Why “I don’t know” Will Have To Suffice

The Tao is like a well;
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void;
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In chapter one, Lao Tzu introduced the Tao, which has two aspects. There is the mystery, which is untellable, unnameable, and eternal. And, there are the manifestations, which we can see, and we can name. The Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are in our Universe.

Then, in chapters two and three, Lao Tzu talked more about how the Tao is manifest in our universe. It is manifest through the complementary and dynamic relationship of yin and yang, always working together to bring about balance. In those last two chapters, he also introduced the Master, someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Being in perfect harmony with the Tao means going with the flow of yin and yang, instead of against that flow.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu uses metaphors to point at the mystery of the Tao; and, once again, yin and yang are very much apparent to us. The Tao is like a well. We are all familiar with wells. The purpose of wells is to be used. Just like the Tao. But the Tao has an extra-added bonus for us. While all the wells, with which we are familiar, are limited and finite, the Tao, Lao Tzu promises, can never be used up. It has no limits. It is infinite.

To make his point even stronger, he compares the Tao to the eternal void. When we think of a void, we think of a vast emptiness, like space. But, in the case of the Tao, this vast emptiness is filled; filled with infinite possibilities.

Used, but never used up. Empty, yet filled with infinite possibilities. That has yin and yang all over it. And, here is another one; it is hidden, but always present. Empty and full, hidden and present, never used up and always available to be used.

Yes, once again, we are heavy on the mystery with today’s chapter. What does it mean? Well, I hope you read the chapters before, since I think they help a lot with answering that question. Still, today, isn’t about answering those kinds of questions. Lao Tzu is more interested in pointing out the mystery, and leaving it at that. Who gave birth to it? What are its origins? I don’t know.

Those three words, the most honest words ever spoken. Why, you would have to go back to before God to have any understanding of that.

And, that won’t be satisfactory for a whole lot of people. We want the abstract to be more concrete. Here, I will make it more concrete for you. Don’t worry so much about the hows and the wheres and the whys. Just observe how it acts in our universe, in our world, and go with that flow. Why does the Tao operate the way it does? I don’t know. It just does. What is the Tao? I don’t know. It just is.

What Happens When We Over Do Things?

If you over-esteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion in those
who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 3, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We are only on day three of our journey through the Tao Te Ching; yet, I feel like we have already learned so much. Considering how slow and halting chapter one was, that says a lot about what we learned in chapter two. I hope you all read my commentary from yesterday on chapter two; it really was the best introduction to the Tao Te Ching.

So, what have we learned so far?

In chapter one, Lao Tzu spoke of the Tao in vague and mysterious terms, calling it the eternally real; and saying, its mystery is something we can’t realize as long as we are caught in desire. Our desire is something we must be free from. That is for certain. But Lao Tzu has help for us. While the eternal Tao is shrouded in mystery and darkness, its manifestations are not. We are going to trace those manifestations back to the source, the gateway to all understanding.

Something else that Lao Tzu said in chapter one pertained to naming, as the origin of all particular things. I wanted to go back to that, because I got a question about it from a reader, after I posted the chapter one commentary. Naming is familiar to us, as part of origin stories. It is in our mythology. You may be familiar with the naming ceremony found early in the book of Genesis in the Bible, where Adam (the first man) named all the animals. Naming has always been significant to us. Throughout history, naming ceremonies have been used to impart characteristics (like the meaning of a name) to those given that name. And, of course, we name our children. I know I was very specific in naming my own two children; and feel like they both have lived up to their names. My daughter was named Abigail, which means, a joy to her parents, especially her father. And my son was named Nathaniel. Nathaniel means gift from God. My daughter has been a joy to me. And my son, has been a gift from God. When Lao Tzu talks about the eternal Tao being unnameable, he is talking about its mystery. But then, he goes on to talking about its nameable manifestations, all particular things. The question asked pertained to whether the things being named didn’t actually precede their being named. That, I think, is missing the point. We aren’t talking about something following along a time line. We are talking about eternity. All particular things find their origin in being connected with the source, by being named. Understand, the source is the eternal Tao. Naming isn’t some casual thing. It transcends the finite and temporal, and takes on the infinite and eternal. As I said earlier, it is significant.

Just how significant, is something Lao Tzu began exploring in chapter two. There he talked about how we see things, and then “name” them. Some things are beautiful. Therefore, some things are ugly. Some things are good. Therefore, some things are bad. 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. Yes, this is all about yin and yang. But, it is also about naming the manifestations of the Tao, as well. We need to name these manifestations in order to be able to trace them back to the source. Then, we will understand.

And, Lao Tzu goes even further with this naming, in chapter three. Where chapter two was all about balance, chapter three is our introduction to things being out of balance; and what the Master does, when things are out of balance.

Things will become out of balance if you over-esteem great men. It isn’t that great men and women shouldn’t be esteemed. The problem comes, if you over-esteem them. Where there is excess, there will be deficiency. If you over-esteem the great, people become powerless. Another way for things to get out of balance is if you overvalue possessions. We already know, from chapter two, the Master has without possessing. That is a state of balance. But what happens if you overvalue possessions? Then, people begin to steal. This is not excusing stealing, by the way. But it is a good idea to understand origins. Why would people begin to steal? Because possessions are overvalued. If possessions aren’t being overvalued, all people would have without possessing.

That is a lot, right there, to chew on. But Lao Tzu has just the prescription for how to resolve the imbalance. And, of course, that means bringing in the Master as our example. How does the Master lead? First off, we have named the manifestations of the Tao, yin and yang. Where there is excess, deficiency will result. Balance must occur. That means excess must be diminished for deficiency to be diminished. The problem, all along, has been our desire. That is something we have been talking about since chapter one. Why do we over-esteem and over-value? Because of our desire. Why do people become powerless and begin to steal? Because of our desire. Desire is the culprit. And desire must be dealt with.

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening people’s ambition and toughening their resolve. This involves a combination of yin and yang. Our minds know what we want. And what we want is our ambition; it is everything we desire. Emptying our minds and weakening our ambition is helping us lose everything we know, everything we desire. And this emptying and weakening is yin. But yin isn’t sufficient. Yang is needed, as well. And the yang is the filling of the people’s cores and the toughening of their resolve.

Yin and yang speak to, what is perhaps, our dual nature. Our minds need emptying; but our cores need filling. Our ambition needs weakening; but our resolve needs toughening. I think of our dual nature in this way: we have an outer nature and an inner nature. Our outer nature is our body and our mind. Some people think of the mind as being an inner thing, but I don’t think of it that way. I think of our inner nature as being the core of our being. What we are in the core of our being is our true self. Our outer nature is influenced by our inner nature; but it is also very much influenced by what is going on outside of us.

Today’s chapter is an introduction to our true selves, the core of our being. But we will be returning to this many times in the days and weeks ahead; so I will keep this as brief as I can. The core of our being is where the Tao resides. It is from the core of our being that spontaneity and intuitiveness arises.

I understand if this has created confusion. While that is not my intention, it certainly is the intention of the Master to create confusion in those who think that they know. How else can things be returned to balance, without a little chaos? But, I promise, the things we are talking about today are things we will be returning to again, and covering in more depth. I don’t want you to remain confused.

But, it is time to conclude. Are you confused? Practice doing without doing. Then, everything will fall into place. Now, that wasn’t nice at all, was it? Especially for those who are getting their first introduction to the practice of doing without doing. But, Lao Tzu will have plenty more to say about this practice, as well. Don’t give up, just yet. It will all begin to make sense. I promise.

Let’s Start That Introduction Over Again

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

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.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 2, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we began another cycle through the Tao Te Ching with what I would describe as a slow and halting introduction to the Tao. It wasn’t the best of beginnings for me; and, I could certainly understand if those of my readers, who are being exposed to philosophical Taoism for the first time, were left scratching their heads. That was certainly my own reaction to it the very first time I read it. But, I kept reading; and, little by little, it began making sense.

Now, the problem I face, probably the same one Lao Tzu faced, is how do I convey all that needs to be said, when I am talking about something which is shrouded in mystery. Especially because I know how much our desire hinders us from being able to realize the mystery. Of course, Lao Tzu had no intention that his words would be cut off at the end of the chapter. Those chapter divisions were an addition by editors, who came along later.

So, today, we will really do a much better job of introducing the Tao Te Ching. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu will introduce everything he is going to cover in his work. But, before we get into today’s chapter, it would be a good idea to remind us exactly what we learned about the Tao in chapter one.

One thing we learned about the Tao is that it is the eternal reality, what Lao Tzu called the eternally real. But, what exactly does that mean? I think Lao Tzu means that the Tao is the nature of our Universe; or, the way things are. Lao Tzu lived in a pre-scientific age; so, he isn’t using physics to explain the nature of the Universe, he is using philosophy. But, I don’t think anything Lao Tzu has to say about the nature of the Universe is at odds with physics. For someone like myself, who is disenchanted with religion’s answers, but also aware enough, that there is something more to the way things are than science can strictly account for, that is very appealing.

Another thing we learned is while the eternal reality is a mystery to us, and certainly one we can’t expect to realize, caught, as we are, in desire, all particular things are manifestations of the Tao, and we can trace these manifestations back to the Source.

One further thing, which I really should have noted in yesterday’s commentary, is what does “Tao Te Ching” mean, anyway? Tao could be translated “Way” as in the way things are. Te means virtue. Virtue, here, means “following the Way”. And Ching could be translated “book”. So, Tao Te Ching is “Way Virtue Book”.

Okay, with that settled, let’s delve into chapter two. I had a friend who messaged me about yesterday’s chapter, “The only ‘problem’ with the Tao … people.” I thought that was a great way to introduce chapter two. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” Remember, the Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are. And, how we relate to the way things are will, most definitely, make all the difference in our lives. My friend says people are the problem. And, with these first two sentences in chapter two, it is hard to disagree with her. But let’s be clear about what the problem with people is. In chapter one, Lao Tzu identified the problem as our desire.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu explains what he means by desire. It is how people see things. This is often referred to as the problem of duality. How we see things, some things are beautiful, some things are good… comes up against the nature of our Universe, the way things are. Our desire for the beautiful and the good fails to take into account the eternal reality; being and non-being create each other. If one thing is beautiful, another thing must then be ugly. If one thing is good, another thing must then be bad.

This is our introduction to yin and yang. The Tao, the way things are in our Universe, always brings about a state of balance. Where there is yin, there must be yang, and vice versa. This is something we simply must understand. Our desire is a real problem. But we tend to want to blame the nature of our Universe, and try to somehow circumvent it. Realize the Tao, which is the Source of all particular things, doesn’t differentiate between things in this way. It is an impersonal force operating in our Universe to bring about balance. This is the way things are. All our efforts to get around that reality will only make things that much worse for us.

To further explain the operation of yin and yang in our Universe, let’s talk about the familiar Tai Chi symbol. It is a circle representing the Universe, everything that is. Within it, you find the black yin and the white yang swirling around in constant motion. The relationship between yin and yang is not static, it is dynamic. As you picture it in your mind, or look at my icon, you will see both yin and yang contain a little bit of the other within themselves. In the black yin there is a white dot. And, in the white yang there is a black dot. Because they are in perpetual motion I like to think of them as what is now, and what is yet to be. This symbol represents the dynamic and complementary relationship between yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other. They complete each other.

This is what Lao Tzu means when he says 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. You can’t have beautiful without ugly. And you can’t have good without bad.

Yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, back and front. Please don’t think of these as opposites. That is a common misunderstanding about yin and yang. They aren’t opposites; they are complements of each other. And they work together to bring about balance. Also, don’t fall into the trap of treating one of them as being good, while the other is bad. Good and bad, like beautiful and good, are our own human constructs. Constructed because of our desire. This is simply the nature of our Universe, the way things are. And, if we want to be virtuous, not good, but virtuous, we will learn to follow the way things are in our Universe; and not seek to go against the current of the Tao.

Okay, enough about yin and yang for today. Now, Lao Tzu introduces the Master, and everything else he will have to teach in the Tao Te Ching. I am going to cover these all, quite briefly; being as we are going to have the opportunity in the next several days to cover them all in much greater detail.

Who is this Master? First off, when Lao Tzu refers to a master, he is contrasting it with an apprentice, not with a slave. The Master with a capital M refers to someone who is living in perfect harmony with the way things are in our Universe. Lao Tzu will refer to the Master, quite often, any time he wants to point to someone for us to follow as an example.

I have decided to do something different with this cycle through the Tao Te Ching. In the past, I have followed Stephen Mitchell’s method for being gender neutral when referring to the Master. To do that he alternates between using female pronouns and male pronouns to refer to the Master. I have decided I am going to try to go one step further. Instead of using gender specific pronouns I am going to use “they”, “them” and “their”, and treat those as singular pronouns. I welcome any questions or concerns you have with this treatment.

So, what is the Master’s example for us today? Remember, we have been talking about how we as humans relate to the nature of our Universe, given the problem of our desire. This is where Lao Tzu introduces everything he is going to be discussing at great length in the days and weeks ahead. We have to overcome, or be free of, our desire. I have already made this post way too long, and really need to save discussing these “solutions” until later. Suffice it to say that the Master’s approach is a radical one compared to the way we normally see things being done. Acting without doing anything, teaching without saying anything. Letting things come and go, without intervening or interfering with them. Having without possessing. Acting without expectations. Doing their work, and forgetting about it. Yet, that is why it lasts forever.

This chapter was packed full, and I only scratched the surface of what we are going to get into, in the days and weeks ahead. The Master has lots to show us. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

 

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire,
you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire,
you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 1, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, we start from the very beginning; a very good place to start. Because this is an introduction of sorts to my blog, as well, it is good to get a few things out of the way, up front.

I named my blog libertariantaoist way back in the beginning of it, that would be July of 2012. Back then, I identified as a libertarian, politically. The 2012 U.S. Presidential election season was in full swing, and I would go on to vote for Gary Johnson (the Libertarian party candidate) in the November election. However, over the course of the first few months of being on Tumblr, I became quite disillusioned with the whole political process; by the day after the November election, I now identified as an anarchist, with no intention of ever taking part in any future presidential elections. To this day, I still view the whole political process as a giant farce. And the 2016 presidential election season has certainly done nothing, but confirm that conclusion for me. You may wonder what kind of anarchist I believe I am, and that leads me to point out my blog’s icon (crafted by Anarchei, kudos to him). You will notice that A for anarchism in the center, and the surrounding circle, of the Tai Chi symbol, is multi-colored. That, for me, represents my anarchism. I follow blogs representing every color of the spectrum of anarchism. I have something in common with them all; and, I learn something from them all.

Then, there is the taoist part. Which, of course, is why I blog a chapter from the Tao Te Ching each day, adding my own commentary to it. I have identified as a philosophical Taoist for a number of years now, since becoming disenchanted with Christianity, and religion. Lao Tzu helped me to come to this conclusion. In his philosophy, I found all the answers I needed, without needing to be bogged down with rituals and rules. The strongest factor in drawing me to philosophical Taoism wasn’t my disenchantment with religion, however. It was how very libertarian Lao Tzu’s teachings were. Murray Rothbard, among others, consider Lao Tzu to be the very first libertarian. You will notice I always tag each chapter’s post as both philosophical Taoism and libertarian, to highlight that connection. I use Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation each day. It is more of an interpretation than a translation; but that is okay with me, his interpretation is one with which I intuitively agree. I will have more to say in future chapters about Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation; so, I won’t say anything more about it today.

But enough with introductions to my blog. I really want to get on with today’s chapter. Today’s commentary is also an introduction to philosophical Taoism. I don’t claim to be a master, just a fellow apprentice; but, I believe I am learning and unlearning a lot from the Master, Lao Tzu. I welcome any questions and observations you have related to philosophical Taoism. I love dialogue. Let’s see what we can learn, or unlearn, together; so message me.

Where to begin, where to begin? I imagine Lao Tzu thought very much the same thing, when he sat down to write these teachings. What can be said about the Tao? Anything I can say about it, isn’t really the Tao. The Tao is eternal, but we are temporal. How can I express eternity? It is infinite, but we are finite. How can I express infinity? Just naming it presents its own problems. All particular things have their origin in being named. But the Tao isn’t a particular thing. It is the eternally real, and thus is unnameable.

This is all a great mystery. But how can anyone realize the mystery as long as they are caught in desire? If they are free from desire, then they can realize the mystery. But desire is not something which can easily be overcome. You must be free; but, you are caught. How to be free? Maybe it would be best to begin, by simply acknowledging we are caught.

But where does that leave us? What can be done? Though we are caught in desire, we still can see the manifestations of the Tao. Ah, the manifestations of the Tao. What are they? They, are all particular things. Everything which we can name. And, both the mystery, and the manifestations, arise from the same source.

Just when I think I am beginning to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel, I see the source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. Yet, this is the gateway to all understanding.

We will be spending the next several days, tracing the manifestations back to the source.

Yes, as far as introductions are concerned, chapter one is full of the mystery. But, I promise, hang in there with me, and the manifestations will become plain to see.

It Looks Like This Is The End

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 81, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, we come to the end of another cycle through Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. I have enjoyed having you along on my journey, once again; but, I will admit, I am already looking forward to beginning the journey anew tomorrow, with chapter one. Each time through, I feel, I learn (or unlearn) so very much along the way. Those of you who have only recently begun to follow me, I think, will appreciate seeing how the journey begins and continues; I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your messages, asking questions and encouraging me. Keep it coming, and I will keep on keeping on.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We still have this final chapter to talk about. Here Lao Tzu talks, once again, about true words. You will remember, a few chapters back, Lao Tzu said, “True words seem paradoxical.” They don’t seem true. Today, he tells us they aren’t eloquent, either. And, what’s more, eloquent words aren’t true. This is something good for us to understand. I know, I always need reminding of this; since, I am always finding myself wishing I was more eloquent. The idea that truth and eloquence often have an inverse relationship, is lost on a lot of us, a great deal of the time. Eloquence seems to bequeath a certain importance to things. But, as we have noted, time and time again, things are often not what they seem to be. Snake oil salesmen were quite eloquent in their day. And the snake oil salesmen of our day can be quite eloquent, too. It is time to look beyond the eloquence, to the truth or falseness of what they claim to be. We see it all around us. People who need to prove their point. Lao Tzu puts it all out there for us. If you are wise, you won’t need to prove your point. And, if you need to prove your point, you aren’t wise. I was thinking of this, all this past week, while I have watched social media erupting with the talking points of “flat earthers”. To those of you who have tried to go toe to toe with these people, I offer these words of advice from Mark Twain, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

Now. Lao Tzu has a few final parting words about the Master and the Tao. It was only a few chapters back that Lao Tzu said of the Master, “She can keep on giving, because there is no end to her wealth.” We have such a different way of understanding wealth that Lao Tzu knows he must qualify what he was saying, with his words today. “The Master has no possessions.” See, wealth, for Lao Tzu has nothing to do with possessions. But how can the Master keep on giving if he has no possessions? Good question! But Lao Tzu is ready with the answer. “The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is.” Wealth isn’t about how much you have, it is about how much you give. And, happiness, or contentment, isn’t about what you have, or don’t have, it is about what you do for others. If this seems like some self-sacrificing altruism to you, I don’t mean to scare off the Objectivists, things aren’t what they seem to be. All Lao Tzu is pointing out is, it is in our very nature to give. Not to give until we have nothing left to give, but to give and give and give and give, only to find, there is no end to your abundance. Because that, is the nature of our Universe. The more you give, the more you have to give. The more you hold back from giving, the less you will have.

But, even after my commentary on yesterday’s chapter, it is still important to understand, this giving, isn’t something to be forced. It has to be a voluntary thing. The Tao nourishes us all, by not forcing. The Master leads us, by not dominating.

There still seem to be so many lessons for us to learn, or unlearn; but it looks like this is the end. Today, we conclude. Tomorrow, we will start all over again.

A Socialist’s Dream Come True?

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
labor-saving machines.
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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I am dedicating my commentary on today’s chapter to the many friends of mine on Facebook, who are “feeling the Bern” and posting memes of snowplows clearing the snow, while praising Socialism.

I want to say, first of all, I love you all. So, please, when I challenge your lack of imagination and critical thinking skills, I don’t mean to “offend” you; I mean to challenge you to stretch the limits of your imagination and learn some critical thinking skills.

Well, that wasn’t very nice of me, now was it? What a way for me to start my blog post today! But, please, hear me out! Your well-being and mine depend on it!

How does posting memes of snowplows show a lack of imagination and critical thinking skills?

It does, because those of you that “think” essential services currently being provided (rather poorly and inefficiently, I might add) by the government, can, and would, only be provided by a government. You put your trash out by the curb, and thank God for Socialism, the trash man comes and picks it up. It snows, and thank God for Socialism, snowplows eventually get to your street, and clear your road. I could go on and on, and maybe I should, because you probably lack the imagination to come up with many other examples that you honestly believe can, and would, only be provided by the government. Thank God for Socialism!

You honestly believe those essential services wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be provided if not for a government? Apparently so, but thank God for Socialism! Use your imagination! If the government didn’t have a monopoly on garbage disposal, no one else would step up to do it? If the government didn’t have a monopoly on snow removal, no one else would step up to do it?

I just read an article about a couple of teenagers in a town in New Jersey who printed out flyers, and then went door to door drumming up business, to shovel snow for people. Because, after all, we don’t really expect the government to clear away the snow on our driveways until and unless, “Thank God for Socialism”, Bernie Sanders gets elected President. But, no good deed is left unchallenged by the powers that be. Someone didn’t like the fact that these teenagers were going door to door selling their services; so they called the police, another “essential” service that only the government could, and would, supply. And, the police informed the young entrepreneurs they couldn’t earn a few bucks without first getting permission from the local government. Permission, by the way, means paying $450 for 180 days of permission to sell your services door to door. The only really good news in the story is that the police didn’t shoot the kids. I guess they weren’t sufficiently threatened by their snow shovels. Or, maybe it was because the kids were white? These days, it is hard to say what might provoke an altercation with the police. But, hey, no, there is no way essential services could or would be provided without the government. So, thank God for Socialism!

Am I being too harsh? I probably need to go back and edit out the racial insinuation. Wouldn’t want anyone to be offended. Some of you are, no doubt, wondering, what exactly this has to do with today’s chapter?

Thank you so much for asking. Today’s chapter begins with Lao Tzu inviting us to employ our imaginations with an “if”. If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. Well that sounds benign enough. Nothing very anti-government, there. If your country is governed wisely, you will be content. Your trash will be collected in a timely manner. Your roads will get cleared of snow. Your police will make sure the city gets its much needed revenue. Why wouldn’t you be content? It’s a Socialist’s dream come true!

Except, that isn’t the way Lao Tzu describes being content. And, as we read through Lao Tzu’s description we find out just how discontent we really are. For those of you who have been reading along with me through the Tao Te Ching, you all know what Lao Tzu means by a country being governed wisely. He has been pretty consistent throughout. He wants leaders who will trust the people; and leave them alone. That applies to a whole lot of situations, least of which might include a few teenagers trying to earn a few bucks. Don’t try to control! Don’t interfere! Don’t use force to achieve your goals! And there isn’t one of the Presidential candidates, running in this year’s election, who are going to give up their will to power. Including Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t take a whole lot of critical thinking skills to acknowledge this is true.

But, let’s just look at how discontent we really are. And, if you can, imagine what it would be like to truly be content.

If your country was governed wisely, its inhabitants would enjoy the labor of their hands, and wouldn’t waste time on labor-saving machines. I can already hear the discontent rising up within you. What is wrong with labor-saving machines?

Who said anything about there being anything wrong with labor-saving machines? Lao Tzu didn’t. He said, if we were content, we would enjoy the labor of our hands. Do you enjoy the labor of your hands? I guess not, since you are so quick to defend labor-saving machines. Hey, I am not knocking labor-saving machines. I am quite thankful for them. I use them every chance I get. Why? Because, I don’t enjoy the labor of my hands. So, then, I ask myself, because I like to employ what few critical thinking skills I have, why is that? Why am I not content? Could it be, my country isn’t being governed wisely?

Here is another one. If our country was governed wisely, we would all dearly love our homes, and wouldn’t be interested in travel. There might be a few wagons and boats, but these wouldn’t go anywhere. Okay, now, stop! What is wrong with being interested in traveling?

Once again, you are asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is why am I not content? Why don’t people dearly love their homes?

Here is another one. If our country was governed wisely, there might be an arsenal of weapons, but nobody would ever use them. That is bound to get your blood pumping! With all the talk about guns, and the question of why they are so prevalent in our culture, and, of course, there are plenty who would like to see those guns never be used again. I am all for that! Let’s all have an arsenal of weapons that nobody ever uses. And, all it is going to take is being governed wisely. Being governed wisely, notice, doesn’t involve confiscation of those weapons. Those weapons still abound. But when people are content, they aren’t necessary to use. We never seem to ask the right questions. Instead of asking, why do we need guns? Try asking yourself, why aren’t you content?

What does true contentment look like? People enjoy their food. They take pleasure in being with their families. They spend weekends working in their gardens. They delight in the doings of the neighborhood. And, even though the next country is so close people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, people are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it, or demanding a wall be built, so none can enter or exit without the government permitting it.

True contentment isn’t so hard to imagine, now is it? What’s it going to take for you to truly enjoy food, take pleasure in being with your family, delight in the doings of your neighborhood?

Stretch your imaginations. Employ what critical thinking skills you have. And, understand that the way for a country to be governed wisely, is for said government to not tax its people too much, nor be too intrusive. That isn’t something a Socialist dreams of, I know. But if you use your imagination and critical thinking skills, I just know you can learn how to be content.

True Words Seem Paradoxical, Part Two

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 79, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

This would be a good time for me to remind my readers that these daily chapters of the Tao Te Ching is not the way Lao Tzu originally intended his “Book of the Way and Virtue” to be read. Dividing his work up into 81 chapters was something which editors, coming along later, did. I am not knocking them for doing this. It certainly is helpful for me to have some way of breaking it down into bite-size morsels for us to think on. But, because Lao Tzu wrote it as one continuous flowing stream of words, some of the time, just a few times, really, I find the chapter divisions a bit random; and, I wonder if they shouldn’t have divided it a little bit differently.

The division between yesterday’s chapter and today’s is like that for me. You will remember yesterday’s chapter ended with Lao Tzu saying “True words seem paradoxical.” Because of the chapter division, it was easy to take those words to apply to what Lao Tzu wrote in yesterday’s chapter. And, I do think they applied to what he said about the Master being the people’s greatest help, because he has given up helping.

However, those chapter divisions play tricks on my thinking. If today’s chapter had begun with “True words seem paradoxical” I would gladly agree they fit just as well, here, too. So, just because I like being ornery some of the time, most of the time, actually, I am going to ask you to consider this “True Words Seem Paradoxical, Part Two.”

True words seem paradoxical. Failure is an opportunity. The paradox is in how we perceive things. It always is. Just like, in yesterday’s chapter, where we perceived the Master to be cold and indifferent, disinterested in the suffering and sorrow he found himself in the midst of. How can someone really be of any help, if they have given up helping? Lao Tzu would, of course, reply, it is only because he has given up helping, he can be the people’s greatest help.

But, that is just rehashing yesterday’s chapter; and, today’s chapter presents its own paradox. We don’t perceive failure as an opportunity. We perceive it as, well, failure; and that isn’t an option. At least, it isn’t an option we want to have to consider.

But we better consider it, because we do fail. And, more often than any of us would care to have to admit. So, the key to finding the truth in the paradox is to see things differently. To see any failure, as an opportunity.

Failure is an opportunity in two different ways. But, before we get into those two ways, failure is an opportunity, it would be best to clear out of the way one way it is not an opportunity.

We must not see failure as an opportunity to blame someone else. Darn it! But isn’t that the easiest way to treat failure as an opportunity? It would seem to be so. There is that word “seem” again. But, how we perceive things has got to change. For, if you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. It is still January; perhaps it isn’t too late for New Year’s Resolutions. Resolved: I will not blame someone else for my own failures. Okay, that is settled. But, how then shall we find our opportunity in failure?

I said it is an opportunity in two different ways. The first one is for when you fail. Lao Tzu tells us the Master fulfills her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes. She does what she needs to do. Did you see the opportunity, here? You have failed. And, you aren’t going to blame someone else. Instead, you take this failure as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, if need be. You still have obligations to fulfill. You have made mistakes, sure. But they are recent ones, and can be easily corrected, right? You weren’t slow to acknowledge your mistakes, were you? You do whatever you need to do. There is the opportunity. Don’t miss it. Take advantage of it. Prove yourself to be trustworthy, to yourself, and to all those around you.

The second way failure is an opportunity is when someone other than yourself fails. Perhaps it is someone who had obligated themselves to you. And they failed. Their mistakes loom large. Now, this is where it gets quite interesting. Because, if I was talking to them about their own obligations, I would direct them to my previous paragraph; and, tell them about the opportunity they had to correct their own mistakes, and fulfill their own obligations. But, this isn’t about them. It is about you. The kind of opportunity some other person’s failure is to you. What does the Master do when faced with this opportunity? She demands nothing of others. Wow!

Lao Tzu certainly knows how to set the bar high, doesn’t he? But, I guess that is what makes the Master the Master. When you fail, do whatever it takes to correct your own mistakes and fulfill your own obligations. When others fail you, demand nothing of them. Failure as an opportunity, true words seem paradoxical.

True Words Seem Paradoxical, Part One

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Two days ago, Lao Tzu contrasted the hard and inflexible with the soft and yielding, by talking about the difference between the dead and the living. If we are to prevail in life, we must be soft and supple. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu talked about how excess and deficiency are adjusted, so there is perfect balance. It is how the Tao acts in our world. And, those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. Today, Lao Tzu returns to his favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao, water.

The reason Lao Tzu returns to talking about water, again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching, is because the attributes of water perfectly illustrate how to be in harmony with the Tao. Being in harmony with the Tao is the opposite of going against the direction of the Tao; no wonder water is so abundant on our planet. We know, for instance, that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. It is also good to understand, the adult human body is comprised of anywhere from 50 to 65 percent. And, infants, another of Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphors are a whopping 75 to 80 percent water. Water truly is abundant, in us, and all around us. It can’t be any easier for us to be like water.

And that is exactly what Lao Tzu has enjoined us to do, time and time again. Be like water! To illustrate for us the practice of doing without doing, a central tenet of philosophical Taoism, he tells us water nourishes all things, without trying to. And, when he wants to express the importance of humility, he reminds us, water always seeks out the lowest places.

In today’s chapter, the fascinating attribute of water he wants to point out is how soft and yielding it is. Nothing in the world is quite like water. And, if you want to dissolve the hard and inflexible, nothing surpasses it.

Yes, yes, the soft overcomes the hard, and the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true. But, consider just how few can put this knowledge into practice.

Remember our chapter, yesterday? We were talking about how excess and deficiency result in a whole lot of sorrow and suffering. We, quite understandably, want to do something to ease that suffering. But, hold on there. Remember, we talked about those who pay lip service to what the Tao achieves in our Universe; but, because they try to control, and use force to protect their power, their good intentions have evil results. You don’t want evil to enter your own heart. This is exactly what we want to avoid.

This is why Lao Tzu, once again, invokes the Master to show us the way. The Master seems indifferent, and even disinterested, as he remains serene even in the midst of sorrow. But that is why evil cannot enter his heart. Instead of trying to help, he has given up helping. Thus, he is people’s greatest help. This is where Lao Tzu points out that true words seem paradoxical.

How many times has Lao Tzu told us this, before? People don’t understand the Master. We just don’t get him! The way he seems to be, and the way he actually is are worlds apart. Because he doesn’t try to help, he is the greatest help. Oh, how I wish I could get all the good-hearted people, with all their good intentions, to understand this one lesson. If you want to be the greatest help, then give up trying to help. Let the Tao adjust excess and deficiency. Don’t interfere. Don’t try to control. Trust the people; and leave them alone!

Top Down, Bottom Up

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 gives 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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The last two chapters couldn’t have seemed to be more dissimilar from each other. As you will remember, I said of the chapter two days ago, it is my all-time favorite, with its telling would-be leaders, if you want to act for the people’s benefit, trust them; and leave them alone. It is a message Lao Tzu has repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching; but, it seemed out of place, sandwiched between two chapters, the first of which talked about realizing all things change and stop trying to control the future, and yesterday’s chapter talking about the importance of being soft and supple, flexible, in order to prevail in life. But, never doubt Lao Tzu’s method. He always manages to tie it all together; and today’s chapter, one I will insist is arguably the single most important chapter in all the Tao Te Ching, is where he shows they all fit together.

Why do I think it is the most important? It is because, here, Lao Tzu, in no uncertain terms, makes clear how the Tao acts in our world, in our universe.

He begins with a metaphor, a bow. How does the Tao act in our world, it is like the bending of a bow. That flexibility, Lao Tzu was talking about yesterday, is a characteristic of the Tao. Everyone can picture it easily. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. You can’t have one without the other. The top bends down and the bottom bends up.

This is how Lao Tzu illustrates the way the Tao acts in our world, how it adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. Picture it, as you picture that bow. It takes from WHAT is too much and gives to WHAT isn’t enough.

I hope you noticed I highlighted the what’s in that sentence. It is so very important. It is impersonal. It isn’t about who, it is about what. Where there is excess, that is, too much, the Tao takes. And, then simultaneously gives that to what isn’t enough, where there is deficiency.

Yes, that is describing redistribution. And I already know there are going to be people who have a problem with redistribution; but, bear with me on this. Give Lao Tzu a chance. Keep in mind, this redistribution is not something which is forced. And don’t make this personal; it isn’t. The Tao is only doing what the Tao does. This is the way things are. We are talking natural laws at work. And, if I wanted to take the time, I could probably come up with many examples of this very balancing in nature. I recommend using your own imagination.

Just this first stanza of the chapter would have been awesome, even if Lao Tzu had chosen to stop right there. But, of course, he couldn’t. Because there are always going to be those who are stiff and inflexible, who won’t accept that all things change, who want to try to control the future. So, we have the second stanza.

Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. What is the direction of the Tao? Taking from what is too much and giving to what isn’t enough. But when the will to power is in charge, well, the direction of the Tao just won’t do.

This opposition to the way things are in our Universe, is manifest in two different ways; but, the results are the same. In both cases, they make it personal, where it was impersonal, the what’s become who’s. They take from those WHO don’t have enough and give to those WHO have far too much.

Remember, the Tao didn’t make it personal. The Tao isn’t the one deciding that anyone has far too much. As we have talked about in earlier chapters, the Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. It is the bad man’s refuge and the good man’s treasure. All the Tao does is adjust excess and deficiency to achieve balance. And it does this without making it personal.

But, when the will to power is in charge, it gets very personal. The Tao’s actions are seen as a threat to their power. I said the opposition to the Tao is manifest in two different ways, but, keep in mind, in both cases, the whole point is to protect their power. The first way would be from those who try to forcibly bend the bow in opposition to the Tao’s bending of the bow. They will try to bend the top of the bow upward and the bottom downward. We all know the word which is used to describe these people. They are evil. I won’t argue that point with you. Although, I think Lao Tzu might have a problem with that designation. Still, one thing is clear, their goal is to maintain the status quo, so there will always be excess and deficiency.

But that is only one way the powers-that-be go against the direction of the Tao. There is another one, and while we might not call it evil, it is just as insidious, because of all its subtlety. There will be those who will pay lip service to adjusting excess and deficiency. Their problem with the Tao is that it doesn’t work fast enough. They only want to help. Redistribution must be mandated. It must be forced. And, it will get personal. None dare call these “angels” evil, for they have only the best of intentions, just ask them and they will tell you. It should be unnecessary for me to say, but I am compelled to say it anyway, the Tao doesn’t need your help. Going with the flow is not trying to make it flow faster. The worst evil is perpetrated by those who do it for our benefit.

There are too many hands on that bow. And all of them pulling in opposite directions. But interestingly enough, in that first stanza, Lao Tzu never mentioned any hand pulling on that bow. If there is a hand, it is invisible. And don’t try to tell me you are only jumping in to thwart those who are going against the direction of the Tao. Stop it! It doesn’t need your help, no matter how good your intentions.

So, what can we do? How I wish you would be content with doing nothing. But, here, Lao Tzu does come to our aid, with the example of the Master. She just keeps on giving, because there is no end to her wealth. Keep on giving! That is one thing you can do. You want to help? Where you see someone in need, give out of your own abundance. Voluntarily! Don’t petition the government to take care of it. You be the good person. “But the need is too great for me to do it all by myself. That is why we need to force people to do the right thing.” Have you not been paying attention? There is no end to the wealth of the ones who give.

Be like the Master! Give and give and give and give. Act without expecting anything. Succeed without taking any credit. And, don’t think you are better than anyone else.

What’s it going to take for us to prevail?

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 76, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I don’t do this often enough; but, welcome to all my new followers. Yesterday’s chapter was certainly a boost; but, please stick around, there’s more to come. Just so you all know, I take a chapter from the Tao Te Ching, each and every day, and add my own commentary to it. I have been cycling through the eighty-one chapters since, I believe, 2012; and, somehow, each day I find something new to say about each chapter. With today’s chapter being chapter 76, we will soon be coming to the end of another cycle. I am already looking forward to the journey through again, with you all, from the beginning.

While yesterday’s chapter was overtly libertarian, today’s chapter is not. It is more a continuation of the chapter before yesterday’s, when Lao Tzu expressed the importance of realizing that all things change. That chapter confronted our fear of dying and attempts at trying to control things, like the future. Today’s chapter, provides the stark contrast between life and death, and enjoins us all to be disciples of life.

All things change! The cliché is that that is the only constant. Because all things change, we need to be disciples of life, who are soft and yielding, in order to go with the flow of life.

Lao Tzu gets the mental imagery going right off the bat, with talking about how soft and supple newborns are; and, then going on, to describe the onset of rigor mortis, once we have died. All living things represent this for us to observe. Even looking at plants, we see, when they first spring forth out of the soil, they are tender and pliant. But, once they are dead they become brittle and dry.

This is perfectly natural. It is natural for things to be soft and supple while alive, and stiff and hard once dead. But Lao Tzu isn’t telling us this, as part of some sort of science lesson. The point of these metaphors is to get us to recognize the importance of being a disciple of life while we are living, instead of being a disciple of death.

We were talking, a couple of chapters ago, about our fear of death. How ironic it is, then, that people who fear it so, most take on its attributes. Are you stiff and inflexible? Lao Tzu isn’t referring to physical attributes, here. Please understand the metaphor. He is talking about your ability to go with the flow, to be able to adapt to change. Because all things change, remember?

If you have become set in your ways, if things have to be just a certain way, you are setting yourself up for grave disappointment. And that word, grave, was not accidental. Businesses, institutions, governments, people. And, any examples I left out. All of these, on so many levels, must be able to adapt, or they will cease to be.

The hard and stiff will be broken. I said, today’s chapter is not overtly libertarian. But I would like to think the political class falls into this category. At the same time, the rest of us need to be even more inclined to be soft and supple, if we want to prevail.