December 31, 2015

Taoism for the Modern Age

I used to be on a popular dating site where you answered a bunch of questions to try to match with like-minded people.  One of the questions was "How do you feel about Taoism?". The positive answer option was "I love the Tao Te Ching!" and the negative was "Don't like it. Taoists are too passive."

This irritated me in two different ways.

First, there is a second major Taoist text, the Chuang Tzu, that is a much better exposition of Taoist ideas.  It's funnier, clearer, and is made up of narrative pieces that make it a better read.  Unfortunately, other than the famous piece about Chuang Tzu dreaming he is a butterfly, it is not as well-known in the west.

The better known Tao Te Ching is quite challenging to translate, even by the usually challenging standards of Classical Chinese texts (there is a whole other post in that), and some of the translations available in English are really quite loopy, so that people can interpret them however they want with very little understanding.

This might account for the second irritation: the belief that Taoism is essentially the philosophy for slackers who plan to smoke dope in their basement for the rest of their lives.

On the contrary, I think Taoism is exactly the philosophy needed for modern western people, especially North Americans. Unfortunately, Benjamin Hoff had the same idea with his book The Tao of Pooh, a book that was popular when I was in university.  And though his book is amusing, I think it gave a lot of people the wrong idea about Taoism by aggressively attacking "Confucian" ideas (really North American success values by proxy) and making it seem that Taoism was just hippy "dropping out" from an ancient Chinese source.

But Taoism is much more sophisticated than that.  Sure, Chuang Tzu light-heartedly spoofs other contemporary philosophers, such as Confucius and Hui Tzu (the latter a philosopher of logical reasoning), but it is not to negate them, but show that their concerns are only part of a greater whole, a bigger picture.

We don't need to give up our ideas, values and goals, or abandon our strivings, so much as to remember that we are part of a huge, complex world, with its own forces and "ends". Learning to go with the world's natural flow and align our designs with the currents (human and natural) around us would allow us save some of our energy and to enjoy our lives more: you don't have to paddle so much if you are going with the current.

So a good Modern Taoist doesn't have to be a slacker. They will just spend more time figuring out how they can use the current to get them somewhere they might like to go, rather than ignoring that current and blindly going up against it and making themselves miserable in the process.

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