The Tao of Pooh, part 2

“What flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo?”

“Oh, a Riddle,” said Pooh. “How many guesses do I get?” (p. 85)

The Tao (the “T” is pronounced more like a “D”) might be described as the power or energy that animates the cosmos (my terminology, not Benjamin Hoff’s). The Taoist seeks to live in harmony with that energy.

book coverInstead of struggling (physically or mentally) to make things happen, the Taoist’s goal is to align his actions with the Tao. Ultimately it is the Tao which makes things happen, not the Taoist.

The Taoist Way could easily be mistaken for passivity, but I think that interpretation would miss an important nuance. The Taoist is active, but she doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that events are determined by her. She knows she can only achieve appropriate outcomes by living in harmony with and relying on the Tao.
This brings us back to Chuang-tse‘s riddle. What flows like water, reflects like a mirror, and responds like an echo? A life lived in harmony with the Tao:

  • Flows like water —
    Water flows over and around obstacles. It does not resort to force to destroy the obstacles in its path. One might say that the Taoist plays the cards that have been dealt to her, instead of sulking or demanding a new deal.

      In the background of this riddle we can see P’u, the principle of the Uncarved Block (described in part one). Taoists orient their actions to Things As They Are — not Things As They Might Have Been, or Things As We Would Have Preferred Them.

  • Reflects like a mirror —
    A mirror does not distort; it accurately represents whatever is before it (blemishes and all!). The Taoist (like the Buddhist) tries to see what is actually there before him.

      It is more difficult than it sounds! Human beings constantly interpret reality in accordance with our prior expectations, and thereby introduce distortions / illusions. As George Orwell observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”.

  • Responds like an echo —
    An echo does not generate sound, it merely deflects it. (Not unlike the mirror, which does not generate light but reflects it.)

Hoff uses T’ai Chi Ch’üan, the Taoist martial art, to illustrate:

The basic idea of T’ai Chi Ch’üan is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed with force; instead, it is overcome with yielding. …

The principle can be understood by striking at a piece of cork floating in water. The harder you hit it, the more it yields; the more it yields, the harder it bounces back. Without expending energy, the cork can easily wear you out. (pp. 87-88)

Of course, Hoff also uses Winnie-the-Pooh to illustrate the Taoist Way. Remember that occasion when Rabbit, Piglet, and Pooh were lost in the woods? They went hopelessly in circles for a while, and then Rabbit wandered off and left the other two alone:

“Now then, Piglet, let’s go home.”

“But Pooh,” cried Piglet, all excited, “do you know the way?”

“No,” said Pooh. “But there are twelve pots of honey in my cupboard, and they’ve been calling to me for hours. I couldn’t hear them properly before, because Rabbit would talk, but if nobody says anything except those twelve pots, I think, Piglet, I shall know where they’re calling from. Come on.”

They walked off together; and for a long time Piglet said nothing, so as not to interrupt the pots; and then suddenly he made a squeaky noise … and an oo-noise … because now he began to know where he was. (p. 14)

This is the Tao. Pooh is not engaged in frenetic activity, expending energy indiscriminately (Rabbit’s way). He is not trying to be clever (Owl’s way). Pooh’s way is to go with the flow. Somehow things just seem to work out for him:

When you do that sort of thing, people may say you have a Sixth Sense or something. All it really is, though, is being Sensitive to Circumstances. That’s just natural. It’s only strange when you don’t listen. (p. 85)

Life never leaves us without hints as to which way we should turn from moment to moment. The problem is, we overlook those hints. The Taoist seeks the inner stillness and the concentrated awareness that enables him to pick up on Life’s cues.

In conclusion, let me offer a couple of observations.

First, it seems to me that Taoism could be practised by the atheist and the theist alike. For example, environmentalism might constitute a secular form of Taoism. Environmentalists decry the negative consequences of industrialization and the West’s reliance on technology to solve problems. The environmentalist’s goal of a life lived in harmony with nature is not far from the Taoist Way.

But Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that we must introduce a personal God into the equation. It isn’t just a matter of living in harmony with nature (though that is valid, insofar as “nature” is God’s creation). It is also a matter of discerning God’s will and relying on God’s power. If God is integral to Reality, then the Taoist must also value harmony with God — perhaps preeminently.

Second, I wonder whether Taoists exercise moral discernment and, if so, on what basis. Christians would argue that nature is fallen. Insofar as nature conforms to God’s will, it is right and good to live in harmony with it. But insofar as nature is alienated from God, and distorted by sin, it is a mistake to yield to one’s “natural” impulses.

Surely nature can be pitiless and destructive. And animals are motivated first and foremost by self-interest. Taoists, on the other hand, value compassion (again, like Buddhists). I’m not sure where this value comes from:  or how it can be reconciled with living in harmony with nature, which all too often is devoid of compassion.

Perhaps the objection merely shows how limited my understanding is. I am an outsider, and Eastern thought is still new to me.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    May 15, 2007 @ 14:45:51

    Moral discernment and the fallen condition of nature aside, if as taoist beleive fulfilment in life cannot be attained by forcing one’s own destiny; instead, one must be receptive to the path laid for them by nature and circumstance, there is a good deal in common with Calvinist predestination which sees the will of God as the path. The problem is that not seeing the path soon enough leaves one if not unfinished in lifes goals but at least feeling that way, when death comes, unless the path is short. The worry is the unfinished life. Where does freewill fit in to both Taoism and Calvinism?

    Admitedly like Stephen my understanding of Taoism is limited.


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