Archive for March, 2012


Lenten Observance: Day 34

Tao 67 and 68

67: “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.”  And yet the teachings of the Tao are criticized as nonsense, though for those who have embraced its teaching, it makes sense.  This chapter seems a lot like what we’ve seen before and like what I’ve heard of Zen Buddhism.  Zen Buddhism focuses a lot on doing (or sitting) — but trying to quiet the monkey mind that wants to complicate and stir things up.  So, if you’re cutting wood, cut wood.  If you are carrying water, carry water, and be one with those activities. And that is often so hard to do, as we get caught up in the business of the world, and don’t see past it to experience the specifics of our lives.  The other two qualities here, patience and compassion deal with avoiding judgment.  If you let your fellow be him/herself, whether that person is a friend or an enemy, if you are patient with that person, you are in accord with the Tao, with “the way things are.”  For the Tao doesn’t judge.  And if you are patient with others, you can also be compassionate (and not judgmental) towards yourself.

68: Here we find that the best athlete wants to compete against another top athlete (no easy victory), but he is also not interested in winning (or that is not the dominant idea).  “They do it in the spirit of play.”  Here we have the idea of improvisation, and of playing the game, or being part of the game played out, rather than trying to force a victory.  This seems, to me, to be a big part of the directive of Christ to accept heaven as a little child.  It is a simple and loving acceptance, not all caught up in the complexities of adult life that muddy the waters.  If you can give up on the hopes and dreams of winning, and just focus on playing the game and enjoying it, you really get something out of the activity.  It’s the idea of being in the zone.  And there may be something of this idea in the old saw, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”  I’m not sure that I believe most people when they say it.  As I think behind it is Vince Lombardi’s statement that “Winning is the only thing.”


Lenten Observance: Day 33

Tao 65 & 66

65: “The ancient Mastesrs didn’t try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know.”  “When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide…” 

When I was in HS, and for some time afterwards, there were teachers who said that their job was not to teach us the material, but rather to teach us to be questioning and skeptical.  The best example of this, in a fictional setting, is Prof. Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, who says “You teach yourself the law, but I train your minds…”  It is more than that, as lawyers are taught to question things in order to win a case;  this is more a case of teaching people how to be comfortable with not-knowing so that we can patiently seek truth.  When people think they know the truth, their minds are not open.  They are closed to any other arguments.  Even if they listen to other POV, they do so in order to rebut the arguments, rather than actively listening.  This chapter argues for the latter.  I know that I’m sometimes guilty of this — I hate uncertainty, and sometimes I’ll jump on certainty which ends up being in error rather than patiently enduring unti the truth comes forth…

66:  Here we seem to have two different ideas — “if you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them…” and “The Master is above the people, and no one feels oppressed.”  The first statement is often touted by politicians, attempting to convince people that they are “one of you.”  And it is a rhetorical ploy — I remember that Cicero would often use the Latin equivalent of “they say” to raise a point, even though he really got the idea from some philosopher.  Touting his educational acumen would not advance his case.  Of course, the Tao doesn’t seem to be arguing that point, but rather speaking of humble leadership such as one sees in the Dalai Lama or some other religious leaders.  The second point seems to contradict the first, but I guess the author is suggesting that a leader is a leader (hence “above the people”) but doesn’t use the trappings of power (as some dictator might) and so the people accept the leader’s position as someone wiser, and someone inviting us to follow his/her example.


Lenten Observance: Day 32

Tao 63 & 64

63: “Act without doing…” This is again a repetition of the importance of wu wei.  But it is a later statement in 63 that I find interesting: “When she runs into a difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it.”  That seems quite profound.  Though both 63 and even more 64 talk about dealing with things when they are small, so that they don’t turn into big troubles, I would have to say this statement seems to be a profound statement about what often happens — there’s still trouble.  No amount of preparation can save you trouble — it may still be a good idea to try and anticipate and deal with trouble before it becomes great — your best option is to ever be ready to improvise.  And here the master does not run from trouble, but accepts it and learns from it.  The idea of knowing that there’s always going to be trouble is very appealing to me as an Enneagram 6, but the idea that when it comes, one doesn’t panic, but deals with it is an important lesson to be learned.

64: This chapter deals much more with dealing with things while they are small or growing, rather than waiting until we have trouble big time.  What the master “desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn.”  So the master is not after anything other than freedom from desire, learning poise in difficulty.  And learning to unlearn seems to be something one learns to do in the martial arts — try to get back to beginner’s mind.  When you learn things, your mind is closed to certain ideas, or at least it becomes tougher to entertain those ideas.  Thus, in a patriarchal society, even as we work to be more inclusive and accept the idea of women’s equality, there is all that stuff we’ve internalized over the years.  And even the idea that women are equal to men or blacks are equal to whites suggests that male and white are normal, and that other groups are as good as that norm.  For me, even though I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic deity, when I hear the word “God,” or even “god,” I tend to think of angry white guy — I may not act on that, and I may work past it, but that is my default position.  Being aware of it makes it possible for me to attempt getting past it, but that lesson I internalized from my youth stays with me.


Lenten Observance: Day 31

Tao 61 & 62

61: The importance of humility for a great power or a great person — this is something that seems quite difficult to achieve.  There have been some religious leaders (the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu) who have achieved humility and that humility does seem to anchor them and make them not seem a threat to others (so then others will listen).  Political leaders are really tied up in their ego and their ambition.  Some seem more easy going than others (JFK, for instance), but they’re not in the running for office unless they have great ambition, and that already skews them somewhat.  This chapter also talks about how to handle a mistake — recognize it, admit it, and correct it.  “He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.”  As an idea, this is great, but it is quite difficult.  I think of Dorothy Day (someone who had a pretty big ego, I think);  she fought daily with the Archbishop of NY, who didn’t trust her lefty inclinations.  And yet she seemed to value him, as if the various barriers he threw up were a challenge, even an invitation to engage.  In that way, she seems a lot like someone who has learned the lesson of the Tao.  Likewise, I see someone like Molly Ivins, or Rachel Maddow, who both have (or in Molly’s case had) a core set of values that they stick to, but who welcome debate and discussion, and seem open to revising their positions when they get new information.

62: The Tao’s great value and its unattainability.  This is different from honors in the daily world — you do something, it may be recognized and honored;  you can speak well or write well and get an audience through your eloquence, but the Tao “no one can achieve it.”  And so the best thing you can do for a leader is to teach that leader about the Tao.  The Tao also doesn’t judge — this chapter says that it helps those looking find, and helps those who make an error find forgiveness.  I’m not so sure about that — the latter part sounds like the love of Jesus, which many conservative Christians seem to think absolves them from any responsibilities towards others.  I’m mean to others, and that’s a sin, but Jesus loves sinners and I have accepted Him, so I’m o.k.  Seems a bit dicey to me.  The Tao is beyond judgment, and so getting past binary thinking, you find the truth, not perhaps what you were looking for (the question was probably framed in a binary mindset, so the truth would be limited), and you find forgiveness in that you were never judged.


Lenten Observance: Day 30

Tao 59 & 60.  We are now 3/4 through Lent. 

59: “The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.”  Again the idea that we get caught up in our ideas and that boxes us in so far from dealing with what comes our way.  This is something I think a lot of when I think of the Catholic Church.  A lot of Church doctrine and dogma comes out of medieval philosophy, but having certain decisions made in the past and accepted as “truth” makes it difficult for church leaders to see things another way.  For example, the whole matter of priestly and sisterly celibacy is something that came out fhe Middle Ages, largely to protect the church’s property (or a priest might will church property to his son).  That is not really an issue any longer (Protestant churches do not have church property, which is distinct from the minister’s property, disappearing into the hands of the minister’s family).  And yet, that is still a matter of Church policy and treated as if it is a truth, deviation from which would be a lie.  This despite the claim I’ve heard made by some that married deacons, who sometimes deliver the homily, really connect with the congregation, as they are going through some of the same troubles (surly teenagers, the terrible twos, and so on).  This may be a problem with dogma itself.

60: “Governing a large country is like frying a small fish.  You spoil it by too much poking.”  I find the image of poking the country rather humorous.  Again this idea that seems a bit too libertarian for my tastes.  The idea that evil can be dealt with through jiu jitsu — I”m not so sure about that.  I think when it’s done well — the civil rights efforts of non-violent resistance.  Seeing people just standing or sitting, or marching, but doing no violence to anyone being attacked violently and that seen on TV caused people to change their minds.  It was much clearer that those who were pushing so hard against progress had their own, sometimes hidden, agendas which seemed to run counter to the idea of justice.  But one might say that there the goal was to awaken the middle, who might have no strong feelings about civil rights.  I’m not so sure that it works against someone like Hitler — there, violence against anyone who didn’t support the Nazis was seen as o.k., and there was little resistance until Hitler went too far and invaded Poland and then marched through the low countries on his way to Paris.  The failure of the League of Nations to sanction Nazi Germany from their rearming, which ran counter to the treaties they had signed, made it much more likely that such violence would continue.  And though he went too far in attacking Poland, the Allies had no problem in letting him take Czechoslovakia.  I think that force sometimes requires a forceful response and cannot be jiu jitsued away.  I do think that one has to be careful as sometimes resistance is taken by the aggressor as an attack, and this results in further violence.  Still, though one can poke a fish (or country) too  much;  leaving it alone is also not the answer sometimes.


Lenten Observance: Day 29

Tao 57 and 58

57: “Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.”  A lot of this chapter sounds like a platform for Libertarians — “the more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be,” and the more you offer subsidies, the less self-reliant.  Sounds like Ron Paul.  The other point, about the more weapons you have the less secure you are — that sounds less Libertarian.  The point is that the Master doesn’t try to control, and so the people have a voice.  As a matter of small town or group governance, there is a value to this.  I’m not sure I see how this works for a larger entity — there is value in the leader listening to the people, and not jumping to conclusions or rushing to enact decrees or legislation, but would this idea have worked with the Civil Rights movement?  Would there have been desegregation, had there not been the Brown decision?  As it was, many southern states did not do right, but dragged their feet.  If they eventually adopted desegregation or improved the chances for people of color to get an education at the State University, that took some time, and only with the active involvement of the Federal Government, which involvement was resented by the states and cities of the South.  Racism may be something that cannot be legislated away, but without laws against the violent manifestations of racism (hate killings, intimidation against people at work or on public streets, and so on), would there be any movement?  In the matter of the marketplace, would a totally free marketplace do the right thing?  According to free market people, yes, but as we have deregulated banks and commerce, companies have abused their extra freedom, and brought harm to others.  I’m not sure, on a large scale, that this works.  Total free market largely results in Walmart crushing local competition, so that a company headquartered elsewhere determines what choices a local community has.  And banks without regulation tend to gamble with people’s money.  When they lose, lots of people get hurt, not just the players.  On the other hand, I do get the sense that the desire of progressives to “fix” the broken system has its own problems.  Those who backed Prohibition did not get rid of the desire for alcohol, but made it illegal, and so made many regular folks the allies of what became organized crime.  The hope was good, but that strong reformist desire did more harm than good.

58: More on the idea of control.  “The Master is content to serve as an example and not to impose her will.”  I think of the Dalai Lama here — he is clear about what he believes, but he does not try to impose his point of view on everyone.  To some extent, I see some of the same approach in the Jesus of the Gospels — he is careful not to impose his view, but often questions the status quo.  There is the whole idea of accepting God as a child — which sometimes is read as being subservient to an authoritarian God, but which can be read as having the flexibility of a child.  Children of different races can play together without any judgment based on color, but as they grow up and internalize a lot of racism in the world around them, they become racists.  It is ironic, I find, that the Catholic Church puts primary emphasis on the teaching magisterium of the Church.  People are not trusted to come to their own reading of the gospels and the messages contained therein, but have them peer reviewed by the Church to determine if such views are orthodox or heresy.  By institutionalizing what the authorities see as the message of Jesus, in many ways they have corrupted the message, or in imposing an orthodox view, have removed a central aspect of that teaching — the non-judgmental aspect of playing with the world around and coming to know it as something dear, and not to be feared, controlled or attacked.


Lenten Observance: Day 28

Tao 55 & 56:

55 makes the analogy of the Master to the baby who is not yet formed, but is one with the Tao, and so his cries never hoarsen his voice.  As we grow, we get into certain habits and behaviors and those habits and behavior program our minds to view the world in certain ways.  Someone who is a pure rationalist may not be able to endure even the talk of the spirit or God.  I remember hearing Joseph Campbell once say that he was a guy who fiddled with this idea and that idea (sounded like being flexible in the Tao), and he said that he learned a lot that way, but that there was another path, that of the saint, who immersed himself in a particular path, and that allowed the saint to have insights that he would never have.  The tunnel vision of the saint allowed him to have microscopic or telescopic vision.  But the point here seems to be more about flexibility, and not becoming too fixed in our ways.

56: “Those who know don’t talk.  Those who talk don’t know.”  If we are talking, we are not listening.  We are assuming that we know, and block off other avenues of information and enlightenment.  This reminds me of the story (mentioned earlier in these observances) of the Westerner wanting to learn all about Zen, and the Zen master poured him tea, and then kept pouring, until the man said “Stop!”  The Zen master pointed out that the Westerner had his mind already made up and so was like the tea cup full of tea, unable to receive anything else.