Yesterday I gave my first-ever talk about Taoism to a Chemeketa Community College class. As befits the subject matter, it flowed pretty well. I rationalized my minimal preparation by saying to myself, “That’s how a Taoist sage would do it—speak from the heart, not from notes.”
Of course, one problem with this approach was that I’m not a Taoist sage. And the heart from which I tried to speak from is filled with all kinds of crap. Some wisdom too, I hope, but largely crap. Which reminds me that somehow I missed sharing with the class a favorite quotation from The Book of Chuang Tzu. Now that it comes to mind, I feel better about what’s in my heart:
Master Tung Kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “That which is called the Tao, where is it?”
Chuang Tzu replied, “There is nowhere where it is not.”
“But give me a specific example.”
“In this ant,” said Chuang Tzu.
“Is that its lowest point?”
“In this panic grass,” said Chuang Tzu.
“Can you give me a lower example?”
“In this common earthenware tile,” said Chuang Tzu.
“This must be its lowest point!”
“It’s in shit and piss too,” said Chuang Tzu.
Master Tung Kuo had no answer to this.
Almost as soon as I walked into the Judson Middle School classroom for the second half of the three hour class I got a question from an earnest student: “What does the te mean in Tao Te Ching?” “Oh, no,” I thought. “Am I expected to actually know something about Taoism?” I started to lose confidence in my whole lesson plan, which basically consisted of reading some mystifying anecdotes from The Book of Chuang Tzu and commenting confusedly on them.
If nobody had any idea what I was talking about, that was OK. After all, Chuang Tzu is known as the “genius of the absurd.” If the mojo (or should I say “ch’i”?) in the class started to flag, I had a copy of my “The Tao of Paris Hilton” and "I become a Taoist" posts ready to roll. One thing I wasn’t ready for was a serious question about the meaning of a Taoist term. Fortunately, the class was on a break and I could wriggle away with a “Good question, I’ll try to get to the meaning of te during my talk.”
But I didn’t try very hard. I think te means “life force,” which seems real similar to “ch’i.” And isn’t ch’i part and parcel of the Tao? Whatever. That’s the beauty of Taoism. Words count for nothing. No matter what you say about Taoism, you’re wrong.
I was pleased that everyone in the class appeared to stay awake right up to 9:00 pm. That was my main goal: not put anyone to sleep. To achieve that end I used several of my tried and true public speaking techniques: (1) when interest seems to flag, tell an embarrassing story about yourself, and (2) if that doesn’t perk up the room, tell an embarrassing story about someone else. Such as Laurel. Well, it wasn’t so much embarrassing as revealing. I observed that Laurel will spend all afternoon tending to the trees she’s planted on our property, then come in and say, “Look at my desk! I’ve got so much paperwork! I should have been inside working on it!”
But if she had done that, I can almost guarantee that come dusk she would be saying, “Look at how nice the day was! I’ve got so much gardening to do! I should have been outside working!” We don’t trust our instincts, was my conclusion. If we feel the urge to do something, and then do it, second-guessing often sets in after the first-impulsing. Taoism discourages such mental musings: “Maybe it would have been better if….”
Chuang Tzu says, “That which one does because it is impossible to do other, that is the Tao of the sage.” Easy to say. Also easy to do. It only is possible to do one thing at a time, so why not simply do that one thing fully, completely, passionately, unreservedly, happily?
Figuring that if I ended my talk on a mysteriously enigmatic note I’d be less likely to get any additional quasi-scholarly questions that I couldn’t answer, I turned to “The Shores of the Dark Waters” chapter. Here’s how it begins. If I took Chuang Tzu’s message seriously, I’d welcome tough questions about Taoism. And answer just as Words-of-Actionless-Action did.
From “The Shores of the Dark Waters” chapter in The Book of Chuang Tzu, Arkana, translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly.
“Knowledge strolled north to the shores of the Dark Waters, scaled the mount of Secret Heights and came upon Words-of-Actionless-Action. Knowledge said to Words-of-Actionless-Action, ‘I want to ask you something. What sort of thought and reflection does it take to know the Tao? In what sort of place and in what sorts of ways should we undertake to rest in the Tao? What sort of path and what sort of plans do we need to obtain the Tao?’ These three questions he asked of Words-of-Actionless-Action, but he did not answer. Not only did he not answer, he had no idea what to answer.
Knowledge did not obtain any answers, so he traveled to the White Waters of the south, climbed up on to the top of Doubt Curtailed and there caught sight of Wild-and-Surly. Knowledge put the same question to Wild-and-Surly. Wild-and-Surly said, ‘Ah ha! I know, and I will tell you.’ In the middle of saying this, he forgot what he was going to say!
Knowledge did not obtain any answers, so he went back to the Emperor’s palace to see the Yellow Emperor and to ask him. The Yellow Emperor said, ‘Practice having no thoughts and no reflections and you will come to know the Tao. Only when you have no place and can see no way forward will you find rest in the Tao. Have no path and no plans and you will obtain the Tao.’
Knowledge said to the Yellow Emperor, ‘You and I know this, but the others did not know, so which of us is actually right?’
…The Yellow Emperor said, ‘Words-of-Actionlesss-Action was actually right, because he knew nothing. Wild-and-Surly was almost right, because he forgot everything. However, you and I are not close because we know.’"