Another take on the Tao Te Ching

December 20th, 2010

A central theme of the Tao Te Ching is that of wu wei, of nondoing.

I’ve written about it as a rather impractical idea. But that’s only if you interpret it literally, using what lawyers call the ‘plain meaning rule.’

But if you interpret it another way, it can also be taken to describe a state of effortless mastery. Stephen Mitchell put it most eloquently in the foreword to his translation.

“A good athlete can enter into a state of body-awareness  in which the right stroke, or the right movement happens by itself effortlessly…  the game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; …”

That’s great, but how do you get to that stage?

How do you get to the point where the notes play themselves, where you achieve a kind of oneness with what you do?

And this is where the Tao Te Ching falls short.

It fails to mention that effortless mastery comes at a price.

It talks about the effortlessness of water flowing to the sea, but water has to get to the mountains first before it can flow to the sea.

The Tao makes no mention of this fact.

(In the natural world, nature takes care of that. The sun evaporates the water from the sea and it condenses in the mountains to fall as rain. That’s a whole other subject altogether — using nature to work for you.)

It is in the last line of Chapter 28 that we get a glimpse of what effortlessness is all about in the Tao.

“A great tailor cuts little.”

The Tao here is referring to skill. Skill is what makes the difference between effortful and effortless. Because it requires a great deal of skill to know how to ‘cut little.’

Skills is at the heart of effortless nondoing.

If you have good skills, everything you do will seem effortless. Just watch a great player like John Williams and you will see how effortless he makes playing the guitar seem. He’s the tailor who cuts little.

But where does all that skill come from?

From a great deal of effort, years of patient practicing and experiencing.

The sentiments in the Tao are echoed by many other books on effortless mastery and living.

They all praise the concept and advocate a philosophy of effortlessness. But like the Tao, none of them mention the fact that effortless mastery comes at a price.

And that’s the irony of life, to achieve effortlessness, you have to be prepared to put in a great deal of effort.

That old law of no free lunch still holds true here.

2 Responses to “Another take on the Tao Te Ching”

  1. Chris Says:

    I never thought the Tao Te Ching was saying do absolutely nothing. More along the lines of, “work with what the universe gives you.” Sort of an eastern version of Stoicism. If the universe provides you wish practice time, then use it. Again, just my take on it.

    Also, stoicism is worth reading about if you’re looking for a good philosophical ideology to relate to being a musician.

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Obviously there’re different ways to interpret the text.

    One can see it as a philosophical document, full of deep mystical insights, or one can take it at face value and interpret it literally, which is what I did, and at face value, it’s basically advocating an approach of passivity, of non-doing. Chapter 80 states this most explicitly. Imagine being so close to your neighbors you can hear their dogs barking and not even bothering to pay them a visit. That’s the philosophy of inaction in a nutshell.

    But I agree with you, at a higher level, it’s advocating an approach of working with the elements, which is essentially my key point in the AOV. I’m not really into philosophy as such, I find all the inevitable wordplay exhausting, like so many fingers pointing at the moon. I prefer to search out the moon directly instead.

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