July 7, 2019

Cooking a Small Fish: the Psychology of Tao (Tao Teh Ching Chapter 60)

The first line of the Tao Teh Ching Chapter 60 is: "Ruling a big kingdom is like cooking a small fish."* This means that when you cook a small fish, you do it carefully and gently. You don't want to overdo it and wreck the fish. It’s not necessary to mash it up and make it fall apart. A big fish takes longer to cook than a little one. A small fish may be only half an inch thick; it only takes a few minutes to cook. A big fish that is three inches thick needs more time. Overcooking a fish ruins it, so it becomes hard and dried out.

In other words, governments shouldn't really be involved much, just a little bit. In the Tao teachings, the analogies about an individual apply to government, and the analogies about government apply to an individual. It's like when Hakuyu talks about the organs in the body functioning in a harmonious manner, and then he talks about how a good leader is humble, lowers himself and helps the people. It's the same physics of Tao in the body, the mind and the culture. Some are subtler and some are denser, but the physics of all three of those are the same.

The second line is: "If one oversees all under heaven in accord with the Way, demons have no impetus."*

Demons are ruined by buddhas. Demons attack all beings except buddhas: they attack each other, obnoxious beings, atheists, agnostics, practitioners of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism—even disciples and bodhisattvas. They can't really attack buddhas, but they attack bodhisattvas. A materialist would think that means a buddha is a kung fu master: the demon approaches but is repelled by a force field; he falls down and can't get his hands on the master. That can happen; some masters play with energy on that level. The main point, however, is that they are not bothered at all by good and evil: demons have no place to hook in. Ordinary beings are disturbed by events and mishaps. A buddha could have an allergy, get sick or have an injury, but he doesn't become distressed by those things.

It takes two to tango. If you were raised in a feminist culture, you may not understand that simple principle. If you don't understand the male-female relationship, you probably won't understand the opposites in general. If you don't understand the parent-child relationship and think the family doesn't really matter, then you probably will never be enlightened with regard to purification of your family karma. Those are opposites: male-female and parent-child.

A buddha is like Teflon: everything slips off. If an animal is in a cage, and you hold out a piece of meat toward it that it can’t reach, eventually it will become frustrated. It will try to squeeze through the bars of the cage a few times; then it will growl, squeal and finally give up. There is no interplay between a buddha and psychological demons anymore because a buddha is sane.

Demons are delusional phenomena in the eyes of sages. Demons, to ordinary people, seem real. Psychologists generally wouldn’t use the word ‘demon,’ but they would use terminologies such as ‘neurosis’ or ‘psychosis.’ Those are just different names for the same thing. Somebody who is unenlightened cannot fully comprehend psychology, but if a psychologist were a buddha or a sage, then he would have complete understanding. And how would he see all the neuroses and psychoses that afflict human beings, and animals for that matter? If an enlightened psychologist were to oversee everything in accordance with the Tao, then neuroses and psychoses would have no power over him.

When Shakyamuni became enlightened, all beings did not become enlightened with him. If a psychologist becomes enlightened, all the patients in his practice don’t necessarily become enlightened. An enlightened psychologist would be an example of a sage. Psychologists are professionals in the psychological field who have studied neuroses and psychoses. They call those ‘mental diseases’ or ‘mental disorders’; in the old days those were called ‘demons.’ All mental disorders are corrected in the sage through the healing of being in accordance with the Tao: the Tao Teh Ching is giving instructions on how to live.

The sage is happy. He is happy indoors, outdoors, at work, at home, alone or with other people. The sage lives in the correct way: because he follows the way of the Tao, he is mentally balanced and without demons. Beings who aren't sages have demonic problems; beings who are sages don't have demonic problems. Demons aren't ultimately real. Lao Tzu is saying that for the sage, demons aren’t really real.

Instead of overdoing, all you have to do is cook a small fillet correctly, rather than as if you were cooking a 20-pound tuna. If you cook the fish properly and with the appropriate seasoning, it is moist, tender and delicious. Every obsession in your life is you overcooking a fish, turning it into a dry piece of leather. If you contemplated the things in your life that you overcook, you would see that they are demonic, that is, not particularly important. If a person overcooks their food, they have an overcooking demon. Everything is burnt and fried. There is a demon of overdoing, and it's called obsessiveness and thinking that you need to do. If you took your obsessions and treated them like cooking a small fish, then all your neurotic tendencies would subside, and you would become a sage. The secret is to follow the way of Tao.

When people hear about cooking a small fish, they often become excited. There is something about the imagery of it that they like. Usually, however, they have no idea what it means. They think it's very exotic and Chinese-sounding or that it’s a Zen koan. It's actually quite simple. Isn't there a wonderful, delicate flavor when a fish is cooked properly? Can that be achieved by overdoing?

*based on Tao Te Ching, Chapter 23(60), tr. Victor H. Mair.

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