Department of Religious Studies
Fo Guang University, Taiwan
Mainstream psychology is not concerned with
greed, or excessive desires, as a morbidity that can lead to emotive
disorders and mental suffering. Instead, it hypothesizes that the
gratification of desires and wants is a necessary condition for
mental health and happiness. Logotherapy has offered an insightful
challenge to this Freudian view, arguing that the key to happiness
lies in the discovery of meaning of life, not in the pursuit of
gratification of desires. But this is a topic to be discussed in
a separate article. Here I only need to point out that ancient Greek
philosophers and Christian saints taught differently from Freudian
psychology. The Bible also emphatically exhorts about the harmfulness
of greed and craving. One important reason for this cognitive gap
between modern psychology and ancient wisdom seems to rest with
the acquisitive nature of a socioeconomic system that depends on
the desire for gains as a motive force.
Oriental philosophies echo Christian ethics
in this regard. Rather than seek the gratification of desires, Taoism,
Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism all espouse its antithesis -
contentment - as the source of happiness. Contentment in this context
refers to a state of mind in which the potential psychic energy
(known as libido in Western psychology) is transformed into a serene
mental quality, rather than actualized as a desire that needs to
be "gratified" or repressed.
sages Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu inculcated that craving for fame and
wealth often resulted in moral depravity, and in many cases personal
destruction. As Lao-tzu warned, "The greatest of woes comes from
not knowing contentment; the greatest of faults comes from craving
for gains."1 He argued that the nature of humanity
and, for that matter, of all creatures, was to live in a simple
and plain way, no more than what was needed to maintain the healthy
growth of the organism. Beyond that limit were "selfish craving"
and "extravagance" that caused man to lose his genuine simplicity
and spontaneity. Therefore, "A sage is free from excessive pursuit,
enjoyment and expectation."2 From Lao-tzu's perspective,
a sage is not the product of moral cultivation, but simply someone
who lives according to his authentic nature - simplicity and spontaneity.
This is an integral part of Tao - the great Way of nature. Alienation
from Tao is seen as the root cause of all human problems.
Chuang-tzu picked up the same theme and used
a vivid analogy to get across the message that contentment was in
the very nature of all living beings. "Amid the exuberance of woods,
a bird needs only one branch to build its nest," he wrote. "And
from the broad expanse of a deep river, a mouse drinks only enough
to fill its stomach."3 So, why do humans take more
than they need? Chuang-tzu suggested that a human being could be
happy with just a minimum of material means.
What are the implications of this Taoist thinking
for modern people? First of all, one may raise the question that,
unlike animals, human needs extend far beyond the physiological
realm to cover psychological, emotive and spiritual needs. Even
physiological needs change as civilization progresses. For example,
people several decades ago were content with riding on a bicycle,
but today driving a car has become a necessity. Does it make sense
to compare human needs to the needs of a bird and a mouse? Do we
have to give up the material amenities and comforts of modern civilization
if we take the Taoist teaching seriously?
To be sure, ancient Taoists believed that simplicity
of the mind could not be separated from simplicity of the life style.
But the essence of the Taoist teaching is probably not that human
needs are comparable to the needs of animals, but that we humans,
like animals, can and should live a simple, spontaneous way of life
by freeing ourselves from greed and craving for more than we need,
regardless of how we define "need" in different social and cultural
contexts. In their writings, the Taoist sages dwelt upon the harmfulness
of greed as it could impoverish people morally and spiritually.
On the other hand, "those who know contentment are enriched," and
"a contented person always lives in abundance."4
While Buddhism also emphasizes contentment,
it does not see material simplicity as a necessary condition. The
Buddhist insight into simplicity and spontaneity centers around
the transcendental quality of non-attachment and non-reactivity.
Buddhist psychology has discovered a human potential for self-actualization
neglected by Western psychology, that is, the potential to free
the mind from its habitual pattern of grasping and rejecting, and
of craving and aversion -- a psychological mechanism seen as the
root of mental suffering. A well-attained Buddhist can live in material
abundance and yet keep his/her mind "detached," i.e., free from
the said mechanism. This means that he/she will be happy too if
he/she has to live in poverty. From the Buddhist perspective, this
insight of non-attachment and non-reactivity is the source of blissful
contentment. It also suggests that the Western concept of "gratification
of desires" can cover up the subtle psychological mechanism of attachment
to what is desired, and it is precisely this emotive attachment
that causes unhappiness and mental suffering. In Buddhism as in
Taoism, the energy of desire can be "transformed" so that neither
"gratification" nor repression is necessary.
Starting from simplicity, the Way of nature
embraces the entire cosmic complexity in great harmony -in the integrated
One. The two opposites of a dualistic pair are seen as balancing
and complementing each other. Thus to the Taoist, the cycle of life
and death is as natural as the cycle of day and night, and fortune
and misfortune embrace each other. With this insight in view, contentment
is possible even under extreme adversity. When Chuang Tzu's wife
died, he was grieved at first, but then beat a drum in joyous celebration.
He explained that death was merely an extension of life, with each
complementing the other; and if life was worth celebrating, so was
When the negative and the positive are seen
as an integrated whole in harmony, life has no problem at all. All
problems are created by man out of ignorance of the Way of nature.
So we need not worry about anything. "Has a bird ever worried about
its food for tomorrow?" the Taoist asks. Just relax and let go,
and things will take care of themselves. Lao-tzu's motto of "do
nothing" (wu-wei in Chinese) means that a wise person knows how
to surrender his/her impulse to strive for gain, be it good health
or good fortune, and allow nature to take its own course.
The importance of this teaching on "surrender"
for spiritual cultivation and personal development cannot be exaggerated.
For what can spiritual liberation mean if not the liberation from
our bio-psychological impulse to strive to be different from what
we are, or from the aforesaid mechanism of grasping and rejecting?
Furthermore, it also has invaluable implications for modern psychotherapy,
first because we know that emotive disorders such as neurotic anxiety,
depression, insomnia, etc., are closely related to the impulse of
striving, and secondly because the art of "do nothing" has proved
efficacious in treating not only emotive disorders, but also physical
illnesses. In fact, the therapeutic technique of "paradoxical intention"
developed by logotherapy is a clinical application of the principle
of "do nothing."
To sum up, contentment as taught by Taoism has
the following implications for modern society:
- Luxury and extravagant consumption not only
waste money, but also can be harmful to our health and mental
- Craving for wealth and material possessions
impoverishes us morally and spiritually, and freedom from such
craving enriches us by enhancing our capacity for love, mental
serenity, health and happiness.
- Learning to develop a new insight that fortune
and misfortune contain each other can help us avoid mental frustrations
when misfortune strikes. The same insight applies to other dualities
such as success and failure, health and illness, praise and blame,
- The impulse of striving to be different from
what we are causes tension and stress, contributing to emotive
disorders. Learning to master the art of "do nothing" or "let
go" has enormous benefits for our mental and physical health.
- In the Taoist philosophy, "do nothing" also
means that we take action in a spontaneous, effortless way, and
avoid imposing our subjective thinking and beliefs on others,
especially when we are in a leading position. A successful leader
is someone who can keep his/her mind open to all ideas and delegate
authority and duty properly to those working under him/her. According
to Taoism, dictatorship is doomed to failure because it violates
the principle of "do nothing" and causes disharmony (though often
disguised as "harmony") within the group.
- Meditation in "passive relaxation" not only
helps improve our physical and mental health; it is also a good
way to cultivate the art of "do nothing" as well.
- Tao reveals that all is in
flux. We invite trouble if we act against this cosmic principle
by sticking to a rigid, self-righteous way of thinking.
- Taoism teaches that Tao, the great
Way of nature, has no selfish motives, that Mother Nature gives
and nourishes without claiming anything in return. Learning from
this cosmic virtue is the ultimate guarantee for contentment.
So, the Taoist message of contentment does not imply a passive
resignation to fate, but rather a selfless devotion and commitment
to the well-being of humanity.
1. Quoted from Lao-tzu,,
2. Quoted from Lao-tzu,,
chap. 19 and 29.
3. Quoted from Chuang-tzu, Hsiao-yao-yu
4. Quoted from Lao-tzu,
chap. 33 and 46.