The Tao of Who?

I am ignorant about many things. Advanced math. Basic math. How to speak Cree. What zebra tastes like. Where Waldo is right now. According to Benjamin Hoff, this is not a problem.

Tao of Pooh

My upbringing led me to believe ignorance is not bliss, but should be exterminated at all costs. Education, hard work and extensive reading were held as virtues. I am currently reading a little book called “The Tao of Pooh”, published in 1982 by Mr. Benjamin Hoff, and its philosophy disagrees with everything I’ve been taught. It suggests doing the complete opposite: trying to achieve nothing. Interesting.

At university I read plenty of Western literature, with my East Asian studies limited to translated Japanese culture – movies, literature, architecture and gardening. I learned about Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism only in passing.

A few years ago I recorded The Art of War, a Chinese military treatise and (so I was told) a prime example of Taoist thinking. Curiosity compelled me to buy a small pocket volume of the Tao Te Ching, but after struggling through the book once I found its way of defining through negatives – what the Tao is not – to be impenetrable, and surrendered to ignorance.

A few weeks ago I read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which was full of references to Confucianism. I had the distinct nasty-crawly feeling that there was a lot of subtext related to Chinese history and thought that I was missing. So I hunted down “The Tao of Pooh”, which proved very elusive to find at my local used book stores – a good omen of quality.

The Tao of Pooh is an easy introduction to Taoism, using Winnie the Pooh as your guide, narrator and mascot. Here is a more fulsome review than mine, if you’re curious to know more.

The basic principles of Taoism (as told by Wikipedia) are compassion, moderation, humility, naturalness, vitality, peace, “non-action” (effortless effort), emptiness (refinement), detachment, flexibility, receptiveness and spontaneity.

The principles of Taoism (as told in the book) are the Uncarved Block, the Cottlestone Pie principle, the Pooh Way, That Sort of Bear, and the Great Secret.

  1. The Uncarved Block, or “P’u”, is the idea that “things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power”. This describes Pooh, in his glorious simplemindedness.
  2. The Cottlestone Pie principle is similar, describing Inner Nature, that “things are as they are”. “Ask me a riddle and I reply: “Cottlestone, Cottlestone, Cottlestone Pie”. (very lolcattish, if you ask me)
  3. The Pooh Way, or “Wu Wei”, literally means “without doing, causing, or making”. When we work with our Inner Nature, and the nature of the things around us, we learn to go with the flow of life, wasting little effort. Chuang-tse’s story of the old man staying afloat in a stream is used to describe this idea: “I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power.”
  4. That Sort of Bear is a principle that states everyone is “special”. To find our Way and what we are made to do best, we must look in our Inner Self. Basically, if you’re born to be a stonecutter, be a stonecutter (this is where I *really* started to get lolcat flashbacks. “Stonecutter cat cuts stone”).
  5. The Great Secret is “the key that unlocks the doors of wisdom, happiness, and truth”. And how would one obtain this Great Secret? All you have to do is… wait for it… NOTHING. Nothing is after all something. The Taoists call this “T’ai Hs”: the Great Nothing. Emptiness and nothingness are the keys to achieving a fresh mind; a mind so clear that it develops fresh, new ideas.

While I’ve enjoyed the challenge to my preconceived assumptions, I have bones to pick with the author in his method of debate. Twice I had to put the book down in annoyance, because Hoff is so combative in defending his views. He fails to embrace the first “jewel” of Taoist ethics: compassion. I don’t take issue with his belief that Taoism is the one perfect Way (he’d be a poor advocate if he thought otherwise), but he pauses in his crusade to belittle other beliefs while arguing his point.

In Chapter 4, “Spelling Tuesday”, he’s very insulting to scholars and pokes fun at Owl, one of my favorite Winnie the Pooh characters. And in Chapter 7, “Bisy Backson”, he aggressively mocks ambition and hard work. But, but… what if my Inner Nature defines me as a Scholar? What if I am That Sort of Bear? Are Knowledge and Cleverness really so incompatible with Wisdom? If so, why did I spend all that money on those damned useless degrees?

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,”said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

I agree with Hoff’s assertion that many people in the modern world do things out of obligation, not natural inclination. We study to get jobs, not to acquire wisdom. We work to make money, not to fulfill our inner nature. I think taking a step back to consider what we truly are and what we really want is a good idea, difficult though that process may be.

But the political creature in me, small as she is, is skeptical of the motivations behind a philosophy that urges people not to look above their station, or to try and rise above what they were born to. If stonecutter loves to cut stone, let him or her continue in their natural path. But if they aspire to be something greater, why shouldn’t they rise and become a ‘Bisy Backson’?

Hoff uses cheerful examples of great men who eschewed formal schooling and went on to make history, like Buckminster Fuller and Thomas Edison. But what about the peasant in mainland China who harvests rice for a living? Is this philosophy going to help them discover their inner physicist/inventor? Or does it urge them to be content with their lot, lending credence to a society based on class divisions?

My own father was a stonecutter in his way – he cut coal out of mines before deciding to aspire to a different life and moving countries. He did not go with the flow of the stream, he swam against it, defying the life he was born to, and became a merchant. Would Taoist philosophy say my father should have remained a coal miner his whole life, not moving to Canada? Am I missing the point?

Everything has its own place and function. That applies to people, although many don’t seem to realize it, stuck as they are in the wrong job, the wrong marriage, or the wrong house. When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong.” -Benjamin Hoff

Next? Maybe I need to read The Te of Piglet to grasp the bigger picture…

6 thoughts on “The Tao of Who?

  1. The same thing that bugged you about Taoism also bugs me about Buddhism. I have no way of knowing if it was created for this purpose, but both seem like very easy ways to justify and prop up a stratified society. “Be content with the present moment and how things are” is so close to “Don’t challenge the status quo for yourself or others”

  2. I’ve never read The Tao of Pooh, so I’m hesitant to slag it too hard, but I think that maybe going back to some of the original sources might be more rewarding than proceeding to Hoff’s next opus.

    There are quite a few scholarly translations out there now of both the Daodejing and Zhuangzi, for example, along with various other core texts in the tradition, that could give you a more satisfying sense of Daoist ideas and their diversity. I’m not sure what edition of the Daodejing you picked up, but something with a proper introduction & footnotes makes a lot more sense than those versions that just toss you into a questionably translated series of aphorisms after some opening praise to the mystical wisdom of the East.

    Anyway, here are some concrete suggestions. There’s for the Laozi, which gets explicitly into a lot of the interpretive issues involved in dealing with these texts and is probably worthwhile just on that score. Then for Zhuangzi, there’s Burton Watson’s early but very readable “Basic Writings” ( And if you wanted something bigger-picture, I could probably dig something up – I’ve got a box of this stuff lying around my place somewhere.

    (Or you could just go back & read The Earthsea Trilogy again…)

    And regarding your worry about conservatism, both the books I just mentioned are pretty intensely political, which might come through more clearly in the primary texts than refracted through Hoff. I’m not saying that you’d find the arguments any more compelling, necessarily, just more interesting!

    One basic point re: conservatism, for e.g., is that a Daoist might plausibly argue that abusive social relations, domination and inequality are unnatural, so even accepting that there are human goods being a stonecutter (or whatever) deprives you of – and there are quite a few classical Greek thinkers who’d probably suggest that assumption was misguided, not just ancient Daoists – then there’s grounds there for bucking the system. In that case, it would be the only natural thing to do.

    And the ideal political situation described by Laozi, at least, doesn’t really bear any resemblance to modern western society, so taking his ideas as justifying today’s status quo (or any other) requires some fairly elaborate argument. Historically speaking, there’s a distinctive thread in China of Daoism as a dissident, socially volatile tradition that draws on some of these possibilities, and I know at least one or two serious contemporary philosophers who see it as a sort of indigenous democratic tradition.

    I’ll give you, though, that the consequences of Hoff’s ideas might be politically obnoxious.

  3. I never liked the feeling of inaction I got from Taoism. Too much chillaxing.

    Wu wei reminds me of Mushin, but I prefer Mushin because achieving the “no-mind” state requires constant learning and practice. You have to learn everything before you’re able to let it go. Zen + Swords ftw.

  4. It makes total sense that the Tao Te Ching was impenetrable. The Tao (or the void, Brahman, the purusha, the Self or whatever one wants to call it) cannot be understood intellectually because it is beyond mind. It simply is. I realize that in writing this I sound like a crazy lady. I spent years reading these things and they only began to have real meaning for me after a few years of intense meditative yoga practice. This either means that it works or that I have been completely indoctrinated.

    One Aikido sensei of mine used to say, “There is more than one way to the top of Mount Fuji” and the system that works for me is yoga and more recently Advaita Vedanta, and so perhaps not surprisingly my favourite descriptions of “it” are in the Upanishads, and also the Bhagavad Gita, but that was after a few years of struggling with it. So I practice mostly within those (related) traditions and not from a Taoist or Buddhist tradition, but they are basically systems that are all reaching for the same thing: realization and through realization the ending of suffering.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with intellectualism or cleverness. They are very useful tools. But they are just tools, so the problem is when they are confused with the real self (or no-self, or whatever your tradition calls it.). However the opposite extreme happens with some people who in pursuing these paths embrace anti-intellectualism (and maybe there is a little of this in the Tao of Pooh, I haven’t read it so I can’t say). By strongly identifying themselves with the form of a particular method, they are committing the same error as those who are attached to their intellects. It’s the same error committed by those who are attached to their cars, to their beauty, or to any form as all forms are non-permanent and it is attachment to that which will inevitably be destroyed that is seen as the root of suffering. It’s very easy to do this and I personally do it in all areas of life including in my yoga practice, the very thing that I use to try to free myself from it.

    Accepting the present moment (or going with the flow, or whatever) should not mean accepting the status quo, and anyone who says differently is in my view contorting the teachings. You see this in all traditions, religions, states, and pretty much any human organization of any kind, which in my view just shows the tenaciousness of the grip of egoic mind. The point of accepting the present moment is not to stop doing things, but to let go of your attachment to the fruits of your action. This should free you to engage in action for its own sake. If the present moment is the only thing that is real, you still plan for the future, you just don’t get caught up in it. You don’t need to worry about failing, or how you’ll look, and you don’t need to suffer now and think “I will only be happy at this point in the future when X happens.” From this viewpoint, your father’s decision to change his life fits perfectly within that framework, not least because it resulted in better lives for you and your family, and a big part of these practices is reducing the suffering of all beings in any way you can. Adherents often see all thing at their core are as being ultimately the same (non-dualism). Each person is a fragile and ephemeral manifestation of something exquisite and thus should be treasured as one treasures the brief blossoming of a cherry tree or the instant that a butterfly alights on one’s finger.

    But these are practices based on experience and it’s really hard to try to find words to talk describe something wordless. That’s why I think books about these things can only go so far. It’s like reading a book about running a marathon versus actually running a marathon.

    Love your blog, I am very glad I stopped by!

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