Thursday, August 18, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 80

Poem 80

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don't waste time inventing
labor-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren't interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don't go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.


This poem is certainly one we moderns would not understand as we live in a global village where the whole world has become our home. We can travel anywhere, now that air travel has become relatively cheap and within almost everyone's capacity.  Very few of us in the Western world do not go abroad for holidays or business or whatever.  Indeed, should we not wish to travel somewhere physically we can even journey there virtually by way of cinema or the Internet, both of which can bring us anywhere we wish imaginatively.  And the imagination and reality are next-door neighbours in a sense. 

As a man of 58 years who was born in a small rural Irish town in 1958 and who experienced at least for a few years pre-television era in that country setting, I would have an inkling of what the poet in the above poem is getting at.  I well remember a young friend's parents having bought their first tv set as RTE, the Irish public broadcaster began life on the 31st of December 1961.  They must have bought it soon enough thereafter, so I would have been about 4 years of age at the time. The TV ushered in the New Ireland, as from then on the global visited in a virtual and imaginative sense the sitting rooms of all the homes in Ireland. Therefore, I can slightly understand the above poem.  Now, we must remember that the Tao Te Ching was written roughly around the sixth century BCE in a very rural and primitive setting so the values of a small community would have been the prevailing ones: working in the fields, ploughing, planting seeds, watering the crops, going to the market, harvesting, participating in  the local gatherings, chatting and conversing.  Everything would have revolved around the extended family or clan, and then around the local tribe or community. The home and the community and the values asssociated with both would have been the origins of the only values known to anyone.  Therefore, it is against this background that we have to understand the above poem.

The above poem presents us with the ideal, indeed with the idyll.  It is purely romantic and is filled with Utopian sentiments.  No such place on earth could possible exist.  However, when we remember that it is a poem, that it was written so long ago and that as a poem it should not be taken literally. Bearing all this is mind, we may then read it and meditate upon it and see what wisdom we might learn from it.

One lesson is that of valuing our lives, valuing our experiences of life in the now, valuing simply being.  We are all so busy rushing to succeed, make more money, get a better job, travel to more countries, gain more wealth, acquire X, Y or Z new item that we often forget that it is the simple things in life that really make us happy like those mentioned in the poem: (i) enjoying our workaday life, (ii) getting in touch with nature, (iii) gardening, (iv) building up and enjoying our homes, (v) enjoying simple but good meals with our families and friends, (vi) supporting all the events that take place in the community, and (vii) happily growing old listening to the sounds of what naturally occurs in nature.

These are obviously extremely romantic and Utopian ideas, but the poem hints that we may experience an intimation of that blessed state by being more mindful and attuned to living in the now.

Namaste, friends. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 79

Poem 79

Failure is an opportunity.

If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.


A common list of the failures of Abraham Lincoln (along with a few successes) is:

  • 1831 - Lost his job
  • 1832 - Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833 - Failed in business
  • 1834 - Elected to Illinois State Legislature (success)
  • 1835 - Sweetheart died
  • 1836 - Had nervous breakdown
  • 1838 - Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843 - Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846 - Elected to Congress (success)
  • 1848 - Lost re-nomination
  • 1849 - Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854 - Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856 - Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858 - Again defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860 - Elected President (success)
And all the failures enumerated above were preludes to his eventual success upon being elected President of America  in 1860.  Indeed, perseverance, no matter how much or how many times you fail will generally result in success at last.  Therefore, giving up or giving in is the one sure way to fail.  One can only delight in the positivity of the sentiments of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb who quipped that he "had not failed," but that he had found "10,000 ways that didn't work." There is also a great sense of humour, determination and persistence in what he said here.  Or again take the quotation from the great business man Henry Ford: "The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing."  Our present Taoist poet states something similar in his/her contention that failure is an opportunity.  There is no one to blame not even oneself.  One just has to accept things as they are and work optimistically from there.

Another piece of wisdom that my father always quoted about failure or failing is the one which avers that "the person who never made a mistake never made anything."

There is very little more that one can add by way of teasing out the thoughts in this poem as it is very clear. However, perhaps a line or a phrase above resonates or strikes a chord in your heart and might serve as a mantra for a few minutes meditation.


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!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 77

Poem 77

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn't enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don't have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn't think that she is better
than anyone else.


Oscar Wilde in his play The Importance of Being Ernest has one of his characters declare with respect to the pure and simple truth of things that "the truth is rarely pure and never simple."  In a politics that prizes soundbites over nuanced and careful statements, it is hard to know what the truth of any particular situation is.  Soundbites simplify things far too readily and easily and in doing so warp the truth beyond all recognition.  There are at least two sides to every story as the cliche runs.  Finding that elusive balance with respect to life is a task each one of us has to face in the course of our existence.  Understatement and exaggeration are often much abused by those in power to convince their followers.

It takes much discernment, a process of deliberate and even critical reflection upon one's perception of life, to arrive at balance, to arrive as it were at a "viewing point" where one can calmly assess the journey up to that point and at least some of the pathway that lies before us.  I often like to call this "vantage point," my "still point," my "centre of gravity" and even my "centre of equanimity."  The same with any crisis in our lives, or at the time of a big decision, what we most need is the power of discernment a skill much advised by St Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit Order which he founded.

And so let us return to the image in our first stanza above, namely the balanced distribution of force throughout the action of a bow and arrow.  I especially like the last two lines of this first stanza that run:  It takes from what is too much//and gives to what isn't enough.  Indeed, it is hard to see any such balance at work in the world, especially in the financial sectors.

Forcing control really never works out in the end - it may in the immediate future, but never in the long-term future.  Most oppressed peoples do eventually, often after much suffering and blood loss, manage to attain their freedom.  Micro-management in a work situation is often used by very poor managers who like to over-criticise and over-supervise their "underlings" and they proceed as if they have all the answers.  There is much room for the balance of the Tao in most work places.

Again, our third stanza proceeds by way of hyperbole and exaggeration.  There is much paradox in the sentiment that the Master or Mistress "can keep giving" as "there is no end to her wealth."  She is also exceedingly modest and when she succeeds at anything she never wishes to take any credit for her good action.  Again, this strikes the present writer as complete wishful thinking.  Yet, in the context of the whole poem, and, indeed, in the context of the whole book, we are ready to cut the author some slack and say, "Well, yes, I could possibly go along with a little of that, but it is completely contrary to my experience."

In conclusion, then, when we meditate, we should be open to balance and perspective as we proceed. Here's praying that both of these qualities, balance and perspective, will rule in our lives.  Namaste, friends and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 76

Poem 76

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.

Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.


One cannot but love metaphors as they resonate with many levels of meaning, and depending on either the time of day or the mood the reader is in they offer up differing insights.  Rigidity versus flexibility are wonderful metaphors for ways of being in the world. As such they have much to teach us.  Let's take the ego by way of example by looking at the person who believes he or she knows the one way or the correct way to do something.  To be a "know all" can lead very quickly to our downfall as we will quickly learn from lived experience.  It is often better to declare our ignorance before we start to solve a problem because that way we are open to all lines of inquiry, and we shut out no avenue of exploration no matter how improbable that may seem at first sight.  This is the long known approach of the great Socrates. First, he says, the inquirer must always declare his ignorance and proceed in logical steps from there.  So flexibility in thought is much to be advised.

Likewise, flexibility in feelings is also much to be desired.   To stubbornly and inflexibly follow one path just because we dislike or even hate another person and deep down know we are wrong is another form of ignorance.

Likewise, look at the way some leaders function. Good leaders learn to motivate others through being flexible in their approach to leading their staff rather than rigid.  Being rigid often sets us up for defeat.  Did you ever work with someone who was a control freak, who couldn't let go or who could not delegate?  I worked with one such person once and he ended up working himself into an early grave.  I still work with a few control freaks.  They seek in vain to micro-manage things. Unfortunately,  or rather, very fortunately, the world simply does not work like that.  The forces of life work so much differently, and they don't spend too long teaching us the error of our ways. That's how people get all those psychosomatic illnesses from peptic ulcers right across the board to high blood pressure, nervous breakdowns, panic attacks and actual heart attacks.

How many times have we heard the age-old advice that we must learn to "go with the flow"? Flow theory was popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihali who really discovered nothing new. Rather, he was open enough to recognise this process, give it a name and describe it in detail and then popularise it.  Here is a Ted Talk he has given on this interesting theory if you are interested: TED TALK.  

Thankfully, I learned early in my teaching career just how much I can control, when to ask for help, when to take action according to how serious something is.  One has to learn to become open to observation, to learn to read the signs, pick up the clues and interpret them properly.  That, of course, can only come with experience.  There is a Zen recommendation that it is better to be flexible like the grass rather than rigid like a tree in the wind.  Indeed, this is very old wisdom and even Aesop had a fable about it.  An old proverb runs that it is "better to bend than break," or even that "reeds survive the wind while mighty oaks do fall." Obviously, the same wisdom is found in the above short poem.

So softness is often preferable to hardness, gentleness to strength, flexibility to rigidity if we are to survive our journey through life.

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 75

Poem 75

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.

When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people's benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.


It is very difficult to make any commentary on the above short poem because it is so simple, indeed simplistic might be a better word for it.  I am singularly disappointed in this short poem as it so lacking in depth and wisdom.  However, like the Bible or any other sacred text that one might take up one is delving into a mixed bag.  One cannot find much profundity here, and this is very untypical of this sequence of poems namely the Tao Te Ching. However, intrusiveness is a bad attitude in general to the dealings of people with people and most definitely with the dealings of a state with its citizens.  Indeed, a state should not put its nose into family life at all.  That goes without saying in the modern Western World.  If a government progresses with such respect for its people, it will not go too far wrong.  Surely the same should apply to churches, too?

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.