Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, Patience, Compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
(Tao Te Ching chapter 67, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
In an earlier chapter Lao Tzu talked a bit about different reactions to philosophical Taoism. He said when superior people hear of the Tao, they immediately begin to embody it. The average person half believes it and half doubts it. And the fool? They laugh out loud. Lao Tzu was not bothered by the fool’s reaction. He simply said that if the fool didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t be the Tao. I immediately thought of that as I was reading today’s chapter.
Some people are simply not going to “get” Lao Tzu’s teaching. To them, it is nonsense. Others call it lofty, but impractical. Honestly, I don’t know whether that reaction is much better than simply calling it nonsense. By dismissing it as idealistic and impractical, it is going to be hard for us to go on with dialogue.
And dialogue is what I want. I know I put out this monologue each and every day with each new installment from the Tao Te Ching. But I don’t want it to remain just monologue. What I am hoping for is to get my readers thinking. And responding. Oh, you don’t have to send me a message. That isn’t what I really mean by dialogue. What I want you to do is to look inside yourself; and see if this nonsense doesn’t make perfect sense. What I want is for you to put it into practice in your own life; and find that this loftiness has roots that go deep. If you do that, then I have achieved exactly what I have wanted to achieve.
Lao Tzu says that he has just three things to teach. He considers them so important that he calls them your three greatest treasures. These three treasures are simplicity, patience, and compassion. Because he places such a high value on each of them, I am going to take them one at a time.
First treasure, simplicity. What does Lao Tzu mean by simplicity? He wants us to be simple in our actions and in our thoughts. Lao Tzu understood it back in 400 B.C.E., and it is still true today; we expend a lot of time and energy trying to simplify. But our efforts only seem to make things for us more, rather than less, complex. But complexity is not going to help us along our journey, our return to the source of being. Complexity only serves to confound us. Lao Tzu has an interesting solution for us. Instead of trying to simplify, just be simple. Be simple in your actions. Don’t try to do something to make your actions more simple. Just be simple. Be simple in your thoughts. Don’t try to think how can I keep this simple. Just be simple. Perhaps I am making this too complicated. See how that is done? We are talking about returning to the source of being. Being. Not doing. Where things get complicated is in the doing. And in trying to explain it, I am making it complicated. But it isn’t complicated. It really is simple. Just be. Relax. Just be. Simple.
Second treasure, patience. Let’s keep this simple. We wouldn’t want to discard our first treasure while trying to reach for the next. Lao Tzu puts it simply. Be patient with both friend and foe. Let’s not complicate things by trying to figure out whether we should or should not be patient with our enemies as well as our friends. Lao Tzu is wanting us to accord with the way things are. We have talked at length about the way things are. This is the eternal reality. What is true, regardless of what our senses may tell us to the contrary. What is true, regardless of how convincing the illusion may seem to be. We want to be in accord with the way things are. And that requires that we have our treasure, patience. Patience with our friends who mean us well, and our enemies that mean us harm. Being in accord with the way things are means being patient with everyone, regardless of their intentions.
Third treasure, compassion. Lao Tzu has one goal when it comes to this third treasure. The reconciliation of all beings in the world. But, as is usually the case with Lao Tzu, he doesn’t go the direction we expect him to go, in order to achieve the goal. When we think of compassion we think of directing it outward toward others. That does sound noble, doesn’t it? And Lao Tzu is certainly thinking about others when he is talking about reconciliation. But he doesn’t want us directing our compassion outwards, at all. He wants us to be compassionate toward ourselves. What was he saying about nonsense, earlier? No, come back here, we are going to keep this simple. When we try to direct our compassion outwards, we start making things complicated. How exactly do I express compassion to others? What is compassionate to one is something else entirely to another. I wanted to bring about reconciliation and all I have managed to do is make a gigantic mess of things. Now, they aren’t even speaking to each other anymore. And before I interfered, they were getting along so well. Lao Tzu has very good reason for wanting us to direct our compassion inward, toward ourselves. He wants to keep it simple.
I am thinking about an old song that wasn’t so old when I was young. Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. Lao Tzu didn’t write that song. Though he may have been the inspiration for it. If you are going to live to see the reconciliation of all beings in the world, it will begin with you being compassionate toward yourself. We tend to be our own worst critic, our own worst enemy. But as long as we are at odds with who we are, the whole world is irreconcilable It starts with me. It begins now.