45 – Warning: May contain brimfuls of Asha
The central motif will be this astonishingly good song by Cornershop. To the left of this drivel is a picture of Asha Bhosle who smashed into the consciousness of millions of non-Indians when Cornershop sang a beautiful paean to her back in 1997. At first, I thought I was just being smart, but on reflection, Asha Bhosle is a good Queen to reign over this chapter of the Tao Te Ching.
For those of you who don’t know, Asha is an (the??) Indian background singer – the ones who supply beautiful voices to the lip-synching of the actors in the Bollywood film industry. And as this chapter is largely about how things are not always what they seem, I invoke the name of Asha and call her blessings down upon us.
Great accomplishment seems imperfect,
Yet it does not outlive its usefulness.
Great fullness seems empty,
Yet it cannot be exhausted.
Ye Gods! Can the man not just say something straight?!
What’s that? Oh! Maybe he was speaking straight after all. Let’s have a closer look.
Perhaps Mr Tzu is just saying that there is always an urge to do better. Even when our achievemets are great, we still stand there and look critically at it. We know we can always add a bit more. More importantly, when our learners’ achievements are breathtaking, we might be guilty of standing back and spotting the imperfections. I know that I regularly have to remind myself that what my 19 year old Chinese students, my 16 year old Vietnamese students, my 20 year old Japanese students and all my students of other ages and nationalities have achieved is mind-blowing. My first temptation is usually to score their written work with blood red biro until it looks like a crime scene from Dexter.
I can’t really be so blasé about the great empty-seeming fullness because it references what is for me one of the most fascinating aspects of taoism, the concept of wu-chi. Those of you who were paying attention earlier will have come across the concept of wu-wei, action through non-action. As linguists, based on this one example, you will have concurred that wu is a negative prefix (you didn’t? What’s wrong with you?). You will be hazarding a guess that Wu-chi, whilst sounding like a character from Star Wars, is in fact an emptiness that contains everything. From the emptiness comes the world, the universe and all that is in it. But it’s still empty. Taoists are on a mission to empty themselves of all that is in order to be able to surf on the great emptiness. It is the motherlode of tao.
It is also the opposite of most English language classrooms where, rather than a full emptiness, we can witness an empty fullness. The teacher’s arsenal is replete with all manner of gadgetry and wizardry. But these run out. The final chapter of the DVD is watched; the technology becomes dated. But the emptiness that is full cannot be exhausted. The decision to base a class around whatever happens in that class will mean that what is done is always relevant, always valuable.
Such an approach has been referred to as winging-it elevated to an art form, but let’s move away from facetiousness. This chapter of the TTC is telling us to go beyond the superficial and look at what is hidden behind the curtain.
Great straightness seems twisted
Great intelligence seems stupid.
Great eloquence seems awkward.
People agonise over what dogme might be when, at least to my mind, it is remarkably simple: it is a label applied to a variety of pedagogical theories, ideologies and practices. If it’s a label, what’s in the bottle? they ask as if labels were only applied to bottles. The idea that seems to underpin these thoughts is the idea that you only ever label a finished product that can be blended into one unique product and made available for consumption. But that’s not true. We can all talk about human nature and label things inhuman. But we are only referencing certain aspects of human nature with the term human nature. And when we label things inhuman, our language becomes oxymoronic – one of the defining features of human nature is its capacity for inhumanity. Labels are applied for identification purposes alone. What they mean is not always the most important thing, it’s what we want them to mean that is more revealing.
Leguin finishes her translation of this chapter with a delightful three lines:
To be comfortable in the cold, keep moving;
to be comfortable in the heat, hold still;
to be comfortable in the world, stay calm and clear.
Know how to be and you will be fine. Attune yourself to your surroundings and behave accordingly. Don’t be misled by appearances and don’t expect clear cut answers to all of your questions. More often than not, an honest answer is an incoherent one; the wisest thought is obvious even to the uneducated; the world frequently defies a straightforward explanation. But if you go beyond the surface level, you may get enough information to reach a more accurate understanding. And getting beyond the surface level is easily achieved – just by adopting a querying mind. Never assume that you get it; always ask questions. Always look for questions.
Explore everything and you will find something.