Chapter 19 – Go with the Flow
Banish wisdom, discard knowledge,
And the people shall profit a hundredfold;
Banish “humanity,” discard “justice,”
And the people shall recover love of their kin;
Banish cunning, discard “utility,”
And the thieves and brigands shall disappear.
As these three touch the externals and are inadequate,
The people have need of what they can depend upon:
Reveal thy simple self,
Embrace thy original nature,
Check thy selfishness,
Curtail thy desires.
(Translated by Lin Yutang, 1955)
For several years now, I have been practicing what is called Taoist Tai Chi, which is a more or less traditional “long” form that was introduced to North America by Master Moy Lin-Shin in 1970. It is said to consist of 108 postures or moves. That is an interesting number -108 is the product of 3x3x3x2x2x1 (33x22x11).
The first style of Tai Chi I learned many years ago was the “short” form developed by Cheng Man-Ching, which is said to have 37 moves. For a short time I also studied a short form that is said to have 24 moves and was developed by the Chinese Sports Committee in 1956 through a collaboration of four recognized masters.
Almost all of the postures in any of the forms require more than one movement to complete, however. For instance, each has at least one posture called “grasp bird’s tail” – sometimes referred to as the “three pushes” – which takes at least four distinct movements to complete.
The actual number of moves performed during a set of any of these forms thus seems arbitrary. However, if you sit down with an experienced practitioner of any of them and demand to know how many moves comprise a set, all will give the same answer: ONE. From beginning to end, the tai chi set should flow without interruption.
The Tao Te Ching is similar. The traditional story is that Lao Tzu, an archivist in the royal library, became disgusted with the corruption he saw around him and decided it was time to leave the country. He rode off into the sunset on a water buffalo until he reached the kingdom’s Western gate. There, the gatekeeper recognized him and demanded that he write down his teachings before going away forever. La Tzu then paused long enough to write the Tao Te Ching.
It was done all at once. He did not wait for each Tao Te Ching Tuesday, as I have been doing. He did not even divide the work into chapters. That was done by students of the Way much later. Sometimes the different chapters mark clear divisions, and sometimes they don’t.
What we are considering here as Chapter 19 is clearly a continuation of the thoughts expressed in Chapter 18; and it reiterates some of the thoughts from Chapter 9. The first line of Chapter 20 (which Lin Yutang translates, “Banish learning and vexations end”) is included as the last line of Chapter 19 by some scholars.
The arrangement of Lao Tzu’s text is thus somewhat arbitrary and fluid, just as the numbering of the postures in various Tai Chi forms. In many ways it would be best to read the Tao Te Ching from beginning to end, without stopping, to see the flow of the Way that is presented to us.
Just reading the text as a continuous flow is only the beginning. Why not live our lives in that same flow? Set aside human constructs such as “knowledge” and “justice” and “utility.” Embrace instead the simple life, the original nature of humanity, desiring not the treasures and power that seem important in the material world. If we do not attack our lives with such selfish desires, we already have all we can ever want or need.