Humour and the Tao

Despite its simplicity, the philosophy of the Lao Tzu can often come across as strange, the meanings elusive and the tone serious. Especially as pertains to the tone, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as we here at nothingjustis dig deeper and deeper into the Tao, the more we realize, not only what a comedian Lao Tzu can be, but the importance of humour in understanding the way. This realization is shared by many others familiar with his work.

Perhaps the best introduction to the humorous and happy side of Lao Tzu is provided in The Tao of Pooh. Benjamin Hoff begins his book with a discussion of the painting, “The Vinegar Tasters!”:

As Hoff explains, “three men are standing around a vat of vinegar. Each one has dipped his finger into the vinegar and has tasted it. The expression on each man’s face shows his individual reaction. Since the painting is allegorical, we are to understand that these are no ordinary vinegar tasters, but are instead representatives of the “Three Teachings” of China, and that the vinegar they are sampling represents the Essence of Life. The three masters are Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Zi, author of the oldest existing book of Taoism. The first has a sour look on his face, the second wears a bitter expression, but the third man is smiling.”

According to Hoff, to Confucious life is sour because the laws of man are out of sync with the laws of universe. To Buddha, life is bitter, full of illusions and attachements that breed pain. But, for the smiling Lao Tzu, life is sweet, and so he smiles. Tao, the way, helps to realize that the earth mirrors the universe, is an expression of it. As Hoff writes, “Taoist understanding changes what others may perceive as negative into something positive. From the Taoist point of view, sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet.”

However, this is not the end of the importance of humour. It is not enough to simply smile in the face of the negative moments in life and to try to make the best of hard times. Certainly it is true that at certain difficult moments, there is simply no option but to have a good laugh. But ever more difficult, especially at first, is to laugh at the expense of one’s self. As Alan Watts writes, “True humour is, indeed, laughter at one’s Self — at the Divine Comedy, the fabulous deception, whereby one comes to imagine that a creature in existence is not also of existence, that what man is is not also what everything is.” In other words, deluded by the emergence of consciousness, Jaynesian or not, we come to believe that our death is the end just because it is the end of the consciousness developed as a tool to think critically. Since we have come to cling to this consciousness as our Self, and with a similar desperation that this consciousness is what makes us special, separate and fundamentally different, its end seems to imply the end of us. But since we are a manifestation of everything, a matter of matter in motion, what we are carries on and on and on. And on.

Lao Tzu, in a moment of comedic humility, reminds us of just such a truth in Chapter 11. In our rendition, as many others, the importance of the lesson, one of many counter-intuitive truths offered in the Tao, is that our bodies are vessels for the continuation of Tao. Lao Tzu discusses this with reference to bowls and wheels, innocuous objects themselves, much like our own bodies, that nevertheless illustrate a grand truth about the cycle of life. Remember: Something is not everything. Nothing is also essential. So it goes…

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