Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 5 Commentary

This is part of a series examining the Tao Te Ching from a Christ-centered, LDS perspective. 

This brief chapter once again focuses on emptiness and wisdom, as well as the nature of "Heaven and Earth." Here it is:
Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs
Straw dog. Image here
The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs
The space between Heaven and Earth
Is it not like a bellows?
Empty, and yet never exhausted
It moves, and produces more
Too many words hasten failure
Cannot compare to keeping to the void
Straw Dogs

This can be a confusing chapter because of its confusing reference to straw dogs. The Internet explains that straw dogs are used ceremonially, in place of, obviously, real dogs, or whatever else.

Su Zhe's commentary on this verse explains: "Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them."[1]
 Another commentary adds:
Treats the people as straw dogs sounds cruel at first. Buddha once pointed out that it’s not the external form that love connects with, but an eternal essence—what some now call Buddha nature. ‘Loving’ something for its characteristics really reflects my own needs. Indeed, I can only feel true love when need, attachment and desire subside. 
Straw dogs are used in ceremony, and discarded afterward. It is not the actual form or composition which is revered but the sense of reverence and connection which a straw dog can facilitate. It serves as a vehicle. If it was the actual dog that was cherished, then who could discard it?
Not the straw dogs we're talking
about. Image here.
This whole straw dog thing really reminds me of temple worship and the role of the body. The body is an incredible miracle, and LDS doctrine is very clear about the importance of the body. It is crucial for salvation. It is our temple (see 1 Cor 6:19).

Yet, at the same time, the body is dust--and when we die, it becomes dust again (see Eccl 3:20). Just as the straw dog is used as a symbol for the purposes of ceremony and then discarded, so, in certain ways, is the human body. Our spiritual essence lives on with or without our body, and God loves us impartially whether we are currently experiencing mortality, yet to be born, or physically deceased and waiting for the resurrection. In that way, God regards not just humans, but all embodied creatures as "straw dogs"--like straw dogs, we use our temporary bodies, but then live on spiritually after the "straw" form of ourselves is discarded, returning to dust.

In our way, we are meant to use our bodies as ceremonial straw dogs--tempering and reining in our passions, and using our bodies to make covenants. But, like straw dogs, in repeated temple worship, we use our bodies as temporary houses for others--through proxy work. I may not be explaining this very well. Suffice it to say that at least to me, this is a very salient idea to the concept of proxy temple work.

This can also relate to Jesus Christ, who recognized His own body as the "straw dog" it was--allowing His body to be sacrificed and discarded, even as His spiritual essence remained.

Sages, the TTC teaches, are like God in this way--judging the world impartially, viewing the bodies on this planet not just as bodies but also as archetypes and as houses for eternal essences. I do not refer merely to human bodies, but to at least all living things--trees as housing the eternal essence of tree existence, for example. Or a dog's body as housing the dog's spirit, and as being a sort of archetype of doghood generally. It is an expansive way to view the world.

The space between Heaven and Earth

"The space between Heaven and Earth
Is it not like a bellows?
Empty, and yet never exhausted
It moves, and produces more."

Bellows. Public domain
Once again, we find the Tao Te Ching examining the benefits and capabilities of emptiness. Here, it compares the "empty" "space between Heaven and Earth" to a bellows, which uses movement to create. Another translation of that line reads, "The more it works, the more comes out."

In meditation, one of the goals is to empty the self of the ego, which we'll look at more in a minute. But in case you wonder what could be left of yourself or what you could do if you begin to empty yourself--this verse explains that emptiness can be as bellows, producing more with each movement.

In my own life, I was afraid to change because I felt like the changes God wanted me to make involved completely destroying and uprooting everything about myself that I liked. I was afraid that there would be none of me left. 

And in a way I was right--but it was amazing. I feel less of "myself" now than I ever have before--because I feel more connected to God and everyone else. I feel more capable now than I ever have before. I suspect it has to do with embracing emptiness and becoming like a bellows. 

Too many words hasten failure, cannot compare to keeping the void

I learn this idea the hard way over and over again. Another sage who understood this concept explained it like this: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt." Silence--keeping the void--is better than "much speaking." 


The wise remove attachment to material things; embrace emptiness; keep the void. 

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