Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Practical Mysticism: Part One - Tao Te Ching

I have read a great deal of ancient Eastern mystical texts because I've found them interesting and useful. I think there's something practical to it, but it's hard to convince people to read thousand year old books. Ergo, I intend to deliver the best quotes and sections on this blog, with brief commentary, as a kind of introduction. If you want in depth looks, you can find far more knowledgeable sources than I. But I can whet your appetite.

First is the Tao te ching of Lao Tzu, where I started, and one of the most well known texts. In an age when Chinese scholars had a way of pottery and a way of archery and a way of statecraft, Lao Tzu, before he disappeared, left a way of the way. It's a series of 81 difficult and mysterious poems. Of course, you should read all of them, but here are 10 I think are especially valuable. Translation is by Red Pine from the Copper Canyon Press edition.

1. The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings

This is the thesis statement of the entire work, drawing a stark line between reality as such and the reality perceived, named, and taxonomized by human cognition.

2. All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don't look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don't claim them
they are never without them

A basic statement of the yin/yang system of balance and comparison. There are no absolutes, all things are in relation to their opposite.

8. The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don't compete
they aren't maligned

Fairly self explanatory, also the first statement that water is the goal of the follower of the Tao.

11. Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it's the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it's the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it's the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes a things useful
but nonexistence makes it work

A clever inversion showing the value of nothing, and the importance of space.

19. Get rid of wisdom and reason
and people will live a hundred times better
get rid of kindness and justice
and people once more will love and obey
get rid of cleverness and profit
and thieves will cease to exist
but these three sayings are incomplete
hence let these be added
display the undyed and preserve the uncarved
reduce self-interest and limit desires

This seems paradoxical. How would getting rid of wisdom, reason, kindness, and justice improve the world? Remember that Lao Tzu is skeptical of knowledge we have named and tamed, and the true meaning starts to become clear.

29. Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can't be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
avoid extravagance
avoid excess

To command and control is not the Tao. You will lose what you intend to gain.

36. What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can't survive out of the depths
a state's greatest weapon
isn't meant to be shown

It's all balance and cycles. You should work with the flow of things rather than struggle in vain against the cycles of the natural world.

63. Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it's easy
deal with the great while it's small
the world's hardest task begins easy
the world's greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard

The Taoist sage cultivates expertise to always exist in the zone, unforced excellence, effortless through practice and planning.

67. The world calls me great
great but useless
it's because I am great I am useless
if I were of use
I would have remained small
but I possess three treasures
I treasure and uphold
first is compassion
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel
because I'm compassionate
I can be valiant
because I'm austere
I can be extravagant
because I'm reluctant to excel
I can be chief of all tools
if I renounced compassion for valor
austerity for extravagance
humility for superiority
I would die
but compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack
what Heaven creates
let compassion protect

Another enjoyable paradox about Taoist sages.

78. Nothing in the world is weaker than water
but against the hard and the strong
nothing outdoes it
for nothing can change it
the soft overcomes the hard
the weak overcomes the strong
this is something everyone knows
but no one is able to practice
thus do sages declare
who accepts a country's disgrace
we call the lord of soil and grain
who accepts a country's misfortune
we call the ruler of all under Heaven
upright words sound upside down

The Tao prescribes a logical course of action, but its mastery is difficult. And the harder you try and master it, the more you fail.

Next time, Taoism continues with Chuang-Tzu or Zhuangzhi!

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