Heaven and Earth are ruthless;I once spent a few months in Calcutta and during that time the city celebrated Durga Puja, the annual festival dedicated to the city's patron goddess, Durga. For about a week throughout the night effigies of Durga were paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of an improvised and cacophonic music. For days afterward I was startled to see those same effigies of straw, like human corpses, washed up on the filthy banks of the nearby Hooghly River.
To them the Ten Thousand Things are but as straw dogs.
The Sage too is ruthless;
To him the people are as straw dogs.
(The Way and Its Power, V; Waley)
This is essentially the meaning of the "straw dogs" to which Heaven and Earth gives not a second thought, nor, for that matter, a first. At our present remove, living as we do in an age when the Universe is conceivable as an utterly meaningless and godless material reality, where humanity is but the consequence of random chance, such a perspective is not so difficult to imagine. But the author of the Daodejing, though he would probably substantially agree with this perspective, would not, I think, have believed it robbed Reality of...a nameless, inconceivable... (The only word that comes to mind is "purpose", but that is precisely what it is not. Goodness, Completeness, Fullness are other words which likewise point in that same direction, but cannot go there.)
Straw dogs, effigies used in sacrifice, have their moment in the sun, and then return to the Nothing from which they came. In that moment, they are precious, but in the larger context, they are meaningless.
One of the great paradoxes of philosophical Daoism is that it washes reality clean of all those things to which we cling in the hope of meaning, so as to set us free of hope. If this seems more like a condemnation, then you have a sense of the paradox. It is a completely natural thing that we should seek meaning, having as it were that same Nothing from which we arose and to which we return at our very core. For the most part we seek it (and believe we find it) in utterly ridiculous things — material possessions, the esteem of others, sensual gratification. But we also construe a Universe in which meaning and purpose reside, a meaning and purpose which gives purpose to our own petty pursuits.
Our belief systems are indeed opiates. They help us cope. Understood as such, why would we wish to abandon them? Only because and if they fail in their purpose. Philosophical Daoism is an exploration of a freedom from all the content-full belief which supports our tenuous existence through fully embracing it. It is a great trustful leap back into Nothing. It’s good stuff, man.
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