Stories of the Way

Taoist Parables

by Peter Saint-Andre

I have in mind to write a set of parables illustrating the Taoist principles of wu-wei, naturalness, and the Three Treasures of love, simplicity, and modesty. Here is how I see these principles fitting together (with connections to Buddhism - after all, legend has it that Lao Tzu / Gao Tan was just another name for Siddhartha Gautama).

Wu-wei is action without attachment or desire or self-assertion. These three qualities are described in Chapter 67 of the Tao Te Ching.

First, nothing is permanent, so attachment causes a cycle of possession and loss, whereas the practice of non-attachment (i.e., tz'u as loving people and beings and things for their own sake) leads to true acceptance and authentic relatedness.

Second, nothing is perfect, so desire causes a cycle of hope and disappointment, whereas the practice of non-desire (i.e., chien as simplicity) leads to true enjoyment and authentic autonomy.

Third, nothing has an essence, so asserting yourself causes a cycle of pride and deflation, whereas the practice of non-assertion (i.e., "not daring to be first") leads to true serenity and authentic mastery.

Naturalness or spontaneity comes from immersing yourself in the flowing stream of reality, not grasping through attachment, reaching through desire, or pushing through self-assertion.

These tales will illustrate the balance of yin-and-yang in all its forms: light and shadow, growth and decay, assertion and surrender, power and weakness, possession and loss, hope and disappointment, pride and deflation, hard and soft, earth and water, young and old, engagement and reclusion, activity and stillness, work and rest, outside and inside, upward and downward, forward and backward, and many more. They will do so by exploring a wide range of images and analogies: rain, sun, wind, snow, clouds, moon; mountains, valleys, rivers; trees, plants, flowers; birds, fish, butterflies, and other creatures; walking, flying, sailing, swimming; sight, hearing, the senses; music and the arts; various skills and crafts (carpentry, archery, pottery, cooking, gardening, etc.); relationships between teacher and student, parent and child, friend and friend; the flow of conversation; travel; distance; time; and many others.

In harmony with the Tao, the master of yin-and-yang is wise and serious when young, but energetic and lighthearted when old; is optimistic when downcast, but humble when triumphant; is benevolent when forceful, but clear-eyed when kind; is independent minded when listening well, but encourages others when taking charge; is plain-spoken with superiors, but considerate with inferiors; serves while leading, but shows initiative when not at the forefront; is reflective when engaged, but active in reclusion.

As Lao Tzu says, the Tao is very simple yet very hard to understand and to practice. Furthermore, it's all-too-human to overdo each of these things: to cling to non-attachment, to feel too strongly about simplicity, to become arrogant about non-assertion; these too are excesses to avoid.

Because of my Aristotle project I'm not yet actively working on this book (which I might merge with Tales of Slow Time); for now I'm just reading.

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