Thursday, June 9, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 67

Poem 67

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.


Like many other readers of these reflections, I have long loved reading biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and collections of letters by way of getting an insight into the meaning or purpose of life, or at least another angle on things anyway. Obviously, there are many other ways to make sense of human existence from forging relationships, designing and creating things, going on journeys and so on. Stanza 1 above puts these introductory thoughts wonderfully into perspective, especially in the two lines:

But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.

Indeed, the opening lines of my commentary could be dismissed as being nonsense from a certain practical, down-to-earth realism that sees no meaning at all in life outside surviving it.  However, if you have been reading these reflections, you don't belong to that grouping. There have been many great books throughout history that have explored the meaning of life, and perhaps one of the best early ones must surely be the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo which were written between 397 - 400 A.D.  There have literally been hundreds of thousands if not millions of them written since.

The second stanza comes to the point swiftly by making three succinct points about what is important in the spiritual life:

(i) Even in the business world, experts recommend that complex issues must be turned into, or at least explained in, the simplest terms.  As a teacher, one must often attempt to break down complex stuff into as simple terms as one possibly can within reason.  Study methods recommend Spider diagrams and Mind Maps to give order or skeletons or bones to complex bodies of material. So simplicity makes sense.  In meditation, life is broken down or reduced to the very simplicity of sitting in the Now of things, of concentration on the simplicity of the very act of breathing.  In most religious traditions, the breath of life is its very essence.  The Old Testament speaks about the Lord of life or God himself breathing the breath of life into the mythical first human beings. Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama bear witness to a simplicity in their approach to living despite the official structures that could make them captives of the system.

(ii) Patience is a great virtue and one only learns it slowly by practice.  After all, as the great Aristotle put it, we become better persons through practice.  In other words, we become more virtuous through education and habit.  Patience is a virtue that lies between the two vices of (a) sloth (deficient vice) and (b) reckless impatience (excessive vice.)  As a parent, nurse or teacher, one must learn to be very patient in how we interact with our children, patients or students respectively.  However, from experience, patience does pay off, but again it is a virtue that can live with a certain level of incompletion, imperfection and disorder. A perfectionist will find it very hard to be patient with others.

(iii) The third virtue recommended by our Taoist poet is that of compassion.  Compassion is at the very heart of all religions and spiritualities worth their salt.  The Dalai Lama puts it succinctly thus: "Compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to be happy."  Again, one must have compassion for oneself as well as for others.

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