Chapter 31: Against War
“Even the best weapon
is an unhappy tool,
hateful to living things.
So the follower of the Way
Stays away from it.
Weapons are unhappy tools,
Not chosen by thoughtful people,
To be used only when there is no choice,
And with a calm, still mind,
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
The refrain is part of the catechism of childhood and, like most such things, it blends truth and falsehood. As we get older, we learn that not only do words hurt, but that they are the chief weapons in the main arena of conflict in day to day life: our relationships not with our enemies but our intimates: family, friends, colleagues.
Just as Daoism might seem to preach pacifism in the theater of war, it can appear to counsel quietism in the theater of words. But this is not so. As the excerpt reads, weapons should be used only when there is no choice. So with words.
Language is the double-edged sword we are born to wield. It cuts—it separates this from that, separating what God has joined—but it also points—it illuminates this from the background of that. To use words in a “thoughtful” way, with a “calm, still mind,” is to remember what words are—that, as Emerson put it, “Every word was once a poem.”
The Word, then, is not really a word. It refers to the creative fount from which all words and things arise. When we read in John’s Gospel that “In the beginning was the Word,” we could translate that as Logos, as Dao, as Buddhanature. These are all super-cyphers to remind us that all words are poems, a kind of Rosetta Stone to help us decode the matrix of the mundane.
When God creates in Genesis, he does so in two ways that are really one: speaking and separating. Conventional Christian theology separates the Creator and the Creation, the Dao and the 10,000 things. But wisdom is crazy, not conventional: the nondual spirit of the Asian traditions can help Christianity see what it is truly saying: that, as Alan Watts put it, “matter is spirit named.” The message of the incarnation is not so much that spirit became matter or God became human or the Word became flesh at some point in time, as though it were just hanging out in some eternal ether with nothing to do. What we call creation is still happening. The Big Bang is still banging. The Dao is still Daoing.
When God said that each and every thing he created was “good,” he could say that because he created with a calm, still mind. He spoke and separated only with a view to love—and for the fun of it. That is why the Hindus regard the universe as lila, God’s play. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is only when Arjuna has realized this that he can take up his sword, do his duty, and join in the fray.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”