Taoism and Lao Tse
Many of the great world religions are identified with founding/grounding figures. Judaism has Moses; Christianity has Jesus; Islam has Mohammed; Buddhism has Siddhārtha Gautama; Confucianism has Confucius; Taoism has Lao Tse. All these figures are shrouded in myth, sometimes conflicting myths, for example, there are two quite different tellings of Jesus’s birth in the Gospels. (The popular telling blends the two stories into a single Nativity narrative.) Recently, I’ve been thinking about the popular myth of Lao Tse and the origins of one of the great religious books of humanity, the Tao Te Ching, which translates as the Way and its Power. [You may not know much about Taoism, but you surely recognize its main symbol: the black and white circle, with two pollywog, intertwined shapes, a dot of black in white and a dot of white in black, representing the Whole or world of Ten Thousand things and the constituent elements of Yin and Yang.]
I’ve long found compelling the popular story of Lao Tse and the Tao Te Ching: Living sometime during the Zhou dynasty 1000-300 years before the Common Era, Lao Tse was a Keeper of the Archives and scholar. He attracted a following, though he didn’t have a formal school. He lived at least 160 years, when he grew world-weary and decided to retire from the world. He headed west toward a remote frontier. As he was leaving the city (another rendition says a final mountain pass), a gatekeeper recognized him. This guard implored Lao Tse to leave a record of his teachings. Lao Tse complied, producing in a few days the slim volume we know as the Tao Te Ching. Having completed the task, he then retreated into the wilderness, never heard from again.
In the last few months, I’ve had the impulse to review things I’ve long concerned myself with, highlighting their value and wisdom, as I’m about to depart, not into the sunset, but toward the sunrise.
Today, I consider a few things that have guided me and which I find to be deep insights. I’ve not only intuited them as true and right, but also have tried to practice them, putting them to the test. These explorations—a long career of study and commentary—have reflected my own quest for the right perspectives and practices of living successfully. They can guide you, too.
I have four sources to leave you with.
1) A first source comes from an early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, often cited as an existentialist, as well as a mystic. His famous and enigmatic little book known in English as I and Thou is an exploration into the transcendent dimension of relationships. I and Thou, in my educational era, was a well-known book frequently assigned in introductory philosophy or religious courses. I’m not so sure how widely read it is these days.
Buber differentiated between an experience and a relationship. An experience was what he called an I-it equation: an objectification by an I of an it. Such experiences, he further explained, make up much of the stuff of our existence—a sort of surface or superficial living. The experience is not only one sided but happens within the I (subject) without affecting the it (object). However, in what he described as “brief lyrical” moments, we might have an I-thou moment, a deep encounter when the subject I relates to the subject thou and vice versa. It’s mutual and takes place not within either but between each. It is intense. Buber suggests that we cannot long live within these, for they are impractical. However, they bring insight, including an awareness of God, because all I-thou relationships converge in an I-Thou (God) relationship. We cannot will such moments, but can condition ourselves to be open toward them.
I’ve had a long interest in intuitive mysticism and I-Thou fits into that scheme. Buber has provided an enigmatic explanation of what the writer E.M. Forester so eloquently summarized as “Only Connect!”
Such depth relationships are possible with many “subjects” other than fellow human beings, including a person and a tree.
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air--and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law--those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars--all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it--only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
2) A second source comes from Gandhi and the doctrine he called satyagraha, anglicized as the “insistence of truth” or “zeal for truth,” the philosophy that guided his successful non-resistance campaigns, first in South Africa at the turn of the century and later most famously in India at mid-century. I first became aware of satyagraha when I picked up a little India published book on a storefront table in Montreal during my McGill days, c. 1970. It was titled the Science of Truth. For some 40 years, in my own life experiences, I’ve tested what Gandhi intended. In his own word, here’s a summary of what satyagraha is:
Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase.
So, sometimes satyagraha translates as the Science of Love. Many of you have become familiar with the UUA’s campaign known as Standing on the Side of Love, in part drawing from the Universalist tradition’s motto that God is Love. Standing on the Side of Love resonates to Gandhi’s Science of Truth/Love.
One of the takeaway’s I’ve had from Gandhi’s teaching regarding truth/love/soul came from his instructions regarding a satyagrahi’s essential attitudes/disciplines, which were several. Above all, the satyagrahi has the obligation to search intentions and to rectify her or his soul, because actions reflect or are concordant with intentions. Actions are corruptible regarding one’s intentions.
3) A third source relates to a contemporary strategy for peace that has a long religious lineage. Truth and Reconciliation is hybrid, but still is firmly centered in the Christian notion of Forgiveness (the sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic tradition of Confession and Penance.) After apartheid, under Desmond Tutu’s leadership, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought about a surprisingly peaceful transition. It’s become a model around the world
A very recent article in a Pakistani journal offers this summary of TRC:
Actually Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a transitional justice system which is very useful in post conflict recovery situations. The idea behind TRC is to reconcile between victim and perpetrator. Desmond Tutu’s, book No Life without Forgiveness has provided a theoretical insight on how love and forgiveness could transform people’s lives; dealing with their frustrated feelings.
According to TRC both perpetrator and victim have to come before the court, where perpetrator will accept his crime; then it is victim’s choice to forgive him or not. As a result a society will become free from past resentments.
The Canadian Government is currently conducting a TRC regarding First Nations’ people and the “boarding schools” that abused them and too away their cultural heritage. The official website declares:
There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.
TRCs can settle conflicts between nations, with mutual cooperation/commitment. And it is applicable between persons or groups of persons. I think that direct lines can be drawn between satyagrahga and TRC—the persuasive power of truth commingled with love.
4) A fourth and final source, takes me back to beginning remarks regarding Taoism. Few books/philosophies have influenced as much as philosophical Taoism. Taoism looks to Nature and Reality for guidance. Scholars suggest that it was compiled by a variety of sages of a similar mind and that the Tao Te Ching was written as a treatise for a leader on how to lead, but even more how to survive as a leader. Its model is the “Leaderless Leader,” at least to lead so those led experience (mostly by example) persuasion rather than coercion, (In the realm of political science it is the opposite point of view from Machiavelli’s heavy handed, The Prince.) When Taoism met Buddhism, Zen was born, so the Taoist way is similar to the popular to what we call the Zen approach.
The Tao Te Ching offers a variety of guiding metaphors: the new born child; the uncarved block; the valley or female spirit; water which always takes the course of least resistance but in time wears down the hardest rock. It talks about the wheel’s center, where there is nothing, being the foundation for the spokes and rim. It essentially declares if you use power or force to achieve an end, eventually reactive power and force will be used against you. It implies that envy and anger will subvert the power you exert or the possessions you have.
My favorite teaching story of Taoism comes from Lao Tse’s successor, Chuang Tse.Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-hui. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee. With a shush and a hush, the blade sang following his lead, never missing a note. Ting and his blade moved as though dancing to “The Mulberry Grove,” or as if conducting the “Ching-shou” with a full orchestra.
Lord Wen-hui exclaimed, “What a joy! It’s good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?”
Ting laid aside his knife. “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don’t think only about what meets the eye. Sensing and knowing stop. The spirit goes where it will, following the natural contours, revealing large cavities, leading the blade through openings, moving onward according to actual form — yet not touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone.
A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day.
Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until — kerplop! — meat falls apart like a crumbling clod of earth. I then raise my knife and assess my work until I’m fully satisfied. Then I give my knife a good cleaning and put it carefully away.”
Lord Wen-hui said, “That’s good, indeed! Ting the cook has shown me how to find the Way to nurture life.”
In summary, I have sought and continue to seek four great truths and practices:
1) Gandhi's satyagraha, guides me to act from the convergent spirit of love and truth, always measuring my intentions, rectifying them whenever necessary.
2) Martin Buber’s existential notions of encounters/relationships versus experiences, urges me to see all aspects of Reality, particularly fellow beings as subjects like myself.
3) Truth and Reconciliation insights remind me to listen and forgive, seeking mutual Peace.
4) Taoism continues to hold before me the attributes of a practical sage, with the mythic attributes of the Butcher whose knife is still sharp after years of use.
These are worthy, remarkable strategies of success and transformation. I recommend them to all who seek the depths of living.