To Start Wagging and to Stop Tampering

Passages quoted are from "Chuang Tzu" by H. A. Giles, Quartitch, London, "The Wisdom of Laotze" by Lin Yutang, The Modern Library. New York, and "The Way and Its Power" by Arthur Waley, Grove Press, New York.

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

IF TAOIST THOUGHT ON THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF GOVERNING MANKIND is to be heeded, one might look at other aspects of this thought. Such as the consistent warning against cunning craftsmen, pernicious contrivances, and labour-saving devices in general.

A gardener was asked why he would not use a well-sweep. Thereupon he flushed and said, "I have heard from my teacher that those who have cunning implements are cunning in their dealings, and that those who are cunning in their dealings have cunning in their hearts". The cunning in heart are not pure and incorrupt, are restless in spirit, and not fit vehicles for Tao. The gardener concluded, "It is not that I do not know of these things. I should be ashamed to use them." A people who understand the Way might have devices requiring 10 to 100 times less labour and would not use them. "There might still be boats and carriages, but no one would go in them; there might still be weapons of war but no one would drill with them".

In 1949, Robert Bek-gran wrote in Retort that Lao Tzu "would probably think it wise to abandon a scientific technology if it provided better housing and bigger machines of destruction in the same breath". Today, the machines of destruction are nearly or altogether capable of total human annihilation and it is very probable that they will be used. It may be best, then, to abandon the whole industrial-military economy. Start with the most pernicious contrivances — rockets and jet planes, atomic weapons and reactors, electronic computers and television. Remove the works from the T.V., caulk the seams and watch fish through the picture screen. The rest will follow naturally — conventional aircraft, radio, and railway trains, then carriages and coaches. As people move out of the cities, the land will be intensively farmed for subsistence. Even in the cities, while the transition is occurring, gardening on rooftops, in streets and vacant lots will supply needed foodstuffs (much food was produced this way in World War II). Automobiles and buses can be driven into the country and used as living quarters until houses are built. Or left in the cities as unnoticed blobs, their hoods up, the motor filled with dirt, and sweet potatoes climbing up the auto aerial. Image a skyscraper with every window filled with window boxes, leaves and flowers — the hanging gardens of Manhattan.

And formal knowledge should cease. "The people should have no use for any form of writing save knotted ropes" (like a knotted handkerchief to aid memory), Warning against formal knowledge appears in many chapters of the Tao Te Ching. "Banish learning, and there will be no more grieving." "When knowledge and cleverness appeared, great hypocrisy followed in its wake." The injunction against learning would apply not only to modern scientific technology, but to theoretic science itself. Since no man can control the use of his scientific creations, it were better he never let them be known. So abandon the universities, the laboratories, the libraries. Deliberately forget all one has known of physics, chemistry, biology, the social sciences, and speak of these things to none, lest he deduce new science from your conversation. "Learning consists in adding to one's stock day by day, the practice of Tao consists in subtracting day by day, subtracting and yet again subtracting till one has reached inactivity,"

And morality and moral judgment should cease. After Tao was lost came "power", then human kindness, then morality, then ritual. "Now ritual is the mere husk of loyalty and promise-keeping and is indeed the first step towards brawling". "It is because every one under Heaven recognizes beauty as beauty, that the idea of ugliness exists. And equally if everyone recognized virtue as virtue, this would merely create fresh conceptions of wickedness." "He who knows the always-so has room in him for everything; he who has room in him for everything is without prejudice." None should judge, not ever. Not judge, as Sonia in Crime and Punishment. Only accept.

And speech should be at a minimum. "To be always talking is against nature." Even about disarmament. "It was when the family was no longer at peace, that there was talk of 'dutiful sons'." "To love the people is the beginning of hurting them. To plan disarmament in the cause of righteousness is the beginning of rearmament." It follows, as Lin Yutang asserts, "When it becomes necessary to talk of disarmament, all plans of disarmament must fail, as man has learned today". This Taoist concept is similar to that of present libertarian thinking. Disarmament under social conditions in which rearmament is possible is meaningless, Without replacement of national states by a cosmopolitan libertarian socialist society, war is almost certain. The idea of of national states may be too ingrained to be changed before disaster. These states are now more powerful than ever, and there is apparently less feeling of international solidarity among workers and scholars than there was before World War I.

Then a withdrawal should occur, out of the state, science, and industrial society, into self-enquiry and self-subsistence, into poverty (by modern standards), into silence and joy in small things. Having heard what is outside, we listen in our hearts to what is inside. "Without leaving his door, he knows everything under heaven. Without looking out of his window, he knows all the ways to heaven."

Of such withdrawal there will be the usual critics, from political right to left, because of belief in the upwards and onwards theory, the bright face of tomorrow.

All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles
"All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles
… I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign.
… All men have enough and to spare
I alone seem to have lost everything
The world is full of people that shine
I alone am dark
… But wherein I most am different from men
Is that I prize no sustenance that comes not from the Mother's breast."

Thoreau is out of step because he is listening to the music of a different drummer, and Kafka's Hunger Artist couldn't find the food that he liked. "If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." Yuan Hsien lived in a shack with a leaky green grass roof, a damp floor and a window stuffed with rags. But he sat properly on his floor playing a string instrument. A successful diplomat wearing fancy clothes came to see him in a carriage so wide it couldn't enter Yuan Hsien's alley. Yuan Hsien in his hemp cap and shoes without heels came to meet the diplomat. "Alack-a-day, What ails you?" cried the diplomat. "Nothing ails me," replied Yian Hsien. "I have heard that to have no money is called poverty, but to know the truth and not be able to follow it is called a disease. I am poor but not sick."

Two high government officials called upon Chuang Tzu when he was fishing and asked him to become a government administrator. Chuang Tzu noted that in the emperor's temple there is a turtle which died at 3,000 years of age and is stored in a chest. "Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or would it rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?" "Rather alive and wagging," replied the two officials. "Begone," cried Chuang Tzu. "I too will wag my tail in the mud."

If a person can't do anything else, he might start wagging and stop tampering. "For that which is under heaven is like a holy vessel, dangerous to tamper with." Still it were better not to make any rules, even about tampering, for the Sage "discards the absolute, the all-inclusive, the extreme."

Then in a hut, growing vegetables, we try to govern ourselves:

"To understand others is to have knowledge
To understand oneself is to be illumined
To conquer others needs strength
To conquer oneself is harder still
… He who moves through violence may get his way
But only he who does not lose his centre endures."

And what of influencing other people and creating a more humane society? "Value in action that is actionless, few indeed can understand." "So the Sage by his limpid calm, puts right everything under heaven." Almost all Taoist writing is in some sense an explanation of how a man may become a vehicle of the Way "who remains calm and quiet and thus becomes the guide for the universe".