TEXT
絕學無憂
唯之与阿,相去几何?
美之与恶,相去若何?
人之所畏,不可不畏?
荒兮!
其未央哉!众人熙熙,
如享太牢,如春登台。
我独泊兮,其未兆;
沌沌兮,如婴儿之未孩;
傫傫兮,若无所归。
众人皆有余,而我独若遗。
我愚人之心也哉!
俗人昭昭⒅,我独昏昏。
俗人察察,我独闷闷。
澹兮,其若海;
飂兮,若无止。
众人皆有以,而我独顽且鄙。
我独异于人,而贵食母。

TRANSLATION

Cut out copying the crowd - no misery!
Between bribery and flattery, how much difference is there?
The satisfactions of bribery and character assassination, how much difference is there really?
What people fear, one cannot defy? How absurd!
This sort of thing is never ending: everybody putting on a splendid show.
as if at the Tai Lo feast, or as if going up to a mountain shrine in spring.
I tie up like a solitary boat that has not yet declared a course.
Totally confused, like a baby that is not yet even a child
Totally lost, as though with no home to go back to
Everyone has an abundance, I alone seem to have lost out.
Mine is the mind of an ignoramous!
Ordinary people are so bright. It’s only I that am confused.
Common people are so presentable; only I am antisocial.
Such calm - like the ocean
Such wind - seemingly ceaseless
Everyone has their part to play and mine is that of the foolish being.
Am I the only odd one? A person, yet one who enjoys nourishment from the mother.

COMMENTARY
This is one of the most striking chapters in the Tao Te Ching, being rather personal and loaded with polemical irony.

Some authorities think that the first line does not belong in this chapter but should be in the previous one. It could be translated “Cut out learning and there will be no troubles.” However, the word for learning 學 also means to imitate or mimic and it seems to me that if you take it that way then this chapter turns out to be a good commentary upon that initial phrase. It is a diatribe against being a dedicated follower of fashion. The character 學 is actually a picture of a child with a huge amount going on in the head or, we could say, a great weight upon the head. Taoism is opposed to getting too much lost in thinking and calculating. It seeks a more natural way.

The next two lines talk about bribery, flattery and spitefulness. These are, of course, extremely prevalent in polite society where the art of passive aggression flourishes. Lao Tzu is repelled by it. He understands that it flows from the fear of ostracism that keeps everybody playing the game, and ironically says “So one must fear what everybody fears,” but then immediately says, “What nonsense!”

So this chapter is about what Buddha called ekagata, making one’s own judgements, not being overly influenced by others, not playing the social game, but staying true to what is authentic.

The next few lines describe how, if one follows such a course, one looks like a complete misfit, an antisocial bore or foolish person. He is the one who does not go around with a fixed smile pretending that he is as happy as a person at a party all the time. If there were a party, he might not even go. It is not really his scene.

When one reads sections of the Taoist classic like this one, one can often feel that one is seeing some of the origins of Pureland Buddhism. The praise for the foolish being is quite evident. In this, one is probably not mistaken. Although Pureland has its origins in the teachings given by Shakyamuni to lay followers in India, it certainly took on distinctive form in China and then Japan. Taoism is the religion of the holy fool and this can be seen as the origin of the notion of the myokonin later in Japan.

In the last four lines, he shows the other side of the coin, referring to the benefits that come to such a spiritual outsider: great calm like the ocean and a high wind that never ceases.

The ocean is vast and powerful and is a symbol for the Tao. It is, of course, not always calm, but in relation to its vastness its storms are tiny affairs. Such is the calm of the sage, obtained by taking a much bigger perspective than the ordinary person does. This is what Shunryu Suzuki called Big Mind or what we, in colloquial language, call having a big heart. In the big heart there is room for all the many human foibles without need for undue disturbance.

The great wind is the unceasing energy of the Tao, the dynamic interplay of yin and yang, symbolised in the endless evolution of the I Ching hexagrams. The sage rides on the wind. He does not need to rely upon his own cleverness.

In the last two lines, he says that everybody plays their part in the bigger scheme of things and his is that of the fool, meaning that he takes on such a role willingly. The truly wise person is aware of the vast extent of his ignorance whereas the small minded person seems to have an answer for everything. Lao Tzu asks if he is alone - “Am I the only one?” The only what? An ordinary human being who, nonetheless, enjoys being nourished by the mother.

The mother, here, is the Earth Mother, Demeter to the Greeks, the Earth Mother who bore witness to the enlightenment of Buddha. Religions all over the world acknowledge the earth as mother of all life. Here 母, mother, is the last character of the chapter just as it is the last character of Chapter One, indicating how central the idea of return to the mother is in this Taoist path.

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