It is best to have small communities with few people.
Although they have goods and equipment in abundance few of them are even used.
They have great love of life, and are content to be right where they are.
Although they have boats and carriages, there is no place they particularly want to go.
And although they have access to weapons and machineries of war, they have no desire to show them off.
Let people return to simplicity, working with their own hands. Then they will find joy in their food, beauty in their simple clothes, peace in their living fulfillment in their tradition.
And although they live within sight of neighboring states and their roosters and dogs are heard by one another, the people are content to grow old and die without having gone to see their neighbor states.
(Tao Teh King 80–Mabry translation)
In these days of “global village” thinking and obsession throughout the world with annual increase in “the gross national product,” these words of Lao Tzu seem very strange in varying degrees, depending on one’s background.
It is best to have small communities with few people. This I know to be true, because I lived as a child and young adult in a wonderful peaceful and friendly (even loving) town of only four hundred and fifty people. I have also spent time in small “third world” countries where life was far better on all levels than in the “developed” and “leading” countries. Human values were much more developed and prized there than anywhere else. Some of the very small, “postage stamp” European countries are admirable in the same way.
Although they have goods and equipment in abundance few of them are even used. This I have also seen as wisdom. Here in America I visited a family that had a most close relationship with one another, both adults and children. It was wonderful. They had the only black-and-white television set I had seen in decades and they never turned it on. Instead they truly lived together and communicated with one another. Every evening all of them, grandparents, parents and children sat together until bedtime and talked, laughed and had fun and spoke about serious things as well. My uncle John Burke bought a car in the nineteen-twenties. He and my aunt Florence were satisfied with it and never got another. People thought they were strange and behind the times when they were really just contented and sensible. Someone loaned my maternal grandmother a television set. In a few weeks she asked them to take it back because there was nothing worth watching on it, and continued reading in the evenings as she had always done. This is genuine freedom and happiness.
They have great love of life, and are content to be right where they are. Although they have boats and carriages, there is no place they particularly want to go. There are some that travel to learn and genuinely expand their minds, but most people travel out of boredom, restlessness, discontent and even habit.
And although they have access to weapons and machineries of war, they have no desire to show them off. Remember the huge parades of war machines and weapons that the Soviets so loved? And the parade of red Toyota trucks filled with thugs and machine guns that the Taliban affected? I had the privilege of meeting the former President of Costa Rica who led his country in total disarmament in 1948 and writing it into their constitution the following year. The keys to the army headquarters were given to the Minister of Education so it could be used as a school. The money that would have been the military budget has been so intelligently invested that the infant mortality rates, life expectancy and literacy rates of Costa Rica are equal and in some instances better than those of most “developed” countries.
Let people return to simplicity, working with their own hands. Then they will find joy in their food, beauty in their simple clothes, peace in their living fulfillment in their tradition. Legge: “I would make the people return to the use of knotted cords (instead of the written characters). They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common (simple) ways sources of enjoyment.”
In the first phrase Legge’s translation is referring to the quipu, an arrangement of cords and knots that in several civilizations were used to keep records and send messages. We may be horrified at Lao Tzu’s advocacy of illiteracy. Who would read the Tao Teh King? Or is it that they would not need to, but instead would be living the Tao?
Someone once told me of the king of a small country who was approached by outsiders who offered to bring literacy to his people. “You want to ruin us and our culture,” he told them. When we think of the wandering minstrels, musicians and storytellers and the prevalent folk theater that have vanished from nearly all literate and modern countries, we see what he meant.
One time in Benares (Varanasi) I ate in a very large restaurant that was filled with customers. There was only one waiter, and he could not read or write. He would just come to a table and the people would state what they wanted (at our table there were ten or more). Then he would relay the orders in the kitchen and later bring to each customer the very thing he had ordered. Since I was used to waiters and waitresses bringing just three or four items to a table and asking who ordered what, I was impressed. I was even more impressed back in America when I heard some barely literate people from rural Kentucky discussing the family history of people they were not even related to, citing the names of who had married whom for generations.
Simplicity is the way to health and happiness. Dr. Josef Lenninger, by far the most brilliant physician I have known, told me that once a young European prince had come to live with his family for several weeks. When he first came he had many health problems, but when he left after sharing their simple food and way of life he was perfectly healthy, prompting Dr. Lenninger’s father to comment: “We are the real princes; we eat only what is healthy and strengthening.”
And although they live within sight of neighboring states and their roosters and dogs are heard by one another, the people are content to grow old and die without having gone to see their neighbor states. Wu: “Though there may be another country in the neighborhood so close that they are within sight of each other and the crowing of cocks and barking of dogs in one place can be heard in the other, yet there is no traffic between them, and throughout their lives the two peoples have nothing to do with each other.” I know of modern countries where people do not go even a few miles from where they were born, and it hurts them not a bit. One man told me that his father “married a foreigner,” a woman from a village ten miles away from his place of birth. I have seen from studying the history of homogenized countries which today lead the world that there was a time when their culture was as rich and varied as though there were many small countries within one. Cultural “sophistication” is not so valuable as we are told to think, and “provincialism” is not so disadvantageous as we have been assured. See how the nations of the world are losing their distinct character through cultural uniformity and the “melting pot” experience. And has contentment, happiness and personal worth increased? We know it has not.
Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Way of Heaven