When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
When the body’s intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 18, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
For some of my newer followers, I want to remind you all what is meant when Lao Tzu refers to the Tao. Or in this case, the great Tao. First, Tao is just the name he gives it, for lack of a better word. But what is it? It is the eternal reality. The way things are. Every day, I remind myself that the way things are is the way things are. This isn’t said with resignation on my part. That would imply that there is something horribly wrong with the way things are. And that is not the case, at all.
Lao Tzu, throughout his Tao Te Ching, contrasts the way things are with the way things appear to be. The eternal reality vs. the illusion which masquerades as truth. And today’s chapter gives us the opportunity to spot the reasons behind those illusions masquerading as truth.
He says that the illusion is there because the great Tao is forgotten. That is what he means when he talks about goodness and piety appearing. The great Tao hasn’t gone anywhere. It is still exactly what and where it has always been. But when we forget that the way things are is the way things are, then we start substituting for the apparently “missing” reality.
It is like the act of forgetting causes a vacuum or void which must be filled with something, anything; just as long as we fill that hole. The allure of the illusion is only valid because the Tao has been forgotten.
Goodness and piety might not seem like such bad things on the surface. But they ain’t nothing like the real thing. And they simply won’t fill that hole, that void, that was created by forgetting the Tao.
It is like a chain reaction is caused by this great loss. Lao Tzu says that the body’s intelligence will decline. What does he mean by that? I believe what he means by body intelligence is our own intuitive connection with the Tao. Not just our bodies but our whole beings’ ability to go with the flow of the way things are. Things that once came so easily to us, now require something extra that we have never had to rely on before. And cleverness and knowledge step forth to “help” us along.
I put help in scare quotes because they are as helpful as any government bureaucrat. Oh, you mean to tell me, Chuck, that cleverness and knowledge are not good? Yes, that is exactly what I mean to tell you. They ain’t nothing like the real thing. You will just keep declining. Substituting more and more cleverness and knowledge, all along the way; and to no avail.
And when the great Tao is forgotten, it doesn’t just affect individuals. Soon, there is no peace in the family.
No peace in the family? Well, we can’t have that. Filial piety begins. Filial piety may not be a familiar term to the Western mind, so I will tell you exactly what Lao Tzu means by that.
Filial piety speaks of duty and devotion. In China, family ties were sacred. For Lao Tzu, family ties came naturally. That is the way it is when people are in harmony with the way things are. There are no duties to perform, or rules to follow. Families in harmony with the Tao just naturally do what families do. But when the Tao is lost, chaos ensues. Family ties are still there, yes. But now, they are a burden, a duty. Rules are established and enforced. All in the name of keeping peace within the family.
We are all familiar with these duties. The duty of a father to provide for his family. The duty of a mother to care for her children. The duty of children to respect their parents. And let’s not forget the duty of wives to honor and obey their husbands. Duty and devotion, forced and contrived. Odd and unnatural. Because of the chaos created by having forgotten the Tao, the illusion arises to fill the great hole. We must keep up the pretense of order and peace in our homes.
But of course, it doesn’t stop there. The loss of the Tao affects the entire country, as it falls into chaos. There is great turmoil in the country. The people are unsettled. In the absence of the Tao, self-rule is simply not going to be allowed. Rulers, who only wish to maintain their control, and who surround themselves with sycophants, will rally the confused masses of people to some cause. Patriotism is born and flourishes in the absence of the Tao.
The powers that be (remember this is all an illusion) must maintain order. There is a call of duty to one’s country. Some enemy must be contrived, for we all need to get behind some common purpose. And fighting some common enemy that doesn’t quite look like us or act like us, is as good a reason as will ever be found.
Those that question the motives or the purpose will be labeled heretics or terrorists; it all means the same thing. If order is to be restored we must unite as a nation and fight our common enemy. All misgivings and dissent must be silenced. We need to support our government. Our president. Our troops. And off to war we go.
And all because the great Tao was forgotten. We aren’t in harmony with the way things are. And the illusion rears its ugly head.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. That is why I take time each and every day to remind myself that the way things are is the way things are. I pause and reflect on the natural order of the Universe. I observe its ebb and flow. I remember the Tao.
And together we will create a much better world in which to live.