Monday, June 02, 2008

The Bare Necessities of Tao

Recently, a friend of mine commented that she has been reading the Tao Te Ching a/k/a Daodejing or Laozi (there are many different styles of transliteration from the Chinese – we’ll just call it Tao here for both the book and the philosophy).

I had read the book myself and some commentaries on it long ago, and had actually been re-reading it recently in the form of one of those tiny books you can get at a cash register. Hiking has been a recent pastime of mine and reading the Tao on the top of a mountaintop looking over a valley is pretty peaceful, even if it seems a little forced. Anyway, we exchanged some emails about it (how un-Taolike) and it inspired this post.

We are told the Tao was written somewhere between 600-300 B.C. by a Chinese archivist or historian, Lao Tzu (Lao Tze, Laozi, whatever). According to some legends, he was either a contemporary of or slightly proceeded in time the other most revered Chinese philosopher, Kong Fu Tzu (Kongfuzi), a/k/a Confucius, so named for the West by a 16th-17th century Italian missionary to China whose name I just plain forget, if I ever knew it. That's what Wikipedia and Google are for. I'm headed elsewhere with this.

The actual existence of Lao Tzu must be placed in a category with that of the Buddha, Homer and many other early religious or “historical” figures. Historians seem to be more accepting of Confucius’ existence than Lao Tzu, but there is reason to doubt he was real too.

I’ve written earlier about questions of Jesus’ existence and concluded that there is sufficient evidence existing relatively soon after his life to support a conclusion that he was a real person, but centuries went by from when we are told Lao Tzu and Confucius existed (Buddha and Homer too) until there was anything in writing about them, making any similar conclusion pretty much impossible.

A possible reason for doubting Lao Tzu’s existence is that his name means “old master,” which sounds somewhat legendary in nature. However, some scholars argue that the "The old master" was an honorary title or name and can’t be evidence against his having existed. That’s reasonable. Consider that the Indian leader, Gandhi, is still often referred to as Mahatma (“Great Soul”) instead of his real first name -- Mohandas.

As far as we know, Lao Tzu was first mentioned in writing in the Historical Records by Sima Qian. Sima's work is equivalent to Herodotus’ Histories in the western world, although many centuries latter. Regrettably, my copy of Sima’s work (I may be an idiot, but I have a pretty good library) is very truncated, and I was disappointed to having had to learn about his version of Lao Tzu from secondary sources. Safe to say, though, that Sima’s combining of several versions of Lao Tzu’s life has the air of legend about it and is not great evidence of his actual existence either.

Naturally, if one is interested in the philosophy (the religion came much later, is substantially different, and I'm not talking about it here), it matters not a bit whether Lao Tzu existed at all or was a name given to a body of scholars or a series of them over time. After all, as an example, would Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness be any more or less readable if, in four centuries, his existence is called into question?

As for the philosophical doctrines of the Tao, they are quite simple. The fact that they are so uncomplicated is sort of the point. If you make it complicated, you have strayed from the Way, which is about less, not more.

You can pretty much absorb the drift of the Tao from watching the 70s tv show, Kung Fu (“What is cowardice but the body's wisdom of its weakness? What is bravery but the body's wisdom of its strength. The coward and the hero march together within every man. So to call one man 'coward' and another 'brave' merely serves to indicate the possibilities of their achieving the opposite." - Master Po) or even Bruce Lee movies (“The style of fighting without fighting” says Bruce, replying to a bully who asked what his style was in Enter the Dragon).

Here are the main principles of the Tao, which are demonstrated below in a very untao-like bullet fashion.

-The Tao is a way of life and may also be a spirit force
-Nothingness or non-action is good
-Quietness is good
-Nature is good
-Emptiness is good
-Lack of desire is good
-Moderation is good
-Humility is good
-Simplicity is good
-The opposites of all the above are not good

Here’s one example of the way the old master phrased his philosophy in his book:

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success of failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Once you read a few of these, you could start producing them yourself. And quite possibly, that is what happened, a number of philosophers producing them over the years until they were collected and canonized, not unlike what probably happened with the Bible (both) and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

There is really nothing in the Tao that is unique, of course. It sounds like many other philosophies, including Buddhism, which may have been highly influenced by Lao Tzu’s philosophy when it came to China (remember, Buddhism, founded in India, is rather rare there, but quite popular in other Asian countries like China and the surrounding countries).

I can’t help but notice that many writers and philosophers who have attracted my admiration during my near half century sound to some degree like Lao-Tzu adherents. We’ll finish up with some of them:

Diogenes: Hard to say what this Golden Age Greek’s philosophy was exactly because he left no body of work. We only know of him from other writers. According to all reports, Diogenes eschewed material goods and lived as close as possible to a natural state, even admiring dogs for their simple and unpretentious lives to the point of relieving himself and doing other things in public that I’m even too embarrassed to mention in print.

It is believed by some that his admiration for the lifestyle of dogs was the source of his nickname, dog or dog face. This was actually a metaphor in ancient Greece for shamelessness, which might fairly describe the philosophy. But it also may stem from something more mundane -- the name of his mentor’s academy. In any event, from this name, and Diogenes’ doubting philosophy, we get the modern word cynic. In fact, his philosophy and that of his mentor, Antisthenes, supposedly a companion of Socrates, is called cynicism, the root of which is the Greek word for dog (not to mention our "canine").

One story about Diogenes has him replying to the definition Plato put forth that man could be defines as a featherless biped. Diogenes brought a plucked chicken to Plato’s Academy and said - here is your man. Apparently, Plato added “with broad flat nails” to the definition, but I think he missed the point. Diogenes was also known for carrying a lantern about with him and to reply to inquirers who asked what he was doing that he was looking for an honest man.

Another anecdote has him visited by Alexander the Great, by some accounts the only man in Greece more famous at the time than the strange philosopher. The mighty Alexander asked Diogenes what he could do for him. He replied that Alexander could “stand out of his light.” Alexander must not have been offended as he reputedly said that he were he to be anyone but himself, he would want to be Diogenes. Not a bad complimement from a guy who conquered much of the known world.

Unlike Alexander, I wouldn’t want to be Diogenes. For one thing, I don’t like doing anything private in public. I could be wrong though. He was supposedly a lecturer and author, without any other duties, even after being captured by pirates and sold into slavery. That doesn’t sound like a bad life, particularly if you don’t have to make your bed (he slept, it is said, in a tub and threw away his begging bowl after seeing a peasant drink from his hands).

Epicurus: Another Greek philosopher who came slightly after Diogenes in time, and who is often misunderstood because he is called a hedonist, commonly thought of as someone who is obsessed with physical pleasure. That would be an exaggeration of Epicurus. He believed in training oneself to avoid pain, desire and fear and to seek mild or moderate pleasure – not excessive pleasure as with the modern meaning of hedonist. I believe Lao Tzu would have approved of his philosophy had he known him. It is actually possible that the Tao te Ching was not written until around Epicurus’ time, but cross pollination of ideas between China and Greece was not likely at that time.

A number of Tao-like sayings are attributed to Epicurus, two of which it will suffice to give you here:

Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us;

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.

Thoreau: We have to skip a bunch of centuries to get to this nineteenth century New England intellectual. In a way, he reminds us of modern day Diogenes without the indecent behavior but still challenging our need for modern technology. His brief sojourn on the shore of Walden Pond was made timeless by him in a little book that begins with the economics of his own vegetable garden. It is worth grinding through it to get to the brilliant aphorisms studding his work like diamonds in the ground.

Unfortunately, for us, he died young and left us not much more prose than Walden, his private journal and some essays and speeches like Civil Disobedience, which has inspired many later heroes like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. As with Lao Tzu, Thoreau either had a profound impression on my life, or, his writing seemed to validate my already existing personal philosophies. I can no longer remember for sure which came first.

I intend to write more about Thoreau someday, so will only give only two bites from his work here, the second of which should be quite familiar to you:

In the streets and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it,-- dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself . . . .

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

Although researchers say that there is no indication that Thoreau ever read the Tao, similarities have been noted on both sides of the ocean. Lin Yutang, a writer who translated Chinese classics into English wrote that Thoreau was the most Chinese of American writers and that he could have translated Thoreau into Chinese and easily passed him off as a native philosopher.

Rudyard Kipling: I mostly refer here just to his poem, If, not his other writings, although many of them still meet the test of time. If has been quoted in this blog before. I am so in love with it though, as an unachievable but but splendid model of behavior, that I don’t mind giving it here again, just as I have also recently sent it to my own daughter:


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

I have no doubt that had Lao Tzu read these words, he would have taught it to his disciples. In fact, I just took a quick spin on the internet to seek out the text the easy way, and see that I am far from the first to notice the connection between the Englishman’s poem and the Asian philosophy. I was going to end the post with Kipling’s words, because it is not within my abilities to improve upon it with any length of prosaic commentary, but I thought of one more example, a little more modern.

At some point these days all great persons and ideas end up being expressed in a Disney song. Ironically, the lyrics to this song (which I slightly truncated), The Bare Necessities, was sung by the jovial Phil Harris in the animated version of another Kipling work – Jungle Book, one of my favorite novels.

You’ve probably heard Baloo the Bear sing about his philosophy of life at some point in your life (download it if you haven’t), but you probably haven't thought about it in terms of the Tao, as I ask you to do now:

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature's recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life

Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn't be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin' in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They'll come to you!

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

. . .

So just try and relax, yeah cool it
Fall apart in my backyard
'Cause let me tell you something little britches
If you act like that bee acts, uh uh
You're working too hard

And don't spend your time lookin' around
For something you want that can't be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin' about it
I'll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you

Finding the Tao interesting or inspiring doesn't mean I hold myself up to any high standard of behavior. I might want a simpler life than many other people, but, I sure like modern plumbing and refrigeration, and wouldn't want to do without them. Then again, I know that Thoreau could not live up to his philosophy all the time and in all ways and I am fairly positive none of the others I talked about earlier did so either. If it were easy, everyone would do it. For all we know, Lao Tzu had the first ancient erotica collection and Diogenes tripped little old ladies who were standing in his light.

The Tao, in fact, is not congruent with earning a living in the modern age, and, thus, at best, virtually all but the very rarest of the rare, will have to moderate their seeking of the Way in order to get a 401K and health benefits. It is good to remember that the Way is best likened to a road, not a destination, and we may enter and exit it as life permits.

On thing I did learn about the Tao -- if you are trying too hard to understand it, you aren't doing it. Who really wants to be enlightened anyway?

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .