Thursday, January 7, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 36

Poem 36

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.


Forest Walk, Dalgan Park, 2006
Once again the Taoist poet indulges his predilection for the balance of opposites.  How can one know what white is unless one knows what black is and vice versa? I won't bore the reader by repeating what I said on balance in my last post here.  However, the last two lines of the first stanza contain the essence of the poem.  What is perception? The Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley (1685 - 1753) explored the nature of perception in depth.  He was obsessed with the contrasting ideas of immaterialism versus materialism as a result of his reading the empiricist philosopher John Locke and the skeptical writings of Pierre Bayle. Originally, he had based his line of argument for immaterialism on the fact that colour, taste and other sensible qualities were purely subjective in nature.  However, he later replaced this early thinking by a profound  analysis of the meaning of that quintessential experience of all human beings, namely that of being or, as he, in the footsteps of Shakespeare, called the "to be" question.  What, he asked, did it mean "to be"?  His answer can be simply stated as follows: "To be," when it refers to an object, means "to be perceived." When "to be" refers to a subject it means "to perceive."  Traditionally when discussing Berkeley's philosophy, lecturers used start with his famous statement in Latin, that phrase or formula: "Esse est percipi aut percipere" = "To be is to be perceived or to perceive."

Bishop George Berkeley (1685 - 1753)
Whatever about the views of Bishop Berkeley, who is classed as an idealist in philosophical terms, that is, a follower of any philosophy that maintains that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental or immaterial, or old time or modern day materialists who look on all reality as fundamentality reducible to actual material objects, our Taoist poet, like all writers from any spiritual tradition, speaks about a spiritual realm either beyond the physical one or a more subtle spiritual essence that pervades the physical one.  The person who is open to the Tao is one who has a "subtle perception" that can achieve a sense of the way things are in themselves or as they interconnect.  Again, such a "subtle perception" of reality could be equated with what people of a religious persuasion commonly call a "religious experience," or what certain psychologists and sociologists have called "depth experiences," or "height experiences" or "peak experiences" (Abraham Maslow).  I imagine also that James Joyce's concept or notion of "epiphany" is akin to the meaning all the foregoing expressions.

In conclusion, the old proverb that the "proof of the pudding is in the eating" captures a good deal of what I am attempting to convey in this short post.  Is it not true that everything in the end boils down to our lived experience, rather than to our most exquisite and fine thinking?  This proverb I have just quoted means that the real value of something can be judged only from practical experience, and not from appearance or theory.  It would seem to this commentator that the last two lines of our second stanza above is getting at the same truth, and maybe at times we should do just as those lines counsel us.  Therefore, I'll repeat them by way of conclusion here:

Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

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