In old times, a Chinese farmer’s only horse ran away. That evening all of the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him. He said, “What makes you think this is bad luck?”
The next day his horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses. The neighbors came shouting and celebrating his good fortune. He said, “What makes you think that this is good luck?”
The following day his son tried to ride one of the wild horses and was thrown. He broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to sympathize with the farmer. Again he said, “What makes you think this is bad luck?”
The very next day, the army showed up to conscript all of the young men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was the only one left behind. The neighbors came to celebrate how things had turned out. The farmer said, “That is the way things go.”
Adapted from Alan Watts (1915-1973) TAO: THE WATERCOURSE WAY
Now you might have guessed that the farmer was a Taoist. As such, he knew that the world runs in never ending cycles. One of the main differences between Eastern and Western philosophy is the idea of (wo)man as individual.
“Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one stop of success to another, forming new wishes and seeing them gratified.” – Samuel Johnson
In the West we are taught that it is us against the world. Our individual accomplishments take precedence over the furthering of our society. Our greatest accomplishment is to “make a name for ourselves.”
From the time we leave the womb we have an immediate family that cares for us. Over the course of our lives we develop an extended family, a spouse and children, friends, and other fraternal organizations. Many of us can count the number of people in our extended family from memory. The next layer of our sense of “us” is our country. We are “Americans.” That is who we are. The fact that there are many different communities of Americans, many of whom we deem illegal, is a story for another day.
In addition to the sense of self, we also operate with the belief that we can and should should control the world. We use science and technology to grow our food larger and faster. We make attempts to genetically engineer everything in order to make it more efficient and productive. In addition, we attempt to subjugate our natural resources in order to make them work for us. We constantly seek more electricity, more gasoline, more bandwidth. So we “drill, baby, drill” and strip mine for coal to burn in our outdated smoke-belching power plants. We dig up the most toxic elements on the planet in attempts to generate more power. Always more power.
“Though he should live a hundred years, not seeing the Truth Sublime; yet better, indeed, is the single day’s life of one who sees the Truth Sublime.” ~ Buddha
In Eastern philosophy and religion “self” is subjugated to the “universal.” The Chinese farmer knows that all things are interconnected. As such, there is no such thing as an external influence. We are constantly interacting with the world 24/7/365. Circadian rhythms (a Western discovery in the time of Alexander the Great) run throughout the twenty-four hours of a day. The moon, being the closest astral body to the Earth, has a strong temporal influence on the rhythms within our bodies. The Sun, or rather the darkness, influences our sleeping rhythms, making sleep as necessary as food and water to our continued health.
In addition to knowing that the Earth rules her natural rhythms, the Taoist also uses the natural rhythms of the Earth to make life more aesthetically pleasing. She will find ways to live in harmony with her surroundings rather than try to bend them to her will. Use of the natural elements for power and building would be preferable to artificial and/or finite resources that are not sustainable. Wind and water are infinites that are not being fully utilized. The wind will be blowing long after the last human being on Earth draws a breath.
More than anything else, the reason that the Tao harkens me is the fact that it cannot be known. It is not something that can be read in a book. Seekers seek, that is what we do. Taoism is the act of seeking a knowledge which cannot be known. The word TAO translates to WAY.
The Tao that can be talked about is not the true Tao.
The name that can be named is not the true name.
~ Lao Tzu – THE TAO TE CHING Chapter 1
Rather than reading from a book that purports to know the true way, I would much rather devote my time to seeking it myself, catching glimpses in blades of grass, in icycles, in running streams, in wondrous insects. I would rather pick up a piece of trash than curse at the person who dropped it. I would rather pay it forward through acts of kindness and smiles. I would rather it be hearty handshakes, warm hugs, claps on the back. Enlightenment is not a way of life, but a series of brief glimpses. But I make one caution:
Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.