Musings on the tao te ching – 3

Ok, well obviously I didn’t make my weekly deadline last week, or the week prior. As you might expect, life intervened. Anyway, onward and forward – Chapter 3 of the tao te ching. (and why do I not capitalize it? Sometimes I do, because I am inconsistent – but mostly I don’t, because one of the points of the tao is that it doesn’t call attention to itself)

You may or may not know that I’m an ordained minister in 2 religions. One is the Universal Life Church, which probably has more… ordinees? (ordained folks) than any other religion that’s not a major faith. The other is The Church of the Latter-Day Dude (TCotLDD), which is basically a church based on the tao te ching as filtered through the film “The Big Lebowski” (TBL). TCotLDD isn’t recognized everywhere, and obviously the name is an irreverent reference to both that film and the Mormon church.

TCotLDD was founded by the Dudely Lama, Oliver Benjamin – and the church has its own translation of the ttc called (naturally), the Dude De Ching. Being a Dudeist priest means that I have a copy of this work, so let’s look at that one for Chapter Three.

Now, there’s the film version (tongue-in-cheek, but adhering to the spirit of the ttc and the film TBL. There’s also the non-Dudeified translation immediately after.  I’m going to give you both, but when referring to this translation, I’m going to use the non-Dudeified version to we can focus on the meaning without Jeffrey, Walter, and Donny getting in the way. (as they often dude… uh, I mean “do”)

3. Not Standing

Not achieving prevents having to overcome obstacles;
Not keeping the money prevents theft;
Not flaunting beauty prevents thousand-dollar blowjobs.
This is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. So the Stranger controls people by:
Digging their style,
Listening to their stories,
Telling them to take ‘er easy,
And boosting their morale before the finals. If people aren’t privy to the new shit that has come to light,
Cowards among them will threaten castration;
If no action is taken,
There will only be pee-stains on the rug.

The Church of the Latter-Day Dude. The Dude De Ching (p. 16). Kindle Edition.

Ok, let’s bring out the more mundane version:

Tao Te Ching: 3. Control

Not praising the worthy prevents cheating
Not esteeming the rare prevents theft
Not flaunting beauty prevents lust
So the sage controls people by:
Emptying their hearts,
Filling their bellies,
Weakening their ambitions,
And strengthening their bodies.
If people lack knowledge and desire
The crafty among them can not act;
If no action is taken
Then all live in peace.

The Church of the Latter-Day Dude. The Dude De Ching (p. 16). Kindle Edition.

Similar to how defining something creates its opposite (you can’t have good without bad, young without old, right without left (or right without wrong), the tao te ching posits that placing value on something encourages others to steal (possess) it. Hogan says it like this:

If you toss compliments around freely,
people will waste time trying to impress you.
If you give things too much value,
you’re going to get ripped off.
If you fulfill people’s desires,
you’ll only leave them dissatisfied.

and Mitchell like this:

If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal. 

There’s several ways this can be read. One is the blame game – if you get robbed, raped, or killed, obviously it’s because you were carrying valuable stuff, dressing slutty, or walking in the wrong part of town. That’s not what the tao te ching is saying here in my opinion, but it’s certainly one way to interpret it. I think it’s intended as advice, not blame. The overall message is that we create problems for ourselves when we place too much value on persons, things, or attributes. Hero worship and putting people on a pedestal causes problems both for us and for them. Deciding that we absolutely must own that Van Gogh – because it’s one of a kind – means we might give up everything to get it: relationships, money, time, etc. – and it could get stolen, because it’s a thing of value. Putting a value on youth and beauty has nearly destroyed western culture (and other cultures) – we have entire industries helping us capture and keep beauty – ours, our partner’s, and the damaging cost of that is apparent anywhere you look. The tao te ching in many places advocates living simply, and not wanting – i.e. choosing to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have, so unfulfilled desire isn’t created. You can see this theme present all over Buddhism, but it’s also present in Christianity (especially the ascetic tradition in many Christian denominations) and Islam, and others.

Value something too much, and you’ll be willing to trade anything away for it. Show it off in front of others, and convince them that it has value, and they will behave similarly.

I’m not a big fan of “So the sage controls people” in the second paragraph. Hogan and Mitchell both say instead “The Master leads” (“The sage” and “the master” are used in most translations, and it basically means he or she who is in touch with tao) and the tao te ching overall teaches a passive kind of leading – leading by example. Christianity has this tradition as well, and prior to the advent of modern fundamentalism, the emphasis was on converting others by living one’s life as a shining example of God, rather than telling other people how they should be living their lives. Most western traditions today preach a more active leading rather than a passive one. The interesting thing is that the tao te ching tells us that the master leads by bringing people the basics: empty their minds (get people to stop worrying and focus on here and now), filling their cores / opening their hearts (give people a reason to care, create empathy), lowering their aspirations (manage expectations, pragmatism, realism), toughening their resolve.

The next bit talks about eliminating preconceptions and becoming receptive to new things. Mitchell says:

He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

and Hogan says:

He shows you how to forget
what you know and what you want,
so nobody can push you around.
If you think you’ve got the answers
he’ll mess with your head.

The chapter ends with an exhortation (or is it an admonishment?) to be still – “stop doing stuff all the time”. Frankie would say “relax”. Yoda would say “you must unlearn what you have learned”.

So. What have we learned so far? Basically, that the tao must be experienced. Trying to describe it is trying to put it in a box – the description is never going to reveal to you exactly what the tao is, because the act of putting words together seeks to define a concept that transcends language. It’s bigger than what we can describe. And the mere act of defining something also defines the opposite of it. Nothing is good or bad, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Defining something as “correct” by the very definition means anything else is “not correct”. This doesn’t mean that we give license to “wrong”, “evil”, etc – it means that things become that because we define them as such – meaning they’re contextual. This is the reason why we have courts and not simply laws. Under the law, murder is “wrong”. But we’ve decided as a society that the definition doesn’t adequately describe the crime. What we really mean is that murder is wrong unless it’s in self-defense, or to save the life of another, or to prevent a genocidal maniac from implementing a scheme to kill everyone of a certain race/creed/sex/nationality. And yet all of those exceptions would be considered invalid by some people if they were performed for that person’s personal gain. (killing someone to stop them from killing another, but only because you want to be famous and be on television)

There’s a story that’s been passed down from taoism into buddhism involving a farmer which illustrates this.

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

So basically – Defining things limits them and gives you only part of the picture of whatever you’re defining. Context matters, and you should relax and let go of your preconceptions based on current context, and be open to new interpretations which make sense in their own context.

I’ll try to be on-time next week for Chapter 4. Cheers, and have a great week!

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