Why read something you can't understand or don't care about? Sorry, this is not a discussion about going to school; its about reading a fairly ancient text to acquire fairly modern wisdom. But it is not Western wisdom; it is Chinese philosophy! Is it even possible to present it in a way that appeals to the average Westerner?
The way we spell Tao de Ching is a derivative of the all but defunct Wade-Giles romanization of the Chinese characters 道德经. Modern Chinese romanization uses Pinyin, which looks much closer to the way it sounds: Dao de Jing. But in the U.S., for a relatively new country, old habits die hard. Hence the book's title: “Dales from the Tao“ is pronounced in English as "Tales from the Dao", and in Chinese, it is pronounced as "Tales from the Dao".
When I first tried to read the Tao, it made no sense to my Western mind. It seemed to say the same thing over and over again, yet never clarified what was really different in each passage. It was a similar experience to that which I had when reading other philosophical treatises, old and new, like the Quran, the Bible, Hare Krishna and Vedic Hindu writings,
When you read an English translation of the Tao, you hear expressions like the "ten-thousand things." Yeah, right; very meaningful. Even when you come to understand that it is the Chinese way of saying "a countless number," it still doesn't feel quite right. Oh, and then you read that "that which is named is nameless; that which is nameless is that which is named." Wow! Now who in their right mind wants to read nonsense like that? But then one must ask why have billions of people read it and continue to read it? Is there something within that we just don't get, or are we justified in our arrogance as superior Westerners?
The difficulty is found embedded in the nature of Language. Human thinking exists exclusively within language. (Try to think of anything without the little voice in your head throwing in its two cents' worth!) Language drives thinking, and thinking drives language, and in turn, environment drives thinking, and thinking drives the cultural adaptations to the environment. As a consequence, the culture is both reflected by and reflective of the language. If you understand this, then you can understand why our American jokes may not seem funny to Canadians. To complicate the issue, the Tao cannot be explained in words, but only by experience.
So how did I, an Alabama-raised Westerner, come to understand the Tao? It happened, because I have always loved A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh since early childhood. Don't follow? Doesn't make sense? All right, then, an explanation: A man named Benjamin Hoff wrote a best selling book called The Tao of Pooh. His underlying premise is that Pooh is the exemplary Western Taoist. That idea got my interest, and his writing style kept it for me and millions of other readers, and also drove me to some of the original source literature. The Taoism he and I present is not religion; rather pure Taoism is a way of understanding some of the ways we behave as Humans and understanding new ways we can approach living a balanced life as Humans. In some parts of the world, Buddhism and Taoism has been integrated with prior religious teachings, and thus have become religions for many. But it is well worth mentioning here that both of their teachings in their pure original form are of practical tools to use through one's daily life and are thoroughly independent of religion, just as learning how to use your TV's remote control is independent of religion. (Having said that, I do know of some who prayed that they could learn to use it properly!)
So why did I decide to write these Western stories to help people understand Taoist thought? As mentioned before, the Tao cannot be explained in words, but only by experience. It occurred to me that if people could vicariously experience the Tao, they would be able to identify with the components of the ideas and create their own personalized Tao. So the 81 short stories are about human experiences that illustrate the 81 verses. All are indeed similar, yet all are unique. Ooh, even that sounds like something from the Tao!
Each story is prefaced by the verse from the Tao. I suggest you first read the verse, then the story, then the verse again to see if it makes more sense to you after reading the story. [NOTE: The translation used is by Gia-fu Feng, and is commonly referred to as the Feng translation.]
At this time, there are
The Western Tao
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
Justin wanted the mountain.
He was certain he would be the most popular kid in school if only he could somehow conjure the mountain into his bedroom. But alas! The mountain was a “fourteener,” and his room was only a ten! He instead had to satisfy himself with the fantasies of inventing the ray gun which succeeds in shrinking the mountain small enough to allow him to cut it off at the base with an oversized machete and drag it into his room with a system of levers, motors, and pulleys over a distance as long as this sentence.
Like most twelve-year-olds, his desires and wishes were often focused on his own benefits. (This is, after all, as it should be, for this is the age when one begins to be concurrently aware of one’s own power and one’s own inadequacies, real and imagined.) So it was only natural that the mountain was a source of potential power for him, and its natural beauty was, like the view from a mountain hairpin curve, overlooked.
Justin’s parents weren’t so sympathetic to his power play, and found it difficult to offer encouragement for his efforts at developing the ray gun. They did, however, encourage him to join the Nature Scouts. There his creativity and sociability grew with the other boys and girls who were members. They enjoyed merit badges for everything from the arts to politics, from camping to innovative designs for rakes and other yard tools. He especially enjoyed the “Anything Goes” merit badge, where he got to design the project that warranted the badge upon completion. By the time Justin was fifteen, he had long forgotten about the ray gun, the machete, and the mountain.
It was the November 14th weekend hike that caught them unaware. The group that included Justin was to travel around the north face; the other group in his Nature Scouts troop was to hike the south. The storm, uncommon but possible this time of year, was expected, but not for another day. As it came out of the Northeast, the other group was able to make it back to camp in time. Justin’s was not so lucky.
Although they were dressed warmly, they were not prepared for the blizzard. Justin’s leader sought for and found a recess in the West Side of the mountain and led in the eight youths that were under his direction. Justin was relieved that the mountain was kind enough to provide them with plenty of wood to build a comfortable fire.
The wind blew until even the rocks seemed to howl, but the fire barely flickered in the wind; the mountain’s recess provided a haven from the blowing snow and wind. Although scared and hungry, the youths found it surprisingly easy to fall asleep; the floor of the mountain’s recess was rock, but had enough bumps and dips in the right places that it seemed to be made to accommodate body parts.
The storm passed over by daybreak, and Justin’s band awoke to sunlight. Their leader quickly discovered a natural path that seemed to be carved out by the mountain itself. The wind, which created drifts in places over three meters deep, could not keep the snow banked on a narrow ledge which went in the direction of the camp. The youth hiked back with renewed confidence, dazzled by the intensity of both the sunlight and the mountain’s beauty.
Relief, tears, jokes and breakfast greeted the weary travelers as they entered camp. Vikki commented to Justin that he seemed unusually quiet. He was indeed much quieter that usual, for something seemed strange to him. Something seemed familiar, yet very different. He had no idea what this idea was.
That night, after an early dinner, he and his parents watched him and the other Nature Scouts on the news. They showed the camp, they interviewed a couple of his friends and the leader, and interviewed the mountain. Well, they at least showed the mountain, but from the other side. It fit nicely in the television screen—suddenly, Justin understood.
He remembered the mountain he desired for his room—this mountain! He could put its picture in his room. He could put the television in his room and watch the mountain on the news. But now he knew why having the mountain in his room wasn’t important. Because he got to see the mountain without desire, he saw its beauty, he saw its compassion, he saw its soul, and he saw its love. And most importantly, he saw himself in the mountain, and the mountain in him. He saw his own beauty, his own compassion, his own soul and his own love. The mountain did not belong in his room, even as a picture. The mountain belongs to everyone, to no one. But how, he thought, was he to explain this, the unexplainable? He knew of only one way. For starters, he told his parents he loved them.
The Western Tao
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other:
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not.
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.
Jennifer was upset with the birds.
It wasn’t as if they were slighting her. They simply were not cooperating.
When she saw the “bird woman” surrounded by the pigeons in the movie, she was convinced she could do as well. It would be but a matter of patience.
So for the past two weeks Jennifer gathered whatever old bread, cookie crumbs, and seeds she could find and went to the park to be one with the birds.
At first, she tried calling the birds, talking to them, inviting them to her hands to feed. She quickly developed the knack of attempting to talk to them in their own languages, making all sorts of whistling, clucking, and smacking sounds, the same kind of sounds you would make if you were the one trying to call them to you. But it was to no avail. She realized the birds must have perceived her as something other than a bird, no matter how bird-like she might talk.
Each day she would visit the park. She would sit. She would stand. She would broadcast seed and breadcrumbs in a wide circle around her. She would sit again. She would observe the birds in the trees, seemingly oblivious to her presence. She would wait. She would stand. Then she would walk home.
Each day it was the same. Until this day.
This day, as before, she visited the park. She sat. She stood. She broadcasted seed and breadcrumbs in a wide circle around her. She again sat. She observed the birds in the trees, seemingly oblivious to her presence. She waited. She stood. She walked home. Well, she started to walk home. But she heard some bird sounds in back of her. Some new sounds she had not heard before. She turned and looked. The birds, in the renewed security of her absence, had flown to the ground to partake of the daily feast she had placed before them. She realized that this must have been happening every day before.
She further rejoiced at the prospect that this would occur every day after. Jennifer was no longer upset with the birds. In her heart, she knew that she and the birds had become as one heart, with the life-force pumping and circulating vigorously between them. She sat. She watched. Jennifer, the bird woman, watched the birds, watched from a distance, and it was that distance that made Jennifer and the birds into One.
The Western Tao
Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.
Why, who would’a thought that strawberries could cause such a stir! Land sakes, Clem ‘n Edna shore didn’. Why, everone there had somethin the other was good; no one had to go a’stealin’.
Well, it happened like this, you see. Clem and Edna, they grew stuff justa like everone else did, their cabbage, taters, squash n’ carrots. Gathered the blueberries an’ razzleberries off’n the slopes, but grew crabapples, ‘simmons in the trees an’ strawberries aroun’ the rubarb and flower garden. Well, somehow the strawberries took it to a mind of their own, an’ started growin’ like apples. Well, it don’ take no gen’us to see they got to winnin’ all the prizes at the fair, don’ ja know. Them was jus’ the sweeetest, juics’est, biggest strawberries you ever did see.
Well, come next year and they’re jus’ a growin’ even better than before and whatta ya know: Edna come out one morning to tend the garden and see some of the strawberries disappeared, pulled up by the roots. She call Clem out, and at first they think some animal come and grab ‘em. ‘Cept they notice nothin’ else been took, not even the syrupy ‘simmons on t’ groun. But that night, they hear a noise and look out and see someone out there in the moon’s shadow. They don’ know what to do.
So they talk about it, and they decide this: Well, it shore is nice to win fairs an’ stuff, but we already won it, and it’d be nice to give our neighbors a chance to win, too. So they come up with a plan.
Next year, everbody’s talkin’ ‘bout the strawberries, ‘cause no one’s sure exact what happened. Seems everone’s got Clem ‘n Edna’s strawberries growin’ in their gardens. H’ain’t no way now no one’s gonna steal their strawberries.
Well, can’t say no one knows what happened.
The Western Tao
They had been laughing and joking about it: much as she thought it was a good idea, there was no way Helen could ever be in the medical industry. At their lunch her pharmacist friend Arao had shown her his paper cut he got when turning a page of a book he was reading, and the sight of it reminded her of her first (and last) roller coaster experience.
"But maybe I could at least be a nurse. I see how they are so good at taking care of the patients."
"Helen, nurses do that, but they also get to take care of paper cuts, knife cuts, burns, broken bones, and lots of blood. I don't think you could even be a medical receptionist; you'd occasionally see stuff like that even then. There are times when even a receptionist may be asked to do something unexpected."
"Then I guess I'll have to keep looking for something outside of medicine. If I saw something I couldn't handle, I know I'd freak out."
It was a nice lunch, but after the thank-you's and good-byes, it was the train ride home. Standing room only, of course; the subway was always full early Saturday afternoons, tourists mingling with locals, some reading maps, many talking, a few lucky ones in seats, practicing their post-lunch siestas.
Most passengers were quite courteous, and most of the elders had seats. Helen, standing, noticed one older man standing a couple of people away from her, and thought about asking someone to give up a seat. He looked like he was in his mid-late 50s, but she noticed he looked a bit pale for someone that age.
She had no opportunity to ask. The next moment, he was face down on the floor of the train. Nearby passengers quickly backed away with an audible gasp. Someone had the decency to turn him over; he was not breathing. Another took his pulse and quickly exclaimed "His heart has stopped!"
Someone else asked "Is there a doctor?"
Another said "Anyone know CPR?"
No one answered either question.
Helen, untrained in CPR, shared the helpless feeling with the others. All she knew about CPR was what she had seen on TV shows, and she knew that in reality only five to ten percent actually survive, and only if they receive proper follow-up after CPR. But she also realized that the man had no chance at all unless someone did something.
These thoughts had time to bounce around her head for but a fraction of a second, because she promptly knelt down and started chest compressions the way she had seen it done on TV.
Someone asked "Are you a doctor?"
"No," Helen yelled, "Someone call a doctor!"
Five minutes later, a woman gently put her hand on Helen's sweaty arm, and stopped her. "I'm Doctor Belin; I'm a cardiologist." She checked the man briefly, covered his head with a handkerchief, and turned to Helen. "A relative?" she asked. Helen shook her head.
By now, most passengers had exited the train, and two medics with a gurney came aboard to carry away the body. Brief conversations took place; some papers were signed. The doctor returned to Helen, who was sitting with her head in her hands, and sat next to her.
"What you did was very good, but I'm afraid it was not good enough. But your CPR training shows."
Helen looked up. "I haven't had training."
The doctor looked surprised. "You looked like you've been doing that for years. Have you thought about going into medicine?"
Helen thought of the man under the handkerchief; a tear crept down her face. "I can't even look at a paper cut without almost barfing."
The doctor smiled. "My husband's just like that. The house is in trouble if he cuts himself shaving. He can't understand what I do or how I do it, but I love it. But you know, he's been doing social work for years. He's probably saved more lives than I have. My daughter's a musician. She's probably mended more broken hearts than I have."
"I didn't think; I just did it."
"What's your name?"
"Helen. I can't believe I did that."
"Helen, not everyone can do what you did. You followed your instincts. Most people have the same instinct, but don't act on them, for fear of making the wrong move. If I did everything exactly the way I was trained, there would be a few less people in this world. I just hope that, whatever your profession, whatever your passion, you continue to trust your instinct."
"Thanks, Dr. Belin. That does make me feel better. But I think when I get home I'm gonna barf anyway."
"You do that, Helen; get it out of your system. I didn't have my first barf until my second year residency, but it was a good one! Medicine, social work, music, homemaker–it's all the same. Spontaneous CPR, barfing, singing a song–it's also all the same. When a push becomes a shove, follow your instinct."
There was a long pause; Helen was thinking. Dr. Belin started to get up but was stopped with Helen's question.
"Dr. Belin, what kind of social work does your husband do?"
The Western Tao
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and Earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.
We hear the stories of love, of how the more you give, the more you receive. But let me tell you the real story.
It was a lovely funeral. The right people were there, the weather was perfect, eventfully and comfortably warm for the season. Kind words were said, but that did not stop the pain. Debbie missed him. After fifteen years together, she has to experience this beautiful gathering without him by her side.
She and Mark had met in college, married within a year of graduating, and lived happily ever after. No one was to blame, really; the rock that crushed the car must have been sitting there for eons before breaking free. It was quite impartial; after all, she had thought, millions of rocks fall all the time without landing on cars. But what was difficult for her to fathom was why did it have to happen during the Christmas season?
The happily ever after was gone.
Her thoughts reflected on their agreeing years ago that every moment must count, good and bad. Their first date was one of the bads: the taxi got lost and over-charged; the reservation got lost and they had to wait; the service and the food competed for which was more terrible; the stains of the spilled wine never exited their clothes; and all in all, they had so much fun together that they almost had no choice but to fall in love.
When Debbie got home from the funeral, she went to the garage to sort through the stuff retrieved from the car. Among other things: a few coins, some maps, a book, two packets of Kleenex, bills and E-Lane cards still in the visor clip, a pair of cracked sun glasses, some scrap pieces of paper, a paper coffee cup, and even the partially crushed Christmas tree that he had tied to the top of the car. Her first thought was “why did they bring the tree?” Her next thought was “because they are not the ones to decide what to keep and what to toss.” That made sense to her, even though it brought intense feelings of anguish, as the plan to decorate the tree together was permanently extinguished.
She sorted through the stuff, tossed the scraps, cup, glasses, and some of the unneeded receipts in the trash, and carted the tree to the curb. She went back into the house, washed up, poured a glass of wine, and sat on the sofa in front of the TV. She picked up the remote, then without turning on the TV, set it back down next to her. She took a small sip of wine. It did not taste as she remembered wine should taste.
“What do I do now?” she said aloud. She thought of the saying “What would Jesus do?” Aloud, she said, “What would Mark do?” She suddenly sat up straight. A tear sneaked out of her left eye. She smiled. She resolutely got up, went out the front door and brought the damaged tree inside.
At first her friends were dismayed. “Shouldn’t you be in mourning?” they asked. Then they were amazed. “Mark and I committed our lives together to each other’s happiness. I will not deny him his happiness, even in death. I honor his love by honoring my commitment to life.”
When Christmas was over, she removed the decorations from the tree, and took it out to the back yard, and left it there to gradually return to the soil.
Two years later, she remarried, and had no problem loving her new husband more deeply than she loved Mark. One of the things her new husband really liked about her was her passion for returning their Christmas trees to the soil.
The Western Tao
Every being in the universe
is an expression of the Tao.
It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being
spontaneously honors the Tao.
The Tao gives birth to all beings,
nourishes them, maintains them,
cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
takes them back to itself,
creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.
That is why love of the Tao
is in the very nature of things.
“Grandpa,” Aaron wined, “Joey says you love him more than you love me; is that true?”
Grandpa asked, “Do you really need to ask that?”
“Yes, I want to know.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you the truth, but first I want you to do something for me.”
“OK,” Aaron reluctantly replied, “What?”
“I’m a little hungry, and I’d like you to open a couple of walnuts for me. No, not with the nut cracker. Here, let me show you how to do it by hand.” Grandpa picked a couple of walnuts out of the bowl, held them in his fist, and pretended to strike his fist as he squeezed. “See, you can hit your hand to make one of them crack the other.” He put the nuts back in the bowl. “Try it. First pick out one really strong one so it will easily crack the other. Don’t hit too hard; you don’t want to hurt yourself.”
Aaron carefully selected the strongest he could find, then picked out another one to crack. Grandpa helped arranged them in his fist, then he squeezed and hit his fist with the other hand. “Crack!”
“Good!” said Grandpa. Now you have some and let me have some. Delicious, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Aaron, “I’ve always liked walnuts.
“Now crack one more for me, Okay?”
Aaron took out another walnut, and as he put it in his hand, Grandpa said “Here, hold them like this.” He showed him how to hold the walnuts, and “crack!” went the walnut. But this time, when he opened his hand, his reaction to his discovery showed on his face as dismay. “Grandpa, the strong one broke. What happened?”
Grandpa said, “Look carefully at a walnut. See all the different bumps and lumps? Now look at another. It has the same bumps and lumps, but just a little bit different. It has the same color, but they’re all a little bit different. Now taste the walnut. Does it taste different from the other one?”
Aaron shook his head. “Umm, I think it tastes the same.”
“Let me try,” said Grandpa. He tasted it and confirmed “Yes, I think it has the same taste. Thank you, I enjoyed that. Now back to your question...”
Aaron smiled slyly. “Grandpa, I think you did it again!”
“Did what?” He smiled innocently.
“You said you would answer me after you ate the walnuts, but I think you already answered me. You like to do that.”
“I do? I did?”
“Yes! I see every walnut is different: some have strong spots; some spots are weaker. That doesn’t matter, because the inside is still delicious.”
Feigning surprise, Grandpa said “Yes, I suppose you’re right. I wish I had thought of that!
“All right, then,” Aaron said, “what if it was a walnut and a Brazil nut? How would you explain that?”
“Tell me,” Grandpa said, “which makes a better pet: a cat or a dog?”
Aaron looked a little confused. “I don’t understand. Is the Brazil nut the dog or the cat?”
“I don’t know; you tell me.”
Aaron laughed. “Grandpa, would you like me to crack another walnut for you?”
 The walnut shell consists of two halves, two “hemispheres,” demarcated by a thick seam. The seam, perhaps counter-intuitively, is the weakest part of the hemisphere, as it is the shell’s edge and is therefore not reinforced by the domed surface. If you crack the dome of one against the seam of the other, it is the seam that breaks. Grandpa made sure the first time the “stronger” one was used, its dome was against the seam of the other; the second time, he made sure its seam was hit by the other’s dome.
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