Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
There is great power in attaining the wisdom Lao Tzu describes in his book, but anyone reaching that wisdom first and foremost learns the importance of modesty. This is a contradiction, almost a paradox.
It can be compared to what Jesus said about the meek: They are blessed, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
Not that modesty is the moral obligation of somebody enlightened and elevated. Lao Tzu makes few arguments of that kind in the Tao Te Ching. Instead, modesty is the conclusion, the key to how the world works according to Tao. Without modesty, neither Tao nor the world can be properly understood.
"The One" in the first line of this chapter is no doubt Tao, the Way. If your soul grasps it, how can you keep your soul from escaping you? How can you remain sound and in control of your senses?
Modesty is the solution. You observe the inner workings of the universe, but you understand that there is little to do about it. Nothing has changed as a result of your understanding. So you remain grounded in yourself, although you have grasped the secret of the universe.
The secret lies in the calm primordial law that arranged all according to the principle of effortlessness. The greater the power, the less its effort is. So, modesty surpasses pride and keeps you sane in the middle of the cosmic spectacle.
It's the same with the power so grand that it allows you to open and close the very gates of heaven, as if you were a god. Still, you should have no ambition, but be caring like a mother and accept the yielding position which was traditionally that of the woman.
You should have no wish to rule, or to make use of the powers you have at hand. Then you understand when to do nothing, which is usually the best.
To Lao Tzu, this attitude is the female one, and he definitely prefers it – for men as well. Traditionally, men have sought power and were eager to use it in abundance, while women preferred to leave things be, in order to do the least damage. That's the wisdom of doing nothing.
The idea of such a life force is present in many other cultures. In India it's called prana, in old Greece pneuma, in Israel and the Arab world ruach. The Latin word is spiritus, the spirit, as in the biblical concept of the Holy Spirit.
The Chinese concept is mainly, at least in Lao Tzu's perspective, a nourishing power at man's disposal, of which we can have more or less, according to how we exercise it. Its nourishing quality is evident in the components of its pictogram.
Ch'i consists of two parts. One is the sign for rice, and the other that for steam or air. This suggests boiling rice, the way to make the basic food of the East edible. Indeed, the boiled rice is what has kept the Chinese alive for thousands of years. So, the sign suggests essential nourishment without which one cannot live.
Lao Tzu seems to have had an uncomplicated and straightforward view on ch'i as a vital essence in man, stronger in some than in others. What he asks in the tenth chapter is whether you are able to remain soft and gentle, even if this spirit of yours is strong.
Power tempts us to express it, and this ambition hardens us. When we are eager to show our strength, our muscles stiffen and our movements get clumsy. Our behavior becomes rude, and we easily damage our surroundings as well as ourselves.
The flow of ch'i through one's body may be weak like rain or strong like a waterfall, but our attitude should remain the same. Strength is no reason to use force.
You can suggest and assist, but not command. That will only lead to opposition and conflict. Also, it robs people of the chance to come to their own sound conclusions. You should treat people around you like loving parents treat their children.
Parents, too, must understand not to use force on the children in their care. Gentle guidance should be enough, preferably so that they are unaware of being guided. Children as well as adults need to feel that they have their future in their own hands. Only then are they able to listen to advice wholeheartedly, and follow them without frustration or remorse.
The greatest virtue of such a respectful attitude is its gentleness, its refusal to use the power at hand. This is in accordance with Tao, the Way, which acts in the same discreet manner. No virtue is greater than to be like Tao.
In chapter 51, Lao Tzu describes this very gentleness of Tao, ending it with the exact same phrase about the greatest virtue. Of course, Tao is nothing but the greatest virtue.
The Chinese word translated to virtue is te, which is also in the title of the book. I will return to it in coming chapters.
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