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.