Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 41

I love this chapter because it starts with several lines that reveal a lot more about the reader than whatever point the author was trying to make.

The high scholar hears Tao and diligently practices it
The middle scholar hears Tao and sometimes keeps it, sometimes forgets it
The low scholar hears Tao and has a great laugh
Without laughter it wouldn’t be Tao

What do you first think when you read these lines? Do you identify with the high, middle, or low scholar?

I always loved school, and I was a diligent student. I worked hard and enjoyed my academic success. So I gravitate toward wanting to be the good student at the top. Indeed, many commentators and translators appear to place more value on being the high scholar. “High” and “low” are sometimes translated here as “superior” and “inferior.”

But as I considered this chapter more deeply, I began to question the assumption that we should strive to practice Tao diligently like the high scholar. Nowhere else in the Tao Te Ching are we encouraged to make such effort. On the contrary, we are taught that the way to harmony with Tao is not to learn, but to unlearn. Not to practice diligently, but to flow effortlessly.

Perhaps we have missed the point in these opening lines by so quickly admiring the high scholar. The low scholar hears Tao and laughs. This seems more in keeping with other descriptions of the sage as innocent like a child, without ambition, acting without effort, even appearing foolish to others. 

The image of the person hearing Tao and laughing reminds me of the Dalai Lama. He laughs a LOT! True, he does have a diligent practice of meditation, but I get the sense that he never takes himself too seriously.

The second part of this chapter revisits a familiar theme in the Tao Te Ching of opposites, listing twelve contrasts. For example,

Bright Tao seems dark
High virtue seems like a valley
Genuine truth seems uncertain

To me, this supports the consideration of the first lines as not meaning what they first appear to mean. That is, what seems like high achievement is not necessarily in harmony with Tao. And what we might dismiss as the fool’s laughter is really the sage’s deep awareness of Tao’s essence.

My quick identification with the high scholar has given me a great laugh ... at myself!


  1. I immediately resonated with the middle line, since I cannot ever do something diligently all the time. I'm glad I read the rest of this post, because I too think the Dalai Lama is always laughing, and he's filled with the Tao (in my opinion). :-)

    1. DJan, realistically most of us are in the middle, don't you think? And speaking of the joyful Dalai Lama, Buddhism teaches the middle way. So perhaps the middle is the place to be!

  2. Like you, Galen, I loved school and worked so hard to be the "high scholar." I am reminded in these phrases from the Tao about the essence of Christianity - one need not be a theological scholar to grasp the essence of Jesus' sacrifice and forgiveness of sins. I think it was Karl Barth, when asked about his Christian beliefs, responded simply, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
    I think I'll choose to laugh.

    1. What a great story about belief, Martha. It really doesn't have to be complicated. I always appreciate how you build bridges and find common ground. That seems to be the essence of all wisdom teachings.

      By the way, I sing a song I made up with my grandson to the tune of Jesus Loves Me, except we add multiple verses substituting the names of all the people who love him.

      It goes like this, using me as an example:

      Nana loves me this I know
      Because she always tells me so
      She loves me more than the stars above
      I am blessed to be so loved
      Yes, Nana loves me
      Yes, Nana loves me
      Yes, Nana loves me
      She always tells me so

      He enjoys listing all the people who love him! This includes all his pets and his favorite stuffed animal. Very fun.

  3. Wow, I'm not sure where I fall in place in this one. I tend to be project oriented and work very hard to finish whatever I am involved in. Then I need a breather before starting something new. I guess, I am probably in the middle.
    I do think laughter is highly important in whatever we are involved and we should take ourselves too seriously.
    Always love to ponder on your thoughts! Blessings and hugs!

    1. I don't think this means that we shouldn't be diligent in completing projects. Otherwise we will never get anything done! And by the way, I admire your stick-to-it-iveness.

      But here, in relation to Tao, diligent practice might divert us from the simple allowing awareness of the ever present truth. Does that make sense?

      And true, no matter what, no need to take ourselves so seriously.

      Thanks, as always, LeAnn, for stopping by.

  4. Yes,when I read about the Tao with Casey Kochmer in Hawaii, I found that the idea of the practice being simple and flowing very attractive after reading about and putting into practice more highly diligent philosophical and psychological approaches to inner peace etc The idea of simplicity and truth belonging together resonated strongly with by then...and now it's my fallback position, if you know what I mean.So I suppose I'm number 2, if I have to pick one of the categories, but really I just try to keep the Tao in my heart for when I most need it.Cheers for now!

    1. A lot of us are drawn to the middle position, perhaps because it reflects our experience of life -- we rarely are 100% consistent. But maybe the "low scholar" approach recognizes that Tao is always there. We don't really keep it or lose it. So laugh and enjoy!


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