I recently read the Tao Te Ching. The version that I read was Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s Living the Wisdom of the Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching and Affirmations. Dyer draws from a variety of English translations.
The book is like a daily devotional. You read a verse of the Tao Te Ching on one side of the page, and Dyer offers a take-home application point on the other side. I decided to read this version because I expected the Tao Te Ching to be very abstruse and complicated, so I figured that it would help me if someone provided a concise take-home point, and Dyer seemed well-read on Taoism.
In this post, I will talk about my exposure to Taoism prior to reading this book, then I will list some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching.
I first learned about the Tao Te Ching in college. I was a Christian fundamentalist at the time, and a fellow student wanted to enlighten me about another religion, namely Taoism. I was not as backward as he thought, though, since I was asking him questions about Taoism, and I observed common ground between Taoism and Christianity. The theme of the Tao Te Ching that he emphasized was that of observing the natural order and gaining wisdom from that. He said that he read the Bible and it never made a connection with him, but the Tao Te Ching made a connection. When I asked him what a particular line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching meant, he responded that he thought about that, and he shared with me his conclusion. That reminded me of how Christians read and meditate on verses in the Bible.
My second exposure to Taoism was in a college philosophy class. We were reading Lao-zu, and some of the students in the class were baffled. Some thought that the reading was rambling. Another student believed that it addressed an obvious and unnecessary question: Would you prefer a long life without fear or pain, or a short life with fear or pain? “Of course I would prefer a long life without fear or pain!”, he said. “A better dilemma would be whether you would choose a long life with fear or pain, or a short life without it!” The question in the reading indeed looked obvious, and yet it reflects central themes of Taoism: going with the flow, not stressing out, and partaking of a lifestyle that can lengthen life and lessen pain, even if that lifestyle may look counter-intuitive to possessive, accumulating people like us. The readings also shared a scenario of what one can do when one is experiencing illness and death: simply take a step back and say, “This looks interesting!”
My third exposure to Taoism was during my first year of divinity school. One of my roommates had a copy of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh. Another roommate shared that he struggled to read the Tao Te Ching, so he fell back on The Tao of Pooh. I borrowed The Tao of Pooh out of curiosity. I wondered if Christianity was a better religion than Taoism, or if there were overlapping themes between Taoism and Christianity. Hoff in the book treats Winnie the Pooh as a Taoist. Whereas Tigger is high energy, Eyore complains, and Rabbit intensely calculates, Pooh just is. Pooh is relaxed and has no pretense, and things usually fall into place when he is the protagonist.
This background equipped me to read the Tao Te Ching, without being utterly confused by what I was reading. At least it provided me with an idea of some of Taoism’s basic beliefs. Some passages still perplexed me, though, and I am sure that there are still gaps in my understanding.
That said, here are some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching:
A. According to the Tao Te Ching, where was the Tao, and the material world is a manifestation of the Tao. That made me wonder if Taoism is panentheistic or pantheistic. In reading the Tao Te Ching, I was reminded of Proverbs 8, which presents wisdom as a key figure in God’s creation of all things; wisdom, in a sense, is like the Tao: both are orderly, both bring shalom, both are moral, both relate to the natural order, etc. The Tao Te Ching does not explicitly say that the Tao created the cosmos, however, but rather that the cosmos came from the Tao. That could be consistent with emanationism: the idea that the cosmos is an emanation from God, rather than God’s creation.
B. In reading the Tao Te Ching, I had “problem of evil” questions. If Taoism regards the natural order as good, I inquired, how would it account for the apparent evils of nature: animal violence, sickness, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.? On one occasion, the Tao Te Ching seemed to regard vicious elements of nature (i.e., storms) as a brief gliche, as if the overall tone of the cosmos is one of peace and order and the violent elements are mere interruptions. On another occasion, it said that humans interfere with the Tao and bring havoc as a result. The Tao Te Ching has a clear answer for why there is human evil: humans disregard the Tao, with its path of peace, virtue, generosity, and humility, and they choose greed, violence, pride, and stress instead. It was a little more obscure in accounting for natural evil.
C. That said, there was an indication that people who are especially in touch with the Tao can manipulate nature. Verse 50 says that, with respect to such a person, “tigers and bulls keep clear[,] weapons turn from him on the battlefield, rhinoceroses have no place to horn him, tigers find no place for claws, and soldiers have no place to thrust their blades.” Dyer’s take-home application point is that “I am an immortal spiritual being having a temporary human experience.” He may be interpreting this passage to mean that, when we do not fear death, we are invulnerable to threats: even if a tiger mangles us to death, so what? We live forever anyway! Indeed, eternal life and not being afraid of death are significant themes in the Tao Te Ching. But, in my mind, verse 50 seemed to be saying more than that: that people can be so in touch with the Tao, that nothing in this life can hurt them. They can be bullet-proof! I thought of different things in reading this verse: the movie The Matrix (with the invulnerable Neo), the Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun” (bullets went right through the Enterprise crew at the OK Corral!), Psalm 91’s affirmation that God will preserve God’s people from destruction and pestilence, and a statement I once heard from a pastor that, when you serve God, all of creation will serve you.
D. The Tao Te Ching exhorts people to look within. A number of conservative Christians recoil from such advice. Look within? Does not the author know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), that from it proceed all manners of sinful propensities and actions (Mark 7:21-23)? Maybe, but the Bible also says that humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and that the requirements of God’s law are written on people’s hearts and in their consciences (Romans 2:15). In light of that, should we treat looking within as an utterly fruitless exercise? In any case, in reading the Tao Te Ching’s exhortations to look within, I thought of the Hellenistic distinction between the logos within and the logos without: there is an order to the universe, but there is also an order inside of us that coincides with the order in the universe.
E. Related to (D.), verse 67 has a puzzling statement: “The Tao is not something found at the marketplace or passed on from father to son. It is not something gained by knowing or lost by forgetting. If the Tao were like this, it would have been lost and forgotten long ago.” I contrasted this passage with the Book of Proverbs, in which wisdom cries out in the marketplace and is passed down from parents to child. There are some passages in the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of Proverbs—-verse 6, for example, presents the Tao as a female to which one should listen, which is similar to Proverbs’ portrayal of Lady Wisdom. But verse 67 appeared different from Proverbs. The Tao Te Ching may have a problem with wisdom being conceptualized as a path that is taught through tradition and family, seeing it instead as something that is inside of us and all around us. At the same time, it does value teachers: humble people who highlight the way, often through their demeanor and their lives more than their words.
F. The Tao Te Ching is critical of trying to become virtuous through rigorous obedience to rules. It wants for people to yield to the Tao, which has a moral/ethical component, but it seems to believe that, if people have to obey rules to be moral, then something is wrong. Virtue should flow more naturally than that. There are verses that are rather explicit about this (i.e., 18, 67), but I think that this concept sheds light on an odd statement in verse 38: “When the Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is morality. When morality is lost, there is ritual. Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos.” In reading these passages, Pauline concepts come to mind: the idea that the law was a temporary measure to respond to, expose, and restrain sin. The law could not cure sin, in Paul’s mind, but now believers have the Holy Spirit, who enables them to conform to God’s righteous requirements through a transformed nature.
G. The Tao Te Ching struck me as politically libertarian. I do not want to go so far as to suggest that it would support the government eviscerating the social safety net and allowing social Darwinism to take its course. But it is critical of government intrusion. To quote verse 75: “When taxes are too high, people go hungry. When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit. Act for the people’s benefit; trust them, leave them alone.” Incidentally, the college student who exposed me to the Tao Te Ching was a libertarian Republican.
H. That said, I have read concerns that Taoism slows economic progress and is incompatible with capitalism. Taoism supports a relaxed attitude, which lets things happen rather than making things happen, and which is contrary to greed and ambition. These attitudes arguably run counter to the rushed pace of dog-eat-dog capitalism. In reading the Tao Te Ching, I wondered how practical it was. It advocated keeping a low profile, painting a picture of the humble being exalted. Can people truly succeed in this world without promoting themselves? And do things really happen without us working and trying to influence them to happen?
There is overlap between Taoism and the Bible. Proverbs 27:2 says that we should let others praise us and not our own mouth, and the Book of Proverbs often extols the virtue of silence. Jesus in Matthew 6:34 says that we should not be worried about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. At the same time, the Book of Proverbs also stresses the work ethic, which can be reconciled with Western capitalism.
I think that there is some wisdom to the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, on these issues. Humility can be attractive, for people may trust those who humbly desire to be of service rather than seeking their own exaltation. I just wonder if such a path should be absolutized. In this world, people who express and promote themselves are often the ones who advance. And things do not always work well on their own, without some effort to influence things to happen through action.
I. There is a lot of emphasis in the Tao Te Ching on emptiness. A number of conservative Christians criticize Eastern religions for this. “Eastern religion says that we should empty our minds, whereas the Bible says that we should fill our minds—-with God’s word.” Some conservative Christians go so far as to suggest that emptying one’s mind creates a void that demons will be happy to inhabit! The Tao Te Ching stresses positive concepts, such as virtue, generosity, and love for enemies. It also suggests that people can enjoy the Tao, whatever their station is in life. That sounds like something positive, not nothingness or emptiness. Why, then, does the Tao Te Ching advocate emptiness? I do not entirely understand this, but it may be using the concept of emptiness to highlight certain values: there is a value to clearing one’s mind every so often, for that can encourage relaxation; there is also the value of emptying oneself of pride.
J. Verse 41 took me aback. The first paragraph states: “A great scholar hears of the Tao and begins diligent practice. A middling scholar hears of the Tao and retains some and loses some. An inferior scholar hears of the Tao and roars with ridicule. Without that laugh, it would not be the Tao.”
This may conflict with some of what I said in (E.), assuming I knew what I was talking about in (E.), which is not a guarantee!
This passage took me aback because it seemed to be criticizing the inferior scholar who laughs at the Tao, and yet it appeared to see value even in that laughter! When a person laughs at the message of the Tao, then you know that you have the genuine article! The reason may be that the Tao does advocate a counter-intuitive life, one of humility, generosity, and love for enemies. Moreover, it maintains that such a path benefits the person who practices it. A domesticated version of the Tao, which does not draw laughter or inspire a response of perplexity, is not the genuine article. There are Christians who claim that the same can be said of Christianity.
K. Verse 70 had some odd lines: “My words have an ancestor; my deeds have a lord. The people have no knowledge of this, therefore they have no knowledge of me. This is why the sage dresses plainly, even though his interior is filled with precious gems.”
How does the sage’s modest apparel relate to people’s lack of knowledge about the antiquity and majesty of the Tao? If the sage wanted people to see the Tao as majestic, would he not wear fancy clothes rather than modest apparel? Perhaps the passage is saying that the sage is approaching people where they are rather than attempting to dazzle them. Dazzling them, when they are in no position to be dazzled, would be like throwing pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus himself came to the world as a humble human being, rather than parading his exalted status. People could relate to that and be more open to his teaching.