The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. 158 pages.
The Tao of Pooh is a strange little, funny little, happy little book. In a way, it’s a self-help book, since Hoff says that “it’s about how to stay happy and calm under any circumstances.” But actually, it’s much more than that, for it’s a book of applied philosophy.
The particular philosophy discussed in The Tao of Pooh is Taoism, which Hoff calls much more than a philosophy, as it’s a way of life. In the introductory chapter, “The How of Pooh,” Hoff explains Taoism by contrasting it with two other Eastern philosophies: Confucianism and Buddhism.
Hoff asks us to imagine a copy of a Chinese painting of The Vinegar Tasters. This allegorical painting shows three men sampling vinegar. Each has dipped his finger in a vat of vinegar and placed it in his mouth.
The first man, K’ung Fu-tse (Confucius), has a sour look on his face because “he believed that the present was out of step with the past, and that the government of man on earth was out of harmony with the Way of Heaven, the government of the universe.”
The second man, Buddha, has a bitter look on his face because to him, “life on earth was bitter, filled with attachments and desires that led to suffering.” He saw the world as “a setter of traps, a generator of illusions, a revolving wheel of pain for all creatures.”
In contrast to these two men, the third man, Lao-tse (author of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest book on Taoism), is smiling because he knows that “the harmony that naturally existed between heaven and earth from the very beginning could be found by anybody at any time. … To Lao-tse, the world was not a setter of traps but a teacher of valuable lessons. Its lessons needed to be learned, just as its laws needed to be followed; then all would go well.”
So, what does this have to do with Winnie the Pooh, a “dumpy little bear that wanders around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures, without ever accumulating any amount of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness”? The answer: According to Hoff, Winnie the Pooh is a great Western master of Taoism, exemplifying Taoism in his everyday life, which is exactly where it ought to be exemplified.
For example, in chapter 2, “The Tao of Who?” Hoff uses Pooh to explain the principle of the Uncarved Block (which Hoff jokes was named after Pooh, being P’u in Chinese). According to Hoff, “The essence of the principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed. […] From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times.”
Throughout The Tao of Pooh, Hoff quotes from the Winnie the Pooh books to show the principles of Taoism in action. After all, it is Pooh who is the hero of the books: Pooh finds the North Pole, finds Eeyore’s lost tail, finds his and Piglet’s way home when they get lost in the woods, and rescues Roo when the baby kangaroo falls in the river. And it is Pooh who creates his hums, and who is always ready to wish everyone a Happy Thursday (even if he can’t spell it).
Hoff also criticizes the other characters of the Pooh books for their non-Taoist tendencies. In doing so, he engages in some legitimate social criticism. For example, in the “Busy Backson” chapter, he criticizes the American tendency to be like Rabbit, always rushing about, usually to no good purpose. Instead, why not sit down to a picnic lunch and relax a little?
Hoff says: “You see them almost everywhere you go, it seems. On practically any sunny sort of day, you can see the Backsons stampeding through the park, making all kinds of loud breathing noises. Perhaps you are enjoying a picnic on the grass when you suddenly look up to find that one or two of them just ran over your lunch.”
An example of our Busy Backson society is the Hamburger Stand. Other societies have places where people sit, consume light food, and talk for hours. But our fast-food places, besides poisoning the customers’ health, are in the business of turning over items fast. The customer buys food, consumes it quickly, and goes, leaving his seat for the next consumer of dead animal products.
Also, American society believes in the Great Reward: Work hard, run yourself to death, and someday (but not just yet) you’ll receive a Great Reward. Taoism doesn’t believe in running yourself to death now for a Great Reward in the future. Instead: Be happy today; enjoy the process of whatever it is that you do; everyone’s favorite day should be Today.
Check out some FREE eBooks about good deeds (and some books for SALE, and some FREE literature discussion guides):
For some stories of good deeds and anecdotes, check out the rest of