Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Four

The text of The Daodejing, especially Chapter One, feels like breathing to me. Ideas are presented with their contradictions, in the same way inspiration and expiration follow each other – such different experiences and yet connected in the same life-supporting action. Breathing is simple on the surface and endlessly complex when you look deeper into its processes. And there’s the way breath deepens and softens when you arrive home in your body and settle there.

There’s so much I wrote and thought to share about the differences in translation of just one of these poems, the contrast with The Analects,comparing this to ancient Greek and early Christian thought, etc. But sitting with this text makes me less interested in “contributing to the discourse.” Over and over the text says its central concepts are beyond words. “This is why the sages abide in the business of nonaction, / and practice the teaching that is without words.” (2) “To be sparing with words is what comes naturally.” (23) “But talk about the Way – how insipid and without relish it is!” (35) 

The whole point of a paradox is that it’s beyond words. We can learn from each other, and yet there’s nothing important to learn that we don’t already know in our being. That’s where I’d like to center our conversations. Strengthening our inner knowing and weakening our tendency toward self-interest may be the two best reasons for people to come together. 

    Cut off sageliness, abandon wisdom, and the people will 
        benefit one hundred fold.
    Cut off benevolence, abandon righteousness, and the people will     
        return to being filial and kind.
    Cut off cleverness, abandon profit, and robbers and thieves will
        be no more.
    This might leave the people lacking in culture;
    So give them something with which to identify:
        Manifest plainness.
        Embrace simplicity.
        Do not think just of yourself.
        Make few your desires. (19)

Some people say that Daoism advocates for a return to some mythical early way of being in harmony with nature. But Chapter Thirty-two says, “When unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names. / Now that there are names, know enough to stop!” I would argue that there is a cusp, unique to each individual in each moment, between analysis and synthesis (because what is yin-yang theory if not the original dialectic of cosmology), where we are meant to live in dynamic balance. This is where we flourish. “To embody the Way is to be long lived, / And one will avoid danger to the end of one’s days.” (16) 

This is where my faith rests most naturally, in the ongoing expansion and contraction that breathes life most abundantly through the minutes we spend open and unattached to outcomes, full of curiosity and wonder and informed by kindness. “Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows? / Empty yet inexhaustible! / Work it and more will come forth.” (5)

This letter is an invitation to take time with the knowledge you have, and to fully embody what you know. This is deeply healing work, leaning into learning more about your life. Just this is the source of human flourishing, beneath and through all the layers of socialization- which is curious because it is best done in community, with someone you trust. I hope you find good companions to join you for parts of your journey, and if you consider me to be one of those, know that I’m deeply honored. 

Those who revere their bodies as if they were the entire world can be entrusted with the world. 

Chapter Thirteen, Daodejing

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