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With all the research that has gone into Taoism and its relevance with developments in every imaginable walk of life today, it would be incorrect to observe that the Tao-te-ching of Lao-Tzu is not relevant to modern life. It is a practical guide to those who wish to achieve lasting peace, coexisting with nature and not focusing on the race to gain power (a futile exercise); the practical application of Taoist thought in everyday life is described by Rhoads Murphey in his book, A History of Asia.
A positive approach to Tao-te-ching
Many works of history have been relegated to bookshelves; they merit cursory study only because of their lack of relevance with the world as it exists today. Very often, one comes across leaders of various religions grappling with questions raised by people of varying ages, on the significance that religious texts have in solving the problems that they face today. When terrorism, racism, and fundamentalist feelings grow, a nation tries desperately to quell these forces, all the while trying to find a way to live amicably with neighboring countries. Amidst this turmoil, the Tao-te-ching contains gems of wisdom that can be related to the life of an ordinary citizen, irrespective of gender, color, creed, or any other kind of differentiation.
What makes the text appealing to an ordinary man is the pointed advice on various life issues: for instance, on how longevity can be achieved (LaFargue & Laozi, 1994); or on the benefits of allowing people to correct themselves, without overbearing punishment, leading to a simple life (Laozi & LaFargue, 1992).
A religion or a way of life?
To categorize Taoism as just another religion would not only be a simple act but erroneous as well. For those who are trying to cling on desperately to a religious sect, to ensure a solid sense of belonging, rituals more than religions, are important. Very few people can understand and endorse the fact that being religious is completely different from being spiritual. Tao-te-ching is more about finding the right balance between man and nature, while at the same time acknowledging the presence of supernatural power.
The Tao-te-ching seems to keep thinkers in its thrall most of the time. One wonders whether modern-day sociologists and philosophers base their opinions on Taoist thought, even though the same originated hundreds of years ago. Paul Berger, an eminent sociologist defines religion as the ‘human enterprise by which the sacred cosmos is established… By sacred is meant here a quality of mysterious and awesome power, other than man and yet related to him, which is believed to reside in certain objects of experience’. (1990). To those who are more inclined to look at ‘supernatural powers’ from a more rational and scientific point of view, there is a bid to synthesize the notion of what religion is with what religion does. There is an almost unbelievably pragmatic approach to living that is put forth in this Taoist text.
Lessons for a modern world from an ancient text
Dating back to a time that is almost difficult to imagine, the Tao-te-ching brings into the spotlight, the need for a seamless coexistence between spiritual progress on the one hand and the development of technological discoveries on the other. This is accompanied by a constant urging to ignore the desire to overcome one’s adversary and instead aim towards spiritual power and union with the omnipotent force. For people who are eternally in a chase to overcome another race (used synonymously with people) or to fundamentalist groups (of any religious or political hue) who are determined to spout old and repetitive phrases that are mere rhetoric, the Tao-te-ching has a lot of counsel to offer.
The pitfalls of chasing just about anybody or anything for the sake of power are also an oft-quoted part of the Tao-te-ching (Kohn & LaFargue, 1998). Using the imagery that people of the times could recognize, this text brings out the traditional Chinese way of life and offers the scholar ways of interpreting it and applying it to any day, time, or era.
Similarities with other religions
A truly religious person would aver that there was no basic difference between the tenets of all the major religions of the world. Harmony is the keyword; simplicity and a total lack of ego would guarantee a person lifelong peace and perfect harmony. Where, therefore could one find such harmony? As pointed out in the Tao-te-ching, “The infant can cry all day and never become hoarse. / This is perfect harmony.” (2004) Just as Taoist teachings stressed genuine and natural self-reliance, Christian texts also spoke about the virtues of being child-like. There are similar parallels in Buddhism as well.
With a whole lot of allegories and parables, the Tao-te-ching not only shows the ‘way’ to an undisturbed existence, but it also demonstrates why and how this existence is possible even in today’s world, where the only constant changes! Though there are situations in a person’s life when all hell seems to break loose, there is still a hint of silver lining because of the words of wisdom brought out to mankind through great texts like the Tao-te-ching.
Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Anchor Books.
Kohn, L. LaFargue, M. Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. New York. SUNY Press. 1998. (Page 171).
LaFargue, M. & Laozi. Tao & Method: A Reasoned Approach to the Tao Te Ching. New York. SUNY Press. 1994. (Page: 207).
Laozi & LaFargue, M. The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary. New York. SUNY Press. 1992. (Page: 168).
Toropov B. & Buckles, L. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions. Alpha Books. 2004. (Page 245).