The Radicalism of Lao Tzu

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If you have read the Tao Te Ching and you are not shocked by it, then you probably have not read it carefully. You may also have misunderstood it. I read the Tao Te Ching in my Chinese class when I was in high school in Hong Kong. Ancient Taoist philosophy was part of the Chinese curriculum. I remember reading Chapter 19 of the Tao Te Ching. It says:

Abandon saintliness, discard knowledge,

And people will benefit a hundredfold.

Abandon benevolence, discard duty,

And people will return to the family ties.

Abandon cleverness, discard profit,

And thieves and robbers will disappear.

These three, though, are superficial, and not enough.

Let this be what to rely on:

Behave simply and hold on to purity.

Lessen selfishness and restrain desires.

I remember distinctly being shocked to the core. In this particular chapter, it is very clear that Lao Tzu went against mainstream society, traditional morality, and conventional wisdom. I have said many times that Taoism is a counterculture. This is an excellent illustration. Not only is Lao Tzu opposing what the vast majority of the people consider as good and moral, but he also seems to oppose knowledge and technology. Lao Tzu clearly establishes himself as a contrarian in regard to the social norms East and West. Such statements make him stand out in the history of world philosophy. I would venture to say that no philosopher has been as daring and blunt as he is. He appears to be both an anti-moralist and an anti-intellectual.

This is a very important chapter of the Tao Te Ching, not only because it establishes Lao Tzu’s uniqueness as a philosopher, but also because it captures the spirit of many prominent Chinese Zen masters. In fact, we cannot fully understand the full meaning of Master Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment or the Xinxin Ming of Master Sengcan (Third Patriarch). For to understand the teachings of these important Zen figures, we must first understand the convoluted moral reasoning as presented here. In addition, the apparently amoral or anti-moral teachings in both Zen literature and in the Tao Te Ching attests to the Taoist root of Chinese Zen. Many Westerners think that Zen (or Ch’an) is a Buddhist phenomenon. In reality, many important Zen teachings seem to indicate that Chinese Zen is really Taoist at its core. They lack the moralistic and puritanical emphasis of early Buddhism.

Aren’t saintliness and knowledge socially desirable? Why discard them? The reason is actually quite simple. The pursuit of saintliness and knowledge can easily be another form of ego pursuit. There is tremendous prestige associated with being a saint or a learned man. Saintliness and knowledge tend to elevate one’s social standing, and a high social standing brings material benefits. What about benevolence and duty? What’s wrong with them? Ever watched the TV series, The Good Place? If you are familiar with moral philosophy, you would know that the ones who are truly good are those who do good without seeking a return. Doing good is not another form of social investment. There is nothing wrong with being benevolent or doing one’s duty. But, in practice, many people create the appearance of being “good.” Being a philanthropist or a “righteous man” is a good way to earn fame and goodwill. Again, this will have material payoffs. What’s wrong with cleverness and profits? Don’t most parents want their children to be clever? Don’t we all like profits? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with cleverness and profits. But in a highly competitive world where we believe that we are always playing a zero-sum game, we do have a tendency to use our cleverness to seek gains at the expense of others. Isn’t this how modern capitalism works? When Adam Smith wrote his book The Wealth of Nations, he believed that society would benefit if everyone only cares about self-interest. Today, this idea has proven to be wrong. The strife to profit oneself has led to a tremendous amount of cheating and corruption in modern society. In order for competition to work, we need fair play and an even playfield. The truth is that we rarely have these.

Here is the bottom line: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with saintliness, knowledge, or wisdom. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with benevolence or duty either. Finally, there is also nothing intrinsically wrong with cleverness and gains. But the problem comes in when we seek saintliness, knowledge, wisdom, benevolence, and righteousness as a way to raise our social status. Worse, many of us use our cleverness and craftiness to benefit at the expense of others. This is how we end up in a moral mess. Herein lies the paradox — the will to do good often ends up boosting our ego and selfishness.

Lao Tzu concludes this section with the advice of living a life of austerity and simplicity. This is accomplished by managing one’s greed and minimizing one’s thoughts of private gains.

The Song of Enlightenment opens with this statement: “Behold, the leisurely man of Tao who stops accumulating knowledge and practices wu-wei. He does not rid of himself of illusions and he does not pursue Truth.” What’s wrong with ridding ourselves of illusions? What’s wrong with seeking Truth? In truth, there is nothing basically wrong. But in the world we live in, to become an enlightened arhat is to become a spiritual superman. Thus, the pursuit of enlightenment can be just another ego trip. To become an arhat is to be at the top of the spiritual pecking order. Such aspiration tends to boost one’s ego and elevate one’s “hero mind.” We will then be back to Square One.

There is a well-known Zen saying: “The ordinary mind is the way.” Many of us don’t understand its meaning. Why become ordinary if we can be special? Don’t our parents want us to excel in life and become famous and special? Why seek mediocrity? I just finished watching the latest documentary on Ram Dass’s life. It is titled “Becoming Nobody.” This is very Zen teaching. In the genuine spiritual life, we don’t seek to be special or become better than others. The ordinary mind is the way. This is the crazy wisdom of Zen. One is content to be a dharma bum.

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