Hoff uses the British children's story Winne-the-Pooh (and, in particular, the title character) to explain the concepts of Taoism. It's a simple and effective approach; however, the reader shall be in a much better position to catch the drift of Hoff's discussion if he or she already possesses a basic understanding of the Pooh characters.
Pooh is a small bear whose one love in life is eating honey. Pooh is not cleaver but, rather, bumbles along in the stories arriving at the answer to riddles or problems without meaning to or through little effort or, even, without knowing he has arrived at the answer. He is contrasted with a self-proclaimed purveyor of knowledge, the owl, and a busy body rabbit as well as other animals of the 100 acre wood.
Hoff sets up his thesis of Pooh as Taoist master by first introducing the reader to a few background principles of the religion. He tells of a painting called "The Vinegar Tasters" with three men who have tasted a particular vinegar. The first is Confucius and he finds the vinegar sour. For him, life was ruled by rituals and reverence for ancestors; hence, the sour vinegar (i.e., the present life was not to be enjoyed as man is constantly longing for the past). The second taster is Buddha and, for him, the vinegar is bitter. He sees life as filled with attachments and desires for this world which lead to suffering and pain. Only by escaping these desires and attachments (thereby escaping this world completely through nirvana) may a person cease the suffering. The last vinegar taster was Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism. He is laughing as he finds heaven to exist on earth IF one lives in harmony with the natural laws [note: this is my paraphrase, not exactly the way Hoff put it]. The natural result of harmonious living is happiness.
Hoff extols Pooh as the epitome of the Taoist "uncarved block" (called "P'u" in Taoism). Hoff states the concept as follows:
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. * * * This basic Taoist principle applies not only to things in their natural beauty and function, but to people as well. Or Bears.
Hoff quotes the Tao Te Ching: "The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise." This is so because the learned individual is restricted by his own learning. Hoff points to the character Owl from Winnie-The-Pooh as an example of a learned individual who lacks wisdom. In the story, Owl's knowledge and education never assist the characters in performing the task at hand. Time and again, it is Pooh's way (simple, slow paced approach) that wins the day. In Hoff's view of Taoism, the brain is something of an enemy of the Way. "[P]eople are easily led away from what's right for them, because people have Brain, and Brain can be fooled." Note to Hoff: bears have brains too, just smaller than humans.
* * * Pooh is able to accomplish what he does because he is simpleminded. As any old Taoist walking out of the woods can tell you, simple-minded does not necessarily mean stupid.
Although not stated this way, I believe the point the author makes is that one of the grounding forces of the Way is knowing thyself (yes, the injunction that hung above the entrance to the oracle at Delphi, a concept from Greek philosophy). Knowing one's self leads to believing in one's self which leads to self-reliance. To emphasis the point, Hoff reminds us of the story of the Ugly Duckling who later turns into a swan. The duckling had already turned into a swan but still suffered with low self-esteem. It was not until the swan looked at her reflection in the water that she realized who she really was (i.e., saw her true inner self, an inner self that is hidden in us all).
The next principle presented is Wu Wei which Hoff defines as "without doing, causing, or making." This is exemplified by how Pooh goes about life. Pooh operates on the simple principle of minimal effort and working within his limitations. "It means that Tao doesn't force or interfere with things, but lets them work in their own way, to produce results naturally. Then whatever needs to be done is done."
The Wu Wei principle * * * can be understood by striking at a piece of cork floating in water. The harder you hit it, the more it yields: the more it yields, the harder it bounces back. Without expending energy, the cork can easily wear you out.
These are the main points of the book (to my eyes) but I'll touch upon a few more thoughts set forth by Hoff. He extols belief in one's self.
We don't need to shift our responsibilities onto the shoulders of some deified Spiritual Superman [is he referring to Jesus Christ?], or sit around and wait for Fate to come knocking at the door. We simply need to believe in the power that's within us, and use it.
One of the most important concepts in Taoism is compassion ("Tz'u"). From it comes courage and, without it, one cannot achieve wisdom.
The last principle conveyed by Hoff in this book is that learning to "go nowhere and do nothing" is the first step in the Tao. Loa-tse wrote: "To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day." Hoff says all things come from Nothing. This empty-mindedness (or clear-mindedness) is to return as a child again. The parable of Chuang-tse retold by Hoff says it best:
On his way back from K'un-lun Mountains, the Yellow Emperor lost the dark pearl of Tao. He sent Knowledge to find it, but Knowledge was unable to understand it. He sent Distant Vision, but Distant Vision was unable to see it. He sent Eloquence, but Eloquence was unable to describe it. Finally, he sent Empty Mind, and Empty Mind came back with the pearl.
Why again did I go to graduate school?