Friday, August 11, 2017
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 30
Some have characterized the theme of this chapter as karma, or you reap what you sow. But I’m not sure this gives the whole picture. If I understand karma correctly, one can sow goodness instead of evil and thereby earn goodness in return. This chapter, however, seems to carry forward from the last chapter the idea that sowing anything from the ego self is an interference with the natural flow of the universe, and will lead to disharmony and misfortune. And perhaps this is a more fair characterization of karma than the one we often use.
We can see this in the context of well intentioned advances in science and technology that had unintended harmful consequences. Farming techniques, for example, that increase yield, providing more food for more people, have sometimes caused environmental damage. Medicines that seemed miraculous were later discovered to have dire side effects. We see it in our own lives as well. How many of us have tried to direct a particular outcome, believing it to be beneficial to someone we love, only to have our efforts backfire? (My hand is raised.)
The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.
The point, I think, is not that we shouldn’t do good things, but rather that we should align ourselves with Tao (the Holy Spirit, cosmic energy, whatever name you prefer) and allow good things to naturally happen. When our thoughts, words, and actions are naturally attuned to the appropriate course, we don’t do good, as much as good happens through us. Everything remains in natural harmony and balance.
The chapter opens with a military analogy.
One who rules in accordance with Tao
Does not use force to conquer the world
Force turns back upon itself
Briars grow where the army camps
Great wars bring years of misery
As with all the ruling or military references in the Tao Te Ching, we can take them literally (perhaps a timely application given current world affairs), or consider them in the context of our personal lives. As another example, I was practicing push hands with my tai chi teacher this morning. He wanted to show me something that he had recently learned, but in order to show me, he needed me to push or advance towards him. I didn’t know this, though, and I hung back, staying loose and nonaggressive.
What was funny about this is that I am usually more likely to push forward, but because that rarely ends well for me (!), I was consciously trying this morning to be more neutral. In so doing, I unwittingly kept him from using his new technique. In fact, at one point, he got a bit off balance himself. When he complimented me on uprooting him, I realized that I really had done nothing; he had uprooted himself (a very rare occurrence!).
Since it is almost always me in that position of being uprooted, it was interesting to view it from the other perspective. I could see so clearly how my own efforts to direct or control my push hands partner were invariably to my disadvantage. And, like all the lessons I learn in martial arts, I could see just as clearly how this applies in my everyday life.
So perhaps we can all watch for those times in our lives when we want to “rule by force,” with or without good intentions. What that happens, perhaps we might pause, take a deep breath, and consider that we might not know the best course. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to be guided by a deeper wisdom, and trust, really trust, in the basic goodness of the universe.
Lean not on your own understanding, but yield yourself to divine guidance, and your paths will be made straight. ~paraphrase of Proverbs 3:5-6