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The World and I

Part 20 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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Banish learning, and vexations end. Between “Ah!” and “Ough!” how much difference is there? Between “good” and “evil” how much difference is there? That which men fear is indeed to be feared; but, alas, distant yet is the dawn (of awakening)!

The people of the world are merry-making, as if partaking of the sacrificial feasts, as if mounting the terrace in spring; I alone am mild, like one unemployed, like a new-born babe that cannot yet smile, unattached, like one without a home.

The people of the world have enough and to spare, but I am like one left out, my heart must be that of a fool, being muddled, nebulous!

The vulgar are knowing, luminous; I alone am dull, confused. The vulgar are clever, self-assured; I alone, depressed. Patient as the sea, adrift, seemingly aimless.

The people of the world all have a purpose; I alone appear stubborn and uncouth.

I alone differ from the other people, and value drawing sustenance from the Mother.

(Tao Teh King 20)

Banish learning, and vexations end.

“Learning” means the mistaken idea that reading a book and mindlessly repeating it back is wisdom, that intelligence can be gained in a classroom. Intelligence and insight are the needed elements for wisdom.

Between “Ah!” and “Ough!” How much difference is there?

Various translations give different sounds, all meaning a kind of response or reaction, but without meaning to us in the modern West. My speculation is that “Ah!” is an expression of liking or appreciation, and “Ough!” is one of dislike or disgust: “Ugh!” or “Uck!” Since the same object can elicit approval or rejection from people, there is no absolute to their reaction which is, therefore, fundamentally meaningless. So the “difference” is substantially nil. Lao Tzu is saying that the reactions or judgments of people really mean very little if anything at all.

Between “good” and “evil” how much difference is there?

He is not speaking here of actual good and evil, but of the labels which inherently mean very little, since different people will react differently to the same thing. Some people think narrow-mindedness is good and openness is bad, while others think just the opposite. Lao Tzu is especially urging us to ignore the labels of society in general and not be influenced by them. We should come to our own conclusions and keep them to ourselves, not imposing them on others, though we should express them if asked to.

That which men fear is indeed to be feared.

Many translators agree, however other translations are like this one by Wu: “Must I fear what others fear? What abysmal nonsense this is!” Both make sense.

Intellectual labels are one thing, but practical experience is another, and fear is based on experience or observation. People fear erupting volcanoes if they are nearby, and so should any sensible person. Yet we should be cautious regarding that which so many people fear and hope to avoid. It is silly to fear something just because others do so. For centuries in the West it was believed that tomatoes were deadly poison, and I was brought up on the belief that one half of a buckeye (the seed of the Ohio buckeye tree) is poison and the other is not, and only a squirrel could tell the difference. Worse, I grew up in the era when no one would put a burn under cold water or apply ice. The dogma was that to do so would “drive in the fire” and make it worse. So as we suffered we put butter or Unguentine on it, which did absolutely nothing. Nowadays we know that the severity of a burn can be dramatically lessened by the application of cold in some form. We also continually put Mercurochrome on cuts and scrapes, which is utterly useless. The only thing it did was turn our skin red. So it is sometimes wise to fear what others do, and sometimes it is completely foolish. There is no substitute for experience and intelligence.

But, alas, distant yet is the dawn (of awakening)!

For those caught up in the gears of society and public opinion, even the beginning of awakening is far in the future. Only those who quietly and unobtrusively live according to their independent understanding can hope to eventually pass into higher knowing. That is why the Gita says: “He who agitates not the world, and whom the world agitates not, who is freed from joy, envy, fear and distress–he is dear to me” (Bhagavad Gita 12:15). Saint Paul said: “The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The people of the world are merry-making, as if partaking of the sacrificial feasts, as if mounting the terrace in spring; I alone am mild, like one unemployed, like a new-born babe that cannot yet smile, unattached, like one without a home.

Happy are those than can live out of step with the herd that runs on to nothing at all. As Jesus said: “But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented” (Matthew 11:16-17). Blessed are they that can be called “odd” or “unsociable” and be contented when “they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you” (I Peter 4:4). “Peer pressure” means nothing to the worthwhile, but everything to many others.

So Lao Tzu says that in the midst of the mindless merrymaking of the heedless the wise is calm and disengaged from the fuss going on all around him, and likens the sage to a new-born babe that never reacts to its environment because it simply does not perceive it. The sage ignores the world and the world certainly ignores the sage as long as he does not spoil their “fun” by being obviously out of their track. Lao Tzu had the right idea: he went far away and was at peace, “unattached, like one without a home,” for we can have no home but the Tao.

Now Lao Tzu is going to be sarcastic yet right on target as to how the foolish view the wise.

The people of the world have enough and to spare, but I am like one left out, my heart must be that of a fool, being muddled, nebulous!

How enamored “the people of the world” are of their abundance of worthless nonsense. The wise, however, choose to be “left out,” “losers” in the sight of the world, foolish, unaware and “without direction”–“underachievers” for sure! What a blessed state.

The vulgar are knowing, luminous; I alone am dull, confused. The vulgar are clever, self-assured; I alone, depressed. Patient as the sea, adrift, seemingly aimless.

How proud are the small and the petty as they strut around, masters of all they survey, “in the know” and “bright as a button” in contrast to the dull, boring, and “confused” man of wisdom. The “unique” run-of-the mill people see themselves as clever and confident. The sage is considered isolated for he is not “a good mixer.” How miserable the world considers him to be. “We’ve got to bring him out of himself,” they assure one another if he is unlucky enough to be noticed by them. His patient contentment is considered a lack of “get up and go” since he is not a “go getter,” “self-starter,” or a “doer,” adrift and seemingly aimless.

The people of the world all have a purpose; I alone appear stubborn and uncouth. I alone differ from the other people, and value drawing sustenance from the Mother.

Yes, there is no doubt about it: the sage is a party pooper, refusing to have fun and therefore very unmannerly, out of step and obsessed with a lot of daft ideas about metaphysics and God knows what else. How impossible it is for the world to know that the unsociable kook and wierdo they so indignantly despise is living abundantly in and by the Mother Tao, knowing a fulfillment they do not even dream about, and to which they cannot even aspire in their pedestrian minds. How shocked they would be to find that the sage really does live in Dream Castles and feasts daily on Pie In The Sky. A happy man indeed.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Manifestations of Tao

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Introduction to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Chapters of The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Preface to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

  1. On the Absolute Tao
  2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
  3. Action Without Deeds
  4. The Character of Tao
  5. Nature
  6. The Spirit of the Valley
  7. Living for Others
  8. Water
  9. The Danger of Overweening Success
  10. Embracing the One
  11. The Utility of Not-Being
  12. The Senses
  13. Praise and Blame
  14. Prehistoric Origins
  15. The Wise Ones of Old
  16. Knowing the Eternal Law
  17. Rulers
  18. The Decline of Tao
  19. Realize the Simple Self
  20. The World and I
  21. Manifestations of Tao
  22. Futility of Contention
  23. Identification with Tao
  24. The Dregs and Tumors of Virtue
  25. The Four Eternal Models
  26. Heaviness and Lightness
  27. On Stealing the Light
  28. Keeping to the Female
  29. Warning Against Interference
  30. Warning Against the Use of Force
  31. Weapons of Evil
  32. Tao is Like the Sea
  33. Knowing Oneself
  34. The Great Tao Flows Everywhere
  35. The Peace of Tao
  36. The Rhythm of Life
  37. World Peace
  38. Degeneration
  39. Unity Through Complements
  40. The Principle of Reversion
  41. Qualities of the Taoist
  42. The Violent Man
  43. The Softest Substance
  44. Be Content
  45. Calm Quietude
  46. Racing Horses
  47. Pursuit of Knowledge
  48. Conquering the World by Inaction
  49. The People’s Hearts
  50. The Preserving of Life
  51. The Mystic Virtue
  52. Stealing the Absolute
  53. Brigandage
  54. The Individual and the State
  55. The Character of the Child
  56. Beyond Honor and Disgrace
  57. The Art of Government
  58. Unobtrusive Government
  59. Be Sparing
  60. Governing a Big Country
  61. Big and Small Countries
  62. The Good Man’s Treasure
  63. Difficult and Easy
  64. Beginning and End
  65. The Grand Harmony
  66. The Lords of the Ravines
  67. The Three Treasures
  68. The Virtue of Not-Contending
  69. Camouflage
  70. They Know Me Not
  71. Sick-Mindedness
  72. On Punishment (1)
  73. On Punishment (2)
  74. On Punishment (3)
  75. On Punishment (4)
  76. Hard and Soft
  77. Bending the Bow
  78. Nothing Weaker than Water
  79. Peace Settlements
  80. The Small Utopia
  81. The Way of Heaven

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