The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.
If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
For the last couple of chapters, we seem to have taken a break from Lao Tzu’s teachings on the art of governing. But, have we? Lao Tzu certainly didn’t mention governing, specifically, in the last two chapters; but, his teaching on the practice of doing without doing is definitely something I wish would-be leaders would take to heart. Just imagine a world where our leaders let go of the will to power, the will to intervene, interfere, and try to control. A world with leaders, who would be content to serve as an example of how to follow the Tao. Imagining that kind of world, would be a step toward bringing it about.
Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter by talking about the leaders of long, long ago. How long ago? Well, Lao Tzu lived around 600 B.C.E., and these Masters were ancient to him.
He said, they “didn’t try to educate people, but kindly taught them to not-know.”
By that, I think, he means, they didn’t try to tell people what to know. Instead, they taught them how to know. This shows how doing without doing and knowing without knowing work together in both the art of governing, and the art of living.
People who think they know the answers are difficult to guide.
And that, my friends, is the true role of leaders in government. They are supposed to be guides, not rulers. But, how can leaders guide us, if we don’t know we don’t know. If we think we already have all the answers, we won’t look, we won’t listen, and we won’t learn. It is the very thing I keep reminding the seven year old girl I teach every day. “Aliza, you have to look and listen, if you want to learn.”
Saying, “I know, I know” is anathema to any possibility of learning.
And, for those who think Lao Tzu is just wanting ignorant, easily manipulated people, for our leaders to govern, he goes on to say, “When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way.”
This kind of governing takes patience. You can’t give up on the people, deciding they will never know what is best for themselves, that you must force them to do the right thing.
This is why we keep calling this kind of governing, an art. You need to be a Master to govern the people.
It has been a very, very long time since we have had leaders like these ancient Masters. For some time now, our leaders have been rulers. And, our governments are very much involved in trying to educate the people. They want a particular outcome in education. They want people who are smart enough to work the machines, but not too smart; lest they start to question the authority of their “leaders”. They want you to know what you are supposed to know. But, don’t dare start thinking independently. That will get you treated for a mental illness, or locked up in a re-education facility.
In short, the ancient Masters wanted the people to think and do for themselves. If the people would only follow their example, the ancient Masters would show them the way. But, in a way that the people found on their own.
I know we seem to be a long, long way from realizing the kind of governing that Lao Tzu was promoting. I asked, in the first paragraph of this commentary, for you to imagine that kind of world. The number one problem I encounter, as I promote my libertarian taoist philosophy, is people who lack imagination. People have become so inured to our present system, they can’t imagine what it would be like to live without the chains.
My approach in “educating” people has to be to kindly teach them to not-know. They think they already have all the answers; and the government is always the answer. Until they know they don’t know, they will never get to a place where they can begin to imagine anything beyond their finite and temporal reality.
So, we need leaders who will avoid being clever or rich.
They need to avoid being clever, because you can’t very well show people they don’t know, when you think you know. With the little girl I teach, I am always answering her questions with “I don’t know, but here is how to discover the solution for ourselves.”
They need to avoid being rich, because riches insulate them from the simple and ordinary life with which we all should be content. Simple and ordinary, here, doesn’t mean what you may think it means. It isn’t dull; it is imaginative, because it isn’t confined to the finite and temporal reality. There are no limits to the infinite and eternal reality we tap into, by being content with a simple and ordinary life. By being content with a simple and ordinary life, you tap into a life of extraordinary ease.
The simplest pattern is the clearest. But, often, we are just too darn clever for our own good. We can’t see it, though it would be clear, if we were only to take a step back, and stop relying on our own knowledge.
If our leaders were content with an ordinary life, they could show all people the way back to their own true nature.
What is our true nature? It is an inquisitive nature. One that is always asking questions. One that is always imagining, and dreaming, of the infinite and eternal reality beyond the finite and temporal one we perceive with our senses. It is one that is never satisfied with the limits others might wish to impose.
Since we can’t expect any of our would-be rulers to be these kinds of guides, let’s aspire to be the leaders we know the world needs.