The Amazing Cynicism of the Tao Teh King

In Search of Tranquility

I occasionally see world weary westerners traipsing down Regent Street in loose robes and sandals chanting ‘Hare Krishna’, apparently believing that this would ease their existential angst, or, better still, solve all their problems – I blame the Beatles. Personally, I’ve never yet felt tempted to sing ‘Hare Krishna’; mainly because it’s somebody else’s cultural background and I’ve got a perfectly serviceable one of my own. Even so – and despite the Beatles – I recognise that the East has much to offer us.

Today's Pointless Generalisation

As is well-known, East and West have a vastly different mentality and this includes coping mechanisms. Historically, in the East people learned how to rise mentally above their troubles; in the West we learned how to end them. (Typically with a sword in hand.)

Having recently reached the point at work where I either needed to learn to rise above things or quit on the spot, I decided to cast a swift glance over at what the East had to offer – in addition to traipsing around in loose robes and flapping sandals, that is…

The Amazing Cynicism of the Tao Teh King

I reached for the Tao Teh King, the basis of Taoism, long on my pile of things to read.

Unfortunately, while Lao Tse, the 6th century B.C. author, offered lots of useful advice on how to get on in life, especially if you’re on top of the banana tree, he was less outspoken on how to rise above human strife and worldly ambition or how to achieve a serene equilibrium if you’re a miserable monkey pelted with rotten fruit from the top of the said banana tree.

In fact, the Tao Teh King, contrary to its reputation, is an amazingly cynical book in places, quite on par with the much maligned Machiavelli.

I’d particularly like to draw your attention to this bit:

Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore, the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their belllies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.

He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.

Tao Teh King 3:1-3

“Panem et circenses,” as the Romans later (rather more succinctly) put it.

A Little Zen Garden

Miniture Zen Garden. Photo by marcovincenti via Pixabay [public domain].
Since the Tao Teh King clearly wasn’t what I needed, I moved on to Zen instead. Being unfamiliar with any books on the subject, I was reduced to googling Zen sayings, in the course of which I found out that you can buy cute miniature Zen gardens for your desk, complete with a little gong that you can beat and a tiny rake to rake the white sand into patterns.

I was quite seduced by the little Zen garden, actually. I fancied beating the little gong every now and then as a way of expressing my mental anguish. Raking the white sand into patterns also struck me as much easier and much more spiritual – but just as therapeutic – than weeding our back garden: I was sold. The trouble is you can’t have a little Zen garden on your desk in our house; Young Friend of the Elephants would rake all the sand out of it on the first day.

I began to think that perhaps Eastern philosophy wasn’t meant for me and I had better stick to the Western way of solving problems. (Minus the sword, obviously.)

I went and got myself a new job instead of a tiny Zen garden.


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