When a person of high learning hears about the Dao, they practice it diligently.
When a person of mediocre learning hears about the Dao, they hear it but don’t really listen to it.
When a person of inferior learning hears about the Dao, they laugh about it loudly.
If the Dao was not laughed at, it would not be the Dao.
—Lao Zi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 41
Many years ago when I first read this chapter in English, I remember thinking it seemed rather elitist and self-serving to Daoism. Because of what gets lost in translation, this verse appears to be saying that only very intelligent people can understand and cultivate the Dao, while anyone who isn’t highly educated can never understand and cultivate it.
However, to better understand what Lao Zi is getting at here, it’s important to examine some of the Chinese terminology used in the text, specifically Shang Shi (上士), Zhong Shi (中士), and Xia Shi (下士). Normally these terms have been translated as “superior person,” “average person,” and “inferior person.”
I believe the problems in interpreting Chapter 41 stem from the term shi, typically translated as “scholar” or, as in this chapter, “person.” Neither of these simple definitions in English capture the scope of this term as implied in the Chinese. Shi can also be interpreted as “someone of a certain level of mind,” someone who has a certain degree of clarity and wisdom, which is how I believe Lao Zi was using the term.
Shang Shi, then, refers to those of excellent or high-mindedness, the Zhong Shi are those of middling or mediocre-mindedness, and Xia Shi are those of low or weak-mindedness.
People of high-mindedness are those who immediately see the truth of the Dao, and so cultivate with determination. They see the Dao as something true within themselves and the real possibility of attaining immortality.
People of mediocre-mindedness are those who hear and read about Dao, but are not diligent or consistent in their practice of it. Their determination is off and on, and so they flounder in their acceptance of Dao. They hear it, but find difficulty in really listening to it, so it does not become fully ingrained within them.
People of weak-mindedness see no value whatsoever in practicing the Dao, thinking it nothing but nonsense. Their determination is dispersed on base worldly desires only, as their minds cannot grasp the truth of the Dao. So they laugh at it, ridicule it, and misjudge it as useless and untrue.
Now, I would be remiss if I did not confess that in my early Daoist years, I started out as somewhat of a Xia Shi, gradually elevated myself to a Zhong Shi, and am presently trying to crawl up into the level of a Shang Shi. I make this confession because the truth is that almost everyone goes through these stages of understanding, or mindedness. It would be wonderful if every student of the Dao started out with high-mindedness, but this is so rare. Most people start out their journey into Daoism with confusion and dullness, and over time reach a stage where they are ready to truly cultivate.
So, if you take this verse to mean that if you don’t already have the highest level of clarity and wisdom, you can’t cultivate the Dao, please disregard that notion. Anyone can cultivate the Dao, because we are all part of the Dao. Cultivation of the Dao is not about intelligence or starting out in the ideal mental condition, it’s purely a matter of determination coupled with the patience for gradual understanding.
It is really important for everyone seeking to be Daoist to understand this verse of Lao Zi. As he states in the same chapter,
The Dao, even though luminous, appears to be very dark.
The Dao, even though advancing, appears to be retreating.
The Dao, even though level, appears to be rutted.
From this we can deduce that those of high-mindedness see the brightness, advancement, and smoothness of the Dao. Those of middling-mindedness see partial glimpses of the brightness and darkness, the advancing and retreating, and the level and rutted, and so are never sure of what the Dao is. Those of weak-mindedness only see the dark, the retreating, and the rutted, so they think the Dao is not real, and of no real use to them.
Interestingly enough, it is the weak-minded whom Lao Zi claims actually substantiate the Dao when he concludes, “If the Dao was not laughed at, it would not be the Dao.” There are two important reasons why people’s laughter at the Dao distinguishes the Dao: First, the weak-minded can only laugh at the Dao because the Dao is so unlike the concept of God. People fear God (or gods) because they personalize him (her, or them, depending on a person’s view) as a being with complete power over us, and so dare not laugh at God in fear of retribution. Second, they laugh at the Dao because the concept is too vast and deep for them to grasp; the very idea of Dao, something far beyond and completely distinct from the concept of an all-powerful God, is so mysterious, so evasive, and so knotty the weak-minded cannot comprehend or accept it.
Because they have no fear of it, and because they cannot see it, weak-minded people are able to laugh at it. These two factors set the Dao apart from God and set the incomprehensible apart from the comprehensible, thus distinguishing the Dao as the Dao.
My conclusion to this piece is that no one should be dismayed about whatever type of “mindedness” they may be experiencing at this moment, because eventually everyone will have glimpses of there being something far greater in this universe than just what we can experience with our five senses—and this something is Dao. But the name “Dao” is just an expedient term. Actually it has no name, no identity, and no impulses. It just is, and functions according to the Naturally-Just-So. As you journey towards it, clarity and wisdom will open up inside you. As Lao Zi says, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
—Stuart Alve Olson