Taoism, Confucius, and the Art of Being Excellent

In Taoism, the philosopher Lao Tzu explains the Tao as the origin of all things. Although it has no form, cannot be perceived, cannot be named, and is not a God, it exists all around us. Individuals and things are seen as manifestations of the Tao. In Confucianism, the Tao is perceived in the human world and in our human relationships. Confucius taught that in order for the Tao to be manifested in human beings we must be trained in virtue. Training in virtue produces excellent human beings which in turn will produce excellent social leaders.

For Taoists the importance is on transcending the human world, to look beyond duality and our world of opposites, right vs. wrong, hot vs. cold, good vs. bad. All opposites are seen to balance each other. Acceptance of this can lead to transcendence. Confucianism focuses more on the development of the superior human being, to be excellent, and noble, to develop the Tao in the individual. The importance is on daily living, to be considerate of others, to show kind-heartedness, benevolence, and compassion.

Although different in the sense that Taoism is focused purely on the spiritual world while Confucianism is focused purely on the social world, the two seem to go hand in hand. For how can we have a pure experience of the spiritual world while our existence is placed in a social setting? Sitting on a mountain top in meditation may bring enlightenment to some, but what happens to that enlightenment once we climb down off that mountain and interact with the rest of the world?

Most religions teach the Golden Rule, that we must not do unto others that which we do not want done to ourselves. Hinduism and Buddhism also both teach the laws of cause and effect, and karma, that it is what we do in this life which will determine what happens in the next one. Yet all we really know for certain is what is here and now. Often times it is the energy we put forth that will determine our experiences in any given moment. Although not always the case, I personally have seen this to be true more often than not.

It is because of this awareness that I find certain events in life easier to accept and deal with. Those annoying happenstances that aim to ruin a day, to make us feel powerless, to anger and exhaust our serenity. It really is our responses to these things that shape and direct the energy we put out and what we will ultimately experience when we are taking it in. As the old cliche illustrates, adding fuel to the fire can lead to unwelcome consequences.

For example, the man who works for roadside assistance who came out to change my sister's flat tire the other day was a curmudgeonly old sourpuss. He had made it quite clear to us that he was extremely unhappy to be there. This in turn created a reaction in my sister that made her want to serve him up a similar dish of divisiveness. Yet this only aggravated the cantankerous old coot and made him even more disagreeable.

As I watched this tennis match of bad behavior I found it interesting that I wasn't feeling any emotion either way. I decided to diffuse the angry air with a sincere "thank you" once he had finished, he ignored me entirely, got into his car and drove away. At first I felt a flash of ire rise up inside me, but I quickly quelled it with the thought of, "what's the point"? Life is too short to waste emotional time on these day to day happenstances. Had I allowed myself to exacerbate the situation our experience may have turned out quite differently.

I am getting much better at revealing how the glass is always half-full, rather than half-empty. For example, at least it wasn't raining or snowing, at least we weren't driving when we got the flat, at least I was there with my sister rather than her being alone, at least he changed the tire quickly etc. etc.

Perhaps it is age that has mellowed me or perhaps it's more from the experience in knowing exactly how cause and effect can work. When one is violent, one will experience violence, when one is loving, one will experience love. That seems to be the way it goes, at least most of the time.

Change is inevitable in a world that is forever shifting, moving, transforming, and dying only to be reborn. A constant cycle, as we move around the wheel of life. Why then do we try to cling to permanence in an impermanent world? We hold onto relationships, jobs, places, things, as if they were all actually ours to possess. Yet we also know in our minds that all these things eventually turn to dust and disappear from our lives, but still we are shocked and surprised when we lose these things. Perhaps we choose to ignore the fact that nothing in this world is permanent in order to continue on with our lives. For how can we live in a world that changes constantly? What meaning can it hold for us when we eventually lose everything that we gain? What is the point?

We can but only continue on our journey through life, doing the best we can, learning to be excellent human beings, forgiving ourselves and others for mistakes along the way, and accepting that the other side of joy is pain. It is futile to try and reconcile the opposites, we must but accept and transcend them, (Taoism). Although they may seem to be, they are not mutually exclusive, they come as a complete package.

A little love and understanding can go a long way, we should be mindful of that when we interact with others in our daily lives, when those annoyances seduce us into reacting angrily, or causing pain to another, we can choose to behave differently, (Confucianism).

Perhaps if we develop our inherent nobility we will be able to experience the Tao in ourselves and in others. The contentedness of the spiritual world might yet be attainable without having to sit on a mountain top far away from everyone else and once we can recognize this our training in virtue has already begun.

Or to put it simply, as in the very wise words of Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to each other.”


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