Monday, May 08, 2006

What is "the Way?"

Each time I translate five chapters, I'll write a short essay on some facet of the Tao Te Ching. This is the first.

What is "the Way?" The Chinese character (tao) can refer to a literal way in the sense of a road or path. It can also refer to a way of doing something, or a way of life. One of the biggest mistakes students of Eastern philosophy can make is to assume the idea of "the Way" is something unique to Taoism, as if Taoists believe in following the Way and other people don't. In fact, the idea that there is a "Way" that, if followed, makes life easy and produces good government is an idea that was virtually ubiquitous in Chinese philosophy. Schools had sprung up all over the place to teach rulers and bureaucrats the Way to rule their subjects, and themselves, in a harmonious fashion. The schools agreed on some basic principles, like the desirability of order and harmony, but the details of their Ways differed.

Most of the teachings of these schools (and their Ways) were lost, but a very few survived. The Tao Te Ching, a collection of teachings of the "Laoist" school, is one example; Confucianism is another. While Confucius would certainly have been opposed to the Way of the Laoists, which emphasizes being spontaneous and natural, he called his own system "the Way" also. So all these instances of "the Way" that appear in the Tao Te Ching could really be translated as "our Way," the Way of the Laoist school. Naturally, the Laoists thought their Way was superior to the Ways being taught by the other schools, but the fact remains that it was just one of many different Ways being taught at the time.

So why do some people think the Tao Te Ching is so wise and profound, if its philosophy was just the teaching of one school, the Laoists, and it survived by random chance? Might not another school's Way have been better? It may have been indeed, and we'll never know for sure, but we can evaluate the Tao Te Ching's Way on its own merits. On those merits, it seems pretty good. The Laoists' Way is the essence of harmony and peace; the Tao Te Ching always advocates reconciliation, never conflict, although it recognizes that conflict is sometimes necessary. Its teachings on the danger of stimulating desire are duplicated in Buddhism, and are the source of the profound peace that is the goal of practicing Buddhists. The notion that there is a Way that the world works, and that we should figure it out so that we can live in harmony with it, is humbling. This is the core idea of science: observing the world, then proposing an explanation, then testing to see if your explanation fits the way the world works. Ultimately, of course, the only way to decide if the Way of the Tao Te Ching is right for you is to put it into practice in your own life, and see how it works. I've had good results myself, and I think you will too.

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