“Abandon knowledge… abandon righteousness… discard profit. These three things are superficial and insufficient. Thus, this teaching has its place: Show plainness, hold simplicity, reduce selfishness, decrease desires.” The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Abandon knowledge and righteousness and then discard profit? Huh? With just six words the 5th century (BC) Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, seems to suggest that I discard three of my most dear values: knowledge, righteousness, and financial profit.
Yet there is more to it, isn’t there?
The Upside-Downness of Wisdom Literature
So it is with “wisdom literature”—a genre aimed to surprise or shock the reader/student into reevaluating what is most important in the quest of a well-lived life. Richard Rohr calls it Upside-Down Thinking. Just think of the confounding words of Jesus: “lose your life and you will find it” or “the last will be first and the first will be last” or “it is better to give than to receive.”
What we perceive as most valuable in life is frequently challenged by history’s deepest thinkers. Just as it is with the somewhat confounding words of Jesus, the same is often true with Lao Tzu. I don’t think he is suggesting that we abandon altogether knowledge, righteousness, and profit, but that we abandon (or at least reconsider) the priority of these actions in our daily lives.
Matters of the Heart vs Matters of the Ego
What matters most in the minds of sages and prophets are matters of the heart—upon what do you place your highest value, they ask. For Lao Tzu the highest value can be discovered only when we stop thinking about the needs of the small self (or the ego). Instead of a focus on accomplishments like the acquisition of knowledge or righteousness or profit, the sage invites us to consider a focus on the spiritual health of our innermost core.
“Show plainness, hold simplicity, reduce selfishness, and decrease desires.” These four attributes define the “enlightened” self, the one who “considers the needs of others as more important than the needs of the self.”
Let’s very briefly consider the four attributes:
- Show plainness: Look not to impress others with personal traits such as intelligence or spirituality.
- Hold simplicity: Less of everything, except love.
- Reduce selfishness: This particular attitude is essentially the loss of ego-driven actions that are more concerned with the self than with what is best for all involved.
- Decrease desires: It is with this one that, for me, Lao Tzu goes from “preaching to meddling.” After much reflection on this, I have concluded that desire may be the most insidious of all. Many of my desires are merely attempts to protect or serve my own needinesses. Once again, acquiescing to the needs of the small self.
What Matters Most?
Plainness, simplicity, selflessness, and regulated desires.
Yes. These are indeed paths to a life worth living!
Hmm… It Actually is All About Me
Just Not the Way I Thought
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