Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.
If these three aren’t enough,
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking the last couple of days about what happens when we forget the great Tao; or, to put it another way, we lose touch with the eternal reality. Having forgotten, or lost, our intuitive connectedness, we tend to substitute other things to fill the vacuum that has been created. Lao Tzu has been saying all along that the art of living involves knowing what to hold on to, and what to let go of. Some of the things that we need to let go of, are so toxic to us that Lao Tzu encourages us to not just let go of them. Instead, suggesting we throw them away. That is what today’s chapter is all about.
What is the art of living all about? It is being in harmony with the eternal reality. When you think about it as people losing touch with reality, I think it makes it very easy to understand. There is an eternal reality. That is what Lao Tzu is talking about. He calls it the Tao, for lack of a better name. What causes us problems in this world is when we are living our lives out of touch with that reality. The Tao manifests itself to us in the form of natural laws which govern the way the Universe works. Humans are going to act according to human nature. Just like every being in the Universe acts according to its nature. From the simplest form of life, to the most complex. To suggest otherwise, is not to understand how the Universe works.
Lao Tzu has a keen appreciation for human nature. Because his audience is humans, it is appropriate. So, everything that we read in the Tao Te Ching, needs to be understood in the context of someone who is merely pointing out how humans are naturally going to be. I have said before that we ignore this at our own peril.
Lao Tzu is teaching the art of contentment. He understands that people who are left alone to do what comes naturally to them, are going to be happy people. Whereas, people whose freedom to do what comes naturally to them is restricted for whatever reason, are not going to be happy.
Likewise, Lao Tzu has a very high opinion of us humans. He believes that we can be trusted to do the right thing. That what makes people untrustworthy is that they aren’t trusted.
Lao Tzu’s rules for the art of governing are really quite simple. It all comes down to trusting the people and not trying to control them. When I first encountered this principle in the Tao Te Ching, it immediately struck me how very libertarian this was. That was the initial attraction for me toward philosophical Taoism.
Today, Lao Tzu is pointing out three things we need to throw away; if we, as humans, are going to be happy and do the right thing. Perhaps, throwing away these three things seems a drastic measure. But, let me remind you that the last two chapters have covered the problems we have created for ourselves by forgetting the great Tao. And the myriad illusions we substitute for the eternal reality. Things have gotten rather desperate. And desperate times call for drastic measures.
However, I am certain that at least one of these throwaways is going to be a little bit too dear to you; and you won’t be so eager to want to discard it. I understand, I have my own pet things I am longing to hold on to. Is it holiness and wisdom? Or morality and justice? Or, my personal bugaboo, industry and profit? What is it you can’t let go of, let alone, throw away?
Lao Tzu has specific reasons for wanting to throw them all away. He wants us happy. Or, as he puts it, “a hundred times happier.” He trusts that people will do the right thing, if only we will trust them and leave them to their own devices. And finally, Lao Tzu believes that the problem of thieves can be dealt with at the root of the problem.
There is something else which it is important that we understand about these three things to be thrown away. And, that is that they aren’t the eternal reality. I have to keep reminding myself about this; because I, too, forget. Holiness and wisdom, morality and justice, industry and profit. They all seem so very important in so many different ways. But they are nothing more than wisps of vapor. Their importance is nothing but an illusion. And, relying on an illusion is not relying on the eternal reality, the Tao.
Understanding that, I am finding it much easier to trust that Lao Tzu is right when he says that holiness and wisdom are keeping us from being as happy as we can be. That morality and justice don’t make people do the right thing. And, that the global economy with its state-enforced monopolies is the breeding ground of thieves.
Still, I get it. These can be tough to throw away. Yet, Lao Tzu isn’t sure these measures, drastic as they may be, will be enough. That is why, in addition to giving us things to let go of, or throw away, he gives us something to hold on to. Hold onto the center of the circle. Stay at the center of the circle. And let all things take their course. That is really what the Tao Te Ching is all about. Just stay centered, and let things take their course. Don’t interfere with nature. Cooperate with nature, and nature will cooperate with you.