Monday, September 29, 2008

Eastern Wisdom

During my walk across Spain along the camino, I carried a version of the Tao Te Ching, Taoism's seminal text penned around the 5th century BCE by Lao-Tze, with me which I kept in my backpocket. Every now and again, usually in monotonous stretches of wheatfields, grasslands, or forests, I would pull out the Tao and start reading.

I first studied the Tao in my final semester of college in a course called "Chinese Philosophy" with the same professor I had for a class I took sophomore year called "The Buddhist Experience", Bavo Lievens. It is a remarkable book. Every time I opened a page and read from it, I was immediately inspired. It is an inifinite well of wisdom. Ironically, "Tao" can mean the same thing as "Camino", "Way".

I want to share some passages with you that I found particularly powerful as I walked. So you know, the Tao is divided into 81 chapters, each about the length of a sonnet (on average). Let's begin (sound of a gong).


When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Ch. 9

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will become their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

The last line in the first verse of this chapter, "Care about people's approval and you will become their prisoner" really struck me as true. I think it explains the anxiety many feel when applying for a position. The nature of an application is to acquire the approval of the other. There is an anxiety in this process. What if they do not accept me? Does it mean I am not good enough? These are very dangerous questions because they imply that we do not have control over the answers, that the judgement belongs to others. No, the judgement is ours. I have found that the less I care what other's think of me, the freer I feel. It is an incredible sense of liberation. Of boundless joy and infinite wisdom and possibility. Care about people's approval, and you become their prisoner. Stop caring about their approval, and you will soar into liberation.

Ch. 11

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

Ch. 13

Success is as dangerous as failure.

Ch. 18

When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
When the body's intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.

The last two lines immediately conjured images of post-911 America into my mind.

Ch. 20

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don't care,
I alone am expresionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright,
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharp,
I alone am dull.

Other people have a purpose;
I alone don't know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother's breasts.

Ch. 22

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

Ch. 24

He who stands on tiptoe
doesn't stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn't go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.
He who defines himself
can't know who he really is.
He who has power over others
can't empower himself.
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.

Ch. 41

The path into the light seems dark,
the parth forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

Ch. 44

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are;
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Ch. 46

There is no greater illusion than fear...

Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.

Ch. 47

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

Ch. 74

If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter's place.
When you handle the master carpenter's tools,
chances are that you'll cut your hand.

Ch. 79

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
nd corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.

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