For many years now, I have taught Daoism as part of my 7th grade history unit on China. I wish I could call back my previous classes and correct all the mistakes and misrepresentations I have made over the years. Fortunately, what 7th graders take away from a lesson on Daoism isn’t all that deep, so I probably haven’t done much damage.
Still. It’s symptomatic of the general practice in American schools to provide lots of professional development on pedagogy but none at all on content knowledge. I’m probably one of a handful of teachers in California, probably the country, who has taken the trouble to read Lao Tzu, beyond what’s in the text book, if they even have a text book anymore.
For several years now, I’ve been enamored of Lao Tzu’s idea that one should be like water. Water takes no action, resists nothing, simply goes where it is easiest to go, yet water exacts terrific change on the world in spite of this. Be the water, is a mantra that gets me through many a staff meeting lately.
This year, for some reason, I decided to get a copy of Lao Tzu’s book so I could read it for myself.
I read it like my mother used to read Guidepost magazine, just a little daily meditation to think about. Much of the Tao Te Ching strikes me as very wise, though I’m not sure how one could truly follow The Way in 2017 America. Much of it confused me to no end.
I’m going to have to read it again.
The book is a set of 81 writings, some poetic in form some expository. If they come together in a single argument, it escaped me. Rather, each describes one general idea about what Lao Tzu called “The Way”. Some apply to the individual, some to the empire, some to both. The Way is the way of heaven, I’m not sure I can define it nor that I would know it if I saw it. But I like this idea from LXXVII:
Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down,
The low it lifts up:
The excessive it takes from,
The deficient it gives to
It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient. The way of man is otherwise It takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough.
Lao Tzu wrote this in the fourth century BCE, but it’s still profound advice both for individuals and for governments.
According to legend, Lao Tzu grew tired of China because the government and the people refused to take his teachings to heart, so he decided to retire to the south. On his journey, he encountered a border guard who refused him passage until he wrote down all of his teachings. The 5000 character document he gave to the guards before he vanished from history became the Tao Te Ching.
Whether or not Lao Tzu was actually a real person is a subject for debate.
Whether or not he still has something to say about how to live is up to individual readers. I’ve been focused on the final page for several days now:
Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good. He who knows has no wide learning, he who has wide learning does not know.
The sage does not hoard.
Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more.
Having given all he as to others, he is richer still.
The way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend
It’s a bit like a puzzle, yes. Just when I think I understand, I realize there is more to it than first met the eye. Compare it with John Keats who wrote:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
While I admire Keats, while I think Ode on a Grecian Urn is terrific, Lao Tzu strikes me much closer to the bone. Truthful words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not truthful. In a time when manipulation of language is so prevalent in public and in private life, Lao Tzu’s ideas could prove very useful.