Sara Kallock: The Tao of Salinger

The sage never has a mind of his own;
He considers the minds of the common people to be his mind.

Treat well those who are good,
Also treat well those who are not good;
thus is goodness attained.

The sage
is self-effacing in his dealings with all under heaven,
and bemuddles his mind for the sake of all under heaven.

The common people all rivet their eyes and ears upon him, and the sage makes them all chuckle like children.
Lao Tzu

The above excerpt serves as a simple characterization of the Taoist saint: a person who has subdued his ego thus enabling him to indiscriminately embrace all of humanity, attain for himself a fulfilling life in connection with the Tao (the “Way”), and the strength to be a example of righteousness according to the Way for mankind. Taoism holds that below the apparent chaos of reality lies a unifying theme of existence called the “the Way”, referred to as the Tao. This inherent “Tao” unites all of existence in a subtle harmony that is disturbed by any action a person’s ego forces upon it in an effort to change its nature. Such actions include brute force, prejudice, or judging the intentions of others, for any of these acts impede one’s perception of reality and thus create unneeded conflict that would otherwise not arise. Forceful imposition of one man’s view on another and cast judgment of another’s intentions and perspective only aggravates situations and blinds one from perceiving the world according to Tao. In order to attain an accurate perception of reality, one must live according to the Tao and use the humility of virtue instead of the forceful ego to “work like gravity between man and man”. By acting in such an unimposing fashion, the Taoist saint is able to see the heart of the situation lucidly and pacify the situation with greater ease. By dissolving his misleading ego, a saint is able to live in deep understanding of the Tao, and indiscriminately love all of existence with enough virtue and patience to serve as an example of goodness for mankind. In Salinger’s works, the Taoist saint is a figure is present and colorfully captured in his numerous characters: the attempted saint is depicted in Catcher and the Rye’s Holden Caulfield; the mistreated saint is found in Teddy and Seymour; and in Franny and Zooey one finds the completed and socially successful saint in Zooey and Franny. These examples all emphasize Salinger’s passion for the ethical message Taoism proclaims: that “it is spiritually impossible to prevent the Fall [from innocence]”, so “Salinger’s idealistic heroes are doomed either to suicide (Seymour) or insanity (Holden, Sargent X) or mysticism (Franny), or the ways of sainthood” . From the stories of each of these characters the path to potential fulfillment is proffered for the reader so one may, unlike many of Salinger’s character and perhaps Salinger himself, attempt to reach Taoist sainthood for himself.

Salinger held Eastern philosophies in high esteem throughout a majority of his writing career, as evidenced by his specific Buddhist diets, daily hours of deep meditation, and the emanation of “the essence of [Eastern] spirituality”. A thorough critic can find throughout Salinger’s works the influences of Eastern philosophies, such as Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Though Taoism is only lightly referenced, Salinger’s characters and their struggle for spiritual contentment, closely reflect the efforts and philosophies of Taoist philosophy. Buddy Glass, who at many points serves as Salinger’s persona throughout the Glass narratives, considers the roots of his thoughts and actions to be “planted in the New and Old Testament, Advaita Vedanta [of Hinduism], and classical Taoism,” thereupon illustrating the bridge Salinger on which walks between Eastern and Western thought. Though Taoist doctrine does not rule Salinger’s works, the Taoist path to sainthood and contentment is reflected throughout Salinger’s writings and lived throughout Salinger’s life.

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