Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 22, 2019.
A person is born gentle and weak.
At death the person is hard and stiff
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and unyielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle. A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome. Tao Te Ching#76
The Tao Te Ching, founding text of Taoism, is a short book of philosophy. It contains just 81 passages like the one above, a mere 14,000 words… You can easily read it in one sitting, making it my very favourite world Scripture!
Says one translator, “The Tao Te Ching, the esoteric but infinitely practical book…has been translated more frequently than any work other than the Bible. The philosophy of Lao tsu is simple: Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is only sets up resistance…If we watch carefully, we will see that work proceeds more quickly and easily if we stop ‘trying’, if we stop putting in so much extra effort, if we stop looking for results.”
Now this just does not mean bow down in sheep-like acceptance. If change is what you desire, look for the naturally occurring opportunities and work with them. Look for the right conditions, or perhaps contemplate a different way of solving a problem. Storming the battlements is seldom a successful tactic. Perhaps diverting the course of a stream so that it weakens the foundation and causes that battlement to collapse under its own rigid weight is the better way of action. It takes longer, but ultimately the desired result is achieved.
Or maybe there is a path of negotiation available. Successfully undertaken those discussions might simply render the battlements obsolete and unnecessary, if not today then in the future.
There are only a few themes within the Tao Te Ching. One is that the Tao, the universal energy is everywhere at once, and always accessible. A second, more pertinent to this discourse would be captured in the opening passage. Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Hardness, certainty, authoritarianism, the definite, these steal life and energy from the world, no matter how passionate those beliefs may be held. As something becomes fixed or frozen, it begins to die. Whether it’s governing rules or military strategy, the human heart or an extreme political stance, once it is fixed and closed, it becomes brittle and can more easily be destroyed
Flexibility, openness, a willingness to yield when needed, and a trust that these things will succeed over time, those are the ways of life. Changing circumstances are better faced with flexibility, adaptation and appreciation to the way things naturally are. The living are better served by creative solutions, compromise and fresh approaches. The flexible person is seldom trapped, and can often make use the obstinacy of the hard and fixed against it.
The myth is that the Tao Te Ching was written by a court records keeper in China named Lao Tze in the 6th century BCE. He was a contemporary of Confucius, a high figure at council. Confucianism was typified by rigid and courtly manners and a strict adherence to tradition and rules. It wasn’t terribly flexible. The Tao Te Ching stands in sharp contrast.
There is some doubt that Lao Tze ever lived (the name means Old Master). Some scholars think it was simply a collection of Taoist writings. I’m not sure it matters. We have the text we have and should care more about the wisdom it imparts than how it came to be.
The Tao Te Ching would influence a religion, Taoism, and as with other scriptures all the usual variations and institutions that followed. Most of us will at least be passing familiar with two aspects of the Taoism. First there is the symbol of Yin and Yang, the circle where light and dark are perpetually flowing into each other. The symbol implies that life is the continuing work of balancing energy. There is no static place. Light and dark, action and inaction, thrust and retreat, male and female energies are always flowing into each other in complimentary fashion. And you will also note looking at the smaller black and white circles in the image, that some part of the opposing force is always present in its companion. We carry the whole world in us.
The second iteration that might be familiar is the physical, meditative and exercise practice of T’ai C’hi. It’s a form of gentle repetitive movements based on Chinese martial arts, but done much more slowly. Like the Yin/Yang symbol, the motions are perpetually flowing into each other balancing aggressive thrust movement with yielding defence and deflect movement.
The key is that a T’ai C’hi routine begins and ends in the same position with an equal balance of thrust and retreat actions. And the start position is a carefully balanced and well grounded static position. I used to work with a T’ai C’hi teacher. Unless I used an extreme amount of force, I could not dislodge him from his perfectly balanced and strong grounded position. And through all the movements of the routine, the key of foot placement means the person remains balanced and grounded at all times whether attacking or retreating.
When we are grounded we can face adversity. When we are grounded we can face emotional disruption.
When we are grounded we can act from a position of strength without over-extending.
When we are grounded we can see opportunity and move towards it.
When we are grounded we can know when to yield and when to advance.
When we are grounded we are keenly aware of the flow of contrasting energies symbolized in yin and yang.
When we are grounded, we embody both at once.
All of this introduction to Taoism is in service of my main concern this morning. It’s neither a startling nor a new revelation, but it bears repeating.
We do not live in a society that values balance and groundedness very much. I have observed many times in the past that we live in a culture where the default is to move forward, upward, push ahead, get more. “Growth” is our watchword. And we are not patient about it either. We want what we want now. It is not a culture that embraces retreat, yielding or letting go, or even patience, though many of us have learned how to do that if only to preserve our sanity.
The earlier quote notes, “If we watch carefully, we will see that work proceeds more quickly and easily if we stop ‘trying’, if we stop putting in so much extra effort, if we stop looking for results.”
Goals are fine things, but devotion to goals at the exclusion of all else drives us out of balance, makes us less supple and responsive. We become stiff and dry.
I fear that the world has moved sharply along the path of hard and brittle. We see this pattern in conflicts around the globe. And we see it in the polarization of politics and social change movements here at home.
I read a piece by Carleton Journalism Professor Chris Waddell. He is also a former CBC Bureau Chief. He suggested that on both left and right, we hear extreme voices permanently angry at the other, lloking for nothing more than a reason to yell some more. He calls them the ‘perma-mad’. He writes that the perma-mad, “lack perspective…Not everything is a 10 alarm fire. When everything is, then nothing is.”
Reasoning is pushed aside by the perma-mad. Reasoning is not useful to their side. However, the hard and brittle will ultimately fail. It is the way of death.
Maybe this is just the older man lamenting that things aren’t the way they were, but I am, these days, most concerned by the the loss of the middle ground in politics and social change. Those worlds have become hard and brittle. I was about to write the polarization of ‘political debate’, but realized that debate has given way to yelling matches, to social media disinformation, to the battle of the memes. Meaningful debate, at least in election season, appears dead. It has lost whatever suppleness it may have had.
Our Canadian election campaign, like the unending election cycle of the US is marked more than ever before by the stiff and unbending qualities that define the “disciple of death.” I find it distressing.
This polarization has crept out of the political realm and into all aspects of our culture. People complain and protest against “micro-aggressions” in ways that shut down discussion and debate. It seems that every statement spoken aloud or written down is examined not for intent, but for whether or not some line has been crossed. It seems that public statements are not really heard and instead weaponized, hurled back at the speaker with a hearty “How dare you!” attached. Doctrinal rigidity is firmly entrenched in our conversations whether it be political right versus left, concerns about indigenous issues, immigration questions, religious displays, climate change,Racial concerns, gender and sexual relations and the list goes on.
No, I am not suggesting a dismissive return to the good/bad old days of “Suck it up” whenever an insult or a tasteless joke or some kind of harassment takes place. There were many actions back then that were simply wrong and there are injustices to be addressed. Nor am I suggesting we ignore these issues of real concern. And most people with whom I talk about such things agree that we can deal with those issues without resorting to labelling or name calling or hostility.
But our culture has moved to a place where hostility and entrenchment reign, where we have lost balance and have lost our groundedness. Too many of us are choosing to live in the rigid certainty forgetting that rigidity and hardness is the way of death. Absolute stands may do our dreams and desires more harm than good.
At our peril we forget that the white and black are perpetually flowing into the other. Nature wants balance. I suspect culture does too. Extremism never lasts no matter how hard the masters try to enforce discipline and doctrinal rigidity.
I think that suppleness and flexibility are far more likely to bring us what we most desire. If we work from a place of true groundedness and see the real and natural opportunities when and where they arise, we have a greater chance of realizing our dreams.
Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows his,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
Therefore the sage says:
They who takes upon themselves the humiliation of the people is fit to rule them.
They who takke upon themselves the country’s disasters deserves to rule the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical. (Tao Te Ching #78)