About six months ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, please just keep reading a little bit. I promise I’m not a heretic.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching itself, and quotes from other TTC readers about how the book has influenced them. Also, each episode releases a few weeks before the corresponding blog post.
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This post is an abbreviated version of episode three of the podcast, in which I look at chapter two. At times the Tao te Ching is down to earth and practical, but much of it is highly philosophical and abstract. Chapter two is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. There are two main ideas in this chapter:
Non-dualistic thinking (the first two stanzas)
“Wu wei” - actionless action/teaching without saying anything (the third stanza)
Here it is:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
(translator: Stephen Mitchell)
The idea of non-dualistic thinking is really important in all ancient Eastern thought, but especially in the Tao te Ching. The most famous symbol of Taoism is the yin yang - which some Westerners think of as a religious symbol like the cross or the Star of David, although it’s really not meant to be that at all. It’s more of a philosophical symbol, and it’s a very unique one.
The yin-yang is dualistic in a sense. There is a black and a white, a yin and a yang; but they are always flowing into each other. They are complementary. They can’t really exist without the other, and if you look closely, there is a drop of white in the center of the black teardrop and a drop of black in the white one. They are mixed and each one flows into the other. That’s exactly what the TTC is saying here in chapter two. It’s a building block for paradox, which is pretty central for Christian faith as well.
There is no way for Christians to remove paradox and consolidate our answers into airtight logical answers without destroying the heart of our faith. (Click to share on Twitter)
There are two ways we can read the first two stanzas of this chapter:
First, opposites define each other. We can only see beauty and ugliness, or good and bad, because of the contrast between them. If there were no distinction, we couldn’t tell the difference. It’s like that old joke of the fish who asks the other fish, “How’s the water?” and he says, “What’s water?”
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good
only because there is evil.
(translator: Gia-fu Feng)
Without a divide, there is no way to make any factual statements at all. Black is black because white is white. In this sense, dualistic thinking isn’t bad. It is necessary for many things in life, but as we’re about to see, it just doesn’t go far enough for so many things.
The second point is this: when we create dualistic categories in life, or judgments, or relationships, we must do so by excluding some things - or some people. J. H. McDonald’s translation catches this idea:
When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Just jump on social media or engage in a “friendly” discussion about politics or another controversial issue and tell me we don’t do this all the time. It’s a human habit, especially a Western one, and right now, it is especially exaggerated in American politics and society.
For Americans today, it seems like one misspoken word or phrase that sounds like something “the other guys” would say immediately gets you thrown into a camp.
You could be the most conservative guy on the planet, but if you’re considering an issue and you post something that seems in favor of considering how to deal with “systemic racism” or “global warming” you will instantly labeled as liberal, therefore Democrat, therefore anti-Trump, pro-Hilary or Pelosi or Biden, abortion-loving, baby-killing, God-hating, poor, unfortunate soul.
Or you could be a card-carrying faithful Democrat, but post one thing online about being pro gun rights, and suddenly you’re a racist, white supremacist, gay-hating, Trump-loving, “Make America Great Again” nutjob.
It goes both ways these days. Once we’ve got our position, we find ourselves on the hunt for one sniff of the “other side” everywhere we look, so we can flame them - or, more often - just silently judge them in our own heads, and maybe badmouth them to our neighbors, who (not surprisingly) also agree with us. Another translation gets at this “hunter” mentality well:
Once beauty is identified as precious, Ugliness is seen everywhere.
Once the good is held up as an ideal, The commonplace is considered bad.
It is this exclusive side of dualistic thinking that can be the most dangerous. We have let our minds become conditioned to the point that we drive political and cultural opposites far apart in all things and start obsessing over the differences between them. It’s unhealthy, it’s pathological, and it’s straight-up “Satanic,” if we remember the “the Satan” actually literally means “the accuser.”
Dualistic thinking in itself isn’t the enemy - we need opposites to define things. Telling someone to take a left turn at the intersection to get to your house when it’s actually a right turn wouldn’t be very helpful. Binary thinking, however, can only take us as far as dividing things into good/bad, ugly/beautiful, holy/unholy, yes/no, and true/false. Therefore, it is too simplistic and immature to discuss things like human relationships and spirituality, because it cannot recognize the infinite number of degrees between the two opposites as well as the countless ways all of these qualities (and more) are interconnected. Richard Rohr summarizes this well,
We do need the dualistic mind to function in practical life and to do our work as a teacher, a nurse, a scientist, or an engineer. It’s helpful and fully necessary as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough. The dualistic mind cannot process things like infinity, mystery, God, grace, suffering, sexuality, death, or love; this is exactly why most people stumble over these very issues.
Rohr makes it clear that you cannot be either a non-dualist or a dualist - that’s just more dualism and binary thinking! Both ways of thinking have their proper place, but we have often reduced religion and spirituality to the dualistic realm of “thinking the right thoughts,” rather than the non-dual places of contemplation, relationship, and subtlety. In Western theology, “knowledge is power,” and although it is true that we need to worship with our minds as well as our hearts and souls, we tend to make a dualism between “head” and “heart” that ought not to exist.
Beware of categories.
As soon as you label something as beautiful,
you will begin to see ugly.
Call some better,
and you will define others as worth-less.
Draw a circle around us,
and you will see others as them.
Build a wall to create insiders,
and you will continue to cast more and more
over your walls until none are left,
except you alone.
(David Jones, The Way and the Word: The Tao of Jesus)
Marshall Davis says that in many ways, Christ transcends opposites. We must remind ourselves of the countless paradoxes in Christian theology. God is three-in-one and one-in-three. And as though that isn’t already complicated enough, somehow, God became human. In Christ, God is fully God and fully man at the same time. That’s a non-dual transcending of opposites if ever there was one.
The Kingdom of God is both here now and also yet to come. Theologians call this “inaugurated eschatology,” but it’s not just a made-up theological term: it’s what Jesus taught. He announced the Kingdom of God to be here “among us,” yet in another sense it has not yet arrived, so in the meantime we are “living into it” - and sometimes we’re not sure exactly what that means, but we believe it. There is no way for Christians to remove paradox and consolidate our answers into airtight logical answers without destroying the heart of our faith.
Should we deny the difference between good and evil?
You might be wondering, “Corey, are you saying we should just ignore any differences between good and evil and right and wrong? Are you saying that following Jesus doesn’t really matter? Jesus said whoever isn’t for me is against me, and he said you can’t serve two masters!”
I’m not denying that there is good and evil. I’m not saying that everything that happens is just “the way God wanted it.” There are clearly things that are undeniably, objectively evil and destructive. But I am saying that we need to think quite a bit about how we think - about politics, about religion, about other people, about ourselves and our own spirituality, and yes … about God.
Yes, Jesus said you can’t serve two masters, but the masters he was referring to were money and God. He wasn’t making a dualistic argument between two things here on earth, but instead saying that our purpose is to submit to God, and we can’t do that if we’re being mastered by anything here on Earth. And God’s deepest desire is to restore and reconcile all of Creation and all of humanity to himself, whether or not we choose to dualistically reject them.
And yes, Jesus is recorded in the gospel of Matthew as saying, “Whoever isn’t with me is against me.” But two other gospels, drawing from the exact same textual/oral source, have Jesus saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Talk about paradox.
An introduction to wu-wei
In the second half of chapter two, we’re introduced for the first time to the idea of wu wei, which is central to Taoist thought. It’s really hard to translate, but the most common translation is “acting without action.” At first glance, it might sound like “do nothing,” but this isn’t the case.
The wise person “acts without doing anything.” But what does this mean? There’s a really fantastic translation that says, the wise person “acts without struggle or coercion.” I think that’s it. It is an “action” that goes with the proper "flow" of things, as we talked about in the first episode, rather than one that is fighting against the way things are.
There’s a time to eat with the so-called sinners and tax collectors, and there’s a time to proclaim justice in the religious establishments. There’s a time to tell a woman caught in adultery to leave her life of sin - but that’s only after you put your own life on the line standing up for her against a crowd willing to stone her. (Click to share on Twitter)
The wise person shows also “teaches without saying anything” - or as one translation says, “teaches by example and allusion rather than rote and rule.” This reminds me of the famous quote, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” That’s kind of a Christian wu wei.
As I’ve said before, this does not mean we aren’t supposed to “swim upstream” or stand up for what is right or speak truth when the time comes - but in the TTC as well as in Jesus’ life, we see the importance of being aware of the right time to do so. There’s a time to eat with the so-called sinners and tax collectors, and there’s a time to proclaim justice in the religious establishments. There’s a time to tell a woman caught in adultery to leave her life of sin - but that’s only after you put your own life on the line standing up for her against a crowd willing to stone her. And for me, that’s one element of what wu wei is - waiting for the right time rather than trying to struggle and coerce your way into doing things.
The second element of wu wei is one we’ve already seen, and one that will come up over and over again throughout this series: The one who practices actionless action is one who does what needs to be done without any self-service. They don’t have goals of making a name for themselves or asking “what’s in it for me?” These three translations offer different angles on this idea:
The wise person accomplishes without taking credit.
When no credit is taken,
-Addiss and Stanley
They succeed but do not dwell on success
It is because they do not dwell on success
That it never goes away
Things come and he welcomes them. Things go and he bids them adieu. He helps with no expectation of gain, Works with no expectation of reward, Performs with no anticipation of results, Completes projects but takes no credit. Since he takes nothing from the World, The World takes nothing from him. And his impact upon the World long endures.
All of this is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
People filled with wu wei do not allow their desires to control them. They root out the kinds of obsessive thinking and mindless busyness that strive for financial prosperity, social status, recognition, power, and influence. They offer themselves in simplicity, not as a conniving strategy to “make it to the top.” They take nothing from the world, so the world takes nothing from them - and their impact upon the world long endures.