Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 38
This chapter contains one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching. Before you read it, consider for yourself what you think the best qualities are for a society or an individual to manifest.
When Tao is lost, Virtue (Te) follows
When Virtue is lost, kindness follows
When kindness is lost, justice follows
When justice is lost, ritual follows
Truly ritual is the husk of faithfulness and honesty, the beginning of confusion
So here is the hierarchy:
Tao, the Way
Virtue (Te in the Tao Te Ching), meaning the harmonious manifestation of Tao
Kindness, also meaning compassion, benevolence, impartiality
Justice, also meaning righteousness, morality, rules of behavior
Ritual, meaning empty ritual without deeper significance
Did any of the qualities you listed appear in this list? If so, where?
When I taught law, I had my students read this passage on the first day of class, and I had it taped to my office door. We pride ourselves in the United States for being a country guided by the rule of law. Justice is one of our highest ideals, and as lawyers we vow to seek it and uphold it.
However, as I pointed out to my first year law students, look how far down the list justice falls. Justice rises to the top as a guiding principle only after we have lost Tao, Virtue, and kindness. Justice is the last stand of society before empty ritual gives way to chaos and confusion.
The Bible tells us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Which seems most important?
Don’t get me wrong. As a member of the legal profession and as an individual, I honor my commitment to justice. And ritual can be beautiful and deeply meaningful as a way to connect us to each other and to the sacred.
But this passage reminds me of Steven Covey’s admonition that the “main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” If my focus is on living in harmony with Tao, then everything else in the hierarchy naturally manifests. I wouldn’t have to do justice, because injustice would never occur. Loving kindness would be my natural state. I could walk no other way than humbly, because I would know myself as part of something far greater than my individual ego.
I sometimes feel frustrated or discouraged when I look around me in the world. When I am in a certain frame of mind, it appears to me that indeed we have fallen all the way down the list into chaos and confusion. People fight over rules, shouting justice, when it seems evident, at least on some days, that there is no guidance being sought from further up the list.
But, as the saying goes, as within so without. So I need look no further than my own life – my own thoughts, words, and actions – and consider where in the hierarchy my own guidance falls. Can I see when I am not in harmony with Tao? And if I can’t align myself completely with the naturally flowing energy of the universe, can I at least move up one level?
For example, if I am stuck on the level of justice, perhaps seeing a situation as unfair (especially if it’s unfair to me), can I move up to view the situation through the heart of kindness? Although we might initially view this hierarchy in one direction, losing one level to fall to the one below, I’ve found that sometimes I can work my way back to Tao by seeking guidance from the next step up.
And no matter where we find ourselves, especially when we feel stuck, can we turn the light of kindness towards our own hearts, accepting ourselves as we are in that moment?
My religion is kindness. ~the Dalai Lama