Class II: Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching
Chuang Tzu, The Way of Chuang Tzu
So we sat again, against the onrushing tide of New York City's Monday afternoon, a few people huddled together, trying to scrape into the ground of Truth with our fingernails. Lights gentle, the outdoor sounds muffled, the air gentle and quiet.
We traveled to ancient China, into the world of Tao, a decidedly un-Western view of spirituality, life and striving. We asked: can one be content in their striving? Can action and inaction live in harmony in one's life? What is harmony, for that matter – for a person, for a species, for the world? What is the patience necessary to allow the interior mud to settle, and for the internal waters at the heart of your being to clear and shine forth?
So we began to lower ourselves into the waters of the Tao, where the soft always overcomes the hard, the gentle overcomes the most aggressive. A world we are not accustomed to, yet one which holds much in the way of peace and patience, for the reader and even more so for the practitioner.
The Chinese philosophers, Lao Tzu (d. 531 B.C.E.) and Chuang Tzu (d. 287 B.C.E.) offer a vision of spirituality and the meaning of life far different than our Western heritage does. Gone are moralities and hell; familial, social and traditional obligations; desire for “goodness” or fear of eternal damnation. In their place, the simple sound of lake waves lapping against the side of a drifting canoe. In their place: the removal of "self" from the internal space; the discovery of non-action; the quelling of desire and an almost Puck-ish appreciation for the absurdity of life. (Indeed, a longer compilation of Chuang Tzu’s work is entitled in English: “The Genius of the Absurd.”)
Of course, in our culture, we are not going to devote our days completely to a search for the Tao, or the energy that lies at the heart of being. This ultimate reality – known for Hindus as “Atman” or the “unmoved mover” to Aristotle – represents an energy with which to align oneself, an ultimate reality that underpins all other lesser realities. Yet we are so damned busy!
So our question, of course, becomes how to assimilate such an idea into the maelstrom of our Western, cell-phone and twitting-infused lives? How to allow an appreciation of this ultimate, gentle and feminine power of Being to influence us as we scrabble like ants up the tiny little hill of our personal desperation?
What does “patience” mean in this milieu? For Simone Weil (who we will be reading toward the end of the class), it meant “not transforming suffering into a crime.” But this is hardly the sense that our Chinese brothers had in mind. For them, it tinged with acceptance, non-action, and the occasional giggle at the absurdity of it all. What might this attitude look like while churning through Hell’s Kitchen toward a rehearsal? Or selling cheese in a small shop?
Paradox suffused the afternoon. How to find non-action in action; how to "try" and not "try." How to accept the world as it is, yet work our hardest to change things. As Chuang Tzu noted:
Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I, though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I know that I cannot succeed and yet try to force success, this would be but another source of error. Better then to desist and strive no more. But if I do not strive, who will?
How do we digest and then apply such teachings to our lives? How can we move beyond certainty to the question mark at the heart of all being, and then further still: to an acknowledgement that paradox is at the heart of the question mark (i.e.: action and inaction; trying to make the world better and accepting it as it is etc.).
For what mental state do these sages advocate? An internal emptiness – shorn of expectation and judgment? Is that synonymous with the lack of an interior monologue? Are we able to let experience wash through us without the governor of our wry, knowing, highly ego-centric internal monologue? Can we move through out day without judgment? In the frenetic, New York City social and professional worlds, can we remove the desire for fruits of action from our actions? How might this sense of internal peace affect our mundane interactions?
|Karl Christian Rove, a real advisor to kings|
Lao Tzu fashioned himself an advisor to kings. He tried to become such, though in the end, his ideas were so antithetical to Machiavellian leadership that he usually offended his charge and was driven from the kingdom. And as Chuang Tzu noted, only those who don’t want to lead the nation are fit to lead it, anyway. In the middle of this particular election season, we certainly see no indication of how this energy might be applied to our political system.
Again, it comes back to the individual. To those few souls sitting in the small room in the Lower East Side. How do we apply these values to our own lives? Strive, yet accept. Fashion ourselves leaders, yet lead only by example. Move through this increasingly hysterical world, yet retain the cool, sweet waters of patience within. Believe in poetry, beauty and solitude, even as the world further abandons such values.
And we talked of “harmony,” a central theme for our far-off Chinese brethren. How does it look? Is it dependent on outcomes? Is it an internal or external state – or some combination of the manner in which all interact? With such disharmony in the world, how can we seek it on a personal level?
As Lao Tzu noted:
When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.
Look around! We are clearly not in harmony with the Tao. And though Lao Tzu assures that for dissolving the inflexible, nothing is more powerful than the soft and yielding, how can we as activists apply such a gentle force to the world around us, desperately looking to instill “harmony” in a species spiraling ever-more hysterically out of control?
It comes back, again, to the internal. To patience. To personal harmony. To becoming an oasis of clear water in the tempest of contemporary human experience. We must act in harmony, must strive to be in harmony. A small oasis of sanity in a mondo cane.
We discussed what was natural, what “unnatural.” I proposed that humanity – the coming climate disaster, our greed and rapacious relationship with the Earth – is but one more natural disaster, like the meteor in the Yucatan or the last Ice Age. How are we any different? We – like those natural disasters before us – will simply reset spaceship earth. We cannot destroy it. Who knows what comes next? But in any event, we are no different than those earlier geologic events. There is nothing that we can do that is “unnatural,” as we exist in the universe as surely as everything else does – even the Tao. That we were programmed at the outset to self-destruct simply makes it sad on the human level, but certainly not on the universal level, or perhaps even in disharmony with the Tao.
We scurried quickly back into the realm of the personal. We discussed the fear of standing alone with views which don’t accord with the norm,” even while acknowledging that the “norm” is a form of insanity. How much internal confidence and force to apply ideas from Lao and Chuang to an everyday life in the Big Bad City? Can one walk confidently and alone – or nearly-so – through the world, assured by those with knowing and wry voices that we are wrong and they are right (just look at the polling data!)?
We talked about what defines the “I.” Are we the collection of experiences, traits, ideas, hopes, dreams and failures? Or is there something more fundamental beneath it all. How can we appreciate the deeper “I,” when ultimately it is a completely personal experience, and one that we might not even be able to share – or even access ourselves. Once again, it comes back to acceptance (of the unreachable, eternal “I” within), in lieu of striving (for something that will define our “I” as successful and noteworthy).
Preparation and letting go. Action and inaction. Acceptance and striving.
Lastly, how should we flag “success”? Something seen and noted? Or an internal experience of patience, of solidity, of acceptance? If we don’t read about ourselves in the Times or appear on Good Morning America, are we really doing something “worthwhile”? How can we define personal worth outside of the normal social construct?
Like a drug that must be taken to quell symptoms, but will never heal the illness, we must continue to read and think about these timeless ideals. If not, we fall quickly back into the illness of the temporal, of human hysteria, of values which stem from fear and not patience.
So read and discuss we will: next week, the Bhagavad Gita. Obligation, action, desire and the quelling thereof.