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I was a little surprised, though pleased, to receive an invitation to talk on Taoism. My credentials comprise, wholly, one errant remark made some time back that I felt I identify more closely with Taoist thinking than I do with any other one philosophy. So, please allow me to distance myself some from my topic by saying I am not, strictly, a Taoist. I wouldn't doubt that among you is a more knowledgeable person who could speak more to the particulars of Taoist religious practice. Be that as it may, I am happy to share some of the aspects of Taoism that I have come to realize are yet more inklings of what it is we seek. (We are all seeking something aren't we? Otherwise, we'd skip this part and go right to the coffee.)
Houston Smith, - some of you are likely familiar the name - a widely recognized purveyor of world religions, suggests there are three loosely associated branches of Taoism: Religious Taoism, Vitalizing Taoism (also called Qigong), and Philosophic Taoism. I would agree. This talk, in fact, is going to focus on Taoist philosophy. The intricate and often magical practices that have developed in China as Taoist Religion are mostly foreign to my sensibility, but I hope to provide at least some outline for the way these pantheistic rituals flow from the philosophy. Likewise, the Vitalizing Taoism developed into very specialized practices, some of it often more akin to alchemy, but it too is based on the traditional herbal, folk-healing and meditational practices that have its roots in Taoist philosophy.
Taoism is such a diverse tradition, understand, these groupings of Philosophic, Religious, and Vitalizing branches are a convenience - in actuality, Taoism is comprehended and practiced in myriad overlapping ways in the orient.
So, the religious and health branches are the outward manifestations -often very colorful practices that obviously meet very specific cultural needs, but which are not essential, I believe, to an appreciation of the inward meeting with Tao.
I am not presuming I can present Taoist philosophy completely in abstract. We should know that as philosophy and religion are entwined with a people's cultural development, it would be very difficult to extract and consider any one of these branches without the vestiges of the others. Taoist philosophy can't be completely distilled for consideration from Chinese folk-culture or, therefore, Taoist religion.
Likewise, we bring, as Westerners, vestiges of our own culture to the discussion. We can have an appreciation of Taoist philosophy only through the filters of our own culture. Still, I think it is a valid appreciation. We can make a valid approach. There are mentors in China who suggest even that Taoist philosophy will be only enhanced by western influence.
In light of the talk Father Bill presented last spring, I will begin with an historical synopsis, outlining how Religious and Vitalizing branches issued from the philosophy. I will present some impressions on Tao, and I am going to sample what I think are core concepts of Taoist philosophy and practical aspects of approaching Taoism, introducing the principles of Yin/Yang and Wu Wei that I think are core to Taoist process. I'll end with some reflections that have come up with the incorporation of Taoist process in my thinking.
There is an evidently long history of Taoism in the Orient, especially China, and this presentation will take a very short time to go through it. Our Euro-American culture is, what, three - four hundred years in process? With Chinese culture, we are talking thousands of years of development. There is no record of the beginning of Taoism, for it developed as a natural philosophy of the ancient Chinese culture. What we call Taoist philosophy is well-rooted through these thousands of years of Chinese civilization, passed down through generations and dynasties. Some suggest it is less a formal philosophy, but rather a collective cultural consciousness - a collective cultural wisdom. At any rate, Taoism took on a more graspable, documented form, with the collection of teachings and epigrams called Tao Te Ching, which is attributed to a character called Lao Tzu.
Lao Tzu (Lao Tze, Lao Tse…) is perhaps the most recognizable figure associated with Taoism. His name translates as "The Old Master" or "The Old Boy", and which aspects of his life are historical and which are mythical is questionable. (Recalling Carol's talk last week) historical authenticity of Lau Tzu does not appear to be an issue in Taoism, as perhaps the historical authenticity of Jesus might be with a Christian. Lau Tzu was reportedly a contemporary of Confucius, so we are talking around 500 BC. Legend says Lau Tzu was a keeper of state archives and that he developed his ideas in response to the constant disruption caused by the feudalistic social disorder then in place in China. These were turbulent times, and, as we often see is the case in turbulent times, they were ripe for new movements in society and religion. Rather than looking to the State as a model for answers to the big questions, as did Confucianism at that time, Lao Tzu's teachings looked to the enduring models found in nature - the ebb and flow, the cycle of seasons, the leveling effect of Time. Eventually, though, Lao Tzu tired of what he saw as a disinclination for widespread cultivation of his ideas, decided on the ascetic life, and he headed off into the sunset, or as it was, toward India, on the back of a water buffalo. At the border, a sympathetic guard, tried to talk him out of leaving, but was only able to persuade him into writing down his teachings. So Lao Tzu took all of an afternoon to jot down a few thousand characters, which became the Tao Te Ching.
The Tao Te Ching, is the definitive text of Taoism. It is revered as a text, though arguably not in the same manner as the various Bible collections or the Qu'ran by their respective devotees (On the side, I Ching is a different work altogether and is associated with Confucianism). It is not approached as God's word. Rather, it is rather recognized as the cultural knowledge about Tao as distilled through the Lau Tze personage.
Tao Te Ching, was written in archaic Chinese, and there are some inherent difficulties with translations. For example, the title itself can be translated variously as "The Book of the Way", "The Book of the Immanence of the Way", "The Book of the Way and Its Power". Obviously, the Chinese characters do not transfer directly into English. If only one translation is used, some value and scope is forfeited, and so perhaps it is preferable to simply use Tao Te Ching. If you venture to read the Tao Te Ching, I would suggest more than one translation is used - not to see which one is better, but rather to obtain a broader meaning of the chinese characters involved. The one from which I quote for this talk is Stephen Mitchell's 1988 edition.
Notwithstanding the various spins it takes through translations, the collection of verse is a small volume (some eighty or so verses) of call to self-enlightenment, prudent civil and social governance (though non-political), and reflection on nature's balanced progression. It includes ethical teachings on how to live wisely, but stays clear of moral judgment. Tao Te Ching promises no heavenly prize at the end, per se, and neither does it threaten with abominable images of eternal hell. Thus the result of imprudent or dark acts doesn't cast an individual into damnation, but rather it upsets a balance, and a natural inequity follows.
Successive Masters of Taoist philosophy followed Lao Tzu, adding texts and their own impressions on Tao. Notable is the collection of story-lessons of Chuang Tzu, one of Lau Tzu's disciples (sort of a Paul to Lao Tzu's Jesus) who lived around the third century BC. Chuang Tzu's stories are a mixture of wit and revelation. They incorporate shrewd lessons with light-hearted pokes at the Confucian establishment, providing often self-deprecating profundity - they are, to quote Lin Yutang, "profound when they are frivolous and frivolous when they are profound"; for the people of that time, the stories validated the wisdom that arose from the farmyards and the cobblestone.
Tao Te Ching - Verse 41
When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out-loud.
If he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao.
Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.
From the time of the formal structure that Tao Te Ching provided, Taoism tangled with Confucianism, and later, to a lesser extent, Buddhism, through the Orient's feudal periods. The ideas of Lau Tzu were seen as somewhat as an alternative to Confucianism. Whereas Confucianism's paradigm was the well-ordered society based on keen politics and especially filial piety, Taoism looked to the examples nature provided - the mountains and oceans - as a contrast to temporal objectives that caused such disruption in the enjoyment of living. And, whereas Confucianism's sages were the book-learned, moral paragons of the imperial social order, the Taoist model of wisdom was often found among the artisans and eccentrics. Confucianism spoke more to the political order and related prescribed ethical behaviors with prosperity of the nation (the Protestant work-ethic model comes to mind - i.e. if one works diligently and maintains filial piety - national prosperity is the reward). In contrast, Taoism was associated more with the folk-wisdom that rose up naturally from the age-old culture, and it celebrated the nameless intuition of people, with the ebb and flow and the harmony of nature. As an example, the nature of water to settle to the lowest spots, is often celebrated.
Tao Te Ching - Verse 65
The ancient Masters
didn't try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don't know,
people can find their own way.
If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.
Tao Te Ching - Verse 66
All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.
If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.
The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
The different philosophies were not, however, altogether mutually exclusive, and in fact, most Chinese incorporated all three (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism) into their belief, or invoked one or the others for different occasions. The imperial courts favored one or the other philosophy through the centuries, although when the one was in favor, the others was subject to purges.
Around 200 - 300 CE the cultural philosophy of Taoism developed into schools and cults, which had specific dogmas, canon, esoteric religious traditions, deities, and even clergy. Among the clergy it was still maintained that the deities were merely human constructs - symbolic manifestations of Tao - not really divine. The laity, however, through their folk-practices developed a multitude of gods and demons. Not surprisingly, all manner of bribing, appeasing, and placating the deities corresponded to the manner in which the people bribed, appeased, and placated public officials and royalty. Imperial Religious cults also began to flourish around this time, and what was initially folk-based healing practices headed into alchemy and magic arts. The texts I have read from this period, remind me of the Grail stories, with their quests after immortality. I can't help but think that about the same relevance or non-relevance to their respective philosophic or theologic basis exists.
These cult traditions continued along with more folk and nature-oriented traditions through to the communist era, when serious purges of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism commenced. Of course, as we talked about a few weeks back, the collective spirituality of a people seeps up and finds expression, and so the traditions continues on in China and elsewhere today.
I am going to resist getting into a listing of the various religious and vitalizing schools and cults, many of them seeking the elixir of immortality, or the seminal essence. They are many and, respectfully, forgettable. I will, however, elaborate a bit further on Qigong, because this is an area that seems to gradually gain general attention outside of the orient.
Qigong seems at first a little more foreign to some western thinking. It is an outward manifestation of Taoist philosophy concerned with the health in and around the body (including mind and spirit). Compared with Philosophic or Religious Taoism, it is perhaps a more loosely defined cluster of beliefs, but it incorporates the same principles.
There is much more connection between spiritual health and physical health in Taoism than in much of western religion and philosophy. In Judaism, perhaps there is some evident linkage, but in many religions we see this mortification of the flesh, and the connection between physical and spiritual health is at best confusing, though often heads in the opposite direction in an attempt to sever temporal from spiritual.
In Taoism there is this recognized relationship between physical, mental, and spiritual health. In Qigong, the body or psyche might be an individual, or it might relate to a community or society. A relationship is recognized between the respective channels of the internal organs and the extremities that they regulate and influence.
The many forms of this "vitalizing" branch of Taoism range from general health recommendations to the esoteric searches for elixirs of one kind or another. Most practitioners of Quigong, however, seek not so much "miraculous" cure of illnesses, but rather a "redirection" and "realignment" of energy within the body. And most of the practices we see of widespread acceptance in the West are based on fairly straightforward dietary, meditational, hygienic, and exercise forms. There are any number of books on macrobiotic diets and cooking, Taoist Yoga, and other forms of Quigong that can easily be found on the shelves at the local bookstore, and they are generally quite practical guides, from a layperson's standpoint.
Now, the approach is different than, say, the Jewish restrictions on non-kosher and unclean foods. Again, there is not the morality aspect involved, where one is inherently good and the other is inherently bad. Rather there is a moderation to be achieved. Suggested practices and restrictions are related to achieving optimum energy for a healthy and fulfilling life, rather than for pleasing God, or for salvation for the next life. And so, if a person takes in too much Yang type food or drink and upsets the output of bile, the person suffers an excess of gas, and a Yin remedy is required. A Westerner might roughly follow the food pyramid and pop a Tums after over-indulging - call it what you will. The emphasis, though, is to maintain a balance for proper flow of our vital energy, not just counting calories and FDA %. There are certain foods that are considered just plain toxic to health, but this is different from a God-mandated abstinence of certain foods.
Likewise, recommendations on hygiene and even sexual practices are based upon the complimentary exchange of Yin and Yang energy. I have not seen any specific taboos on "whens", "hows", "with whoms"or "wheres", however there are cautions about the consequences of upsetting the balance of vital energy and the Yin / Yang relationship, both within an individual and between the people involved. So again, I don't perceive an issue of morality - that there is anything inherently evil about a particular custom or practice, but rather that a subtle balance to the dynamic is maintained. The emphasis is on an inward balance, and inward efficiency of energy that leads naturally to outward health.
T'ai chi is another of the more commonly recognized forms of Qigong. The movements I did during the meditation is one of the forms. It is a combination of mental and physical exercise. Even someone unfamiliar with the Taoist emphasis on balance and compliment can get a visual sense of the principles at play by observing the transitions from one posture to another. It is at the same time very strenuous and relaxing, intense and playful, practical and aesthetic. Supposedly, in going through the entire form, all of the vital organs are palpated, all of the muscles are stretched and relaxed, and even the vestibular system is centered. I have been practicing this for about six years, now, and I can't put my finger on it, but it certainly prompts me into an awareness or consciousness that I tend to not pay attention to when I haven't gone through the form for a time.
It is arguable whether the meditation forms are seeking transcendence per se. At the least they work toward realization of a natural pace; realizing how Tao, or call it what you will, is present; how we are of something very comprehensive in the universe.
Though it is unabashedly grounded, or earth-based, there remains this recognition of Tao.
So, what is Tao, or "the" Tao?
It is a funny position to be in - attempting to explain that which by very definition and nature, is indescribable. It is the finger pointing at the moon scenario.
The opening passage of Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching reads:
The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.
Lau Tzu presses the point that Tao is as it always is, and everything manifest in Tao has a natural state, a balanced state.
Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living describes Tao as the ways and laws of Nature itself, and that the object of human wisdom is to fall in line with Tao or the ways of Nature and live in harmony with them. In doing so, a person attains the happy state of having realization of Tao.
From this, it is evident that Tao involves the cosmic order and momentum, as well as the physical realities of the universe itself. All reality, physical and metaphysical, is an aspect of Tao, and there is a natural order, a natural balance to the reality. It strikes me that the quintessential Judeo-Christian-Muslim description of God is the Alpha and Omega, the One Who Is, the I Am. In my understanding of Tao, the distinction between "Theist" and "Non-Theist" becomes blurred. Theist religions seem to exhort an omniscient Being and then go to great lengths to circumscribe "Him" or even "Her" as variously being "this" and not being "that". In describing Tao, there is the omniscience, and scrupulously not in finite terms. I think this is why we see theists such as Thomas Merton, who had an abiding interest in Taosim, consolidating this philosophy of the namelessness into their theology.
As I said, Taoist philosophy is decidedly earth-based, nature-based. The ultimate goal of existence is not out there or up there some place, but rather right here. George Woodcock suggests that Taoism is a retrogressive faith, connected back to a Paradise, rather than forward to a Heaven. And rather than vertical transcendent experience or liberation of the "Self" from the false ego, Taoism suggests a realization of our primal, natural bliss. I think this, incidentally, is why many Taoists have such an easy appreciation of the romantic transcendentalists, especially Thoreau and Whitman (Lin Yutang suggests he could translate Thoreau into his own language and pass it off as original writing by a Chinese poet without raising suspicion).
I see this more as a lateral transcendence. Despite tendencies we have developed to remove ourselves from our existence spiritually intact, here we find ourselves - now, what is the reality of living here, and how are we to go about living in relationship with what we have.
There are a couple of principles that I think best characterize how Tao is perceived in Taiost philosophy, and I'll touch on these next. They are Yin/Yang, Wu Wei.
Yin/Yang is often over-simplified as male and female fitting together like puzzle pieces.
The yin/yang symbol is the most well-recognized and perhaps most poorly appreciated icon of Taoism. Unfortunately, it is too often inappropriately associated with new age and pop culture. It is, however, a very rich symbol, even elegant.
Considering just the image, there is the compliment of light and dark - what was originally conceived as the sunny (yang) and shaded (yin) sides of a mountain. Emphasis is perhaps more appropriately on the complimentary integration of these aspects, rather than the contrast. Enveloping each entity or figure are these complimentary influences, and it is interesting that the vital mass of each compliment abides in the deepest recess of the other.
Tao Te Ching - Verse 2
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and on-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disppear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
If the icon is represented properly, the complimentary patterns, no matter what patterns are used, also contain elements of each other. There is no maleness that doesn't contain an element of anima, and there is no femaleness that doesn't have an element of animus, to borrow Jung's perspective. It is natural for each of these qualities to assert itself at given times or given stages, but there is always an element of the other present, even an element of the profane in the sacred and an element of the sacred in the profane. This perhaps exemplifies a difference with western dualism, with the emphasis on entities that are either good or bad, dark or light, saved or not saved, but not both; never both.
Getting back to the mountain…picture the light and dark aspects of the mountain in transition as the sun arcs over during the course of a day, and what was in shadow becomes light and what was in light becomes dark. The symbol also has implied qualities of movement and transition. The movement with the symbol is circular and the images almost seem to dance and the center becomes a vortex, infinite. It is an interesting meditation to evolve this two-dimensional compliment into a three-dimensional sphere, and rather than two compliments, picture multiple compliments, a multi-celled organism involved in the dance. From there, it is not too far a leap to the compliments in motion within ourselves.
This integration and harmony of the elements and forces of nature is one of the prime precepts of Taoism - light fulfills dark, femaleness fulfills maleness. One cannot be fully separated from the other. In fact, one has no meaning without the other. Nothing exists by itself, all things exist only in relation and relationship with everything else. And so, we can make distinctions, but it is only a convenience; there is no absolute truth or goodness to black, and no absolute truth or badness to white. If I profess absolute blackness, I assure you there is some element of lightness to it.
Wu wei (not-doing) or wei wu wei (doing / not-doing) is a principle that may go against the grain of the American Way and Protestant work ethic. Wu wei is sometimes confused as a passivity or maybe even a type of narcolepsy, and most of us were all too familiar with consequences of idleness by the time we were adolescents. However, Wu wei is not passivity. It is more precisely an acceptance of letting things be. Lin Yutang puts it into charming perspective in his 1937 book The Importance of Living:
The three great American vices seem to be efficiency, punctuality and the desire for achievement and success. They are the things that make Americans so unhappy and so nervous. They steal from them their inalienable right of loafing and cheat them of many a good, idle and beautiful afternoon. One must start out with a belief that there are no catastrophes in this world, and that besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. On the whole, if one answers letters promptly, the result is about as good or as bad as if he had never answered them at all. After all, nothing happens, and while one may have missed a few good appointments, one may have also avoided a few unpleasant ones. Most of the letters are not worth answering, if you keep them in your drawer for three months; reading them three months afterwards, one might realize how utterly futile and what a waste of time it would have been to answer them all. Writing letters really can become a vise. It turns our writers into fine promotion salesmen and our college professors into good efficient business executives. In this sense, I can understand Thoreau's contempt for the American who always goes to the post office.
Yutang is not here suggesting sloth as a way of life. Wu wei is very much about being vital and engaged. It is an engagement, however, that is not concerned with what we are doing, but rather with what we are being.
Tao Te Ching - Verse 3
If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.
The Master leads
by emptying people's minds,
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those that think they know.
and everything will fall into place
I am not sure how to better vocalize that distinction, but perhaps some of you will have ideas during the talkback.
So, we have a broad picture of Taoism - that it arose primarily as an intuitive philosophy of the orient based on the enduring rhythms and cycles found in nature. From this philosophic base, various schools developed very specialized religious practices through the centuries that ritualized cultural norms. There is an emphasis on spiritual-physical health and balance as manifested through Qigong, or vital energies. And there are core principles of the philosophy in Yin/Yang (the complementary aspects of existence) and Wu Wei (that is, relative action with non-interference).
Now, if there is no personalization of all of this yin/yang and wu wei, the usefulness of this talk would really be dubious in my opinion; just more head stuff and lent in the navel. What to do with it? There are emergent questions for me, at least:
What of morality?
I find it difficult to completely leave the idea of morality. Something visceral and likewise nameless orients most of us, some would say - morally. I see the concern in Taoist thinking, at the very least is to question our ability to understand absolute values. Too often, morality is simplified to black and white answers. It is tempting to become stuck on the dualistic model. And so people ask - does Taoism project a morality aspect or does it not. But what I learn from Taoism is to develop a morality that is well-rooted, however fluid and yielding. A morality that disarms prejudiced aims and short-sighted gratification.
What does a Taoist approach toward living look like?
Once again I am not so concerned about outward trappings. Taoism, to me, calls one's attention not so much into focus on any one thing, or into focus on no thing, but rather into relationship. It diminishes the burden of an elevated sense of Self, and encourages the tide to rise in the existentialist void. One's existence is not depressively useless, nor is it neurotically the center of the universe. There is a comfortable poise to be reached in the relationship, in the ebb and flow.
Why, having a rich, if at times phantasmic, upbringing in Roman Catholicism, would I have such an interest in something so grounded as Taoist philosophy?
The answer presents to me as a realisation that the collective Taoist philosophy is inherent in all systems. There is nothing culturally exclusive that I have found in Taoist philosophy, despite the cultural idiosyncrasies of Taoist religious practices.
In some circles of the Orient, it is held that Lao Tzu, upon riding off on his water buffalo, went to India and returned to China as the Buddha. Jesus, even, is becoming as a prototypical Taoist master, so in balance with his being and his environment, his efficiency of speech and deed.
It is tempting to let the intellect step in and do too much to find incongruencies with these aspects of Truth. Rather, take a step back and allow the various pieces of ideas to settle into place. Incorporate them and let them settle to their natural position of utility. Here is Wu Wie in practice; the principle of supple yielding.
Taoist thinking, and the Tao concept as a model, in fact is not inconsistent, that I can see, with any spirituality. If one requires a God or Goddess deity to provide a critical mass of Tao in their minds and the condensing of ideas into ritual, it still does not deter from the all-inclusiveness of Tao. Once again from Tao Te Ching:
There is a being, wonderful, perfect;
It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!
It stands alone and it does not change.
It moves around,
but does not on this account suffer.
All life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as if in a garment,
and yet it claims no honor, for it does not demand to be Lord.
I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao, the Way,
and I rejoice in its power.
I actually like the Unitarian Universalist banner, among other reasons, because of the symbols within circles within circles. This oriental aspect of Tao - Yin/Yang - incorporated with what I see as other aspects of Tao: Jehovah, Shiva, Allah, Buddha, Jesus, The Great Spirit. And so maybe those Oriental Masters who suggest a sort of fulfillment of process with the West's influence on Taoist teaching have good insight.
Even without naming it, we integrate Taoist principles in our lives, and perhaps this namelessness is closer to the Tao essence than many of the rituals practiced in temples. This realization manifests not perhaps as an embrace of some new eastern religion, but rather as an acceptance that amid daily chaos of another workday and botched opportunities in our lives, there is yet a tendency to realize the natural balance that occurs and to which we can return. This is to say, nature has, is, and illustrates a poise we crave.
Lao Tse knew he was only making an approach when he wrote: "…for lack of a better name, I call it Tao."
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.