Thursday, August 23, 2007

The ancient wisdom of China

According to legend (or, according to the introduction), Lao Tsu lived in the sixth century BC. An old scholar, he was fleeing his country, and a border guard asked him about Tao and Te. That night, and he sat down and wrote the entire Tao Te Ching, after which he vanished completely. I like to imagine he put so much of his essence into the text that he just kind of evaporated into his text, or maybe into the universe at large, having already contributed an entire soul's worth to the world.

The Tao Te Ching really appeals to me, as a lover of poetry, because of the way it's written. Rather than being overtly prescriptive, or offering words so deeply rooted in a specific cultural context (which makes interpretation difficult when you exist in a different time and place than the original text), the multiplicity of meanings inherent in Chinese characters, goes well with the multiplicity of meaning in poetry, and also makes for a text that moves across cultural time/place boundaries more easily than things like the laws in Deuteronomy about stoning an adulteress, or protocol for what to do if your neighbour steals your lamb. Even in the bible, the parts of the bible that touch me the most powerfully are the poetry and wisdom books -- Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job, as well as Christ's teachings, which are amazing.

Here are my favourite parts of the Tao Te Ching. It's food for thought, but it doesn't go and say "If you disagree with this, you're wrong," or "If you do this, or if you DON'T do THAT, you're out of the club." This makes it a bit more flexible than some of the other codes and credos, and it means that it can co-exist with wisdom from other source texts without contradicting them, and (this is important) without requiring you to choose one or the other.

Tao means "way" -- the basic idea of Tao is that mastery comes from the balance of opposing forces. The yin yang symbol represents that balance -- the world is in harmony when light and dark, life and death, creation and destruction, male and female, etc., are in harmony. The idea of finding that balance is the goal of Tao. I like that.

A lot of this is written in poem or paradox; again, this appeals to me, because its much more interesting to me to be presented with a paradox, where I have to hold both sides of the contradiction in my mind: I much prefer that to being given a statement: "This is truth. Either agree or disagree. (But you'd better agree.)" Because then if I disagree, it causes anxiety, rather than just challenging and stimulating my mind. The goal of the Tao is virtue and simplicity which, again, I like.

The Tao Te Ching is in 81 parts -- a nice, round multiple of three, the good old number of completion; here are some of the passages I liked best. The number after each entry is the book where it's found -- like the chapters in Psalms.

The translator is names Sam Hamill.

Beauty and ugliness have one origin.
Name beauty, and ugliness is.
Recognizing virtue recognizes evil.
. . .
Is and is not produce one another.

Bestow no honors,
and reduce contentiousness.

Cling to no treasures
and create no thieves.
. . .
The sage governs
by emptying minds and hearts
and filling bellies

Over-filled, the cupped hands drip.
Better to stop pouring.

With the greatest leader above them,
people barely know one exists.
. . .
Trust the cautious sage,
whose words are most carefully chosen.

Learn manifest simplicity.
Grasp the uncarved wood.
Cast aside self-interest and desire dissipates.

A good knot needs neither rope nor thread
and yet cannot be untied.

Music and fine foods
detain the passerby
But tao, explained,
has no flavour. It's bland.

The world's softest thing
tramples the world's hardest.

One hears of those who excel at grasping life.

Out walking, they don't flee from wild animals,
and in battle, don't need armor.
. . .
How, truly, can this be so?

Because they make no place for dying.

Heaven rescues and protects us
through compassion.

(I liked this next chapter enough to include the entire thing)

People are born soft and weak.
We die stiff and unyielding.

Everything--grass, trees--
begins life soft and tender,
and dies, decaying, rotting.

Therefore the hard, the unyielding
are death's companion.
The weak and pliant belong to life.

The unyielding army cannot prevail.
Unbending trees are felled.

The treat unyielding belong below,
the pliant and tender above.

Heaven's way is like stringing a bow;
drawing down the higher
raising the lower

Nothing under heaven
is as yielding as water.

And yet in attacking the hard,
the unyielding,
nothing can surpass it.

Sincere words are not beautiful
beautiful words are not sincere


bradj said...

Hmm...I can't decide if 81 (sorry, I skipped a few) is beautiful or sincere...

melissa v. said...

I like 45 (or 43? The one about the world's softest trampling the world's hardest) the best. It makes me think of water and stone, and humans, being so physically soft, traversing the earth, which is so physically hard. The earth is large and strong and immovable, yet we change it because of our soft existance.