Lessons From Lao Zi’s Teacher
When you learn about an outstanding thought leader or hero, do you ever get curious about that person’s teacher? Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) is the legendary founder of Daoism (Taoism), and I recently heard an insightful story about his teacher, Chang Cong (常樅). The original source is in Chinese, so I have translated it below:
When Chang Cong was in his late years, Lao Zi visited him. He asked, “Teacher, do you have any important lessons that you wish to pass on to your students?”
Chang Cong smiled at his student’s eagerness to learn. But rather than just tell his student, he focused on guiding him. He said, “Even if you didn’t ask me, I was going to tell you. Let me ask you three questions. First, when you pass through your home village during a trip, why should you not sit on your horse carriage?”
Lao Zi replied, “We must not forget our roots. Even though I am successful today, riding on my horse carriage, I would have nothing without all the people in my family and home village who helped to raise me. Thus, when I pass through my home village, I ought to pay my respect to them and show consideration towards them. I should not sit on my carriage and look down on them.”
Chang Cong nodded, then asked the next question, “When we encounter a giant tree while walking, why should we walk past it briskly?”
Lao Zi thought for a moment, then replied, “I believe this is a matter of respecting elders. A giant tree would be at least hundreds, if not thousands of years old. It would surely inspire my awe and respect. Just like how I would briskly walk past a highly respected person, so as to not attract their attention, I should briskly walk past this magnificent tree.”
Chang Cong nodded, then he opened his mouth and told Lao Zi to observe inside. He said, “Is my tongue still there?”
Lao Zi replied, “Yes.”
Chang Cong asked, “How about my teeth?”
Lao Zi replied, “Most of them are no longer there.”
Chang Cong asked, “From this, what realization have you come to?”
Lao Zi pondered, then said, “The tongue is soft and accommodating, thus it can endure. Teeth are hard and rigid, so they are short-lived.”
Chang Cong replied, “Excellent. I have no more to teach you.”
From this story, I reflected on four important lessons:
- Be grateful to our roots
- Respect elders
- Respect nature
- Be soft and adaptable
1: Be Grateful To Our Roots
A big problem in society nowadays is entitlement. People take so many things for granted with feeling gratitude. For example, we take our parents for granted. We don’t think about how hard it was for them to raise us, all the sleepless nights they had, all the things they sacrificed, all the mental energy they spend every day thinking of us. As a result, we become disrespectful and arrogant towards them. If we cannot even feel grateful and respectful to our parents (our roots), how can we be grateful and respectful towards others?
This was exactly my situation a few years ago. I was quite arrogant towards my mother, always thinking that I am more logical and well-informed than her. Since our parents are the closest people to us, the way we behave towards them is our true selves. Hence, even though I might seem respectful towards other people, if a big difference of opinion did occur, I would become arrogant and persist in my views.
Later, I realized that a lot of my unhappiness in life was due to conflict with my mother, and the root of that conflict was my arrogance and lack of gratitude towards her. Once I started focusing on gratitude towards her, as well as all her good points that I should learn from, I gradually gained more and more harmony with her. I understood that she always has my best intentions in mind, so naturally I became more respectful towards her.
2: Respect Elders
When we were young, we were probably all told to “respect your elders.” Perhaps when we became teenagers, we felt like our elders are naggy. But ultimately, our elders have more life experience than us, and they tell us our faults out of love and care. They want us to have a better future than them and to avoid the mistakes that they made.
Now that I am a high school teacher, I truly feel this way when I admonish my students to do their homework, to not waste their life away on video games, and to cherish their relationships with their parents.
When we understand the loving intentions of elders, we naturally feel respect and gratitude towards them.
3: Respect Nature
Respecting nature is more relevant than ever. Over the past century, humankind has been extremely disrespectful towards nature. We’ve already destroyed 80% of the world’s forest. That’s like having lung cancer destroying 80% of your lungs, except we are the cancer cells and the Earth is the victim. In the end, not only does the host die, but the cancer cells die too. I’ve written in detail about how we can save the environment in this article, but I’ll summarize some major things we can do here:
- Eat less meat, especially lamb and beef, because animal agriculture is the #1 contributor of greenhouse gases.
- Buy local food and/or organic food.
- Plant a garden.
- Compost food waste rather than putting them in the garbage.
- Save electricity by using LED light bulbs, energy efficient appliances, and good home insulation.
- Drive less. Use public transit, carpooling, biking, or walking.
I have made all of these changes in my life, and I can sleep with a peaceful conscience knowing that I am doing my part to help the environment. I found that many vegan protein sources are delicious, such as tofu, seitan, falafel, humus, and various beans and lentils. Moreover, I don’t feel heavy and greasy after eating them.
For groceries, I find that organic is quite expensive, so I buy local first, then organic. Both are good for the environment. At home, my family has very little food waste, but the food waste we do have goes to the compost and garden.
Our lights and home appliances are energy efficient, and our heating bills decreased a lot after we changed our insulation many years ago. As for travel, I make an effort to walk to places if they are within 20 minutes, such as my local grocery store, rather than driving these short distances.
4: Be Soft and Adaptable
Lao Zi highly praises water, saying, “The supreme goodness is like water.” Water is extremely soft and yielding. When water in a river meets bends and turns, it simply goes with the flow. When water encounters a rock, it flows around the rock. Whatever container you put water in, water can take on that shape.
If we reflect on ourselves, are we soft and adaptable or hard and rigid? My personality type is a planner. I always plan things in great detail, and when things didn’t go according to plan (which is very often!), I got annoyed. After learning about Daosim, I started to emulate the qualities of water. I learned that planning is only halfway to success, the other half is adapting.
For example, this past month, my schedule has been jam packed because I am attending a 12-hour online workshop every day. I had already planned my schedule previously to ensure I would have enough rest and work time. However, an unexpected event happened last week and took away a lot of my time. During that week, I had to adjust a lot of things, even sacrifice some things.
In the past, I would have been super annoyed. Getting annoyed is just me causing trouble for myself. This time, I viewed the situation as a challenge for my adaptability. Not only was I not annoyed, but I was determined to pass this challenge. In the end, everything worked out fine, and I improved my adaptability.
- Am I entitled or grateful towards my roots?
- How respectful am I to elders?
- How respectful am I to nature?
- Am I more soft and adaptable or more hard and rigid?
Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on August 13, 2022.