Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 78


Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.

Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people's greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.


Let me begin by quoting from an authoritative web page with respect to the importance of water in our lives, indeed in the very life of our little planet: "According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water.  The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79% water, and even the bones are watery: 31%.  Each day humans must consume a certain amount of water to survive.  Of course, this varies according to the age and gender, and also by where someone lives.  Generally an adult male needs about 3 litres a day while an adult female needs about 2.2 litres per day.  Some of this water is gotten in food." The quotation is from HERE.  In short, we are literally bound together in this important substance.  Indeed, all literature and all the religions of the world see water as a most potent symbol, not alone of earthly life, but for those who subscribe to belief in God, a potent symbol of the spiritual nature of that life.

Now that we have set the biological, literary and spiritual background to our 78th Taoist poem we can begin our more spiritual reflections.  Once again, this poem is replete in imagery, the use of polar opposites in a healthy tension and, of course, paradox, the use of which is mentioned by name in the last line by our translator. The oppositions we find are the usual ones, which, as we have seen, are repeated rather liberally throughout our text: soft vs hard, yielding vs inflexible, gentle vs rigid, and serenity vs sorrow.  We have discussed this healthy tension of opposites many times in these commentaries.  The beauty of the Tao and all superior spiritualities is that they are somehow able to avoid speaking in terms of the deliberate separation of opposites, that style of religion which espoused a dogmatic and rigid separation of everything into blacks and whites where there are no shades of grey in between let alone the coulours of the rainbow.  That's why the taijitsu or the Yin-Yang is a most potent symbol for Taoists where the black half of the symbol contains a dot of the bright and the bright half of the symbol a dot of the black.  Could any symbol be more potent?

Likewise, the paradoxical two lines near the end of the poem appeal greatly to my sense of growing old and becoming a little wiser through the dint of hard lived experience in life: "Because he has given up helping, he is people's greatest help."  As a young teacher, I used to try and help everyone, that is, rush in with a sort of fire-brigade approach to sorting X, Y and Z problems out, but lived experience has taught me to realise: (i) how little I can do in X situation and that it is better to let another person who may be able to do something handle that issue (ii) that it is better to wait and have patience until a more opportune time presents itself with respect to Y situation and (iii) that it may be better to actually do nothing as in that Z situation things have gone far too far for any helpful intervention on anyone's part.  It is in this sense that I understand the pardoxical lines just quoted.

Oscar Wilde, as I have said here recently, remarked about the pure and simple truth that it is rarely pure and never simple.  That is a rather wise statement as it gives the lie to the black and white version of the truth.  His statement, in that sense, is very Taoist.

As we proceed to age in life, let us become more aware of the dangers of an attitude that sees the world through a very narrow lens.  Let us rather try to view the complex world through a prism that breaks light into all the colours of the rainbow.

Namaste, dear friends, until I get the time for an other reflection in these pages, and have a contented time just being the real you!

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