On Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

LAO TZU’S TAO TE CHING. A new translation by Jonathan Star (2001). New York: Tarcher/Penguin. 103 Pages

Ozodi Osuji

     I have read Lao Tzu’s book, Tao Te Ching, in the past, but did not really give it more than cursory thinking. This time around, I am going to try to express, in writing, what I think of this 2500 years old book; the book embodies the essence of Chinese spirituality. It is a little book, one hundred and three pages, comprised of eighty-one poems/verses (chapters).

WHAT IT SAYS

      What does this book say? Where should one begin talking about what it says, is there anything that it did not say? It said everything that people associate the Chinese with. It is like an encyclopedia of Chinese beliefs and ways of life; everything good in the Chinese is contained in this book.

     Tao Te Ching is to the Chinese what the Bible is for Christians, the Torah is for Jews, the Koran is for Muslims and the Bhagavad Gita is for Hindus.

     Buddhism is Hinduism without the numerous gods that proliferate in Hinduism; it is teaching that we are all part of one being, and in it know peace; the Buddhist sutras are part of the Hindu Dhamma; Buddha told us that to be human is to suffer, that we suffer because we desire to have separated selves and defend those egos, that to end our suffering we have to give up the desire to be separated selves and know ourselves as part of all things; Buddha asked us to follow the eight noble paths which can be summarized as love your neighbor as you love yourself, do unto other people as you want them to do to you; have compassion for suffering humanity; feel at one with all people; in union with people, aka Nirvana, or Hindu Samadhi, and Zen Satori, we know peace.

      Tao Te Ching did not posit formal ideas on God, like the Abrahamic religions did. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a belief in God; that God is made in human image (although they said that he made man in his image, it is obvious that the writers of the Torah, Bible and Koran projected what they see in human beings to their God; people are proud and prone to anger so they made their God pathologically, narcissistically proud and prone to anger; he kills you if you do not obey him!).

     This does not mean that the Chinese do not have an equivalence for the Christian God. That equivalence is the Tao, also called Chi (universal energy).

     The Tao, the book tells us, cannot be known and cannot be defined; whoever tells you that he knows the Tao does not know it, and whoever knows it does not talk about it. The Tao is silence, the Tao is calmness, the Tao is peace and tranquility.

     Whoever tells you that he has seen the Tao has not seen it. How can it be seen when it is formless and soundless and is everywhere?

      The Tao is imageless and is everywhere and in everything and in nothing. It is like the Christian God in the sense that it created everything and is in them, but it is not them.

      The Tao is in you; he created you and at the same time is not in you; it is in everything in the universe and everything in the universe is in it and at the same time is not it.

    Tao is one but it created a universe of opposites that must be reconciled for us to know peace; yin and yang, good and bad, light and dark, life and death must be reconciled for us to know peace.

      Whereas Tao Te Ching did not employ the term energy, I am going to employ that term and see the Tao as like energy that formed everything in the universe and is everything in the universe and at the same time is not the things in the universe. This is because material things in the universe are mortal, transitory, and ephemeral; we are born in bodies and our bodies die.

     The Tao is eternal, permanent, and changeless. Material things, in their own way, are also eternal.

      Consider that our bodies and other objects in the universe are composed of the 118 elements in the universe, such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, magnesium, potassium, phosphor, calcium, iron, copper, sulfur, chlorine, sodium and so on.

     Those elements are composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Those sub-anatomic particles are composed of quarks (except electrons, electrons are light with some mass); quarks are composed of light.

      In effect, matter is made of light. The same light transforms itself to our bodies, animals’ bodies, plants, mountains, planets, stars, galaxies, into every material object in the universe. What we have then is one source of energy, light, transforming itself to a variety of things and in doing so seem like what it transformed to; in your body it seems like flesh, but remains itself as light (your body remains light…cremate your dead body and you transform it to light; everything in the universe can be regressed, transformed back to light).

      The Tao is nothing; it is empty; it is formless, yet it becomes all the forms we see in the universe; it is nothing, yet it becomes all the something we see in the universe; it is nowhere and yet it is in every solid we see in the universe. As solid it is our bodies and at the same time not those solids.

     The Tao cannot be known or defined, although we can glean what it is from what it transforms itself to.

     Tao Te Ching tells us that we are part of Tao. We must know that fact. Since the Tao is eternal, our essence, spirit, then is eternal; our bodies merely transform forms, from one energy form to another; from one form of matter to another.

      The law of conservation of energy and matter says that the total quantity of energy and matter in the universe is the same, they merely change forms.

     The Tao is different in the forms it transforms into. It is different in how it shows up in you from how it shows up in other people. You must accept how Tao manifests in you and not wish that you are a different person, for the Tao knows what it does in manifesting in you. You must study and understand how the Tao manifests in you and respect it.

     The Tao is perfect, so you are perfect in the form it manifests in you. You must accept the fact that you are perfect for you are part of perfect Tao. Imperfection is not an attribute of Tao; imperfection is not who you are.

     What is your body today, in years to come, will be in trees (that absorb its elements when you die, and is buried in the ground and decay), and will become part of stars everywhere in the universe; indeed, stars, especially the Sun emitted the light energy that formed your body (our bodies are literally made of light from the Sun).

     Everything is related to everything; everything is in everything. There is no such thing as separation. Separation is an illusion made by our five senses. In truth everything is connected to everything else. Thus, the Tao teaches us to accept unity; union with all things in the universe is our nature.

      If you know that you are part of everything and every person, common sense tells you that whatever you do to other people, to other parts of nature you did to you.

      Giving is receiving for what you give to other people you give to you, for other people are part of you. Love other people and you love your whole self; hate other people and you hate parts of your whole self and will lack peace.

      If you attack and hate other people you attack and hate you; if you love other people, animals, plants and everything you love you because they are parts of you.

      If, in your ignorance of the truth, you see the physical environment as not part of you, you pollute it and eventually will not be able to breathe in clean air and die.

     However, as far as nature is concerned, you did not die, your body is merely recycled to other parts of nature; you die means that your body is now part of the planet and when the planet dies it merely decays to the elements that formed it and those become part of other planets, stars, galaxies, part of everything; they are still in the universe.

      Talking about death, our Sun has enough hydrogen fuel to last five billion years. In about two billion years, however, it begins its death and dying process; it will start synthesizing other elements, such as carbon, instead of hydrogen; thereafter, it begins swelling up and become extremely hot and dry up all the waters on planet earth.

      We cannot live without water. Our body is 70% water. Without water on earth plants and animals die off and our planet becomes like Mercury, barren rock.

      In five billion years our star, the Sun will reach iron as the element it uses in its nucleosynthesis and explodes, supernova, into the elements that compose it and those eventually decay to particles and those to light.

      In supernova, more massive stars throw off their outer regions and their core implode to either neutron stars that spin at incredible rate or become black holes, that which we do not understand beyond the idea that whatever enters its events horizon is chewed up.

     The debris thrown off into space by exploded massive stars become nebulae from which medium sized stars and their planets are formed; our sun and its nine planets, comets and asteroids agglomerated from dead super stars.

      In a couple trillion years, all the stars and their planets and galaxies will die; they will decay to cold radiation and our universe end.

      Put differently, everything returns to where they came from; according to Tao Te Ching, they came from the Tao and return to the Tao; and from the Tao they go forth, again, to form other universes, for the Tao lives forever, and is forever transforming itself to things that exist for a while, die and recycle through the universe of everything.

     If you understand that you are a part of the Tao, then you know that you, in the Tao, live forever. This will eliminate your human fear of death. You develop calmness and peaceful awareness that in one form or another you are in existence, and you are eternal.

     The Taoist, therefore, is silent, calm, and peaceful because he does not fear death; he knows that death is mere recycling of his outer form, his body, whereas the spirit that did the forming of his body live forever (can you now understand why the Chinese are calm and less fearful?).

      The book advice that we should not engage in speculations to define what the Tao, life, is, for that will be fruitless exercise.

     Do what is in front of you, now, and desist from fruitless speculations and conjectures on the nature of reality. Go to work, earn your daily bread and support you and your family and help all people.

     Do what needs to be done in the here and now world; it is a waste of your energy trying to understand that which is infinite and limitless. Of course, you can try to understand everything, no one asks you not to try, but accept that you will not understand everything.

    The Chinese listen to the Tao; they are practical and do what they must do to live well on earth, but at the same time they spend a little time contemplating the nature of reality; however, they do not get carried away in speculating on God, as philosophical but impractical Hindus do!

    Western scientists are trying to understand everything. They are doing a fantastic job of it. They have traced the origin of the universe to 13.8 billion years ago and tell us that in trillions of years in the future, the entire material universe will die, that is, transform to cold light.

     But where did the original light that transformed into the entire universe come from? Tao says from nothing and nowhere, for it came from Tao and Tao is nothing and is nowhere.

DISCUSSION

     I do not think that I have made sense of what the Tao is. The book said that the Tao that can be understood is not the Tao.

      The Tao is nameless; what is named is limited but the Tao cannot be limited by using our limited ego conceptual mental categories to understand it; the Tao is our mind and more than our minds; our minds cannot understand the whole Tao, so one is told to shut up and stop trying to understand what we cannot fully understand. I should then shut up.

     Alas, a part of me wants to understand everything; in the process I make noise since I understand nothing!

     The Tao Te Ching said that we are part of everything, are part of a general system, and that the entire system affects us, and we affect it; whatever every part of the system does affects other parts of it, and they respond to it and affect it.

       If you know that your actions do affect all things, that you affect other people, what should you do if you are rational?

      You make sure that your actions are in alignment with everything; you try to affect things positively because if you affect people positively, they will respond to you positively, but if you hate people, attack people they will hate and attack you so that you live in social conflict and war.

     Perceiving a world at war, you arm up and go to war to protect yourself; as we talk, the literal idiot called Vladmir Putin is at war. In destroying Ukraine, he fancies his ego immensely powerful, but he has sowed the seed of hatred in Ukrainian minds and they, too, in time, will try to destroy Russia.

     (This assumes that Russia will not self-destroy; the way the fools are going at it, becoming mostly alcoholics and drug addicts, they are trying to finish themselves off, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia had 150 million people; today, it has 140 million people; the Russian life span is  the lowest in Europe, in fact, it is at third world people’s level; Russians are drinking themselves to early death because they see no meaning and purpose to their murderous existence. They have forgotten the Tao that says affect everybody around you lovingly if you want to be loved.)

      In the USA white folks hate and murder Black folks and those defend themselves and the country is perpetually in conflict; the fools buy guns to defend their individual selves. Tao says that only love would protect them, but they do not know it and think that arms will keep them safe and alive.

      Kill and you make enemy and eventually the enemy will kill you. It is therefore better to see no one as your enemy and love and care for everyone, if you want to live in peace, says the Tao.

     As noted, everything that we associate with the Chinese can be found in this little book, such as the saying that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a step at a time; do not look too far ahead of you, for if you do you feel trepidation, begin your project little by little and before you know it you complete it and start other projects.

     Tao in the material universe does not stay still but in its essence is stillness itself. Work and be still. Meditate and be calm then go to work.

      This little book gives the Chinese the philosophy that has made them who they are. Tao Te Ching, Confucius (both written 2500 years ago), Buddhism (founded 2500 years ago) form the essence of the Chinese; if you want to understand the Chinese you must understand Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism (called Chang Buddhism and when it got to Japan, they called Chang Zen Buddhism).

CONCLUSION

     Here is a question: 2500 years ago, a lot of world changing ideas occurred in the world. In India Buddhism was started; in China Taoism, though already part of the Chinese culture, was written down on paper; Confucius authored his books that guide the East Asian behavior; and in Greece Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the various schools of learning, such as stoicism, Epicure, Skepticism and Sophism came into being. What happened in the world to make 2500 years ago so productive of knowledge?

     In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of our common era, science took great leaps; quantum physics was born. Now science is sleeping, there are no innovative ideas but there are loads of technology exploding, they are based on the quantum physics of the early twentieth century.

     What is it that makes some eras so productive of knowledge? I do not know, do you know?

      Tao Te Ching asks you to read the book slowly, one chapter at a time, if you want to understand it. I rushed through it in less than five hours. I will henceforth return to it, read a chapter a day, and let the profound wisdom it contains become part of my world view.

      What I wrote in this piece is mere noise making, a superficial appraisal of a twenty-five-hundred years-old philosophy that has guided the Chinese and made them the wonderful people they are.

     The Chinese civilization has lasted over four thousand years; China has had four thousand years written history and much of that history is shaped by the action that is no action taught in the Tao Te Ching.

     Finally, if there is one thing that I learned from the book, it is the notion that to have pride, egoism is folly and delusional; the book teaches that a rational person is humble.

     Pride is predicated on the sense of individualism, a belief that one is a separated ego and not part of other people; the desire to make one’s ego seem important and powerful and have other egos respect it is at the root of pride. We do so and seem to obtain other people’s fleeting respect and pay the price of being foolish and lacking inner peace.

     The truth is that the idea of individualism, what Americans and Europeans are proud of, is a delusion; even a cursory appraisal of the universe shows that we are interconnected and depend on each other to survive.

     If the sun goes kaput tomorrow all of us will die. So, where exactly is our power and pride? The Tao tells me and all of us to be humble, but not humiliated because each of us is part of the eternal Tao and has worth in it, but not in bodies; bodies are transitory and, as such, have no worth, for worth can only be based on what is eternal, not on the ephemeral.

     Because one is part of all selves, one must serve all serves as if one is serving one’s whole self; it is in selfless service to humanity that the individual derives earthly worth, for he is affirming all and not the separated self alone.

    The I and its self-centered action is the source of human misery and unhappiness, although it is disguised as giving one personal power; what gives us power is working for all humanity and not just for one.

      One must strive to lose the sense of I, self, from working for the whole self, all people; that is, if one desires peace and happiness. This is an eternal lesson taught by Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

     I plan to take that lesson to my heart and recommend that you, too, do the same; there is too much selfishness in the world hence too much suffering and misery in the world.

Ozodi Osuji

April 24, 2022

ozodiosuji@gmail.com’(907)

(907) 310-8176 Dr Osuji is available, in the evenings, to talk to you on the Tao Te Ching.

Comments are closed.