Home > Commentaries on TTC > 42 – The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

42 – The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

You may also be interested to know that 42 is a Catalan number.

This section of the TTC begins with what Ursula Leguin calls “a pocket cosmology”:

One begot two.

Two begot three.

And three begot the ten thousand things.

This, in itself, is a reason to rate Taoism over, say, Christianity. As anyone who has tried to read The Bible from the very beginning will tell you, the Christian book would continue, “And three begot four, and four begot five, and five begot six…” right the way up to 10 000. Lao was no fool – although in light of recent publishing, perhaps he was.

It’s tricky relating all of this to language teaching: this verse closes with

What others teach, I also teach; that is:

“A violent man will die a violent death!”

This will be the essence of my teaching.

Hold on very tightly; here we go…


First, let’s clear up the number conundrum. One? Two? Three? [Miss a few] Ten Thousand? I have to thank Naoto Matsumoto for this. One = Tao; Two = Tao; Three = Tao. Cool, eh? In the beginning there was one Tao. It gave rise to two taos – one which gave and one which received. One which was Ying and one which was Yang. It was defined as much as by what it was not as by what it was. In turn, this gave rise to three taos: the tao that moves between Tao One and Tao Two. This tao, for our sake, might be thought of as communication. And from this communiction, everything else in the world arises.

There’s something here about identity, reality and perception. My tao is the creator of my world. In other words, me. I am a creator of worlds (hear me roar). Your tao is you and your identity, reality and perception. What flows between us when we engage in communication is a rich stream of sounds and words that are intended to carry one message, but are open to being interpreted in any number of ways, before they moor at your dock and are imbued with your understanding. From our conversations, all that we know is learnt. One begets two begets three begets everything. If I was a musician, I’d put that to music.

But perhaps I’m being a little too up myself here. The pocket cosmology can be boiled down to this: when we have a message to transmit, we are like the first Tao. We find an audience. Now we have two taos: Tao One, the message carrier and Tao Two, the message receiver. But the message is an existence in itself- it is the third tao [cue zither music]. You might mean to say to your loved one, “Could you pass the salt, please dear.” But they might understand, “You’re making my life a f*@&ing misery! Why don’t you die?” From the conversations that we have with people, our world -our everything- emerges.

So. In a classroom this means what exactly? Simply put, I think it switches the focus of any lesson from things such as the Teaching of Grammar or the Learning of Words to the more productive Focus on Cooperative Meaning Making. This will involve such subskills as monitoring your audience carefully; asking for and giving clarification when required; showing incomprehension when necessary. The teacher’s role will be mainly to introduce strategies to the learners that will help them negotiate meaning more effectively and to help learners explore the sources of their incomprehensibility. This is where grammar may be of use. In fact, this is where the learning of words etc can also become relevant. Tao Teaching, aka Dogme, does not mean the adoption of new activities in the classroom, it just involves having a slightly different perspective on the whys and wherefores of what happens in the classroom.

But there’s more to Chapter 42 than a mere Cosmos In My Pocket (and I’m glad to see you). As they are so clearly aphorisms that LT wanted us to pay attention to, I propose to look quickly at two more things from this chapter: firstly, LT’s assertion that

Whatever you lose, you’ve won.

Whatever you win, you’ve lost.

and the rather grandiose

What others teach, I say too:

violence and aggression

destry themselves.

My teaching rests on that.

"And the winner of some sheep, some clothes and some innocence is..." It's quite frightening when you stop to think of how Bo Peep became a sexualised shepherd. Try it. See? Frightening.

To begin with the first: it seems quite straightforward: Tao teaching is not about gadgetry. It recognises that there is a primordial completeness to the basic art of conversation. The gourd is full. When we add something to the gourd, the water spilleth over. Verily. Sure, we may be adding to it, but we will inevitably lose something. The view that Whatever you lose, you’ve won is also an exhortation to try to lose the unnecessary, because every time you successfully lose something, you are winning. Bo Peep was an exemplary taoist shepherd. So look around the classroom and identify the elements of it that are not really serving to help people in their struggle to acquire the language that you are teaching. Perhaps you will identify nothing and feel that you have wasted your time. However, even the lost time results in the prize of critically examining your daily practice. Many of us don’t have the time to permit ourselves the luxury of doing this. You will have just done it.

And the stanza about violence and aggression, what relevance does this have to the language teacher? I think it functions on at least two levels. The first is to say that what goes against Tao -i.e. the Way that things really are- is violent and aggressive. Why? Because it attempts to impose an understanding of the world that does not fit. And, as I discover when trying on new jeans in the store, when things don’t fit, only brute force can get the job done. So, the teaching that adopts a style at odds with the Ways That People Learn is doomed to destroy itself (that is, fail). And on a second level, I think that LT is referring us to a feature of Tao. You may go in and teach your way (and, indeed, what other way can you teach?), but the learners may come in and learn their ways. If the ways don’t fit, then it may be that one way or set of ways ends up imposing itself on the other ways. In such a case, we need not worry: the violence and aggression of this Way-like colonialism will destroy itself and render itself ineffective. Oh dear. I’m not being very clear here, am I?

I mean that if you go in and impose your Grammar Syllabus Mentality upon a room of Socioconstructivist Communicativists, do not fear. The violence and aggression that you need to assert your right will end up eating itself. You needn’t take steps to eliminate them because they will eliminate themselves. And from your Grammar Syllabus floundering, the Sociocontructivist Communicativists will draw their own conclusions. Put in its simplest form, this part could well mean: Everything comes out well in the wash.

It is important to note that LT claims that his teaching rests on this truth. That is, it is the fundamental bedrock of taoism (and therefore of taoist teaching). Whenever we strive to impose our way on the way(s), we are going to perish. Which begs the question, why bother?



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Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. November 9, 2010 at 18:13

    I think I’m going to use the principle of losing the unnecessary in my next post. Very nice. More posts on Liverpool FC to come, now that you’re singing and winning? 😉

  2. dfogarty
    November 10, 2010 at 08:21

    The Reds may yet make an appearance!

  1. November 9, 2010 at 23:52

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