What Did Lao Tzu Think of Travel?

Tao Te Ching (pronounced, more or less, Dow Deh Jing) can be translated as The Book of the Immanence of the Way or The Book of the Way and How It Manifests Itself in the World or, simply, The Book of the Way.”Stephen Mitchell

Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher (though it’s not clear if the term philosopher existed at the time he lived) born sometime in 6th or 5th century BC. He is known for his book the Tao Te Ching, a book I’ve recently gotten really into. Actually, I’ve been into this this book for a few years now, mostly because of the beauty of Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Stephen Mitchell does not speak Chinese. You’d think this would make the translation suffer, and maybe it has in terms of accuracy, but it certainly hasn’t in terms of beauty. He based his translation on many other translations, and also 14 years of studying Zen Bhuddism. My question is: How do you study Zen Buddhism for 14 years, have at least a vague interest in Chinese philosophers, and not learn Chinese? Was he studying in Iowa? Did he make a point of not learning the language? We’ll never know.

It is fairly clear what some of the ancient Roman philosophers thought about travel, or at least too much travel. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said in his Letters from a Stoic, “All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re traveling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.”

Or, perhaps even more to the point, ““If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”

Or even MORE to the point:

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

OK, we get it Lucius, you weren’t too stoked on travel. You didn’t like to just grab your rucksack, stick out your thumb, and see where the wind took you. I don’t blame you! You lived in ancient Rome! Things were probably super rad! Why explores the vast reaches of ancient Europe when you could sit around talking, drinking wine, wearing plain robes, eating plain food, and striving to be content with things as they are?

Because this is common thing, both with the Stoics and with Lao Tzu: If you want to be content, strive to be content with the way things are. Don’t covet something you don’t have, love the thing you already have. He is richest who wants least. All I want to do, ever, is play chess, etc. etc. (This last one is a Bobby Fischer quote and it’s not really relevant, I just like it).

But today I want to talk about what Lao Tzu thought, a man who existed centuries before Seneca and half a world away. What did Lao Tzu think about traveling, and more importantly, living a nomadic life?

It’s important to start with one of the main tenets of Lao Tzu wisdom. One of his main teachings was the so-called art of “non-being,” or “not doing.” Letting things unfold however they want. Being fluid. The soft conquers the hard. The light conquers the dark, etc. etc. “When you are content to be yourself, and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” – Tao Te Ching Chapter 8.

The first good clue as to what Lao Tzu thought about nomadism (I use it in the modern sense of basically being on the move all the time) comes in Chapter 15: “Do you have the patience to wait, till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving, till the right action arises by itself?”

This seems to be in keeping with that Seneca said about travel, that if you want to escape things that harass you the place isn’t the problem, you’re the problem. (Though I don’t think Lao Tzu, in his infinite wisdom, knew what “problems” were.)  Lao Tzu’s advice would be to just sit still, and not run, and wait until the correct solution presents itself. Let the mud settle. Wait until the water is clear.

But THEN, in chapter 20, my favorite chapter of the book, he seems to say something a bit different:

Other people have what they need;

I alone possess nothing.

I alone drift about,

like someone without a home.

I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people have a purpose;

I alone don’t know.

I drift like a wave on the ocean,

I blow as aimless as the wind.

This seems to contradict what he said earlier about staying still and quiet until your mud settles. This seems to promote going wherever the wind takes you (in fact it says exactly that). so whenever I need to justify my aimless wanderings, I turn to this quote. This quote gives me comfort, though not really because I know deep down Lao Tzu it’s not really what Lao Tzu meant. In other words, I don’t think these passages refer to travel so much. They refer to something else, something of the mind…

In Chapter 26, his thoughts on excessive travel become clear:

Why should the lord of the country

flit about like a fool?

If you let yourself be blown to and fro,

you lose touch with your root.

If you let restlessness move you,

you lose touch with who you are.

And it doesn’t really matter that the next line is, “A good travel has no fixed plans, and is not intent upon arriving,” because Lao Tzu believed that there was a time for everything, and that we should be like nature. “When it blows, there is only wind. When it rains, there is only rain” (Chapter 23). Which means that yes, there is a time for travel. And when you do it, do it with all your heart, embrace it fully, and don’t doubt yourself. But when the time for travel is over, let yourself be content to stay still. Don’t flit about “like a fool,” because you’ll lose touch with your root, and ultimately, with who you are.

That said, I’ve been in Guadalajara almost a month now.

Time to leave?