Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 81


This is it, the last chapter of the Tao Te Ching. I began this series on the 81 chapters of this ancient text almost five years ago. Wow, that is hard for me to believe. The intention for the series was to share some reflections on each chapter based on my decades long love of this wisdom teaching, which led me to spend several years delving into the mystery and beauty of the original Chinese characters. What I’ve tried to offer is not another translation of each chapter – there are already so many of those – but rather some insight or application that has arisen in my own life through my engagement with the text. 

So here we are, at the end which does not feel like the end. The motion of Tao is cyclical, manifesting and returning, rather than linear. It ends where it begins. This is the way. 

With that in mind, I’m drawn to the very end of this chapter, which, at least to me, sums up the arc of wisdom throughout the Tao Te Ching

Heaven’s Tao benefits yet does not interfere
Sage’s Tao acts yet does not contend

Here is our model for living in awakened moments. The energy of the universe is like the sun, providing light and warmth to all without regard to merit, without judgment, without manipulation. The ten thousand things of creation evolve and unfold according to their nature. We don’t have to look far to see how interference, no matter how well intentioned, often leads to unexpected and undesired results. This, in turn, requires more and more manipulation, layers upon layers of course correction to restore balance, which is never truly achieved and must be artificially maintained. 

We can think of examples in our communities and in our own lives where we sought to make some improvement or to bestow some benefit that did not turn out the way we imagined. Think kudzu. For more entertaining examples, think of all the science fiction tales based on time travel that wreaks havoc with history’s trajectory, or medical breakthroughs that unleash unanticipated devastation. It’s no accident that Star Trek’s “prime directive” prohibited interference with the natural development of alien civilizations. (And yes, some of the best storylines in Star Trek involved the violation of the prime directive!)

Yet non-interference does not mean non-engagement. The sage acts. The key is in the absence of striving or contending. Appropriate actions arise naturally and effortlessly when they are in harmony with the movement of Tao’s intrinsic energy. Ordinary people sometimes act in extraordinary ways, and we call them heroes. When asked about their actions, they often say that they didn’t think. They just instinctively responded to a perceived need. I’m thinking of a man I read about recently who, in the moments after his outside wedding, saw a boy drowning in a canal. Leaving his bride and the photographer wondering what was going on, he raced to the water’s edge and without hesitation jumped in the water and pulled the boy out. 

Not all examples are so dramatic. I’m thinking of a friend who baked cookies for me when I was having a really bad day. When presented with the cookies, I burst into tears of gratitude. Her gesture was perfect and exactly what I needed. She thought nothing of it, but to me it changed everything.

When we self reflect, we can often see that most of our effort and striving happens in our thinking minds, when we are struggling with what is, wanting it to be something different, wanting someone else to be different, wanting ourselves to be different. When we contend with reality, we will always lose. But when we loosen our rigid grip, when we release our insistence, when we allow awareness to open unimpeded, our way becomes clear in its own time, and we follow its path with effortless energy. 

Thus we come full circle in this ancient wisdom teaching. The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching ends with the character for doorway or gate, inviting us into the mystery of an awakened life, lived fully in harmony with the natural expression of creation. This last chapter reveals how life unfolds when we walk through the door.

The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~T. S. Eliot

I hope you have enjoyed this series. You can access the entire series by clicking on the label Tao Te Ching chapter series below, or over in the right column under the list of labels.

12 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching – Chapter 81”

  1. Thank you for this series, Galen. Often I have read the posts, then go back to the beginning to read them again. So much wisdom simply stated, yet profound.

  2. Wow, what a milestone for your series! Thank you for your devotion and commitment to this project. I haven't read it all, but I've read most, and am consistently touched by your insights.

  3. That's great, RCS. Which translation/interpretation did you get? There are so many good ones out there. If you want to talk about it more, or if there is anything I can help you with as you engage with this wisdom teaching, feel free to email me at galenpearl@gmail.com. Enjoy!

  4. I know what you mean about the time passing. It was eight years ago when I stopped writing my first blog and began exploring the original Chinese characters of the Tao Te Ching. A lot has happened since then — for all of us! Thanks for commenting.

  5. What a wonderful post for me to find on a mini catch up with you, Galen. This is so beautiful, the verse, your interpretation and your writing. The quote at the end is one of my favourites and it is perfect while inviting a reaquaintance with/re-exploration of what we think we know and feel – about ourselves and about the planet we live on.

    I really identified with this, where you say,''When we self reflect, we can often see that most of our effort and striving happens in our thinking minds, when we are struggling with what is, wanting it to be something different, wanting someone else to be different, wanting ourselves to be different. When we contend with reality, we will always lose. But when we loosen our rigid grip, when we release our insistence, when we allow awareness to open unimpeded, our way becomes clear in its own time, and we follow its path with effortless energy''

    My sister and her son have had a serious argument and not spoken properly for 3 weeks. During that time, their minds have been working overtime (as is our bent!) Now they have to meet up this weekend and see where they are at. I really hope they can release some insistence on a resolution (because I don't believe there will be one any time soon) and move through their rigid grip with at least some easing. I can also remember feeling all pent up after some conflict with a woman on a counselling course.my feelings and thinking had built up SUCH tension, i thought I might explode when i came face to face with her. But instead something else took hold, thank God, and it was a wish to make peace. She moved through that moment with me and we came out the other side – not suddenly being friends, but grudging respect.

    What I love about these posts, and the Tao te Ching, is what I end up thinking and feeling – I never know what is going to pop out!Once again, Cheers, Galen :>)

  6. Thanks Lynne for your thoughtful reflection on this post and your telling example about your sister and her son. All the wisdom in the Tao Te Ching or in any other wisdom teaching is pointless unless we find application in our everyday lives. I'm glad you've enjoyed this series.

  7. I have found your thoughts and teachings on Tao Te Ching interesting. I think because it has some similar thoughts that are like my own faith in God. After reading this today, my thought was our Loving Heavenly Father has given us the agency to choose while on earth. In doing so, he doesn't interfere with that agency ever. He gives us the Savior's teachings to follow and to be like him, and commandments to live by and the light of Christ to help us know right from wrong. However, it is up to us how we choose to live. If we follow Christ and His teachings we are blessed with the Gift of the Holy Ghost which further helps us on our covenant path with him.
    His Plan of Salvation is perfect and again we have our agency to choose when we have learned of it. In our faith everyone that has ever lived will have the chance to hear of the gospel of Jesus Christ whether during their earth experience or in the spirit world. Thus they can accept or reject it; then their choices will place them exactly where they will be the happiest for Eternity. This is of course, just a simple overview.
    In studying here and there, world religions, I have found that most of them have some similar beliefs such as the Philosophy of Tao.
    It's been fun to read your experiences and insights.
    Blessings and hugs!

  8. Thank you, LeAnn. I always appreciate your willingness to "expand your sphere" (see most recent post) to consider other viewpoints and to find common ground. Not everyone can do that. I enjoy our conversations about those common threads. I'm glad you've enjoyed this series.

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