Updated: Jan 3, 2019
The Old Sage (Lao Zi, Lao Tzu), whether he existed as an actual person or not, is making a comeback, of sorts, with lots of pre-digested soup-of-the-soup style wisdom flooding English-language bookshelves and newsfeeds of late. Perhaps the times require it: Daoism was “born” out of a reaction to growing tyranny in a period of Warring States (400 BCE) and later used to legitimise some rather overbearing “unifiers” (looking at you, Cao Cao, in 215 CE… even today, we haven’t forgotten that in Chinese “speak of the Devil and he shall appear” takes the form of 说曹操曹操就到 “Say Cao Cao, and Cao Cao is already there” — a reference to the vast network of surveillance spies that helped him to, eh, overcome opposition, amongst intellectuals, powerful allies, and also the common people), and this has something to say, perhaps, to our own age of darkening horizons, replete with a consciousness of constant mass surveillance carried out, as a matter of safety and precaution, on a truly staggering scale. Popular Daoism’s “Middle Way” philosophy can be deceptive, however, and adapts well to misinterpretation, lending itself flawlessly to a mindset that accepts things as they are, even under conditions of tyranny and crushing oppression, whether at a global, national or personal level. Some of the modern translations, commentaries and Western-pabulum spin-offs of Daoist classics, born of our own times, and understood through our own cultural lenses, have a tendency towards this kind of “great miss”. As such, earnest seekers could find themselves at the mercy of hopelessness, despair, or (on a more personal level) narcissist abuse. This is one of the dangers of supping only on the soup-of-the-soup-of-the-soup, and trusting to others for a filtered-down understanding.
I finally got annoyed enough to revisit some Daoist texts recently when I saw a meme encouraging people (under the guise of Daoist wisdom) to discourage their children from harbouring strong ambitions, and to enjoy the taste of tomatoes and tiny, ordinary pleasures instead. Perhaps it was meant as a gentle reminder to helicopter parents who pressure their kids to be over-achievers to step back and let their kids stop and pull the petals off the roses, for once. And sure, mindfulness is important if one is to achieve extraordinary things, but… this was backwardly expressed enough to present a dangerous justification for crushing naturally talented, active-minded children into submission, to “be content” with what’s presented before they even get a chance to seek out anything else beyond that. To live in a tiny boxed-in reality, safe in the knowledge that whatever else might be out there wasn’t for them to discover. To leave unprofitable talents undiscovered, undeveloped and unexpressed — a depressing, shallow, recipe for lifelong misery, in other words. An extraordinary child, and in fact, any child, needs to seek out extraordinary experiences in addition to tasting sun-warmed tomatoes off the vine if he is to grow, to try, to succeed and fail, and find meaning in his life. We are in fact programmed for it as humans, before we allow our brains and hopes to ossify completely. Crushing a child’s ambitions into something ordinary, middling, and thus likely profitable is not Dao, it’s just being a dick.
Well, I’ve studied religion, history, mythology, philosophy, politics and Chinese language for many, many years now. I’ve studied the Daoist and Chan Buddhist classics in Chinese, looked at ancient oracle bones, practiced Chinese martial arts, made good friends with the Yi Jing (and its applications), learned about Chinese alchemy and the shamanistic traditions and folk religions that helped to inform and shape Daoism as it arose and took to writing. Hell, I’ve even used the principles of an ancient Chinese book about building and construction by Feng Shui (the real thing, not the pabulum you think it is) to roof barns in a tornado-susceptible area.