Over the course of several decades of study, practice and teaching Taoism, your National Taoism Examiner has come across many books which seem to fit into one of several categories. Books written by people who have no experience with Taoism, those written by people who think they know Taoism, those who want to pervert what Taoism is, some who have some level of understanding, however, often incomplete, and finally the few (ever so few) by those who actually “get it”.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff is a gem, that fits into the ever so few who actually get it category. With an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars out of 353 reviews on Amazon, your N.T.E. is not alone in feeling this way.
Using the well known, and beloved by many, Winnie the Pooh characters, Mr. Hoff brilliantly elucidates the often obvious and sometimes hidden Taoist lessons, that many people in the west grew up learning unbeknownst to them.
This actually is a two part series, with the first installment focusing on the many Taoist attributes of the main character, Pooh bear himself. That lovable-simple-carefree-relaxed-easygoing bear, that at first glance appears to get into constant trouble, but yet upon deeper reflection, more often than not is the one character that gets all of the others out of trouble...and usually by doing nothing at all.
Mr. Hoff uses several well known Taoist stories to illustrate his points and does this in a conversational manner as if he is teaching the lessons to Pooh, or perhaps (your N.T.E. will leave this up to you) it is actually Winnie the Pooh who is teaching Mr. Hoff and all of us.
One example is when he relays the story of the “The Vinegar Tasters” which is summarized here:
...he begins by telling Pooh that they are walking down a narrow street in a large Chinese city when they come upon a small shop selling classical scrolls. They ask for a scroll with humorous, allegorical and timeless meaning, something that is still relative in todays world. The old shopkeeper smiles and brings back a scroll called “The Vinegar Tasters”. Mr. Hoff and Pooh review the scroll and Pooh unable to read Chinese requires an explanation of the scroll. Which we learn is a picture of three men standing around a large barrel of vinegar. Each person tastes the vinegar and their reaction is depicted in the painting. The three men or more appropriately the three Masters are Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius), Buddha and Lao-tzu. “The first has a sour look on his face, the second wears a bitter expression, but the third man is smiling. (Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff, p.3)”
According to Hoff, Kung Fu-tzu felt that life was sour and that everything was out of balance and not following Tao, so he perceived the vinegar as sour. Buddha thought (or his followers perceived, which will be addressed in another article) that life resulted in suffering because of our attachments and desires, so he perceived the vinegar as bitter.
Lao-tzu on the other hand, understood the natural laws, and that the harmony that exists between heaven and earth can be found and cultivated at anytime. He also understood that often it is when something or someone is tested the most or is the most uncomfortable in a situation that growth and evolution occurs and that when something is negative or unpleasant a seed of something positive is hidden within. So for Lao-tzu, the vinegar with all of its sour qualities, was actually “sweet” and pleasant.
“But what does that have to do with vinegar? asked Pooh. I thought I had explained that...I don't think so, said Pooh...Sweet? You mean like honey? asked Pooh. Well maybe not that sweet...Are we still supposed to be in China? Pooh asked cautiously. No, we're through explaining and now we're back at the writing table. Oh [Pooh said]. Well, we're just in time for something to eat, he added, wandering over to the kitchen cupboard. (Tao of Pooh)”
Reminiscent of the Taoist principle, that one should eat when hungry, drink when thirsty and sleep when...well sleepy.
It is in Pooh's naturalness, adaptability and the ease with which he lives, that he is a great example of so many Taoist principles, especially P'u. P'u is often translated as “the uncarved block”, however, the characters for P'u actually represent many trees or a forest in their natural state. So rather than an uncarved block, this principle represents how things are, and could be, when left alone! A block being uncarved is still not in its natural state, as it is no longer a tree in the forest.
More articles will follow regarding both the Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet. It is unfortunate that Benjamin Hoff and Penguin Books had a falling out, since he could have created a truly remarkable collection by exploring, in depth, all of the Winnie the Pooh characters. For now, however, we will have to learn from Pooh and Piglet...Oh yes, the little pink one, is a great teacher in his own right and a review of his book will come forthwith.
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