Friday, January 6, 2012

Making the Way Great

Scott Bradley

"Confucius said: 'It is man that can make the Way great, not the Way that can make man great.'" (Analects, XV:28)

This short aphorism has profound implications. It's one of those of which I sometimes say you’d do better to stop right here and take it away for your own ruminations. Because they are your own, they are better than anything I could possibly say.

The whole thing hangs on the meaning of the Way (Tao). So as to not get bogged down in the long, scholarly debate, I'll cut to the chase. Confucius' Tao was not the Taoists' Tao; for him it was less a metaphysical Source than it was a way of self-cultivation. Taoism, I believe, understands it as both. Tao stands for the unknowable Mystery; and it is the path which leads to a realization of the implications of that Mystery in one’s life.

The Way of Confucius then is a way to sagacity, a course of study focused primarily on the development of one's own character. Tao ‘is’ only as realized in us. There is no magic carpet. There is no redemptive elixir. The Way has no other power than that which we give it. It is we who make the Way. This is an incredible affirmation of the freedom and responsibility inherent in the human experience. In you and me. You are the work. I am the work. We are not in search of some exterior, spiritual socket into which to plug in; the power is in us.

To be in harmony with Tao is to be Tao-like. And how is Tao? Empty. Yet ever-giving. At least that's what the sages tell us. Yet isn't it easy enough to confirm? Isn't there an emptiness at the heart of you? And though it seems the greatest enemy to our relentless hunger to truly ‘be’, it is the essence of who we are. The realization of Tao in us is the realization of Tao.

To be Tao-like therefore, is to be the most essential you. We are Tao. It could not be otherwise. What is apparently unique in our Tao-ishness is our ability to be in or out of harmony with that reality. Yet however we might be is Tao manifest. One does not escape from Reality, even in denying it.

"It is man who can make the Way great, and not the Way that can make man great." We can debate endlessly whether there is freewill or no, whether there is causation or no. But in the end, there is this act of living and apparent becoming which prompts us to the work of making the Way great in ourselves. This was Confucius’ side of the coin. Other traditions emphasize the other side of the coin; the Way is great and all things are therefore also that greatness. Life makes no such distinction; it simply lives. We can walk two roads. All is well. So let’s get to work.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. Hmm, as for the either/or in this case, I'd go neither.

  2. And I go with both.

    It's all one coin (one Tao), it just kind of depends when and where you are in your life.

    Confucianism is about social order, the externals; Taoism is about the personal, internal.


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