Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Essays on Ancient China

Reflections on The Tao Te Ching

Mike Carson

When the early Christians had to keep their faith against the persecutions of the Roman Empire, they had -- obviously -- a visible enemy. Once their religion was legalized and established, however, they had new questions to ask concerning who they were, what could hurt their souls and their way of life. Some of them, at least, concluded that the materialism of the dominant Roman way of life was a non-agressive, but equally corrosive force that would destroy them -- not physically, but spiritually. These Fourth Century Christians, men and women, then left their societies and withdrew into the desert to be able to find true "paradise," not in a safe, secure niche in society, but in their relationship with God. That is, they had to escape the values that so comprehensively enveloped them that they could not think or feel clearly about deeper matters. Thus "freed" in the desert, they could know what a full human life was in practice. These spiritual discoveries of a "way" to live, to be, could then be used to challange the complex and tempting materialism that seemed to dominate the culture of the time.

In a much briefer, easier, and less focused way, Henry David Thoreau, someone better known to our own time, tried his "experiment" by living for two years in the woods by Waldon Pond in order "to drive life into a corner" and find out just what it really was worth and what it essentially meant. According to Thoreau, people too readily accepted one already established set of ideas or another, good or bad assessments of life, and didn't seek answers for themselves. He too in his course of events wanted to make known what he learned, wanted to "publish," as he said, the essential "goodness" or "meanness" of the human condition.

Though to do so can easily be misleading, it is useful to point out that like Thoreau and the Desert Monks, all spiritual and articulate cultures have asserted that there is a "way" or "path" that human beings are called to follow. This assertion has always involved -- universally -- several profoundly felt assumptions.

1. That humans, unlike all other creatures, are called upon to develop, to become better than they are.

2. That to be most fully "human" requires individual choice and development by cooperative action with identifiable but demanding conditions.

3. That these conditions are truly universal, applicable and available to all people -- and in that sense absolute both in practice and in idea. In The Bhagavad Gita, for example, the poet says that whenever he reads the words of Krishna to Arjuna he enters into the Gita's predicament and experiences a change of soul. Similarly the Christian Gospels invite the hearers of the Word to participate in a divine life.

4. That there is something or some others or some One who is outside and beyond us and divinely interested in us as we succeed or fail at living up to our expectations.

5. That in stories, poems, myths, or codes, the elements of what it means to be human, as well as the passages from one level of awareness and life to another higher level, can be captured and shared, thus giving access to the "wisdom" of the culture. This "wisdom" may take two forms -- collections of specific rules and/or stories and poems that present the possibility of entering into the mystery of supernatural experience.

Beyond these five points, it is possible also in an inductive way to compare what the recorded "wisdom" of any group is in relation to another, thus developing a hierarchy of awareneses -- for example, a frequent injunction of such wisdom codes is to care for the older members of the group, and a yet higher injunction would be to love even your enemies. Another would be not to steal, but a yet higher to give up your goods for the benefit of the needy. Or again, the assertion that the gods demand sacrifice from us as compared to the assertion that God is love and sacrifices himself for us.

When we turn to the "wisdom" of ancient China found in the 81 poems by the sage Lao Tzu, we are confronted with mysterious language, a voice at times extrememly personal in its moral and ethical revelations, and at other times enigmatic, teasing us out of our first level of "rationality" into deeper considerations of who we are, where we are and what we are doing. Like others mentioned above who sought and found some "wisdom," the legendary Lao Tzu was supposedly a man whose enlightenment led him to escape his society and its corruptions, its "unnatural" ways. In the poems which he wrote down and gave to the gate-keeper of the city who asked him for teaching as he left his people behind, he records the tensions between living "naturally" (as all recorded "Ways" suppose that we can) and living falsely. Like others, he claims that there is a "way" in which nature ("the ten thousand things") embodies the truths of existence (even human existence), but that we are tempted to deviate from such truths in the normal course of life. Similarly, Plato observed that there are various ways of doing things -- building a chair, training a horse, eating for health -- and that some are discernibly better than others, and that there is a "craft" or skill in each case that one can seize on and develop. He extends this observation to mean that there is also a "craft" or skill of being human, so that one can learn and become better at being one of us. To learn this "craft" means that one learns justice and truth (large virtues) in the practical affairs of daily life and in so doing discovers the will of the gods. So, too, Lao Tzu speaks of the Tao or The Way Things Are to show that it is evident around and in us, but that, for whatever reasons, we do not necessarily recognize or live by it.

What the poet/sage Lao Tzu refers us to is an older time when men were wiser, when the depths of the earth and the nature of life were better understood and acted upon, when complications that separate us from the way of truth had not been put in place personally or politically. The appeal of his voice to our own times, beset as we are with materialism and often an increasing sense of doom and helplessness, is indicated by the fact that there are at least five English translations of this small book currently in print.

How did they operate, these wise people to whom he refers? They were like men walking on a frozen lake, totally concentrated, totally alert for the sounds of disaster, taking their way carefully. For these wise ones and those who would learn from them, there were two major thrusts of the vision of Lao Tzu -- a personal spiritual development and an ethical-spiritual commitment to the community. "What is a bad man but a good man's responsibility?" he asks. Such a statement, taken seriously, at once demands cleansing and clarity of one's own spirit and a deep humanistic awareness of the oneness of all people; and it also demands that its adherents live up to the challenge of understanding their own interconnectedness with all that is, so there is no final retreat from responsibility or the pain of living in a crooked world. Thus, the legend of Lao Tzu's giving these wisdom writings to the gate-keeper as he left the city is itself a poem: these are the things you need to know, that will, in fact, be given to you when you leave the false values and entanglements of the mad society that has forgotten what the "natural" way is. Unlike a kind of Judaism or Christianity which does not so much argue that there is a natural way for us to live as to demand that we move to a supernatural plane of living, the Tao, in its pure form in The Tao Te Ching, assumes that there is an evident reality and pattern in the physical universe that is the manifestation of the truth of its being and, further, that human nature is part of this and can live fully and joyfully in it by conscious participation in what the universe reveals to us. This awareness , however, is demanding of us in the deepest sense. While the Tao Te Ching acknowledges the need for an ideal world, one uncomplicated by competition, weapons, and wars, it allows us to live in a world fallen from that ideal and still conform to the deeper truth in our own souls. So we are told that we should go to war as to a funeral and that whoever has the greater sorrow going into a war is the victor -- thus putting violence in a perspective that acknowledges the wrongness of it while preserving the "natural" heart of the participant, if he understands that he should not be glad to commit violence against others in any case, as indeed revenge can make us glad when we prepare to go to war in a just cause, because it can make us forget the widows and orphans that will result.

On a first reading of The Tao, however, what one often finds are not clear principles and directives, the inner vision, but a confrontive language that seems irrational, obsure, and defiantly confusing to our usual or "right" way of thinking. "He who knows does not say. He who says does not know. The tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao" Is the one who says this to be believed? Do we reject the enigmatic Eastern writer and his "way"? Or do we allow the very form of his discourse to change our way of perceiving in such a way that we can listen newly, can hear not only the rational direct exposition or straightforward narration that we expect in our own use of language (whether in stories that give our lives meaning or in study that brings material results). Let us consider that all real poetry, by the nature of its being poetry, both demands being read on its own terms, in its own way, and gives by its own form the shape of its meaning to us -- it arranges words and images and actions into a vision that can be entered into. This can be at times jolting to our ready sensibilities that expect to be spoken to in our own idiom; but our own idiom may, the Taoist poet would say, be shaped by the false values of materialism and a reductive view of life that is potent at rationalizing an "unnatural" society so thoroughly that it prevents wisdom from entering the individual and giving the possibility of change and freedom. Can the Chinese poet from 2500 years ago, his words translated into modern English, be heard by me? What will I have to do to listen to him? Can I hear only what my own "unnatural" and materialistic ears, inner and outer, will allow to be said, or can I be reached by his puzzles and seeming contradictions. Will listening to what I do understand of these poems be enough to ground me so that I can hear what I have not yet understood? For example, the poet says clearly that he has only three things to teach: compassion, simplicity and patience. Should we find the rest of his works to grow from these words? Or is it perhaps really the case that he is saying "simplify, simplify" in such a way that it shows me that I am too and unnecessarily complicated, and that the "way" into these poems is to be simple, to listen without warring, to be changed willingly into an understanding, not by complex analysis but by giving up a bad way of closedmindedness that is the branch that is too stiff to bend and will break when any real wind hits it. Those who by the age of eighteen have thick calendars organizing their too-complicated lives, those who have learned that a branch does not have real meaning, those whose religion tries to teach simplicity but does not get heard ("consider the lilies of the field, they do not spin nor toil, yet Solomon in his glory was not so brightly arrayed") -- can we enter the vision of the writings of one of us who lived 2500 years ago and left the city of confusion to find wisdom? Can we find in the tensions of his writings -- as they are the shapes of the tensions of living in a confused world -- the "way" of life that is most natural? Can we be at home in the universe that produces us and mirrors so readily what we are when we stop and look, wary as those crossing the ice, listening for cracks that might freeze them before they drowned, we see and hear the signs?

Copyright © 1996. Mike Carson. This file may be copied for educational and personal use
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