A long time ago in a far away place… well, over 20 years ago in St Andrews…
I heard a reference recently to the Tao Te Ching, which reminded me of an episode from my student days.
To give a bit of background, I was struggling with a particular subject – called Divinity, but really it was the grounding for the theological and philosophical element of my course. I was able to cope with most of the concepts and work without too much trouble, but I had a horrible relationship with one of my lecturers. At the time it felt like she had a vendetta against me; now I wonder if she just hated all men (or maybe, most people). Anyway, this arch-feminist, man-hating, post-Christian, theocentric lunatic gave me a series of marks that all but condemned me to re-sitting the course the following year. To pass I needed to get an astronomical mark in the last assignment of that academic year.
Fortunately the last topic was a comparative religion exercise – and my nemesis wasn’t teaching the course. It was taught by a lovely man called Dr Hall (I honestly thought that before the course). The prospect of studying the Tao Te Ching did not fill me with glee. But Doc Hall was a good teacher who generated some enthusiasm from me (many of my colleagues opted not to attend his classes, but they weren’t needing marks like I was!) Anyway, Doc Hall introduced us to the Tao and really communicated the spirit of it to us. He was married to a Chinese woman, which probably accounted for some of his interest in it.
When the time came for us to do the final assignment, he told us that our task was simply to capture the essence of the Tao – how we did that was entirely up to us.
Given my desperate plight, I adopted the philosophical approach of the Tao:
“Do what consists of taking no action, and order will prevail.”
I was seriously tempted to write that quotation on a piece of paper and hand it in, but I chickened out of that course of action.
Instead I sat in a big armchair at a bay window one sunny afternoon and wrote a poem (now lost). It consisted of 137 words. Given that I had virtually no chance of getting the mark that I needed, I adopted a cavalier attitude, and handed the poem in as it was. No editing, no refining, no padding it out to make it look like I’d made any significant effort.
To my astonishment I got the top mark in the class, and managed to scrape a pass in the course. Doc Hall loved the poem and he had showed it to his wife who said that it perfectly captured the spirit of Tao.
I have no real idea why I’m writing all of this now… but I’ve looked out my copy of the Tao and will treat myself to a couple of hours reading it – the next time we get a sunny afternoon when I’m not at work!
“When the best student hears about the way
He practices it assiduously.”