Tao Te Ching, commonly translated to The Book of The Way or The Book of The Way and How it Manifests in the world, is a sacred Chinese text. It is thought to have originated somewhere around the 4th-6th century B.C. The text is considered to be written by the famous Lao Tzu who is deemed to be an important philosopher in Chinese tradition. He is considered the teacher of Confucius.
Although Lao Tzu comes across as a hermit who chose to avoid the world with its many complexities, the fact of the matter is he cared deeply for his fellow human beings, enough that he left behind an entire text to help them navigate through the world and come in touch with him. Perhaps, his most famous work is Tao Te Ching. It is an anti-intellectual, anti-authoritarian book which claims that the way of the virtue lies in the simplicity and recognition of a natural as well as a universal force. This force is called Tao. The book also tells us how to live in the world with goodness and integrity - a fundamental core that seems to be missing in the human race today.
Before we embark on this journey of self-discovery on the path provided to us by Tao Te Ching, it must be remembered that the text is very old. It has over 100 translations available. Not each translation does justice to the original text. The most well-known translation is arguably by Stephen Mitchell. The writer makes use of that translation to discuss the text.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The unnamable is eternally real
Naming is the origin of all particular things
Free from desire, you see the mystery
Caught in desire, you only see the manifestation
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source
This source is called darkness
Darkness within Darkness
The gateway to all understanding.
Lao Tzu begins the first chapter by stating that the written word (about Tao) cannot even come close to the real thing. The way of Tao and how it works is hidden from people, behind what can be observed. Quite simply, Tao was present at the dawn of time and the birth of the universe, yet we can only see it through nature and what has been created (the whole world and all its creatures).
However, Tao can be understood by observing the different manifestations of the world. We, as people, tend to be blinded by the splendor and magnitude of the workings of the way. We don’t see the interior but the surface, it is important to detach ourselves if we wish to see what makes up the world.
The surface is just as real as what lies beneath the surface. None can exist without the other, this means one isn’t superior or inferior to the other.
Lao Tzu goes on to explain how we tend to think in opposites – high or low, light or dark, hot or cold, and so on. This helps us to get acquainted with the world and understand how it works. But, Tao explains we make judgements when calling one opposite good and the other bad. This is wrong. In actuality, opposites complement and depend on each other.
Another example of this concept is that many belief systems think of the body and spirit as separate entities. The spirit is praised while the body is condemned, even though the body is the vessel of the spirit. Both depend on each other. Both are needed, whichever one is neglected, both will suffer.
In the end, we must accept that mastery and the manifestations mirror each other. What we see is what we get, but we truly have to understand it.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
Acts without doing anything
And teaches without saying anything.
Things arise, and she lets them come;
Things disappear, and she lets them go
But she doesn’t possess
Acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done she forgets it
That is why it lasts forever.
The importance of consequences is explained in the second chapter. Why actions are almost always followed by a consequence, why it is essential to understand what consequence a certain action might bring etc. In this chapter Lao Tzu presents a consequence of what was stated in the first chapter. Opposites of existence are always considered united and whole, which is why it is not a good idea to separate one from the other – either in deed or in value.
We should not call one bad and the other good, it is the unity of opposites that make up the world. Yes, we appreciate some things more than others but only because comparison can be done between the opposites. The ugly is the mirror of the beautiful, so how can we say beauty is only within the latter? What we consider beautiful or ugly, another can consider and watch with the opposite in mind. It is also a question about different perspectives, there is beauty found in ugliness as well as the ugly in the beautiful. None can exist without the other, but only within each other.
The thing is… we rush to call some things good and others bad, we label those things good or bad but don’t see how opposites are dependent on one another. Especially when it comes to good deeds, we shouldn’t judge other’s deeds as good or bad. Humans are more complicated than any book cover. No person is simply and only good or bad, both can be found within us in various levels.
We, as people, allow morals do influence our judgements and decide what is wrong and right. It is difficult to remain objective in such a case. Rules are introduced in a society to bring a working order and to push society in the direction we wish. These rules are followed when we can and break them when it’s difficult to constrain ourselves. So, we cannot allow morals to influence our judgements, we will be unable to be objective.
The wise sage who follows the way of the Tao refrains from judging. He or she is very hesitant to interfere, or to insist that an opinion must be respected. He or she is reluctant to lead and refuses to be followed. Nobody can point fingers at the sage which is why the work lasts forever.(
The society we live in is obsessed with the eagerness to change. Just the idea of change is enough to create this eagerness. What is change? Another word is progress, or change for the better as people would like to believe. For the sake of progressive change, we encourage impatience and hurry onwards, convinced that letting the past go will bring an increasingly blessed and splendid future.
This thinking is wrong. We must keep the past in mind to ensure the future is different and better, how else will people compare their innovations with what is replaced? How would we know those inventions and innovations are really improvements?
This is one reason why Lao Tzu is wary of change. He advises again and again throughout his book against interfering with the present state of affairs. The world as taught by the teachings of Tao is one of a precious balance, where even one careless action can lead to many unwanted results. Non-action is the preferred state of being according to Tao – do as little as possible and only when you absolutely must.
This is equally important (if not more) for people who have power. A good ruler is one who refrains from taking action for a problem unless he knows exactly what to do. There are rulers who claim to know what is needed to be done, but they seldom know or think what problems can arise out of that solution. They simply don’t know enough. We come back again to the main point – knowledge is also power and needs to be treated with the same concern as other power.
Tao teaches us to be moderate in everything. As a mortal species, we are desperate to live our short lives to the fullest. We must understand, longing for more of anything is the root of all our problems in the world. We live in a society that thrives in mass consumption, we are producers as well as consumers but we are more concerned about wanting to consume. Lau Tzu wants us to learn that besides the basic necessities of life, we don’t require luxury in order to live or survive in a plentiful manner.
We have already been introduced to the concept of Tao, which is considered to be eternal and has a number of manifestations. In this chapter, Lao Tzu further builds on this concept. He compares the Tao to the well. This means it is vital to the world and is something that has to be used. But at the same time, the Tao is something that is barely utilized because we human beings are far away from its teachings.
Lao Tzu also tells that the eternal Tao is a void. The word void over here does not mean a vacuum. It means an empty space that is filled with infinite possibilities, should human beings choose to venture out and explore it. However, at this point, Lao does not expand too much on what the infinite possibilities are. What we can gather is that the Tao is inexhaustible. To truly immerse yourself in the words of Tao, you cannot restrict yourself to what you think you know. Only then can you truly come across infinite possibilities.
The Tao, according to Lao Tzu, is hidden yet present. This means it is hidden in plain sight. It is easily accessible to all those who have the power to distance themselves from the world. Why we cannot see it is because we are running after the materialistic world, as Lao Tzu claimed in the first chapter. The last two lines seem to contemplate on the origin of the Tao. It is almost as if Lao Tzu gives God a passing mention as this is the only time the word God has been mentioned in the entire Tao Te Ching.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
The more you talk of it, the less you understand.
Hold on to the center.
The opening lines of Chapter 5 talk about how the Tao, by its very nature, does not take sides. This is the complete opposite of what we human beings do. We are controlled by our desires, and as we saw in the earlier chapters, we tend to take sides instead of viewing the world from a neutral lens. The yin-yang relationship mentioned earlier is beautiful because there is a balance to it. It is a balance that helps the world to progress. If we fail to maintain this balance, we will fail to find a solution.
As mentioned in the previous chapters, there is both good and evil present in Tao. Yet, we tend to take sides and consider some things to be good while ostracizing the bad. We lose our center in this manner. As stated earlier, when things are good, other things automatically become bad and vice versa. When a few things are bad, other things are viewed as good.
A true master of Tao is in perfect harmony with both good and evil. Just as Tao doesn’t differentiate between good and evil, the master doesn’t either. Both saints and sinners are welcome into her sanctuary. And that is how it should be, human beings are not programmed to think of good and evil as abstract concepts (which they are) but as concrete evidence. This is against the way nature works.
The teachings of Tao tell us not to put every person in a box and to step away from such thinking. We all come from the same source and are one, hence it is counterproductive to categorize thing and people into small boxes.
Here, Lao Tzu expands on the concept of Tao. Previously, he compared it to a well that was filled with infinite possibilities. Now, he compares it to the bellows. The bellows are empty much like the well, but the more one uses the bellows, the more it produces. It also keeps a yin-yang relationship in the sense that it expands and contracts. The bellows work like Tao. They do not differentiate between the air that comes in and the air that goes out.
The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
It gives birth to infinite worlds
Once again, Lao Tzu is using metaphors to make us understand the concept of Tao. In this verse, he is comparing Tao to the Great Mother. This mother gives birth to infinite worlds. These infinite worlds will bring inexhaustible opportunities that we individuals can use to our advantage. We all have the potential to explore the possibilities and use them for whatever purpose we want to. However, the one who can utilize it in the way of the Tao is someone who has emerged successful. All we need do is unlock the power and the potential inside us and reap the advantages.
The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
This chapter starts with the description of Tao, going back to the traditional definition of infinite and eternal which means ‘forever.’
However, Lao Tzu says the two definitions are not in line with the teachings of Tao. Infinite and eternal both mean timeless, and have no connection with the concept of time. The reason Tao is eternal is because it was never born, it will never die. The teachings of Tao follows its own path.
Why is Tao infinite? It possesses an emptiness, which is anything but empty – not capable of having desire. It is present for everyone, we can all access it. The only condition is that we need to separate (or completely give up) our desires to be in harmony with the universe and nature.
Another downside of having desires is that we see ahead, behind, and around us, constantly looking for the next best thing that would satisfy our desire. The one who gets this is the master and so she stays behind. By doing so, she ends up being ahead of everyone else. Since we are unable to do that, we are always in this constant fear of being left behind while the rest of the world goes ahead.
The preferred state of being according to Tao is to be completely free of attachment and fears. The master has mastered the art of detachment, which means she is detached from all worldly desires. The force of Tao flows in the master. Should we master the art of detachment, we will know what Tao is. It only requires a lot of sacrifice from our part. Only a few have ventured down this path and emerged successful.
To achieve this level, we have to go deeper into the teachings of Lao Tzu. He wants us to understand the yin-yang relationship and see them as one that beautifully balances the good and the bad by the sheer power of unity. Similarly, if we too are to embed this relationship into our daily lives, we will find ourselves completely in tune with Tao, as promised by Lao Tzu.
In the previous chapter, Lao Tzu compared Tao with the bellows and the well, but can it also be compared with the supreme good that is mentioned in this chapter? To an extent, it can be considered the same as Tao. We go back again to the basic definition. Tao includes both good and evil. Therefore, it cannot be called supreme good only.
The supreme good is the state of being which is content with the low places that people do not like to traverse most often. It is a state of being, a power that provides nourishment. Therefore, the supreme good is like Tao because it is in harmony with the universe.
In this chapter, Tao narrates the many different ways by which we can be in tune with its teachings. In dwelling means we should live close to the ground. By this, Lao Tzu does not mean we need to have our houses built to the ground but we should lead a more down-to-earth life. We need to think simply and have the same approach with how we perceive the world. Similarly, we need to be fair and generous when faced with conflict.
The fourth way involves governing. When governing, we should not try to control as this will give rise to conflicts as two people can then not be on equal footing. When we work, we must do what we enjoy. This is a well-known saying that is echoed even today. The idea is that if we do something we really like, we will work with a lot of joy. A lot less effort will be required, and we will flow like water.
We need to be really present with our near and dear ones because they will not be around us forever. Once the time goes, we are left with regrets about how we could have spent more time with them. To avoid the pain that follows, we need to be completely present. All these things will help us with being completely at ease with not only others around us, but also with ourselves. It is also only when we stop comparing ourselves with each other, we are at peace and everybody will respect you.
The opening lines teach us the eventual consequences of overdoing something. If we exert too much effort over a task, we will end up with bad results. There comes a time when you have to stop filling the bowl and just drink it, when you have to stop sharpening the knife and just use it for cutting. You have to learn the fine balance.
Similarly, if you are one who is always chasing money and security, you are headed for trouble. This is because you will never find any kind of contentment. Money is something that can never be enough. Additionally, if we care about the approval of the people, we will become a prisoner. To some extent, we have been programmed this way. We need respect and love, but if our entire life depends on how others perceive us, it will lead us down to a dark path where we will always be looking for ways to win the approval of others. It is we who have to decide when enough is enough. It is also us who have to find contentment deep within ourselves.
The only path to serenity is to do the work and take a step back. When we have done what needs to be done, we should move on. There is no need for waiting for the recognition or approval of other people.
Here, Lao Tzu begins by talking about the mind. We all have minds that wander. This is becoming an increasing problem, especially in this society. With the advent of technology, our minds no longer are present on one task, let alone the original oneness. This can only happen if one is to step back from the busy life and coax the mind to stop wandering.
Lao Tzu emphasizes keeping the body supple so that it moves as effortlessly as Tao. Our main responsibility should be to keep it so relaxed that it moves in unison with Tao. We need not resist the powers of Tao. He states that we need to clean our inner vision. Our visions are pure at birth, but as time passes and we grow up, our vision becomes tainted, and we no longer view things objectively, and so reality becomes subjective. We do not see the same thing as the person next to us. In such a case, what needs to be done is to open our heart to Tao and let it wash us.
The lines also focus on the qualities of leadership. People respect the leader who acts like them and takes on the same responsibilities. Teach by doing is philosophy. The soldiers love the king who fights along with them on the battlefield instead of sitting on the throne and giving orders. Lao Tzu is encouraging people to become such a leader. At the same time, he is encouraging them to stop being controlling and let events take the course, for there will always be circumstances beyond our control. All of this, of course, requires us to step back from the working of our mind to understand the things around us as they are.
This passage expands on the yin-yang relationship. According to Lao Tzu, we work with the being, but we also have to understand the non-being. He further elaborates his point using metaphors, a wagon wheel, a clay pot, and a wooden house. The non-being is what we cannot see, the center hole, the emptiness inside the clay pot, and inner space inside of a house. That center hole makes the wagon work. It fills the clay pot with drink, while the empty space in the wood house makes it livable. It is the emptiness inside that allows these things to fulfill its purpose, but this is something that is not viewed from the outside.
Consequently, we can say that there is a value within this emptiness. We need to have this hollow space inside us so that it can be filled with Tao. If we end up not keeping a hollow space inside us, we cannot internalize the teachings of Tao. Emptiness is a virtue, for it is by being empty that we can live life fully.
As mentioned earlier, our inner vision needs a lot of cleansing. Here, Lao Tzu tells us why that is the case. He believes that the outer senses like the colors, sounds, flavors, and thoughts make up the outer vision. This keeps us distracted and in tune with the world, not with Tao. All these things are appealing to the eye, ear, and mouth, but not to our inner sense. The soul or the emptiness inside tends to separate us from our inner vision, so we are unable to experience Tao fully.
This is not to say that we can completely ignore our outer sense because we need it to experience the world, for even the master observes the world. However, we as human beings tend to trust our outer vision when we should be trusting the inner one just like the master. He has not shut himself from the outer senses. He takes things as they come along, but he does not hold on to them more than it is required because it is then that the outer senses start to take over and suppress the inner ones. It is by being open that he is true to nature and reality.
Lao Tzu brings a unique perspective here. He deems success to be as dangerous as failure. This is because if one only acts as if he faces failure, he may end up impacting on his creativity. Though he may succeed, he has ultimately lost the game. Lao Tzu compares this with a ladder. The ladders are shaky, even when they are put against the wall. When we climb up the ladder, we leave behind the sturdy foundation of the ground. For some of us, the bottom steps are easy, we climb easily. For some, the bottom steps are missing altogether. They need to jump a lot of steps to get to the lowest one. For some, reaching to the top is easy.
Whatever the case is, there is danger of climbing a ladder as you can fall and hit the ground at any time. Lao Tzu claims it is better if one is to be on the ground, with both feet planted there firmly, as it is a better way to live. Additionally, just as good and bad are social constructs, so is success and failure. So one should be careful before they shun everything for this.
Hope and fear are deemed to be phantoms which are not parts of reality. Human beings need to step away from success, failure, hope, and fear which have become so intertwined in our lives. Once we do this, we will realize that we are not alone in this universe and neither is the universe out to get us, like so many of us famously believe. Instead, we should view ourselves as a piece of the universe that has been separated much like a jigsaw puzzle. When putting together, it will fit in very well with the universe. It is really only a change in our perception that is required. Once that happens, we will see the universe as it is and care for it the way it cares for us. Ultimately we will be on the path of Tao.
This is a build-up from the previous lines. Here, Lao Tzu expands on the idea of contentment. He states that it is something that cannot be captured or contained. In fact, it is hard to understand because we cannot see it. It is something that can only be felt. He further deems it to be seamless and unnamable. This indicates that it is fluid, but we as human beings are not appreciative of the fluidity. We want it to be something that we can hold. It is also something of a mystery that has no beginning and no end. It is something impossible for us to know, but at the same time, there is good news. We can be it. It is that easy. The only thing you need do is realize where you come from.
To realize over here does not mean that we need to have knowledge of this idea. It means to know where we, as individuals, come from. Again, it does not point to our history or our families or birth. It means to understand ourselves fully. When this happens, the realization of contentment will inevitably follow. For those who are unable to realize this at this point, Lao Tzu tells us this is the basis of all wisdom and that we have a lot of time to realize this.
Here, Lao Tzu describes the ancient masters. According to him, the Masters were exceptionally profound and subtle. Their wisdom knew no bounds. He thought they were so esteemed that he does not describe the masters at all, giving up on the first try. The only thing describable about them is their appearance.
The masters are careful and alert which becomes the case when one has mastered the art of Tao. Courteous, Fluid, Shapeable, Receptive, and Clear are all the qualities used by Lao Tzu to describe these masters. To be like these masters, Lao Tzu asks us if we have in us the patience to wait. He compares this with the muddy water. Just as when we step into muddy water, the water and the mud both mix so we are unable to see the water clearly. However, if we wait a while in the muddy water, we will start to see the water clearly. This is because mud settles down eventually leaving the water clear. Similarly, in real life, he is asking if we have the emotional stability to ride through the rough waters of our life without getting panicky or angry because only when we are calm, will we be able to find our center and be like the master is.
For a lot of us, the inability to wait does more harm than good. It is especially more difficult in this day and age because we live in a fast-paced world where things are available instantly at just the tap of a button. We order food, and it is at our doorstep within the hour. We subscribe to popular apps like Netflix, and we can binge-watch to our heart’s content. The element of waiting has disappeared completely from our life. In this time, it has become even more difficult to practice the art of waiting. However, Lao Tzu promises that by doing so, we will be able to see things clearly.
The master, as always, is way ahead of us. Unlike us, she does not seek fulfillment. Instead, she seeks emptiness which Lao Tzu spoke of in the earlier stanzas. We, as human beings, see value only in being full as it is tangible. But according to him, it is only when we stop seeking fulfillment that we will be present and will welcome all things, whether they are good or bad, and learn to be just like the Tao.
We can let go of things by emptying our minds of all thoughts. They come and leave at their own disposal, and we are no longer attached to them in any way. The art of detachment is then the solution. This does not mean that turmoil will not follow us at every bend, or that we will be completely free from the complexities of life. It only means that we will no longer hold on to it. What we should do instead is to contemplate. This is where serenity will be found.
Many of us end up stumbling around because we have no idea about our origin. This causes us to be out of touch with Tao, but the thing is, the Tao is always present. It is up to us to harmonize with it by contemplating instead of being swept up by the tide of life.
What this passage is highlighting is the eternal struggle between the way the things are and the way things could be. We human beings are always trying to change things to represent in the way they could be. We all have this image inside our head. If the reality does not match up to it, we spend a lot of time and efforts, trying to make it the way we think we are supposed to. Lao Tzu is warning us against doing that because the image in our mind is too unrealistic and we end up only hurting ourselves if we continue doing that.
This is where detachment comes in. It is the key. It lets you harmonize with the Tao and thus become tolerant, disinterested, dignified, and kindhearted. This completely transforms your perspective, and you are more equipped to deal with what life brings you, such that the small things do not faze you out as they once did. In such a case, you end up greeting death like an old friend it is, instead of running away from it as most people do.
Lao Tzu begins by telling us how the master leads. The master does not try to entice people by telling them what they want to hear or making false promises. No, that is not the way of the master. He leads by example and by actions rather than speech. He blends with the society instead of standing out. People are hardly aware that he exists. He is not like the leader of today who are there for the publicity or the fame, but he is in it because he truly cares, as was pointed out in the earlier stanzas.
Lao Tzu then moves on to tell us that the basis for good governance is to trust the people. That is what a good master does. He trusts them, so they become trustworthy. If he is to mistrust them, they will become untrustworthy. So simple are the teachings of Tao.
We, therefore, need leaders who are not swayed by the illusion of power and fame but are firmly rooted on the ground and who treat people the way they are supposed to be. The end result is that when the work is done because the master has trusted the people to carry out what they have to carry out, the work ends up being done by the people themselves. This ideology works as a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no question of the leader carrying out the work themselves. The burden becomes divided with each person playing the part effectively, all thanks to an excellent leader.
Here, Lao Tzu talks about what could happen if Tao is forgotten, as is the case of the modern world. The first thing that occurs is that goodness and piety appear. To an outsider, this may be a good thing, but it must be remembered that Tao is free of these social constructs. It has both good and evil inside it. So for only goodness and piety to exist means the Tao does not. This will, in turn, create an emptiness inside us, not the void which is filled with infinite possibilities. This emptiness here refers to the hollowness inside us that keeps us from feeling satisfied.
Lack of Taoism also causes intelligence to decline. Intelligence refers to the body’s connection with Tao. This is something natural. We do not have to put in the effort to achieve it. It is more like going with the flow. However, when we go against Taoism, the connection is terminated. Once again, we become victims of the vacuum created inside us. To counter this, cleverness and knowledge step forth but they too are social constructs and therefore weak substitutes for the Tao.
Lao Tzu then explains what happens to the family as a result of the absence of Tao. Filial piety begins. This means that people, specifically families, do things out of a sense of duty, not because they truly want to. For instance, parents care for their children out of responsibility. Children, in turn, honor their parents because they have to. No one is truly content because they are carrying out their roles as a result of obligations and this will never foster love. Had the people not forgotten the teachings of Tao, this would never have happened.
He then goes a step further and describes how lack of Tao impacts on the whole country. It becomes chaotic and messy to govern. This results in the eventual birth of patriotism. On the surface, patriotism may seem like a good thing, but it leads to division and a sense of duty. We serve our country because we are obligated to do so. It does not matter if it requires us to go for war and kill other people. This generates further chaos. What we need do is take a step back and re-immerse ourselves in the waters of Tao before we can move forward.
These lines build on the bleak picture from the previous ones. Holiness, wisdom, morality, and justice are once again all social constructs which have been made into a system that most of the modern world is governed with. They were put in place by the powerful members of the society, and theoretically, there is nothing wrong with that. But the time has come when we are no longer in need of these.
If we simply trust ourselves, we will not be in need of these constructs. Holiness and wisdom are not making people any happier, and neither is morality and justice. If we get rid of these, people will become happier and still do the right thing because we all are parts of Tao, which flows with harmony. Similarly, if we throw away industry and profit, we will not be plagued by the thieves because the system of capitalism gives rise to a whole new set of evils in which people rob each other and the earth’s resources in the name of profits. The only answer then is to throw away these things completely and trust ourselves to do the right thing.
Of course, this is not easy in the modern world, where hierarchy is established, and people have a lot of stake in maintaining the status quo, but we still have to take that chance. Lao Tzu tells us that even if that is not enough, we can stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course instead of going out of our way to interfere.
On the face of it, it seems that Lao Tzu is depressed. However, he is talking about how things seem to be to a neutral observer. To that person, everyone who is not following the crowd may appear to be dumb or lost. Since Lao Tzu is not one of those who follow the crowd, to an outsider, he may seem dull and aimless. But we all know that is far away from the truth. Lao Tzu is, in fact, the unattached soul that is truly detached from the way of the world and is in complete harmony with the Tao. This is a source of comfort for us. Should we walk the path of Tao, we too will look like a dull person to an outsider, but our hearts will be filled with contentment from the Great Mother’s breasts.
Lao Tzu speaks about how the master is able to keep her mind in tune with the Tao. It may seem impossible because we know from previous chapters that the Tao just exists. In this chapter, Lao Tzu believes that Tao is ungraspable. How then can a master, who is not a magician, possibly be in touch with Tao? It is because she doesn’t cling to ideas and this is the complete opposite of what we human beings do. We try to grasp and cling to a problem. This holds us back from becoming part of Tao. By not interfering with the natural process, she moves with it and becomes part of the dark and unfathomable Tao. On its part, this dark and unfathomable Tao does nothing. It is just there, overpowering everyone and being the route through which things are done.
We can derive lessons from this. If we practice the art of not clinging, we too will become like the master, in complete harmony with Tao. Lao Tzu once again expands on the idea of Tao. It is before time and space and beyond. In other words, it is not something that can be pointed at or seen. It is something inside us. To be able to feel it, we need to become detached with the world.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu begins by addressing the self. Most of us are not satisfied with ourselves. And how can we be? The world keeps telling us that we need to change ourselves to be more at peace. We need to look a certain way, have a certain figure, and speak a different way. Otherwise, we will never be successful. This is what the media teaches us. As a result, we want to be something other than who we are. We want to become straight, whole, and full. So how is that possible?
Lao Tzu teaches us that we need to become partial to become whole, crooked to become straight, and empty to become full. Incidentally, this is also the art of yin-yang and the ability to keep complete balance, as is the way of the Tao. Once you accept this relationship, you will see yourself in a whole new light. You will accept yourself completely and not be at odds with your inner self.
The line give everything up refers to becoming everything we want to and not giving up on the novelties of life altogether. Most likely, people who accept this will feel a sense of contentment that can only come from accepting this, as is the way of Tao. Over here, we once again turn to the Master as he has mastered all of this. He does not display himself like the common people, so he shines even brighter. He has nothing to prove so people just trust his words. He sees the world as the self, and so people recognize themselves in him and since he has no goals, he eventually ends up succeeding. Such is the way of the master, and such is the way of the Tao.
Lao Tzu speaks about how we can be more like Tao. We have to be more open to his idea and open our hearts to it. For that to work, we must express ourselves completely and then keep quiet’ and let Tao take its course.
To his credit, Lao Tzu tells that we need to be more like nature. Nature is completely whole. When it blows, there is only wind, similarly, when it rains, there is only rain. Just as nature expresses itself as a whole, so should we. There should not be a combination of wind and rain in the way we express ourselves.
Lao Tzu further goes on to say that we must open our self to this Tao and embody it completely. Once we have done this, we can easily be privy to the insight that comes with Tao. If we use it completely, it can never result in a loss for us. But we have to lose everything in order to gain everything.
Once we accomplish all of this, we will be truly open to Tao. It is then that we must trust our natural responses to take over and guide us. Trust that they know the way to go because ultimately we are part of Tao. When that happens, everything will fall into place or everything will happen as it is supposed to happen.
The chapter begins with Lao Tzu telling us about the person who stands on tiptoe. When one does that, he is trying to reach for something that is not in his grasp. He may easily be swayed and fall to the ground because there is not a steady foundation to support his feet. Similarly, someone who rushes ahead will not get very far.
That is the way of nature. It is slow and steady and works at its own pace, completely unperturbed by what is happening around it. It is also the way of the Tao. By rushing ahead, we will end up running ahead of Tao. This will lead us down a dark path. The path we have been trying to escape.
Someone, who tries to shine because he views the world as a big competition field where he has to be better than everyone else, only dims his own light. If we define ourselves, we will never truly know who we are. We need to take a step back from all that and let the Tao define us.
Lao Tzu also admonishes those people who are in a constant race to have power over others as they are incapable of even empowering themselves. According to him, only Tao can do that. One should only focus on empowering themselves, do their job, and let the Tao do the rest. Clinging and obsessing over tasks, or trying to dominate others is something that goes against the nature of the Tao and should be avoided at all costs.
In this passage, Lao Tzu talks about the Tao and how it was formless and perfect even before the universe was born. He is referring to Tao in the past tense. He then jumps to the present tense and says it is serene, empty, solitary, and unchanging. This is because Tao is unchanging and is something that has always been there even before the universe and it is still there, eternally present.
The Tao flows through all things, enveloping the entire universe in its flow. It is always in a state of motion, regardless of what the universe is doing. It waits for nothing and overpowers anyone in its path. Such is its power. It maintains its serenity, even when faced with chaos. It is in solitary even with itself.
The passage also talks about the benefit of being in harmony with the Tao. It is talking about how we all are one because we all are part of the universe and so part of Tao. How then can we continue to hold grudges and conflicts with each other, when it is completely against our nature? In the process, we are only causing more pain.
Lao Tzu also explains how the Tao brings order to the universe. Tao is the leading force. The universe is the next big thing that follows it. The Earth comes right after the universe and follows it. Ultimately, so does man. So by following the path laid out by Tao, all of us will walk the path of serenity instead of being lost in this chaotic world, which is what seems to be happening today. This is also a lesson of humility for us human beings as we tend to think we are the powerful ones, and the universe is in our command.
The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement.
Thus, the Master travels all-day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.
Why should the lord of the country
flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.
In these lines, Lao Tzu highlights the importance of being grounded. He believes that we need to be in complete touch with reality and never to lose that focus. Once again, we turn to the master to be our guide for this. When she travels, she does it lightly. The word travel here does not necessarily mean a long journey. It can even mean the distance from your house to your neighbor’s house. When the master undertakes this travel, she does it without leaving home. This means she is always grounded in reality and does not let herself get swept away with the way of the world. She remains true to herself and the values of Tao. We too need to live like this so that we do not get carried away.
Lao Tzu also claims that we human beings are lord of the country. We have the intellect to rule the world. However, even if we are in that position, we cannot let ourselves be blown to and fro. This happens because the world is a fickle place where morals and values are constantly subject to change. If we let restlessness move us, we will find we are not able to stay grounded at all, we will not be true to ourselves, and we will stray far away from the path of the Tao.
A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent on arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.
Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.
What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
If you don’t understand this,
you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.
The above lines build on the earlier two chapters. Lao Tzu talks about some of the qualities of the master. He has no fixed plans, has no intent on arriving, and has freed himself of concepts to name a few. We, as human beings, need to start embodying the light. When we travel, we should not be too hasty. We should get from one point to the other using his intuition.
Master is always available for whoever wants to approach him. He refuses to reject anyone which is the complete opposite of what we human beings do. We are in a constant state of a hurry to get the next best thing and to get to the next destination. In the process, we forget how to live.
Lao Tzu also expands on the concept of the great secret. He states that if we are bad, all we need do is find a good man who can be our teacher. We will be able to learn from him. When we are good, we can always seek out those who are not and help them. In this way, we can easily help each other get ahead. By working together, we can reap more benefits and be in harmony with the Tao.
Know the male,
Yet keep to the female:
Receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
The Tao will never leave you
And you will be like a little child.
Know the white,
Yet keep to the black:
Be a pattern for the world.
If you are a pattern for the world,
The Tao will be strong inside you
And there will be nothing you can't do.
Know the personal,
Yet keep to the impersonal:
Accept the world as it is.
If you accept the world,
The Tao will be luminous inside you
And you will return to your primal self.
The world is formed from the void,
Like utensils from a block of wood.
The Master knows the utensils,
Yet keeps to the block:
Thus she can use all things.
This chapter begins by exploring the yin-yang relationship that we discussed in the earlier chapters. The yin-yang relationship maintains perfect harmony in the universe. The male is the yin while the female is the yang. One is not better than the other. In fact, they are complementary halves of each other. They seek to maintain a balance in the universe. Lao Tzu goes on to say that if we maintain this relationship, we can receive the world. We can accept the world and the people in it the way they are, instead of running around trying to change it. Once we do this, the Tao will be strong inside all of us. We can then return to our primal self. This is the way the Tao can be luminous inside us.
Lao Tzu also claims that we have to separate the personal from the impersonal. This seems to be a bit complicated, but he clears it up. He states that the world is made from the void. The personal like utensils is made from a block of wood. The Master knows this, yet she keeps the block, to remain impersonal. This prevents her from getting too attached to the object and she can use all things.
Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
Previously, Lao Tzu spoke about how we need to follow the pattern of the world. In these lines, he advises against improving the world. He believes it is something that cannot be done. He warns us against even trying to attempt it because if we do that, we will never be satisfied. For this world is broken, and it is beyond the attempts of an individual to try to make it whole. That is not the way of the world.
The world is sacred. It needs to be treated with the utmost respect. It is like a sacred object that should be admired. Lao Tzu meant the world to be used instead of being abused like we humans do. The world is a being on its own that is subject to the laws of Tao. We cannot interfere with it. What we can do is understand how the laws work.
There will be time for being ahead and time for being behind. We cannot always be ahead as most of us like to be. We have to take rest because soon things will be vigorous and we will be exhausted from exerting ourselves too much. So we have to maintain balance like the yin-yang maintains balance to keep harmony in the universe.
The master, of course, is way ahead of every one of us. She sees things as they are. Instead of trying to control them and bending circumstances to appease herself, she lets them go on their own way while she sits at the center of the circle and maintains her calm, not being swayed by the fickle forces of the world.
Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn’t try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counter force.
Violence, even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon one’s self.
The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.
The chapter deals with the concept of governance. Lao Tzu states whoever uses Tao to navigate governing men does not force his hand. He lets the chips fall where they may. It is not from his attributes to force issues or even defeat enemies by force. Of course, this piece of advice is something that is completely thrown away by modern leaders. Might is right is the mantra of today’s civilization but it is very wrong. The war-torn circumstances that most countries live in today clearly tell us that.
We have to understand that when we, as human beings, apply force on something, there will always be a counter reaction which will make things more difficult to harmonize. When we attack something, we should also anticipate and prepare for rebounds. As always, the master can be relied on to guide us during these tough times. Like him, we need to understand that we must only do our job and let things go. This will be a huge relief for all of us, as we no longer have to stress about things that are simply beyond our domain. Of course, this can only be expected from someone who believes in himself and doesn’t need others’ approval. Such a person is truly at peace with himself and does not have to look here and there to feel at peace. He accepts himself exactly the way he is. Once he does, so does the world accept him. This is a very powerful piece of advice, especially in this day and age because so many of us try to look outside ourselves to satiate ourselves. All we need do is close our eyes and look within. We will find everything there.
Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear.
A decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity;
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.
This chapter expands on the concept of violence. It is something that is detested by only decent men. The implication is that only indecent men, those who are corrupted, will be privy to it.
Interestingly, Lao Tzu does not do away with the notion of weapons altogether. He understands that we live in a world that is not ideal, and there will be times when the only way out is the use of weapons, especially in a defensive attack. However, he states that weapons are, in fact, the tools of fear as they are used to perpetuate violence rather than curb or cure it. Therefore, those who are decent are likely to use it with the utmost restraint. For such people, peace takes precedence, and if it is shattered, they can never be content. It is impossible for them to be like that because, by nature, they are incapable of wishing personal harm to anyone which is inevitable when violence is born. Even in victory, there is the slaughter of men, so how can one find peace and contentment?
There was a time when the human population had not been this desensitized. Today, we see pictures of catastrophe on a daily basis, so much so that we have become immune to the sufferings of the world. Previously, wars were not so glorified. Soldiers used to go into battle gravely and with sorry and with great compassion. They felt bad about every drop of blood spilled, even it was from enemy lines. But we have managed to leave behind that legacy and now seek to rejoice in it, which is very far from what Lao Tzu is trying to teach us.
The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.
Once again, we go back to the attributes of Tao. It is something that is impossible to be perceived but one has to perceive it anyway. It has uncountable galaxies and its outcome can easily be manifested in different forms throughout the universe. To perceive it, one has to remain centered in the Tao. This will teach us humility and prevent us from seeking too much power.
It is time we take responsibility. It is our world. If we want to make it into a paradise, to have peace and for the law to reside in our hearts, we need to have harmony so that the Tao can flow freely. Lao Tzu goes on to tell us that when there are names and forms, we need to understand that they are provisional and will not last long. Similarly, institutions are also established with an expiration date. There will come a time when their functions will end. We just need to wait for the time to come. Once these human-made institutions crumble, Tao will take over and everything will merge flawlessly like rivers flow into the sea.
Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.
If you realize that you have enough,
You are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
And embrace death with your whole heart,
You will endure forever.
The lines speak about different attributes we human beings possess. It is also highlighting that for us to know others is intelligence but to know our own selves is true wisdom. Similarly, to have command over others is strength but to have command over our own selves is what you can call true power. Lao Tzu, over here, is telling us to master others is easier, but to master ourselves requires a lot more effort. That is what true victory is.
Moreover, the blessing of realizing that you have enough is in itself a gift, because very few people have that insight. This is often lacking in this day and age because we are constantly bombarded with materialistic things. We feel we will never be happy unless we have the latest gadget, the biggest house, or the fastest car. But Lao Tzu comes to our rescue. He reminds us that just to realize means we are very rich and we do not need to look outside.
Moreover, by embracing our circumstances, we also embrace death. This does not mean that we wish to die. Instead, what Lao Tzu is trying to point out is that we accept the fact that we are all finite in the infinite Tao. Because we have the infinite Tao inside us, we will endure forever despite being dead on the surface.
The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
Yet it doesn't create them.
It pours itself into its work,
Yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
Yet it doesn't hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
And hidden in their hearts,
It can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
And it alone endures,
It can be called great.
It isn't aware of its greatness;
Thus it is truly great.
Previously, Tao was compared with water. This chapter is reminding us of that. The Tao flows everywhere, regardless of what is happening in the universe. Lao Tzu further expands on the qualities of Tao by saying that all things are born from it, but it doesn’t create them. In other words, though it has ultimately birthed so many things, it does not demand adoration or supremacy. It also does not make any claim to itself despite being the one who nourishes infinite worlds.
The Tao stands out, but since it is merged with all things, it does not stand out. However, at the same time, it is something we can perceive. This is why it can be called humble. Since it envelopes everything, all things vanish into it and it alone endures. This makes it great. Furthermore, the fact that it does not seek greatness but chooses to live in humility is what makes it truly great.
She who is centered in the Tao
Can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
Even amid great pain,
Because she has found peace in her heart.
Music or the smell of good cooking
May make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
Seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.
Over and over, Lao Tzu tells us to stay away, to stay centered, and let everything else take its course. We are repeatedly told not to interfere in anything, regardless of how tempting it is. This is a hard piece of advice for anyone of us to follow because it is extremely unsatisfying to stand in one corner and watch the world falling apart. However, there is a lot to be gained from being centered.
We can perceive the universal harmony. This is not something we can taste like food or hear like music. It is something that can only be felt if we are to be centered. If you look for it, you will find nothing. If you listen for it, there will be nothing to hear. We, therefore, need to look into our heart to find and perceive it. Rest assured, when we finally utilize it, it will be inexhaustible.
If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.
The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.
The opening lines of this chapter describe a paradoxical relationship which has been covered in the earlier chapters. The one thing to point out here is that it does not mean that we endure more sufferings or surge through the pain. What it means is that if we want to overcome this suffering, we need to understand that to counter the hard and the fast, we have to overcome it with the soft and the slow. The way we work must remain a mystery. It is only the results that will unveil that must show the truth. The rest is irrelevant.
The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.
If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.
When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.
This chapter deals with desire. We, as human beings, are conditioned to control, interfere, and dominate because we have the innate desire to do so. The powerful men and women can choose to center themselves. Once they do so, the whole world would be transformed. There is an emphasis on powerful men and women because their actions influence the outcome of the entire world. It is also these people who work against the Tao, thus causing chaos in the first place.
People will be content with themselves and their lives, and the world will be in complete harmony. You see, when there is desire, there is longing and human beings constantly feel a pull toward the world. This causes us to move with the flow of the world, leaving behind the calm waters of the Tao. As a result, there is no peace and we are unable to function properly. It is only when we let go of these desires, does the peace return to our hearts and we follow a natural rhythm.
The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
This chapter focuses on the Master. The Master, as described in the earlier chapters, is one who is in complete harmony with the Tao. The ordinary man does not understand the master. The master is the one who embodies the Tao. So how exactly does he do that?
According to Lao Tzu, he does it by not trying to be powerful. On the other hand, ordinary people desire power and go out of their way to reach for it until they get it. This is a fundamental lesson. The more we reach for something, the more we will want it. It is not in the nature of human beings to have enough. We break all limits to try to reach the top only to find there are more steps to be climbed. But this is not the way to live life. We cannot have power simply by taking it - a fact that we can learn from the master. He realizes that true power is one that does not have you reaching for more.
The master leaves nothing undone despite doing nothing. His actions can be stated as effortless. He does everything but makes it look as if he has done nothing. This is what Lao Tzu means when he says that masters do nothing. This is a particularly difficult concept for ordinary men to grasp who work from morning to night, exhausting themselves, yet the work remains undone. He tries to be just, yet injustice prevails. In such a case, it would do well to understand what Lao Tzu is saying. Similarly, the moral man tries to do something. When no one responds, he resorts to using force. This trait goes against the teachings of the master who never has to use force to accomplish anything.
Lao Tzu once again warns us of the consequences of losing Tao. When we lose Tao, we substitute it with goodness, but of course, goodness can be lost easily. When that happens, we try to substitute it with morality which is replaced by rituals. This is the lowest form. It means we are just putting on a good show, trying to bring meaning to something, when in reality our hearts are hollow.
Ordinary people also focus on the surface instead of depth. They see the flower and not the fruit. They end up focusing on things that could be instead of things that are. They work with illusions instead of reality. In the process, they steer far, far away from the teachings of Tao.
In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.
The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu portrays a very picturesque world, if one is to be in harmony with the Tao. No matter how excellent our intentions may be, the second we start interfering with the Tao, the earth turns. The sky is no longer clear and spacious, it turns filthy and the earth is depleted. The creatures become extinct because the earth which is our home is completely destroyed.
The master, of course, understands it perfectly. He realizes that if we harm ourselves, it is not only us who will suffer but also the entire world. He understands the whole instead of just part of the picture. By doing so, he understands how things as a whole work in harmony. What we need do is learn from the master and be reshaped by the Tao because it ultimately knows best as it is eternal.
Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao. All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.
Wisdom flows in the words of Lao Tzu, where he talks about how everything that exists in the world comes from nonexistence, or in the words of the Tao Te Ching, “Being is born of non-being.” He recalls the ancient past where all things came out of nothingness, and eventually, everything will return to its true form. But in Tao, we see, nothing is not nothing. It is filled with infinite possibilities.
I think we all can agree that generations of disharmony with the Tao have stemmed in turmoil in our world. It is finally time to return to accord with the Tao. This chapter helps you accomplish that harmony.
It is important to understand Lao Tzu’s real meaning of return. He means coming back. For you, this no longer indicates going in the direction you have been going, in your willful way. Doing the things that you have been doing over the course of time has what engulfed us into the chaos of the world. When it is finally time to return to the being, we move along with Tao. Just this simple act of returning to the original puts us in the tune than we have been before.
Tao’s way is of constant yielding. If we are ever going to be in accord with the Tao, we must be familiar with how to yield along with Tao. We must be modest in our actions and humble in our demands. We have to know the unknown to be in harmony with the Tao. Think of only being in harmony, because all that occurs in life is only possible in being original and in sync with the mystery of being born. This is the reason you must know when to stop and when to yield.
When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao. Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest is seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish. The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.
In this chapter, Tzu is guiding us to let go of all our superficial desires and wants. That is Tao’s way - the way things work. It is the only method to overcome our madness and the only way for us to be content. However, this may seem foolish, feeble, and ancient. It is because of the way things are and have been for some time now. We fight it. Most of us resist and continue to struggle against the flow of the Tao. We long for it eagerly. We want it more. We want it beforehand. Yet, we are never thankful or satisfied. Accepting things and life simply means submitting to the Tao. It requires submission. Indeed, it is a sign of weakness, but it is only by complying that we face reality.
Tzu further elaborates the problems our desires tend to cause us, and why is it that Tao urges such blunt and diverse reactions from us all. What we truly need is to get into the luminescence. To move forward, we want a simple and clear path. But the route in front of us seems to be getting mysterious and darker. We have ceased to move forward at all. Instead, we find ourselves losing our way.
How do we harmonize with Tao? In all reality, we cannot imagine it. It hides from us, by being nameless and a shadow in the dark. This is the calamity of life. We keep longing and waiting for happiness, but it always seems too far from our reach, on a distant horizon. The very concept that we should desist all desires and wants is a pariah to us. Once we stop the desires and wants, we are taken back to the source, where we find genuine happiness and contentment.
The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things. All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony. Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.
Tzu says, “The Tao gives birth to one.” The One in its own speaks of the Tao. That means Tao gives birth to the Tao. To some, it may sound less appealing, perceiving that Tao gives birth to itself. Is this possible? However, when you delve deeper into the philosophy of Taoist, you understand that the one rises but it does not have any identity or form. It is nothing. It has no existence and no name. Tzu is referring to non-being aspect of One. This is how it was at the beginning of time - just nothing. No existence, yet the non-being rose. That is the initial One. Shapeless and nameless. Nonetheless, it is the Tao.
Something Lao has always enlightened us with is that non-being gives birth to being. In Chinese philosophy, non-being and being are wu and yu, which give rise to two. As a result, One gives birth to Two. Ying and Yang. However, this Two is One in unity. We are looking at two different aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. Both of them work simultaneously. One cannot exist without the other.
When you look at One, the Two does not seem that mysterious enough. Now, we see Two giving birth to Three. Three will perhaps cause you trouble but once again when you indulge in the wisdom of Chinese philosophy, you will understand that Lao Tzu is referring to the third aspect of Tao. The first is wu, the second is yu, and together they make up yin and yang, while the third is chi, also defined better as energy. Or simply the life force, and sometimes spirit or breath. Yin and yang combine and like the disintegration of an atom, they produce chi.
The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action. Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master's way.
In this chapter, we see the primary principle of theoretical Taoism, the value of non-action. Non-action is basically a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which can be interpreted as doing nothing, yet nothing is left undone. It is a grave secret. But one wonders, how is it that not doing anything can result in all things being done?
To explain this enigma, Lao Tzu looks at the operations of the world as the obvious example of this principle of labor. The metaphor he uses the most to explain Wu Wei is water. Water naturally sustains all things without much effort. The soft overpowers the hard and the mildest thing in the world overpowers the hardest thing in the world.
Perhaps water may be an apt metaphor. But it is not the only way that Wu Wei can be demonstrated. Something that has no matter enters where there is no space. That simply intensifies the mystery, but it also explains it and shows the value of Wu Wei. He is elucidating a situation of being in harmony with the Tao.
To understand the verse more easily, Lao Tzu mentions the Master. The Master imparts without words and performs without movements. That is the master’s unique method. It should be ours too. As long as we are attempting to make things work, we are putting in serious efforts. That is not the master’s way. It is not about what you do or how you act. So stop! Cease! Be watchful of nature. Nature ceases for you. But it does have its own flow. You need to pick up on its tune and dance to the rhythm like a free bird. While it is not in a hurry, all things eventually get done. Everything follows the rule of nature, including us. Tzu suggests to get accustomed to the rhythm and become one with it.
Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
The success of failure: which is more destructive? If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
This verse begins with a rhetorical question to show us how we can be truly fulfilled and content with ourselves. The question of what you think is more crucial. Either fame or integrity, both relate to whether or not we will witness true satisfaction. This verse urges you to ask yourself why you cannot have both. But that is not the real query. Can you have both fame and integrity at the same time? Indeed, you can. That still does not answer the question of which is more important to you. Fame is worldly. If you are seeking to look to others for approval, you will never truly be satisfied. If indeed fame is more important to you, your focus will be more on materialistic things. That outward mindset will leave you unsatisfied and unhappy with yourself.
By choosing humbleness as the most crucial thing, your focus will be more on inward things. You do not have any control over others, the way they behave, the way they act, or the choices they make. But you can control yourself. The path to true satisfaction begins with yourself, how you choose to behave and make your choices freely. You are free, completely free to do what you please. Others around you may try to control you, more than you control them. Of course, you are not referring to outward control. The Tao talks about who and what we are on the inside. If you want to be satisfied with and filled with fulfillment, you will focus more on yourself.
True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present. True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless. The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.
In this chapter, we realize that when you perceive that nothing is lacking in your life, the whole world belongs to you. You observe lacking when your happiness and fulfillment depend on money. You then try to climb on that imaginary ladder of success, thinking happiness and prosperity are just a few steps away, while failure brings you down in every stage of life.
There is nothing you can gain from climbing that ladder. Every gain only proves to be a loss. This is why Lao Tzu forces us to stay off that ladder of misconception. The only way you can maintain your balance is to stand tall with both your feet on the ground. If you finally realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world will be in your control. It will belong to you.
There is an immeasurable and eternal reality before and behind all that you view in this world. It is perfection. But, true perfection may seem imperfect to you. The way things are may not be the way they actually are. But what makes true perfection? Perfect is not how you view it to be. What Lao Tzu means here is that it is not dependent on whether or not you view it as perfect. It is perfect, autonomous of our perception. It is perfect in itself. It is simply what it is in its best form.
When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.
There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.
Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu speaks of what would happen if a country is in harmony with Tao. During his time, there were no factories that made trucks and tractors. Stephen Mitchell has taken liberties with translating this. However, the fact remains the same. Once the Tao is let go of, fear takes precedence. This is something that is loved by the people in power as it allows them to control people. However, Lao Tzu is calling out everyone here. According to him, we have created the enemy by spreading fear. Whoever is the slight bit different than us, we fear them and try to squash them, so that they never threaten us. This is a very big misfortune.
Those, who are fortunate to be able to see through the fear, will always be safe as they will no longer be a slave to the illusion that has been presented to us by those in power. However, those who are not able to see through it, they will eventually succumb to the illusion.
Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.
The more you know,
the less you understand.
The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.
In the previous chapter, Lao Tzu spoke of the illusion of fear. In this chapter, he speaks of how we can gain knowledge about overcoming the problem. The first kind of knowledge is the one we get without looking outside our door and window. It is the intuitive knowledge that resides deep within our hearts. This kind of knowledge leads us to the door of the Tao where we can see things the way they truly are.
Lao Tzu warns us that it is not possible to have a lot of knowledge as the less we will be able to understand. You can get this knowledge without leaving, without looking, and without doing a thing. What this means is something he will expand later on.
In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
Here, Lao Tzu expands more on knowledge. He believes that by pursuing knowledge, something is added every day. There is something more to learn, but that is not how one practices Taoism. For Taoism, it is necessary that something is dropped. Not the dropped that is immediately picked up, but the kind that has vanished from your life altogether. You move on and never look back.
We also need to stop using force until we no longer require it to get the work done. Things will fall into place because the Tao will make it happen. So when nothing is done, nothing is left undone. We accept that we have no control and let the Tao take over. Consequently, things go their own way and we are free from interfering.
The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.
She is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.
She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.
The Master’s mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.
The opening lines of the chapter discuss the Master. Lao Tzu believes that the Master is not a slave to her own mind. She has enabled mastery over the minds of other people, no matter how lost they may be. She is not only good to people who are good (which is really easy to do), but she is also good to people who are not inherently good. This is goodness personified. Very few people are capable of doing this.
The Master also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy. This, of course, is not an ideal situation as it is a disaster that is just waiting to happen. However, we have to understand that when the Master does this, she is putting her entire faith in Tao and believing that Tao will take care of the rest.
The Master has a mind that is like space. It is vast and never-ending, much like her wisdom. So much so that people don’t understand her. They are always waiting for her to fall or get burnt by being too trustworthy. However, the unique thing about the Master is that she treats them like her own children. Not random children but her own. She cares for them and nurtures them as one does for her own children. She waits for the eternal Tao to bring justice and harmony if we all wait for it.
The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn't think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day's work.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu offers himself whatever the moment has to offer. He goes back and forth between the male and female pronouns when talking about the Master. He is basically trying to say that the Master is exclusive of gender. Keeping that in mind, the notion is for each one of us, to reach a point where we give ourselves whatever the moment has to offer. As you continue to read through the verse of this chapter, you notice that Lao talks about the certainty of death and the need to be ready for it. Yet, we have not reached the point of the chapter.
The point is the art of living in the current moment. Most of the time, we are apprehensive of the future. Do we fear the next moment? What will happen next? What if we die? Fear holds us back from living our best life. But why do we fear death so much? We certainly do, but why? How is fearing or worrying about it going to make our life any easier or better?
You cannot avoid the future, but you can confidently outlive it if you approach the present moment. Lao Tzu has a way of telling when we are finally there. These moments are set up in dominoes, each one after the other. First is the knowledge of death. We know it is approaching us and it is approaching fast. If you acknowledge and accept it, you will not allow life to hold you back anymore.
Then, Lao Tzu refers to the illusion and resistance in our minds. The Master does not hold back any illusion and does not put up a fight either. The Master knows that for real gratification, you need to let go of the flesh along with the soul. The Master does not think but acts in the given moment and gives in to the present moment.
Every being in the universe
is an expression of the Tao.
It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being
spontaneously honors the Tao. The Tao gives birth to all beings,
nourishes them, maintains them,
cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
takes them back to itself,
creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.
That is why the love of the Tao
is in the very nature of things.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu imparts the very nature of every being. He does not make any distinction between unique and diverse beings, saying that every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao. Each one comes into existence perfect and free. Though it enters this existence unaware of its perfection and liberty, it takes on a physical self and allows the circumstances to complete it. In short, allowing circumstances to complete us is as natural to us as taking on our physical bodies.
Lao Tzu suggests that Tao gives birth to all beings. He does not refer to it in a literal sense but more in a metaphorical way. This is how things work in the universe. We are all a part of nature’s creation. As we continue to harmonize with nature, it nurtures us, maintains us, cares for us, comforts us, protects us, and in the end takes us back to itself.
Some might debate if there is any freedom in any of this? Or if we have any choice in this matter? Of course, Lao Tzu refers to this all the time. He talks about going against the flow of the Tao. Of not being in accord with it. Or maybe having forgotten it completely. So, do we really have a free choice? Of course, we do. We practice it all the time if we act as per our nature or against it. Tao is not an oppressor. It creates without owning. It performs without expecting. It guides without interfering.
In the beginning, was the Tao.
All things issue from it;
all things return to it. To find the origin,
trace back the manifestations.
When you recognize the children
and find the mother,
you will be free of sorrow. If you close your mind in judgments
and traffic with desires,
your heart will be troubled.
If you keep your mind from judging
and aren't led by the senses,
your heart will find peace. Seeing into darkness is clarity.
Knowing how to yield is strength.
Use your own light
and return to the source of light.
This is called practicing eternity.
There are numerous things going on in the universe beyond our imagination and control. Our willingness to go with the current, to give in to our nature as expressions of the Tao, is merely our choice to make. We are free to make such choices. Liberty to choose wrongly always comes with repercussions, partially because we should be familiar with them. We witness them first-hand, all the time around us. Things like disease, famine, hunger, death, and war are part of an exhaustive list.
As Lao Tzu wonders, what are the consequences of resisting the Tao? Sadness? A concerned heart? If you want liberty from sorrow, if you want your troubled heart to be at peace, Lao Tzu carves a path that you should be embarking. It all begins and ends with the Tao. The inquisitive and secret Tao that Lao Tzu keeps directing to is our beginning and our end. All things arise from it. All things return to it. If you find your sufferings in the middle, you need to trace back your origin. To do that, you simply need to trace back the roots.
What are the roots? We are all children of the Tao. To know the children is to find the root of origin. That is the real path to freedom from all our miseries. Sorrow exists because we see ourselves different than Tao and all of its manifestations - our fellow humans. We have lost contact with who we are, what we see, and where we can proceed ahead. We even see ourselves separate from other human beings and thus invite sorrow in our lives. But once we delve in Tao, we will find redemption from all our sorrows.
The great Way is easy,
yet people prefer the side paths.
Be aware when things are out of balance.
Stay centered within the Tao. When rich speculators prosper
While farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn-
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Tao.
Lao Tzu has long been making this point that following the Tao is something natural in all of us. Every living thing in the universe is a representation of the Tao. Every being honors and regards the Tao. The love of Tao is the very nature of all things. This means the great way is easy. It is indeed built in our nature. All we have to do is experience the world beyond us and see our fellow beings in chaos, to see there is something at odds with how easy the great way is.
Most people prefer the side paths. But why do they choose the side path? The great way is convenient. It really is. What makes it so tempting is that there are several reasons. The first that comes to mind is that we simply forget the Tao. We get so familiar with what our senses are trying to tell us that we find ourselves being directed by our senses, instead of our innate vision and wisdom. That spontaneous, whimsical connection is lost if we are not being mindful when things are out of order.
Another more serious reason is there are those who profit. A system has been put up in opposition to the way things work. It is designed to keep things out of order. For the very few benefits from the imbalance, they could not be happier when they finally convince us to prefer the side paths.
Whoever is planted in the Tao
will not be rooted up.
Whoever embraces the Tao
will not slip away.
Her name will be held in honor
from generation to generation. Let the Tao be present in your life
and you will become genuine.
Let it be present in your family
and your family will flourish.
Let it be present in your country
and your country will be an example
to all countries in the world.
Let it be present in the universe
and the universe will sing. How do I know this is true?
By looking inside myself.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu has some excellent news for all those who are bold. Those who are manifested in the Tao can never be rooted up. If you grasp the Tao, you will not stand short. Like always, this requires both yin and yang, a passive and an active side to be focused on the Tao. You are not going anywhere. You will be held in your place, a place of great respect, from ages ago.
Always directed by yin, let yourself be manifested. There will be abundant of time for embracing consciously, but at the moment you focus on the yin, on accepting passively. Do not fight back. Let the Tao be available in your life.
Yang follows yin, and yin follows yang. You should allow the Tao to be present in your life and family. It is very important for you to comprehend that this, too, is yin. If you simply stay focused on the Tao, you will see yourself grow, which will eventually spread outward. You may also respect that as your center of influence. You are not forcing things. You are not dominating or attempting to control. You just let it be, indulge in the origin of it, and see yourself flourish and reap the benefits.
He who is in harmony with the Tao
is like a newborn child.
Its bones are soft, its muscles are weak,
but its grip is powerful.
It doesn't know about the union
of male and female,
yet its penis can stand erect,
so intense is its vital power.
It can scream its head off all day,
yet it never becomes hoarse,
so complete is its harmony. The Master's power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed;
thus his spirit never grows old
This verse focuses on newborns. We question what is the source of their power? In all reality, we know they have power. That is what we talk about when Lao Tzu mentions their firm grip, their constant screaming without getting raucous, and the erect penis. Here we are talking about vigorous power.
The ability to let things come and go, without any effort and without desire, is what the art of living is all about. The Master has an understanding of this fact and encourages us to learn these lessons from newborns. Allowing things to come and go requires no effort. In fact, all your efforts only manure the process. So do not interfere with the natural process of nature. Just let it come and embrace and then let it go when the time is right. But then what about all your desires? You need to let them go as well. Your desires only serve to bling you for life.
Do newborns even have the ability to have hopes? Perhaps not. With their wailing and crying, one can wonder if they are expecting someone to pick them and take care of them. But that is not the case. The point here is that babies do what they are meant to do. They act without expectation. Since they are not expecting anything, they are never disappointed. Lao Tzu suggests that you should be like the newborn. Return to the original state. That is a soul that is never dissatisfied. A soul that is never dissatisfied is a soul that never grows old.
Those who know don't talk.
Those who talk don't know. Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity. Be like the Tao.
It can't be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.
In this verse, Lao Tzu adds another essential element to the previous chapter. Here he mentions how newborns do not talk. Their very existence is a miracle to us. So small, so fragile, so dependent. They do not talk yet convince you that they know something of grave importance. Of course, we humans cannot go back to being newborn, but we can indeed return to our primal identity, which is similar to being a newborn child. Not indulging in a conversation is the first important step. It is good, sometimes, to shut your mouth and block all your senses. Direct your sharpness, untie your knots, lower your gaze, and settle your disputes. What Lao is saying should not be considered too seriously but rather figuratively. Let go of all the baggage you carry with yourself. All the things that have you talking all the time.
You should regain the soul of a newborn, your primary state, a soul that never grows old. You need to be like Tao. What makes it last long? It cannot be reached or dismissed. It cannot be benefited or harmed. It cannot be regarded or brought to shame. Let these words wash over you. Let them soak into your very being.
If you want to be a great leader,
You must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
And the world will govern itself. The more prohibitions you have,
The less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
The less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
The less self-reliant people will be. Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
And people become honest.
I let go of economics,
And people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
And people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
And the good becomes common as grass.
Lao Tzu explains what characteristics are required for someone to be a leader. According to him, if one is willing to be a great leader, they must follow the Tao. Leaders who do not know how to follow will never be great leaders.
Everyone wants to be in control. That is what drives them. We all need leaders. Aspiring to be a great leader is a noble thing. However, to be a great leader, you have to stop trying to control. Rulers believe that they have to be in control because without it, they have no power or identity. Authority does not come naturally. It has to be worked hard for.
The world is in need of great leaders and not rulers. Lao Tzu says that if you let go of fixed plans and concepts, eventually you will notice that the world will run on its own. The world does not require governing. Fixed plans and concepts do nothing but spoil the process. He further claims that more prohibitions lead to less virtuous people. The more weapons, the less secure are the people. The more subsidies, the less self-reliant people. Many will agree with these lines, however, it is not possible that rulers do not understand this.
Rulers need to understand that if you let go of the law, people will become honest. If you let go of economics, people will become prosperous. If you let go of religion, people will become serene. The last line is the greatest among all. The desire for the common good. We all want to promote the common good. All our rulers claim to want the same for us. Lao Tzu advises us to let go of all the desire for the common good. Let it go, only then the good will become common as grass.
If a country is governed with tolerance,
The people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
The people are depressed and crafty. When the will to power is in charge,
The higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
And you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
And you lay the groundwork for vice. Thus the Master is content
To serve as an example
And not to impose her will.
She is pointed, but doesn’t pierce.
Straightforward, but supple.
Radiant, but easy on the eyes.
Lao Tzu talks about the universal laws that we begin to understand as we learn to follow the Tao. Following the Tao simply refers to accepting and not resisting the universal laws. He says that giving up your need to control and letting go of fixed plans involves you being tolerant in your governance. Therefore, if you are being intolerant, it means that you have not given up your need to control. It is either your way or no way at all.
Moving on, intolerance leads to repression, and repression will be repression, no matter how good your thoughts may be. So the more tolerant you are, the most comfortable and honest people become. The harder you try and repress people, the more depressed they will be.
The problem with nations is that the will to power is always in charge. This is what leads to repression. The nations may have high ideals but the higher the ideals, the lower the results. This is how the universe operates. If you try to make people happy, you are only laying the groundwork for misery. If you are trying to make people moral, you are laying the groundwork for vice.
When the will to power is in charge, you will end up accomplishing the opposite of your intentions. However, if your intentions are really good, then you will learn to follow the Tao before trying to govern.
For governing a country well
There is nothing better than moderation. The mark of a moderate man
Is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
All-pervading like sunlight,
Firm like a mountain,
Supple like a tree in the wind,
He has no destination in view
And makes use of anything
Life happens to bring his way. Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
He can care for the people’s welfare
As a mother cares for her child.
Lao Tzu continues to talk about how to be a great leader. He is asking a great leader to practice self-restraint. To govern a country well, nothing works better than self-restraint. As a leader, you have great ideas and you want to see them implemented. All because they are for the welfare of the people. However, you understand how the universe operates. You understand that willpower should not be in charge. Your plans will turn worthless if you try to force things. Therefore, you simply content yourself with serving as an example.
That is called freedom from your own ideas. It does not mean that you do not have any ideas. You have the ideas but the difference is that you are not a slave to those ideas. You will not force your ideas to anyone. That is when you are able to practice self-restraint.
For you, the sky is the limit to your tolerance. You understand that it takes tolerance to produce people who are comfortable and honest. That is because you trust the Tao. You are not looking to some future end that may or may not happen. Similarly, you are not hung up in the past. You live in the present moment. That is why nothing is impossible for you. You have let go of all desires, all expectations, and your need to control, etc. After letting go, you now begin to care for the welfare of the people. Now, all your good intentions can come to fulfillment. Not through force, but naturally, like how a mother cares for her child.
Governing a large country
Is like frying a small fish
You spoil it with too much poking. Center your country in the Tao
And evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
But you’ll be able to step out of its way. Give evil nothing to oppose
And it will disappear by itself.
Lao Tzu says that governing a large country is like frying a small fish. It gets spoiled if it is poked too much. There is evil in the world. Lao Tzu does not deny it in any form. He tells us how to deprive it of its power. The answer lies in centering our country on the Tao.
Now it is understandable that the powers want each of us to believe that we need them to deal with the evil. They have schemes and plans that manipulate us to think that only they can deal with evil. So how do we deal with the problem of evil? We center our country on the Tao. Then, evil will no longer have power. It will still be there, but you will be stable enough to step out of its way.
When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
The greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
Thus never needing to be defensive. A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
As his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
As the shadow that he himself casts. If a nation is centered in the Tao,
If it nourishes its own people
And doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
It will be a light to all nations in the world.
Lao Tzu focuses on a country that has obtained great power. In the previous chapter, he mentioned that governing a large country is like frying a small fish. In this chapter, he is talking about the country’s constant need to practice humility. When a nation becomes great and powerful, humility is the last thing on someone’s mind.
Lao explains that a country that is great and powerful becomes just like the sea. A sea always occupies the lowest place because of its humble positioning that all the streams run into it. According to history, as long as nations remained humble, they continued to be great and powerful. Once the nations started to exalt themselves, their doom was not too far away.
Why is that? Once the sea no longer occupies the lowest place, streams will stop running downward. It will begin to dry up and within a matter of time, its vitality will be lost. Lao Tzu clearly defines humility, which means trusting the Tao. It means that among everything else that has been mentioned in the earlier chapters, you never need to be on the defensive.
Think about it - never needing to be on the defensive. That is what trusting the Tao means and that is what humility means. When you choose to occupy the lowest place and do not exalt yourself or think highly of yourself, you will never find yourself to be on the defensive. Lao Tzu says that a great man realizes his mistake when he makes it. When he realizes it, he admits it and corrects it. That is what separates a great man from the mediocre. It is the same for a nation.
A great man is someone who occupies the lowest place. Those who want to be great never seem to follow this advice. They are busy dignifying themselves and blaming others. They do anything to keep themselves on top. However, a great man considers those who point out his faults as his compassionate teachers. Anyone who is able to keep him in his place is his friend. The longer he occupies that place, the longer he stays great.
A great man is one who understands the fact that he is his own enemy. Any other enemies he will encounter are his enemies because he has dignified himself. That is how the shadow is cast. Lao puts it together, saying that it is important to constantly practice humility. For a leader, it means trusting the Tao. It means entering your nation in the Tao.
The Tao is the center of the universe,
The good man's treasure,
The bad man's refuge.
Honors can be bought with fine words,
Respect can be won with good deeds;
But the Tao is beyond all value,
And no one can achieve it.
Thus, when a new leader is chosen,
Don't offer to help him
With your wealth or your expertise.
To teach him about the Tao.
Why did the ancient Masters esteem the Tao?
Because, being one with the Tao,
When you seek, you find;
And when you make a mistake, you are forgiven.
That is why everybody loves it.
Not everyone is meant to be a leader. Not all of us possess the attributes to become one. Lao Tzu reminds us that Tao is for all of us, not only for those who seek power. He believes that leaders should be chosen. This is a very profound piece of information, especially in this day and age.
All of us have this illusion of choice. We have elections pretty much all over the free world. However, with each passing election, more and more people are starting to lose faith in the electoral process. Therefore, new leaders are not really being chosen. It is the same people coming up again. The names are changing so too are the faces, but the fundamental policies remain the same.
Lao Tzu reminds us that honors can be bought with fine words and respect can be won with good deeds. However valuable we perceive ourselves to be, the fact remains that the Tao is beyond all value. We cannot compare with it on any level, so much so that you cannot achieve it at all.
Lao Tzu also tells us that we can be one with the Tao. Therefore, to assume that it is only the enlightened few who can be at peace with Tao is ridiculous and a notion that is altogether rejected by Lao Tzu. Consequently, when we are in harmony with the Tao, it becomes a treasure, which we have to seek out. Even for those who are bad, the Tao is a place where they can always seek refuge. The Tao does not differentiate.
Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.
This chapter expands on the concept of Wu-Wei. Lao Tzu explains how to achieve this state. Act without doing; work without effort is the way to go about this. What it means is that we should focus on the bigger picture, instead of the nitty-gritty like we usually do. We should also see the few as many. With this approach, we can break down the larger things into smaller ones. In the process, our actions become effortless as a lot less effort is required to undertake the smaller tasks.
Once again, Lao Tzu reaches for the master and holds her up as an example. She achieves greatness by never reaching for the great. In times of difficulty, she does not run away and claim that she cannot do the task. That is not the way of the master. Instead, she takes a step back and views the problem from a different angle. She is not one of those who cling to the comfort provided by life, as most people do, and so we should follow her. Our problems will then not be problems but will result in new inventions.
What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter.
Prevent trouble before it arises.
Put things in order before they exist.
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.
Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm
at the end as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.
He cares about nothing but the Tao.
Thus he can care for all things.
The lines explore some of the most well-known quotes today and build on the earlier chapter. Lao Tzu states that it is easy to nourish what is rooted. In other words, it is easy to break what is already brittle. The whole point of Lao Tzu bringing this up again is to remind us so that we realize and act accordingly.
We human beings are perfectly capable of reaching greatness. However, we can only achieve it if we have mastered the art of Wu-Wei. Whether we focus on the big picture or prevent trouble before it arises, the fact is that the giant pine tree has to grow from a tiny sprout and the journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet. This is actually a very humbling lesson because it teaches us that we need to start right from the bottom to become like the big, beautiful tree, for the tree itself was once a sprout.
The master realizes this and so when he takes action, he lets things run their course. He is calm and moving with the Tao, instead of being against it as so many of us do. He has no desire and simply wants to un-learn whatever the world has taught him. He only cares about the Tao because by caring for it, he can care for everything else as Tao encompasses the universe.
The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.
If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.
The ancient masters did not try to educate, instead they taught them to not-know. This kind of learning, when a person has not to know things teaches humility. For people who think they know everything, it becomes difficult to teach them as they think they require no guidance. However, the masters taught his difficult class and that too without words. They taught using their actions. This is also how one can learn how to govern. When you become an example for other people, show them how to get back to their true nature. You can be said to be on the level of the master.
All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.
If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.
The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
In this chapter, Lao Tzu further expands on the concept of governance. He believes that for people who are teaching governance, there has to be humility. As mentioned in the earlier chapters, humility is a defining feature of the sea. This humility has to be present in the leaders of today, simply by virtue of being present.
Of course, in this day and age, the attribute of humility has been thrown out the window. Our leaders regard themselves to be superior. Lao Tzu is reminding us that such a person is preparing himself for failure. This is because the person can never understand the pain and suffering of his subjects. They will become depressed under him.
True leaders are those who do not overshadow or depress the masses. They place themselves below the people and lead by following them. Much like the master who though is above the people but rules from below. She does not make people feel oppressed or manipulated. Furthermore, because she is free from competition, no one can compete with her. Her constant practice is humility.
Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
Lao Tzu is calling out all the people who deem his teachings to be nonsense and impractical. He says it is only reserved for those people who want to look inside themselves. The teaching is also of a lot of use to all those who have tried to put it into practice because they know his teachings run deep. He also believes that he has only three things to teach which are simplicity, patience, and compassion. If we follow these three attributes and implement them in our lives, we will know that we are on the way to Tao. It will help us to reconcile with the world.
The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best.
The best general
enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman
serves the communal good.
The best leader
follows the will of the people. All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don't love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this, they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao
Here, Lao Tzu states that with the rehearsal of not doing and not knowing, the practice of non-competition is not about not competing. It is actually a way of competing. Presently, it is competing without really competing. We may have to remember the time when we were children, to fully understand this concept.
Tzu is always referring us back to the way we originally were. He uses children as a metaphor for how to remain in harmony with Tao. Children impulsively know how to play. That is really what competing is all about. It is us, the adults, who train our children to compete to extreme levels. However, children simply want to play. We should leave them to it. Let them enjoy their carefree days. Is that not what being happy means?
Competing without truly competing is a virtue. To put this into action is to love to compete, but to do it is a spirit of play, just as if you are a child again. To accord with the Tao is the sweetest condition you could ever want to be in. It is a natural state.
The generals have a saying:
"Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard." This is called
going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons. There is no greater misfortune
than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy
means thinking that he is evil.
Thus you destroy your three treasures
and become an enemy yourself. When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.
Lao Tzu begins by discussing the generals and their sayings, specifically about not being the initiator of force. He says never to be the first to strike. Never to make the first move. Always wait and observe the enemy’s next move. Let the opposing party make their first move. For him, it is always better to retreat a plot than to move an inch forward. Quite often, we show our intent to initiate violence. This is a great misfortune. For him, there was no greater misfortune than this. And it is our own.
We fail to get into the mind of our enemy. That is when we underestimate them the most. That is when we think of them something less of us, something less than human. That is when we make our minds of them as evil and ourselves good. But in reality, it is we who have become evil. We have ruined our three greatest treasures. We should have been simple and modest in our actions and thoughts. We should have been patient and calm with both our friends and enemies. We should have been compassionate toward others and our own selves. That is the only method to be reconciled with all beings in the world.
However, rather than nurturing our treasures, we have damaged them. Our waving flags mean nothing to Tzu. The shame is too great for him to bear.
My teachings are easy to understand
And easy to put into practice
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
And if you try to practice them, you’ll fail. My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning? If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.
Lao Tzu says his teachings are easy to understand and practice, but people do not understand them and do not practice them either. Why? He explains that our problem is that we try to hold the meaning with our intellect and we try to practice them on our own. He says that is what leads to failure.
The practice of the Tao is easy, and not so difficult. It is simple and not complicated. It is our efforts that make it difficult and complicated. Hence, Lao Tzu repeatedly advises: Do your work, stop, and take a step back. Stop making things difficult and complicated.
You can know things even without knowing. It all relies on your intuition to direct you. You can do without actually doing. It is the effortless action that flows from the core of your being like your intuition. All this happens naturally if you simply let it take its course.
Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
Then you can move towards health. The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole.
In connection with the previous chapter, Lao Tzu says that not-knowing is knowing that we do not know. This does not mean that you are in a state of ignorance. It is not demonstrating ignorance of any kind. It is you being humble enough to accept the things that you do not know. He calls this to be true knowledge.
Not-knowing is a remedy that everyone is in need of, especially when they suffer from presumption. The presumption is all about assuming what we know. You do not go to the doctor unless you are sick. Self-diagnosis is not a good idea. However, if you think that you know, then you need to be healed of all knowing. You need to move toward health until you are truly whole.
To heal yourself of all knowing, you need to let go of something each day. Every time you say, “I know,” stop yourself, take a step back, and tell yourself, “No, I don’t.” Remember, if you are sick, you need to continue moving toward health. The more you think you know what you do not know, the more you do not know what you know. This is the process you need to go through from being suffering from presumption to being truly whole and having true knowledge.
True knowledge is spontaneous and intuitive. It is spontaneous because it flows on its own without any effort. It is intuitive because it does not depend on what our mind knows. As a matter of fact, our minds tend to go against it. Our minds resist true knowledge. Therefore, do not let your mind stop you from moving toward health.
When they lose their sense of awe,
People turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
They begin to depend upon authority. Therefore the Master steps back
So that people will not be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
So that people will have nothing to learn.
Lao Tzu continues to talk about the need to not-know. The question is, “Have I lost my sense of awe?” Little children have a sense of awe. They know that they do not know, which is why they constantly ask questions. But by the time they grow older, they grow out of the sense of awe.
So how do we nurture ourselves and the little ones? It all begins with not answering all their questions and engaging with the authority. We all practice the appealing-to-authority thing. When the little ones ask why they need to do something, we simply reply with, “Because I said so.” At this point, it is suggested that we stop this practice and take a step back. Why should we not admit that we do not know? Instead of presuming that we do? Why should we not guide them to find the answers to their questions?
You are in danger of raising children who are capable of free and critical thinking. They can grow up to be independent thinkers and doers. This is how wise the approach is of nurturing awe and wonder. It is the act of teaching without actually teaching. It does not lead to confusion. In fact, it is how people learn to trust themselves.
The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
Answers without speaking a word,
Arrives without being summoned,
Accomplishes without a plan. Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
It doesn’t let a thing slip through.
As children of the Tao, we all have been programmed to believe that a life of ease is a result of climbing the ladder of success. All we have to do is unlearn things. It requires letting and the practice of the Tao. In this chapter, Lao Tzu focuses on the Tao and explains how the Tao is always at ease. It overcomes without competing, answers without speaking, arrives without being summoned, and accomplishes without having a plan.
It is that simple. Your head may try to interfere and make it difficult that it is. All that is required is that we let things happen, without any intervening, trying to dominate, or trying to control. You just have to let things happen. The Tao is always at ease. With this practice, we can be too.
If you realize that all things change,
There is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
There is nothing you can’t achieve. Trying to control the future
Is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut your hand.
Lao Tzu explains that all things change. There is a huge difference between thinking that we know something and actually realizing it. We all accept the truth that all things change. However, it does not make any difference in how we live our life. If we continue to live our lives like things are not going to change or as if we can control the future, we will never realize the life of ease that Lao Tzu keeps talking about.
According to Lao Tzu, there is only one way to live a life of ease. That is to live in the present. We spend a lot of our energy on postponing our happiness to some future time. Instead of living in the moment, we hope that we will be happy. We hope about the future and fear what the future might bring.
The future fills you with hope and fear, which is above your ability to do anything about. It is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place. When you try to handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you will end up cutting your hand. What you can do is leave those tools alone and choose to be content with the present. We need to be content with our ordinary lives instead of asking for more. We need to realize that we have everything we need to live.
The hopes and fears we have are nothing but hallucinations. They are not real. The only real thing is the present moment. Things are meant to change. You cannot hold on to anything. You need to let things come and go as they are meant to. We keep holding on and waiting for something better. We cannot do anything about the past or the future because we have no idea what the future will bring.
When taxes are too high,
People go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
People lose their spirit. Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.
Back in Lao Tzu’s time, taxes were collected by those who were in power to become even richer at the expense of the taxpayers. The tax burden was so high that people would go hungry. Today, we do not realize that many things have changed. Most people mislead themselves with the perception that taxes are not a burden anymore. We do not tax the poor. We impose taxes on the rich people who can pay their fair share and the poor can benefit from the goodwill of our rulers because that money is passed on to them. No one is ever going to be hungry because of high taxes.
That is nothing but a delusion. The reality is that the more things have changed, the more they stay the same. Despite all the lies, taxes are collected to enrich those in power at the expense of everyone else. And because of the high taxes, people are going hungry. That is the truth.
The reality is that the government promises to help the poor out of their poverty. However, the number of people in need has grown more. When the taxes are too high, people go hungry. We do not only know it, but we also realize it. It is how the way things are. It is how things have always been. Taxes are not to enrich anyone else, except those collecting those taxes. The rest just go hungry.
A government that is too intrusive causes people to lose their spirit. Politicians go on babbling about what to do. But if you listen and pay attention to them, you will see their true colors. They may know it, yet they do not realize it. Most surprisingly, they do not have any real intention of doing anything about it.
We have to go beyond realizing. If the politicians and the governments wanted to act for the benefit of the people, they would trust us and leave us alone. But they do not. Therefore, they keep paying lip service while finding new ideas to do what they have always been doing.
Men are born soft and supple;
Dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
Dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
Is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
Is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
In this chapter, Lao-tzu speaks about the circle of life. When we come into this world, we are born soft and supple. This is the case with all living things. Even in the case of plants. They are born tender and pliant. However, when death comes to us, we are stiff and hard. In the case of plants, they are brittle and dry. This highlights the case of the circle of life. We are born, we grow, and then we mature. After that, we die.
According to Lao Tzu, during this process of life, those who are stiff and inflexible are like the disciple of death. This is because for one to be alive, one has to be flexible and accepting because life brings with it a whole series of challenges and one has to be flexible enough to adapt to it.
When life blows winds, will you be flexible enough to bend or are you so hard and stiff that you will be broken in a matter of seconds? It is only the soft and supple that will eventually prevail because they have a way to adapt to the circumstances.
As it acts in the world, the Tao
Is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
The bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
So that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
And give to what isn't enough.
Those who try to control,
Who use force to protect their power,
Go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don't have enough
And give to those who have far too much.
The Master can keep giving
Because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
Succeeds without taking credit,
And doesn't think that she is better
Than anyone else.
Here, Lao Tzu discusses how Tao brings order to this chaotic world. He compares it to the bending of a bow. We have all seen the bending of a bow. When the top is bent downward, the bottom is bent upward. That is how the Tao adjusts to what is happening in the world.
It adjusts to the excess and deficiency, by taking from who has too much and giving to who does not. The Tao’s main aim is to create a harmony, where things are in complete balance. By allotting too much to one individual, there is a state of imbalance in the universe.
Of course, there are those who try to control and use force to protect their power. These are the people who work against the Tao. Their interests are threatened when Tao comes to restore order because such people thrive when there is inequality. They make it personal.
Thus, the Master has mastered by giving her wealth away. The wealth over here does not refer to monetary wealth but includes her knowledge and time. She acts without expectations and takes no credit for her efforts. She also does not believe she is better than anyone else in any form. By following the master, we can become one with the Tao.(78)
Nothing in the world
Is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
Nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
The gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
But few can put it into practice.
Therefore the Master remains
Serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
He is people's greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
In this chapter, we go back to the basics of Tao. Again and again, Lao Tzu reminds us that it is like the water. It is very soft and yielding. In the process, it manages to dissolve even the hard and inflexible. This is because gentleness and humility overpower even the hardest of circumstances.
Everyone knows this is true. However, there are very few who actually practice this. How do we do it? We look to the master. He remains serene even when he is overcome with sorrow. There is no evil inside him, a fact very few can attest to. He does not help but is people’s greatest help.
Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.
Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.
The chapter speaks about failure. It teaches us to look at failure in a different life. For a lot of us, we end up blaming someone else because we do not want to take control of our circumstances. This is unlike the master. She fulfills her own obligation. We, on the other hand, cannot even be bothered to do what is required of us. Instead of correcting our mistake, like the master, we seek to blame others, deeming ourselves untouchable. She always does what needs to be done. Note how she does not only restrict herself to her obligations. In the process, she demands nothing from others.
If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.
The chapter begins by explaining why we are never content. Lao Tzu calls out the leaders when he says contentment occurs when a country is governed wisely. Previously, he has expanded on the idea of what makes a leader good, so we will only mention it briefly. They do not use force or take control. They lead by following. Additionally, they are the ones who enjoy the labor of their hands instead of turning to labor-saving machines. They are also content with their homes and do not have the desire to travel all the time. This is because they are in peace at home and do not have to look outside to find that contentment.
Content people never have to use an arsenal of weapons. Since the citizens are content as they are ruled by true leaders, there is no need to bring out the weapons. They lead a fulfilled life as they enjoy the food, work in the gardens, and are even involved with the doings of the neighborhood. This is something we as a society have given up on completely.
On an individual level, we have to look deep within ourselves to find the seed of discontentment that has been sown and nurtured over the years. We need to rip it out because tomorrow we will become the leaders and we will not be supposed to spread discontentment.
True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.
The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.
The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.
The last chapter focuses on the master once again. He is one who bears no possessions. The more he does for others, the happier he is. This is because he is satisfied and gives out of his contentment. In the process, he never runs low. The takeaway lesson is that the Tao nourishes by not forcing, so how can it force something and go against its very nature? We need not be dominating to fall in complete harmony with the Tao and traverse just like it does.