Comments 13

The Feminine and the Tao: An Interview with Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Feminine and the Tao: An interview with Ursula K. Le Guin.

I would like to cap off the recent series of posts on Taoism with an interview with Ursula Le Guin, conducted by Brenda Peterson. In it, the lifelong student of Taoism talks about how the Tao Te Ching has influenced her personal life and the construction of her worldview. As usual, I find her comments accessible, refreshing, thought-provoking, and hilarious. Here are some of my favourite passages: 

On altruism and egoism:

Brenda: Lao Tzu’s insistence on the inner authority of this discerning eye is an antidote to those of us drowning in an Age of Information. His philosophy is also a balance to the media obsession today with the cult of personality, self-consciousness, and ego. Can you talk about this?

Ursula: Lao Tzu says things like “Don’t be controlled by love. “ He says that people who don’t cherish their own bodies can’t look after other people effectively. It’s a bit shocking. Lao Tzu is anti-altruist. That’s pretty clear. Altruism and egoism are just two sides of one coin to Lao Tzu: either you look after yourself, or you turn away from yourself and look after others. Lao Tzu says no no no, that’s not where it’s at! That’s the wrong choice! You have to do both.

On Taoist advertisements:

Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”

On the enduring nature of the Tao Te Ching:

Brenda: As a product of two thousand years, the Tao has certainly proven itself an enduring spiritual text.

Ursula: It is impressive and touching, isn’t it? That this weird little book has just gone on so sturdily. All through Chinese history. It was written, during a really bad period in China’s history, the Warring States period. Society then was much less reliable even than our own. And in the middle of it, here comes this book that seems not very comforting, that seems to put everything at risk – and yet it does give comfort in a bad time. Even now.

Brenda: And that bad time in Chinese history had to do with the orthodoxy of the state Confucianism?

Ursula: War was the problem, war, violence, injustice. But Confucianism did control Chinese society so strongly that I suppose this book was necessary. The orthodoxy had grown so rigid that you had to have this anarchist Lao Tzu setting off his little firecrackers.

On the comfort of orthodoxy:

Brenda: Why do you think, in any time or culture, people are often comforted by orthodoxy?

Ursula: That’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about McDonald’s. It’s very important, for one thing, that McDonald’s wherever it is, be exactly the same as it is everywhere else. So that people don’t feel foreign, and they don’t feel like fools. They know how to order. All this is intensely comforting, because the world is really very much more threatening than most of us want to admit. And going into a strange restaurant for most of us takes a certain amount of courage, if you don’t know how to order. But the thing is, if you do go into an unfamiliar restaurant and you do get something in a foreign language and like it – then you’ve enlarged your comfort zone. And if you just always go to McDonald’s your comfort zone is so narrow and pitiful.

On ordinary courage:

Ursula: You know, I think people are very brave, and are often a lot more frightened than they’re allowed to admit. Life is much harder to live for most people than we want to admit. And so many things take a summoning up of courage. It makes one’s own life a little bit easier when you can acknowledge that. I love the poem Number 76 which talks about dead things that are still and rigid, so strong and invulnerable – whereas live things are very tender and easy to break. As I said in that note, “to be alive is to be vulnerable.”

On the relevance of Taoism today:

Ursula: Lao Tzu is very relevant at a time like ours. We’re in one of those big yin-yang movements, and the yang is so extreme. But then it will do what all extremes do, it’ll suddenly begin turning into the opposite. There’s another part of Taoism that we haven’t discussed that is part of my view of the world – extremes always do implode and begin to turn into the other thing.

Thoughts? Comments? I welcome them.


  1. What a great way to end your series. I have read everything Ursula Le Guin has published more than once.

    “‘Feminist,’ it seems, has ended up in the same syntactical purgatory as another once-useful, now-reviled term: liberal. Most people endorse what that word has historically stood for — integration, child labor laws, product safety — yet they treat the word itself like anthrax. Similarly, while it’s hard to imagine any young woman really wants to return to the days of barefoot, pregnant and making meatloaf, many now disdain the banner under which their gender fought for freedom. They scorn feminism even as they feast at a table feminism prepared.” [complete article]

    — Leonard Pitts, Jr.
    The Miami Herald
    February 6, 2008

    • It’s quite strange the reaction the word evokes, isn’t it? Considering how inclusive its foundations are.

      Here is something of Le Guin’s you might not have come across that is relevant to feminism and taoism. It is a commencement address she gave at Mills College in 1983; it is considered one of the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century:

      An excerpt:

      So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

    • Yeah, it’s neat to go back to look at these ideas scattered throughout her work. Gives me a whole different level of appreciation.

  2. chris339 says

    I think we need the yin to see or experience the yang, and vice versa. Perhaps with awareness and appreciation we can try to keep things from getting so extreme.

    • Yes Chris I agree with needing one to see/appreciate the other. The thing about things becoming extreme is that the shift of change comes really abruptly. That type of upheaval gets messy, chaotic, and a lot of times, bloody. Best to avoid it if we can.

  3. Pingback: Me Versus The Illusion | When "Positive Thinking" and "Deep Breathing" aren't enough...

  4. One of the most important things NOT discussed in current Taoism is its true history. Everyone quotes from the Tao Te Ching or Lao Tzu, the form and distortion of the Tao that was written down about 2,000 years ago. The first evidence of Taoist symbolism (a symbol vastly different from the “yin yang” one we see today), is noted in 18,000 B.C. It consisted of concentric rings, each half either black or white and each ring opposite the one inside it.

    What was written down and now used was written when patriarchy and hierarchy were already firmly in place – structures that are actually the antithesis of the Tao. This is easily apprehended by simply looking at the most popular form of the I Ching (and it’s progeny – those interpretations that have come since), which is “The King Wen” version. The signifier of “King” and the environment in which the Tao was written down reveals that, already, 2000
    years ago, the Tao had been distorted to fit the needs of the political/social/economic/psychological environment. This is not the true Tao at all. And, those using it as their foundational basis for elaboration of the current Tao are in serious error of its original, pre-historical (pre-HIStory simply signifying the time before the male brain began disseminating it’s ideas to the masses through print media) meaning and subtleties. Those using these more modern texts (2000 years ago to the present) do not know the Tao at all.
    They continue to use the yang, left brained paradigm for practice. This will not help us restore the feminine to her rightful place.

    This is not a criticism of Ms. LeGuin, just pointing out a blind spot under which we have all operated for millenia. I call it a case of “spiritual/philosophical cataracts.” I am, in fact, a huge fan and avid reader of any and all of Ms. LeGuin’s works and prize my collection of her books. This is a brilliant writer and theoretician, to say the least.

    However, in service to the very basic principles of DISCERNMENT as the highest practice in Taoism (which I have actually studied and practiced for 25 years), I must point out that there is no questioning, nor setting in context, the material written down 2000 years ago on her part. Truth is contextual and, yes, the current Tao and it’s interpretations were set down in a particular context which, it appears, no one is questioning. Questioning is the heart of the Tao – to decide for ourselves.

    We must begin to conduct our own archeological digs of the vast and expansive understanding of the world that pre-existed the male, yang paradigm of existence which, as we all know, has been engaged in the destruction of the power of the feminine for about 7,000 years. Those digs can be undertaken in the very modern texts themselves, through the exercise of listening to the cognitive/emotional/kinesthetic dissonances and disconnections contained within them. When one sits with them and lets them land, when one actually practices (this means DOING tai chi, ba gua, hsing-yi, chi gung for many years), then one accesses the wisdom of hearing those disconnections and distortions in a very profound way. Through the solar plexus and through the cellular transmission of the wisdom of the Tao – NOT through intellectual, left-brained activities. The lessons of the tao MUST be engaged with kinesthetically – which has, unfortunately, become a serious lack in our current society of reliance on the conveniences of “technology,” which has resulted in physical obesity and cognitive/emotional/spiritual lassitude.

    The cultivation of discernment allows one to “know” in a way that can understand, encompass and, ultimately transcend the myopic view of the yang principle, which has far too long dominated our relationships. Restoration of the true partnership between the yin principle as the guide and the yang principle as that in service to the yin is required.

    Einstein understood this. I know this quote has been sliced up, used and abused by the yang principle for a very long time. Those still inside the box usually quote it as such:

    “We will not solve the problems of the world from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

    And then they (mostly males) proceed to show us the “new way,” still from their fragmented, distorted viewpoint (just like christians who do the same things with the bible to further their heirarchical viewpoints).

    The actual, full quote from Einstein was this:

    “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former. The intuitive mind is a sacred gift (YIN – my addition) and the rational mind (YANG – again my addition) is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. We will not solve the problems of the world from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. More than anything else, this new century demands new ways of thinking: We must change our materially-based analysis of the world around us to include broader, more multi-dimensional perspectives.”

    I do not know if Einstein ever read the Tao, but what he is doing here in this FULL quote, is pointing out the distortions our western brains have wrought regarding the place and power of the feminine. The sacred yin has been turned up side down and made the hand maid of the very limited rational yang brain. This is why we now, all, stand at the brink of devastation. Recovery of the sacred is essential. We have no more time to stoop to the lower levels of the yang brain, whose rightful place is to serve the wisdoms of the female principle. So far, we haven’t even come close and following these archaic, male-dominated interpretations of the Tao is not going to help us.

Leave a Reply to Nancy Adams Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.