Final paper for “Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu” with Dr. Yi Wu at California Institute of Integral Studies, Fall 2003
Modern humanity is drawn in a downward spiral by the gravity of human arrogance. We create problems for ourselves through our denial of the wisdom and hierarchical supremacy of the natural world. As our powers grow, it becomes harder and harder to accept their inherent limitations, as when we face natural disaster or death. Taoism addresses this effectively in providing a more carefully balanced understanding and trust of the natural world. Of Lao Tzu’s 10 key ideas, as presented by Dr. Wu at the beginning of the semester, three characterize the essential nature of the world and seven characterize ways of being in the world contrary to our modern modes. He characterizes the world by: oneness, constancy, and twist, and the ways of being in the world as: no accumulation, return to a state of desirelessness, simplicity, honoring humility and weakness, pure emptiness and tranquility, no seeking for gain, and returning to the fundamental. In the following paragraphs we’ll explore these ways of being and their balance in contrast to the ways of being valued by the modern world.
The three of Lao Tzu’s key ideas which describe the world are oneness, constancy, and twist. When taken together these implicitly generate a trust of the universe, because built into this understanding is the principle of reverse, which forewarns of the inevitable negation of trust. In other words it’s brutally honest. It doesn’t claim everything will be the way you want it to be, or that you can control what it is. It only illustrates that we cannot know, that the only ultimacy we can rely on is change.
The oneness which underlies change is the foundation of our trust. In oneness we reside no matter the outer fluctuations of life and death, of suffering and joy. Dr. Wu’s second note on LaoTzu’s 23rd chapter aptly speaks to our current political situation, “Brief and sudden changes in the temporal world, such as the whirlwind and shower, are nature speaking. But not being harmonious, they cannot last long. Here, the whirlwind and the shower symbolize a tyrannical government or those who are against Nature.” It is the constancy of reverse which gives us hope in travail (like our current administration) that it will pass and intensity in love by the very virtue of its fleeting manifestations. Reverse is the building block of humor and the cornerstone of resistance. It is the very principle which will carry the modern humanity out of its self absorption and back into right relation with the world, whether in life or through death. That which the modern world ignores, to its detriment, will inevitably rise up and claim its due attention.
The first key idea that we’ll look at is no accumulation, or the notion that accumulation is deficiency. Western world is so entrenched in accumulating that it is blinded to the deficiencies caused by that accumulation, in the same way entrenchment in opaque being blinds one to the constancy and transparency of non-being. The accumulation of independence leads to the deficiency of community causing alienation, depression, antisocial and sociopathic behavior. Accumulation of material things leads to a deficiency of freedom. The accumulation of freedom for a few leads to restrictive violence for many via war and criminalization for the illusion of safety. The accumulation of money for a few leads to the indentured servitude of many causing suffering, crime and revolution. The accumulation of resources from the earth leads to the deficiency of the land and ecosystems causing mass extinction and global warming. The tricky part about implementing the philosophy of no accumulation is that it requires a great deal of trust in the world that provisions will arise as necessary instead of the necessity of amassing a small fortune to guarantee one’s security for as long as they might live. Perhaps we can start with less accumulation.
To return to a state of desirelessness and simplicity, the next two key ideas, would reinforce the policy of non accumulation. By decreasing desire one can decrease accumulation, and by decreasing accumulation one can decrease desire. Unfortunately it goes the other way too, more desire, more accumulation, more desire, we just need to utilize a little reverse to get ourselves on the other side of the bifurcation. Because the complexity of the modern world makes it very hard to understand, responsibility is complicated and less likely to be attended to. Simple living maintains the immediacy of responsibility which allows it’s to unfold naturally. If you grow your own food and haul your own water from the stream, you’re much less likely to be wasteful of those things which require large amounts of time and work to bring about. Money allows us the supreme disconnect from the true value of things. Instant gratification creates more desire, more accumulation and less simplicity. The modern world is largely based in exponentially increasing efficiency which means more for less. The only way to get more for less is to give less for more. Thus the build up of the capitalistic society is largely based on cheating the rest of the world, natural and indigenous. Decreasing desire and increasing simplicity doesn’t necessitate a return to subsistence living, but draws us closer to reestablishing quality of life in exchange for quantity of stuff. Fair trade gets us closer to this type of balanced relation. While simple living is effective for moving toward a more balanced world, unfortunately simple thought is not. One must be willing to engage in the complexities of global interdependencies if they want to participate in the world with any sort of conscience.
The hyper masculinization of the western world has largely prevented us from honoring humility and weakness, the fourth key idea. Lao Tzu’s 43rd chapter utilizes water to illustrate how that which is soft and yielding propels and is directed by (as I read the literal translation drive/ride) that which is hard and inflexible. A similar principle is evident in the wave particle duality of quantum mechanics. The field of a particle is invisibly powerful and receptive, while the particle itself, concrete and solid, and is directed by its ineffable field. The particle, at once, creates and is dictated by its field. In the same way, the earth’s matter is shaped, dissolved and shifted by the subtle flow of water, while at the same time directing the path of that water. Classical physics, a strong shaper of the modern mindset, has focused largely on the particle nature of reality rather than on the mysterious field properties as have arisen, in true reverse style, in quantum mechanics. Thus the denial of the unspeakable, the unaggressive, the non dominant, has crippled the modern world in its understanding of itself and its own power. To reclaim the power and necessity of humility and weakness would allow us to yield the power we claim to have wrested from the earth back to her again, admitting our limitations of knowledge, and our ignorance in the face of vast complexity, only manageable by nature, not by mind alone.
The fifth key idea, pure emptiness and tranquility, gets written off as laziness or boredom in the modern world where productivity is king. Once again one sided appreciation imbalances our relationship with the world. The neglect of moments of quiet serenity in the pursuit of always doing prevents observational learning, reflection and caution. To cultivate these empty spaces allows room for the true creativity of a beginners mind, prevents the perseverance along a path, no matter how destructive, just because it’s already been paved.
No seeking for gain is the sixth key idea, tricky because we value knowledge and curiosity so highly. We value gain above all else, even physical comfort as colloquially expressed in the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” I don’t think the modern world is quite at a place where it is ready to utilize this one. It seems we’ve sought ourselves into this mess and we’ll have to seek our way out of it. But perhaps by adopting a non-hierarchical mode of seeking – not to possess something or not seeking something “better”, but just for the sake of learning new things, not for any gain, just for fun. This is the action without attachment to the results, very hard for a society so identified with their achievements.
Number seven is the return to the fundamental, like water trickling on down to the ocean. For me this plays out as the necessity to always check with common sense. Our formalisms of logic, reasoning and science can take us to some pretty crazy places. The question, in the end, is do they make sense? Am I forgetting some very basic stuff by getting so mixed up in all this complexity? To return to the fundamental is to return to the essence, to the emptiness to the mind of a newborn child. If you do not integrate the past with the present then you run the risk of losing your grounding as we have as a society. We’ve forgotten that everything is sacred; we’ve forgotten that we depend on the earth, all of its animals, plants and people for our very livelihoods. Because we’ve forgotten, we’re destroying or home and ourselves.
I find one particularly effective method of return to fundamentals is backpacking. You carry everything you need on your back into the woods. You learn to utilize and engage with that which is present to you immediately, rather than dissociating via TV, internet, hurriedness, errands or distractions from place and presence. There you realize how little you really need and how unnecessarily complex life in the modern world is. That which is fundamental is simple. When you start to think in terms of what you can do without, no desire, no seeking gain, tranquility, emptiness, and humility arise naturally and trust in the land and world is restored. So perhaps there is hope for the modern world, if only we can find the time to slow down, step out of our lives and back onto the land in simple relationship, even just for a few moments of quiet observation and stillness. Then we might find the Lao Tzu’s ideals are not so far from our realm of possible experience. Not only are they accessibly simple, they’re immensely rewarding, not that we’d have any attachment to the outcomes of such actions. 😉
Wu, Yi. (1989) The Book of Lao Tzu: The Tao Te Ching. USA: Great Learning Publishing Co.