EM Reprint: Tao Te Ching: Axes to Grind

28 11 2009

(Originally published December 12, 2007)

In its present form, new discoveries aside, the Tao Te Ching sets the tone for the larger body of work in its famed opening lines:

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.

The insistence of some that they can divine what the Tao “wants” has completely and utterly missed the point of these opening lines, let alone the remainder of the source material.

That doesn’t seem to prevent anyone from writing books about how best to live in accordance with the Tao. One such book is the “new interpretation” of the Tao Te Ching by Ralph Alan Dale. In the introduction, and throughout the interpreted verses, the author and his contemporaries insist that human existence is heading in a new direction, one that embraces organic foods, “green” energy, “integrated movement”, a global language, and so on. He and others apparently suggest that living in accordance with the Tao is to embrace these and other changes. I am inclined to disagree, as told in Verse 80 (Waley):

Given a small country with few inhabitants, he [the Taoist Sage] could bring it about that though there should be among the people contrivances requiring ten times, a hundred times less labour, they would not use them. He could bring it about that the people would be ready to lay down their lives and lay them down again in defence of their homes, rather than emigrate. There might still be boats and carriage, but no one would go in them; there might still be weapons of war but no one would drill with them. He could bring it about that “the people should have no use for any from of writing save knotted ropes, should be contented with their food, pleased with their clothing, satisfied with their homes, should take pleasure in their rustic tasks. The next place might be so near at hand that one could one could hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking; but the people would grow old and die without ever having been there”.

Make no mistake: First and foremost, the authors of the Tao Te Ching value and prescribe absolute simplicity in one’s daily life. This is not to be confused with “poverty”, as “poverty” suggests lacking in even the basics. They who are “most Taoist” are described as having abundance, mainly by keeping ones requirements to a minimum. A dirt hut would be preferable to a mansion, a sleeping bag under the stars to a dirt hut. If someone steals your sleeping bag, get another one. It’s cheaper and quicker than having to replace a house – and all that it contains. And since you can’t take any of your “stuff” with you when you die, why bother collecting up a wealth of “stuff”? Better, in their view, to deal with the smallest number, the least amount, the barest essentials.

Conversely, in their view, as one adds to ones “store”, what happens? One desires. If one takes a trip to a foreign country, what happens? One covets. And what happens when one desires and covets? One collects up things that are hard to get, creating strife not only for him or herself, but for others, who may resort to thievery, or start wars over these uncommon things. And does this not happen now?

I was recently considering the consequences of a manned mission to Mars. What if, in the course of exploring Mars, the crew discovered gold*? What if a jeweler back on Earth created the first necklace made of 100% Martian gold? Who would covet this? Who would desire it? What would one be willing to do to possess it? And fundamentally, was there ever a need for the necklace? Certainly the want, but what of the need?

This illustrates the path of human development and how it runs counter to the views held by the authors of the Tao Te Ching. In their view, not only should the Martian gold have not been discovered, in this example, but Mars should never have been explored. And the international team for the manned mission should never have been assembled. And the various space programs should never have been founded. And so on. If we were content with our rustic tasks, content with the bare minimum, desireless of “stuff” that doesn’t exist naturally (including things that, while natural, do not naturally exist in the place where they are stored, such as water in a parched desert), content to simply be.

A cursory glance at the current state of humanity suggests that such a radical shift in thinking will necessarily have to come about on a case-by-case basis, if at all. Which the authors of the Tao Te Ching speak to in another set of verses.

The title of this article is a perversion of what I was thinking as I read Ralph Alan Dale’s treatment of the Tao Te Ching: Reminiscent of the opening lines, I thought, “The Tao that has an axe to grind is not the eternal Tao.” As noted above, despite the stark simplicity of the verses of the Tao Te Ching, their authors too have an axe to grind. One must bear in mind that their binary view of the world (there is high because there is low, etc) led them to some of the chief conclusions that define the Tao Te Ching as something of a user’s manual for a life in accordance with the Tao. Does the Tao mandate that these changes be made, or confirm that Verse 80 is indeed representative of the ideal life? I suspect that it does not, if for no other reason than “confirming” and “mandating” requires action, and the Tao is said to rely on “actionless activity”.

It is this “actionless activity” that must be examined in the face of claims of better living through Taoism.

* This may sound silly off the cuff, but in truth, interest in obtaining the mining rights to Mars is quite real, dependent on several factors (such as what Mars is composed of, and the perceived return on investment for shipping Martian resources back to Earth for consumption).

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