Sunday, March 5, 2017
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 20
The chapter begins with a line that ended up being a joke on me!
Abandon learning no worries
This reflects an ongoing theme throughout the Tao Te Ching, favoring the natural flow of Tao over conscious, or acquired, knowledge. As we’ve seen in recent chapters, this contrasts with the high value placed on learning in the Confucian system of social harmony.
There is much scholarly debate about the placement of this line. The four characters follow a pattern from the last chapter, so some scholars place this line at the end of Chapter 19. But placing it there ruins the symmetry and rhyming of the last lines of that chapter. Others place it here at the beginning of Chapter 20, but it is out of sync with the lines that follow.
So where is the joke? After spending a lot of time studying commentary and analytically comparing the alternative placements, I was feeling flummoxed and frustrated by the lack of a clear answer. Then I sat back and laughed.
Abandon learning no worries
Now I am not worrying. The wisdom of the line has been clearly and effectively demonstrated through my own futile attempts to analyze its precise placement. The line, like Tao itself, can float where it will.
This is an especially meaningful concept for me (and obviously one I need to be reminded of). I always loved school, and loved the study of law as well as my career as a lawyer and a teacher of law. I have, for much of my life, lived in my head, where I was very much at home. I valued cerebral competence and enjoyed cerebral pursuits, and dismissed anything that smacked of feelings or intuition.
Over time, however, I recognized the limitations of such an approach to life. I lived long enough to see that when I disregarded my intuition in favor of a rational path, the result was never satisfactory. I came to understand that intellect has its place, but outside of that place, intellect is not very helpful, and in many cases is detrimental. As I began to seek out and rely on my intuition (inner guidance, divine guidance, Tao, Holy Spirit, whatever you want to call it), my life became infinitely happier, easier, more...um...beautiful, for lack of a better word.
So when I caught myself reverting to intellectual analysis to solve the “problem” of where this line goes, I had a good laugh.
Now that I’ve spent all this time inviting you to share the joke, what about the rest of the chapter? Through several comparisons, the follower of Tao is contrasted to other people in general. While people are going about their busy lives, the follower of Tao is compared to the precognitive purity of a newborn baby.
Some of the words used to describe the follower of Tao sound negative – dim, fool, confused, weak. However, taken in context they represent the undifferentiated formlessness of origin, or, in the words of the anonymous 14th century Christian mystic, the “cloud of unknowing.” When we enter this cloud, we leave all knowing behind. To go back to the first line, we abandon learning. And here is where we meet God.
Or, as the last line of the chapter says, we are nourished by the Great Mother.
When we remember this, as the first line promises, we have no worries. Like the lilies of the field and the birds in the sky, we are created and sustained by an energy we call by many names, but is beyond names and understanding. It is not ours to know, but to have faith. And when we can allow that flower of faith to bloom, then we rest in the perfection of being.