I never met Lao Tzu either, but I have spent a fair bit of time with his words, or, at least, with a variety of translations of them. I’ve also enjoyed spending some time with his history and legend. Like other mystics and philosophers of his period (Jesus, Socrates, Buddha), his story is as fascinating as his teachings. And, also like them, his influence remains broad and deep to the present day, though often misunderstood and misrepresented (fortunately, with less catastrophic effect than the teachings of either Jesus or Socrates).
Lao Tzu’s words can be pretty difficult to wrap a Western, science-educated mind around (my own struggle is continuous), beginning with understanding the term “the Tao” itself. Taoism’s conception of “The Way,” the usual translation of Tao, is no more animistic and supernatural than the The Laws of Thermodynamics — which is to say, not at all. Indeed, “Tao” has much more in common with modern science and philosophy than might be apparent from the mystical-seeming language of Lao Tzu’s text. That is because, like scientists and philosophers, Lao Tzu was completely concerned with how things are rather than how we desire things to be or how we deceive ourselves into perceiving things we believe.
For an example, let’s go back to physics and Newton’s Third Law of Motion which is formally stated as: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is a fundamental pattern of existence. Apply a force to something, it will respond with an equal and opposite force. If I go through life in accordance with this pattern of existence, I will inherently understand and anticipate the consequences of the forces I apply to any object. If I don’t live in accordance with Newton’s Third Law, I will often be surprised and disappointed by the outcomes of my actions, perhaps catastrophically so.
Patterns of existence.
The holy grail of physics is the as yet undiscovered Grand Unifying Theory. Theoretical physicists are pretty sure there is one, but haven’t been able to put it to numbers (and words). With such a theory, physicists would be able to understand, explain (and discover) all patterns of existence — all physical phenomena — occurring in the physical universe.
Heady stuff. With such knowledge in hand, the previously unimaginable becomes possible and we would be able to determine if our dreams were plausible; we would truly be masters of the universe.
“The Way”, another pattern of existence, is oft-times described as “nature” or “the natural order”. The Tao te Ching is certainly filled with references to natural patterns, however, Lao Tzu’s real interest is in the experience of being human, or as some have poetically put it, the art of living. Throughout the text, he employs familiar natural patterns of existence as metaphors and similes to evoke insight into human experience, thought and action — human patterns of existence. How we love. How we act. How we think. How we lead. How we follow. How we destroy. How we create.
I think of “The Way” — the Tao — not as a mystical animistic force to be mastered and directed but rather as a sort of grand unifying pattern of existence. Perhaps… the Grand Pattern of Existence.
Also heady stuff. If I can grasp this pattern, then I can always act and think in accordance with it. I will be able to master the art of living. When Lao Tzu uses the title “Master” in his text, this is the type and level of insight he refers to. No one controls or directs the Tao or the flow of existence. One either lives in accordance with it, or does not. A Master is a master of nothing but him or herself, and has mastered themselves in so much as they have placed their actions and thought in accordance with the way things are.
Trying to understand the true nature of reality, the underlying patterns of all existence, is fundamentally the same objective as Western science and philosophy. What differs between the Taoist and the scientist or philosopher, markedly, are methodology, language and purpose. But that’s a can of worms for another day.
British Columbia, Canada
Taken last night, 2016