This blog is an interpretation of the Tao te Ching "Tao Virtue Book" which is attributed to Laozi "Lao Tze" a Chinese philosopher who lived circa 600 b.c.

Please remember always that this is the description of the Tao and not the experience of the living Tao. Hopefully, this blog will not serve as analysis or commentary but as a window into the Tao. You are encouraged to disagree with this interpretation, involve yourself in self-study, and ultimately leave all concepts behind and so experience the living Tao.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Understanding The Tao te Ching Chapter 15: Describing the Masters

For this chapter we will use Legg's Translation:


The skilful masters (of the Dao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men's knowledge. As they were thus beyond men's knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.They who preserve this method of the Dao do not wish to be full (of themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.

Tao te Ching Chapter 15


This chapter is valuable because it gives direct example of what someone who practices Dao looks like.  Because the daoist chooses to "go with the flow," a master daoist may look a great deal different than the fearless leader or champion of industry that we are used to thinking of as masters.  

The skillful Taoist looks for the natural lines, the seams where anything may be accomplished without effort.  An excellent example of this thinking is the first line of the third stanza.  "Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear."   Taken literally, yes, we could build water filters and water purification plants but nature will perform this action on its own given time.  The taoist would wait, if he could and work with nature to find a time when the water was drinkable.  Metaphorically, the taoist does not seek to overcome but to come into accord with.  Therefor, he often chooses not to act, waiting rather for the ideal time. 

Using this image, we begin to see why the taoist master looks so hesitating and un-masterlike.  He is the master at the art of acting without acting, seeking balance, finding peace.  Therefor he never attacks, never goes forth with strength.  He has great strength, but it is the strength of water finding the lowest place, the flexibility of the young tree to bend in the wind, the wisdom to retire when his goal is accomplished.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 14: Understanding the Present


It is unseen because it is colorless; it is unheard because it is soundless; when seeking to grasp it, it eludes one, because it is incorporeal.

Because of these qualities it cannot be examined, and yet they form an essential unity. Superficially it appears abstruse, but in its depths it is not obscure. It has been nameless forever! It appears and then disappears. It is what is known as the form of the formless, the image of the imageless. It is called the transcendental, its face (or destiny) cannot be seen in front, or its back (or origin) behind.

But by holding fast to the Dao of the ancients, the wise man may understand the present, because he knows the origin of the past. This is the clue to the Dao.

Tao te Ching Chapter 14


This particularly poetic chapter reminds us once again that the Tao is not something that can be understood by thought.  We can cannot see it, touch it or hear it, yet we can see that all the things of the universe rise from some eternal flow; the boundless energy of the universe.  If it cannot be understood as a thing but as the thing that came before things, how can we know it?  We know it by its action, by its presence.  Any word, thought, blog about the Tao can only be the first step, the signpost that shows the way.  These words are the end result of untold eons of the ceaseless flow of the Dao, and they will be left behind in the endless, shapeless dance.

You cannot find Tao here.  This is only one moment.   Let go your mind.  Let go your questions.  There is the gateway, there in the endless receptiveness of your unclouded mind.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 13: Favor and Disgrace are Equal


Favor and disgrace are alike to be feared, just as too great care or anxiety are bad for the body.

Why are favor and disgrace alike to be feared? To be favored is humiliating; to obtain it is as much to be dreaded as to lose it. To lose favor is to be in disgrace and of course is to be dreaded.

Why are excessive care and great anxiety alike bad for one? The very reason I have anxiety is because I have a body. If I have not body why would I be anxious?

Therefore if he who administers the empire, esteems it as his own body, then he is worthy to be trusted with the empire.

Tao Te Ching Chapter 13


This chapter is again talking about seeking balance rather than a high place.  This time the context is appearance before other people.  Are we considered to be "favored?"  Are we considered to be "disgraced?"  The author recommends avoiding both positions.  It is easy to understand why disgrace is undesireable who why favor?  Perhaps the life of the movie star can be used as an example.  The famous person, while receiving many benefits from fame also cannot go to a restaurant without being approached by fans, photographers hound them constantly and their private affairs are likely to appear on the front page of magazines.  Truly they pay a high price for their fame.

The author, desiring a quiet, and balanced life, avoids both favor and disgrace.  Preferring to live a quiet, unnoticed life.

The second stanza is often interpreted to mean that it is somehow unsatisfactory to have a body or to be living.  This is inconsistent with the message of the Tao te Ching.  It is more likely that this passage is meant as reminder that the Tao itself is not concerned with issues of favor and disgrace.  It is only those of us seeking to care for our human bodies that conceive and worry about such notions.  A good way to observe the truth of this is to explain to a dog or cat the shame of nudity.  Truly favor and disgrace are human attributes. 

The final message is for those who would rule.  If you would treat the ruled as your own body, your worries will serve those you lead.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 12: 檢欲


An excess of light blinds the human eye; an excess of noise ruins the ear; an excess of condiments deadens the taste. The effect of too much horse racing and hunting is bad, and the lure of hidden treasure tempts one to do evil.

Therefore the wise man attends to the inner significance of things and does not concern himself with outward appearances. Therefore he ignores matter and seeks the spirit.

Tao te Ching Chapter 12


This chapter is usually interpreted as "desire is bad."  While it is true that the last sentence of the first stanza contains the message that desire leads to "evil," there is a second message.  The author points out in the first stanza that too much of anything, whether desired or not, is self defeating.  When the author says, "an excess of condiments deadens the taste," they do not say that condiments are good or bad, or that using condiments is good or bad.  They only make the observation that too many of them decreases your ability to enjoy them.  

This is again the difference between the "more is always better" mentality and Taoist thought.  If you have enough of anything, more of it will probably only lead to trouble.  You are less likely to have your less expensive car stolen. You are more likely to have peace in your marriage if you don't keep a lover on the side.  

The first sentence of the second stanza of this chapter and several other passages with the Tao te Ching are sometimes translated as "the wise man attends to the belly."  This can be interpreted as meaning, "the wise man takes care of the things needed for life, and ignores anything beyond that.

A simpler life is easier to keep in balance.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 11: 無用

For this chapter we will use Susuki's translation:


Thirty spokes unite in one nave and on that which is non-existent [on the hole in the nave] depends the wheel's utility. Clay is moulded into a vessel and on that which is non-existent [on its hollowness] depends the vessel's utility. By cutting out doors and windows we build a house and on that which is non-existent [on the empty space within] depends the house's utility.

Therefore, existence renders actual but non-existence renders useful.

Tao te Ching Chapter 11


If ever the Tao te Ching was so simple that its meaning was overlooked, this chapter is it!   The very direct message here is that what exist and what does not exist combine to make usefulness.  A wrench needs a strong bar in order to be useful.  Equally, it needs the opening for the nut.  The engine of the car gives it drive, but without the void where the passengers sit, it is of no use as a transport.  

This message also conveys very subtly but usefully into the arena of the human mind.  How crowded with things, thoughts and ideas our minds are!  Can you see the value of empty spaces there.  A useful story is told of Emperor Hirohito.  As the ruler of war time Japan during World War II, Hirohito's day was busy from morning till night with meeting after meeting.  It is said that Hirohito and his entourage arrived one day to find they were at the wrong meeting.  There was only an empty room full of chairs.  Hirohito stepped into the room, paused, then turned to his companions and said, "We must have more meetings like this."

Can you find the place of useful emptiness in your mind?  What do you cultivate if you spend time there? 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 10: 能為

For this chapter we will use Legg's translation.


When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one embrace, they can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided attention to the (vital) breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, he can become as a (tender) babe. When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he can become without a flaw.

In loving the people and ruling the state, cannot he proceed without any (purpose of) action? In the opening and shutting of his gates of heaven, cannot he do so as a female bird? While his intelligence reaches in every direction, cannot he (appear to) be without knowledge? (The Dao) produces (all things) and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them. This is what is called 'The mysterious Quality' (of the Dao).

Tao te Ching Chapter Ten


This passage is again about how to rule people.  What is immediately interesting is that the author does not discuss how to rule other people until he first discusses how to master the self.  He asserts that our animal and intelligent minds can be brought together, that we can by focus become childlike again and so be cleansed to purity.  It is only after these accomplishments that we may be ready for rule.

In the second stanza, it may be useful to substitute the word desire or ego for the phrase (purpose of action.)  Of course a ruler will take some action but can they do so only out of the motivation of providing for the people without any desire for personal gain or fame?   the author compares rulers the Tao itself.  All things rise from the Tao, all things feed from the Tao, yet the Tao never seeks anything for itself nor does it claim ownership of anything.  Can a ruler be likewise so present and yet so passive?  Can a teacher teach a student without seeking praise, can a father build a home for his children without demanding some praise?  

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 9 : 運夷


Continuing to fill a pail after it is full the water will be wasted. Continuing to grind an axe after it is sharp will soon wear it away.

Who can protect a public hall crowded with gold and jewels? The pride of wealth and position brings about their own misfortune. To win true merit, to preserve just fame, the personality must be retiring. This is the heavenly Dao.

Tao te Ching Chapter 9


On the surface this appears to be a message that is heard often.  Wealth brings trouble.  Indeed who can "protect a public hall" that is full of gold and jewels?  In the Bible 1st Timothy 6:9 it says; "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction."

This message of the dangers of wealth is actually a single stanza in the larger message of this chapter.  If we look at this sentence in the second stanza:  " To win true merit, to preserve just fame, the personality must be retiring." and compare it to the first stanza which says not to overfill or over-sharpen," a second message becomes clear.

It is often difficult for the goal oriented western mindset to realize that the Tao te Ching does not recommend accomplishing as much, or gathering as much wealth or fame as possible.  The Taoist often views himself as the container in the pail in the first stanza.  They have a natural capacity for work, for learning, for understanding.  To not do what is your nature to do is to miss the Tao within yourself, but, if your needs are fullfilled, are you better off working the extra ten hours a week for the fancy car, or by relaxing, spending time with the children perhaps.    The daoist does not see the need to set the mark too high.  Then he can meet his needs and still live in peace.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 8: 易性


True goodness is like water, in that it benefits everything and harms nothing. Like water it ever seeks the lowest place, the place that all others avoid. It is closely kin to the Dao.

For a dwelling it chooses the quiet meadow; for a heart the circling eddy. In generosity it is kind; in speech it is sincere; in authority it is order; in affairs it is ability; in movement it is rhythm.

In as much as it is always peaceable it is never rebuked.

Tao te Ching Chapter 8


While the Tao te Ching recognizes the impartial nature of the universe, it does find more effective (good) and ineffective (bad) ways for humans to lives their lives.  The observation here is that acceptance of the world and co-existence are the most effective.   The comparison to water may be seen as a metaphor for acceptance.  if you stand like a stone in the river, the water will eventually knock you over or wear you down.  If you accept the movement of the water and go with it, you will be taken with it and will see all that the river sees.

The final stanza may be seen as a caution against pride.  Legg translates it this way:

"And when (one with the highest excellence) does not wrangle (about his low position), no one finds fault with him."

This may be seen as a comment that, when we accept the flow of the river, continuing to protest that we are the rock, will only bring us the troubles that come with pride.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 7: 韜光


Heaven is eternal, earth is lasting. The reason why heaven and earth are eternal and lasting is because they do not live for themselves; that is the reason they will ever endure.

Therefore the wise man will keep his personality out of sight and because of so doing he will become notable. He subordinates his personality and therefore it is preserved. Is it not because he is disinterested, that his own interests are conserved?

Tao de Ching Chapter 7


Imagine a group of children playing with a ball.  They can play lots of different games and, as long as they are willing to share, they can all play peacefully.  Now imagine that one child feels slighted for some reason.  He does not feel that he is getting his fair turn.  He announces that the ball is his, he takes it from the others.  If you want to play, he declares,  you must play by his rules so that he can be assured his fare share.  Soon fights will break out, others will try to take the ball or refuse to play with him.  This Chapter makes the observation that the jealous, self-serving child will likely find less success than the child that shares readily.  

The same is true for all people, the gifts, knowledge, power, (the ball) that we each own, we can claim for ourselves, but how often does this self service cause us more pain and grief, and bring us less reward than if we forget ourselves and live, work, share (play) as if we had no sense of ownership?

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 6: 成象


The Spirit of the perennial spring is said to be immortal, she is called the Mysterious One. The Mysterious One is typical of the source of heaven and earth. It is continually and endlessly issuing and without effort.

Tao te ching Chapter 6


While the Tao is considered to be boundless and formless, Taoist describe the world of form as drawing energy from the yin and yang.  The yin is considered to be receptive and nurturing, female, the yang, expressive and energetic, male.  This chapter can be seen as a description of yin.

Susuki translate the same passage this way.

"The valley spirit not expires,
Mysterious woman ’tis called by the sires. The mysterious woman's door, to boot, Is called of heaven and earth the root. Forever and aye it seems to endure And its use is without effort sure."

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 5: 虛用


Heaven and earth are not like humans, they are impartial. They regard all things as insignificant, as though they were playthings made of straw. The wise man is also impartial. To him all men are alike and unimportant.

The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows, it is empty but does not collapse; it moves and more and more issues. A gossip is soon empty, it is doubtful if he can be impartial.

dao o ching Chapter 5


It is often hard for western minds to understand that there are many philosophies in the world that do not assume the universe is compassionate or at all concerned with the fate of humans.  The Taoist view is that the universe acts on its own impulse and that humanlike feelings, good or bad, are not motivating forces.  This can seem quite cold and unfeeling, especially at the end of the first stanza when the reader is advised to behave impartially toward men.  

Understanding of this passage may be accessed from a distance and then approached slowly.  Consider, for example, an asteroid striking a distant planet.  A person with a telescope observing this might feel elated, excited.  What a wonderful thing to see.  Now let us consider the same person the next day when an asteroid strikes near his house.  Disaster!  This is a terrible thing to have happen.  We can see here, that the asteroid follows Dao at all times and the human's perception based on our relationship to the event.  Can we then observe the asteroid striking near our homes and understand that it is still only Dao?  That the pain we feel is because of our relationship to the event and not because of the event itself.

If we can begin to experience this impartiality then we can begin to approach this Chapter.  Can we also see that all the other people in our lives are behaving in accordance with their nature the same as the asteroid?  Can we remain detached and observant as if we were viewing them through a telescope?  If so, then we may access the Tao through this chapter.

Note:  The Chinese characters in the first stanza here interpreted as meaning "playthings made of straw" actually refer to straw totems used in rituals and then discarded.  This word choice suggests that things, people, events, do have value in their time, but that clinging to that value outside of the moment creates conflict.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 4: 無源


The Dao appears to be emptiness but it is never exhausted. Oh, it is profound! It appears to have preceded everything. It dulls its own sharpness, unravels its own fetters, softens its own brightness, identifies itself with its own dust.

Oh, it is tranquil! It appears infinite; I do not know from what it proceeds. It even appears to be antecedent to the Lord.

To Te Ching Chapter 4


This short chapter can be interpreted to say that while we can measure any particular unit of energy, solar, atomic, etc.  the cause or source of energy itself is quite unmeasurable and apparently without bounds.  This assessment seems consistent with physicists assessment of the first moment of the universe, they describe the beginning of the elements of the universe that we know, including the inflation of the universe itself.  While there could not have been a moment before the first moment, all of the universe that we know came from some primal, formless, timeless force.  Here is a gateway to the Tao.

The final line of this verse is sometimes interpreted, "This appears to have been present even before God."  It is more likely that this line refers to the rightful rule of men as described by Confucius.  This school of thought described the rule of the Emperor as a reflection of the divine order of the Universe.  It is likely that Laozi is here suggesting that the nature of Tao precedes man as an instrument of the divine.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 3: 安民


Neglecting to praise the worthy deters people from emulating them; just as not prizing rare treasures deters a man from becoming a thief;

or ignoring the things which awaken desire keeps the heart at rest

Therefore the wise ruler does not suggest unnecessary things, but seeks to satisfy the minds of his people. He seeks to allay appetites but strengthen bones. He ever tries by keeping people in ignorance to keep them satisfied and those who have knowledge he restrains from evil. If he, himself, practices restraint then everything is in quietness.

dao de ching chapter three


Legend has it that the Tao te Ching was written at the request of the Emperor.  Whether this is true or not, it is undeniable that the text refers frequently to the issue of ruling a body of people.  Chapter 3 carries on the idea of Chapter 2 for two stanzas then discusses how to apply this knowledge in the rule of humans.

Having realized that praise and disgrace breed each other, laozi now suggests that a good ruler should not praise the effective, nor should you display desirable things.  This is understood if you consider the desire to own an automobile.  Before 1890 only a few very imaginative individuals had ever desired to have a car.  The concept simply did not exist.  Now there is great desire and suffering over the availability and desirable qualities of various cars.  If no on had ever suggested to people that it was possible to have motorized transport this desire would never have developed.  In the mind of the author, life is better if the people are given what they need but not taught to desire more than that.

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 2: The Nature of Duality

We will use James Legg's translation of this chapter:


All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.

So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it (as an achievement).
The work is done, but how no one can see;

'Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

Note:  James Legg sometimes chose to use rhyming verse in his translation of the Tao.  This is his device and is not found in the underlying Chinese text.

Tao Te Ching Chapter 2


This verse pursues a single idea through the first two verses then describes its application in the third verse.

Verses one and two explore the idea that we live in a world of opposites.  Tall goes with short, right with wrong, etc.  The danger it warns of is that you can't actually have one of these without the other.  Instance on food that tastes good begets conversation about food that tastes bad.  Therefor, there is always conflict in dualistic thinking.  Modern American Schools provide an interesting example of this issue.  face problems from this type of thinking daily.  Their goal is to prepare all children for the future and grow the self-esteem of all.  If, however, they they create situations where one, or only a small number of children can be the winner, the science fair, for example, then they have created an environment where many children must perceive themselves as the losers.  A curious problem indeed!  The solution that many schools have begun to embrace is the celebration of participation and effort rather than of competition.  If all children are praised for their participation, then there is no duailism created.

Stanza three gives a daoist solution to the problem.  By acting only when action is natural and unforced, and requesting no praise for their action, the taoist avoids having been, better or worse, or right or wrong.  The action was taken when the time for action arrived.  Then the action was forgotten.  In this way one may move with the Tao without creating duality.   

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Understanding the Tao te Ching Chapter 1: What is Tao?


The Dao that can be understood cannot be the primal, or cosmic, Dao, just as an idea that can be expressed in words cannot be the infinite idea.

And yet this ineffable Dao was the source of all spirit and matter, and being expressed was the mother of all created things.

Therefore not to desire the things of sense is to know the freedom of spirituality; and to desire is to learn the limitation of matter.

These two things spirit and matter, so different in nature, have the same origin. This unity of origin is the mystery of mysteries, but it is the gateway to spirituality.

Tao de Jing Chapter 1


This passage makes two points.  One on the nature of Tao, one of the way to experience Tao.  

Many enlightened individuals have made the observation that the thinking mind, the "worried" mind can't understand the true nature of the Universe.  The argue goes like this "eyes don't hear,"  "ears don't see."  Your problem solving mind is only eyes or ears.  There are a lot of things going on in the universe that can't be seen or heard.  

This information is still experienceable, just not through thought.  A good way to get at this understanding is through the work of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor 

Dr. Taylor observes that only a very small part of our brains "think" thoughts, the rest is occupied with a wide array of feelings and understandings that are not thoughts, nor are they problems to be solved.  Joy, is not a thought, empathy is not a thought.  The  motivating force behind the Universe is not a thought.

Perhaps the first message of the Dao could be restated this way:  "You are not going to be able to think your way through this one.  The Universe does not think in any way that we understand nor does it need to think in order to act.  If you want to get to know it, you'll have to stop trying to figure it out."

Learning how to "know things" without "figuring them out, leads us to the second message.  It comes in the third stanza.  You can't really "want" to know Dao.  Desire inspires us to reason, to figure out, to find a way to get what you want.  If worried thoughts are not the path to the Tao, then desire can not lead you there.  It's like a deaf person staring harder at the radio in hopes of hearing.  The Tao already is.  You already are.  Understanding of the Tao is something you let happen, not make happen.