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Drink Deep

January 1, 2011

Tao Te Ching 10

Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,

Can you avoid separation?

Attending fully and becoming supple,

Can you be as a newborn babe?

Washing and cleansing the primal vision,

Can you be without stain?

Loving all men and ruling the country,

Can you be without cleverness?

Opening and closing the gates of heaven,

Can you play the role of woman?

Understanding and being open to all things,

Are you able to do nothing?

Giving birth and nourishing,

Bearing yet not possessing,

Working yet not taking credit,

Leading yet not dominating,

This is the Primal Virtue.

                In the 1711 Alexander Pope work An Essay on Criticism, line 215 states:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”

The same cautionary statement is reflected in the tenth verse of the Tao Te Ching. One of the greatest challenges in learning the Tao is maintaining the proper perspectives when you realize that you’ve actually learned things. It is the conditioned nature of most people to take a little knowledge and proceed forward as though they have learned all that is needed to adequately manage applying that knowledge to life, often with calamitous results. However, as Mr. Pope suggests, gaining complete knowledge will allow a person to refrain from reckless mistakes.

Lao Tzu knew this long before Alexander Pope was even born, identifying that as people open their minds and gain greater understanding of life, Heaven and Earth, and the Tao, they must temper their learning with the realization that they are still students and should use what they have learned only as a guide to help them keep learning. To gain knowledge, enlightenment, and understanding is a gift and a tool, not a weapon or means by which to gain advantage over others.

There is great temptation that comes with greater knowledge and understanding, the appeal of applying what one has learned to advance one’s self further in the world. This is perfectly acceptable so long as one recognizes that by learning and comprehending more, one has already advanced themselves without having to do so at the expense of others. The temptation is take a smattering of wisdom and surge forth into the world seeking places and situations where that wisdom could be used to one’s benefit. However, the Taoist recognizes that wisdom gained is best used when it is stored and remembered for when a relevant situation presents itself. Life will certainly see to it that those situations do occur; one needs only be patient.

Verse Ten of the Tao Te Ching is a reminder that as we learn the Way, we must also remember to use that learning to be better students of the Way. To see ourselves as masters of the Way is to show that we have learned nothing at all.

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