You shouldn't ask what is meant by "Tao." Any discussion of this ancient Chinese system of enlightenment is automatically a betrayal--from the "Tao Te Ching" of Lao-tse, who introduced the idea to the world, right down to this latest effort to explain the inexplicable: "The Tao of Pooh."

Lao-tse made it clear right from the beginning--in the first sentence of his book, which, according to legend, he was forced to write against his will: "The Tao that can be discussed is not the true Tao." Or perhaps "not the eternal Tao." Or "not the absolute Tao." Words are tricky at best, and when the words are Chinese and 25 centuries old, the problems are compounded--not because it is hard to find a meaning but because there are so many possible meanings in what looks like a perfectly simple statement. That is the problem with Tao itself: It is so perfectly simple that it eludes discussion; the application of any words automatically imposes a false coloration and introduces needless, confusing complications. The way to discover the Way (which is one of the meanings of "Tao") is to look inside, or perhaps to learn from the example of others.

Benjamin Hoff (a 35-year-old writer, photographer and musician who "prunes trees for a living," according to his publisher) has had the bright idea of selecting Winnie-the-Pooh as one of the examples from whom people might be able to learn about Tao. Pooh is not quite an ideal exemplar of the Tao (nobody has ever been quite ideal and a concrete embodiment of the total ideal is probably impossible), but he will do well enough for a beginning and he is certainly a less exotic and forbidding figure than the long-dead men with unpronounceable names who are found in most of the manuals.

Pooh's chief qualification for the assignment is a characteristic that has been alleged against him and one that he himself cheerfully admitted: that he is a bear of very little brain. Intellect is one of the things that can get in the way of finding the Way if we let it. It presents very few problems for Pooh. His problems come from the other great obstacle to enlightenment: inappropriate desires--usually, in his case, involving the acquisition of something edible. But Hoff, quite rightly, accentuates the positive. Pooh is, on the whole, a rather admirable bear, attuned to the forces of nature (which may be another translation of "Tao") and willing to take his place unself-consciously in the great scheme and flow of things.

The advice embodied in the figure of Pooh and conveyed in this book will be familiar: The universe operates in ways that cannot be adequately described or analyzed by the human (or ursine) brain, but can be felt inside yourself if you still the constant yammering of your mind, forget about trying to use words cleverly, abandon abstract analysis and just relax and attune yourself to it. In other words, go with the flow; find which way the cosmic current is going and swim with it, not against it. My statement is, of course, a distortion of Hoff's statement, which is a distortion of the reality of Tao--but we must do the best we can with what is available. Some dialogue from Pooh himself is probably the best we can do:

" 'Rabbit's clever,' said Pooh thoughtfully.

" 'Yes,' said Piglet, 'Rabbit's clever.'

" 'And he has Brain.'

" 'Yes,' said Piglet, 'Rabbit has Brain.'

"There was a long silence.

" 'I suppose,' said Pooh, 'that's why he never understands anything.' "

There is a danger, of course, that such a sublimely nonintellectual approach to life can become anti-intellectualism, which is something quite different--and I am not sure that Benjamin Hoff entirely avoids this problem. "We don't need to imitate Nearsighted Science, which peers at the world through an electron microscope, looking for answers it will never find and coming up with more questions instead," says Hoff. This seems a slightly ungrateful attitude for someone who probably wrote at least part of his book by electric light, discussed it with his publisher by telephone and enjoyed the advantages of computer technology in the type-setting, printing, promotion and distribution of his meditations.

But none of us is perfect--unless we admit that a bit of imperfection must be embodied in the idea of perfection, as a bit of yin is embodied in the idea of yang. Pooh is such a mixed embodiment--as he shows, for example, when he pretends to know more than he really does about heffalumps. But he is usually a natural creature--no small accomplishment for a talking bear who is made out of whole cloth (flannel, I am told, in his pristine embodiment).

The most useful simplification of Tao is probably just that--to try to become a natural creature attuned to your environment as a seagull is to wind and water, a shark to the depths of the ocean, a colony of bacteria to the intestinal tract. This attunement involves not trying too hard at whatever you are doing, but letting it just happen; not approaching reality in too abstract or schematic a mode, not being so busy with trivia that you lose touch with the small voice of your inner nature--above all, perhaps, the ability simply to relax and be your true self. At all of these, Pooh is a true adept and Hoff is quite clever at pointing out the modalities of his adeptness.

Ultimately, it does not matter what handle one uses to pick up the slippery realities of Tao; once the thing itself is grasped, the handle will be discarded anyway. The Tao of Pooh will appeal to some readers, as the Tao of Physics does to others and the Zen of motorcycle maintenance (Zen is a cousin of Tao) to yet another group. The important thing is to get it whatever way you can--and then try to do it minimal damage when you talk about it.