Tao Te Ching
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
The first two lines of the Tao Te Ching are echoed in Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building when he describes the Quality without a name.
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
This Quality can only be approximated, and Alexander gives half a dozen words that approach it, but also points out each one’s shortcomings. This exercise is one that translators of the Tao are likely familiar with - choosing the right word to approximate an ancient Chinese author’s true intention!
In the next lines (3-6), this translation chooses words that convey heirarchy between the two things it’s comparing. The nameless, the beginning of heaven and earth, being the “better” one. After all, isn’t it better to see the mystery itself rather than just the manifestations? The choice of “desireless” evokes Buddhist tradition and reinforces the heirarchy. But what’s so bad about being the mother of ten thousand things?
The closing of this chapter stands almost as a warning for the rest of the book: contradictions and mystery await all ye who enter here.
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.
I’ve had several discussions lately about the state of the world, usually involving words like hopeless, apocalypse, fear, powerless, etc. And I usually play the role of the Polyannish optimist; yes, things are pretty bad. But there’s a lot of good that’s happening specifically in response to the bad stuff.
When I was young I had a hard time with the concept of heaven as a desirable afterlife. You mean there’s no badness, I can have anything I want, talk to anyone I want, have any experience I want? That sounds pretty boring! Maybe I was getting the oversimplified description but still - it’s in the contrast and tension that I (and I would argue, humans) find meaning.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.
A new mantra.
Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies,
by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If people lack knowledge and desire,
then intellectuals will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.
The first reading found me readying counterarguments to this chapter. Why not celebrate talents, or ambition? Why elevate a lack of knowledge or desire? But rereading the lines brought another interpretation, a Machiavellian one. There is no judgment, no statement that a person or society shouldn’t exalt the gifted, or weaken ambitions. Just statements about the consequences.
And while it may make it easier to rule a people with bread and circuses and weakened ambitions, this isn’t necessarily a prescriptive chapter. Is a wise ruler something one should aspire to be? A people lacking knowledge and desire will mean little interference from intellectuals - but is that good? The chapter offers little judgment upon close inspection.
The message for the gifted: you can use your gifts and talents, if you do not require that you be exalted in return. Not a bad deal. Work is done and then forgotten.
The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.
Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Oh, hidden deep but ever present!
I do not know from whence it comes.
It is the forefather of the emperors.
A meditation on the inevitable march toward increasing entropy. Is this (“blunt the sharpness” etc.) a plea addressed to the Tao? A mere statement about what it does? Water, a common analogy for the Tao, has all of these effects over long periods of time.
We run into a seeming contradiction across chapters here; the Tao being referred to as the source of ten thousand things, whereas in the first chapter it appears to be the “named,” and not the nameless Tao, that’s described in that way.
The chapter ends with another connection to rulers, in this case emperors. How egalitarian is this philosophy?
Heaven and earth are ruthless;
They see the ten thousand things as dummies.
The wise are ruthless;
They see the people as dummies.
The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.
The wise and heaven and earth are all impartial, rather than ruthless. They see the true nature of the world: ephemeral. People, plants, empires, animals, all come and go; changing shapes, rearranging atoms.
The wise person recognizes this and allows it to happen around him, not spending words or energy on where the fashion is heading at this particular moment. But he also holds fast on a few principles.
The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.
Immortal, infallible, nearly invisible. The admonition to use this spirit is simple but difficult to follow, like much of the Tao. Is the female spirit something to be used though? Is this why the advice needs to be given, perhaps, the fact that it doesn’t lend itself to being used. It’s something to work alongside, to be partnered with.
Another translation (James Legge) adds “gently” to describe this usage; it seems unlikely that the sentiment was explicitly written in the original Chinese, but matches my sense for what’s being implied.
Heaven and earth last forever.
Why do heaven and earth last forever?
They are unborn,
So ever living.
The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.
Selfless, versus egoless. Given the description of the sage in the previous line, “detached, thus at one with all,” the current sense of egoless seems closer to the mark.
We often use selfless as a synonym for altruistic - doing things for others without an expectation of getting something in return. A person can be selfless with a somewhat shallow understanding of the universe; a child might be taught to share a toy without much more explanation than “be nice to your brother.” A sense of identity is still there, and even the most selfless of actions brings at least some reward in a sense of having done good or being more fulfilled - “when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself,” as the musical Avenue Q puts it.
Egoless, on the other hand, implies a motivation behind the selfless act. An active desire to dissolve the barrier between “I” and “not I”, and usually for reasons that run a little deeper than a simple selfless act. Maybe an understanding that the action that appears to be selfless isn’t really selfless at all - that person you are helping is, in some sense, you. Maybe Avenue Q had this deeper meaning in mind after all, and the lyric is to be taken more literally: when you help others, you can’t help but be helping yourself at the same time, because they are just as much you as you are, you egoless sage.
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.
No fight: No blame.
A chapter to hand to someone who’s never heard of the Tao. This chapter also highlights just how beautiful and concise this translation is.
The middle verse could be seen as a set of commandments. But there’s a different tone to these as opposed to, say, the 10 commandments of the Old Testament. They have a softer, more advice-like quality to them. There’s not an implication of sin if you don’t live up to them. And there’s (slightly) less of a black and white feeling to them. There’s no “do not murder”, but you could read “In speech, be true” as the equivalent of not bearing false witness. Still, most of the other advice from the Tao is a matter of degree - be as close to the land as possible, go as deep in the heart as possible.
It meets you where you are, without expectations or even judgment, with a gentle nudge toward being more like the water.
Better stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.
Modern-day aphorisms abound, all drawing from these lines. Quit while you’re ahead, work smarter not harder, Hemingway’s advice to “Always stop while you are going good.”
I think of running, and my own shift in mentality over the past several years. Like an oversharpened blade, running too many long races in relatively rapid succession is a recipe for burnout or injury.
The advice seems easy to dole out from the perspective of an elder, and probably equally hard to follow as a youth, full of ambition and desire. “You’re given one life,” I can hear him (because he is me) retort. “Might as well suck the marrow out of life every day.”
True, I’ll now reply, but sucking the marrow out of life and appearing to do so are two different things. There’s a modern obsession with maximizing, optimizing; an idea that there’s one ideal sequence of events that will produce the objectively “best” use of each day, week, month, lifetime, and if you’re not constantly striving to make those things happen, well, you’re not really living.
Retire when the work is done. The trick is knowing when that is.
Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,
Can you avoid separation?
Attending fully and becoming supple,
Can you be as a newborn babe?
Washing and cleansing the primal vision,
Can you be without stain?
Loving all men and ruling the country,
Can you be without cleverness?
Opening and closing the gates of heaven,
Can you play the role of woman?
Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?
Giving birth and nourishing,
Bearing yet not possessing, Working yet not taking credit,
Leading yet not dominating,
This is the Primal Virtue.
Looking at the first section, the questions appear as challenges set to the reader. In other words, Can you do these things? They are things to aspire to. “Can you be without cleverness” at first glance seems to break the pattern, but this translation uses “clever” in a more neutral or even negative sense… almost as in “trickery.” We also see more advice for rulers of countries, a common theme thus far. Doing nothing, the last question, might also seem to break the pattern, but we’ve already seen the act of not-doing to be held up as virtuous elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching.
Bearing yet not possessing… leading yet not dominating.
This balancing act has been on my mind lately. It’s easy to justify a dominating style of leadership. “It’s more efficient this way” is often the excuse. Someone has to take charge, after all. But the goal of being efficient needs to be questioned. Are you trying to accomplish some task as quickly as possible? Why? Would there be more joy, more learning, with a style of leadership that was more democratic, that allowed for roles to shift rather than be pigeonholed? If you dominate rather than lead, what will happen when you can no longer lead? “Are you able to do nothing” and let others do instead?
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
The material and the visible structure are what literally make up an object - but they’re not what give it beauty. The amount of clay used for a pot or wood used for a bookcase are what make up the bill of materials, determine whether and how it will be produced again in large quantities. The space in the handle of the cup or way the books are framed, the way a room feels because of where the windows are placed - the Tao calls this usefulness, but it goes beyond that, to beauty. Or maybe it’s more in the sense of non-utilitarian usefulness, in that the object will encourage itself to be used, not necessarily because of some quantifiable utility, but because of the way it makes someone feel.
A cave appears in the middle of a storm to a cold, wet, traveler. How useful it is to him that there is no rock there!
The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.
In which Lao Tzu predicts the effects of overstimulation from screens and social media…
Why the praise for intuition? Your senses deceive you, the Tao seems to say, they are an illusion. What matters are your thoughts independent of the inputs from the world around you.
Or maybe “feels” is a misleading word here; maybe the intent here is to say that one should deliberately limit inputs, or not be influenced by every sensory stimulation or idea that comes across one’s brainwaves.
Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.
What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is call “accepting disgrace willingly.”
What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.
The thread jumping out to me in this chapter is egolessness. The Universalist minister Hosea Ballou was once asked what prevented people from sinning if not for the threat of eternal damnation; he replied that to a Universalist, the thought wouldn’t occur to him. “Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.”
Egolessness is necessarily a temporary state. Living and being in the world pragmatically requires having an ego, not to mention a social security number. But by regularly reminding yourself of this state and visiting the sensation, we can inform our behavior and decisions after returning to “reality”.
Look, it cannot be see – it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard – it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held – it is intangible.
These three are indefinable; Therefore they are joined in one.
From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.
Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.
Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.
It cannot be named (Chapter 1), seen, heard, held, or described. The lesson is driven home by this point, but what to do about it? Stop striving for it. Allow yourself to be okay with this great mystery, to lack even the words for talking about it precisely. Let go of the desire to chase it down, “for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.”
“Stay with the ancient Tao, / Move with the present”. Be present in the world, but not of it. Don’t get caught up in matters of fashion or taste, but don’t make them the hill you choose to defend either. How much do you let this sort of thing slide? Especially if, say, you thing the world is presently sick and its condition is getting worse?
The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.
Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.
…but I do desire change.
How can you not?
There are days when the Tao seems designed to be fed to a populace to keep them docile and content. Things are fine, don’t strive, wait quietly while the world churns and/or burns around you.
Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.
Like a farmer, watching as the ten thousand things cycle from the ground and back into it. Daily, yearly, over decades. Then we hear about our bodies doing the same, on a time scale that we can grasp but that we cannot avoid. The Tao is eternal though - is this another promise of a way to live on, to have a part of us last longer than our bodies? But again, there’s no implication of worthiness being necessary when the Tao Te Ching talks about living on in some form. It’s merely a statement about the world, lacking judgment or prescription. The first step, though, is having an open mind, by knowing this constancy.
The old farmer knows the law of everything returning to its source, and practices it. Nature bats last.
The very highest is barely known by men.
Then comes that which they know and love,
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.
He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.
When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, “We did it!”
This translation leaves out something that a lot of other translations include. The context in the first verses is given to be rulers; i.e., the best rulers govern such that they are barely known, the worst such that they are feared and despised.
This has become a common thread, of ruling or governing with a very light hand and not being noticed or thanked. We see here the people even thinking that they are the ones who have accomplished something, when in fact it was the ruler behind the scenes.
More personally, the middle stanza rings true, about trusting others being necessary to gain their trust in return. Any sort of dependence works in a similar way. You must open yourself up in order to have the favor returned.
When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.
When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.
It’s as if each line could be interpreted positively or negatively. Surely the great Tao being forgotten would be a bad thing - but then why does kindness and morality result? No peace in the family? Why would a good thing like filial piety come of that?
One theory, one that’s been on my mind lately, is that whenever the societal pendulum swings dramatically in one direction, that’s when the counter culture is the strongest. It’s only when issues are brought to the forefront that the organic resistance organizes. We needed the shock therapy to realize the true state of the world.
Another interpretation is that in each line pair, the second line is only superficially good. They are temporary salves, treating the symptoms of the underlying problem.
I like the first interpretation.
Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.
Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.
Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.
These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one’s true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.
Renounce wisdom - this is a hard one to swallow. Wisdom is what’s allowing me to type this, to manipulate transistors in a data center somewhere very far from where I’m writing these words, with mind-boggling precision. Accumulated human wisdom is what’s giving me the free time to sit down and write these words in the first place. It’s because thousands of people throughout history specifically did not temper their desire to know more that I can do all of these things today. It feels entitled and ungrateful to renounce these efforts and their results.
But then where do we stop? What was the purpose of accumulating all these bits of wisdom? So that humans can thrive as a species? Why is more (human) life better? Are we any closer to being enlightened as a species, have we become any more at peace with ourselves, because we can instantly send information anywhere in the world, because we can feed ourselves using less than an hour each day instead of most of our waking hours?