Welcome to The Path of Water

This site is dedicated to exploring the Tao and Philosophical Taoism; and how it relates to everyday modern life in the 21st Century. It also includes posts relating to how I feel Taoism can provide insights for dealing with the problems of everyday living.

The process of writing out my thoughts helps me to explore what I believe and why, so these posts will probably develop over time. I hope that you'll find this site interesting and, for those of you new to the Tao and Taoism, I hope that it can provide you with a first step on the path to a rich spiritual life. If you want to post comments relating to a post or the site as a whole I'd be grateful as all feedback is helpful.

Enjoy your visit - In Tao - Woody

Who would follow the Way must go beyond words.
Who would know the world must go beyond names. *

No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. **

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Taoism and Universal Healthcare

I'm interested in what Taoism can tell us about living in the real world and the decisions we make. In recent times the issue of some form of universal healthcare system has been proposed for the United States. As a beneficiary of and contributor to the UK National Health Service (NHS) I think it's interesting to look at the debate and see if there's anything in Taoist teachings that can inform the decision.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of this issue I think I should first declare my personal viewpoint which obviously may colour my response. Like many Europeans I've grown up with state run universal healthcare and the idea that any country would not have such a scheme seems something medieval. I also believe that capitalism can be a crude but effective system for resource management but that in many areas it must be controlled and restricted to meet the greater needs of society as a whole.

To understand what Taoism has to say it is important to first understand the underlying issue. Normally the debate regarding the provision of universal healthcare starts with why should it be done? In this post however I'd like to look at the reasons why not to do it because they relate directly to what Taoism has to say on this issue. The biggest arguments against seem to be either directly or indirectly economic or political. There is the cost of provision, resistance to paying more taxes, suspicion that a state organisation will waste money or that costs will be inflated, and resentment about "subsidising" those who are poorer or perceived as less hard working or worthy. It is important to realise that regardless of the validity of any of these arguments or your personal political outlook, these are issues that relate to the impact that implementing such a scheme has upon you. For those that do not support universal healthcare I am not saying this as a criticism but because it relates to Taoism's teachings.

So what can Taoism tell us about the debate? I would argue that for a Taoist the answer is simple. In chapter 67 of the Tao Te Ching we are told of the Three Jewels or Three Treasures, namely Compassion, Simplicity, and Humility. Obviously introducing a universal healthcare provision is an act of compassion and putting the needs of others before your own involves humility, so I believe that for Taoists supporting such a scheme is consistent with the journey.

It is important however to understand why a Taoist would support such a scheme. I intend to discuss the Three Jewels in more detail in a later post but I feel some clarification at this point is important. The Tao Te Ching says....

When the great Way is forgotten,
the doctrines of humanity and morality arise

TTC Ch.18 (5)

...so compassion and humility are "jewels" of virtue for a Taoist but not for reasons of humanity and morality? Precisely so. Compassion, simplicity, and humility are "jewels" because by practising them it becomes easier to reach harmony with the Tao. A Taoist would not support such a scheme because it is "good" or "just" or "humane" but because it requires you to relinquish a bit of the personal, the "me," the ego - and that takes you a small step closer to harmony.


Maria said...

I am having a difficult time with this very important issue.

As a young capitalist, as a university student who was born and raised in the USA, as someone who believes it is my responsibility to raise myself up rather than bring everyone down, I find this aspect of your interpretation of Taoism difficult to agree with.

I, also, work through my thoughts by writing about them. So, bear with me here.

If I were an obese smoker with lots of health problems, the high cost of my health care would become the responsibility of all of my fellow citizen taxpayers, including those who take care of themselves and stay relatively healthy.

At the same time, if I were diagnosed with a terminal illness, which was not the fault of my own, and had not the means to take care of myself, I would be grateful that my medical needs would be covered by universal health care.

But, I am still having trouble with this.

As a member of the human family, as a citizen of a wealthy, industrialized nation, I feel drawn to the ideal that we must all care for one another within reason. However, it is difficult for me to fathom a higher tax bill when I already feel I pay too much.

At the moment, I am paying off a rather large medical bill of my own, and I am grateful that the hospital has given me an affordable payment plan with 0% interest.

After I graduate from the university, I will be paying a lot more bills (+11% interest) just to make these student loans go away.

My debt nightmare is overriding my humility at this point.

In addition, I am an American... which means I was born with a certain degree of entitlement coursing through my veins. Why should I give to someone when no one is giving to me? Why should I trust the government that has proven time and again that it is not to be trusted?

I like things the way they are.

But.... I am willing to say that if I am diagnosed with a terminal illness, and when I do grow to an age when I have more medical issues, then universal health care will probably sound a heck of a lot better.

Woody said...

Thanks for your post Maria. I'm sure there's lots of people here in the UK who might agree with you. On a political note I'd say that it just "seems" that you're not paying for the cost of those without cover when in reality society just pays in different ways.

However from a Taoist perspective the problem is with a word you use a lot - the word "I". The reason I mention Taoism's three jewels is not because Taoism is all about being lovey-dovey, let's embrace our fellow man - nature is part of the Tao and it can seem vicious and cruel. The three jewels are about helping you to achieve harmony with the Tao. A focus upon the self and upon "I" is an obstacle to this.

eclectic.hermit said...

Woody, I have a general question about methodology. Taoist bloggers seem to me to write as if their interpretation of the tao is correct. The tao or what can be said about it is in the tao te ching. Therefore, isn't the tao that is being shared with bloogers' audience just an interpretation of the tao te ching? How many different interpretations are there? Are there any live tao masters to clear this up? And how did they arrive at the tao? Sorry for all the questions but I'm having trouble with terms. Thanks. Robert

Woody said...

That's a really good question. In Taoism the only reliable guide is yourself. You are already fully equipped with everything you need.

All Taoist writings including the works of the masters are all just opinion. There is no "bible" or divine revelation, just people somewhere on a journey telling others about their experience.

Works like the Tao Te Ching should be viewed like a travel book. The writer tells you what they did and what they saw. If you take the same steps you might have completely different experiences along the way, but hopefully you'll get to the same destination. Equally you can ignore everything they say and still end up in the same place, though the likelihood of that happening is greatly reduced.

In Taoism the "destination" is the optimum way to experience reality and many have got some way to this destination with the help of the writings of the masters, and who knows, maybe some might even get there through reading blogs!

misha said...

hi woody
nice site. Thanks Bunches for that Das Tao Te King von Lao Tse link you gave in the forum. I found this easily.

from Chapter 3 tao te ching

Therefore, when the sage rules:
He empties the minds (hsin) of his people,
Fills their bellies,
Weakens their wills (chih),
And strengthens their bones.

from chapter 12

Therefore the sage is for the belly, not for the eyes.
Therefore he leaves this and chooses that.

To me, that is saying the sage would have his people be healthy, supporting a taoist favoring universal healthcare

Matt said...

I find it interesting that you completely disregard the inherent libertarianism of Taoism, and support universal healthcare because it's the "compassionate" thing to do.

Woody said...

Hi Matt and thanks for your post.

I think that you've misread what I've said. I'm certainly not saying that we should 'support universal healthcare because it's the "compassionate" thing to do.' I suggest that you re-read the last paragraph.

Woody said...

Just one additional comment, and this is not particularly directed at Matt but a more general point.

Matt said "...you completely disregard the inherent libertarianism of Taoism..."

People have a tendency to look at the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu and use parts to support or oppose a particular political perspective just as others might use verses from the Bible or Marx's Capital.

In my opinion this is completely missing what Taoism is about. Saying that Taoism is inherently libertarian or socialist for example is like saying that water is inherently libertarian or socialist. Being a Taoist does not make you a good or bad person or a left or right wing one. These are all to do with the "ten thousand things" and as such are distractions along the way of the journey not the destination.

Matt said...

Yah I was thinking about that second paragraph after I posted, and get what your saying. I had been reading a couple different tao blogs and was kinda surprised that any politcal remarks in all of them were progressive, so I was thinking about more than just your post when i commented. That being said what you're saying can only apply to things that you personally do. Universal healthcare and any other form of socialism are always impositions on everyone by the government.

"Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?"

"Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn't try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counterforce.
Violence, even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon oneself."

Maybe Classical Liberal would be a better political term, because of the rugged individualism thats come to be associated with libertarianism. But either way as much as the Tao Te Ching speaks of the governing of a country, it seems as though Lao-tzu may have been writing it particularly for some ruler. And the advice he gives is a laissez-faire approach in ruling, and in all of life.

As I see it taoism is a way of understanding reality, so yah theres that aspect of everything being part of it. But it makes suggestions on how to lead your life, and how to run a country, in the same way that physics trys to understand everything, but can still make assertions as to say what way to get the moon is going to achieve that result or not.

Anyway, I like most of everything else you've written on this blog though, keep it up.

Woody said...

Hi Matt,

Universal healthcare and any other form of socialism are always impositions on everyone by the government.

Well it depends upon the political system of course. In the UK the NHS was introduced by a government that was elected by over 50% of the voters and so like most democracy it could be considered the imposition by the majority upon the minority. These days both left and right leaning political parties support it as do the vast majority of the public, so it's perhaps more a debate between collectivism and individualism?

it makes suggestions on how to lead your life, and how to run a country, in the same way that physics tries to understand everything, but can still make assertions as to say what way to get the moon is going to achieve that result or not.

Except the writings in Taoism are observations not a solidly defined scientific theory. They're saying if you do these things I/we think that you're more likely to achieve harmony with the Tao because they've helped others get there, but that doesn't preclude taking another path. This can seem a haphazard way of getting anywhere - which is why Zen Buddhism tries to use a more formulaic approach to getting there.

It's about stripping away a lifetime of conditioning and limiting by concepts. contrasts and ideas - stepping away from a "me" - which of course is why acts of compassion are a jewel for Taoists. However, care is needed - the TTC says of the "master" She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit
so doing these things for praise or credit, even self-praise and self-credit, will actually undermine what you are trying to achieve. Any views of the world you hold need to be "unlearned".

This can be like moving through a maze. For instance "compassion" in this example I believe supports a view of the world that I know, partly political and partly the established structure that I grew up with. Does this mean that seeing the advice of the TTC as supporting this structure is actually something I need to unlearn? YMMV

azman said...

Is government provided healthcare really compassionate? Not really. Real compassion would be someone volunteering to pay for or provide healthcare for someone.
But the government isn't a charity. It is not funded by voluntary donations. It is funded by taxes, which are taken from people by threat of force.
The government doesn't have any money other than what it takes from people by threat of force.
Perhaps a majority has voted in favor of taxes. Was it really a majority of every person that payed the tax? Or a majority of elected representatives in a legislative body, each of whom were elected by a mere plurality of people in their district, given that a large number of people didn't vote.
So taxes are usually approved by a minority and imposed by force on others. Is that just and compassionate?

So what is really happening is people who don't have any money, vote to require other people who do have money to hand over their money by threat of force, in order to pay for government provided universal health care.

True compassion would be if people with money made voluntary donations to hospitals or healthcare providers, in order to pay for healthcare for people that can't afford it.

Without government interference, healthcare provided by the free market would cost a lot less.

Woody said...

Thanks azman. You make some interesting points but I'm not sure how much they'll help you on your path to the Tao though of course ymmv.

On a factual note re: your point about healthcare costs. In the UK we have universal healthcare that is (mostly) free at the point of use and available to all based on need. According to OECD figures this system costs only about half of what the US spends on healthcare.