Tuesday, 21 August 2007

India and the Tao Te Ching

We've been living in India now for about three weeks; a mixed experience so far. Most days have started with breakfast and then a session of meditation on Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching - reading one chapter each session we've reached number ten. It turns out that this has been an excellent discipline to help us cope with a pretty serious cultural adjustment...

Therefore having and not having arise together (Tao Te Ching 2). Indeed they do and, in India, having and not having arise right next to each other. We live in an entirely adequate flat with the luxury of a lap top and an internet connection. Since we've been here we've spent some 20 000 rupees (about £250) on "essentials" like a couple of bikes, some Indian clothes, a pair of trainers, a guitar, a couple of days out... Now that we've got what we "need" we've started to tighten our belts a little but even so we are having some difficulty keeping to our daily income of 500 rupees (about £6).

And yet 80% of Indians live on 20 Rupees (25p) a day. How they do this I have no idea. I presume it must involve being hungry every day; it must involve having to work, scrounge, hustle every day; it must involve indignity and discomfort every day. And worse, of course, for many it involves illness, disability, a hugely diminished quality of life and, ultimately, an early death (the healthy life expectancy here is more than fifteen years less than in the UK).

I knew all this long before I got here of course - in my head. But in the West we rarely encounter poverty in such a spectacular way. There is severe poverty in the West but it is ghetto-ised; we have marginalised people not just socially, economically and politically, but geographically. Middle-class Westerners are rarely forced to encounter the poor. Indeed we've separated having and not having so successfully that a lot of good middle class folk feel distinctly irritated if some poor bugger has the temerity to break the illusion and ask them for 50p...

For of course our having and their not having are intimately connected - and that's eminently obvious here. Each time I want to go to the shops here I have to cross a stinking canal (a relic of British rule) on the banks of which live a number of utterly destitute families. The same little children smile at me each time I pass; I see the same old lady sitting under her hut (several pieces of corrugated iron) but she doesn't smile as much as the children.

How am I to respond to this?

If nothing is done, then all will be well (Tao Te Ching 3). Oh really?! I wonder what that old lady would say if I were to run this by her...

A little bit of reflection has opened my eyes a little though. Two things occur to me. Firstly I need to understand how to do nothing. By which I don't mean not doing anything. Doing nothing is an active process - it won't just happen by itself! Perhaps the nearest verb that I can use to describe it is "emptying". At the end of a process of emptying one has less than when one started, but that doesn't mean you've not been doing anything...

So perhaps the sage means that to act truly I must act from a place of nothingness. In particular I'm not acting from a place cluttered by myself and my needs - I'm not achieving, I'm doing only what is to be done.

Contrary to first impressions, this is intensely practical! I have to make sure that any response to my situation here is considered and appropriate. I cannot be in the business of assuaging my Western guilt - that is not the point. I must respond in a way which affirms life for its own sake.

However I'm still not sure what form that response will take...

The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies (Tao Te Ching 3). And this is the second thing that has occurred to me. One of the beautiful things about the Tao Te Ching is that a lot of it appears to be bullshit! What is this bloke on about?

And yet herein lies the nub of its wisdom. Lao Tsu knows the danger of truth - a danger so great that he often avoids truth altogether. Rather his language is one of suggestion, implication, even plain nonsense and contradiction. The responsibility is on the reader to sort through his hints and suggestions, to make sense of his absurdities... and to jettison the bollox!

This might appear odd at first but of course it is really the responsibility that every reader has every time they open a book or a newspaper, most especially a book which has the status of a religious text. The fact that too many readers don't do this is evidenced by the fundamentalist nutters who trot about the place spouting hate. But I get the feeling that it's kind of hard to be a fundamentalist Taoist and thank God, Allah and most especially, thank Lao Tsu for saving us from that.

And of course in the light of such demonstrable wisdom from Mr Tsu, the reader of the Tao Te Ching would be well-advised to think carefully before she really does decide he's talking bollox. So the wise rule by stuffing bellies, eh? Think on that...


Stottpot said...

From a new bloggers point of view, I am beginning to understand that more and more people are choosing to "jettison the bollox" as you put it.

I agree, Lao Tsu is challenging our search for expert advice/wisdom. He is encouraging us to think for ourselves which we have inherently been taught not to do (by corporate media and mainstream education). Their messgae is "buy this because we're the experts".

With the development of the internet and social networking tools such as Facebook and billions of blogs, people are looking to each other for their experiences as a means of making purchasing/lifestyle choices.

To add to your 'doing nothing', I feel this statement is about not making assumptions. You imply that the lady you pass on the way to the shops is somehow unhappy with her lot and that she wouldn't agree with the sentiment of 'doing nothing'.

Reading between the lines, it seems you are assuming that because she is poor, she isn't happy. This might be entirely incorrect. You are assuming that access to resources is going to be the biggest factor in her happiness, but what about her family, faith and community? She might be using these a her top three happiness indicators. She might even pity you, the Westerner that rushes by her, who is away from his family and friends, under pressure to perform at work and seems totally preoccuoied with thoughts. Perhaps she wold advocate that you try 'doing nothing'.

So here's to power to the people, confidence to jettison the bollox and trying to 'do' nothing.

Hobgoblin said...


I'd recommend reading The Sound of the Earth by HART SPRAGER... after reading your India experience. Here is one American who's got the pulse of the place I call my motherland - India, as accurately as any American could get. Besides its a good overall read.

I agree that there are many people who can survive in India on Rs. 20 for a day. Thats thanks to food items like Vada Pav or chaat and some such that are very cost effective, healthy and make sumptious filling meals. But you will be amused to know that most beggars on the streets of India make more money than the so called Middle class of India.

I'd love to know which city you stayed in. I am assuming Delhi from your description, but I may be wrong.