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, February 25, 2012

Chapter 45: Finding Vigor

For this chapter we will use Legge's Translation:

Who thinks his great achievements poor Shall find his vigour long endure. Of greatest fulness, deemed a void, Exhaustion ne'er shall stem the tide.

Do thou what's straight still crooked deem; Thy greatest art still stupid seem, And eloquence a stammering scream.

Constant action overcomes cold; being still overcomes heat. Purity and stillness give the correct law to all under heaven.

Tao te Ching Chapter 45


Here the author talks about finding strength and remaining strong.

In the first stanza they make the observation, as they have before that being proud of your achievements will exhaust you.  They also point out that those who are happy with nothing, "filled with a void" are not easily tired.

Legge occasionally chose to rhyme his translation of the Dao and Stanza two is an example.  There is no reference to screaming of outcry of any kind in other translations of this chapter.  What the translations do seem to agree on is that, when you follow the natural path, your way will seem crooked.  This can be understood to mean that a Daoist uses least energy, holds his vigor, by following the lines of least resistance in life.  Or at least choosing paths free of unnecessary conflict.

The third stanza may be seen to be somewhat cleverly pointing out that seemingly opposite actions can be best in different circumstances.  If it's cold out, keeping busy will keep you warm.  On the other hand, if it's hot, finding  a shaded corner to rest in will help you cool down.  How often are the rules of life fixed?  How often to they require adaptation to the moment?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chapter 44: Moderation

Which is nearer, a name or a person? Which is more, personality or treasure? Is it more painful to gain or to suffer loss?

Extreme indulgence certainly greatly wastes. Much hoarding certainly invites severe loss.

A contented person is not despised. One who knows when to stop is not endangered; he will be able therefore to continue.

Tao te Ching Chapter 44


This chapter makes the point that having to much of anything invites disaster.  

In the "classic" style of the Tao teh Ching, the first stanza asks a series of questions.  Do you feel closer to a person or to that persons name?  In other words, do titles matter more than the personality of the person?  Do you value people or treasure more?  Everyone enjoys gaining, is the pleasure more than the pain of loss?

The second stanza observes that if you indulge, you almost certainly waste and that gathering together more than you need invites loss.  A small house is easy to keep in order, but who can keep track of all that comes and goes from a mansion.  More importantly, contentment never comes to those who are always fearful that they will lose what they have.

The third stanza finds two benefits to moderation.  First, the person who is not always longing does not make enemies.  Second, the person who knows when to stop does not put himself in danger.  These two create an opening for a good and long life within the bounds of moderation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chapter 43: The Benefit of Non-Action (Wu Wei)

For this chapter we will use Legge's translation:

The softest thing in the world dashes against and overcomes the hardest; 

That which has no (substantial) existence enters where there is no crevice.

I know hereby what advantage belongs to doing nothing (with a purpose). There are few in the world who attain to the teaching without words, and the advantage arising from non-action.

Tao te Ching Chapter 43


This chapter returns to the concept of Wu Wie, the idea that inaction is often the best action.

The first stanza can be seen to be describing the action of water which, though it has no form of its own can overcome or wear down anything having a set form.

The second stanza curiously parallels quantum physics which has discovered a range of massless or near massless particles capable of passing through solid matter as if it were transparent.  The same can be said to a lesser extent of radio signals, x-rays and other massless energy forms.

The third stanza suggests that non-action results in the ability to penetrate seemingly intractable problems.  Can you think of an example where direct opposition to a problem was ineffective but waiting would have created an opening?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chapter 41: The Dangers of Power

For this Chapter we will use Legge's Translation:

The Dao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things.

All things leave behind them the Obscurity (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the Brightness (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised by the Breath of Vacancy.

What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue, to be as carriages without naves; and yet these are the designations which kings and princes use for themselves. So it is that some things are increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being increased.

What other men (thus) teach, I also teach.

The violent and strong do not die their natural death. I will make this the basis of my teaching.

Tao te Ching Chapter 41


This chapter may be seen to have an inverted structure will the earlier stanza used to build to the final line.

In stanzas one the author reminds us that all form rises from the formless.

The translation of stanza two is somewhat in doubt.  Some translators translate this stanza to mean that all things have positive and negative attributes which are held in balance buy the unmanifested nature of the Dao.    Susuki translates it this way: 

"The ten thousand things are sustained by Yin [the negative principle]; they are encompassed by Yang [the positive principle], and the immaterial breath renders them harmonious."

This translation seems more likely because it ties more clearly to the overall message.  

After having asserted that all things have positive and negative attributes, the author goes on to assert that some negative (or weak) attributes are actually desirable.  The example he gives is from an earlier chapter where they pointed out that humility, in this case claiming low station, is advantageous for rulers.

Finally, the author says that they, like other teachers before, will teach that seeking only to be strong and violent will not grant you long life.

The overall message of this stanza can be read thus:  All things rise from the Dao with both positive and negative (strengthening and weakening, or expressive and receptive) properties.  Even the strongest of use find use for the weakest tools.  Therefor, those who seek only power and violence doom themselves.

Or, as has been stated many times before, a balanced life is best.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Chapter 42: Leaving Concepts Behind

The superior scholar when he considers Dao earnestly practices it;

An average scholar listening to Dao sometimes follows it and sometimes loses it;

An inferior scholar listening to Dao ridicules it. Were it not thus ridiculed it could not be regarded as Dao.

Therefore the writer says:

Those who are most illumined by Dao are the most obscure. Those advanced in Dao are most retiring. Those best guided by Dao are the least prepossessing.

The high in virtue (de [teh]) resemble a lowly valley; the whitest are most likely to be put to shame; the broadest in virtue resemble the inefficient.

The most firmly established in virtue resemble the remiss. The simplest chastity resembles the fickle, the greatest square has no corner,

the largest vessel is never filled. The greatest sound is void of speech, the greatest form has no shape.

Tao is obscure and without name, and yet it is precisely this Dao that alone can give and complete.

Tao te Ching Chapter 42


In this notoriously obscure chapter, the author may be seen to be challenging us to "be" rather than to "do"  to "experience" rather than to "believe."  

The first three stanzas make what seem like logical assertions.  A disciplined person will practice the Dao religiously.  A mediocre person with practice the Dao when they remember it.  And a fool laughs when told about the Dao.  Then comes a most startling sentence.   It appears to say that the fools laughter is the only true proof of Dao.  Why would the author say this?  Surely the scholar has the most access, the most correct understanding of the Dao.

Understanding of the author's meaning and a gateway to deeper contact with the Tao may be found in the realization the Tao te Ching is about life at its most natural, its simplest state free of beliefs.  All of nature, trees, cows, dogs, planets have their own nature and are able to experience existing purely and without hesitation. Only humans, in our experience of the universe thus far, cling to concepts and ideas.  Try explaining to your dog why it is important to vote democrat or republican in the next election and you'll begin to see what I mean.  He will not explain to you that chasing squirrels is more important.  He will however follow his nature and miss the election, gleefully chasing squirrels all afternoon.  He does not believe this is right.  It is simply his nature.

This head full of concepts is useful.  Humans have incredible control over their environment but they suffer for their concepts.  There is no separation from nature.  The walls of our houses are made from timber and gypsum.  The floors from gravel and lime.  Even the plastic cases of our computers are made of natural materials welded together using the natural forces of heat and pressure.   Yet a human will sit in the middle of the Dao, the middle of this house made of the universe around him and say, "I need to get back to nature."

If you can see that this person is constantly surrounded by nature and is actually asking to get away from his endless sea of concepts and back to the inherent flow of the Universe, then you can begin to understand the laughter of the fool.  Even objects that seem very real to us are still bound by our concepts.  To us a road is clearly a means of travel, but this solid identity is still bound to our concepts.  To the turtle, whose feet are its means of travel, the road becomes a good place to warm yourself in the morning.

So the wise man makes a concept of the Doa, studies it vigorously and never gains any joy from it.  The fool, on the other hand, is free of concepts, is living the direct experience of life.  When he is told of the Tao, he laughs, because he is being offered a concept.  He doesn't need concepts because he is already joyously following his nature.

So, how do we abandon our pursuit of the concept Dao and begin to experience it directly?  The author makes some  suggestions.

In stanza four the author observes that true followers of Tao are obscure.  They have no title or rank, no conceptual identity.  The are simply living their lives.  

In stanza five he adds that success and high accomplishment are not needed to be at one with the Dao.

Stanza six reminds us that things like chastity and virtue are also concepts.  The phrase the "the greatest square has no corner." clues us to remember that all concepts fall short of their goal.

Stanza seven extends the virtue of conceptlessness out to the boundaries of the physical universe, back to the unmanifested, pure Dao.   Here, they say in stanza seven, is the completeness we all feel deep inside us.

How do we move away from ideas and questions?  How do we stop reading and writing, making concepts of the Dao, and start living it?   What would we say and do, if we had no concepts?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Tao te Ching Chapter 40: Being at Rest


Retirement is characteristic of Dao just as weakness appears to be a characteristic of its activity.

Heaven and earth and everything are produced from existence, but existence comes from nonexistence.

Tao te Ching Chapter 40


It is often difficult for people to understand that the Tao te Ching clearly recommends doing nothing as a useful activity.  We do hold the clue to this in our society however.  Many of us wait anxiously for the weekend or lunch break or any time that we can "zone out" for a while.  These moments of peaceful inactivity are as essential to our ability to live effectively as our moments of activity.  The Tao te Ching may be said to embrace this notion.  This chapter may be interpreted to say, Relaxing is very healthy.

The first stanza observes that the Tao lies at rest and reiterates the earlier theme that the Tao appears weak.

The second stanza observes that everything thing that is (and is active) came from the formlessness of the Dao (and was inactive.)  Perhaps this can be interpreted to mean that the state of rest is the true form of the universe at its core.