Exploring Eastern teachings through the lens of Western popular literature
I do not post book reviews all that often, and that’s generally because, despite my vast library, I don’t usually do all that much book reading. That is something that has begun to change, as I commit to discovering new writing styles to add to my own.
And although “The Tao of Pooh” is the first book review I publish on my blog in a few years, it was actually the second book I had completed this week. The book was loaned to me by a friend who said that its contents had taught him to cope with the unfortunate realities of his workplace.
Skimming through the book before sitting down to read it, I thought that it was a bit of an awkward read. “The Tao of Pooh” incorporates dialogue between the characters immortalized in the works of A. A. Milne, while giving real examples of how Taoism can be used to keep one at peace with the world around them.
The book’s foreword sums it all up, in a made-up dialogue between Pooh and the author:
“What’s it about?” asked Pooh, leaning forward and smearing another word.
“It’s about how to stay happy and calm under all circumstances!” I yelled.
In fact, I was convinced into reading the book when, in the foreword, the book’s author, Benjamin Hoff, was debating about the origins of the “Great Masters of Wisdom”, arguing against the notion that they all came from the Orient. He illustrates his point by reading a passage from Winnie the Pooh, where Pooh demonstrates his simplistic thinking and relays it back to a more eloquent version of what Piglet says.
Going into the book, I knew very little of Taoism. What I did know was only the items I could remember from my Grade 11 course on world religions. My knowledge of the philosophy/religion was limited. As I got deeper and deeper into the book, I became more interested in how Hoff takes situations from the original Pooh books and outlines how natural and simplistic they are. I detached myself from Tao concepts like “Uncarved Block”, which in the heat of reading the book, confused me a little, and began relating to the lessons being extracted from the Pooh examples.
When I would put the book down, I would ask myself questions about A. A. Milne’s intent. Was Winnie the Pooh written to be a Taoist master? Is it purely accidental? Coincidental? Regardless, it taught me a few lessons about wisdom. While I knew wisdom was not synonymous with intelligence, I had believed for a very long time that wisdom could not be reasonably achieved without attaining a certain level of knowledge. Pooh; however, does not display a great deal of intelligence. In fact, the books portray Pooh as having the intelligence level of a child, yet his simplicity allows him to go with the flow of things. Keeping with the flow of the natural world is a central tenet to individual happiness, so says Taoist teaching.
One of the chapters I found particularly enlightening was the one which encourages the reader to appreciate the world around them, and to make time to just relax. Hoff uses countless examples of people he calls “Bisy Backsons”; people too consumed with things to do that they forget what is truly important in life. He illustrates that the quest to save time is a Western social construction that is both flawed and dangerous.
As an example, Hoff contrasts tea houses in China and the hamburger stand in the West. Whereas the tea house was a place for people to socialize with each other and engage in conversations that could, at times, last several hours, fast food chains in the West promote a quick meal for the person on the go. Socialization (and tea) can be more enlightening (not to mention healthier) than a Big Mac and the dash to the next “important” thing to check off your list.
To enshrine this thought, Hoff uses the very words of Chuang-tse (or Zhuang Zhou), who is credited with writing one of the founding texts of Taoism in the 4th century B.C.
There was a man who disliked seeing his footprints and his shadow. He decided to escape from them, and began to run. But as he ran along, more footprints appeared, while his shadow easily kept up with him. Thinking he must be going too slowly, he ran faster and faster without stopping, until he finally collapsed from exhaustion and died.
If he had stood still, there would have been no footprints. If he had rested in the shade, his shadow would have disappeared. (Chuang-tse, 4th century BC)
The book is a journey that leads you to what Hoff calls the “great secret of Taoism”: nothing. Yes, NOTHING.
As Hoff outlines, Taoists are firm in their belief that “nothing is something”. Sometimes, the most important thing for one to do is to just sit and do nothing, let the world pass you by. I do this often, and while some may call it procrastination (and they might have a case), I think it’s an integral part of my life.
For me personally, it was an awkward read, complicated somewhat by my limited knowledge of Taoism and the fact that I was not very familiar with the Winnie the Pooh stories used as examples in the book. That being said, there are life lessons to be drawn from the book that can be incorporated into your life almost immediately. I thought it was a fascinating look at my daily life through the lens of a complex philosophical paradigm made simpler by Pooh’s childlike simplicity.