The Tao Te Ching As Seen By An Admiring & Sympathetic Skeptic


The Tao Te Ching (a.k.a. Dow De Jing) is a Chinese philosophical document composed of numerous short entries instructing the reader on the nature of life and on how to live it, frequently using very obtuse or esoteric language in an attempt to convey, or appear to convey, deeper meaning.

The title “Tao Te Ching ” is translated as “The Book Of The Way And Virtue,” with “virtue” having here the same old-school connotation the Ancient Romans gave it, meaning not just honor but strength. Though the authorship of the book is credited to a man named Lao Tzu who lived about 2,500 years ago, in reality the book did not achieve its final form until a couple of centuries into the first millennium; interestingly, this was about the same time that the Christian Bible was being finalized.  The fundamental ideas of the Tao Te Ching had been around for thousands of years before Lao Tzu wrote them down.

To me, Lao Tzu occupies a place in world literature similar to that of Homer in the West… These men may or may not have written what has been attributed to them, but it is convenient to pretend as if they did.

Derek Lin tells us that the Tao Te Ching elucidates one side of “the Tao” (or “the Way”)– the “Philosophical Tao.” There is a second part to the tradition which centers upon rituals and deities; this side of the Tao is known as the Religious Tao, and is not covered by the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching is a pithy document, and though its obtuseness makes it eternally open to differing interpretations regarding specific lines and their proper translations, its main contentions are relatively clear… The Tao Te Ching encourages a yielding, receptive, or “fluid” approach to life, a life which should also be lived humbly and simply, without consternation or conniving.

Writing a response to the Tao Te Ching is a bit daunting, I must admit. However, as Lao Tzu, himself, advises: when faced with a large problem, it is often helpful to divide it into smaller problems.

So, taking this piece of advice and running with it, I’ve decided to make several entries on The Tao Te Ching, with the first entry centering upon the book’s counsel when it comes to Learning and Wisdom, while also talking some about the style of its verses, as well.

In America (and I’m sure elsewhere, too) we have a saying which basically espouses the pedagogical belief that kids should “learn to read” so that they may “read to learn.”  Perhaps the Tao can be approached in a similar way. Let us first apprise ourselves of HOW Lao Tzu believes one should learn the wisdom of the Tao, and then in later posts we’ll move on to the wisdom-advice itself that the Tao Te Ching dispenses…

First off, Lao Tzu is very clear that he is basically attempting the impossible here… that most of us numbskulls getting hold of his philosophical gem of a book are not going to “get” it. In fact, the masses will probably just make fun his strange-sounding advice… “Lower people hear of the Tao — they laugh loudly at it,” writes Lao Tzu. “If they do not laugh, it would not be the Tao.”

And he seems intent on making sure we know that if we don’t understand what the hell he’s saying– hey, it’s not HIS fault… this sh*t is deep, bro.  All a philosophical master like me can do, Lao Tzu basically says with a shrug, is point you in the right direction.

There are in the Tao, “depths that cannot be discerned,” he writes, and it is very difficult to communicate via words the essence of the Tao’s wisdom. Lao Tzu can lead us to the well, but he cannot draw the waters for us. “Those who understand me are few,” he states, apparently without any feeling that he has thereby failed in his task to communicate what he knows about the Tao to us. On the contrary, there may even be a hint of that superiority which shows through whenever people feel they understand something that the common herd just can’t grasp. It’s a little bit like the feeling of knowing the coolest underground band in town before they blow up to the top of the charts. Inside knowledge. Hipster knowin’.

Now this caveat that we’re probably not going to understand what he’s saying is what I consider the first great cop-out of the Tao. It’s like a pre-emptive blaming of the student by the teacher. A good teacher should always consider the possibility that if the class is not understanding the lesson– maybe it’s being TAUGHT the wrong way. It takes two to tango, and it takes two to share in a failed attempt at communication.

But hey, if you can convince your students for 2,500 years that you’re, like, one of the greatest teachers the world has ever produced even though you rarely if ever deliver what your course promises, good for you. In the case of the Tao Te Ching, the aim is nothing less than Enlightenment– And I’m talkin’ the real deal, folks, not your shallow, fragile, superior, hippie, peace-love-and-happiness, vibrational-matching, faith-manifesting, yoga-practicing, meditationally ohmming version of enlightenment. Such common variety faux-enlightenment is more about the ornamentation than the core, the kind of shallow worldly wisdom ostentatiously displayed by those who, as Lao Tzu put it, “dwell on the flower” and do not “abide in the real.” And I would remind the reader that Lao Tzu is also the man who said that “those who know do not talk, those who talk do not know.”

Talking, in fact, is next to irrelevant when it comes to Taoist Enlightenment. Mere words cannot express the Tao. “The Tao that is spoken out of the mouth is bland and without flavor,” writes Lao Tzu. Ultimately, the Tao necessitates “teaching without words.” We should not be fooled by those spouting florid sentences or couching their speech in awe-inspiring, transcendental vocabulary. Such philosophers may sound lovely, but that doesn’t mean they are conveying the deeper truths. “True words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not true,” says the Tao Te Ching.

The second great cop-out of the Tao is a tendency to pass off contradiction as deep thought. Sometimes this tactic works okay, but other times… less so. Oscar Wilde frequently employed a similar technique (“I can do without the necessities of life. It’s the luxuries I can’t live without.”). Only his stuff was funny.

But here’s an example of the irony or the contradiction-as-wisdom thing working pretty well… When Lao Tzu attempts to warn us to be wary of those who think they have all the answers– or of becoming such a person ourselves– he writes… “the further one goes” into the Tao, “the less one knows.”

And he adds that… “To know that you do not know is highest,” and that “to not know but think you know is flawed/sick” [this last word, according to my guide for the Tao, Derek Lin, is difficult to translate in this sentence].

Lao Tzu implies that a mastery of the Tao will necessitate a very narrowly focused curriculum, writing that “those who know are not broad of knowledge; those who are broad of knowledge do not know.”

The Tao Te Ching also advises against arguing the Tao’s meaning with others. Those who begin to learn or to follow or to — my favorite– “cultivate” the Tao should not be lured into debating non-cultivators. “Those who are good do not debate,” writes Lao Tze. “Those who debate are not good.”

By the way, notice the typical Tao language on display here… Lao Tzu often speaks in a bifurcated way… either by juxtaposing two contradictory statements, or by basically saying the same thing twice by re-stating the first part of the statement but in reverse. For example, when the Tao tells us that “those who are good do not debate”– then we already know that if we see someone debating, they are not good– that there exist no “good” debaters– technically or logically, we don’t really need to hear it again. Mind, this is different than stating (untruly) that, “all squares are rectangles, and all rectangles are squares.” That reversal is actually saying something new, and the new part happens to be false. What I’m talking about is more like saying, “squares never debate, and debaters are never squares.” The reversal in such a case does not contradict, but neither does it add anything (although, I have met my share of “square” debaters, I must say).

Another type of Taospeak is a sort of left-right bifurcation that Lao Tzu employs. In this left-right move, the first part of the statement takes the topic in one direction, and then the second part takes it in the opposite direction. Take for example the Tao Te Ching’s statement that “those who understand others are intelligent, those who understand themselves are enlightened”… the first part speaks of the outward and of others, the second part flips it and directs us toward the inner and the self. Another example of this from the Tao would be… “Those who overcome others have strength, those who overcome themselves are powerful.”

Okay then, this gets us started in the Tao. In the next post I hope to write about what the Tao Te Ching has to say about the very worldly skills of authority and good management.


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