telling it true

True words aren’t charming,
charming words aren’t true.
Good people aren’t contentious,
contentious people aren’t good.
People who know aren’t learned,
learned people don’t know.

Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

In this final poem, Lao Tzu drums out several of the paradoxes and central ideas that make up the Way. To give is to gain. To learn is not to know. Being truthful and good may not make you friends or give you the kind of power generally thought of as power.

The Way is simplicity. It’s flexible.

The Way is smiling and laughing.

The Way is feeding ducks at a pond.

The Way is buying groceries for the guy who forgot his wallet at home.

The Way is walking through a city or field or forest or park.

The Way is many things and yet hard to state.

But at its core, it’s asking us to be kind and gentle and thoughtful.

That’s pretty much it.

Kindness can change the world. Every act of kindness you do will ripple into the acts of others. Kindness will swell, very gradually, and that rippling can become a wave and that wave can sweep over a city, over a state, over a country. But only if we don’t seek such power. Only if we simply act and follow the Way.

It’s a beautiful thought, and it may be a true one. But it’s a lot to ask of people, for some reason.

Being kind is a radical act. Promoting peace is a radical idea in this country that loves war so much. But it’s only through these radical acts that the nation will change.

So resist. Be gentle, be peaceful, be kind. It’s the most meaningful act of resistance we have available.

freedom

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.

Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.

Is this a utopia?

It’s hard to say, and it’s hard to say if Lao Tzu is even meaning for it to be.

I’d say he’s not, at least in any practical sense.

Mostly, it’s the idea of a place where people are content to live. They’re not chasing after the unknown or even the known. They’re living life, and that’s enough.

It’s been a trend for a long, long time. The idea that there’s something more for us out there. That life is meant to mean something. That the farther we go, the more humane we become.

I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t even know if it’s useful to think of it as sort of true.

I’ve traveled a fair amount. More than most people, I’d say. So it’s difficult for me to seriously say that it hasn’t influenced the way I experience and view the world, but I’m also not convinced that doing those things was necessary to my vision of the world. Or, to put it another way: I may have come to who I am through a different route.

Of course, such thoughts aren’t especially useful to think about, since hypotheticals about who I might be had I had a different life are, you know, boring and tedious and intellectually unsatisfying.

I think what Lao Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, in general, are saying throughout the text is that you must come to learn who you are. You must find yourself within yourself. Travel and education may bring you more easily to the surface, but it’s not the only path, and it may not even be useful for most people.

Be like water.

Know yourself, and then no matter how far you go or what you learn, you will be content. You will be able to fit into any mold, adapt to any circumstance, and yet you will remain yourself.

Imagine a society so self-possessed that life is just contentment.

I don’t know if it’s a utopia, but it’s certainly a pretty idea.

In a time of so much self-reflection and intellectual insulation, I think this is especially important. To understand who you are you need to find some kind of quiet. A place to meditate and reflect.

The issue we have, I think, is that our self-reflection happens publicly. We post our self-reflections on the internet. Even this, one could say, is an example. I’m simply writing private thoughts down, but then I’m posting them where anyone with internet access can stumble upon them.

Is it really self-reflection when it’s projected through the internet?

Can we ever know ourselves when we’re so wrapped up in the lives of others?

That’s not to say we should imitate Descartes. I think his version of self-reflection as road to self-discovery is pretty stupid. Because it begins with the idea that humans are, at some point, entirely alone.

This is too easy to reject because it’s never true.

And the Tao is never about self-isolation. Almost every poem is balanced by a regard for the greater world. Questions for state, for power, for peace. Taoism is about engaging with the world while being yourself. By following the Tao, we discover ourselves, and in discovering ourselves, we demonstrate the Tao for others.

Bring the Tao to the world, but do it in your every word, your every action.

That’s resistance.

That’s Taoism.

Be like water.

keeping the contract

After a great enmity is settled
some enmity always remains.
How to make peace?
Wise souls keep their part of the contract
and don’t make demands on others.
People whose power is real fulfil their obligations;
people whose power is hollow insist on their claims.

The Way of heaven plays no favorites.
It stays with the good.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The chapter is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treaties. Its realistic morality is based on a mystical perception of the fullness of the Way.

Make peace.

Be kind.

That’s really what it amounts to.

Don’t take advantage of others.

Don’t exert force upon others.

Be kind.

Find peace.

Be gentle.

Be like water, friend.

paradoxes

Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.

So the wise say:
By bearing common defilements
you become a sacrificer at the altar of earth;
by bearing common evils
you become a lord of the world.

Right words sound wrong.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Be like water.

This is sort of the central metaphor of the Tao Te Ching. Be fluid, flexible. Flow around impediments; don’t try to push through them. Fill up the containers of your life. Be patient, gentle, and persist. Any impediment will erode before you. No power can overcome you, as you shift and flow to fill up whatever container you’re given.

Any harsh words or cruel acts can be overcome. Be like water, friend. Water shifts and flows, expands and contracts, but remains water. No one can take away who and what you are.

Be like water and persist in gentleness. No one can withstand you.

Like I said yesterday, Lao Tzu is subverting the traditional metaphors for power. The mountain is strong and rigid. Water is weak and pliant. And yet it’s water that will define the shape of the mountain, that will cut valleys through the rocks and stone.

What’s rigid breaks.

It’s like flint. Flint is incredibly strong. It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s brittle. Which means that if you hit flint in just the right way, it chips and crumbles to nothing.

Then you compare that to water. No matter what you throw at water, no matter how you rage at it and feel it give against your hands and feet, the water just flows back and fills the space you left.

You cannot beat water.

But you can destroy stone.

Be like water.

the bow

The way of heaven
is like a bow bent to shoot:
its top end brought down,
its lower end raised up.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low,
takes from those who have,
gives to those who have not.

Such is the Way of heaven,
taking from people who have,
giving to people who have not.
Not so the human way:
it takes from those who have not
to fill up those who have.
Who has enough to fill up everybody?
Only those who have the Way.

So the wise
do without claiming,
achieve without asserting,
wishing not to show their worth.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

How is it that a poem 25 centuries old remains radical? How is it that none of this has ever been implemented?

Is it truly the human way to steal from the poor to line your own home with treasures?

How is it still a radical idea that we should care for the poor? That we should help those who can’t help themselves?

Why is it so painful for us to give up some of our wealth, some of our comfort, so that others can survive? So that others can live humanely?

I wish I had answers. In the US, it’s staggering how much support there is for capitalism, even during and after watching capitalism crush the world economy. We imprisoned none of the people responsible, but plenty of those who were taken advantage of.

It’s a sickness.

The Way may not be the only way, for many have preached about helping the poor and needy, but the Way offers a new perspective to look at this problem that seems to be unsolvable.

That unsolvable problem is this: How do we instil enough empathy in people to make them actively care for those who suffer?

hardness

Living people
are soft and tender.
Corpses are hard and stiff.
The ten thousand things,
the living grass, the trees,
are soft, pliant.
Dead, they’re dry and brittle.

So hardness and stiffness
go with death;
tenderness, softness,
go with life.

And the hard sword falls,
the stiff tree’s felled.
The hard and great go under.
The soft and weak stay up.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

In an age when hardness is supposed to be the essence of strength, and even the beauty of women is reduced nearly to bone, I welcome this reminder that tanks and tombstones are not very adequate role models, and that to be alive is to be vulnerable.

Like Le Guin, I appreciate how the Tao Te Ching continually subverts the classic descriptions of strength and power. Throughout the text, Lao Tzu elevates weakness, vulnerability, softness, passivity, and peace. He denigrates aggression, violence, and any other exertions of force.

The Tao is power, but it does not force us. It does not dictate how we must behave.

It invites us to follow.

greed

People are starving.
The rich gobble taxes,
that’s why people are starving.

People rebel.
The rich oppress them,
that’s why they rebel.

People hold life cheap.
The rich make it too costly,
that’s why people hold it cheap.

But those who don’t live for the sake of living
are worth more than the wealth-seekers.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

This poem is especially relevant this week. It’s relevant every week. Every day.

Written 2,500 years ago, and it’s such a clear denunciation of capitalism, which did not even exist in any formal way.

I don’t have much to say about it. It’s all right there, self-evident as it’s always been.

Find a new way. Reach past capitalism. Imagine a new way. A better way.

It’s small consolation to be worth more than your murderers while they’re murdering you.