Four’s a bore
This is a section of the TTC in which Lao admits that although he is seen as a master who has understood the tao and who has a responsibility to teach it, he hasn’t got a bloody clue. He doesn’t give a concise definition of what it is and he confesses that he has no idea of where it came from. Next time you are facing a class, less prepared than you would like to be and a nagging headache that does nothing to distract you from the churnings of your stomach and the dryness of your mouth, you may seek some solace from this fact.
All Lao knows is that Tao is the source of everything and yet it contains nothing of substance. Much like conversation, you may be thinking. And that’s funny, because I was thinking the same thing. And we’re in good company too. Master Vygotsky, revolutionary Taoist, pointed out how all knowledge originates from outside the mind and is internalised through interaction and assimilation. For example, you are reading this and feeling amazed. Master V might root around and discover that, as an infant, you saw your parents pull funny faces at certain things and heard how they would exclaim, “My goodness gracious me! That’s amazing!” and you learnt to associate these funny faces and intonation patterns with amazement. As you progressed through life, you learnt what things could rightly be considered amazing and what might not. You were socialised into recognising feelings of amazement and, as they became personal feelings, they began to establish personal boundaries. In fact, Master Vygotsky might put it pretty much as “all learning is social”. We learn from being with people and interacting with them. From such an innocuous thing, we learn everything that we know. It is little, but contains everything. It contains nothing of substance, yet it is the source of everything.
When I read things like this, I often wonder whether Lao wasn’t in fact an English teacher who wandered off into the wilderness, frustrated less by the harshness of the world and more by the insistence of his students on learning a hundred words a day.
This fourth part of the Tao Te Ching also tells us that the Tao – and by extension, the way we should interact with our world – takes a sharp knife and blunts it. It takes a knot that ties everything in place and it undoes it. It takes the light that shines on the world and turns it off. So, the less incisive, less tied-up-in-knots, less bright students who take it easy in class are probably more in tune with taoist thought than the one who regularly turns in work before the deadline and enquires whether it would be okay to hand in just a little bit more.
Many people go out looking for Tao. When they think they have found it, they walk along the path and are dead pleased with themselves. Some are so conceited as to publish blogs on the subject. Of course, we could point out that their smug attitude may mask a nagging doubt that something is missing. Le Guin’s translation offers a suggestion what that might be: the way is not the road. The way is the dust that is on the road. Try and study it, but you’ll have your work cut out for you and you’re unlikely to turn up much more than is known already. Dust is dust, after all. Far better to just walk along it and not worry overly about what it is that you’re walking on. Keep your eye out for the dogshit though.
For the classroom practitioner, this section could serve to refocus attention on what is supposed to be happening in the classroom. These days we are supposed to be focusing on speaking, reading, listening, writing, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc. Each of these strands can be unpicked further to give us skimming, scanning, guessing unknown words from context, using discourse markers to trace the structure of a text etc etc et bloody cetera. We are rolling round in the dust like a bird without a uropygial gland (thank you Wikipedia).
Let’s revisit this section of the tao again: we don’t know where it came from; it’s based on nothing of substance, but it creates everything; it defies too deep an examination; it is maddeningly elusive; there’s not much point in over analysing it; it’s better to just get down and live with it. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that all of this applies to language learning and language study. Perhaps I should submit this blog as partial fulfilment of the requirements for my Masters degree in TESOL? Perhaps not.
Perhaps Lao was shouting out to the world’s language teachers: “Just allow people to talk in class. Don’t agonise over why this might be useful, just know that it is. If you’re really unsure, try to focus on what language is all about. People tend to talk it, especially when they are learning it at the start.” British Telecom used to tell us that “It’s good to talk.” Who would have thought that they were part of the Taoist conspiracy?
When you focus less on doing it the right way, you are doing it the best way.