Have you heard people refer to repeated actions in their daily routines as ritual? For example, someone might say stopping for coffee on the way to work is part of my morning ritual. What is meant by this word ritual? It seems to carry a positive connotation, but also implies an underlying passivity, something a person does without thinking. Can an action that is the product of mindless repetition be good? The Tao Te Ching address this contradiction, ultimately classifying ritual as the simplest form of faith and loyalty.
In the second half of Poem 38, the attributed author, Lao Tsu, references actions or behaviors that we might consider virtuous and exposes how far away from the ideal they are. From the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English translation:
Therefore when the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning
With each line, we move one step farther away from the ideal, which is the Tao. A great deal could be said here about what exactly the Tao is, but for the sake of brevity, know that the Tao is the best thing that one could possibly emulate. The Ralph Allen Dale translation refers to the Tao as the Great Integrity. Let us go through these important steps briefly and then address ritual.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness. If every person were good in all their actions and thoughts, our world would be as near ideal as possible, yet this is oftentimes difficult to achieve on a daily basis, individually or collectively.
When we lose goodness, there is kindness. Kindness is obviously a good trait to have, but it is a notch below goodness because kindness is a property of goodness, similar to how sweetness is a property of an apple. There are many varieties of goodness just as there are many properties of an apple; kindness is only one.
When we cannot be good or kind we must turn to justice, which is a system of rules and consequences utilized to maintain order. In its own way, justice is a good because it helps alleviate revenge or blood feuds between families or larger organizations. In other words, it settles things, even though both sides begrudgingly go on with their lives nursing their wounds afterwards.
The Husk of Faith and Loyalty
And finally, “When justice is lost, there is ritual.” In the Dale translation, the word ritual is substituted with dogma, which I actually like better. Dogma is an action or belief a person performs or embodies because a higher authority, in whom the individual trusts, considers it incontrovertibly true. No thinking is necessary on the part of the individual. At least justice requires thought so that the law can be applied as fairly as possible. This is not the case for dogma. The person just believes what they are told. The heavy lifting of interpretation is done by the authority figure.
And then the final line, “Now ritual (dogma) is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.” In other translations, it says, “…the most superficial form of faith and loyalty…” Other translations have also substituted “chaos” or “stupidity” for the word “confusion”. This is very strong language, and you can sense Lao Tsu’s disdain for ritualistic behavior. He calls it the husk of faith and loyalty. If you think about what a husk is, it is the outside of something, an outer casing that protects the inside contents from harm.
When I was a child, I was always so excited when I found a cicada shell left behind on a tree trunk. It was intriguingly creepy that an insect would shed its outer shell and leave it behind. This is what I think of when I hear the line that dogma is the husk of faith. Aside from insects and reptiles that shed their husks, in Lao Tsu’s time, the image of grain would have been an important one. It is the seed we want from grain, not the chaff, which is typically thrown away. The chaff is the husk that protects the goodness that is inside. The husk plays an important role though and can get us by in desperate times, but in the end, once the goodness of the inside is recognized and harvested, the husk is discarded.
And what of faith and loyalty? Faith and loyalty to what or who? Everything discussed in this stanza is relational, whether we are talking about faith and loyalty to personal relationships – like a spouse, friend, or family – or to some larger organization – like a religion, career, or nation. How much more rich would these be if our relationships were based in goodness or kindness rather than justice or, even worse, dogmatic behavior which only can lead to chaos?
This is not to say that ritual or dogma lacks an element of good. Like justice, in its own way it is a type of good. It protects what is inside from whatever it needs protecting from, but it is a means of last resort. Aside from protection, like the chaff of the wheat, it offers very little nutrition, the necessary element for productive growth.
The Tao Te Ching calls on us to evaluate the level in which we engage with our relationships and the motivations behind them. This places us in the role of responsibility. Will we negate our authenticity for the comforting illusion that ritual offers, or will we do the hard work of creating goodness which enriches our relationships, both personally and communally?
Compliment this essay with another on a theme from the Tao Te Ching, Be Like Water: Reflections on the Tao Te Ching During a Hike to Ptarmigan Lake or anything from the How to Live category.
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Tao Te Ching Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English translation
Tao Te Ching Ralph Allen Dale translation