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"Abandon knowledge and your worries are over."

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 19

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


19

Abandon wisdom, discard knowledge,

And people will benefit a hundredfold.

Abandon benevolence, discard duty,

And people will return to the family ties.

Abandon cleverness, discard profit,

And thieves and robbers will disappear.


These three, though, are superficial, and not enough.

Let this be what to rely on:


Behave simply and hold on to purity.

Lessen selfishness and restrain desires.

Abandon knowledge and your worries are over.



Gain by Abandoning

This chapter clearly continues the thoughts of the previous one. Lao Tzu made no division of his text into chapters. That came much later. It may very well be so that Lao Tzu intended these two chapters to be read as one. Either that or the previous chapter simply inspired the next.

       The topic of this 19th chapter is how to avoid the misfortune pointed out in chapter 18. When Tao, the Way, is abandoned, all kinds of miseries arrive. It's better to abandon everything but Tao. Then the only thing remaining will be clear to everybody.

       Letting go of things that society generally appreciates is the way of the monk, the elevated and spiritual human being. That's the message in just about any philosophy and religion. It's at the core of Zen, which comes very close to what the Tao Te Ching preaches.

       Lao Tzu gives solid reasons for why we should abandon all these things.


Too Much to Know

Wisdom and knowledge confuse people. The more they are exposed to it, the less they are able to understand about life, and the likelier they are to lose their direction. The wisdom that is extracted from knowledge quickly becomes cryptic, and knowledge in any quantity leaves most people uncertain, fearful of what they may need to grasp.

       Today, we certainly live in a society that praises knowledge, maybe more than ever before in history. That's because we have so much more of it, nowadays. The sum of human knowledge is said to double every five years. That surely depends on how it's calculated, but there is no doubt that we have gathered far more knowledge than anyone can learn in a lifetime.

       It means that no matter how hard we try, there will always be much more we don't know than what we know. An endless race, where we are left farther and farther behind.

       Also the wisest of our time are entangled in this growing web of knowledge, making them doubt their own conclusions and therefore reluctant to reach them at all. We can't see the forest for all the trees. The more we know, the less we are sure to understand.

       Knowledge has its own procreation. The more we learn, the more there is yet to learn. There is no wisdom that can penetrate this, so knowledge exceeding our brain capacity lessens our ability to treat it wisely.

       There are countless examples in our society of when knowledge makes us jump to conclusions of little sense. We hang on to them because we believe that facts make reason obsolete. But knowledge needs to be filtered and tried by reason, not to be misunderstood.

       We gather such quantities of facts that we have no time to consider what to make of them. Instead, we hurry to conclusions, which are soon replaced by new conclusions, and so on. The more we know, the less we can trust that this knowledge will not be contradicted by future knowledge.

       Nothing is certain for long in this flood of facts. We had better hold on to common sense.


The Malice of Benevolence

Lao Tzu also argues that we should abandon benevolence. This seems odd from a writer who is obviously compassionate. But what he sees is that benevolence and duty replace the natural care shown within families and other relations between people.

       There's no need for a written or unwritten law about care, since that comes to us instinctually. Parents protect their children and children are forever fond of their parents. We don't need morals or rules for this. If duty is imposed, what would have come naturally becomes a burden that people try to avoid. The same, although to a lesser extent, can be said about benevolence if it's expected of people, because then it becomes a duty.

       There is also another unwanted side of benevolence. It breeds dependence, and in some cases it carries an ingredient of contempt. The benevolent make themselves superior, as if acting from above. Therefore, it's better to stick to what can be called good will among men.

       The benevolent interfere, sometimes more than what is called for. With mutual respect we find how to do the most good by doing less.


No Love

There is nothing said about love in the Tao Te Ching. This sentiment, as we in the Western tradition know it, is kind of strange to the old Eastern mind. We fall in love and form loving ties to one another, but to Lao Tzu and many other Chinese thinkers, this bond is better described by other words.

       When Lao Tzu tells us to trust our family ties instead of benevolence or duty, he hints on the quality that we prefer to call love. He would probably find more sense in calling it compassion. Love tends to exclude more than it includes. And there is always a danger that it leads to hatred towards the ones not embraced by it. We should not reserve our good deeds only for those we love.

       As pointed out at the end of this chapter, we should avoid selfishness and control our desires. Love tends to do the opposite. So, although Lao Tzu is most definitely compassionate, he is no advocate of love as a ruler of our action.

       The last line of the chapter, "Abandon knowledge and your worries are over," is in many versions of the Tao Te Ching placed as the first line of chapter 20. Although this is supported somewhat by several old manuscripts, there are still far more arguments for putting the line here, where its content and form make so much more sense than it would in the next chapter, which deals with other things entirely.

       It made little difference to Lao Tzu, since he had no division into chapters at all. The proper way of reading the Tao Te Ching is from beginning to end, without pause.

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





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