To know enough’s enough is enough to know.


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Circulation of Ch’i (1886), via the Public Domain Review

The title of this post, as well as the previous one’s, come from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way. The translation I have is Ursula K. Le Guin’s, which is why I picked it up in the first place. As a teenager, I devoured Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and have respected her enormously ever since. A few years ago, I read an article about her father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who eventually quit practicing anthropology when he understood that studying other people as savages was disrespectful and ansurd, or at least this is how I remember it. I also read that Le Guin’s fantasy characters were inspired by the Native American perception and wisdom, which makes perfect and beautiful sense. So when I saw that she translated Tao Te Ching, I was intrigued. She makes it clear in the Introduction that she does not read Chinese, and so her translation is more of an interpretation, based on reading all available English translations of the book and deciding on the sound and meaning that rang truest to her:

The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.

Some critics have subsequently criticised Le Guin for trying to dumb down the content of one of the most important texts in the spiritual tradition, but she warded off these criticisms in advance:

I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening to the voice that speaks to the soul.

So there you go. I picked up this book as that very kind of reader, and wasn’t disappointed in that I didn’t get much out of it. I have an impression that it would be presumptuous for anybody to claim to “get it,” though. This is the expected Asian philosophical quagmire par excellence. To my postmodern eye, its paradoxes and wisdoms evoke kung fu movies, comical in their culturally untranslatable gravity. Of course Lao Tze came before kung fu, and movies, and postmodernism, but what can I do. I get to know all of it backwards. It’s the curse of being born in the 20th century.

The Book starts off discouragingly enough, by explaining what Taoing is. Thus,

The way you can go

isn’t the real way.

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

And it ends in the following couplet:

Doing without outdoing

is the Way of the wise.

Every poem, or passage, contained in the Book of the Way (and there are 81 total), is based on oxymorons which blow my Western mind, and I love it.

It makes me wonder about the so-called universal wisdom, though.

I realize that in order to benefit from the wisdom of Tao Te Ching, I need to learn much more about Chinese philosophy, some historical context too, delve deep. And I don’t mind doing it. But what it really menas is that the Tao is not really universally accessible, clear and helpful to all – and neither is the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Quran. It’s like I am suddenly aware of this very obvious thing. We keep trying to translate those holy doctrines into other languages and mentalities and it’s never exactly right, but then it can’t be exactly right, because they are all built on paradoxes. Languages express or evoke, and nobody really knows which one is happening at any given moment.

I couldn’t sleep last night, and I was slipping in and out of dreams all night long. At some point, at 4 am maybe,  not-so-wide awake, I was mulling over this thing where we are told, by Buddhism, that we are asleep and that all we need to do is awake to see that this, here, is nirvana. And then I thought about the research that shows how much we are all creatures of habit, that we spend our days on autopilot, predictably reacting to various situations in the ways we are accustomed to. Mirror neurons play a part in making us react in unison with those around us, and so we end up in this half-awake state that very few people manage to break. And perhaps the biggest difference between being asleep and awake is that other people influence us by their actions in the latter case, while we dream alone, although Jung would disagree. And meditation leads to the same conclusion. Watching my mind spin off every random thought, sound, smell, sensation that reaches my senses, seeing how far it can take me in the space of seconds, how I make myself smile or cry with going along with the story I just unwittingly produced, is humbling. And that is only when I sit and am aware of these thoughts – I make myself not to act on them, I wait them out. But it is true, I am dreaming something all the time. My mind is dreaming something and showing me something and me, I think, this is my life.

So I read Tao Te Ching like a tourist visits a Shaolin Temple: wondering at how much I do not understand, cheering when I do seem to understand something, and than immediately distrusting my understanding. Enjoying Le Guin’s cheeky footnotes. Not really feeling that warmth and sense of humour that she claims permeate the work. Thinking about the patriarchal, feudal notions of political rule, and how they do not seem compatible with Lao Tsu’s proclaimed pacifism. And also the idolization of “not doing.” Like in Chapter 47, which rings very true to me.

You don’t have to go out the door

to know what goes on in the world.

You don’t have to look out the window

to see the way of heaven.

The farther you go.

the less you know.

So the wise soul

doesn’t go, but knows;

doesn’t look, but sees;

doesn’t do, but gets it done.

In other words, “Be water, my friend.”

Nothing much to add, really.

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