Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tao of Quakerism

Since returning from my trip to the East Coast, I have been editing one of the hidden masterpieces of Quakerism: Herrymon Maurer's translation of the Tao Teh Ching, with a Quaker/Hasidic Jewish commentary. Herrymon was my mentor and friend when I first came to Princeton Meeting in the early 1980s. He was a "recorder minister" and a sage who kept a low profile for reasons I explain in my article on Herrymon and the Tao of Quakerism. See

I'd be very interested in your thoughts about my article or about Herrymon's commentary on the Tao Teh Ching. He has written over a hundred pages by way of introduction, with a powerful prophetic critique of our society, from the standpoint of Taoism and Quakerism, or as Herrymon would say, simply The Way. I am submitting this for possible publication by Quaker Universalist Fellowship, or perhaps a trade publisher. It needs to be back in print!

The Tao/Virtue Classic Commentary

1. Tao Can’t be Taoed

If Tao can be Taoed, it's not Tao.
If its name can be named, it's not its name.
Has no name: precedes heaven and earth;
Has a name: mother of the ten thousand things.

For it is
Always dispassionate:
See its inwardness;
A!ways passionate:
See its outwardness.

The names are different
But the source the same.
Call the sameness mystery:
Mystery of mystery, the door to inwardness.

Beyond words is Tao! The opening passage of the Tao Teh Ching has the vigor of the first sentence of the book of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." But here majesty is admixed with paradox and humor. The impact of the first line is multiplied by an additional meaning that hinges on a divine pun, "If the path can be followed, it's not the path," and also by a derivative meaning with the sense of "If God gods it, he's not God."

In the original, the word constant modifies the second use of Tao in line one (and in line two the second use of name). It has been omitted in translation because the impact of the rhythm of the sentence, as significant as the sense, is upset, and because the Western reader is not likely to imagine Tao as anything but an absolute. In Chinese, Tao also means Path or path, since ancient times its primary meaning, and the modifier constant is needed to differentiate the extraordinary from the ordinary. (Except, of course, that the ordinary is more extraordinary than the extraordinary.)

The phrase ten thousand things is usually rendered as all things and the phrase heaven and earth as the universe. Chinese ideographs encourage concreteness.

2. Takes No Credit

When all beneath heaven
Know beauty as beauty,
There is not beauty.
When all know good as good,
There is not good.

For what is and what is not beget each other;
Difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short show each other;
High and low place each other;
Noise and sound harmonize each other;
Before and behind follow each other.

Therefore the sage
Manages without doing,
Teaches without talking.
He does not shun
The ten thousand things:
Rears them without owning them,
Works for them without claiming them,
Accomplishes but takes no credit.

Because he does not take credit,
It cannot be taken from him.

Beyond opposites is Tao! Often assumed to be a statement of the relativity of values, this chapter is actually a song of praise to the beyond-everything wholeness of Tao. Any thing less than Tao is so immensely less that the differ ences between anything less and its opposite are of little significance. A turning from ordinary differentiation enables the sage to find closeness to Tao and enables him to accomplish but take no credit.

An eighteenth-century Hasidic teacher, Yehiel Michal of Zlotchov, noted that "if there were no evil, there would be no good, for good is the counterpart of evil. Ever lasting delight is no delight. .. the fact that evil confronts good gives man the possibility of victory." [Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters, New York, Schocken Books, 1947, p. 144]

Beneath heaven is typically translated as the world, a place of many meanings and a term of no location. There fore, in classical Chinese, means simply that there is a link 'between what goes before and what comes after, but not , that there is a causal or even sequential relationship. The logic of the Chinese language includes an indeterminism of intermingling happenings, which are not strictly causal. In this translation, for, hence, now, so, also, and thus often substitute for therefore.

3. Doing Nothing-doing

If you don't exalt the worthy:
People then will not compete.
If you don't prize rare goods:
People then will not steal.
If you don't show what is covetable:
The people's hearts won't be upset.

Thus, when the sage rules,
He empties hearts
And fills bellies,
Weakens ambitions
And strengthens bones.
He leads the people
To not-know and not-want,
And the cunning ones
To dare not do.
By doing nothing-doing,
Everything gets done.

Setting an example of contention is a typical occasion for contention. Quaker John Woolman, writer of journals and worker against slavery, wrote in the eighteenth century about "ways of living attended with unnecessary labor. .. which draw forth the minds of many people to seek after outward power and to strive for riches, which frequently introduce oppression and bring forth wars." [Considera tions of Pure Wisdom and Human Policy, 1768]
Isaac Penington, a seventeenth century devotionalist, wrote about the value of not knowing: "Be still and wait for light and strength and desire not to know or compre hend …” [Letters, John Barclay edition, p. 173]

When the sage empties hearts and fills bellies, he meets needs but shuns covetousness. He
also encourages humility. In Chinese, empty-hearted means humble. As for the full belly, eating at a shared table has long been held as worshipful among Chinese as it has among Jews.
The famous adage of wei wu wei, here translated as doing nothing-doing, is the positive form of wu wei, literally not-do, and thus signifies do not-do. Its full meaning, to be grasped only in context, embraces not alone the wisdom of non-interference but in addition the forcefulness of taking action in the realm of the inward: i.e., the realm of nothingness that is accessible only through humility. In this realm, humility is positive and passivity is dynamic; purposive action is static. Nothing -doing gets things done; something-doing does not.

3. Use Emptiness!

Tao is empty! Use it
And it isn't used up.
Deep! It seems like
The forebear of
The ten thousand things.
It blunts edges,
Unties tangles,
Harmonizes lights,
Unites all dusts.
Submerged and existent!
I don't know whose child it is.
It looks to be the source.

Apparently different in manner and meaning from Lao Tzu's hymn of praise is the hymn of praise of the later Isaiah, but the common sense of awe is nearly identical.

Who ever measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
or ruled the skies off with a span,
or held the dust of earth inside a measure,
or weighed the mountains in a pair of scales,
the hills within a balance?
Who ever moved the mind of the Eternal,
or gave him lessons and advice?
Who ever was called in to give him counsel?

Who ever taught him how to act, or showed him
what to do? [Isaiah 40: 12-14, Moffatt translation.]

Differences in the outer clothing of words are swallowed up in wonder at the pervasiveness of the Undefined, the Unknown, the Ever -present, whether the nameless and inexplicable YHVH or the nameless and inexplicable Tao. John Woolman says:

"There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places arid ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brothers in the best sense of the expression. Using ourselves to take ways which appear most easy to us, when inconsistent with that purity Which is without beginning, we thereby set up a government of our own and deny obedience to him whose service is true liberty." [Considerations On Keeping Negroes, Part Second, 1762]

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