Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 74

Poem 74

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter's place.
When you handle the master carpenter's tools,
chances are that you'll cut your hand.


ST Augustine defined time as the measure of change.  John Henry Cardinal Newman stated that to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.  Change is of the very essence of things.  This is a very old philosophy dating back to the sixth century B.C., the time of Heraclitus at least.  So it isn't hard to believe that the Tao Te Ching from the fourth century B.C. should preach something similar. 

Indeed, there is nothing we can really hold onto in the world, even though the lessons of our ego is such: that we can hold on to things.  Not alone does our ego insist on holding onto things, it also insists on getting more and more things, on expanding the human grasp on things.  Nations do the same as the historical rise of nationalism and two world wars have taught us.  Yet, we still haven't learnt the lessons of history.  Every generation has to learn its lessons the hard way, it would appear.  When I was growing up my father used to quote an old proverb: "There are no pockets in a shroud" or sometimes he used to put it even simpler still, "You cannot take it with you."  We spend a lifetime building up ourselves (i) getting a good education, (ii) being successful at our jobs or professions, (iii) reading a family, (iv) stocking our brains/minds with the highest of cultural acquisitions and yet all these things in the end will fade from our grasp.  All religions and all spiritualities worth their salt teach this wisdom.  Yet, it should not be used to frighten us from living.  It should be used like the Buddhists do, learn to live life all the fully, with deeper values.  They do this through meditating on how transient are the things of this world and by realising deep within that everything changes and we change too within those changes.  When I was a student of the Latin language our teacher used to quote Ovid who declared:  "Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis."  It translates: "The times change and we change with them."  We cannot even bring all our learning, all our well-stocked minds with us either.  We simply disappear when we die.  Perhaps we may linger in the memories of those who love us, those who are still left alive after us.

The lesson to us from these few stanzas are to learn to be humble, to declare our ignorance, to say "no" to the blandishments of the ego and to value the dignity of life by living in the present.  That is why the writer advises us not to attempt to control the future.  Such is as foolish as trying to catch the wind or like trying to be a master carpenter with none of the skills.  It would seem that our egos lead us often into false expectations and we simply "cut our hands" with the carpenter's tools.

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