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!
Chapter Two of the tao te ching is possibly my absolute favorite. While I like the Ron Hogan version of ttc a lot, this particular chapter reads really well in Stephen Mitchell’s translation.
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-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
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear 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.
When we talk about the tao, we use words, because those are the constructs humans use to wrap up a concept and deliver it to someone else in a way that they can understand. But it’s limited – we use it because it’s the best of bad options. And sometimes the only one that we can legally use, or to get concepts across in a timely manner. They’re best when dealing with abstract concepts, like freedom. What does “freedom” mean to you? The dictionary says “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”, or “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” Both are true. Let’s talk about the feeling of freedom. The dictionary would give as one definition, the feeling of being able to act, speak, or think without hindrance or restraint, or the feeling of not being imprisoned or restrained.
Now, unless you’re been imprisoned or restrained, you have a concept of freedom which has been imparted by words, by language. The description is accurate and adequate as far as it goes, but it’s not “freedom”. It’s a picture of freedom. It’s the map, not the territory. If you really want to know what freedom *is*, someone would need to lock you up for ten or twenty years, control what you eat, when you can move about, how you can shower or use the bathroom (and when), etc. Then after those ten or twenty years, they open up all the doors and remove the locks and bars, and you walk outside, and after a few minutes of being able to walk in a direction of your choosing and coming to the realization that no one was going to come after you – then, right then, you will KNOW what freedom is. It’s not what I just related to you, which is words, and a picture of what freedom is, but not freedom itself. And with what I gave above, by defining what freedom is, I have also defined what freedom is not. (more about that in a minute) If you actually have been imprisoned and released, you may read what I just wrote and say “you’re full of shit, that’s not what freedom is at all, that’s not what the feeling is at all”, and you’re totally right – because I defined what freedom is to me, and my understanding of it is limited to the words that were used to describe it, and some experiences that are far less than being imprisoned and released (or escaped).
Our understanding of the tao (“the way” is how it’s translated from Chinese to English, but even that’s words) is similar. What it is is not how we describe it. It’s what it IS. And our understanding of that grows, deepens, and changes over time as our experience supplants our knowledge. So… back to Chapter 2’s meat: When you define beautiful, you’ve also defined “ugly” (or at least “not beautiful”). When you define “good”, you define “bad” (or at least “not good”). In the broadest strokes, it’s dualistic. But like a pointillist painting, each dot is not blank canvas, and each color is not the other colors – dualist when looked at coarsely, but step back and broaden your focus, and suddenly there’s a picture of people picnicking in the park. Similarly, we start out with a concept like freedom, and we think we know what it is, but as we move from reading / hearing about freedom to really experiencing it, we realize how our language and definitions limit our understanding, and how any language – any framework – which we try to impose from the outside actually limits our understanding of the thing we try to describe.
The last paragraph of Chapter Two has some really important stuff too, which will come back in later chapters – mostly about having without possessing, (more on that next time we see it in the tao te ching), but also wei / wu wei – doing by not doing, which we’re going to see a lot more of in the weeks to come. I wanted to say more, but I don’t have time (it’s already the end of the week) and it’s going to come back in future chapters, so consider this a preview of things to come.
I’m going to try to make this a regular thing. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve tried out a number of religions over the years, and none of them really stuck. I’m a lapsed Catholic, a backslidden born-again Christian, a former Unitarian Universalist, and an ordained minister in both the Universal Life Church, and the Church of the Latter Day Dude – in which I am a Dudeist Priest. I’m also what I self-term a “Philosophical Daoist” (or Taoist if you prefer), which means that I recognize and try to emulate the wisdom of the tao de ching, but don’t adhere to the religious tenets of that longstanding Chinese religion.
I really like Taoism. (it’s pronounced Daoism, both spellings are acceptable in westernized speech, and which is more correct is both a debate for scholars and a good illustration of some of the tenets of the tao de ching. I usually go with the “t” spelling simply because it was the most common when I was growing up, and the first I was exposed to. Taoism was the underlying philosophy The Force in “Star Wars” was patterned off of, and Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back” is the classic archetype of a taoist master. I like its dualistic nature, and circular focus – i.e. the notion of cycles, like life. So because I want to develop a writing habit again, and I’ve been wanting to blog, and I want to get back into my personal spiritual practice, I’m going to start a weekly thing on Wednesdays to comment on the tao te ching.
If you’re not up on the tao te ching, there’s a billion translations, but I’d recommend one like Stephen Mitchell’s. (which is awesome, and very accessible) Or you could go with Ron Hogan’s “translation”/”paraphrase”, which you can find here, or buy the print/Kindle version. (which is better formatted) Ron Hogan’s version reads like it was written by David Mamet, or spoken by Samuel L. Jackson. Which makes it far less stolid than most so-called “religious tomes”. Also, regardless of the translation, it’s 81 super-short chapters, so it’s not exactly The Bible. If you don’t want to pay for the Mitchell version, Google “Stephen Mitchell Tao” and you can probably find a thousand copies online. I own something like 6 different translations, so each week I’ll try to list a different one until I run out of them.
So, with that – Chapter One.
If you can talk about it,
it ain't Tao.
If it has a name,
it's just another thing.
Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.
Stop wanting stuff;
it keeps you from seeing what’s real.
When you want stuff,
all you see are things.
Those two sentences
mean the same thing.
Figure them out,
and you’ve got it made.
(Attribution: Ron Hogan – direct link: http://www.beatrice.com/TAO.txt)
If you’re like me, this should trigger a “The first rule about Fight Club is nobody talks about Fight Club” moment. Which is not what Hogan, or Lao Tse was saying. (just realized, I forgot to talk about Lao Tse – so let’s have an aside)
Lao Tse was supposedly a Chinese governmental functionary who reportedly got sick of his job and decided to go sit on a mountaintop somewhere. He was apparently insanely good at what he did, which seems to be mostly being wise and saying things that made sense, and everyone knew who he was, or at least everyone in government. Lao Tse decided to exit the country, and on his way out the door, the gate guard (remember, unlike Trump, China actually built a big-ass wall) (Yes, I know this probably not how it happened, and I’m conflating history – poetic license, just go with it) … as I was saying, the gate guard stopped him, and said “Ima let you go, but first you gotta write down some wise shit for me”, and Lao Tsu either said “ok”, or (my version) gave the guard a “seriously?” look, huffed, and said “fine. Gimme a pen.” and spent the next several hours/days/months/years writing the tao te ching, and possibly other stuff, and then said “Seeya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!”, and sauntered off into the sunset never to be seen again. Although apparently other people went west into the mountains and reportedly learned at his feet on his mountaintop, or whatever – that’s beyond the scope of this series.
Ok, so what does chapter one mean? First off, “tao” is nebulous. The act of defining it makes whatever you defined to be something *like* the tao, but not actually the tao. Kind of like the map isn’t the territory, or how a photograph is not the person/thing/landscape. It might give you an idea of what I look like, but just as a photo doesn’t capture my whole personality, defining the tao doesn’t tell you everything you can know about the tao.
The other part of chapter one is just saying “don’t focus on stuff” – this is basically similar to the commentary on the whole “things” vs. “experiences” argument that’s resurfaced recently with the minimalism movement, and Marie Kondo, and other discussions. The key to taoism is to live in the moment, to experience the now. It doesn’t mean ignore the future, or the past, it means pay attention to what’s going on around you, and focus on the now. Yes, be aware of the future, but don’t *worry* about it. Be aware of the past, but don’t *live* in it. And that’s what the deal is with the tao – you have to experience it, not quantify it. Don’t label it. You can’t put tao in a box, or in a binder, or on the shelf. tao is tao. Like the Supreme Court definition of obscenity, you’ll know it when you see it – you’ll know tao when you experience tao.
And with that thought, I’ll leave you to your day. Cheers!