In the pagoda garden, the philosopher stares into the inky darkness, contemplating its slow flow into the light, reflecting upon the light embedded in all darkness, light that he sees in a glint of moonlight on still waters.
Once in a while, one runs across a book that is much beloved by the general public, and one can’t figure out why. For me, this is one of those books, (as is its predecessor, “The Tao of Pooh.”) I certainly get the appeal of such a book, in principle. A book that clarifies and simplifies a subject as complex as philosophy using straightforward, down-to-earth, and well-known children’s stories like those from A.A. Milne’s “Pooh” book series is a brilliant idea, and is the kind of book I’d generally enjoy reading. [I’m a big believer in Einstein’s notion that, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”] Maybe that’s why I gave this book a rare second-chance. I’d listened to the audiobook from the library many years back, and didn’t much care for it at the time. However, the idea of the book was so appealing that I picked up a copy at a used bookstore recently, figuring that I’ve certainly changed my mind on many things over the years. Unfortunately, my opinion of this book has not improved. It’s a stellar book idea that, in my view, was poorly executed.
Before I get into what I found objectionable about this book, it’s worth noting that when the book is at its best it delivers some beautiful lessons on Taoist thought in a humorous and lighthearted way, illustrating these lessons through a mix of Pooh character interactions and quotes and tales from Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi, and other Taoist sources. When is the book at its best? When there is an interaction between two streams of voice: Taoist sage and Pooh-universe kid’s characters. Perhaps surprisingly, those two voices work well together – harmoniously and effectively.
So, what, you may ask, is my problem. It is the frequent interjection of a third voice, one that I will call “angry ideologue.” This angry ideologue is not at all in harmony with the other two voices, and –in fact — frequently detracts from the lessons by violating them outright. A prime example of this can be seen with respect to the fifth chapter’s (i.e. “The Eeyore Effect”) lesson against belittling others to make oneself feel bigger. A great lesson, except that Hoff is so quick to behave in conflict with it. A minor, but unfortunately not atypical, example can be seen in the previous chapter in which Hoff proves unable of extolling the virtues of Taiji and Pa Kua Chang (two Chinese martial arts) with the need denigrate a couple of Japanese martial arts (judo and aikido) in the process.
The most widespread example of his failure to do as he says, however, involves Hoff’s attacks against Confucianism. To be fair, there is a long history of Taoist and Confucianists badmouthing each other, but this need to tear down others to feel better about oneself is not consistent with the ideas that are explicitly expressed in the book. Hoff greatly oversimplifies Confucianist arguments, and while it’s certainly alright to simplify for the purposes of such a book, one can employ simplification as a weapon — cherry-picking ideas and statements out of context to make the other side look inept and illogical. Hoff violently swerves between the book that is advertised into political diatribes that often employ gratuitous attacks. To be fair, these digressions are probably not so dominant in the book as I make them sound, but the effect is multiplied by the distraction created – particularly when there is a sequence in which Hoff shares some Pooh wisdom to be kind, tolerant, or humble and he follows this by being none-of-the-above in his vilification of those with differing views.
While there are obviously many who would disagree with me, I’d recommend one look elsewhere to better understand the tenets of Taoism. There are certainly books that are more balanced and which will teach one more about Taoist thinking (as opposed to how to cherry-pick and twist Taoist ideas so that they seem to support a particular political stance.)
That said, one advantage of this book (and its predecessor) is that it is designed to speak to a wide age-range, and while books like Puett’s “The Path” and Slingerhand’s “Trying Not to Try” are better books for learning about Taoism but yet are very readable for a non-scholarly reader, they are not necessarily kid-friendly. I can’t say that I know any good kid-oriented books on Taoism (though some may well exist,) but I tend to believe that kids are more likely to pick up bad habits of thinking about people with different points of view and about interacting with others through this book then they are to learn good habits of mind. [Although, if one skips over the diatribes, it might serve quite well. And if one doesn’t skip them, one will still be preparing your child to participate in what passes for political discourse in the modern era.]
Dance that mad head-on collision
into that which spins like a top.
Let it roll; but don’t make it stop.
Cleave, but don’t create the division.
Don’t strike out for fields, Elysian;
find Eden in being unaffected.
Be none; be all, & thus connected.
Sometimes, there’s might in precision,
but, sometimes, it kills through indecision.
Heed the Way more than the result.
No one ‘s converted by insult.
Stifle the urge to spew derision.
Moral superiority won’t keep you warm;
it’s just illusion of another form.
This brief collection gathers one hundred poems from the T’ang Dynasty poet Han-Shan. Most of the poems included consist of a single eight-line stanza of unrhymed verse of varied meter. [With a few exceptions that had more or fewer lines (often four or twelve.)] I do like that they didn’t pad out edition that I read with a lot of inane babble [as publishers are want to do when a volume is on the thin side.] Part of the reason that they may not have done so is that there is virtually nothing known about the author. It’s not even known whether there was a Han-Shan (i.e. as opposed to a group of people whose poems were anthologized under one name.)
The poems reflect Taoism’s disdain for pretension, authority, or scholarship for scholarship’s sake. Many of the poems reflect Zen sensibilities (which became entwined with Taoist sensibilities.) That is to say, like Zen koan, they seek to interrupt the tendency to overintellectualize matters. That said, in places the poems take a bit of a mocking attitude toward Buddhism. Nature plays prominently among the poems. And some of the poems are humorous or irreverent.
There are footnotes that are helpful in explaining verse that references teachings and events that would have been known to Han-Shan’s readership back in his day, but which most individuals who aren’t experts on Chinese folklore, literature, or religious teachings wouldn’t be likely to get, otherwise.
I enjoyed these poems tremendously. While I can’t say how they related to the original text, the translations were — on their own – works that conveyed wit and wisdom. I’d highly recommend this collection for poetry readers.
5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.
4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.” In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.
3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.
2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.
1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup…. The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.
It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response“ about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.
So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” – Emily Dickinson
It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.
Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.
The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…
or is it?
This book is organizationally and conceptually similar to a book by Edward Slingerland that I reviewed recently entitled “Trying Not to Try.” I’ll first discuss how the books are alike before differentiating them as I believe they are both worth reading. First, both books essentially look at how the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers—both Confucian and Taoist—can be put into practice to improve one’s life in the modern world. Second, the heart of each work consists of chapters devoted to the thinking of one particular philosopher and how the ideas of said philosopher compare and contrast to those of the others.
That said, both books create their own space in a way that justifies each’s existence. While Slingerland focuses heavily on the notion of wu-wei (effortless action) and de (the charisma of effortless action,) Puett and Gross-Loh consider a broader swath of human activity. That may make it sound like this book is more rambling and unfocused, but there is a central theme that cuts across the chapters. That theme rejects the simple and straightforward ideas given credence by modern Western society (as well as by the Chinese Mohists–i.e. followers of Mozi.) It suggests that the self is not a fixed entity but rather a collection of patterns. One needs to accept that these are just ruts that can be negated and to behave accordingly if one hopes to achieve an enjoyable life in a world that can be capricious and chaotic.
The first couple chapters of the book look at the problems of the modern world and how ideas from traditional societies—such as the China of past centuries—differed. With that context set, each but the last chapter examines an aspect of the human condition from the perspective of a particular Chinese philosopher.
Chapter three offers Confucius’s ideas about rituals and how they can be used to cultivate virtuous behavior. Chapter four presents the ideas of Mencius with regards how to live life in a world that is capricious and arbitrary.
The fifth chapters shifts from Confucianism to Taoism as it explores Laozi’s ideas about how one can influence others not by brute force but by moving in accordance with “the Way,” and how eliminating illusory distinctions is the key to developing this soft power.
The sixth chapter focuses not on the ideas of a particular author but a particular work, “The Inward Training.” This manual describes how one can increase one’s vitality (readers maybe familiar with the idea of “chi” or “qi,” as in “tai chi” or “qi gong”) by a mystical approach that cultivates the divine within one.
Chapter seven is about Zhuangzi’s ideas about accepting that our world is constantly in flux and to battle this fact is as futile as it is exhausting. The ideas discussed echo the aforementioned concept of “wu-wei” as well as modern concepts of positive psychology such as Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and ecstasis.
The penultimate chapter returns to a Confucian philosopher, one by the name of Xunzi, who believed that humans create the patterns we live under and it’s up to us to get past said patterns and not to accept them as a given. The last chapter circles back around to propose how the ideas presented throughout the book might allow us to remake the modern world in a happier form.
The book has no graphics, but does have a small section of resources and readings.
I found this book to be enjoyable and informative. The authors use modern stories and cases to make these ideas understandable and relevant to the reader as well as to supplement stories of ancient history. The book provides food for thought and—as I said—it creates its own niche. I’d recommend it for readers interested in how ancient Chinese wisdom can relate to present-day living.