Friday, April 8, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 60

Poem 60

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn't there,
but you'll be able to step out of its way.

Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Derek Lin's translation  of this poem is as follows:

Poem 60

Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish
Using the Tao to manage the world
Its demons have no power
Not only do its demons have no power
Its gods do not harm people
Not only do its gods not harm people
The sages also do not harm people
They both do no harm to one another
So virtue merges and returns.


I have given two versions of this poem to give me some inspiration, because what the poet is getting at is somewhat hard to unravel.  I use the word "unravel" intentionally, as the above poem needs to be contemplated deeply as it does not render forth its meaning easily, but that is often the case with mystical, and certainly with Zen-like, poetry.  So, therefore, let me here state clearly that I am offering a very personal and tentative interpretation. 

Garden, Glenview Hotel 1
Who would want to be a politician?  For me the answer to that question is crystal clear, a most definite, "No, certainly not me!"  Politicians put themselves up for election and stand before the judgement of the people at regular intervals. Once elected they have to put in amazingly long hours at the service of the State and of fellow citizens. Sometimes they make mistakes and sometimes they achieve much. However, they often get vilified by some sectors of the population for one decision or another.  All too often, they will fail to get re-elected because they must face their electorate at the end of their political term. Further, their moral and daily personal affairs are an open book as far as the media and the public are concerned. Who would want to be so much in the eye of a very judgemental public?  That's one reason why I admire politicians  because quite simply they have the balls to stand up and be counted, express their vision for the improvement of society and work towards achieving their goals.

Garden, Glenview Hotel 2
Now that I have expressed some of my ideas about politics and politicians and the governance of any state, I must now turn to where the above Taoist poem touches me.  What lines spring off the page?  The image of "frying a small fish" offers itself vividly to the mind of this reader, and poking it too much will certainly break it up into little pieces on the pan. That image courts another image in my mind, an image which is also culinary, namely "too many cooks spoil the broth!" The wisdom of this saying is obvious.  Someone has to be the main chef or cook.  Someone has to make the decisions or be the leader; otherwise there will be chaos and the big fish of State will break into little pieces. There has to be order in society. And yet, the realists among us know all too well that this is the very reason that politicians of Right and Left are often caught in verbal fights most of the time. However, verbal fights are far superior to fist fights and, God forbid, wars between nations. Moreover, the realists among us become aware all too quickly of the virtual inevitability of wars. Another image that springs to my mind here is a famous phrase uttered by the great wartime U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill: "Jaw, Jaw, not War, War!"  

Garden, Glenview Hotel 3
What makes this interpreter of the above poem pretty much lacking in hope, but certainly not despairing, is that our writer is so impractical, so unrealistic, so thoroughly positive that he or she appears to be a totally dyed-in-the-wool idealist who believes that our politicians can be motivated by being steeped in the Tao or in the Still Point of Being. Yes, indeed, like any of you reading this post, I should dearly like that such would be the case, that all the politicians that lead my country, Ireland, should be centered in the Tao and that "evil will have no power."

And yet, it is so right that the Scriptures of any religion, that the ideals of any belief system, theist, atheist or agnostic should propose values which we should, of necessity, strive to achieve.  Otherwise, we would be so much poorer in being bereft of some guiding star, some goals and hopes to reach for.  

Garden, Glenview Hotel 4

Our poet does underline the fact that we will always have evil out there in the world, and often, unfortunately, even in here in our hearts, but he tells us that if we ground ourselves in the Tao we will be able to avoid such evil.  Meditation and mindfulness do help us ground ourselves in the essence of life, in the Still Point of Being, in following the path of the good in our lives and in avoiding evil.  The final two lines are very hopeful, even if they smack of wishful thinking and a positivity that does not seem to allow for the jagged edges of existence and the seeming deep-roooted-ness of evil in the world to rear their ugly heads. 

Yet, such is the challenge of spirituality and all spiritual reading, no matter what its provenance, that we must read and re-read, contemplate and re-contemplate its words and be challenged to the core of our being with the truth of the lines such as the ones with which our writer challenges us by way of concluding the poem:

Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

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