Or rather, what would a Taoist creed(1) be if there was one? Although, perhaps creed is not the best word. For example, the Christians have “to love” as a cornerstone of their creed: to love thy God, to love thy neighbor, to love thy enemy, and so on.
I suppose I am asking what would be the cornerstone of a Taoist creed? Before you read on, come up with a few of your own suggestions, just as though you were taking a quiz.
Right away, I see a reason for the lack of a Taoist creed. To paraphrase chapter 1, ‘The [creed] possible to express runs counter to the constant [creed]‘ Personally though, I’d say my ‘taoist’ creed is to allow myself to live a virtuous life. That feels odd to say, yet not surprisingly, that parallels the meaning of the words, Tao Te Ching (i.e., way, virtue, engage in). It is not that those words tell me what my ‘taoist’ path should be. Rather, the title’s words summarize what an examined life turns out to be. I don’t agree with Socrates’ bold statement “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Unless he was speaking for himself personally, then I agree for specific reasons. First though, I best break it down the meaning (in “word-for-word” style) of the words Tao, Te and Ching:
Dào (道) road, way, path; channel, course; way, path; doctrine, principle; Taoism, Taoist; superstitious sect; line; say, talk, speak; think, suppose.
Dé (德) virtue; morals; moral character; heart; mind; kindness.
Jīng (经) manage; deal in; engage in; constant; regular; scripture; pass through; undergo; as a result of; after; through; stand; bear; endure.
In the Eye of ‘I’
The most unambiguous word is Dào: road, path, think, speak, way. Jīng is also clear enough. I’ve always seen Jing translated to mean scripture, i.e., the Tao De ‘Scripture’. That’s fine, although I find deeper meaning in the active connotations: manage; deal in; engage; pass through; endure. Dé is the most ambiguous word here: virtue; morals; moral character; heart; mind; kindness. I’d say Dé is a fairly close parallel to what Christ was getting at with his ‘love’ teaching. Most of these words are in the ‘I’ of the beholder, and often emotionally loaded. Morals and virtue take on the color of the creed and dogma of the beholder. Kindness is the least unclear of these meaning; we see examples of kindness among social species throughout nature.
What is Dé in the eyes of this Taoist beholder? According to the dictionary, virtue also means “a quality that is good or admirable, but not necessarily in terms of morality”. So, what human quality does everyone on the planet admire? After years of world travel(2), I concluded this “good” to be personal integrity. It runs silent and deep in people regardless of local factors like religion, education, wealth, and age. It is also something hard to put my finger on… but that’s not going to stop me! First, I’ll set up the criteria as I see it.
At some level, or under certain circumstances, I find everyone despises hypocrisy and dishonesty. This I’m guessing is the result of a ‘fairness instinct’ common in at least ‘higher’ social animals (3). Hypocrisy and dishonesty are especially irksome if we’re the target, cum victim. We’re a lot more forgiving when it is our own hypocrisy or dishonest. However, I think we’re usually unaware of the discrepancy. Our desire driven blind spot, along with clever rationalizations to justify our hypocrisy, guarantees this double standard.
There’s No Escape
The Holy Grail of greater personal integrity lies with the person who is more consistent, at least in recognizing, if not dropping, their double standards. Now, we are all engaged in this path, either deliberately or by dint of unintended consequences (i.e., the stress of wanting it both ways).
There is no escaping life’s lessons. The more you sleep in life’s class, the more you flunk your grade level and have to repeat that grade. You see, it is not making mistakes that is the problem, it is continuing to make the same mistakes throughout life. That’s why my creed must be: wake up, pay attention, and be as rigorously self-honest as humanly possible.
Hmm… sounds a little like the idea behind Karma, only this cyclic fate occurs moment to moment, day to day, year after year. This is fortunate in that there is plenty of time to wake up; this is unfortunate for there is only a moment in which to wake up. It is easy to keep waiting for the next moment…
(1) For all I know, formal Taoist sects have their dogmas and creeds, but they don’t count here. Centertao’s brand of Taoism is like that of Protestantism, which is “a Christian religious movement originating in the 16th century from Martin Luther’s attack on Roman Catholic doctrine. It grew to encompass many churches and denominations denying papal authority and believing in justification by faith”. Protestants rely on the Word of the Bible. We are almost the opposite, at least in our reliance on any word or name claiming to be ‘the constant’. That makes having any formal creed or dogma something of an oxymoron.
(2) I spent 15 years traveling around the world (Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Australia) wandering via much hitch-hiking and working odd jobs when money ran out. This open-ended and on-the-ground level experience gave me an opportunity to get to know the people behind their cultural façade. I became quite adept at discerning the ‘original person’ from the ‘cultural person’, undoubtedly due to my innate acultural nature. I see people as having two personalities, ‘original’ and ‘cultural’. Meeting people one on one, the ‘original’ stands out; meeting people in a group with their fellow countrymen, the ‘cultural’ person stands out. Oh, there is so much more I could say… that’s for another post, another day.
(3) We have been long locked away in a prison of belief from which science is gradually helping free us. In particular, is our belief that we are ‘above instinct’ and capable of free choice. Spiritual paths both prop up these beliefs and attempt to help us cope with the consequences of those beliefs. It is an ironic mission.
It is notable that Buddha’s Four Truths, taken by themselves, are a perfection of natural science aimed squarely at us. However, the evidence must be gathered in from one’s own personal experience to prove they are true. The advantage of modern science is the gathering of empirical proof, and we need all the help we can get!
Here are two Science News reports that point to our fairness instinct. Read these PDF’s if you’re interested, Unfair Trade and Ape Aid: Chimps share altruistic capacity with people.
I just saw a report on 60 Minutes that really demonstrates the fairness instinct, and shows how it is the basis for what we as adults do. Of course, they didn’t come right out and call it ‘the fairness instinct’. Science moves slowly… but surely. Check out the progress: The Infant Cognition Center at Yale. Watch the Baby Lab video clip, What your baby knows might freak you out.