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.