If you follow Ekostories on a regular basis, you would know that one of my chief influences is author Ursula K. Le Guin. It was through her work that I first became intrigued by Taoism as a philosophy. Growing up in Hong Kong, my first encounters with Daoism came from ancient tales of whiskery old hermits who sought immortality and strangely robed priests who conducted rituals for the dead. In my adult life, I see bits and pieces of it incorporated haphazardly in the New Age movement. Neither experience was grounded in any context, and as such were bereft of personal meaning and value. For me, Taoism existed as a series of bizarre and disconnected ideas, frequently esoteric and utterly incomprehensible.
Le Guin’s stories changed that. A lifelong student of the Tao Te Ching, she wove its ideas into her writing in a way that made the philosophy tangible, relevant, and meaningful. Her own interpretation of the ancient text is by no means the most accurate, complete, or definitive, but what it lacks in faithfulness it makes up for in clarity, beauty, and accessibility. Within its pages I saw the power, humour, and absurdity of its mysterious author(s), and I began to understand why the thin tome has intrigued people for more than two thousand years.
Intrigued to learn more about the cultural context of Taoism, I took Le Guin’s advice and checked out Holmes Welch’s Taoism: The Parting of The Way, as she described it as the “best, soundest, clearest introduction and guide to the discipline.” What I discovered was not merely a historical and conceptual exploration of the esoteric discipline, but also a deep examination of human nature. Far from being a simple intellectual exercise, Welch’s intriguing application of Taoist philosophy to contemporary society provides some radical and unsettling insights.
Origins of Taoism and its Relevance Today
Lao Tzu, literally translated as “Old Teacher” in Chinese, was the enigmatic author of the Tao Te Ching who lived around the 6th century BC. This time, known as the Warring States period, was an era of great turmoil in China. Society was unstable and cruel; all around was warfare, violence, and injustice, sanctioned through the orthodoxy of state doctrines. In a time where “duke vied with duke, treasuries and torture chambers were full, and villages were empty”, philosophical Taoism emerged as a desperate counter to the dogmatic conventions of contemporary society. Its roots are in genuine revolution and change.
In the 21st century, we are becoming aware of the corruption at the foundations of previously unassailable and unquestioned institutions. The orthodoxy of promoting economic growth for growth’s sake has gone mostly unchallenged, leading to serious environmental damage and social inequalities. Yet the change necessary to address systemic issues is being hampered by political polarization and petty efforts to dominate the opposition from both sides, resulting in wild ideological swings from one extreme to the other. Most disturbing is that the virtues we condemn morally, the ones we teach our children are bad, are the ones that are secretly valued for modern-day success. In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Pulitzer winning author Chris Hedges rails vehemently against the ones currently seated in the thrones of power:
“The people behind the windows and those of us with arms locked in a circle on the concrete outside, did not speak the same language. Profit. Trade. Speculation. Globalization. War. National Security. These are the words they use to justify the snuffing out of tiny lives, acts of radical evil. The glass tower before us is filled with people carefully selected for the polish and self-assurance that come with having been formed in institutions of privilege. Their primary attributes are a lack of consciousness, a penchant for deception, aggressiveness, a worship of money, and an incapacity for empathy or remorse.”
– Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
I do not enjoy incendiary writing, but there is truth in the ugliness Hedges describes that cannot and should not be glossed over. Why does our society not only tolerate but celebrate such indifference, ruthlessness, aggression, and sociopathy? What aspects of culture have shaped people into pursuing these qualities? What does Taoism have to say about the world that secretly holds these values in high regard?
The Sage’s Take on Our World
“How many of Lao Tzu’s ideas, for example, would be useful to twentieth-century Americans?”
– The Parting of the Way, Chapter: Tao Today
In the chapter titled Tao Today, Welch devises a thought experiment. He brings Lao Tzu into the present and prods the old teacher to comment on the state of contemporary North American society. Initially unwilling (“To tell others what to do would be most unsagemanlike”), the sage eventually relents and points to the major problems of today. Some criticisms operate on well-tread ground, while others are deeply unsettling and difficult to accept. However, I believe they are all worth exploring.
Driven Mad with Desire
“America’s greatest troubles come from the advertising business. Do not smile. That business is harmful and dangerous – oh! very harmful and dangerous. It makes people want to buy things that they would not otherwise want to buy. It fills their minds with desires for ingenious devices and with ambition to have more than their neighbours. How, confused by ingenuity, can their characters become simple? How, being full of ambition, can they ever turn inwards and grow quiet? On the contrary, they must be always excessively active to earn the money to buy what has been produced by the excessive activity of others.
But this is not the worst. Advertising agencies are Press Gangs in the warfare between manufacturers where one pits his brand against the others. Here is a poor citizen minding his own business. See how the advertisers advance upon him and persuade him to choose a brand and be loyal to it! He becomes a soldier; he learns that because the brand he uses is superior, he is superior; and soon he enjoys the battle, for he learns that by having a Cadillac, he can crush the neighbour who has a Chevrolet. This cannot help but damage his character.”
– The Parting of the Way, p. 165
To me, this passage contains many truths. As a consumer, I am aware of the feelings good advertising stirs within me as it beckons me to buy products I previously did not know I needed. I do not deny that I derive pleasure from many of these products, both in the act of exercising my consumer freedom and in the utility I derive from the good itself. But as Welch’s sage states, I can easily see how the pursuit of this pleasure can come at a cost to my mental state. I can recall instances where I have devoted time and energy towards justifying my purchasing choice to others, which in turn spreads the contagion of desire and others and pressures them to justify their own purchases. I can understand how people, being completely immersed in consumer culture, can become addicted to the thrills of excessive consumption that gives no lasting joy. (Something I discussed in The Farthest Shore.)
What I like about Lao Tzu’s stance is that he does not eschew all materialism, rather only excess materialism generated by excessive activity. He has no objections to necessary work and well-produced goods, understanding that innocent vanity and occasional frivolousness are crucial elements to a happy and sustainable life. Le Guin elaborates in the notes she made in her rendition of the Tao Te Ching:
“There are times Lao Tzu sounds very like Henry David Thoreau, but Lao Tzu was kinder. When Thoreau says to distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes, I distrust him. He is macho, flaunting his asceticism. Lao Tzu knows that getting all entangled with the external keeps us from the eternal, but (see chapter 80) he also understands that sometimes people like to get dressed up.”
– Tao Te Ching, p.127-128
The Boasting of Good Deeds
“Then there is the practice of ‘public relations.’ Public relations are not only harmful, but foolish. To deafen the country with clamour about the good deeds of a man or company is to risk their goodness, while to say that the bad is good will be one’s own undoing. Why does clamour about good deeds risk their goodness? Because it makes everyone ask himself questions. Those who have benefited from a good deed ask if it has not made them debtors and dependents. Those who have not benefited ask why others have. And everyone asks why the good deed had to be publicized at all: was it because it was not in fact good and therefore must be made to appear so? Was it because the deed was done only in order to create the occasion for publicity? These questions are the reason why clamour is a risk and why it is foolish…”
– Tao Te Ching, p.166
For Lao Tzu, the boasting of good deeds inevitably leads to bad ends for both the boaster and the boasted to. How often are we informed of someone’s good deeds only to feel worse about ourselves? Resentment, insecurity, and jealousy – ingredients for emotional polarization – all have their roots in the knowledge of good deeds.
The passage also reminds me that I am increasingly distrustful of any form of PR statements these days, as they only serve to strengthen my suspicions that good deeds are done only for selfish reasons or to mask poor practices and bad news. Perhaps it is better not to know. Perhaps we should follow the example of Elzéard Bouffier from the Man Who Planted Trees, to do good deeds not for praise or self-promotion, but simply because they seem good to do, and to let go of the deed once it is done, thus rendering its goodness inviolate.
Learning for Power and Control
“The next of your great troubles is education. Those who want young men to go to college are like a lot of bandits preying on the land. Your American college is a school of struggle. Examinations are struggle, athletics are struggle, fraternities are struggle. Instead of teaching a boy to unlearn all the vicious competitive ways he has acquired from childhood, it reinforces them. Instead of turning his mind inwards, it fills him with ambition. Instead of making him quiet and opening his ears to intuitive understanding, it disturbs him and stifles his inner powers…
… What else could be expected? The teachers – the very ones who should be healing young minds sick with struggle – are sick themselves. Their first concern is not wisdom, but survival in a jousting match. Like creaking champions they have to be ever padding themselves with heavier degrees and the production of thicker books, straining their ears for faculty rumour, sharping their tongues for cleverness and reprisal. Are these the perfected men who should be the teachers of the unperfected?”
– The Parting of the Way, p. 167
This is perhaps the most contentious critique of all: Lao Tzu appears to be anti-education. But upon further reflection, I believe he is actually against the competitive struggle to accumulate information for the purposes of wielding power and control over others. Personally, this is the passage I have the greatest difficulty accepting. As a child, I grew up in a culture that saw unrelenting competition as the best path towards acquiring power, prestige, and status. I was fortunate to have my mom realize that pressure cooker environment would not be conducive to my long-term well-being, but while I have come to realize while those elements do not always lead to a happier life, I am still drawn to a path of active learning and competition, frequently finding it difficult to understand the world on an intuitive level. Am I fit to convey my ideas and insights when I am also “sick with struggle” myself?
Winning at All Cost
“Defeat and victory: these are the terms in which you Americans think of almost everything you do, and so it is impossible for you to do anything without it recoiling upon you. What is there that you have not made into a struggle? Your political elections are a struggle between two parties: your careers are a struggle to get ahead of fellow workers. Consider the Social Register, the Critics’ Awards, the Miss America Contest, the Kentucky Derby, the National Spelling Bee – everywhere I see struggle. But all this makes you beam with pleasure and knock your heads three times in homage to the ‘fair, free competition’ which, you say, has made America succeed. I say to you, your success is failure and your competition drives half your people mad with praise while it drives the other half mad with blame. You justify this by calling it the way to produce the greatest quantity and highest quality of goods and services – as though any goods and services were more important than the people to whom they are supposed to give a happy life, but do not!”
– The Parting of the Way pp. 167-168
Once again, Welch’s sage shakes his head at the struggles we impose upon ourselves. The above passage is simultaneously funny and tragic to me. It is comical because I recognize myself in those examples. I know what it’s like to experience the highs of victory. I also understand its addictive nature and how it can drive some to destroy everyone and everything around them in order to taste it again.
Does competition brings about a net overall happiness to society? It is certainly conducive to generating innovations and efficiencies that has made the world a more comfortable place to live. But what is the toll constant competition exacts on our mental states? Competition leaves us, by definition, with more losers than winners. More troubling is the fact that across society, the highs enjoyed by the victors not only do not balance out the lows felt by the majority, they also provide the impetus for the losers to pursue their addiction.
This is all very troubling. I attempt to derive some comfort from trying to separate the process of the struggle – which can bring meaning and satisfaction – from the goal, which only brings a fleeting high for one and depression and envy for others. Is it possible that we as a society are so overly focused on winning, of tasting the highs and avoiding the lows, of doing instead of being, to actually enjoy life? Perhaps we need to seriously reconsider what it means to live a good and meaningful life.
I’ll continue with the second part of this exploration next week.
- What do you think about the comments of Welch’s sage on contemporary society?
- Are there ideas you find useful?
- Are there ideas that contradict your worldview?
- If there are, is there room for reconciliation?
- Le Guin’s Farthest Shore, Part 2
- The Man Who Planted Trees
- Food, Awareness, Action: The One Straw Revolution
Hedges, Chris & Sacco, Joe. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. New York: Nation Books, 2012.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1997.
Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Boston: Beacon Paperback, 1965.