Chapter 41: On and Off
“Thoughtful people hear about the Way
and try hard to follow it.
Ordinary people hear about the Way
and wander onto it and off it.
Thoughtless people hear about the Way
and make jokes about it.
It wouldn’t be the Way
if there weren’t jokes about it.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
The reader is tempted here to pick the “correct” method of approach—to be thoughtful, ordinary, or thoughtless—as though the text were testing her. But what unites all three is that they only “hear about the Way.” They are all false paths to the Way, because all paths to the Way are false; they assume the Way is something out there, over there, to be found. But to paraphrase Ken Wilber, the Way is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid.
By offering three paths, the chapter disrupts our binary mode of thinking. Thoughtful and thoughtless are mutually exclusive opposites that would seem to exclude a third option. But ordinarily, we are always a little thoughtful and a little thoughtless, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s a spectrum across which we are constantly wandering.
Perhaps then the chapter is itself a joke about the Way. Spirituality is much too serious a business, and the more it becomes like a business, the more serious it gets. If, as Anne Lamotte likes to say, “laughter is carbonated holiness,” that would make the standup comedian a kind of high priest.
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