On page 296 of Sacred Texts, we are told that Taoism embraces the best points of Confucianism and Maoism while combining the essentials of Legalists and Logicians. The problem with Confucianism is apparently that extensive learning meant the “essentials” were overlooked. Maoism emphasized thrift but was “difficult to follow,” while the legalists and logicians were considered too severe — they showed little kindness and destroyed humanity and righteousness.
The benefit Taoism has over all these things is an ability to change with the times and respond to transformations. Being simple to understand and easy to practice, it is easily adaptable to all cultures, lifestyles, and mindsets.
To me, that sounds too easy. Perhaps it’s the Protestant ethic rearing its ugly and societally engrained head, but it seems to me that a system of spiritual growth that is “easy” and “adaptable” is perhaps not so much about spiritual growth as it is about getting on. I tried to shake this uncomfortable feeling as I read the Tao Te Ching, but I can’t help but feel like this is taking religion and spirituality to the other extreme.
The extreme Westerners are most familiar with is action: Preaching and pressing and inflicting our personal beliefs into every aspect of life — politics, education, entertainment. The thing is, these extremes are not necessary to belief (or lack of belief). They’re the way we are taught to relate to belief and spirituality, but that does not mean it’s the only path to belief and spirituality.
When I read these Eastern mythologies and mindsets, they seem so peaceful, with words like, “Do not exalt the worthy, and the people will not compete… Do not display objects of desire, and the people’s minds will not be disturbed,” or, “Even the best weapon is an unhappy tool, hateful to living things. So the follower of the Way stays away from it.”
These are so different, so foreign from Western cries to action and victory. These are words of peacefulness and contemplation, words that reject strife and pain and fear. But then there are words like, “Therefore the ordering of the sage empties their minds, fills their bellies… and causes the wise ones not to dare to act. He does nothing, and there is nothing that is not brought to order.”
To me, these teachings seem to tip too easily and too far into the other direction — so far away from action that the most devout practitioners can become isolated and separate from any influence of or on the world. They can sit in a monastery meditating their days away and think they’ve done something worthwhile, but haven’t in reality added a drop to the struggle and joy of humanity.
I think there is a moderation that must be sought between the two. Both the Eastern and the Western religions touch on the necessity for balance, for a grace between action and inaction. For the necessity to find peace of mind before action; to understand oneself before taking action for good or ill. But I also think it’s far too easy to ignore the message of balance and seek after extremes. This is human nature, and when I read the Tao, I see the calls for balance — but I also see the calls for inaction, for removing oneself from strife. The calls to replace action with meditation. These bother me, because so often Eastern spirituality is posited as either the opposite of or an improvement on stereotypical Western spirituality. But thus far, they seem to be opposing extremes balanced on the same scale.
I do like Confucianism. The focus on education, knowledge, and (for lack of a better word) manners seems ordered and neat to me: A way of imposing order on a chaotic world. I have often found myself in a meditative state brought on by creativity or deep focus on a task, and Confucianism seems to me to be conductive to such a state.