Friday, December 25, 2015

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 29

Poem 29

Do you want to improve the world?

I don't think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.


Yellow Poppy

Having lived in this world for almost 58 years now, I have in the past been mostly annoyed and angry at people who cannot resist the urge to take control of others, though mostly I am more amused at their antics in the last number of years.  Life has taught me that I simply cannot control any other human being, much less the world.  We are such insignificant ants on the anthill called the Earth, a mere individual among about 7.3 billion human beings. And yet some of us think we are so important that we actually dare to attempt to control others.  I remember reading in one of Dr Tony Humphrey's books the succinct and wise statement: "All control is self-control!" There is much wisdom in that - indeed, there is much Zen in it, or even, dare I say it, much Tao!  As a young teacher I often went astray by trying to control what I simply could not control.  We can only exert influence over whatever little patch of ground that we alone are in charge of.  I learnt from other more experienced teachers how to exercise control within my own classroom and how to give instructions to adolescents without their sounding like being commands inviting opposition.  

It is indeed a truism to say that none of us can change the world, and we know that working together, yet again like ants on an anthill, but with all our wonderful brain power, we can achieve much material change for the good of humankind.  I think the above poem is somewhat pessimistic about life in a way, though one can understand such an attitude given that the poem was written over 2,000 years ago when no one could change much about an inevitably hostile world and where human lifespan was very short indeed.

Much spirituality essentially boils down to working on our egotism.  Just as the sun certainly does not revolve around the Earth, the world certainly does not revolve around any one individual.  There is nothing as bad as encountering people who are egotistical and self-centered.  St John the Evangelist put this in a very Christian way - as he, needless to say, saw our relationship with Jesus Christ as being of paramount importance - "He must increase and I must decrease" or as it is also translated, "He must become greater, I must become less." (John 3:30)  In other words we can translate this overtly Christian exhortation as a recommendation to bring our egos under control.

Malahide at sunset

Christmas Day is a special one for all Christians.  Even if you are of another faith or even none, you can still rejoice in the power of the simple yet wonderful myth or story, that whatever power is behind the universe (some dare call this power God) deigned take human form in the shape of a simple little infant.  This doctrine is known as that of the Incarnation, literally the en-fleshing of the Godhead in human form.  If anything, the heart of the meaning of this myth is that all of creation and especially humankind are shot through with a value that is beyond human reckoning.  This, then, I believe, is what it means to say that something is sacred.  The Earth and all it contains is sacred, that is, of priceless value. Christians believe, then, that everything in creation, especially humanity as the guardians of the goods of the Earth, is sacred.

The above poem shares some of this Christian insight into the sacredness of the world.  I admit it sounds somewhat negative to our modern ears, but I remind the reader again that this verse was written over 2000 years ago when people were simpler and fatalism loomed large in all cultures.

I need hardly remind the readers of this blog that the third stanza above is remarkably like the more famous stanzas from Ecclesiastes 3 from the Old Testament: "There is a time for everything, // And a season for every activity under the heavens" etc.  Once again the Taoist and Biblical writers are ad idem  with their enthusiasm to pile polar opposites one on top of another.  I have mentioned over and over again in these posts that spiritual writers of every hue have a predilection for the balancing of polar opposites and for keeping the healthy tension between both poles.  One could do worse than read Taoist Poem 29 in conjunction with Ecclesiastes 3.

My prayer for anyone reading these rather short and hurried reflections is that we may learn to let go of the restrictions of the ego, to let go of the urge to control others, to learn to accept what we cannot change and at the end of the day to learn to live peacefully with ourselves and others.  After all, we are what we are and we must learn to love ourselves, forgive ourselves and be compassionate to ourselves as well as to others.  That is no easy task, but it sure is one essential one if we are to steer the bark of self through the choppy waters of life.

Namaste, friends and a very Happy Christmas. 

No comments:

Post a Comment