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DAOISM: TRUTH AND PARADOXES

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The Montreal Review, January 2011

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If this short essay got into the hands of a Daoist, he would discard it after the first sentence, because it is a text commenting on the Way (or Dao), and as every Daoist knows, "The Way that can be discussed is not the constant Way". "If you want to discard something, be sure to promote it", Lao Dan, the most popular Daoist sage, would say, and I would gladly agree that my short comments do not aim to promote his teaching.

Indeed, there is no philosophy that explains better the paradoxes of truth than Chinese Daosim. In the early twentieth century, civilization was enlightened by a simple formula E=mc2. In a formula of five signs, Einstein explained the world. Yet, few understand what he actually meant. Twenty-four centuries ago, Laozi (the short name of Lao Dan's book Classic of the Way and Its Power) did the same, but trough simple and beautiful poetry. The book teaches that the existence of everything is relative and that movement (or transformation) is the center of all things. If I have to find only one word to explain Laozi's Daoism - it would be "relativism".

There is no better philosophy of relativity than the twenty-four century old Daoism. Christianity can be another example, but it is religion, not philosophy. Christianity is the only religion with paradoxes such as God who dies among criminals, Sin that is forgiven, and Death that means Life. Despite the differences in their spirit and goals, Daoism and Christianity are teachings close to each other through their utmost logic of relativity. The basic principles of Laozi's Daoism resemble Christian egalitarian ideas, Christian appeal for non-violence, and its anti-intellectualism.

"Do not honor the worthy, and people will not compete. Do not value rare treasures, and people will not steal. Do not display what others want, and the people will not have their hearts confused." This quotation from Laozi is reminiscent of James's words: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight." (James, 4:1-3). Daoism has moral appeals similar to the Christian ones, but in difference with Christianity it seems much more pragmatic without losing its intrinsic paradoxical nature. In the Gospel of Mark we are promised that if we follow Christ we will receive "hundred times as much in this present age... along with persecutions... and eternal life" (Mark,10:30), in Laozi there is no eternal life, but it breeds the same Christian logic of profitable humility: "Therefore the sage puts his own person behind and yet is ahead. He puts his own person outside and yet survives. Is not it because he is without selfishness that he is able to be successfully selfish?" Also, when we read in Laozi: "The soft and weak overcomes the hard and strong", we think of Matthew's Gospel: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5)

Christian anti-intellectualism expressed best in the words of Jesus: "My Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I am grateful that you hid all this from wise and educated people and showed it to ordinary people" (Matthew 11:25), although different in context, matches the strong anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, and anti-Confucian ideas of Dao: "In ancient times, those who excelled in the Way did not use it to enlighten the people... Those who do not use knowledge to rule the state are country's blessing... Let people to revert to the practice of rope-tying [instead of writing]. Then they will find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful, their houses comfortable, theirs customs enjoyable."

If we continue to use our Western parallels in order to understand Daoism, we can say that Dao is Socratic, while Confucianism, another big Chinese teaching, despite its pragmatism, is Platonic because of its insistence for leadership of the Enlightened.

The Socratic nature of Daoism, its constant questioning of everything, including of the Confucian wisdom, is curiously mixed with its basic idea that the world is a relative place. "How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion?" - the philosopher Zhuang Zhoua asks in the Zhuangzi, another Daoist classical book. "During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming... Only in waking do we know it was a dream... And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale."

Although Daoist philosophy of government is often quoted by the contemporary supporters of free market, Daoism is actually an egalitarian, anti-meritocratic teaching. The champions of modern capitalism easily grasp the paradoxical truth in the Laozi words: "When everyone sees the good in the good, Bad is already there." Translated into market wisdom, this Daoist verse can just simply mean, "Most people get interested in stocks when everyone else is. The time to get interested is when no one else is." (Warren Buffet) But many free marketers, and actually our modern society, hardly can understand the highest good in Daoism: "The highest good is like water. Water benefits all creatures, but does not compete."

Everything is relative. And how true the Daoist teaching is, is not a question that a Daoist would think as important to discuss.

-- T.S.Tsonchev

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