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!