Thursday, March 05, 2009

Tao Te Ching Cheat Sheet

We're reading the Tao Te Ching for book club, also known as the Dao De Jing. 

One good friend told me he was finding it hard going. So I wrote up a personal interpretation of the book's outlook. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong, since I'm certainly no authority on this book. And, in a sort of mortal sin, I will say nothing about the poetry of the book.

1) Go with the flow. Keep this phrase in mind. It names the attitude behind the book.

2) What is "the way", anyway? It's a Big Idea in Chinese thought, but not in Western thought. For the Chinese it seems to be a unifying idea that cuts across ethics, theory of knowledge, theory of what reality basically IS, and even political philosophy.

a) In ethics, the way is the best way to act. Taoism is situational, so the best way to act varies depending on the situation. That's one reason it can't be specified in advance. One must be receptive to the immediate situation.

b) In theory of knowledge, the way is the right way to find the truth. Taoism is experiential, so the best way to find the truth is to have an open mind and pay attention - to have a mind that is like an empty bowl, waiting to be filled with current information.

c) In theory of reality, the way is the way reality acts. Taoism is evolutionary and dialectical, so reality spins out unpredictably, favoring first one opposite and then another.

d) In theory of politics, the way is the right way to govern. Taoism is non-interventionist, in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. Don't raise taxes, don't start wars. Unintended consequences will come if you intervene, because the opposite trend will rise to meet you. Raise taxes, people are dissatisfied and less productive. Go to war, and opposing forces go wild, leading to unpredictable destruction.

3) Heraclitus, the ancient Greek pre-Socratic, is a bit like Lao Tzu. He famously said that "you can't step in the same river twice". He believed that reality was a flux, composed of a unity of opposites. He wrote: "Sea is the purest and most polluted water: for fish drinkable and healthy, for men undrinkable and harmful."

It isn't really hard going.
Just follow the way that the water is flowing.

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