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Monday, October 17, 2011

Living Simply by the Tao 6

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6<<you are here | pt 7

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

Linked with the unity of opposites are two symbols which recur constantly throughout the Tao te Ching:
the image of water as an indication of the way the Tao works, and
the rather perplexing image of the Uncarved Block.

 When we think of the qualities of water - formlessness, pervasiveness, inertness, softness, and its ability to yield, the usefulness of the image is apparent.

      The highest good is like water.
      Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
      It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
      It nourishes the ten thousand things,
      And yet is not their lord.
      It has no aim; it is very small.
      The ten thousand things return to it,
      Yet it is not their lord.
      It is very great.
      It does not show greatness,
      And is therefore truly great.
      Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
      Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
      It has no equal …
      The truth often sounds paradoxical.

 If we model our behaviour on that of water instead of using force, then we can accomplish a task with the smallest amount of resistance.

 The Uncarved Block is a more difficult image to understand, but it is no less vital. The Tao is like the Uncarved Block - it is the most natural of states. It contains the essence of everything and is the totality of all things. 

 It represents the unity of everything, and to take only one aspect of that unity is to deny its relationship to all others. The Tao is infinitely complex yet overwhelmingly simple, guided by the natural law from which humanity has increasingly departed.

 On the surface, Taoist ideas may not appear to have much relevance to people today, because it seems such an antisocial philosophy.

 This is only true if it is accepted that our society is the best place to live in. It can't be denied that modern society is very much out of balance. There are gross inequalities which result in plenty for some and very little for others. Those who have plenty are unhappy; those who do not have enough are also unhappy, because of the social and economic values that we hold. The ecology of the earth is in danger as humans plunder their environment.

 What has gone wrong? The Taoist answer is clear. Humans are out of harmony with the universe the further from the natural order they depart. We have created technology that seeks to subdue the natural order, not to complement it. Nearly everything people do as social beings in a sophisticated society leads to frustration, tension, greed and violence.

 Why has this occurred? Because people have chosen to live in a society, organised rigorously and with an abundance of rules and regulations. The more complex the society, the more rigorous the rules, and the more unnatural the environment. It is more impersonal, more selfish, more alienating.

 What is the solution? The Tao te Ching has an answer, one few people accept. Reverse the process. Forget the technology where it inspires artificial wants and human greed, return to the dignity and security of village life, and live in peace and harmony with the environment. Learn to be natural again; better still, never learn to the unnatural: 

      A small country has fewer people.
      Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed.
      The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
      Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
      Though they have armour and weapons, no one displays them.
      Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
      Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
      They are happy in their ways.
      Though they live in sight of their neighbours,
      And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
      Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

 This seems a good and infinitely sensible answer, but may have been much easier to apply to the society of China in the sixth century BCE than to our society of the present day. Most of us feel bound to this society by countless threads - not to mention a gigantic mortgage or two.

 Yet there is much in the Tao te Ching for us. The notion of balance in our lives, for example, is a useful one, whether applied to diet, drinking, exercise or mental activity. In these very basic aspects of existence, we cause ourselves and others much unnecessary pain and frustration.

 Lao Tzu saw that humans had departed from their 'animal nature' by binding themselves to society, and because of this, lost what could be termed their primary consciousness. The more civilised people became, the greater the divergence between this primary consciousness and their brain induced desires, compromising real happiness.

 To give an example, take something as basic as eating. Animals tend to eat 'with their stomach' - not caring about tomorrow - while human beings eat 'with their brain'. Animals know when to stop eating - when their stomachs are full - but people do not, because they are always guarding against potential hunger which might happen later on. The result, more often than not, is over eating, with its attendant dangers.

 Human desire generally tends to be insatiable. Pleasure is demanded, as the greater the pleasure, the more we stimulate the senses. This usually means that the same amount of pleasure requires ever larger doses of stimulant.

 Even if it sickens the body, the brain continues its frantic search. It knows it has a finite existence, and all pleasure has to be crammed into that time.

 Animals do not have this problem, because they are unaware of anything beyond what is immediate. Animals have no psychologically induced hangups in their natural state, but human existence is plagued by them.

 Much of the illness of modern society is induced by worry, tension, repression and greed. We usually pay the price without even thinking about it, but there is certainly a strong appeal in the Taoist notion of making the brain serve the body rather than the reverse.

 The Taoist does not worry too much about the future, and for a very good reason.

 The future is not the present and cannot be experienced until it is. The future cannot be enjoyed physically although we may have pleasant anticipatory thoughts about it. But to try to pursue the future is like trying to find the end of the rainbow.

 That is why present civilisation is rushed - people are not enjoying the present because they are too busy worrying about the future. The body has been made the slave of the brain, and so the natural harmony of mind and body is upset.

 The brain nowadays is being used incorrectly, if we follow the Taoist logic. Thinking is a natural process and cannot be forced. The brain has wonderful powers, but it should not be allowed to make unreasonable demands upon the body. When body and brain are in focus, then the natural harmony is restored once again, and the Tao has been followed.

 The Tao te Ching then, is an abundantly practical guide to life even in its esoteric complexity. The truth, as it says, often seems paradoxical. Its wisdom often eludes us, and it warns us of this:

      The wise student hears of the Tao and practises it diligently.
      The average student hears of the Tao and gives it a thought now and again.
      The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
      If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.

 Put it this way. We should accept what is in front of us without wanting the situation to be other than what it is. The best approach is to study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it. If you are swimming and are carried out in a rip, for example, you do not swim against it or you will drown. Understand the nature of the rip and swim across it, or let it take you out until it loses its strength.

 Trying to change the natural order of things only sets up resistance. If we are really aware, we will see that work proceeds much more easily and quickly if we stop 'trying' - if we stop looking for results and if we stop putting in wasted effort. Truth becomes apparent to the still and open mind. That is what the Way means.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6<<you are here | pt 7


  1. That's all so well explained, so calming, thank you. It's very difficult indeed to maintain the peace and truthfulness of an uncarved block in this society we live in, as you have said. I think the Buddhist idea of no desire is much the same as your words about 'always wanting'. Because I think 'desire' comes from the brain, which is perhaps a little different to the ' natural urges' of the body.

    But isn't it true that we can train and develop our brain, our thinking? Oh.But we disturb the natural genius of the uncarved block :) I think I'm in over my head, here. For a tired person at the end of a busy day. I love that last quote about the students - I'm an average one, for sure,and maybe a foolish one too - isn't that last line just fabulous!

    Julie xx

  2. Denis, thanks for posting this marvellous discussion of the Tao Te Ching. One of my favourite books. Indeed, as the I Ching says, "do not wear yourself out with mistaken resistance." Which is something I think most of us tend to do -- trying hard to push our desires and fantasies into reality, ignoring what is already effortlessly arising.

    Of course, what is naturally and effortlessly arising is not always what we want, so I think from time to time we are allowed to fiddle with it, if we can. But understanding what can and can't be fiddled with is the trick to avoiding exhausting and useless resistance. There is a certain kind of freedom in knowing what we can and cannot change, enabling us to devote our energies to the former. As the AA aphorism goes, we attain "The serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

    Denis, you've quoted some of my favourite passages, and I like this one too:

    Exhibit the unadorned
    Embrace the uncarved block
    Have little thought of self
    And as few desires as possible (TTC XIX)

    This is my mantra as I sit in front of a real, live uncarved block and carve as though I am doing nothing so that everything gets done. Ha!

    Another favourite, which you quoted in part:

    In concentrating your breath can you becme as supple as a babe?
    Can you polish you mysterious mirror
    And leave no blemish? (TTC X)

    I have far more success adorning the uncarved block than realising this challenge, although it perfectly describes the experience of meditation (well maybe not all meditations).

    There is a passage in the Rig Veda which goes something like this (and is picked up by the Katha Upanishad and probably others too).

    Two birds sit on a branch,
    One eats,
    The other watches. (can't remember the Ch & Vs)

    So doing nothing, everything gets done even in the Rig Veda. In the Bhagavad Gita, the key advice is Yogastha Kuru Karmani -- Established in Yoga, perform action. Again, the idea of non-action combined with action. This seems to be the most basic idea in Eastern philosophy.

    Do you think there is an historic link between Indian and Chinese philosophy, or do you think they independently came to this same conclusion?

    Sounds like an essay question. You don't have to answer it.

  3. Hi Joan, I wonder if I'll get a reply to your fascinating comments before we have to go off to the hospital? No matter. I know it's not an essay question but it does have answers!

    The discussion of the TTC is very seriously lacking, but that's inevitable. One thing it misses is the philosophical approach to the success of the 'female' principle, and things like the Taoist attitude to war, which isn't totally pacifist.

    What I'm going to do is finish what I can do with it by talking about how it works for me now (how it relates to modern-day existence more generally, too). After all, I am in a situation and am using methods to stay alive that seem to fly in the face of some basic Taoist principles. If all this is just theoretical then it's not worth a damn. So, I need to do that, for me if not for anyone else.

    My time has run out for the moment and I've not touched on what you (or Julie) raised. Maybe just as well, or I might have rushed it, and that wouldn't produce a very Taoist result. I'll be back!

  4. Before I go to bed, I promised myself a comment on this!

    Joan: your paras 1 and 2 are equivalent to our 'don't beat your head against a brick wall.' I really tried stopping to do that a long while ago, but we don't always succeed when we don't understand....

    I've always thought that the AA slogan is the sanest piece of philosophy in the world, bar none. It's like when you drop something precious, and it smashes irretrievably. It's gone and no amount of angst will bring it back. Death of a loved one presents the same challenge. Move on. If there's a lesson to be learned from the incident, then try to work out what it is, if you don't know already.

    Some of the TTC is very cryptic. I'm going to talk about that in my final bit on this subject. The TTC wording translated is confusing. Is it just mumbo-jumbo? What is this mysterious mirror?

    Then you think about it, and it falls into place. The Uncarved Block was the most difficult image for me.

    The subtleties of the Rg Veda, which also made little sense to me at first, are finally as revealing as those of the TTC once you see the direction it's heading. To me it's the same with the various Upanishads (though they're easier) and the Gita. All these culminate in Buddhist philosophy, as it carried on the work of the Upanishadic sages and tore the husk off Hinduism, and revealed what lay beneath.

    Re your last question, I think the naked fundamental principle was arrived at independently in both places. The sequence seems very clear to me. When Buddhism came to China it saved the philosophy of Taoism from the fate that Buddhism suffered in India. Ch'an Buddhism evolved, and from that, Zen in Japan, though with its own uniquely Japanese qualities. All were expressed in the conventions and idiom of their own cultures. All suffered the same fate of conversion from philosophy to religion, but underneath, the philosophy survived – for those who got under the skin of the religious expression. Hinduism? It can survive anything. It always has.

    Now it's REALLY late.

  5. Denis, I wrote this before reading your last comment. It hadn't yet come through via my email. I'll send it anyway, so keep in mind it is in response to your first reply:

    "The spirit of the valley never dies.
    This is call the mysterious female.
    The gateway of the mysterious female
    Is called the root of heaven and earth.
    Dimly visible, it seems as if it were there,
    Yet use will never drain it." (TTC VI)

    Denis, in light of what you have just posted, I take this verse as support for what you are doing. -- "use will never drain it". In other words, we are allowed to act, to do what needs to be done, what is possible to do in any situation. This is the point you made earlier in your discussion of not doing, or wu wei. Perhaps this translation is inaccurate and the word "use" is misleading, but I take it to mean that we can draw on the inexhaustible "female" and put it to "use."

    Every time I read the TTC, I see it differently. Now, in my mind, the emphasis is more on a state of mind rather than what one does or does not do. As the Gita says, "Yogastha Kuru Karmani". Act without attachment to results, but above all, Arjuna, act. Do what is necessary. "Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart." (TTC XI)

    Be both the bird that watches and the bird that eats. This is now how I understand the TTC. Also the Yoga Sutras are full of it. I see it everywhere. "Therefore the sage always excells in saving people, and so abandons no one; always excels in saving things, and so abandons nothing. This is called following one's discernment." (TTC XXVII)

    Taking advantage of what arises naturally: It's odd how this can present solutions to insoluble problems. You think you can go no further, then something comes along and invites you to take the next step. You'd be crazy not to take it.

    As Carl has observed, we struggle and struggle and get nowhere, and then when we stop struggling, suddenly it all starts to happen.

    Now re your latest posting, I agree, of course, that the state of mind discussed in both Indian and Chinese philosophy is not a culturally-produced state, but something available to all human beings, to some more easily than others. Hence independent origination rather that cultural diffusion is at work here, to use archaeological terms.

    As for the "mysterious mirror" and other cryptic Taoist utterances, I think if you have a certain kind of experience or understanding, those phrases open up for you and they are multilayered and have multiple meanings. If you do not, then they remain cryptic.

    If you can sweep all the thoughts from your mind, i.e. polish your mysterious mirror and leave no blemish, then what remains? What is reflected or revealed?

    "Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?
    Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life?" (TTC XV)

    Don't ya just love it :) As far as I'm concerned, I get working on that uncarved block. Think what Maya would do with it. Again, it's one of those cryptic images that changes meaning from verse to verse, but I always think of it as the prima materia.


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