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Craftsmen of the Tao

The second of a three part series taking an Eastern perspective on issues facing craftsmen in the Western world.
Robert Thomas

Traditional Smith - Robert Thomas.

In my opening essay in the series, "A Craftsman's Philosophy", I controversially contested the Enlightenment classification Homo Sapien, "the wise man" and proposed an ancient point of view, Homo Faber or "man as maker" as being more representative of human beings. In my zeal to make a point, I was perhaps being a tad insincere in attempting to persuade you the reader of a conviction I do not myself hold. For example, it could be argued that our ability to cultivate, to nurture life and growth is equally characteristic of human beings and just as critical to the rise and continuance of civilisation. By promoting one classification over another do we not in many respects diminish the totality of who we are?

Over two millennia ago a method seeking escape from this seemingly intractable morass of nomenclature began to coalesce. The Tao () purports to be a path of liberation from the artificial world of convention, a deliverance into the visceral experience of reality. As I will subsequently consider, this change of perspective has many implications for the craftsman.

A Spontaneous Nature

"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." - Lao Tzu

The Chinese word for nature, ziran (自然), literally translates something like "of itself so". The sentiment of expressing it thus is of nature conceived as an unhurried phenomenon, entirely spontaneous. Closely allied with nature is the concept of wu-wei (無爲), the "not doing" or "not making", yet implying growth as an internally generative cultivation. This is not a concept of nature as separate and outside of ourselves as humans, since we too quite literally grow ourselves. In reality, our capacity for reason depends wholly on the self-generated brain and body. Our relatively limited capacity for conscious thought is but a staked tent resting upon the mountain of our unconscious, or perhaps better stated "super-conscious" mind, a highly complex system that grows and maintains the myriad of working functions and sense perceptions that we too easily take for granted.

I find that traditional craftsmen are almost universally interested in making "good time." However, the emphasis shifts from "time", that is to say efficiency, towards the "good" or quality of both the experience and of the work itself. Thus, neither excessively planned nor chaotic, the efficacy of craft adheres to the organic process of nature generally. For the craftsman, the dynamism of the crafted object is, in fact, an extension of their own, its life existing vicariously in the moment of generation. 


The formal, global implementation of theoretical standards for material and methods has significantly undermined traditional craft. Even in the presence of a tremendous inventory of safe, durable, beautiful hand-crafted architectural heritage, the prevailing practise is that if a construction material or method cannot be classified, labelled, numbered or otherwise be made to strictly adhere to scientific convention then it is deemed uncontrollable, potentially dangerous and bureaucratically illegal. Under this hyper-rational mindset, that a traditional material or method does work is deemed irrelevant if it can not be explained how it works within the abstracted limitations of convention.

The Tao offers freedom from the unyielding controls of convention:

“Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” - Lao Tzu

Instead the Tao urges the cultivation of Te (), commonly translated virtue but with the sense of an inner potency implying mastery. Interestingly, masters in this sense are really guides. They help the student to find the path for themselves. The path is really nothing special, just allowing oneself to be an authentic human being. The path has been followed by craftsmen all over the world since time immemorial. A master craftsman can not express in words enough to teach an apprentice much. Little can be learned by thinking, almost everything by doing. True mastery comes from direct experience admittedly benefited by guided instruction.

The path transcends in a very comprehensible way even space and time. It makes possible means of communication far more direct than those available through conventions, even language itself. For example, you could drop a traditional master mason from our English-speaking world in a remote Tibetan village today to work alongside a team of local traditional masons in building, say a monastery. Without being to convey as much as hello they would be up and running in no time through sketching and demonstration. Furthermore, the same holds true if you were able to deposit our English mason back in time 2,000 years ago. As dear as we hold language, it and other conventions tend to ensnare us within their limitations, preventing us from the full richness of human experience.

As any craftsman eventually learns, spontaneity and mastery cannot be forced. One has to abandon self-consciousness. But the irony is that this cannot be done consciously! Attempting to be spontaneous on purpose, thinking and willing yourself to do so, only amplifies the difficulty. How to escape this mental bind? As ancient philosopher of the Tao, Chuang Tzu said, "A path is made by walking on it."

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