Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer, who lost a horse, ran away and all the neighbors came around that evening and said, ‘That’s too bad.’ And he said, ‘Maybe.’ The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbors came around and said, ‘Why that’s great isn’t it?’ and he said, ‘Maybe.’ The next day his son was attempting to tame one of these horses and was riding it and was thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbors came round in the evening and said, ‘Well that’s too bad isn’t it?” and the farmer said maybe. And next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg and all the neighbors came around that evening and said Isn’t that wonderful and he said, ‘Maybe.’
This in a way in a certain sense reflects a fundamentally Taoistic attitude, which is that the whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity. And it is really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad. Because you never know what will be the consequences of a misfortune. Or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune. I know a woman who was quite happy until she inherited two million dollars. And then she became absolutely miserable because she was afflicted with paranoia that everybody was going to take it away from her, especially the government. And on the other hand, you’ve all known cases where some sort of ridiculous inconvenience or accident, served to preserve you from a worse one or else it was an occasion on which you met someone you fell in love with or formed a fast friendship with, you never know what is the chain the pattern the connection between events and it is for this reason that the Taoist has been a critical of two things. One, of words, and two, of interference. He criticizes words because among the confusions who were always literary people they had a thing going all the rectification of names.
Now I have to introduce this a little observation about confusions in general because they have their positive and their negative side but their negative side, but their rather exclusive interest in matters literary. In the history of Chinese civilization, no kind of rigorous scientific advance came through Confucian studies. Because they were scholastics, they were, that is to say. A scholastic is one who knows what’s in the book and believes what the ancient texts of the ancient scriptures say and he studies them and becomes proficient like a rabbi or a Christian theologian. But mystics are not interested very much in theology. All mystics have been interested in direct experience, and therefore although you may laugh at them as mystics and say they are not scientific, they are empirical in their approach, and the Taoists, being mystics were the only great group of ancient Chinese people who seriously studied nature. They were interested in it from the beginning, and their books are full of analogies between the principles of a Taoist way of life and the behavior of natural forces of water, of wind, of plants and rocks. In many many passages, Lao Tzu likens the Tao to water, in the fact that it doesn’t resist and yet nothing is stronger in the fact that it always takes the line of least resistance that it always seeks the lowest level which men abhor, and many many things are said about water many things are said about plants many things are said about the processes of growth, about wind, how wind plays music with all the orifices and openings in nature, and blows through them, and makes and brings out their particular hum.
So it was strangely enough, from the Taoists that Chinese people developed as much science as they did develop. But you know, they never developed anything like Western technology. And this is because, or in part because, there are many many reasons, some of them purely geographical. But one of the reasons why the Chinese did not go on to develop an advanced technology, had to do with names and it had to do with a certain attitude to nature.
Now, so far as names are concerned, the Taoists always laughed at the idea of the rectification of names, because they said, ‘Now look, when you compile a dictionary, you define your words with other words.’ Now, with what other words you go to define the words with which you define the words. So as to be sure you’ve got them straight. I remember when I was a small boy I wanted to write a book which would preserve for ever the fundamentals of human knowledge. And so the first thing I wrote down in it was the alphabet, and then I scratch my head, as how I would write down how to pronounce each of these letters. And I tried to spell out in letters how to pronounce letters, not realizing of course that this was a completely vicious circle. You have to have something in order to understand words, you have to have something else. And that is a very mysterious matter, the kind of understanding that we have of things, which we then go on to describe in words. And one realizes how much one learns as a child especially from other people which is never explicitly stated. How do you know for example, whether somebody who says something to you is serious or kidding? A great deal of confusion is caused by that even among adults. And how, the processes have been examined and analyzed and studied which are required for understanding the simple sentence. And we don’t yet know how the brain of a child accomplishes this extraordinary task. Which when an analyst looks at it, is extremely complicated. But of course you must realize that analysis is a way of making things complicated that we’re not complicated in the first place and it was like my task that I set myself as a child the amazingly complicated task of how to write down how the letters were pronounced.
Now, a great deal of academic energy goes into this task, of proving things that everybody knows. But they want to say precisely what thing is it that you know. How can delimit it, how can we pin it down exactly and this of course there’s very much involved also with law. And that’s why you devised bequeath. You know you got a whole long list of words I devised because we give cetera etc So that can be absolutely no doubt about what you mean, but as a matter of fact the trouble is the more definite you become with words in describing something the more doubt you create. And so the Taoists took a profoundly humorous attitude to the, to the Confucians interest in spelling things out. Because they said you can never do it. Do you ever play a game any of you called Vish? What the rules of this game. You get say there are five people playing and you appoint a referee and each person has a copy of the same dictionary say Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and then you have many words in a hat or something and the referee draws out a word and he says. Escalator. And then, you turn it up in the dictionary and then you get a definition and you look up an absolutely key word in the definition has to be a really crucial word not the or a or something and then you look at up and then you take a key word in that definition and then when you get back to the word escalator you raise your hand and call out Vish, which is short for a vicious circle. And thereby you have won the round and the referee is there to decide that you played fair and that you did take key words from each definition and so on and you didn’t cheat.
So, this shows you see how a dictionary unless it has little pictures in it. Which give you another way of understanding things a dictionary is an entirely circular process as simply a self defining affair. So that when you encounter, say I pick up a Chinese dictionary. Or better still for my purposes Supposing I pick up a Finnish dictionary which has nothing in it but Finnish language, it doesn’t tell me a thing. Because I haven’t got the key and the key to this language is not altogether communicable in language. So for this reason then, the Taoists being thoroughly skeptical of the power of words to describe the processes of the physical world.
Now, the Chinese language as such is a rather peculiar language unlike most other languages in that it neither declines its nouns, nor conjugates its verbs. There are certain ways sometimes of showing whether a verb indicates the future or whether it indicates the past but in general literally translated Chinese reads like a telegram. And so, the opening of the chapter of the Lao Tzu book on Te, that is to say on power, or virtue. Says in literal English. Superior Te. Not Te, thus this has. Inferior or of virtue not let go of virtue. Thus this not virtue. And this says it so succinctly.. And we have to go away bubbling around and saying, The superior form of virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and thus truly is virtue. But the inferior form of virtue so insists on being virtuous that it’s not virtue. And that’s a very complicated way of saying things as the Chinese says it’s so pithily. And so, but on the other hand, the the Chinese language which is not specific in this way that we can be, by declining nouns and conjugating verbs exactly what how and to whom we are have a better language and so do the Japanese, because they have an arrangement for using Chinese in such a way as to decline the nouns and conjugate the verbs. We have a better language for describing technological processes. You know how it is when you get a set of instructions to put something together. First do this, then do that, then do the other things well boy you should get some kind of a Chinese product from Hong Kong we’ve put together instructions and you just know where, you have to know how it’s done before you read it. Oh yes. So. You mean on these sort of emergency instructions yes?
But at the the compensatory delight of this language is that you can say several things at once and mean them all. And, however the point now that we go on to, is the second one. With this realization that language is a net which will never succeed in capturing the world, goes a reluctance to interfere with the processes of nature. Because what you think may be a good thing to do may be good only in the short run. It may turn out to be disastrous in the long run, to give the very simple example which is very close to the hearts of all Chinese and Asian people: the problem of population. What on earth are we going to do about that? Because, in times past the huge populations of India and China were pruned by perennial outbreaks of cholera and other diseases which wiped out millions of people famines and so the population was proved. Now however, with the methods of modern medicine, we begin to stamp out these plagues. But then a new plague turns up in the form of human beings. Too many of them. Well, you mustn’t you can’t just can’t go around in cold blood shooting down people are getting rid of people you regard as not making up to certain standards. It was somehow better if the cholera did it, because that was impersonal and it bore you know spite. But when human beings have to decide to get rid of each other then there’s real trouble.
So a Taoist would be on the whole inclined not to interfere with the course of events, because he feels that they are of a complexity so great that he, with his verbal interpretations, because all that we call scientific knowledge is a verbal interpretation of what’s going on, and of certain selection of things that we call good and the selection of certain things that we call bad. Well, he feels that he doesn’t really know in terms of words whether a given event is good or bad. He may feel badly about it but he may feel that this is the proper and appropriate way to feel in such circumstances, and that it will go over, it will pass for as Lao Tzu said, ‘The fierce gale does not last the whole morning. Nor does pelting rain go on all day.’ Maybe you haven’t lived in Big Sur. But still in general then he goes on to say if heaven and earth cannot keep up these things along how much less can mankind.
So this then is a basic attitude in Taoist philosophy which goes by the name of Wu Wei. And that is this. That means Wu, that means. Negative. And wei, wei means, doing, interfering, business. Poking into things. So Wu Wei means don’t interfere, don’t strive, don’t, don’t really the best meaning of Wu Wei is don’t force it. As when for example you’re opening a lock and the key doesn’t seem to turn if you force it, you’ll just bend the key so what you have to do is jiggle pull back and forth jiggle jiggle jiggle until you find the place where the key turns. And that’s Wu Wei. Wu Wei doesn’t mean total passivity, because you see, on the other side of the picture about interfering with nature. Is that you must interfere, there is no way of not interfering even when you look at something you interfere with it. It is your very existence is an interference with the environment, from a certain point of view.
So, there you are, you’re stuck with it. Everything you do alters the balance even if you sit perfectly still you’re still breathing, and that alters the, the nature of things going on around you. You’re exuding temperature and that changes something. And then when you start eating and doing all sorts of things like that you really do start changing things. So you can’t avoid interfering, and yet the the maxim is don’t interfere but it means best that translated don’t force it.
So then, what do you do? Well you have to interfere as wisely as possible. That is to say, you have to find out, how to interfere along the lines in which things are already developing. This is like sailing a boat. It is a much smarter to sail than to row, because it takes less energy. You simply use the wind by putting up a sheet. But then, supposing the wind isn’t going where you want to go. Then you learn to tack. But you keep the wind in your sails all the time and you use the wind to go against the wind. And therefrom comes the idea of Judo. Judo is the Japanese way of saying the gentle Tao, the gentle way. And, in Judo, the basic principle of the whole thing. Is that. You are not an attacker that underneath judo is a deeper philosophy called Aikido. The way of. And Aikido is that you can never be attacked, because when somebody attacks you, you are not there. Or, you are there, but in the form of a vacuum. So that the attacker get sucked in. So fast by his own force that he falls over. So, in Judo one always uses the strength of the opponent to bring about his downfall. You may add your own strength at a certain point. In other words, when you are throwing someone in Judo. There is a point where his own strength has taken him beyond the peak. You know, when a thing is falling over it reaches a certain peak where it’s gone you see, it’s all it’s on the way down. It is at this moment that you add your strength and saying wowee see, when there’s a curious throw in judo where you are you get a solid you get holding him and you get him up on your foot like this you see and then he is moving in this direction. So, just when he is off balance you go woops, like that and so anyway over on the floor that direction. But he has to be beyond the falling point you see and then only do you use your strength. Because all you have done now in executing this throw, was that you fell backwards with your own weight and he was pushing at you. You see at a moment when he was pushing at you like that it is entirely opportune to put your foot up and fall over backwards and. Because way over. And that’s quite a throw to get involved in I can assure you. But Judo, you see is a development out of the Taoist philosophy, by probably, Japanese people. Judo is relatively modern. But, it comes out of all sorts of understandings going back to Chinese ways of doing things and gradually amalgamated into the form in which we know it today. But it is a basic demonstration of this principle of wu wei, which Jafu has written now in cursive characters.
So, it isn’t an attitude of total passivity. It isn’t just doing nothing, as it literally says, not do. But it’s really not force. So you need always in every situation to find out which way the wind is blowing. Trim your sails to the wind. This is the meaning of it. Well now then, now how do you know which way the wind is blowing? Obviously a scientist would say to you Well we have to make a very careful analysis of the situation and find out just what’s going on. And then, this becomes extremely interesting because now scientists are doing this very seriously. And they have devised very important science that we call ecology. And in ecology we study the whole complex of relationships which lie between any organism and its environment. And when we get to the ecology of mankind it is simply fantastic. When you study, for example, the ecology between man and the world of microbes, and you try to decide what are good guys and bad guys among the microbes how to get rid of the bad guys without getting rid of the good guys and then realizing you need some of the bad guys otherwise the good guys fall apart. And some of the killers we use are on the, the level of medicine very much like what D.D.T. is on the level of agriculture it’s too indiscriminate. And it gets too many of the good guys along with the bad guys that you become after time very doubtful as to the precise definition of a good guy and a bad guy because you see every group every species has to have an enemy. That’s part of the whole mutual eating society arrangement of life. If you don’t have an enemy, then you start multiplying too much. Nothing prunes you. Then you start getting in your own way because there are too many of you you start eating up your all your own supplies of food stuff also you get soft. You’re not on the . You develop flabby muscles because you never get involved in a fight. And so gradually, the successful group fails. The group which managed to obliterate all its enemies will fall apart. But that’s the way things run. And the question is can we run the human race without awful bloodshed and murders and talkers and all that kind of thing can we somehow introduce a new kind of gamesmanship as a substitute for war.