I was talking to my son Devon recently about Taoism and how many people, when they read some Taoist texts, automatically want to be the Sage. Devon’s comments really resonated and I asked him to do a shorty piece for the blog.
Check it out.
So You Wanna be a Sage…
Taoism, particularly in the hands of Chuang tzu, is unlike most other philosophical and religious doctrines in that it isn’t really a doctrine. It doesn’t set out to establish a school of thought or a movement.
Instead Chuang tzu seems to take questions, both esoteric and commonplace, essential and frivolous, and answer them with whimsical anecdotes about things that probably never happened. The style is itself part of the lesson. If one were to miss the point entirely and try to reason out what the most important principle of Taoism is, an argument could easily be made that first and foremost you must understand relativity.
If you begin reading with an eye for prioritizing, you will find that that is one of the first things called into question. If nothing else, Chuang tzu’s Taoism is an elaborate and extremely intricate Rosetta Stone for human pattern recognition. It strives to help us recognize and understand the patterns of thought that we cling to, the patterns inherent in the Universe and whenever possible it attempts to help us align our own patterns in a natural and coherent way with the patterns of everything else.
Chuang tzu endeavors to question some of the most thoroughly entrenched notions that human kind has come up with, one of which is the idea that we must place a value on everything.
The concept of abandoning subjective value repeats so often throughout the writings because valuation is so thoroughly entrenched in our patterns of thought and action, and yet it is one of the most limiting of concepts we’ve developed. You won’t find Chuang tzu claiming that to be a Sage (or to be a Taoist, for that matter) is inherently better or worse than anything else. To assume that one way of being is right and another is wrong only limits your perception and traps you in a singular mindset.
This is the opposite of the desired outcome. Through several anecdotes he reiterates that each thing finds balance in its own lifestyle, and to try to force one thing to be like another is foolishness that will only cause imbalance and suffering. To tell a a person that they must go out and become a Sage would do as much good as to yell at a caterpillar to hurry up and become a butterfly. Instead he explains what a Sage is like in comparison to a normal person, and allows the reader to decide for themself whether they believe it would be better to be a Sage. Implicit is the idea that trying to make one thing into something else can be futile and/or dangerous, however you can help a thing to grow into the most balanced version of itself.
Rather than trying to establish a rigid doctrine of thought or action through which we can become “better”, Chuang tzu tries to trick our minds off their well worn paths and into the strange new areas where unknown truths lie.
Rather than telling us how we should be, he asks us to come with him on a fun little journey. While on that journey, we ask ourselves at each step whether or not we are willing to take the necessary leaps of consciousness to continue following him. We are not being told to change, but instead being given happy incentive to continuously change our perspective of our own volition. Rather than claiming to hold dominion over the most powerful and important information, Chuang tzu is simply trying to answer questions that he has been asked or has asked himself.
How does one obtain supreme tranquility and balance with the Universe? Oh, that’s easy. Just accept everything for what it is and do not believe you must force it to be something that it isn’t. Next question. In this fashion he treats a question that some would consider to be the pinnacle of enlightenment with the same importance as deciding what type of soup to have with dinner. Again, the method is part of the answer. Placing supreme and undue importance on the question you are already distancing yourself from it, objectifying it, creating a barrier of thought between yourself and the Universe around you.
A Sage isn’t an inherently better person, but their method of aligning themselves with the Universe has many facets that could be considered advantageous. Some of said facets could be seen as answers to certain questions that people have been asking themselves for many years, such as that pesky “LIfe is suffering” quandary. Be a regular person until you get tired of what that has to offer. When you’re ready for what comes next, just ask the next question.