Older than Taoism is the idea that pride invites a fall, that the axe falls first on the tallest tree. But it was Taoism that first welded these ideas together into a system in which the unassertive, the inconspicuous, the lowly, the imperfect, the incomplete become symbols of the Primal Stuff that underlies the kaleidoscope of the apparent universe.
It is as representatives of the “imperfect” and the “incomplete” that hunchbacks and cripples play so large a part in Taoist literature. To be perfect is to invite diminution; to climb is to invite a fall. Tao, like water, “takes the low ground”. … Water, as the emblem of the unassertive, and the “low ground”, as the home of water, become favourite images.1
Te is a Chinese word meaning “power” or “virtue”. As a Taoist principle, te suggests that the small (e.g. Piglet) are paradoxically more powerful than the big. This is the ideal described in the Arthur Waley quote at the head of this post, which holds up the unassertive, the inconspicuous, and the imperfect as those who possess the Tao in greatest measure.
Christian readers will recognize immediately that this principle is a point of correspondence between Taoism and the Gospel. According to the Tao Te Ching, “The wise may become great by becoming small”; according to Jesus, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Benjamin Hoff holds up Piglet as an example of te:
“What happens when the Heffalump comes?” asked Piglet tremblingly….
“Perhaps he won’t notice you, Piglet,” said Pooh encouragingly, “because you’re a Very Small Animal.”
But Piglet, despite his small size, later emerges as a hero. (Owl’s house topples over one Blustery Day, with Owl, Pooh, and Piglet trapped inside. It is Piglet who squeezes out through the letter slot to obtain help.)
We might similarly speak of the te of Jesus, who is described as meek and lowly: lowly insofar as he was born into an inconsequential family; meek insofar as his submission to the will of God was perfect — as was his submission to the cruelty of those who executed him.
Personally, I find the parallels between Taoism and Christianity fascinating. I have added a selection of quotes from Taoist literature to my sidebar. And here, for those who are interested, are some more conceptual parallels:
Tao Te Ching2
Do not conquer the world with force, for force only causes resistance. … Yield and prevail. … Nothing in the world is more yielding and gentle than water. Yet it has no equal for conquering the resistant and the tough. The flexible can overcome the unbending; the soft can overcome the hard.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. … You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Repay no one evil for evil. … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Tao Te Ching
The violent die violently — that is the foundation of my teaching.
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Tao Te Ching
Displaying self-righteousness, one reveals vanity. Praising the self, one earns no respect. Exaggerating achievements, one cannot long endure.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
4. Contentment / Anxiety:
The contented man stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple. He would not exchange his worn clothes for the imperial robes, nor the load on his back for a four-horse carriage. … To him the ten thousand possessions are dust in the wind. … He acts in true freedom. What can competition for honors mean to him? What attraction can anxiety and greed possibly hold? Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything. … When he looks up, it is not in envy. When he looks down, it is not with arrogance.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.
5. Social reversal:
Tao Te Ching
Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine. … Return to the infant state.
There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” … [He answered], “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
6. Servant leadership:
Tao Te Ching
Why is the sea the king of ten thousand streams? Because it lies beneath them. Therefore, if the great man would rule the people, he must put himself below them. If he would lead them, he must put himself behind them. Then they will neither feel oppressed by his weight nor threatened by his prominence. The world will delight in pushing him forward, and will never tire of him.
The great man does not strive against others, so others do not contend with him. The ancients said, “Yield and prevail.” Is that a worthless saying? Put it into practice, and all things will come to you.
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name….
1Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, p. 56.
2Quotations from Taoist texts are the translations of Benjamin Hoff in The Te of Piglet.
3New Testament quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.