My reading of the Tao Teh Ching has reminded me more of my failings than my strengths, for it seems as difficult to live by these precepts as it does to live by Christ’s ideals. It is even harder to follow them when you have doubts about some of the ideas themselves.
Perhaps part of my questioning comes from the fact that the Tao Teh Ching is directed not just at the individual but at government leaders, as indicated by lines like “Govern the state with correctness./ Operate the army with surprise tactics./ Administer the empire by engaging in no activity.”
Yesterday I noted that, though I agreed that no one can ever know the “whole truth” about any situation, I was bothered that people often perceive such ambivalence as a weakness. As a result, nuanced ideas are often rejected for the less-reasoned, and more dangerous, ideas of someone who’s convinced he is right. (Simply put, voters seem to prefer the simplistic views of a Reagan or a Bush to those of a Carter or a Clinton; the best way to unravel the Gordian knot of international affairs is with the biggest sword, and WE have it.)
Looking back, perhaps that logical leap from true wisdom to “lack of passion” may have been unfounded, but the two concepts still seem intertwined to me. Thus, I was immediately drawn to the following passage from Raymond Van Over’s translation of Chuang Tzu, one of three major Taoist sages, in Chinese Mystics:
With the truly wise, wisdom is a curse, sincerity like glue, virtue only a means to acquire, and skill nothing more than a commercial capacity. For the truly wise make no plans, and therefore require no wisdom. They do not separate, and therefore require no glue. They want nothing and therefore need no virtue. They sell nothing and therefore are not in want of a commercial capacity. These four qualifications are bestowed upon them by God and serve as heavenly food to them. And those who thus feed upon the divine have little need for the human. They wear the forms of men, without human passions. Because they wear the forms of men, they associate with men. Because they have not human passions, positives and negatives find them no place. Infinitesimal, indeed, is that which makes them man; infinitely great is that which makes them divine.
Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu: “Are there, then, men who have no passions?”
Chang Tzu replied, “Certainly”
“But if a man has no passions,” argued Hui Tzu, “what is it that makes him a man?”
“Tao,” replied Chuang Tzu, “gives him his expression, and God gives him his form. How should he not be a man?”
“If, then, he is a man,” said Hui Tzu, “how can he be without passions?”
“What you mean by passions,” answered Chuang Tzu, “is not what I mean. By a man without passions I mean one who does not permit good and evil to disturb his internal economy, but rather falls in with whatever happens, as a matter of course, and does not add to the sum of his mortality.”
I’m obviously no expert on Taoism. Much of what is written has the same gnomic wisdom I admired in the Book of Thomas ” and is about as easy to understand. About the time I thought I understood what was being said about the wise man’s relationship to the four qualities commonly admired by others, I’m dumbfounded by the line, “These four qualifications are bestowed upon them by God and serve as heavenly food to them.” If they have no need of them, why are they “heavenly” food? Why aren’t they “tasteless fast food?”
What truly caught my attention, though, was Chuang Tzu’s definition of “without passions as “one who does not permit good and evil to disturb his internal economy.” Though I wonder a little about a translation that uses a phrase like “internal economy,” “without passions” suddenly makes sense.
Who doesn’t admire the man who can remain calm and focused in the midst of crisis? What is worse than overreacting to your enemies’ actions, particularly if they are counting on just such a reaction?
“Good” and “bad” are inevitable in life, and to overreact to either, or to change one’s principles or beliefs because of such events, at least without serious consideration, is undoubtedly a mistake. Better to trust those underlying principles, the Tao, you have built your life on then to merely react to whims of fortune.