Saturday, April 11, 2009
The Tao and the Negative Aspects of Life
Derek, the Tao is all-encompassing, so even the extremes are included within the whole, including all the negative things in life. So is it wrong for somebody to defend their own hurtful actions as being a legitimate part of the Tao? How would one reason against this line of thinking?
This is a common problem in the serious study of spirituality. Fortunately, there is a solution that is as simple as the great truths of the Tao. I've written about it in the introduction of Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained. Here is a summary:
Imagine yourself hiking in the forest. As you look around, you see that you can go off in any direction you want.
Visualize yourself in the journey of life. Just like the hiker in the forest, you can choose from many different directions. The Tao is truly all-encompassing and includes all the choices you can possibly make.
Having had some experience with hiking, you've learned that the paths are not at all the same. Some lead to dead ends, some lead to hazards, and some take you around in a big circle only to bring you back where you started.
It is the same with life. The experience of living has taught you that not all choices are equally sound. Some of them don't take you anywhere. You know you are free to choose a path of conflict if you wish, but this would not be in your best interest, because such paths terminate in the dead end of meaningless rage and needless suffering.
When you talk about "the way" in the forest, you do not necessarily mean all the different paths you can take. From a practical perspective, you are most interested in the handful of paths that will take you where you really want to go.
Similarly, when Lao Tzu speaks of the Tao of existence, he is not necessarily talking about all the possible choices, positive and negative, that one can make in life. From a practical perspective, he focuses on the way of harmony, because that is the one proven path toward fellowship and fulfillment.
Most people already have an intuitive grasp of this. When Jesus said "I am the way", people understood he meant the way of love, not the way of hatred. If a friend tells you he's lost his way, you know he wants to regain a sense of meaning in life, and does not want to drift in a random direction without purpose.
This intuition informs you, quite accurately, that although "Tao" can be used to mean the all-inclusive totality of everything, when we zoom in on the Tao of life, we are actually not including all the harmful things that lead to strife and suffering.
If this is hard to grasp, imagine being lost in the forest and coming across someone who says, "I know the way." You know he's not talking about the totality of all the hiking trails. He's refering to a specific way out of confusion and disorientation. When we talk about "knowing the Tao" or "having the Tao," our meaning is the same. We are not refering to the Tao of all possible paths, but the Tao that saves you from being lost and confused in life.
This is how Lao Tzu expresses the Tao as well. It is why chapter 53 of the Tao Te Ching identifies negative and harmful things like corrupt politicians, gluttony, greed, and robbery as being not the Tao and excluded from the Tao. Lao Tzu's understanding is precisely aligned with our intuition.