Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 3

Tao Te Ching

Poem 3

If you over esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

Practise not-doing
and everything will fall into place.


In the above poem not-doing equates to being.  Traditionally, in most philosophical and spiritual traditions, there has been a polarity set up between being and doing.  In the Christian Scriptures there is the lovely story of Martha and Mary that refers to an episode in the life of Jesus which appears only in the Gospel of Luke, and can be read immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:38-42). 

Icon of this Lucan story: See HERE

In this story Mary sits at the Lord's feet listening (that is, a metaphor for contemplating or meditating or praying or simply being in a state of reverence for the holy) while her sister was anxiously doing preparations so that the welcomed guest (the Lord Jesus) would have all the generosity the household could offer (that is, action or doing). All traditions of spirituality recommend a balance between both, while in this Biblical story Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the right course of action in this case, that is, not-doing, meditation, contemplation or prayer.  Once again, and it bears repeating, that all traditions emphasize the balance between both and how both are necessary to good spiritual practice.  However, there are, of course, stories that emphasize either one according to the intentions of the author at that particular time to get his message across.  All Scriptures, whether Christian or Taoist or Buddhist or Hindu have to be taken on balance.  There is nothing as bad as Scriptures used to prove a polemical or didactic point without an appreciation of context, good scholarship and that elsewhere in the same Scriptures that there are other balancing texts giving a different perspective on the question but never necessarily being self-contradictory.  That's why a knowledge and understanding of polarities or binaries or opposites is so crucial to our spiritual journey. Doing and Being are both important aspects of the Doing-Being polarity.  (For readers with an interest in graffiti here is an interesting article on the origins of the graffito joke: To Do is To Be - Socrates, To Be is To Do - Aristotle and Do Be Do Be D0....  - Sinatra: Quote Investigator ).

What is appropriate in life is obviously BALANCE.  All good mainline spiritual traditions recommend such balance.

Avoidance of Extremes

In keeping with the notion of balance the above poem opens with a call to the reader/meditator to avoid extremes.  Over-esteeming some people, our author poet argues, disempowers others.  Over-valuing possessions leads people to steal.  The question of over-valuing is an interesting concept in itself.  We all too often hear of the polar problem of undervaluing.  Indeed, it is interesting to follow this line of argument philosophically and spiritually.  Moot questions would be: Is it possible to over-value human life?  Is it possible to over-value humankind's place in the world? Is over-valuing anything, including ourselves, a mark of our ego-driven ambitions and sheer hubris? These are all questions, not statements, of course.  In this regard, I firmly believe that what the Physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said is totally correct, that we should "..... rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned."  However, a good pilgrim on the path to self-knowledge or spiritual-awareness will know that it is the balance between the extremes that counts; that it is the healthy tension set up between the poles that is important, not either pole in itself.  Over long years of spiritual questioning and questing, I have become enamoured of how close theoretical physics can be to spirituality.  As the great nineteenth century theologian John Henry cardinal Newman used say: no truth from any area of knowledge can contradict another truth from another area if it is to be the truth at all - this, in short, is axiomatic or foundational to all knowledge or truth. 

Emptying and Becoming Empty

These notions are central to most mainline religions also.  The believer has to empty himself or herself of his/her EGO, pride, hubris and all other lesser attributes so that they can become receptacles or vehicles or conduits of the divine.  In meditation and prayer in all traditions, the seeker has to empty his/her mind of distracting thoughts and baser desires. Even if we are not religious qua religious or spiritual qua spiritual in the specific sense, we are all spiritual in a general or generic or psychic sense.  There is always much in us that has to be healed, or made whole in the process of Integration of the self (Anthony Storr et al) or in the process of Individuation (Jungian Analysis), or in the process of Self-Actualization (Carl ransom Rogers and Abraham Maslow) or in that Self-realization (general). In spiritual terms, if we belong to a specific religious or spiritual tradition we might call it an emptying in order so we can be filled by the divine.  In a sense, of course, these are all human words that stretch language to breaking point in an attempt to describe a religious or spiritual experience.  For Christian believers, St Paul advanced the notion of the kenosis undergone by Jesus Christ in order to save the world.  As a discourse on this Christian concept is beyond our needs here, please refer to the following links if you wish to read about it: WIKI  and  Theopedia

There is throughout the Tao Te Ching,  then a call to humility, a call to declaring first our ignorance before going on our spiritual way.  Please note how close this is to Socrates' call to all who would wish to be philosophers or followers of what is true to first declare their ignorance and that knowledge will follow from there by a process of radical questioning of all our thinking.  St Augustine, the fifth century A.D. philosopher and theologian maintained that even with the aid of Christian revelation that divine knowledge was so far beyond our ken in this world that the most we could achieve, after all our intellectual and spiritual travail, is merely what he termed a "docta ignorantia" or learned ignorance.


Read the above poem again and let whatever line or  phrase or word jump out of the text for you and repeat it in your mind slowly like a mantra.  Then close your eyes, centre yourself and meditate on those words for five minutes.

Namaste, friends!

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