Li Erh grew up in China around six hundred years before Jesus was born in Palestine. He worked for the King of Zhou in Louyang as the keeper of the imperial archives, and spent a lifetime immersing himself in study of the ancient and sacred texts, becoming both knowledgeable and wise (two different things occasionally confused). The great Chinese philosopher Confucius travelled across China to meet him when Li Erh was an old man, and they entered a conversation that went on for several months and considerably influenced some aspects of Confucian thinking.
By the time he got to eighty years of age, Li Erh found the ways of the world failed to grip. He saw that most people had no interest in forging lives of simple goodness, and the resulting coarseness and shallowness left him cold. There came a point where he’d had enough, and made the decision to find his way clear, make his home in the quietness and loneliness of the desert, the wilderness, for his remaining years on Earth. He set off for Tibet.
When he reached the border of Ch’in, one of the guards begged that before he left them he write down and leave behind the legacy of his wisdom; for it was apparent to the guard that they would never see him again. Accordingly, Li Erh took three days sabbatical from the pilgrimage that would return his soul to the wild and set it free, in which he wrote down his perspective on life. He wrote on bamboo scrolls, which he gave to the guard; then he continued on his journey, and that was the last meeting with Li Erh recorded in Chinese history.
But they did keep his book. Treasured it, copied it; in due course translated it into many, many languages. Its calm wisdom, quiet like deep pools, has steadied and directed souls all this long time.
Li Erh earned many titles and descriptions that grew into titles, but he is best remembered by China’s favourite name for him – in English, The Old Master; in Chinese, Lao Tsu.
His short book, conceived over a lifetime’s thought and study, written down in the span of three days, took its title from the opening words of the two sections into which it falls; together they form a brilliantly terse summary, irreducible minimum description, of its subject matter and contents. Chapter One, opening the first part of the work, starts with the word Tao (meaning street/path/road/way). Chapter 38, opening part two, begins with the word Te (meaning innate or natural goodness – virtue). The people of China recognised this short and precious text as a wisdom classic; so they added to this succinct enscription the word Ching – meaning classic.
Thus came about Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, meaning loosely “Classic Text of the Way of Goodness”.
Why I am telling you all this is because this book has been very important in the development of my own thinking and understanding, and I want to write something here making reference to its thought (but I’ll do that tomorrow or this post would become far too long).
I wanted you to be clear about what the Tao Te Ching is, because many of my readers are Christian, and some Christians are suspicious of the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, fearing that its philosophy may be a rival to the Christian creeds, and fearing that reference to the Tao Te Ching may imply disloyalty to the sacred text of the Bible.
In England we have a radio show called Desert Island discs, where people in the public eye come as guest on the show to share which favourite pieces of music they would take with them to their desert island, should they ever be thus exiled. They are also allowed to choose one item or object to take with them (Enoch Powell, for some reason I remember, said he would take a fish kettle – very practical!) and in addition to the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, one book of their choice.
In such circumstances, I would take the Tao Te Ching.
But I want you to grasp, it’s not like the Koran or the Book of Mormon; it’s not a rival Bible.
When I was training for the ordained ministry, we were assessed on our reading (list, I mean, not reading aloud), our preaching, and some other aspects of our “performance” I’ve now forgotten, marked on a simple ABC system. I got straight As for all of it except preaching. My preaching was marked down to a B because of one particular trial sermon I had preached. In it, I made reference to a recent (then – back in the 1990s) article published by the Evangelical Alliance, in which they demonstrated the lordship of Jesus by announcing that the Buddha is dead, the prophet Mohammed is dead, but Jesus is alive!
I got into trouble for saying in the sermon that this pronouncement showed merely an ignorance about Buddhism and Islam. It wasn’t a resurrection contest. So far as I know Jesus is the only one supposed to be the Messiah, supposed to be the Son of David, supposed to rise from the dead. No-one else has ever claimed to be Lord of Creation, the Way the Truth and the Life. There are no other candidates for the post of Cosmic Logos of God. Suspicion and denigration of the faith path of others, mocking their leaders, shows merely a blinkered, small-minded view of life that betrays embarrassing lack of intellectual sophistication.
So I got a B for my sermon for being rude about the Evangelical Alliance.
This then clears the path for what I want to write tomorrow – about the Many, the Few and the One.
(You do know about Backson?)
Oh look. Another small jug. What can I say?