the practice of qigong.

Today I also came across the story of Amy Richter, the Episopal priest who is also a bodybuilder. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/the-ripped-bikini-clad-reverend.html

My point to bringing all this up is this:

  • The idea of combining physical practices with religion is not as odd as it seems to some people
  • The cross-cultural exchange that took place between the Buddhists and Taoists throughout Chinese history apparently also applied to their relationship with Christianity and that the porous boundaries between doctrines was considered normal.
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Should Religion be Taught in Public Schools?

I received this e-mail:

My name is James Morrison, and I teach a World Religions course at Red Wing High School (Red Wing, Minnesota). It has not been easy. Over the years I have been condemned by Christian fundamentalists for “polluting the minds of children with false ideas” and for “doing the devil’s work.” I have been teaching for seventeen years, and I am writing a book about my experiences and the challenges of teaching about religion in public schools (I teach juniors and seniors). . . . The bulk of the book will be categorically divided into chapters. Each chapter will be a collection of letter responses (answers) to the following question: “What (if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?”

Here’s my response:

I once visited a Taoist temple in Chinatown that was housed in a brownstone apartment building. After I trudged up three flights, an elderly priest in indigo robes buzzed open an iron gate and welcomed me into a single large hall. Aside from a few hanging lanterns, most of the light came from the front of the building, where a series of sliding doors had been thrown open to a balcony and the daylight beyond. A large altar crowded with Taoist and Buddhist statues faced the opening, but figures of Jesus and Mohammed were also there to receive the chanting, incense, and gentle sounding of bells in worship. It seems to me that we should be just as universal in educating our students, and that education goes hand in hand with veneration.

Public schools should give students an education about all the world’s religions in an age-appropriate way and in relationship to the overall high school curriculum. A complete education in history, government, or literature is impossible otherwise. One cannot adequately study European or Middle Eastern history without exploring the long and complicated interaction of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Understanding the very beginnings of the United States requires comprehending the issue of religious freedom. And how could we possibly read the Song of Roland, the Canterbury Tales, or the Divine Comedy without probing the religious themes embodied in the texts? A complete education requires understanding religion.

A comparative religion class offered at the high school level would provide even greater gains: it would promote tolerance. One need not become a Buddhist to understand and appreciate that spiritual tradition. If one is Protestant, there’s nothing wrong with studying Catholicism. In this day where the tensions with Islam are high, it’s imperative not to demonize it. After all, it’s the very attitude of demonization that inflames Islam against us.

Some parents are concerned with exposing their children to other religions—as if the mere study of another belief would make their children run away from home. This is puzzling because we don’t apply the same attitude to other subjects. If a child is good at science, does that mean she shouldn’t study literature for fear she’ll become a writer? If a child is good at literature, does that mean he should be forbidden from taking physical education for fear that he’ll want to become a professional athlete? Do we stop our children from going to a friend’s house for dinner for fear that they’ll then want to move to a “better” family? We do none of these things; there’s no harm in exposing our children to comparative religions.

High school is fundamental to establishing a child’s stability for the remainder of his or her life. During this formative time, we equip our students with as many skills as we can. We demand that they study the entire range of subjects from the humanities to the sciences, from physical education to the arts. We know that they will fall back on their educations every day of the rest of their lives. Yet when it comes to religion, we leave that to haphazard sidebars in textbooks or tentative ventures into somebody else’s house of worship. If we are concerned about children leaving their home religion, opposing the mention of religion in schools will not stop that—it only leaves that inevitable process a clumsy and ignorant one. According to the Pew Forum, about half of American adults change religious affiliation at least once during their lives. The survey further found that most of those who decided to leave their childhood faith said that they did so prior to the age of twenty-four. Knowing that half of all students will be searching means that we should provide the proper basis for inquiry. In addition, for the other half that will stay with their family religion, we can provide greater security as they learn the good points of those beliefs and how all religions address the same questions.

I am not advocating the teaching of a single religion, proselytizing for any religion, nor the teaching of religious practices without a great range and wide experience. No student should be required to renounce, contradict, or violate their own religious beliefs for the sake of exploring other ideas. As long as that principle of respecting a student’s personal religion is observed even as other systems are being studied, then all will be well.

My own education parallels all that I’ve said. I was raised as a Methodist, attending both Sunday school and nighttime Chinese language school at a church just half a block from the Taoist temple I’ve described. I was in church six days a week. In the meantime, though, I kept encountering references to Taoism in literature, history, and art. Furthermore, I only got a larger understanding of my own culture and religious traditions not through any family or community settings, but in college classes. Eventually, I have moved completely into Taoism and have written extensively about it. However, that does not mean that I have lost any respect for Christianity, and I remain interested in all the world’s religions. When I travel, I visit churches, temples, and holy sites of all kinds. After all these years, I’m still following the example of that altar I saw in Chinatown. Every religion is worthy of respect. Each person should be allowed to choose the religion that seems best, and the commitment to religion is only strengthened by learning and tolerance.

 

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Ruyi Studio of Multicultural Arts

Photo of Pearl HuangMy friend and student, Pearl Huang, has opened a new studio in Taos, NM. She’s teaching classes in Qigong and Taiji, Chinese langage and music, as well as Chinese calligraphy. You can also see some of her own stunning calligraphy on display.

Pearl was born and educated in China.  She is a performer, artist and educator.  She has taught Chinese language, culture, and holistic healing at the University of New Mexico, Taos, since 2002.  She  has also led cultural study tours to various parts of China.

You can see more at: http://www.ruyistudio.com/index.html

 

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Chinese New Year Day

Today is Chinese New Year Day. It’s a day when every action we take should be auspicious—in the belief that this sets the tone for the remainder of the year. That’s certainly an ideal worth pursuing. How many times do we really get the chance to start over, start fresh, start anew? This is one of those days, and it’s worth the contemplation and the determination to make the entire year good.

The year of the dragon should certainly be an active one. Some say it’s especially lucky. When we have good fortune, we have to work hard to make use of it, and to stay balanced. When we have bad fortune, we have to work hard to overcome our difficulties. Therefore, only the actions and hard work of each individual are stronger than fate.

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Chinese New Year: The Nian Monster

There was once a mythical beast named Nian. Nian is the actual word for “year” and is a pictograph of a person carrying the harvest home. But in this legend, the Nian came on the first day of the new year to devour livestock, crops, villagers, and especially children. People were forced to put food in front of their doors on new year’s day so the Nian would not eat anyone.

One year, though, the Nian was scared away by a child dressed in red. Thereafter, villagers hung red lanterns and red scrolls on windows and doors and used firecrackers to scare the Nian away.

The beast was eventually captured by a Taoist monk named Hongjun Laozu, and he rides the Nian to this day.

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Chinese New Year

Chinese new year begins tomorrow, January 23. It’s the year of the dragon.

A Family Holiday

The Spring Festival (Chun Jie) beginning with Lunar New Year Day, is a family holiday. Family members return home to see parents and grandparents and to renew family ties. For many, it may be their only opportunity of the year. Much of Asia closes for this two-week period and very little business occurs. The Spring Festival period is the busiest time for the transportation and communications systems within China.

Nowadays, e-mails, text messaging, and mobile phone calls are replacing some of the traditional travel—However, the old attitude prevails: every person goes home for the Lunar New Year, sees friends and close relatives, or at least makes contact.
The Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout the People’s Republic of China, Asia, and in Chinatowns and Chinese communities throughout the world.

Fifteen Days of Celebration

Traditional Spring Festival practices include visits to temples, prayer, paying respects to parents and in-laws, withdrawing on some days for private observances, and arranging for a succession of rich banquets and vegetarian days. In more recent times, joyous public celebrations have been added: fireworks, concerts, acrobatic shows, parades, and exhibitions abound in many communities. Lavish fireworks in cities like Beijing and Shanghai make for grand celebrations.

The fifteen-day period ends with the Lantern Festival (p. 19). People carry lanterns, view lanterns, and stroll in the streets. Lanterns have grown to the size of large floats with glowing dragons, crabs, birds, figures, and pagodas.

Auspicious Actions

Every attempt is made to perform auspicious actions before and after the start of the new year. As the old year ends, a family cleans house thoroughly, symbolically sweeping away lingering misfortunes from the old year. There is no cleaning on new year’s day to avoid sweeping away good luck.
Business people hurry to settle debts, for no one wishes to enter the new year encumbered, and all people are encouraged to settle grudges. As much as possible, everyone wishes to be free of any problems from the past, and to look forward to peace, happiness, and prosperity.

It’s important to avoid harsh words, anger, or arguments during Lunar New Year. Children are delighted because there is neither scolding nor punishment on the first day of a new year.

Windows and doors are decorated with paper cuts and couplets with good wishes for happiness, prosperity, and longevity. In particular, one can see the word for “happiness,” (fu) everywhere. People who can recognize a little Chinese are often puzzled why this word is displayed upside down in homes and store windows, but it symbolizes happiness pouring into our lives.

On Lunar New Year Eve all the members of the family gather for a rich feast. Traditional dishes include roast pork, duck, chicken, fish, and sweets. All the food must be perfect in appearance and taste, and poultry and fish must be served whole—having a “head and a tail” symbolizes being thorough and complete. The night ends with firecrackers to drive away evil spirits.

Early the next morning, children greet their parents and wish them happy new year. The parents hand out red envelopes with “lucky money” inside. The envelopes are decorated with wishes for happiness, long life, wealth, success, and the fulfillment of all wishes.

Married couples also give these red envelopes to the elderly, unmarried family members, and to children. Even numbers are favored for the amounts. The number eight is popular because it sounds like the word “wealth,” and the number six is popular because it sounds like the word for “flowing.”

Many things having to do with the Lunar New Year are red, which is considered a lucky color. (By contrast, white is avoided as unlucky— it’s worn at funerals.) Red represents joy, virtue, truth, sincerity, and the heart.

 

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Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism

The Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism are Taishan, Huashan, Hengshan (Shanxi), Hengshan (Hunan), and Songshan. Each of the Five Sacred Mountains is a center of history, spirituality, art, and poetry. Pilgrimages to the sacred mountains are highly valued as inspiring, reverent, and beneficial journeys. Pilgrims believe that they can absorb the power of the mountain because they’re close to the divine power of heaven. The makers of the lunar calendar wanted to encompass the entirety of human existence: by preserving observation days for each sacred mountain the lunar calendar incorporates both time and place.Recently, I have exchanged e-mails with Derek, a California photographer now living in Sweden, who shoots fashion, music, and advertising photos. He wrote:

My love of Taoism started very early. probably around 9 years old. I found the Daodejingat the library and it just resonated in me. My Baptist mother and Catholic father did not understand, but funnily enough I went to Taishan with my father in the late 90s. . . . I found time to meditate in some of the more solitary places there which made me happy. And of course it was a dream to photograph there.

What are the sacred mountains in our own spiritual landscape? That can be a literal question—are there mountains near where you live that are special to you? It can be a metaphorical question—what are are the peaks of your inner landscape? In either case, they are mountain to be discovered. They are mountains to be climbed.

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The Darkest Day

In the course of a year, who among us goes through over three hundred days without any misfortune or trouble? All of us do, and sometimes, those troubles can try us to our souls, drive us to madness, and leave us staring in bewilderment at the complete darkness outside our filmy windows.

For all of us, then, winter solstice is a reminder that darkness comes to its greatest culmination—for exactly one day. On all the other days, there is a dynamic and precise proportion between dark and light. It is measurable, it is complete. It is, for any day, immutable. Yes, the darkness of solstice cannot be altered—but human beings can do what nature cannot: we can forbear and outlast it and live to see tomorrow.

The people of the past have left us many hints about what to do: families come back together, nourish themselves, give thanks to their ancestors, and in looking at the round balls of glutinous rice in their round bowls sitting at round tables, they reaffirm that all of life is a smooth cycle. The Taoists observe the day precisely, aligning themselves with the greater cosmic cycles of sunrise and sunset and the turning of the earth. They also celebrate the Three Pure Ones, reflecting on a religious level the worship of ancestors, and turning to faith at a time when the sky is dark and the cycles of life so profoundly change. They also choose this day to set their entire next year, for the winter solstice marks the time of transition for a lunar calendar that always centers around the eleventh month occuring during the winter solstice.

At any time of your life, you may find yourself in a winter, and you may feel that you are in the darkest of times. Think back to this day then and do what has been done for thousands of years: unite with your family, nourish yourself and others, fix your mind on the truth of cycles, forbear, and take refuge in reverence for the holy.

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