Chapter 41 – If You Don’t Laugh at the Tao, at Least Laugh at Yourself
When the highest type of men hear Tao,
They diligently practice it.
When the average type of men hear Tao,
They half believe in it.
When the lowest type of men hear Tao,
They laugh heartily at it.
If they did not laugh at it, it would not be Tao.
Therefore there is the established saying:
The Tao which is bright appears to be dark.
The Tao which goes forward appears to fall backward.
The Tao which is level appears uneven.
Great virtue appears like a valley (hollow).
Great purity appears like disgrace.
Far-reaching virtue appears as if insufficient.
Solid virtue appears as if unsteady.
True substance appears to be changeable.
The great square has no corners.
The great implement (or talent) is slow to finish (or mature).
Great music sounds faint.
Great form has no shape.
Tao is hidden and nameless.
Yet it is Tao alone that skillfully provides for all and brings them to perfection.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
A man’s dog had wandered away. After the pooch had failed to return home for two days, the man decided he should place an ad in the newspaper. After two more days he told his wife that the ad did not seem to be working. “What did you say in the ad?” his wife asked. He replied, “It just said, ‘Here, Boy!’”
If you didn’t laugh at that one, it is not the Tao – or so says Lao Tzu in this chapter. Yet we know that everything is of the Tao, and the Tao is in everything. You know what that means, don’t you? It means you need to read the previous paragraph once again, and try to laugh this time. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
We are told in this chapter that when men hear Tao, the lowest type laugh at it, while the highest type of men diligently practice it. I feel pretty certain that a part of the diligent practice is to go ahead and laugh with the lowest bunch – though the sage laughs at himself, and not at the concept or at others. In the Taoist classics, the most obvious exemplar of this idea is probably Chuang Tzu. I would like to share a few stories that have been attributed to him:
It was said that as Chuang Tzu was out fishing one day he was approached by two emissaries of the ruler. They told him that his wisdom was held in great esteem at the royal court, so the prince had decided to appoint him prime minister. In reply, Chuang Tzu said he had heard that at the palace there was a 3,000 year old turtle shell that had been sanctified, wrapped in silk, and placed on an altar as an object of veneration. “Is it better,” he asked, “to be the object of that worship or to be a turtle here at the river dragging its tail through the mud?” One of the emissaries replied that the turtle itself would most certainly rather live than die so that others might use its shell for ritual. “Well then,” said Chuang Tzu, “tell the prince I will stay here and drag my tail through this mud.”
When Chuang Tzu was nearing the end of his life, his disciples began to plan an elaborate funeral, but he told them just to leave his body out in nature. Then heaven and earth would be his coffin and the stars and planets would be always present as mourners. His followers replied, “But we fear that crows and kites would then devour our Master’s body.” “If you bury me,” said Chuang Tzu, “the body will be eaten by worms and ants. Why do you prefer the one over the other?”
Finally, consider Chuang Tzu’s explanation of a part of his teachings, as translated by Burton Watson:
Now I am going to make a statement here. I don’t know if it fits into the category of other people’s statements or not. But whether it fits into their category or whether it doesn’t, it obviously fits into some category. So in that respect it is no different from their statements. However let me try making my statement.
There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.
Ok, so who’s on first?
To this point, we have talked about the highest type of men and the lowest type. What about the average man who half believes when he hears Tao? That would be the rest of us – and for us, I would suggest a simple exercise:
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. We need to remember that much or we will never understand that other half of Tao.
We should also remember the advice of Ram Dass to be here now. Then we can be somewhere else later, if necessary.
Before I go, do you know what they call an alligator wearing a vest?
That would be an investigator.