Newsletter - November 2021
Good, evil, and the Tao Te Ching
What does Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching have to say about good and evil? At first glance, we might think it’s pretty obvious everyone would be “for” the first and “against” the second. Many religious texts support this approach, and say as much in so many words. But does Lao Tzu do this? This might come as a surprise, but no, he doesn’t. Nor does he say whether evil is either good or bad. Really? What does he say? Let’s see where he mentions “evil” and explore what his message might be.
Most of the time, it seems our minds want quick answers – often regardless of whether the questions are big or small. We may think “I need to make a decision right now. Is this good or bad? Right or wrong? I’ve no time to split hairs. It’s one or the other.” Here’s what Lao Tzu has to say. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad” (chapter 2). Oh. What am I supposed to do with that?
Lao Tzu is not the only one to say things like this. Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2) says “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It appears that how we see things, or how we think about them, determines the labels we apply. See things one way, or think about them one way, and certain labels apply. Think about them another way, and different labels apply. The risk is that we think our labels reflect some true property of what we’re observing. As a result, when others see things differently, we’re often swift to think (or tell them) that they’re wrong.
The word “evil” appears in four chapters of the Tao Te Ching (in the Stephen Mitchell version). Here’s the first. “The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil” (chapter 5). One could say that amounts to no more than saying “It is what it is.” And in one respect, this is indeed true. But in another respect, the words hint at our agenda which is that we typically want to take sides. We want to be “for” or “against” something. What does the Master do? The next line tells us. “The Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners.” This is the part we typically don’t do.
What gives evil its strength, as it were, is that once we’ve boldly identified and labelled it, we then take our stand against it. Here’s the second mention of evil. “Center your country in the Tao and evil will have no power. Not that it isn’t there, but you’ll be able to step out of its way. Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself” (chapter 60). Note that Lao Tzu doesn’t say evil isn’t there. He simply says that throwing your weight into opposing it is what gives it its power. We may recall “For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself” (chapter 30).
The third mention is “There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy. Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil” (chapter 69). Well, we already know the Master welcomes both saints and sinners, so the Master likely has a tough time with the concept of “enemy.” However, if we accept the idea for the time being, Lao Tzu tells us that labelling our enemy as “evil” simply boosts our justification for opposing him – as we conveniently sidestep the question of where the label comes from.
The fourth and last mention is “Therefore the Master remains serene in the midst of sorrow. Evil cannot enter his heart. Because he has given up helping, he is people’s greatest help” (chapter 78). This aligns with how the Master helps both saints and sinners. I think Lao Tzu is telling us that it’s the labels that get in the way every time. However, note he doesn’t tell us to stop doing what we’re doing. He simply makes observations and invites us to let them affect us.
What would happen if we let go of our labels? Are they what limit us? He suggests we look at the Master. “Nothing is impossible for him. Because he has let go, he can care for the people’s welfare as a mother cares for her child” (chapter 59). So where does evil lie? Who is the enemy? Do we make “mistakes” when we apply our labels?
Well, sidestepping the issue of whether the word “mistake” is yet another label, Lao Tzu has this to say “A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts” (chapter 61). (The last sentence in the quote makes me pause.)
So, that’s a quick review of what the Tao Te Ching has to say about evil. I think Lao Tzu does more than say “It is what it is.” For me, what he does – as usual – is slow me down and gently question the way my mind works to separate things, label them, and judge them. He reminds me that, if I don’t slow down, then I’m likely not seeing things clearly. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” (chapter 15). Is the “evil” label just another piece of mud? If we’re patient, perhaps we’ll find out.
What do you think about good and evil? On a more general note, given that we have to label things to communicate and navigate our way in the world, how do we guard against names and labels getting in the way as opposed to helping us?
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)