Got to get fired up, or cooled down, for the Taoism talk I'm going to give to a Comparative Religion class tonight. I won't prepare a whole lot. Want to let it flow.
I'm planning to carry along the Lieh-tzu, though. That's the third leg of the traditional Taoist canon, along with the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu.
Translator Eva Wong says:
The Lao-tzu describes a state of reality that a sage experiences; the Chuang-tzu describes a state of mind that the sage is in; but the Lieh-tzu describes how the enlightened person lives.
…If the Lao-tzu is poetry and the Chuang-tzu is prose, then the Lieh-tzu is a series of comic strips. By exaggerating the ridiculous aspects of human actions, it portrays the human condition as humorous and pokes fun at social taboos.
I love how Taoist sages so often take a contrarian view of morality. You won't find a story like "What damages health more—unrestricted pleasure or obsessive hard work?" in a traditional religious scripture. Here's an abbreviated version of Lieh-tzu's tale.
Tzu-ch'an, the chief minister of the kingdom of Cheng, had two brothers. While he spent his energy on strengthening the country and putting down crime and disorder, his two brothers indulged in everything that satisfied their senses.
One of the brothers had a brewery and a large warehouse in the back of his mansion where he stored thousands of jars of wine. He drank heavily, and, when drunk, he was oblivious to everything around him. He couldn't recognize friends or relatives, and he lost all concern for life or death.
The other brother had a dozen rooms in the house where he kept a group of beautiful young women. When he was aroused sexually, he would spend months with the women, never even bothering to come out to meet friends and relatives or take care of the family business.
Tzu-ch'an was very concerned about his brothers' lifestyles. So he went to talk to Teng-hsi, a fellow statesman who, although sarcastic and snide at times, was known for his keen observations and problem-solving ability.
Tzu-ch'an said, "Can you suggest anything that would get my two irresponsible brothers to behave more properly?"
Teng-hsi replied, "Tell them what they're doing is damaging their health. Maybe this will convince them to change their lifestyles."
One day Tzu-ch'an found his brothers together. He took this opportunity to talk to them about their lives.
"Heaven made us a cut above animals in dignity and intelligence. Therefore, it is your duty to live up to these expectations and behave in a manner befitting our position in society. If you only live to satisfy your senses, you are no more than animals. Stop harming yourselves, become responsible citizens, and I shall give you a position in the government."
Tzu-ch'an's brothers said:
"We know that wine and sex damage health. But we also know that life is short, and we want to enjoy whatever we can now. You, on the other hand, suppress what you want to do in order to maintain your rank and power.
"You are proud of your achievements and you want us to conform to your beliefs. You want to entice us with titles and political power, but we know that such things only bring burden and trouble.
"You may be the chief minister, and the country may look like it's in order. But look at yourself closely. You are tired and haggard. You have damaged your body and mind because you are anxious about keeping the country in order. In order to maintain your reputation, you have damaged your heart by suppressing your natural inclinations.
"We, on the other hand, may be wild and unruly, but we are true to ourselves. We have never put up a front to gain respect. We have never been involved in dirty politics or harmed other people with treachery and intrigue.
"Can you say this about yourself? If you can't, then it's not we who should take your advice, but you who should take ours."
Tzu-ch'an did not know what to say. Later he saw Teng-hsi and related the whole incident to him. Teng-hsi said, "You have been living with enlightened men and didn't even know it."
It also nice how wealth to afford such things coheres with being so "enlightened."
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | March 15, 2007 at 01:36 PM
On a cold winter night, a big snow storm hit the city and the temple where Dan Xia served as a Monk got snowed in. Cut off from outside traffic, the coal delivery man could not get to the Zen Monastery. Soon it ran out of heating fuel after a few days and everybody was shivering in the cold. The monks could not even cook their meals.
Dan Xia began to remove the wooden Buddha Statues from the display and put them into the fireplace.
"What are you doing?" the monks were shocked to see that the holy Buddha Statues were being burnt inside the fire place. "You are burning our holy religious artifacts! You are insulting the Buddha!"
"Are these statues alive and do they have any Buddha nature?" asked Master Dan Xia.
"Of course not," replied the monks. "They are made of wood. They cannot have Buddha Nature."
"OK. Then they are just pieces of firewood and therefore can be used as heating fuel," said Master Dan Xia. "Can you pass me another piece of firewood please? I need some warmth."
The next day, the snow storm had gone and Dan Xia went into town and brought back some replacement Buddha Statues. After putting them on the displays, he began to kneel down and burn incense sticks to them.
"Are you worshiping firewood?" ask the monks who are confused for what he was doing.
"No. I am treating these statues as holy artifacts and am honouring the Buddha." replied Dan Xia.
Posted by: Edward | March 15, 2007 at 03:02 PM
Robert, wealth has nothing to do with enlightenment in this Taoist teaching tale. Naturalness is the key.
The brothers could just as well have gotten blissfully absorbed in a bottle of cheap Gallo, or a single easy-maintenance girl friend.
What made them enlightened, in comparison to the holier-than-thou rigid brother, was their simple unpretentiousness.
They didn't pretend to be anything other than what they were, which left them open to knowing the cosmos as it is.
Posted by: Brian | March 15, 2007 at 03:59 PM
Obviously, it is more important to accept ourselves as we are than it is to mold ourselves to social expectations. Yet, this can be very difficult to do, since we are, after all, social animals, and seem to possess to some degree an instinct for "going along to get along". How are we to reconcile this need to be true to ourselves with our social nature, then?
Posted by: Paul Sunstone | March 16, 2007 at 02:58 AM
so, what did you talk about at your CR class?
Posted by: Edward | March 16, 2007 at 06:24 AM
Thank you for your enlightenment.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | March 16, 2007 at 07:53 AM
Edward, I'll probably devote tomorrow's post to my talk. It went well. I even inspired myself.
As befits my Taoism subject, I learned that when I prepare the least, the presentation goes the best (this is the third year I've given a talk to the Comparative Religion students).
Posted by: Brian | March 16, 2007 at 01:26 PM