On December 31 of last year I began what I had intended to be a series of posts on the books on My Ideal Bookshelf, an idea which I borrowed from the book of that name which I was given as a Christmas present. I completed three posts in that series, shifted gears for a couple of more posts, and then dropped out of the writing life for a while. Now that I'm back, I'd like to pick up the thread with this post, number four in the series.
My mother was born a Methodist. In order to be allowed to marry my father, she was required to convert to Catholicism, and to promise to raise her children in the Catholic faith. This despite the fact that my father was in fact a non-practicing Catholic, who spent Sunday mornings at home while the family went to mass. By the time I had reached what the church referred to as the age of reason (age seven), I had been made to commit to memory the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed, the Salve Regina ("Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope..."), and I had to recite them out loud to my mother each evening. I knew these prayers by heart before I had any real notion of what the words might mean. From third to fifth grade I attended a Catholic School administered by the Sisters of Mercy, and received further detailed instruction in the finer points of Catholic doctrine. I knew the ten commandments, I knew the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, and my imagination had been furnished with the topology of the afterlife - heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo - and the angelic denizens thereof: on the good side the cherubim, the seraphim, the thrones, the dominations, and on the Other Side Satan and his minions. After a brief respite in a public junior high school, I spent four years in Catholic High Schools (two with the Benedictines and two with the Jesuits) and enrolled in 1965 at Fairfield University, a Jesuit college.
By the time I started college I had what I considered to be more than adequate reason to be skeptical of the teachings which had been impressed upon my brain. I remember taking a course in high school on Jewish theology, taught by a rabbi, and being impressed by the fact that there was in fact at least one alternative Vision of Truth. I also remember reading several books about Buddhism while in high school, and writing what I think now was perhaps an overly academic paper about the origins of the Mahayana and Hinayana traditions.
So it was maybe not so surprising that during my sophomore year at Fairfield, having declared myself as a philosophy major, I signed up for a course in Oriental Philosophy. The course was taught by a first-year teacher named Lik Kuen Tong. Dr. Tong turned out to be one of the most influential teachers I had at Fairfield, a brilliant mind and brilliant lecturer. Last I heard he was still teaching at Fairfield. Anyway, the course began with a survey of the core texts of oriental philosophy, which necessarily included Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching. I do not think I can adequately convey how completely that book, in the terminology of the era, blew my mind.
Open to page one, and what do you see? The first four lines:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Hold on! That's it? That's the way things are? The whole idea of naming, of wrapping reality up in words, is erroneous from the start? It was like, well, pick your metaphor. A lightning bolt. Scales falling from my eyes. A whole new ball game. I had a new way of coming to grips with the existential questions: What kind of world is this? How should we live in it? In place of the view of the world I had inherited, and which I had assumed was more or less universal, there was suddenly an alternative, one that immediately resonated with me and felt closer to my intuitive sense of the ways things must actually be.
Taoism has a very simple (which is not the same as simplistic) view of the nature of the world. The Tao, or the way, is a process, a flow, a stream of karmically freighted events. One attempt either to live one's life in harmony with that flow, or to try to change its direction, an enterprise which is fraught with all sorts of dangers. One of the core concepts of Taoism is wu-wei, which can mean emptiness on the one hand or non-action on the other. Much of the Tao Te Ching is devoted to giving counsel about how it is just as important, in some situations at least, NOT to act as it is to act:
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
...The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it... (29)
The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few. (43)
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering. (48)
What I've started to sketch out here is the tip of a very large iceberg indeed. The Tao Te Ching is a book I still go back to from time to time when I feel the need to reflect and center myself. The teachings of Lao Tsu had an enormous and liberating effect on my own thinking as a young man, and have helped to shape, in ways that are in some cases obvious and in others quiet subtle, both my personal philosophy and my pedagogical philosophy as I have gotten older.
(Numbers in parentheses above are references to the numbered poems in the Tao Te Ching. The translation is by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng.)