Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu is fond of the image of the uncarved wood as a symbol of simplicity and humility. He uses it several times in his book. A piece of wood is as simple as something can ever be, but it contains numerous possibilities. When carved, it can become almost anything you want. Still, nothing surpasses the natural state of wood before the knife is put to it.
We should not think that we improve the wood by our carving. We just change it. That way it may become more useful to us, but in no way finer than it was in its original state.
This is even more obvious if compared to what it was when still part of a living tree, where it participated in the wonderfully complex process of life and growth. When cut from that tree it becomes a log. A chunk of material, passively reduced to whatever we make of it, or abandoned and decomposed.
Whatever we do to wood, it can never be as splendid as it was on the living tree.
The one who accepts disgrace, on the other hand, will be honored already by this.
We frequently witness examples of this in modern day politics, where pompous dignitaries fall from grace when they refuse to admit any wrongdoings, although evident. Those who confess humbly and regretfully, on the other hand, can find themselves even more praised than ever before. We do love to forgive a repenting sinner.
Choosing the darkness before the bright seems even more absurd to us, because we have a tradition of comparing the latter to salvation and the former to its opposite, damnation. It's deeply rooted in the Christian vocabulary, since the time when Jesus called himself the light. Consequently, we call his counterpart the prince of darkness.
But the opposites mean something else to Lao Tzu. Darkness refers to the dim valley compared to the brightly lit mountain, the shady side, yin, instead of the sunny side yang. Tao Te Ching keeps repeating the ideal of yielding, so the sage modestly steps out of the light, into the shadows, and never insists on attention.
The Chinese words used can also be translated white and black, but the meaning is the same. Choosing the latter shows exemplary character, because it proves that you are not driven by personal gain.
The manly and womanly are opposites of the same kind as light and dark. Yang is regarded as manly and yin as womanly, in the Chinese tradition. In the symbol, yang is the white field hovering over the black yin, like Heaven rises above Earth.
Anyone choosing the former will elevate himself over others, thereby losing compassion for them. It's impossible to lift everyone else to an elevated position, but if you choose the lowest seat, then others will fall effortlessly into your lap.
Usually, Lao Tzu compares this yielding to the motherly, but here he lets us know that it also brings out the child in us.
When you let go of your ambitions, the world becomes fresh before your eyes. You see it for what it is, instead of what you want from it. That's the eye of the child.
In the time of Lao Tzu, the ancient past was regarded with much more reverence than the present and the future. So, that side of eternity was valued higher. Virtue of recent origin would be regarded as preposterous.
Antiquity, not only in China, valued its history tremendously, but saw little reason to ponder the future at any length. We tend to do the opposite, because we believe the future to be one of continued improvement – at least its potential.
If you make the right choices by following the ancient virtue, you become like a child, simple as uncarved wood, and thereby boundless. You lose the limits of preconception, the prejudice brought on by wants and ambitions.
It's a state of mind, which is brought on by virtuous choices – not for the sake of reaching it, but because of these choices being the virtuous ones. That's why virtue fills you, never falters, and never deserts you. True virtue needs neither reason nor rewards. It's just the way it should be, which is according to the Way.
He will lead even when others expect him to serve. He points the Way. How else to use him?
The sage knows to remain in the state of uncarved wood, utter simplicity, in whatever grand tasks he gets involved. He is not split, either by distraction or ambition, but remains with what we call the whole picture.
That's how the world should be treated. It's a whole that must not be split into this and that. All things are connected to the whole, and malfunction when separated from it.
This is something we are right now starting to understand about the world we live in. We give this knowledge a fancy new name, ecology, but it's been known for ages.
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