Friday, March 30, 2012

Blessed, Blessed

Trey Smith

[Before I get to the thrust of this post, I want to point out that the recent questions and discussion concerning Baroness Radon's and my differing interpretations of some of the aspects of Taoism are not borne of any animosity. I value her opinions and perspectives -- probably even more than she knows -- but I don't always agree with them! That said, even in disagreement, she pushes me constantly to reexamine my own subjectivity, biases and prejudices. In my book, that's a very good thing!]

I have spent the past two or three days pondering this notion of the critical importance of understanding Chinese history and culture in order to fully comprehend the ancient Taoist texts. As I have pointed out previously, I do not disagree with the underlying premise -- my point of disagreement concerns how far to take this position.

From my perspective, there are many parts of the Tao Te Ching, for example, in which the sentiment or ideas presented are very straightforward.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
~ from Verse 1 ~
If I knew absolutely nothing about Chinese culture and history, I submit that I would still understand these two lines. There are many other such lines that state their point and intent in such a way that the average person can "get it" on a first or second reading.

On the other side of the ledger, there are parts of the TTC that come across as far more cryptic without a basic understanding of Chinese culture and history.
Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
~ from Verse 5 ~
When I first read this years ago, I'll admit that I asked myself, "What in the hell is a straw dog?" It wasn't until I did some research on the term that this verse made a lot more sense to me!

By offering these two examples, I'm trying to show that I get the point the Baroness has brought up again and again. When a person more acutely understands the Chinese worldview, their understanding of these ancient texts can only deepen. But this doesn't mean that, devoid of a full comprehension of the Chinese worldview, an individual can get nothing from books like the Tao Te Ching.

Let's look at a different belief system: Christianity. Most adherents do not possess an intimate knowledge of 1st Century Jewish history and culture. In the various discussions I've had over the years, few people understand the concept of midrash and how it impacts the various stories told in the New Testament. Despite this general lack of knowledge of most things Jewish, the majority of Christians understand the basic ideas laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.

Would knowledge about 1st Century Jewish culture deepen their understanding of the words and stories about Jesus and his disciples? Of course they would. Yet, lacking this knowledge does not mean that the Sermon on the Mount has no value for them.

In both examples shown above, we're talking about degrees of comprehension. The more knowledgeable a person is about the cultural milieu that gave birth to these ancient texts, the deeper the level of a person's understanding.

I get that point and I don't dispute it. But to suggest that without this intimate knowledge of history and culture a person can't understand much of anything of value seems to me like a bridge too far.

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