Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing)
[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]
The Tao Te Ching opens with its most famous line:
You can see that the character for Tao 道 appears three times. Many Chinese characters have multiple meanings. This character can mean Tao, as in the metaphysical Way or Path, or ultimate truth or reality. As a verb, it can mean to say or communicate, or to understand.
So this first line can mean: The way that can be understood is not the eternal Way
This line reflects the profound mystery of truth. Or of God. In Western culture, we are very fond of our thinking minds. We like to analyze and rationalize and scientifically prove things in order for them to be acknowledged as real or true. We love logic and facts.
As a lawyer, I get that. I also understand that when we peer beyond that comfort zone of the known and knowable, we can feel anxious or afraid. In the uncharted areas beyond the explored world, some ancient maps included the warning “Here there be dragons.” Indeed!
If all we contemplated of this entire ancient text was the first line, it would be enough.
For those who want to delve further into this first chapter, let’s continue.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things
Along with our love of logic comes our love of names. We like to label and categorize things. Adam was tasked by God to name all the creatures of the earth. Science has divided us into genus and species. Many traditions include sacred naming rituals for our children.
Naming identifies things and makes them known. Names bring forth mystery into the concrete, called here by the poetic image of the ten thousand things. The nameless abides in mystery. The Hebrew “unname” of God is YHWH, which, when one attempts to pronounce it, has no sound other than the breath.
Ever desireless one sees the mystery
Ever desiring one sees the manifestations
Ah, here’s the tough part. If what we want is to experience the mystery, the only way is to be without desire! My desire restricts my vision to the manifestation of the mystery in the ten thousand things.
How can I not want what I want most of all?
For me, the answer lies in surrender, in accepting that my effort, my will, my attempts to control, my attachment to outcome, will avail me nothing. Mystery is not achieved; it is revealed, glimpsed in fleeting moments of grace, sometimes when we least expect it. No, always when we least expect it.
So, if you dare, step into your small craft without desire, and sail into uncharted waters, into the “cloud of unknowing” where you will dance with dragons.
If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine
[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]
The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching introduces two themes: non-duality and wu wei.
The first part of the chapter illustrates the nature of non-duality with a list of complementary qualities which we often see as opposites, showing that our perception of these qualities comes from their manifestation into being. So, for example, we know the manifestation of beauty because of ugliness, and the manifestation of kindness because of unkindness.
Before they manifest, there are no opposites. Chapter 1 says “The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” So not only does naming “create” but it also separates, or distinguishes. We see this reflected in the creation story in Genesis. God separated the heaven and the earth, the waters from the land, the light of day and the dark of night. And how fascinating that God did all this by speaking, as in “let there be light.” Naming caused manifestation.
Before God spoke, Genesis says that the earth was formless and empty, which is also how the Tao is described. Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching says “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth.” The Tao is that empty, formless void, not barren at all, but brimming with infinite and undifferentiated potential, which then, through naming, manifests.
We perceive the manifested “ten thousand things” as separate, and even opposites, but Chapter 2 shows us that we are perceiving various facets of one whole. We perceive distinctions according to the lens through which we look. If two people viewed opposite sides of earth from space, one person would see the earth as dark; the other would see the earth as light. It’s the same earth; the darkness and light are surface appearances that shift with the rotation of the earth and its orbit around the sun.
Our perceptions reflect further separation when we add in judgments. For example, one might think that the dark side of earth is beautiful. Another might think it is frightening. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” When we can recognize our own participation in our perception, we can begin to relax our hold on our own world view and become more open to, well, everything.
Which brings us to...
The second part of Chapter 2 shifts our focus to a familiar character in the Tao Te Ching – the sage.
Thus the sage acts effortlessly...
Because wu wei literally means without acting, and is thus often translated as non-action, people sometimes mistakenly believe that what is being taught here is a passive, doormat, being buffeted by life’s waves kind of approach to living. I think of it more as action without ego, more of an allowing rather than forcing. As Fritz Perls said, “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.” When our actions are in harmony, they seem effortless, almost like we aren’t doing anything, but rather things are happening through us.
...and follows no words teaching
This line can mean that the sage practices no words wisdom herself, or that she teaches others without words. This is one of my favorite lines in the Tao Te Ching. Like many of the passages, the original Chinese lends itself to multiple meanings. Since I spent much of my career as a teacher, I’m drawn to the blurred distinction between teaching and learning present in this particular line.
A Course in Miracles says that we are all teachers, and that we teach what we want to learn. When I was interviewed for a book about teaching practices of law professors, I related the story of my most successful class. I had come down with a severe case of laryngitis; I couldn’t even squeak. Canceling class was my least desirable option, so I created some projects for the students to work on in groups during class. When class began, I handed out instructions and sat back to watch. After a few moments of confusion, students arranged themselves in groups and got to work. I walked around the room to listen, and was amazed by the level of engagement, excitement, and accomplishment taking place.
They learned more that day than I ever could have “taught” them with my own words, and I learned the most of all.
As a result of the sage’s practice of wu wei and no words teaching, the ten thousand things follow their natural course.
Work is done and then forgotten. Because it is forgotten, it is never lost.
So how do we reconcile the two concepts in this chapter – non-duality and wu wei? What does the correlation of opposites have to do with effortless action?
Perhaps when we truly understand the illusion of opposites, there is no longer a need to judge them as good or bad, no need to force circumstances, no need to condition our well being on a particular outcome. We allow transitory circumstances to arise and pass without attaching to them, like water washing over us, or a breeze ruffling our hair. Like the creek by my cabin, nature is always moving but always there.
Perhaps by recognizing the unity of apparently opposite manifestations, we can develop a sense of nonresistance or allowing, an ego- and judgment-free attitude towards life, a respect for the natural movement of the universe and our place in it.
As long as words are used to denote a truth, duality is inevitable; however, such duality is not the truth. All divisions are illusory. ~Yaga Vasistha
[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]
This chapter is divided into two parts and a coda. The first part highlights the cause and effect relationship between creating or perceiving disparity and the resulting discord. The second part is often interpreted as giving advice on how to govern others, but personally I think it is about how we govern ourselves.
Exalting some above others causes rivalry
Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace
All three examples have in common a value that we place on something through our own judgment, a value that is not inherent in the thing itself. That value creates distinctions, and then desire that leads to attachment. We experience a sense of lack, creating discontent, and even fear or anger. We tend to see this dissatisfaction as rooted in our circumstances. Instead, we could see our dissatisfaction as rooted in our own judgments, which we can change or release.
Even as I write this, my mind is spinning out “yes, but...” scenarios. For example, we have just finished celebrating the amazing accomplishment of Olympic athletes from all over the world. We exalted some above others as a result of competition. Is that a bad thing?
Here is the simple answer. How did it make you feel? Did it open your heart or close it?
Contrast the Egyptian judo athlete who would not shake the offered hand of his Israeli competitor, with the American tennis player who, when the referee called his opponent’s shot out, urged his Australian competitor to challenge the call. His opponent won the challenge, and the look that passed between them was not one of rivalry but of brotherhood.
Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly
Gentling the will
And strengthening the bones
As stated above, this section is often interpreted as guidance for governing others. In this context it can be misconstrued as suggesting manipulative tactics, like keeping the masses docile by hard work and a “chicken in every pot.” Although there are many references in the Tao Te Ching to governing, nowhere does the text advocate controlling the populace in any way. But when viewed as a guide for self governance, these lines make more sense.
Emptying the heart (or the heart/mind – in Chinese, the heart is seen as the center of intellectual as well as emotional activity) does not mean giving up one’s autonomy, but rather emptying ourselves of ego and attachment.
Filling the belly doesn’t mean sitting down to a super sized meal, but rather filling our center, in the mid-abdomen, with pure energy, or as the Yellow Emperor said, “swallowing the breath of heaven.” Belly breathing, that is, breathing deeply so that the abdomen expands, as opposed to shallow chest breathing, is the perfect way to practice this.
Gentling the will doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather giving up our need to force our will on others or on circumstances beyond our control.
And strengthening the bones doesn’t mean heading to the gym, but rather being so perfectly aligned in our structure that we stand and move, literally and figuratively, with little or no effort, because we are in harmony with the universe. It can also refer to strengthening the bone marrow, the source of our life blood, again both literally and figuratively.
Doing without doing
Then all is as it should be
This coda reflects a theme we first encountered in Chapter 2 and repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei, or non-action means being in harmony with the Tao, or the natural flow of the universe. Doing without doing means that when we are aligned with this harmony, things happen as they should without our trying to direct things with our will.
I’m laughing as I finish writing this post because Chapter 3 is quite short. I have used many more words than Lao Tzu did to express this simple teaching of contentment and non-interference.
This short chapter, one of my favorites, and one of the most enigmatic, attempts to describe the indescribable Tao by using three images.
Tao is empty, yet in use is inexhaustible
The first is an image of emptiness, like a hollow bowl or an empty vessel. The emptiness of the Tao is not a barrenness, but is dynamic with potential. This image also has a connotation of a welling up, as an inexhaustible spring bubbling up from the ground.
Unfathomable, as the source of ten thousand things
The second is an image of bottomless depth, like an abyss. The phrase “ten thousand things” represents manifested creation. The Tao is often described as the origin of the manifested universe, and also the place to which the ten thousand things return. An endless cycle of creation into being and return to non-being. Think of the cycle of water, manifesting as rain, creating the ten thousand forms of water on the earth, then returning as water vapor to the heavens.
Pure stillness, enduring forever
The third is an image of profound tranquility. Not in a stagnant way, but in the sense of a deep, clear pool with a mirror surface reflecting the heavens, yet teeming with life in the hidden darkness. I described the practice of martial arts in my last post as movement within stillness, and stillness within movement. In an eternal dance of beauty and mystery.
The secret treasure of this chapter is found in the Chinese characters used for these three images. Chinese characters are broken down into parts. Each character is based on a radical, what we might think of as a root, which provides meaning. The other part of the character might enhance the meaning or might simply suggest a pronunciation.
So here is what I think is the coolest thing about this chapter. The three characters used for these images of the Tao all have water radicals, even though their meanings in English aren’t specifically water related.
See the little lines on the left side of the character? Those are the water radical. The right side of the character 中 means center or middle.
There is the water radical again on the left. The right side of this character is a bit more complicated. The three vertical lines taken by themselves 川 mean river. If you take the outer vertical lines away, the middle part 米 means rice, which, in Chinese, symbolizes sustenance and fertility.
Again, the water radical on the left. The right side 甚 means extremely.
While the Tao is very connected to nature in all its forms, the element most closely associated with the essence of Tao is water. Think for a moment of water’s qualities. What is its nature? How does it behave?
It doesn’t struggle. It flows around obstacles. It can’t be grasped. It yields to force (think of your hand pushing through water), yet nothing is stronger (think of the Grand Canyon). It follows the laws of gravity, not exerting energy, but simply flowing downhill. It joins together (think of drops of water touching and merging). It changes form – liquid, solid, vapor – yet never loses its basic structure. You might think of other qualities.
So what can we learn from this? How can we incorporate the nature of water, and thus the wisdom of Tao, into our own lives?
Here is a recent example from my own life. I crossed cyber paths not long ago with someone I never knew well, and had not had any contact with for many years, but was pleased to reconnect with. A brief email exchange followed – the hey, how have you been, synopsis of decades, friendly but superficial sort of communication one might expect.
I was taken aback, then, when I received a lengthy email attributing motives and beliefs to me that I did not recognize as my own, and to which she reacted very forcefully.
I was tempted to push back with a sort of WTF reaction, because my feelings were hurt, and anger often emerges to protect such vulnerability. But I paused. I allowed the force of her message to move through me as I flowed around it and moved on. I responded with an acknowledgment of her feelings, and I sincerely wished her well.
Thinking that would be the end of it, I was surprised by the next message. She apologized for the misunderstanding on her part and the accompanying defensiveness. She said I “practiced what I preached.” Equanimity was restored.
Wow, I thought. I don’t know what I’m preaching, but life gives us countless opportunities to practice, doesn’t it?
Be water, my friend. ~Bruce Lee
Heaven and earth are impartial
They treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs
The sage is impartial
She treats all people as straw dogs
The opening of this chapter is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Tao Te Ching. To some it seems harsh, but there is another way of looking at this passage that reveals the beauty hidden within.
Let’s start with the concept of impartiality. The characters used here are variously translated as ruthless, or heartless, or without kindness. These interpretations carry a connotation of cruelty or moral judgment that is not present in the text. Instead, the impartiality here is the same lack of favoritism reflected in the Bible.
He makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. ~Matthew 5:45
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likewise speaks of the generosity of the flower that blooms for all passersby without judgment or preference.
This is not an impartiality of cold, uncaring detachment, but rather the impartiality of an engaged open heart, welcoming all without reservation.
Straw dogs were objects used in sacred rituals, and afterwards discarded. Their value was not in their form, which was unimportant, but in their function, which was holy. All things living on this earth will die, and our form will disappear, but our essence, by whatever name you want to call it, continues unchanged in eternal oneness.
The sense I get from this chapter is of equanimity, remaining balanced in the center of life’s vicissitudes, showing kindness and compassion to all, recognizing the sacredness of, well, everything.
And summarized best at the end of the chapter:
Many words lead to exhaustion
Better to abide in the center
Oh what would our lives be like if we followed this advice?! My son James, who has autism, has an uncanny way of getting to the heart of things. When he was young, he would hold up his hand when I went on too long with an explanation, and say in a robot voice, “Talking is over.” And he was always right.
If Chapter 5 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Tao Te Ching, then Chapter 6 is one of the most enigmatic. And one of the shortest. Just 26 characters, it has spawned pages of commentary. Like the blind men and the elephant, everyone sees different facets of meaning. When we can release the need to have a single, “right” meaning, when we can let the meanings swirl in mystery, then we enter the true meaning beyond words, the mystery beyond understanding. And it is beautiful.
Valley spirit never dies
The valley is the image of the female – open, receptive, fertile. The spirit energy of yin. Like the image we saw in Chapter 4 of the empty vessel that is never exhausted but always dynamic with potential, the valley sustains with unending abundance.
This is called mysterious female
The character for mysterious 玄 carries a sense of translucence, allowing light to pass through without revealing form. It also can mean dark, unknown, profound. The character for female 牝 literally means a female horse, or mare, and can also mean womb.
So these two characters can literally mean dark mare. Metaphorically, they carry forward the idea from the first line of the fertile valley, a place of gestation, the mysterious source of life.
Jonathan Star compares this valley spirit/mysterious female to Shakti, the divine feminine creative power in Hinduism, who manifests as the infinite forms in the universe. Or the ten thousand things of the Tao.
The gate of the mysterious female
Is called the origin of heaven and earth
The gate could refer to the opening of the womb, but many think it refers to the nose and mouth as the gates through which the breath passes. The Bible says that God breathed the breath of life into man, making him a “living creature.” In that sense, the breath is the origin of creation, and continues throughout our lives to connect us to where we came from.
Using the Shakti reference again, Muktananda describes her as vibrating eternally, “Brahman in the form of sound,” giving birth to everything in the universe. This vibration is like God speaking to create the world.
The character for endlessly is repeated 绵 绵 , doubling the sense of the eternal aspect of creative movement. We talked in Chapter 4 about how a Chinese character is made up in part by a root or radical. The radical of this character is the left part 丝, which means silk. The image here is of a delicate silk thread being spun and drawn out.
Used without effort
In tai chi, there is a posture called reeling silk.
The concept of moving chi throughout the body is often described as drawing the chi smoothly and consistently, like drawing a silk thread. If you jerk it or force it, the thread will break. This is also consistent with the principle of wu wei, or non-action.
So what can we learn from the poetic imagery of this chapter? I think of this chapter not so much as practical advice, but more as creating a sense of wonder, accepting life’s invitation to join in the marvel of creation.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. ~Albert Einstein
This chapter is so simple, yet profound. In it, we see the connection between the nature of the universe and our own existence.
Heaven is eternal; earth is enduring
This first line complements the first line of Chapter 6: valley spirit never dies. And it continues the images we are accumulating of the mysterious essence of Tao – empty, inexhaustible, receptive, fertile, impartial, transcendent.
This chapter, however, offers more explanation.
The reason heaven and earth are eternal and enduring
Is because they don’t exist or live for themselves
This last line can also be translated as they don’t create themselves, or are unborn – an interesting concept. With all these interpretations, there is a sense of serene infinity and harmonious existence.
The next part shifts from the universe to the individual.
Thus the sage stays behind yet is ahead
Is unattached to self yet is ever present
Without self bias or focus
Self realization can be attained
Although the origins of the Tao Te Ching are centuries before Jesus, there are unmistakable similarities in the teaching. Jesus said the last will be first, and the first will be last. He also said that those who seek to save their life will lose it, yet those who lose their life for him will find it.
This is not a teaching of self sacrifice and denial as much as it is a teaching of liberation and transcendence. Of awakening. Of coming home. The price of the ticket, from the ego’s perspective, is everything, which is what makes it seem so scary. But when we arrive, we realize that what we thought was everything was nothing at all. The ticket is free because all we give up is illusion.
Regardless of your faith beliefs and orientation, there is a universality to these teachings reflected in wisdom traditions from all corners of the globe. It’s beautiful.
Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God. ~A Course in Miracles
Water is the most prominent image of the Tao in the Tao Te Ching. We saw this first in Chapter 4 where several characters used to describe the Tao had water radicals or roots. Here the chapter begins by explicitly comparing the Tao to water.
Before we talk about that, however, I want to introduce you to a character that is repeated in this chapter 9 times!
This character means good or goodness. So even though we begin with the water metaphor, keep in mind that goodness is the theme of this chapter.
The highest good is like water
Water’s goodness benefits the ten thousand things yet does not strive
It flows to places people shun
Thus is like the Tao
The goodness of water is not intentional. It is simply its nature, and so it supports all living things effortlessly. Remember that our bodies are mostly water!
The third line about flowing to places people shun is intriguing. Water flows downhill, and thus into low places. One might think of swamps or even sewers. But ultimately water flows to the greatest of all waters, the ocean. Its lowest point is its most powerful. This line reminds me of Jesus, who sat at the table with the people others rejected, and by so doing, manifested the highest goodness. In that way he was like water or like the Tao.
The next section of this chapter consists of seven lines, each one having three characters. The first character in each line is a topic character, followed by the character for goodness, and ending with a comment character.
This presents a challenge for translators who must try to understand how goodness links the topic with the comment. If you look at various translations, you will see much variation, and the central character of goodness is often obscured because the translators are trying to make this make sense in English.
So I’m going to try something different here. I’m going to just give you a word for character correspondence, and invite you to use this like you might use a zen koan, a puzzle if you will. Without trying to elaborate in English, just contemplate the topic and comment linked by goodness and see what understanding emerges. Try to get out of your head and let the meaning be whispered in your heart. There is no right or wrong, no single answer. Just an open heart and a listening spirit. Ready?
home good earth
heart good deep
associations good impartial
word good trustworthy
leadership good justice
work good competence
action good timing
Hmm, what did you think? [If you have your own copy of the Tao Te Ching, what do you think of how the translator interpreted these characters?] You might have felt some frustration because it is hard to tolerate uncertainty of meaning or understanding.
I think perhaps this is one of the greatest gifts of the Tao Te Ching. The original Chinese is full of beauty, rhythm, and poetry, much of which is lost in translation. But even in the Chinese, the meaning is not often clear. Many characters have multiple meanings, which change even more when combined with other characters. Thus, the meanings swirl like a dancing creek, escaping capture. Relaxing into the elusiveness, releasing the need to know, is how we enter the mystery.
Ursula LeGuin noted in her own interpretation that the text of the Tao Te Ching itself is like water: the poetry flows, the teaching is not forced. Just as you cannot grasp water in your hand, you cannot capture the Tao in thought or word.
Because there is no striving
Thus there is no error
The focus in this chapter is on excess. The idea that somehow having more, being more, doing more, gives us value. The chapter begins with four observations.
Better to stop than fill to overflowing
This first line reminds me of the story about the professor who went to visit a zen master. The professor considered himself an expert on zen and pontificated while the master quietly poured tea in the professor’s cup. When the cup was full the master kept pouring until the tea spilled over onto the table and then to the floor. The professor finally interrupted his lecture to exclaim, “Stop! The cup is full. No more will go in.” The master replied, “You are like this cup. You must empty yourself before you can learn.”
When we fill our minds with opinions and judgments, there is no room to consider the opinions of others. There is no room for truth and wisdom.
It also reminds me of a quotation by Suzuki Roshi. “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind are few.” The world is always fresh and full of wonder to a child’s mind. The more we think we know, the less likely we are to see the miracles all around us.
Over sharpen the blade and the edge will soon dull
If you have ever sharpened a knife on a whetstone, you know the truth of this statement.
When I was studying for the bar exam to become a lawyer, I realized a few days before the test that I couldn’t learn any more. The more I studied, the more it seemed that I was losing ground. I had gone past my peak. I promptly stopped and went to a movie!
Have you ever tried to solve a problem or make a difficult choice by over thinking it? Making lists of pros and cons, thinking until your head hurt and the choice became murkier? Or the solution more elusive? And then when you finally gave up, the answer became clear!
Fill the hall with gold and jade, and no one can protect it
When asked in an interview how much more money he needed before having enough, billionaire J.D. Rockefeller responded, “Just a little more.”
I smile every time I see this quote because it’s so true! Whether we want one more donut or a million more dollars, there just never seems to be enough. I love books, as evidenced by the piles of books stacked on the floor next to the overstuffed bookshelves. But I just need one more....
And it’s true that we can’t protect everything we care about, isn’t it? This is a bit of a tangent, but did you ever see the movie Harold and Maude? Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, is an eccentric old woman who goes around, well, stealing things. When Harold protests, she shrugs him off by saying that she is just a gentle reminder of “here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.”
Maude goes on to say that since she understands this principle, she is not opposed to having things. Indeed, her tiny home is full of things she has collected (stolen?). So I guess as long as I’m not attached to all these books, it’s okay to have so many of them. Hmm....
Pride in wealth and titles leads to misfortune
Sound familiar? The Bible teaches that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and is thought by some to be the gateway through which all the others enter.
Why is that? And why is pride so bad and self-esteem so good? I’m no expert (beginner’s mind always!), but it seems to me that pride separates us from others. It isolates us by placing us, in our own minds, above others. It takes us out of the natural energy flow of the Tao, closing our hearts and spirits to the wisdom of the universe.
Self-esteem, on the other hand, allows our true nature to manifest. Because we are neither puffed up nor insecure, we are liberated to be our authentic selves. This naturally connects us to others in the tapestry of all life.
Work is done, person withdraws
This is the way of heaven
These last two lines sum up this chapter and repeat a theme found throughout the Tao Te Ching. When we do not force or grasp, when we simply do what needs to be done and release our attachment, all is well.
Note: Three of the seven characters in these last two lines have a radical, or root, meaning “to go” or “movement.” This includes the character for “way” (Tao 道 ). To me, this suggests the natural flow of universal energy when we allow it to move unimpeded.
What a perfect chapter for these uncertain times–a guide for living perfectly in an imperfect world. In this chapter, the focus shifts from the mysterious, unknowable Tao to its manifestation in Te (also spelled De).
Te has been loosely translated as virtue, but not in the moralistic sense. More like inner radiance, or integrity. When one is in harmony with Tao, one manifests Te. I think of it like fruits of the Spirit described in the Bible–love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruits are not the Spirit. Nor are they something that one can force. They naturally flow from Spirit when one is aligned and open.
Likewise, Te is not separate from Tao, but rather is the natural expression or revelation of unimpeded Tao in the world. Te can take many forms, just like life can manifest in countless animals and plants, all appearing different yet sharing the universal energy that breathes life into them. Likewise all forms of Te make visible an inner power that radiates from Tao like the rays of the sun.
We can further understand Te by contemplating its Chinese character 德 . The top right component means straight or perfect. The bottom right component means heart. And the root or radical of the character is the part on the left, which means stepping forward. So one could think of these components as suggesting going forward with a perfect heart, or right-hearted action.
The chapter has two parts. The first part is a series of six questions guiding us and challenging us to discern and live by the principles of alignment with this universal energy. The second part is a brief conclusion, identifying these principles as the original and mysterious primal Virtue or Te.
The six questions follow a similar format of introducing a topic followed by a question.
Holding universal spirit and individual soul in unity, can you be without separation?
Gathering the breath gently, can you be like a newborn baby? [Think belly breathing!]
Purifying inner vision, can you see without imperfection or distraction?
Caring for people or governing, can you act without acting? [wu wei or non-action]
Opening and closing heaven’s gate [five senses], can you be female [yielding, nurturing, receptive]?
Understanding everything [enlightened], can you be without knowledge?
The conclusion ties this all to Te
Producing and nurturing without claiming or possessing
Acting without expectation or taking credit
Leading without dominating
This is deep, profound Te
I hope you share my sense that this is a timely chapter to contemplate. As I have sought to settle my spirit this week by returning to my posts about the Tao Te Ching, I was quite pleased and even amused, in that cosmic sort of way, by finding this reminder of the bigger picture and the deep wisdom of the universe. There has been a lot of questioning this week, from both sides of the political aisle, about what to do next. Seems to me that this chapter answers that.
Love, and do what you will. ~St. Augustine
I started to write a post about my martial arts class yesterday, and then realized the next chapter in our Tao Te Ching chapter series is Chapter 11, which is directly relevant to what I wanted to write about. Synchronicity–gotta love it!
Chapter 11 is a favorite one for many folks. It talks about the overlooked essential value of emptiness by giving examples of common things.
For example, when clay is shaped into a bowl, we admire the beauty of the form, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the bowl useful.
In my home, I have a lot of original tilework around the doors and windows in the kitchen and bathroom. It’s lovely, but it is the space inside the windows and doors that make them useful. One commentary I read said that in the part of ancient China where the Tao Te Ching originated, homes were often carved out of cliffsides. So rather than enclosing space to build a home, they literally created space to make a home. I love that.
The chapter concludes by observing that form is what we value, but emptiness is what we use.
While the examples given are of tangible things, the same principle holds true in other contexts. Two people can’t have a dialogue, for example, if one of them does all the talking, not allowing space for the other person to speak. If my mind is full of judgments and opinions, there is no space for new ideas, or for another person’s opinion. If my heart is full of fear and hatred, there is no room for compassion and forgiveness. If my spirit is clogged with beliefs, there is no space to listen for divine guidance.
Let me go back to my martial arts class to describe this another way. In class we worked with a partner to practice “push hands.” In this exercise, the partners face each other with their forearms gently touching. They move slowly, staying relaxed, trying to sense through touch where their partners might be off balance or unguarded, sensing an opening. The teacher kept telling us not to struggle to occupy the space already occupied by our partner, but rather to seek the empty space and move into it, thereby neutralizing our partner’s force.
When the teacher was instructing me, he pointed to my partner’s arm and said, “He is already here. Don’t go there. Go where he isn’t. Grow into that empty space like a tree.” By filling the empty space, my partner had nowhere to go. Hmm, hard to describe. You sorta had to be there.
Over and over in martial arts we are taught not to try to combat force through muscular strength, but to maneuver around force in such a way that the incoming force defeats itself. The emptiness is what “wins” although we don’t practice in terms of winning and losing, but rather in terms of having a “conversation” with our partners about directing energy. We practice every day to release the energy-blocking tension in our bodies, to create space for the energy to move freely through us. In the vocabulary of this chapter, the emptiness is what is useful.
So as you move through your day today, consider the usefulness of space, both external space around you, and internal space in your heart and mind.
The moment you are not, enlightenment is. With emptiness, the matter is settled. ~Osho
I just read an article called The Case Against Reality. It’s about a professor of cognitive science who says that the world we perceive through our senses is nothing like reality.
Decades ago, in my know-it-all youth, I wrote in some philosophy paper, “We participate in creating the reality we perceive.” Most of us have figured that out to some degree by now. But according to this guy, it’s not so much that we participate in creating the reality we perceive, but that there is no reality to perceive. Mind-blowing.
And it is also pretty much what Lao Tzu said 2,500 years ago in Chapter 12. The focus of this chapter is how our senses and desires lead us astray, away from the natural energy flow of the universe, away from our innate wisdom.
It begins by observing the distraction of our sensory input.
The five colors blind the eye
The five tones deafen the ear
The five flavors dull the taste
Sensory experience blocks or overwhelms true seeing, true hearing, true tasting, in other words true understanding. True understanding is beyond senses, even beyond thought.
Desire, like sensory experience, can also distract us.
Chasing after things [described in terms of hunting] maddens the heart
Rare [costly or hard to get] things hinder right action
These two lines are similar to these lines from Chapter 3:
Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace
Chapter 12 next brings in a character becoming familiar to us, the sage.
Thus the sage is guided by his belly and not by his eyes
This line again echoes Chapter 3:
Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly
As we saw then, the reference to the belly doesn’t mean the digestive system, but rather the belly or the dantian as the energy center of our being. Being guided by the belly rather than the eyes means to listen to our inner wisdom rather than our senses and desires.
And now the last line, which is only five characters but lends itself to many meanings.
去 leave or let go of
取 hold or choose
Various translations generally frame this line in terms of this and that–letting that go and choosing this. This could mean making choices about things in a detached way. It could also mean choosing inner guidance over sensory distraction.
But here is another way to look at this line. In classical Chinese, the last two characters when combined can mean ordinary or casually. So you could understand the last line to mean, instead of choosing, that the sage casually lets everything go, or allows things to come and go in their natural rhythm. This is the essence of nonattachment.
Isn’t that cool? One of the things I have so loved about contemplating the original Chinese of the Tao Te Ching is all the little treasures revealed in the mystery of this ancient poetry.
Anyway, we’re all thinking now, so what does this mean for us in the last month of 2016? We might look back over this year and consider what has caught our attention. What has distracted us? What desires or thoughts or emotions have captured our energy? When have we been guided by our “eyes” rather than our “bellies”?
This is easy to answer for me. I have been hooked by the endless news cycles and distracted by counting the number of times I have heard someone say “unprecedented.” Even as I recognized that I was becoming a bit (!) obsessed, it was hard to break away. It’s very challenging to hear, much less heed, inner guidance when willingly jumping into the maelstrom of sensory and emotional overload.
No judgment. Just observation. Our practice is on the razor’s edge, and this year has kept me on the razor’s edge a lot! I call myself home by remembering:
Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
~A Course in Miracles
Unlike many chapters which use just a few characters to generate lots of meaning, this chapter uses a lot of repetition to convey what I think is a very simple message: Equanimity = peace.
Equanimity requires a certain degree of detachment. This doesn’t mean not engaging with life. It doesn’t mean not caring about anything. It means, to me, not getting hooked by the stories others tell or that we tell ourselves. It means not struggling against the natural flow of impermanence that is reflected in the human condition.
What we detach from can be external or internal. Honor and disgrace come from what others think of us. As the chapter says, both can cause us to be fearful or unsettled, because they depend on what we can’t control. Even if we are being honored, the honor can be taken away. When we give others the power over our well being, we can never be at peace.
Fortune and misfortune come from our own judgment about our circumstances. Because we see ourselves as separate individuals, we tend to evaluate everything in relation to how we think it affects us.
Remember the zen story of the old farmer? A poor old farmer had one son and one horse. One day his horse ran away. A neighbor exclaimed over his misfortune since without the horse, he couldn’t farm his land. The farmer replied, “Who knows if it is good or bad?”
The next day the horse returned leading twenty wild horses. The neighbor congratulated him on his new wealth. “Who knows if it is good or bad?” shrugged the farmer. The next day his son broke a leg trying to tame one of the wild horses. The neighbor (who obviously was not taking care of his own farm!) bemoaned his ill luck. You know what the farmer said.
The next day the army swept through the village, taking all the young men away to fight...except the son with the broken leg.
You get the idea. When we are able to detach from our own self-centered judgments, as well as from what others think about us, we reach a state of unshakable equanimity. We recognize the illusion of opposites (as we saw in Chapter 2), and remain at peace as we engage with our lives.
As we transcend our individual selves, we experience our natural connection with, as the chapter says, everything under heaven. Individual events and circumstances are woven into the great and beautiful tapestry of all creation.
The old farmer’s refrain has helped me countless times to detach from a story or judgment. Its wisdom allows me to engage fully with life without being at its mercy. I think this is what the Bible means when it tells us to “rejoice always and to be thankful in all circumstances.” It doesn’t say to be thankful “about” but to thankful “in.” No matter the situation, equanimity allows us to be at peace, to be grateful for life itself.
If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine
This quotation, to me, best represents the analysis-defying beauty of Chapter 14. The Sanskrit expression “neti, neti,” meaning “not this, not this,” says even more simply that truth can’t be organized, labeled, described, or sensed. Indeed, the Chinese negating character 不 , meaning no or not, appears nine times in this chapter.
The unfathomable mystery of Tao is revealed in this chapter not only by the language used, but also by the fluid lack of structure. There is no separation of distinct thoughts. Lines of characters can be grouped in different combinations to give different meanings, as evidenced in various translations.
It is, as one commentator noted, the language of the mystics. Despite eluding understanding, or rather because of it, we are invited by the rhythm and swirling symmetry of the Chinese poetry to let go of solid ground and enter the mists of the infinite.
You can look at your own translation, if you have one, or look online for several to compare, but here are some key lines (out of order in places):
Look! It cannot be seen; it is invisible
Listen! It cannot be heard; it is soundless
Grasp! It cannot be held; it is intangible
Above it is not bright
Below it is not dark
In front you cannot see its face
Behind you cannot see its back
Returning to non-being, it is the form of the formless
Indefinable and beyond imagination
Knowing the ancient origin
Is the essence of Tao
Lovely. But what does this mean to us in our daily lives? In one sense, nothing. The nature of mystery is that it doesn’t take form in some concrete, practical way. No, it calls us to transcend the practical. To enter, as the 14th century anonymous mystic called it, the cloud of unknowing. From there, our lives become less about in”form”ation, and more about in”spir(it)”ation. And that, my friends, means everything.
For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. ~2 Corinthians 4:18
Followers of Tao are as elusive and mysterious as Tao itself. Mystics, living in the liminal space between being and non-being, movement and stillness, yang and yin, manifesting and returning. In this chapter, we are told that they cannot be known or understood, yet the author tries to give us a description of their demeanor.
Careful, as crossing a winter stream
Alert, as aware of surroundings
Courteous, as a guest
Yielding, as melting ice
Simple, as an uncut block of wood
Empty, as a valley
How could we embrace these qualities as we go through our day? What if I paused to consider before speaking or acting? What if I chose courtesy over criticism? What if I kept an open mind before rushing to judgment? What other ways can we embody these qualities?
The image of an uncut block of wood is used to convey a sense not only of simplicity but also of unlimited potential. The uncut block of wood can become many things. In the process of carving, however, the emerging form begins to eliminate possibilities. As the completed shape becomes defined, it takes on an identity, separate from all other things it might have been. The uncut block of wood represents the beginner’s mind of zen.
How can we live in beginner’s mind? As we mature, we make choices that set us on a certain path. We might have a career, settle down with a partner, raise children. Or not. As we age, we realize that certain choices are no longer open to us. So what does it mean to have beginner’s mind in the midst of life’s commitments and limitations?
To me, the focus of beginner’s mind is internal rather than external. After all, the term is beginner’s “mind,” not beginner’s “life.” What characterizes a beginner’s mind? It is open, curious, eager, courageous, engaged, willing. It is what Jesus meant when he said that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
How would beginner’s mind change the way I live my life today? How would it change yours?
Murky water through quieting becomes clear
Stillness through movement brings life
I have described the practice of martial arts as meditation in motion, stillness within movement, movement within stillness. This is Tao, manifesting as the ten thousand things, then returning to the beginning. It’s like the rise and fall of breathing, the natural rhythm of the universe.
When we are able to enter this rhythm, our individual identity begins to soften. Because we do not grasp for ego separation, we become one with all creation. In nature, there is no separation. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything belongs in interconnected harmony.
What if we went through our lives today looking for connection rather than separation? How would our thoughts, words, and actions be different?
In describing the characteristics of a follower of Tao in the context of the natural rhythm of the universe, we are offered some insight into how our daily lives can be transformed, lifted up, ...beautiful.
For today, newly bright ~title of the painting by Cecilia Lin in the photo above
Chapter 14 focused on the mystery of Tao. Chapter 15 described how one lives in harmony with Tao. This chapter celebrates the revelation of Tao through the manifestation of the “ten thousand things,” representing all creation.
Attaining complete emptiness
Abiding in perfect tranquility
Watch the ten thousand things
Arise and return
All things flourish
Then return to the root
This passage reminds me of sitting at the creek by my cabin. There is this one spot where I can sit comfortably on a flat rock and just ... watch. I watch the creek laughing by, birds bobbing on the bank for the insects flickering in and out of shadows. Under the giant trees, tiny moss forests bloom with even tinier red flowers.
One time a salmon paused right in front of me, resting for a moment on its upstream pilgrimage. Ah, the perfect example of flourishing and returning. The salmon’s birthplace sends it forth in youth to travel far, then calls it home. The salmon heeds the summons, swimming with unwavering intent to fulfill its destiny, returning to its origin to end one cycle of life and begin the next.
Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent. Everything that lives will die. But life itself does not die. Each day succumbs to night, and returns in the morning to dispel the darkness.
Returning to the root is stillness
Stillness is destiny
Destiny is eternal
Knowing the eternal is enlightenment
The character for enlightenment 明 combines the sun 日 and the moon 月 . Light is without form or color. Only when it is separated into individual parts of the spectrum can we see color. I have a prism hanging in my window. When the morning sun streams in, the prism throws rainbows all over the walls and curtains. As the sun moves on, the rainbows disappear, leaving the sun’s radiance to fill the room without differentiation. Again, manifesting and returning.
So how do we know the eternal? We have a perfect reminder built right in. Breathing! I dance the eternal dance with every breath. Breathing in is the first thing I did when I was born...manifesting. When I die, my last exhale will complete the cycle...returning. And with each breath during all my years, I embody the natural harmony that is my existence. Not holding on or forcing, not denying or rejecting. My breath happens naturally if I allow it.
As does everything.
Life is Tao breathing. Manifesting as the ten thousand things and returning to Tao. The dance of being and non-being. Abide in perfect tranquility...and watch.
Be still and know that I am God. ~Psalm 46:10
Chapter 17 is one of the more cryptic verses in the Tao Te Ching, not in the mysterious way we saw in Chapter 14, but in a literal sense. The characters are so sparse that any attempt to discern meaning requires a great deal of subjectivity. While frustrating on one level, the beauty is that you can take what is given and consider it in so many contexts.
What is given at the outset is a hierarchy. This hierarchy is viewed in various translations as applying to government, sages/teachers, Tao, a time in history, or a more amorphous “greatness” or “highest.”
In its simplest form, the hierarchy is:
little known (or unknown)
When distilled to this essence, what I notice is that the levels below the top one all involve some kind of judgment or evaluation. Praise, fear, and scorn are all based on an evaluation that something is good or bad.
But the top level of being little known or unknown is neutral. At the level of government, we might see this in the context of a society that operates in harmony with Tao, in which case, government has little to do and operates in the background without forcing or imposing its power on the people. [This is not a political commentary on our current state of affairs, and as said, assumes the overall harmony of an enlightened society.]
The best teacher, for another example, is one who empowers and inspires the students to learn rather than dominating them.
The rest of the hierarchy shows an obvious degeneration. Yes, praise is better than scorn, but as we saw in Chapter 13, honor and disgrace both speak to the ego and disturb equanimity.
This de-emphasis of the ego is seen again at the end of the chapter.
Work is completed. Things are in order.
The people say “All is well.”
Notice the use of passive voice, that is, the absence of an actor. “Work is completed.” There is no ego credit for who did it. This is a theme throughout the Tao Te Ching. In the roughly 5,000 characters of this text, the character for “I” or “we” is used only about 40 times, and even then not to take credit for some accomplishment.
Try this as an experiment. Describe your day, or just a single event, without using self-reference. Don’t worry about smoothness; there will likely be some awkward sentences. This is not a literary effort, but rather an exploration of how your see yourself in the story of your life.
I found this very challenging! My tendency to make myself the subject of my life reveals to me those places where I try to direct or control. But when I am able to get myself out of the story, I can begin to see the natural rhythm of my life, and of life in general.
There is not a “right” way to do this. Just try it and have fun. For example:
Laundry is done. Grandchild helps fold towels. There is teaching and playing. Laughter fills the room. Towels are put away. Hearts are full of love.
For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. ~Larry Eisenberg
This modest little (four lines) chapter does nothing less than represent the entire debate between Confucianism and Taoism, two major philosophical traditions originating in ancient China. (Confucius and Lao Zi, purported author of the Tao Te Ching, were contemporaries, both living in China around 500 BCE.)
When great Tao is lost, there is kindness and morality
Intelligence and knowledge emerge, and there is great artifice
Family relations are not harmonious, and there is filial piety and parental devotion
The nation is in disorder and discord, and there are loyal ministers
If you look at the second part of each line, you might wonder what the problem is. What’s wrong with kindness, filial piety, and loyal ministers? (I’ll come back to artifice in a minute.) The answer is that nothing is wrong with these virtues. The issue, I think, is one of direction. Does Tao lead to these virtues, or do these virtues lead to Tao?
With apologies to scholars and philosophers for my gross oversimplification, Confucius believed that the conscious cultivation of identified virtues led to personal, social, and governmental harmony. Lao Zi, on the other hand, believed that when we live in harmony with Tao, these qualities naturally manifest without conscious effort. The “Te” of the Tao Te Ching means virtue, but in a much broader, organic sense than the moralistic, judgmental connotation we often attach to this word.
So back to our question about whether Tao leads to virtue or whether virtue leads to Tao -- does the “direction” matter?
This is where artifice comes in. The character used here 伪 carries connotations of pretense, hypocrisy, falsehood. But the character itself breaks down into person 人 and action 为 , suggesting something that a person does or makes. And indeed, one of the meanings of this character is man-made. Man-made has a more neutral connotation, and even a positive one. Indeed, we are often very proud of what we can manufacture and produce. In this sense, the character might be thought of as indicating something originating from the ego, or self.
If we think about it this way, the question becomes whether we can find Tao (God, the Sacred, whatever name you like), through the ego’s efforts. The Bible offers some insight.
Paul taught that when one surrenders oneself (ego) to the Holy Spirit, one naturally manifests the “fruit of the spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – just like fruit on a tree grows because of its intrinsic nature. I think this is similar to Lao Zi’s view that the highest virtue is not consciously cultivated in accordance with some moral code, but rather naturally flows through us when we are in harmony with Tao. In this sense, we are “not acting” ourselves. This represents the theme in the Tao Te Ching of wu wei, or non-action.
In contrast, some of you might be familiar with the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, a bunch of people got together and decided to build a tower high enough to reach heaven. Great idea, but, as you can guess, they were unsuccessful.
Going back to the Chinese characters, the Tower of Babel is more like the sense of “artifice” conveyed by the character 伪 in this chapter. Remember that this character combines person 人 with action 为 to convey the sense of something man-made. The fruit of the spirit is more like the theme of wu wei, or non-action, which permeates the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei is two characters, 无 meaning without, and 为 meaning action. Notice that the “action” part 为 Is the same in both concepts. One is the person acting; the other is non-action.
The point of this chapter is, I believe, that while kindness, morality, filial piety and parental devotion, and loyal ministers are all good things, they are, in the words of one author writing about this chapter, “second best.” They are like the artificial light we use and value when the sun goes down. It is man-made and useful when we have lost the natural light, but cannot duplicate or replace the sun itself.
The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished. ~Deng Ming-Dao
[Note: In response to a reader's comment that the posts are hard to read with the white print on the red background, I'm trying a larger font. I welcome feedback!]
This chapter continues the distinction in the last chapter between a conscious effort to be virtuous, and living in harmony with Tao which allows virtue to naturally manifest.
Abandon sainthood, renounce wisdom
People will benefit a hundred fold
In my young adulthood, I visited a zen center in the beautiful wine country outside San Francisco. The monk who led this group seemed to make a point of being “unsaintly.” He would walk around in his black robes with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, but I never saw him actually smoke or drink. I got the idea that he wanted to avoid being perceived as some kind of holy guru. Irreverent and funny, he was unfailingly kind and gracious. The twinkle in his eye suggested a deep love of, well, everything.
The monk’s followers, on the other hand, floated around with beatific smiles and, at least what seemed to me as, superficial humility, while not so subtly trying to outdo each other in enlightened behavior. They let me know in various ways that I was not in their league. Ah, we are so human, aren’t we?
Abandon benevolence, renounce morality
People will return to harmonious relations
As with the last chapter, we might look at some of these things we are supposed to abandon or renounce and wonder what would happen if we did. They seem to be the bedrock of civilized society. If we toss them aside, what is to keep us from devolving into chaos and violence? On the other hand, how well has adherence to a legally-imposed moral code worked for humanity so far? Just sayin....
Abandon shrewdness, renounce profit
People will be free from robbers
This harkens back to Chapter 3 (not collecting treasures prevents robbery). I think it’s interesting that in the Quran, interest is not allowed on loans. I have a friend who is a devoted Muslim and works for the Saudi government trying to bring banking regulation into compliance with this principle. Not sure how that would work, but in its simplest form, I think the principle here is not to take advantage of others, and not to grasp so greedily for things that we care about more than we care about the things that really matter, which, by the way, are things that cannot be grasped, greedily or otherwise.
Therefore heed these teachings:
Recognize the pure, embrace the simple
Reduce the ego, temper desires
These last two lines can be understood two different ways. It could be four separate encouragements:
1. Recognize the pure
2. Embrace the simple
3. Reduce the ego
4. Temper desires
The alternative is to read them as cause and effect. In others words, the result of recognizing the pure and embracing the simple IS the reduction of ego and the lessening of desires. Personally, I prefer this latter interpretation. Ego and desire naturally fade as we become less distracted by the artifice of our consumer/marketing-driven world.
Just as an interesting (to me!) aside, the character for pure is 素 , which depicts raw or undyed silk. The character for simple is 朴 , representing an uncarved block of wood. (As we saw in Chapter 15, this image of the uncarved block of wood is a popular one in the Tao Te Ching, suggesting not only simplicity but also unlimited potential.)
So what to make of this chapter? My commentary has been somewhat disjointed as the different lines reminded me of different things, so thank you for indulging my wandering mind. Overall, though, I think the focus here is on releasing our attachments, whether to beliefs, judgments, or desires. Grasping leads to stagnation; releasing allows natural flow. Consider the things we are asked in this chapter to abandon or renounce. If we can become aware of these things in our own life, then we can begin to see the effects of holding onto them. And to the extent we are able to loosen that grasp, even the tiniest bit, we can begin to experience and to manifest the beauty that is our true nature.
[A] truth is a truth until you try to organize it, and then it becomes a lie. Why? Because the purposes of the organization begin to take precedence over that which it first attempted to keep in order. ~Wayne Dyer
The chapter begins with a line that ended up being a joke on me!
Abandon learning no worries
This reflects an ongoing theme throughout the Tao Te Ching, favoring the natural flow of Tao over conscious, or acquired, knowledge. As we’ve seen in recent chapters, this contrasts with the high value placed on learning in the Confucian system of social harmony.
There is much scholarly debate about the placement of this line. The four characters follow a pattern from the last chapter, so some scholars place this line at the end of Chapter 19. But placing it there ruins the symmetry and rhyming of the last lines of that chapter. Others place it here at the beginning of Chapter 20, but it is out of sync with the lines that follow.
So where is the joke? After spending a lot of time studying commentary and analytically comparing the alternative placements, I was feeling flummoxed and frustrated by the lack of a clear answer. Then I sat back and laughed.
Abandon learning no worries
Now I am not worrying. The wisdom of the line has been clearly and effectively demonstrated through my own futile attempts to analyze its precise placement. The line, like Tao itself, can float where it will.
This is an especially meaningful concept for me (and obviously one I need to be reminded of). I always loved school, and loved the study of law as well as my career as a lawyer and a teacher of law. I have, for much of my life, lived in my head, where I was very much at home. I valued cerebral competence and enjoyed cerebral pursuits, and dismissed anything that smacked of feelings or intuition.
Over time, however, I recognized the limitations of such an approach to life. I lived long enough to see that when I disregarded my intuition in favor of a rational path, the result was never satisfactory. I came to understand that intellect has its place, but outside of that place, intellect is not very helpful, and in many cases is detrimental. As I began to seek out and rely on my intuition (inner guidance, divine guidance, Tao, Holy Spirit, whatever you want to call it), my life became infinitely happier, easier, more...um...beautiful, for lack of a better word.
So when I caught myself reverting to intellectual analysis to solve the “problem” of where this line goes, I had a good laugh.
Now that I’ve spent all this time inviting you to share the joke, what about the rest of the chapter? Through several comparisons, the follower of Tao is contrasted to other people in general. While people are going about their busy lives, the follower of Tao is compared to the precognitive purity of a newborn baby.
Some of the words used to describe the follower of Tao sound negative – dim, fool, confused, weak. However, taken in context they represent the undifferentiated formlessness of origin, or, in the words of the anonymous 14th century Christian mystic, the “cloud of unknowing.” When we enter this cloud, we leave all knowing behind. To go back to the first line, we abandon learning. And here is where we meet God.
Or, as the last line of the chapter says, we are nourished by the Great Mother.
When we remember this, as the first line promises, we have no worries. Like the lilies of the field and the birds in the sky, we are created and sustained by an energy we call by many names, but is beyond names and understanding. It is not ours to know, but to have faith. And when we can allow that flower of faith to bloom, then we rest in the perfection of being.
- Tao Te Ching–Chapter 1
- Tao Te Ching–Chapter 2
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 3
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 5
- Tao Te Ching–Chapter 6
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 7
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 8
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 9
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 10
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 11
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 13
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 14
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 15
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 16
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 17
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 18
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 19
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 20
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 21
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 22
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 23
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 24
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 25
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 26
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 27
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 28
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 29
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 30
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 31
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 32
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 33
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 34
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 35
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 36
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 37
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 38
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 39
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 40
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 41
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 42
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 43
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 44
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 45
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 46
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 47
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 48
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 49
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 50
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 51
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 52
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 53
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 54
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 55
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 56
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 57
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 58
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 59
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 60
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 61
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 62
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 63
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 64 (Part 1)
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 64 (Part 2)
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 65
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 66
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 67
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 68
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 69
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 70
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 71
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 72
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 73
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 74
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 75
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 76
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 77
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 78
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 79
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 80
- Tao Te Ching – Chapter 81