A very bland episode (chapters 34-35)


Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.


Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.


So please check out the podcast - and don't forget to subscribe and share. If you love the content here, please consider becoming part of the community by supporting the CRTTC on Patreon.

Although the Tao te Ching is not a so-called “Christian” book, this series has shown that it’s not only possible to read it as a Jesus follower, but it’s edifying to do so. There is so much general spiritual and relational wisdom that doesn’t need to be tied to doctrines at all. There are also parts where echoes of Christian belief can be drawn out. Sections like this one from chapter 41 fit into both of those categories.


The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,


Because sometimes it’s as much about un-knowing and unlearning old things as it is about knowing and learning new ones. Jesus often flipped our preconceptions right on their heads, saying things like, “You have heard it said this way, but I am telling you it’s actually so much bigger and deeper than you first thought.”


the direct path seems long,


Because the journey of spiritual insight isn’t an easy journey or a popular one. Jesus talked about the way to learning the Kingdom of God as a narrow one that is more difficult to walk.


true power seems weak,


Because it comes from giving up control and learning to adapt, refusing to put yourself on display and live in pride. This one’s obvious: when the greatest display of God’s power and love comes in the form of a crucifixion, then clearly we are dealing with paradox!


true purity seems tarnished,


Because it often rejects conforming to the sake of ethical systems that don’t really bring life. Jesus spent time with the unclean and rejected, causing people to call him unclean because of it.


true steadfastness seems changeable,


Because we need to learn to adapt to new situations to best remain faithful to those around us. God’s response to humanity’s brokenness wasn’t a rigid and unrelenting adherence to an earlier plan. Although we can’t fully understand why or how or what was really going on in the divine mind, it is clear that Jesus is a rather different manifestation of the divine plan for humanity than what we see in earlier parts of the story.


true clarity seems obscure,


Because a glimpse into the deepest parts of human spirituality (our True Self) or the connectedness of all things brings profound insight and inscrutable mystery at the same time. Jesus was frequently misunderstood and written off, and all of the times he revealed himself to his followers after his resurrection, they failed to even recognize him at first.


the greatest form has no shape,


Because only things that can change shape, like water and air, are able to fit into all places at all times. Mental constructs and categories can be useful, but they can also become like old wineskins, stretched and brittle to the point of easily breaking if new wine is poured into them.


the greatest wisdom seems childish.


Because it’s easy to write off paradox and non-dualistic thinking as nothing more than intellectual immaturity. The early church said that the wisdom of the cross seemed like foolishness to the world, because who could have ever come up with the idea of a god expressing love and strength through death and weakness?


And yet it is this journey of paradox that brings us life, putting us back in touch with the deepest parts of human spirituality, because that is how we are designed to work. That is the way that our minds, our bodies, and our souls work together both within us and with all of the world around us.



In today’s episode, I’ll be looking at chapters 34, 35, and 41. Although these chapters rehearse a lot of the paradox of the Tao that we’ve heard before, there are two new concepts that come into play here that actually seem to contradict each other at first, but end up reconciling in an interesting way. The first is that the one centered in Tao draws all things and all people to him or herself; the second is that words about the Tao seem bland, tasteless, and even foolish. Because there were no chapter numbers in the TTC originally, I have chosen to include the first few lines of chapter 35 (which I marked below) in this section, since I think they actually fit better with this theme.


[34: Stephen Mitchell]

The great Tao flows everywhere.

All things are born from it,

yet it doesn’t create them.

It pours itself into its work,

yet it makes no claim.


It nourishes infinite worlds,

yet it doesn’t hold on to them.

Since it is merged with all things

and hidden in their hearts,

it can be called humble.

Since all things vanish into it

and it alone endures,

it can be called great.


It isn’t aware of its greatness;

thus it is truly great

[35: Gia-fu Feng]]

All men will come to him who keeps to the one,

For there lie rest and happiness and peace.


They will draw all things to themselves


Chapter 34 should sound very familiar at this point if you’ve been listening or reading along with me. It rehearses many of the themes we’ve seen before from a slightly different angle, which I cover in the podcast. However, we have two totally new teachings today - both of which, in classic nondualistic fashion, seem to totally contradict each other at first.


In the beginning of chapter 35, we have a fascinating line that tells us something we haven’t heard before. In their greatness, wise people draw all things to themselves, somewhat similar to how all things are drawn back to the Tao. How do they do this? By finding rest, contentment, and peace. This is a surprising assertion, though, given everything that Lao Tzu said in chapter 20 about how unassuming, misunderstood, overlooked, and rejected he has been as someone in touch with the Tao. Why is he now saying that this kind of person actually draws all things and even all people to himself or herself?


All men will come to him who keeps to the one,

-Translator: Gia-fu Feng


She who follows the way of the Tao

will draw the world to her steps.

-Translator: J.H. McDonald


Hold fast to the great image and all under heaven will come;

They will come but not be harmed, rest in safety and peace;

-Translator: Victor Mair


When you get right with Tao,

everybody wants to be your friend.

When they’re around you,

they can relax and enjoy themselves.

-Translator: Ron Hogan


Marshall Davis takes this and interprets it from a Christian perspective in a way that sounds very similar to Saint Francis’ famous quote, “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” He writes,


The one who truly follows Christ

Will draw people unto Him

Without speaking a word.

-Translator: Marshall Davis


The bland and tasteless Tao


It’s a beautiful image. The peace and harmony and centeredness of someone in connection with Tao (or with God’s creative Spirit and with Christ himself) will draw people in. But if we keep reading to the second half of chapter 35, which in my opinion is a better place for the chapter break, the tone changes quickly. Even though we were just told that all things are drawn to the one centered in the Tao, suddenly Lao Tzu shifts gears and starts talking about just how unappealing and “bland” it is. After his brief exultation in how all things are drawn to you, suddenly we’re back where we were in chapter 20, where everyone else acts like they’re having fun at a party, but Lao Tzu describes himself as empty, aimless, and expressionless.


While chapter 20 focused on how difficult it is to be different from others around you, this part of chapter 35 seems to indicate how difficult it is to communicate (or maybe explain?) the Tao - and even when you can communicate it, how unappealing it can often seem. Victor Mair’s translation says:


Music and fine food will make the passerby halt.

Therefore,

When the Way is expressed verbally,

We say such things as

“how bland and tasteless it is!”

“We look for it, but there is not enough to be seen.”

“We listen for it, but there is not enough to be heard.”

Yet, when put to use, it is inexhaustible!

-Translator: Victor Mair


In other words, getting people to think from a Taoist perspective isn’t exactly an “easy sell”. Street vendors and musicians draw attention and entertain people. Street preachers, even when they’re obnoxious, at least have something substantial and clear to say. But walking in the Tao is about oneness, connectedness, holding our desires loosely, becoming adaptable and going with the flow, not grasping or fighting too hard to force things to be the way we want them to be. It’s not an ideology - in some ways it’s a rejection of all ideologies. How do you sell that?


Well, you don’t. If you get the idea that a Taoist perspective should be preached or “sold”, then you’re off on the wrong foot. It’s something I’ve had to wrestle with as I prepare this series. I’m not here to teach or preach, I’m here to share and observe, because to do anything else would be totally contradictory to what Lao Tzu says the Tao is all about.


I think this is a big part of how we should understand this chapter. It doesn’t actually say that the Tao is boring and tasteless; it says that when we try to describe it, put words to it, or express it verbally, then it seems bland and tasteless to us. It’s not something that can be preached. It doesn’t have a statement of faith or a list of doctrines. All it is is a perspective shift, which is one reason why it’s so easy to bring into dialogue with my life as a Jesus follower.


The reason it can seem so bland is that we live in a world of overstimulation. If you remember back in episode 9, we talked about what Lao Tzu calls the five colors, the five sounds, and the five tastes. He uses this language to refer to the overload of sensory stimulation we are faced with and how more isn’t always better, because of the law of diminishing returns - it always takes more and more to get us the same pleasure as we experienced in the beginning. In contrast, chapter 35 says that when we look for Tao, there is nothing to be seen; and when we listen for Tao, there is nothing to be heard.


This may be one of the things that makes a Taoist outlook on life so needed. If Lao Tzu thought his world was dealing with overstimulation, our world would probably make his brain explode. It’s actually making all of our brain slowly explode - we just don’t realize it. We’re like the frogs in the proverbial pot of water that is slowly rising one degree at a time until we are boiled to death. This so-called bland and tasteless Tao may be exactly what we need to get a perspective shift.


Putting the Tao to use


This chapter is another one of those times we hear Lao Tzu talk about putting the Tao to “use”. I don’t think I’ve ever actually addressed what this means in this series, partially because I haven’t been entirely sure! It can’t be named, tasted, or seen. It seems bland and dull the more words we put to it. It highlights only paradox and interconnectedness. So how do we put it to use? The last line of chapter 35 says:


When put to use, it is inexhaustible!

-Translator: Victor Mair


But no matter how much you use,

there’s still plenty left.

-Translator: Ron Hogan


When I was preparing for this episode and asking myself what it means to “put the Tao to use”, it occurred to me that it might just be considered a lifelong and all-encompassing practice of mindfulness meditation - doing our best to become fully in touch with our surroundings, our feelings, and the people around us. The one who is still and peaceful enough to not get sucked in by all the insanity and stress in this world is able to be a presence of peace and comfort; and this is the way in which they draw all things to themselves!


The peace and harmony and stillness I’ve learned from studying the Tao te Ching hasn’t turned me into a boring, lifeless bump on a log; but it has radically transformed my perspective on life and other people. I’ve learned to listen better and be present to others, even though my natural personality is actually quite loud and crazy.


The problem is that it can be very difficult to actually hear this message. This is the point of chapter 41, which I cover in the podcast, but had to cut here due to limitations of space. I think it is a great way to end this blog post, though. My hope is that, by reading and learning from the Tao te Ching, all of us are able to become what Lao Tzu calls “superior” men (and women!).


When a superior man hears of the Tao,

he immediately begins to embody it.

When an average man hears of the Tao,

he half believes it, half doubts it.

When a foolish man hears of the Tao,

he laughs out loud.

If he didn’t laugh,

it wouldn’t be the Tao.


Thus it is said:

The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long,

true power seems weak,

true purity seems tarnished,

true steadfastness seems changeable,

true clarity seems obscure,

the greatest art seems unsophisticated,

the greatest love seems indifferent,

the greatest wisdom seems childish.


The Tao is nowhere to be found.

Yet it nourishes and completes all things.

-Translator: Stephen Mitchell



©2019 by Corey Farr.