Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.

These lines are from verse 33 of Tao-Te-Ching.

Tao-Te-Ching is not a religious book, such as the Bible or the Koran. It is not inspired by God. It does not contain miracles, or holy declarations, or promises of life hereafter.

Tao-Te-Ching is a collection of the views of a Chinese man named Lao-tsu. He was not a priest, or a saint, or an angel. He was an accountant in the royal archives in the 6th Century court of the Zhou Dynasty.

But Lao-tsu did not deal only with day-to-day financial reports and records. He was also a home-spun truth-seeker, an individual who was not afraid to think his own thoughts. He lived around 600 B.C. and was a contemporary of the teacher and politician Confucius.

          Confucius was a Chinese teacher who promoted family ties, ancestor worship, and political morality. Or is political morality a contradiction in terms, such as the living dead? According to legend, Confucius advocated the ethic of reciprocity, which is a fancy way of saying the Golden Rule. You know: one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

          Confucius and Lao-tsu lived around the same time, and they may have known each other. I like to think of the two of them playing Chinese checkers, stroking their beards, and sharing a jug of rice wine.

They may have been buddies, but they didn’t agree on everything.

Lao-tsu thought Confucius had pretty good ideas but put too much importance on rules and rituals. Lao-tsu believed regulations got in the way of natural behavior. He likened the natural way to water running downhill.  

Normally a downward stream tends to follow a straight line unless it encounters a hefty obstacle. Say, a rock, or a dead sheep. In that event, the stream will not hang around and sulk but will simply flow around the obstruction, and then continue on its downward path.

That is the way of water.

          And that is what Lao-tsu termed the Tao. The way, the path, the road.

          His notion was that a human should live like running water. Or like the bamboo, which doesn’t fight against the wind but bends with it, and then returns upright to its natural state.

          Nature is the spirit of Taoism.

          “The Tao” translates as the way. The way of nature and of humanity.

          Lao-tzu spelled out his ideas in a collection called Tao-Te-Ching, which roughly translates as “The Way and its Power.”

          The collection is sometimes referred to as the book of 5,000 characters since this is the number of Chinese pictographs it contains.

          Of course, no two scholars agree on whether Lao-tsu was the author of Tao-Te-Ching, or even if the guy existed, or even when the book was written. That is not surprising. Two people have at least two different viewpoints, three people have three different outlooks, and so on.

          You probably know the definition of a giraffe. A giraffe is a horse that was designed by a committee.

          And speaking of opposing points of view, in China there are two varieties of Taoism. Tao Chia is philosophical Taoism; Tao Chiao is magical Taoism. It seems the philosophical strain was the original form, and the occult type was tacked on later because humans like to imagine they need a bit of hocus pocus to confirm what they think.

          To quote Jay Stevenson, author of Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eastern Philosophy: “Tao Chia is contemplative, or philosophical, Taoism, studied and practiced as a down-to-earth yet mystic way of life. Tao Chiao is magic, or religious Taoism, practiced in hopes of attaining immortality and divine blessing. “

          Leave it to the religious right to complicate something simple.

          The Tao-Te-Ching may be written in simple words, but it’s not easy to understand, even after several re-readings. Probably Lao-tsu naively thought human adults were as intelligent as they claimed to be. Therefore they did not need to be led by the hand and have everything explained to them.

Remember that other sage, Louie Armstrong. When someone asked him to explain jazz, Louie did not say, “It’s a style of music, native to America, characterized by a strong but flexible rhythmic understructure with solo and ensemble improvisations on basic tunes and chord patterns and, more recently, a highly sophisticated harmonic idiom.

          Instead, Louie said, “Man, if I gotta explain it, you’ll never understand.”

          One more quote, this from the back cover of the Tao-Te-Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:

          “The philosophy of Lao Tsu is simple: Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it.”


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