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The Concept of the Way in Tao Te Ching

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Many authors and teachers have dedicated their lives to formulating wisdom that will help others achieve The Way. According to them, The Way is how a person should live his or her life to achieve inner peace, self-actualization, and harmony. Among the great teachers in the Chinese culture are Laozi, Confucius, and Tao Qian. For hundreds of years, experts have tried to analyze the teachings of these great philosophers to ascertain their meaning. The Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching), Analects, and the poems of T’ao Qian all address The Way differently. While the ideas may even be contradicting at times, they all express truth about the human condition and The Way. There is an interesting and valuable lesson to be learned from each one of these great authors, teachers, and philosophers. Although these texts can be categorized as religious texts, I believe that they apply more to the individual than the divine. Especially during the Chinese Classic Age in which these texts were written, the focus was on the individual, the common, and the everyday – not the divine. A reoccurring theme throughout all of these works is The Way and how to achieve it, but all the teachers question if one can even be taught The Way or if it is something that must be realized individually on a personal level through self-actualization, not through a teaching. Searching for The Way is a lifelong journey and is often different for every individual.

The Daodejing can be translated to mean “The Way of Virtue”. In reference to this text, The Way is referred to as a ordinary, virtuous way of living that encompasses everything in the universe. Although the Dao never specifically mentions Confucius or his teachings, it is suspected that the author, Laozi, created the Daodejing as a foil to the Confucianism values and teachings. Where Confucius teaches affirmative action and sophistication through education, Laozi teaches “nonaction” through promoting “weakness, softness, and passivity” (Puchner, vol. A, 1345). While these traits seem to be negative, Laozi advocates for “actionless action”, which means that if one lives their life in passivity and does not act, then positive actions will occur in the person’s life. Laozi often uses paradoxes to achieve his literary purpose. Evidence of this use of contradictions is apparent in the opening chapter where he states “The way that can be spoken of Is not the constant way” (Puchner, vol. A, 1347). Laozi is using a paradox to express that words cannot be used to accurately describe The Way. He asserts that language is not an accurate reflector of reality and everything is based on categories which are defined by language and shaped by one’s own perspective. Laozi claims that The Way is not the same for every person. Although Laozi maintains that no two paths are the same, he goes on to describe his own Way. In chapter 16, he gives the reader a first person view “I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I hold firmly to stillness… One’s actions will lead to impartiality, impartiality to kingliness, Kingliness to heaven, heaven to the way” (Puchner, vol. A, 1349). As long as an individual frees themselves of politics, authority and conventional ways of thinking then they can discover their Way. However, he does specify that to attain The Way, one must “unlearn” what they have been taught by their elders and teachers. The process of “unlearning” can best be described through the definitions of the terms “tuition” and “intuition”. As all college students and graduates know, tuition is paying money to obtain knowledge. Intuition is a natural state in which the individual already possess the necessary knowledge. Coinciding with Laozi’s claim to natural instincts and the individual over the public, he claims that The Way is something that a person must use their intuition and instincts to achieve.

Confucius, like Socrates and Jesus, is in the ranks of many great teachers who did not write his lessons on paper. Instead, he established a school and his students transcribed his teachings in the collection Analects. This assortment of teachings has given future generations an idea of Confucius’s character, as well as his views on people, situations, and actions. Although Confucius condemns the effectiveness of language when describing The Way, his disciples explain the process in which need and duty become one. In Book II of Analects, “At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning. At thirty, I took my stand. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was attuned. At seventy, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule” (Puchner, vol. A, 1335). On the contrary, in Book IV “The Master” is attributed with saying “In the morning hear the Way; in the evening die content” (Puchner, vol. A, 1336). Obviously, this means that if one realizes The Way during life, the individual with go on to live and die happily. The contradiction in this statement, however, is that Book II claimed that Confucius did not achieve The Way until he was seventy and near death and here it reads that he realized the Way “in the morning”, which is a common metaphor for the early years of life. Many great teachers use this method of contradictions to keep their students alert and inquisitive. Through these contradicting ideas, Confucius was also showing that The Way is different for each person, and that the path and time will differ.

Tao Qian is a prominent poet of medieval Chinese literature. He is known for his tendency to write poetry about himself, which was not very common during this time. Being a member of the civil service, he would have been extremely familiar with the texts of Laozi and Confucius. Evidence of this is apparent in Qian’s poetry, which is deeply influenced by the teachings the Dao. His poetry expresses “go with the flow” characteristics that are frequently associated with Daoism. His poems often celebrate wine, nature, and acceptance. An interesting aspect of Qian’s poetry is that each poem presents a different way to interpret The Way. In “Biography of Master Five Willows”, Tao Qian exhibits all of the traits that he is best known for. Since the poem is an autobiography, it possesses the personal quality that is uniquely his. He also explicitly states that he has “no desire for glory or gain” (Puchner, vol. B, 1007), which shows that he is writing poems to satisfy his own inclinations, not to receive glory from others. This fact could explain why his poems tend to be about himself, because he was writing for himself. Qian is expressing that he does not live his life in search of glory, but his Way is one of personal fulfillment. “Finding Fault with My Sons” teaches another important lesson about The Way. After describing the “laziness” of his five sons that “has no match”, he goes on to say that “if this is the way it is fated to be, Just let me reach for the Thing in the Cup” (Puchner, vol. B, 2013). As with most of his poems, Qian’s solution to the issue is to drink wine. While this may seem like an irresponsible way to avoid the situation, it actually shows a profound aspect of wisdom. Qian does not attempt to change what the cosmos has presented him with; he simply accepts the circumstances and moves on with his life. “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit” is a poem through which Tao Qian presents his readers with three pieces of advice on their Way. Substance says to Shadow, “when wine is offered, do not refuse”; which reveals the first piece of advice – enjoy the little things. Shadow replies with “do good, and your love will outlive you”; which means, simply treat others well. Spirit proposes his solution and third piece of advice to his companions, “just surrender to the cycle of things” (Puchner, vol. B, 2012). Spirit is expressing that one cannot be following The Way until he has an acceptance of life and death and all that it encompasses.

After reading and interpreting the works of Laozi, Confucius, and Tao Qian. I have determined that The Way is manner of living in which an individual achieves harmony through self-actualization. Each one of these great philosophers has a specific way of reaching this ultimate goal. Even though the ideas sometimes contradict each other, a blending of all of the teachings and ideas is necessary for The Way. All of these works, Daodejing, Analects, and Tao Qian’s poetry, specifically mention The Way and their solution on how to achieve the supreme standard of spiritual living. Daoism and Confucianism can easily be considered the foundations of Chinese thought. This is an interesting concept taking into account that none of these founders actually wrote down their teachings, but they are still incredibly influential thousands of years after death. The reason for this is the invaluable, timeless wisdom that these philosophers impart on their students. These students, like Tao Qian, have gone on to write their own pieces of literature in which they share their own path for The Way.

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