Sunday, August 27, 2006

Lao Tsu Was a Crazy Person

What is up, I ask you, with the Tao Te Ching? Have you ever read this stuff? I understand the generic idea of Taoism, which is going with the flow, not resisting the nature of things. Like Pooh. But as you delve into it with the guy who invented it, you realize that maybe he was a little bit on crack.

First, look at the little introductory blurb. This explains that Lao Tsu was the imperial archivist in the time of Confucius (they were contemporaries, but Lao Tsu was older). He was a teacher all his life. The book, though, was written because "as he was riding off into the desert to die--sick at heart at the ways of men--he was persuaded bya gatekeeper in northwestern China to write down his teaching for posterity."

Now, I don't know how he was planning to die in the wilderness--wild boar, maybe, or just good old fashioned exposure--but that makes this book pretty much a suicide note. Which kind of explains some of this stuff. Like "Everyone else is busy,/ But I alone am aimless and depressed," in chapter 20. Or, more universal, "Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles."

Really, the whole book is full of stuff that makes sense as philosophy but is lousy advice. Like, "Is there a difference between yes and no?" Um, yeah. I can see the argument that saying yes to one thing is saying no to another, and it's good philosophy. But as advice for living in the real world, where you're trying to get things done, it's kind of tricky. Do I have leprosy? There's a difference between yes and no, my friend. A big one.

I also think he has a weird relationship with the word "wisdom." This could be a translation thing, I'm not sure. In chapter 19 he says "Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,/ And it will be a hundred times better for everyone." Here, wisdom seems to mean learning, the idea being that the accumulation of knowledge gives the illusion of wisdom, which gets in the way of attaining an understanding of the holistic nature of the Tao. But then in chapter 22, we learn that "wise men embrace the one/And set an example to all," followed by a long list of good, Taoist things that wise men do. So is wisdom the opposite of good Tao, or the key to it? Hm?

I'm only in chapter 30 right now (there are 80, I think), so there's a way to go. Only just now, though, in chapter 30, has he dealt with the fact that most of life consists of bending the world to your needs. If everyone was a Taoist, nothing would get done. It seemed for the first 29 chapters that the Taoists survive because they're fed by the people who, instead of taking the world as it comes, plough up the field and plant something to eat there. But here in chapter 30, we are repeatedly instructed to "achieve results." We must not "glory in them," "boast," or "be proud," but we should definitely "achieve results,/ because this is the natural way."

I don't know, maybe it's starting to come together. Maybe Lao Tsu, Nut, will do for me & Taoism what C.S. Lewis, apologist, couldn't do for me & Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, I'm so glad this guy is handling the Bible for me, so I don't have to read it. At least these 80 chapters are each one page long.

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