Living the Love of Wisdom # 2: Tao 38

In the previous post, I reflected on the nature of Wisdom as a classical virtue, relying mostly on the thought of Aristotle. Gaining an understanding of wisdom as a virtue, however, is only a small part of the art of living the love of wisdom. Let us turn to Eastern Wisdom today, and allow Lao Tzu to guide us on the path of the art of living. Verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching has been an inspiration for me for many years. Here is the translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng:
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done. When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness (te, virtue).
When goodness is lost, there is kindness (jen, benevolence).
When kindness is lost, there is justice (ren, righteousness).
When justice is lost, there is ritual (li, propriety).

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real
and not what is on the surface.
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept one and reject the other.

The implications of this verse could easily fill several books, but I will do my best to restrain myself. I have already considered superior vs. inferior virtue in the blog post “Shoddy Virtues,” and written two essays on ritual (the Young Monk and A Sip of Tea).

For today, let us consider the evolution of consciousness outlined in another translation of verse 38:
“Hence when the way [Tao] was lost there was virtue [Te]; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [Jen]; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [righteousness, Ren]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [ritual, li ]. And, it is implied, when ritual fails, the disciplinarian uses force and fear.

The Way to Wisdom
We might see the unfolding of the art of living the love of wisdom as a reversal of the process in Tao 38: We often begin learning through fear, then develop rote behaviors (li), moving to “right” principles (ren), and perhaps on to benevolent, or at least beneficent, behavior (jen), finally becoming virtuous (te) by assimilating accumulated beliefs and values, actions and attitudes, into ourselves as a second nature (Aristotle). As Ken Wilber points out, each stage is both transcended and included in this process (including fear, although I think ultimately it would evaporate as a needless appendage). While becoming virtuous and acting from one’s virtue is the pinnacle of development for Aristotle, it is only the penultimate stage of development in the thought of Lao Tzu. For him, all the stages of the development of consciousness–ritual, principles, benevolence, and virtue–are dry and sterile without being vivified with the energy of Tao. Just as with Virtue, every stage can be “higher” or “lower.” Perhaps a tentative meaning of Tao and of this entire process will become more clear if I use my favorite musical analogy.

The Journey toward Jazz
In the blog post “The Zen of Jazz,” I wrote about the difference between playing “right” music and playing “good” music. Verse 38, I think, offers a more ample picture of the process. Many of us (not all of us, thank God) begin our musical careers at the insistence of a disciplinarian, either a parent or a teacher, or both. I believe that many marvelous musicians have been lost to the world and to themselves due to having their knuckles cracked and their spirits broken by the judgmental coercion of harsh authority. Fear leaches the joy out of music–and out of life.

Most of us hang in there for a few years, however, long enough to develop the early rituals of music: Practicing an hour every day, learning to place the hands just so, preparing for recitals that subject our sometimes Philistine parents to the cadences of Bach, and slogging through Czerny’s exercises for manual dexterity. (Some rituals, however, are fun: Erroll Garner, a very short man, would sometimes sit on the Manhattan phone book to play the piano. After sitting for a few seconds, he would get up, open the book, and tear out one page. He would then sit back down with a big smile. Now it was just right.) Again, please refer to the blogs mentioned above for a fuller discussion of dry vs. juicy ritual.

Throughout the early years, there is often an emphasis on playing things “correctly.” The metronome ticks, the fingering and dynamics are printed on the sheet music, one studies the theory of harmony and chord structure, and of course, there are the notes to played exactly as written. (My wife’s teacher used to ask her if she thought she could interpret the music better than Beethoven. I might suggest an answer different from the teacher’s). Of course it is important to get it right. A professional musician’s nightmare is the person who wants “to sit in” at a gig. As often as not, these folks do not play changes (chord progressions) that are correct, and chaos ensues. Right changes, however, are not enough. When one learns enough theory, she can follow certain rules to use substitute chords to create a voicing that is good and interesting and individual. A master at this is the pianist Bill Evans. (We will see in a moment the importance of Tao.)

Finally, it is time to play for others. This can still be self-serving if the point is to show off, or at least to protect oneself against negative judgments. Early recitals were sheer Hell. Well into adulthood, I could play in a nightclub for 500 people and not give it a thought, but when playing for three people in my living room, I was as nervous as a cat. As I noted, however, in my essay on the Zen of Jazz, there might come a time (with luck and grace and friendship) when the point of playing is no longer Me, but the beauty and the joy of being a conduit through whom music flows into the hearts of other people. It becomes a privilege to open the door to the field of Beauty, and there are no words to express the electricity that flows among musicians in a group that is truly “cooking.” Beneficence–doing well, becomes benevolence–intending to share one’s goodness with others.

Virtue (Te)
In my essay on “Shoddy Virtues” I underscored John Steinbeck’s observation that our gifts–even our moral gifts–can be ego-driven and self-serving. The great Virtues–wisdom, courage, temperance and justice–can actually block the heart’s flow of love and the very flow of life itself. This is a tragedy, for Virtue in its higher form is a quality that empowers the flow of love through our minds, hearts, and bodies.

Lao Tzu says that the minute I start talking about the Tao, I am no longer talking about the true Tao. In verse 25, he says
Something mysteriously formed.
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging.
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of the thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.

To use Hopkins’ phrase, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This, to me, is Tao. This, to me, is Love. For as the material dimensions of human life diminish, there is at least the possibility that the ego might surrender its cherished executive function and relax into a translucent permeability so that Love flows into the world through the prism of one’s accumulated experiences and knowledge and wisdom. One moves into Rumi’s field beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, and this renders our right-doing and wrong- doing effortless expressions of love. Hayden Carruth captures this idea with grace:

So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.

The Spiral of Living the Love of Wisdom
Fearful ego or flowing love are the contrasting engines of life. For me, fear initially moved me through the stages of proper etiquette, right behavior, doing good, and thinking of myself as good. But once the ego relaxes its hold, there is a flood of loving Tao that cascades through and enlivens every step along the way. Ideally, it is a loving outpouring of life in every moment. Someone once asked a Hasidic Rebbi what was the most important thing in his life. He answered, “Whatever I happen to be doing at the moment.” The story goes on to say that people would come from miles around just to watch him tie his shoes. In the same way, my favorite song is the one I happen to playing at the moment. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth either playing or listening to.

Heraclitus said “the say up and the way down are one and the same.” On the upward journey, often motivated by fear, the Paths of traditional religions and philosophies all point beyond themselves to an intimate union the Holy, however it is defined. But if the rituals and rules become ends in themselves, they become static islands of self-righteousness that isolate us from life’s dynamic flow. On the downward journey, when our rituals and rules cease to be general and abstract and are vivified by Wisdom and Love, the gestures of our minds and hearts can become blessings for ourselves and others. Of course, most of us find ourselves dancing on a continuum that ranges from abject foolishness to sublime wisdom. We make the journey of life through dappled light. I am sure that the readers of this blog most often shine warmth on those around them, but it is sometimes easy to slip into forgetfulness and rain bitter tears. As Pierre Hadot notes, the lofty reaches of the Saint or the Sage are reserved for a tiny few. As he says, “the figure of the sage thus plays a decisive role in the philosophical choice of life, yet it is offered to the philosopher as an ideal described by philosophical discourse more than as a model incarnate in a living human being.” The Lover of Wisdom finds this ideal compelling, and it moves her to reflect upon, and long for, and practice a life infused with the loving Tao.

Finally, as the Tao Te Ching teaches, here is where words fail. At some point, one has to stop talking and get on with living. As Farid Al-din Attar puts it in his Conference of the Birds, written in the 12th century: “If it were lawful for me to relate such truths to those who have not reached this state, Those gone before us would have made some sign; But no sign comes and silence must be mine. Here eloquence can find no jewel but one: That silence when the longed-for goal is won. The greatest orator would here be made in love with silence and forget his trade. And I too cease: I have described the Way— Now you must act—there is no more to say.”

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