The Problem With Fullness

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Before I begin my commentary for today, let’s compare Stephen Mitchell’s translation, above, to Robert Brookes’:

“A cup too full will soon be spilled,

a sword too sharp will soon be dulled,

too much of anything cannot be kept.

Wealth and power soon turn to arrogance,

and misfortune follows.

Instead, draw back when your work is done.

This is the Tao.”

We have been learning the value of emptiness. Today, Lao Tzu teaches the problem with fullness. It is telling that you have never heard someone say to you, “That is too empty.” It may not be full enough; but, too empty? No one talks like that. It just isn’t part of our lexicon. But, too full? Yes, we have experienced that over and over again in our lives. You can’t have excess emptiness. But, you most certainly can have excess fullness. This may change, forever, how you think of the whole “glass half empty or half full” debate. Remember what Lao Tzu has taught us before: Wherever there is excess, the result is always deficiency. Whether you are filling a bowl or a cup, overfill it, and that excess is going to spill over. What a waste! That knife, or sword, can be too sharp. It will lose its edge. Place too much value on money and security, wealth or power, and misfortune always follows. Why do you think heart disease is the number one killer? Too much of anything can’t be kept. Deficiency always follows excess.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu gave us a few aphorisms to show us the Way to practice true contentment. Today, he offers us a few more, to show us how we practice discontent. Yesterday, Lao Tzu said, Enjoy your work! Today, he shows us why it is that we might not. If you want the only path to serenity, avoid excess in everything you do. Do your work, yes. But, know when to stop. Do your work, then step back from it.

Tomorrow, we will return to talking about the supreme virtue. Being the supreme virtue, you might think, maybe this is something hard to do. But, the only reason it is hard to put into practice is because we make it hard to put it into practice. Lao Tzu will show us just how “easy” it is.

What Happens When You Don’t Compare Or Compete?

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I have been referring to “the Master” as a wise and virtuous person since my commentary on chapter one. To refresh your memory, in chapter two’s commentary I said, “Wisdom, for our purposes, doesn’t refer to an abundance of knowledge. And, virtuous doesn’t mean good, like we think of good. Wisdom means trusting your inner vision. And, virtue is being in harmony with the Tao.” I wanted to do this, today, because Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter opens with talking about what Stephen Mitchell calls “the supreme good”. This is the “Te” in Tao Te Ching. And, calling it the supreme good makes me want to go back and think about what Lao Tzu has said previously about good and bad. He certainly didn’t say there is no such thing as good and bad, though I did say the Tao doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions. The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. But a lot of what I have been saying about good and bad has been talking about a subjective thing, human constructs. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. It is a subjective thing, it is all in how you see things. Once again, the Tao doesn’t take sides, and wise and virtuous persons don’t, either.

However, now that I am faced with talking about the supreme good, I find myself needing to differentiate between the subjective good and bad, we have talked about before, and the objective good and bad, which Lao Tzu addresses today. What was it, again, we have said about virtue? Virtue, the supreme good, is being in harmony with the Tao. Te and Tao go hand in hand, together. The supreme good is being in harmony with the Way things are. If you want to be in harmony with the way things are, that is, be virtuous, you will need to practice wisdom, that is, trust your inner vision. Which, of course, is why I refer to “the Master” as a wise and virtuous person.

The supreme good, virtue, is like water. This is the first time Lao Tzu will use the metaphor of water, though it won’t be his last, not by a long shot. How is being in harmony with the Way things are like water? First, because, just like water, it nourishes all things without trying to. Without any effort water nourishes all things. And, being in harmony with the Way things are, also, requires no effort. All those who practice this, are nourished by it. A second way in which being in harmony with the Way things are is like water is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. One of the attributes of water is that it seeks out the lowest places. Lao Tzu would say, “It is content there.” And, being in harmony with the Way things are is being content to be beneath, below, rather than being above. In other words, just like water, it is like the Tao.

I am going to go out on a limb, here, and believe that all my readers are just like me; you want to be wise and virtuous persons. And, good news, Lao Tzu gives us a list of aphorisms to help us along the Way. These cover every aspect of the art of living. Do you want to be like water, too? Here are some ways to accomplish this.

In dwelling, live close to the ground. Robert Brookes’ translation says, “choose modest quarters”. The idea is very much the same. Be humble in your dwelling.

In thinking, keep to the simple. Robert Brookes’ translation says, “value stillness”. If you have storms raging in your life, you can be sure, they started with the way you think.

In conflict, be fair and generous. In Robert Brookes’ translation he says, “In dealing with others”, I like that. Dealing with others doesn’t always have to involve conflict. He goes on to say, “be kind.” Being fair and generous is being kind. But Robert Brookes continues by saying, “in choosing words, be sincere.” I am really enjoying comparing these two interpretations because they go so well together. Be fair and generous, be kind and sincere. Now, think of how easy it is for conflicts to be resolved, if even just one of the parties to the conflict were to practice these.

In governing, don’t try to control. Robert Brookes says, “In leading, be just.”

In work, do what you enjoy. How many times have we heard that one before? But Robert Brookes gives it an interesting twist, “Be competent.” How true this is! You can’t just do what you enjoy, if you aren’t any good at it. I enjoy singing; but, I don’t expect to earn a living at it. I am not competent enough!

In family life, be completely present. This, right here, is something I want every one of my followers to take to heart. We all have multiple roles we act out in family life. We are children, siblings, parents, and if we live long enough, grandparents, too. Everyone moans about the condition of family life, today. Much like they have been moaning since the very first families walked upright on the Earth. But, if you want to do something besides just moan, be completely present, in whatever role you have. Whether you wish to believe it, or not, it takes no effort to actually do this.

Okay, we took them all, one by one. I even consulted a second translation just to make sure we had them covered. But, you know what? It all boils down to being content to simply be yourself. We expend way too much effort comparing and competing with others. Lao Tzu is wanting to show us a better Way. Be like water! It nourishes all things without trying to, it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is the supreme virtue. When you practice it, everybody will respect you.

Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will counter all the ways he said we can practice true contentment (from today), with the ways we practice discontentment. Pay special attention. Lao Tzu is offering the only path to serenity.

Infinite, Eternal, and How To Be Perfectly Fulfilled

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 7, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Perhaps, a lot of my readers are just like I was, in their understanding of words like eternal and infinite. For many years, I believed I knew exactly what these words meant. To envision eternity, all I did was imagine a very long time line, infinitely long. I could look at any point on that time line and know that, if I were able to look infinitely into the past, or infinitely into the future, from that point on the time line, I would never come to an end. That was what eternal meant to me. I have to credit C.S. Lewis for actually helping me to see that I had it all wrong. I was certain I was understanding eternity, but I had confined it to a time line. C.S. Lewis explained eternity to me by starting with that time line, yes; but then, he pointed at the space apart from that time line, and said, that is what eternal means. It is timeless. It isn’t part of the time line, and has nothing to do with the time line. All a time line does is give you points in time. Points in the past and points in the future. Our lives began somewhere on that time line. And, they will end somewhere on that time line. C.S. Lewis would go on to say that “God” isn’t on the time line. God can see all of the past, and all the future, at once, spread out as if it is always now.

Enter Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu says the Tao is eternal. Why is it eternal? Because it was never born; thus it can never die. Yes, I understand this, now. The Tao isn’t on that time line, either. It was never born, so you can’t point to the time line and say, “There, is its beginning.” And, since it has no beginning point on the time line, it can’t have an end point, either. The Tao is always present. That is how Lao Tzu explains it.

And the Tao is infinite, too. We have been talking about the infinite Tao for a few days now. It is its emptiness that makes it infinite. It makes it infinitely capable. Its possibilities are infinite. It gives birth to infinite worlds. But, does that really explain what infinity means? Well, the emptiness does hint at it. But, Lao Tzu explains it in a way, in today’s chapter, which was all new to me.

It has no desires for itself. Ah. Now, that emptiness is taking on even more meaning to me. Having no desire. Being empty. Having no desire for itself, it can be present for all beings. Infinity and eternity are forever intertwined with each other. The Tao is always present. It is always present for all beings.

Okay, that should be enough about the infinite and eternal for today. What am I supposed to do with this? This is when I ask myself what wise and virtuous persons do to harmonize with this infinite and eternal reality. Am I forever stuck on this finite and temporal time line; or, is there some way to tap into the infinite and eternal?

Understanding the Way things are, wise and virtuous persons find themselves ahead, because they stay behind. They are one with all things by being detached from them. They are perfectly fulfilled, because they have let go of themselves.

What exactly has happened here? It is what we learned about the Tao, yesterday. A wise and virtuous person begins with yin, not yang. Yang is all about getting ahead. But, yin is content with staying behind. Yang wants to be one with all things, while yin remains detached from them. However, by leading with yin, yang naturally follows. If we had led with yang, we would have had much different results. You will never be perfectly fulfilled by seeking to be perfectly fulfilled. Contentment isn’t about the things we don’t yet have, that we want so very much. Contentment is about being content, right now, in the present, the always present. If you want to be perfectly fulfilled, let go of all your desire, be empty, let go of all of yourself; you begin to realize fulfillment, contentment, isn’t something to attain, it is something to be, right here, right now. It isn’t something postponed. Because, that is what desire does for us. It postpones contentment, fulfillment, until later, once you have the object of your desire. But, when you are empty, it is always present.

Tomorrow, we will talk more about what wisdom and virtue mean. How do we harmonize with the Way things are?

It All Begins With Yin

The Tao is called the Great Mother;
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 6, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In chapter four, Lao Tzu compared the Tao to an empty bowl. It is inexhaustible to those who use it. In chapter five, it was an empty bellows. Infinitely capable. In both of these metaphors, emptiness is what gives them their utility. It took me a long time to realize this. I didn’t see the “value” in emptiness.

Being empty always seems to be looked on as a “bad” thing. We value “fullness”. Somehow, anything that is empty, has to be lacking something essential. It should be filled. But, of course, that is exactly what emptiness is “used for”. The value of that empty bowl, its utility, is that it can now be filled. With whatever you want to fill it. But, how hastily we rush to fill it. Not appreciating the infinite possibilities available to us in that emptiness. Both, infinity and eternity are in that emptiness. You can use it anyway you want. Just, don’t be in such a hurry to limit yourself to the finite and temporal.

Which brings us to today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu, once again, says the Tao is empty yet inexhaustible.

To refer to the Tao, today, he calls it the Great Mother. Out of that emptiness comes infinite abundance. That is the Way things are. The Tao is the Source, it gives birth, to infinite worlds, all possibilities. In calling the Tao the Great Mother, Lao Tzu isn’t saying the Tao is a woman. He isn’t personifying it. The Great Mother is a name for yin. It is the Female principle at work in our Universe. Yang, the Male, comes out of the Female. And then yin and yang continue to follow each other eternally.

Back in chapter four, Lao Tzu said the Tao is hidden but always present. Today, he tells us where the Tao is hidden but always present. It is always present within you. That is, each of us, contains, within the core of our being, the yin, which gives birth to all things. It is a creative force which you have, within you, to use any way you want. So, how will you use it?

We will have much more to say about this, for there is still much more for us to realize. But, for now, I am going to remember Lao Tzu’s sage advice from yesterday’s chapter, “The more you talk of it, the less you understand.” Trying to talk of the mystery, when we are still caught in desire, is (dare I say it) problematic. Tomorrow, we will talk a little more about what Lao Tzu means by the words infinite and eternal. Then, he will return to talking more about how wise and virtuous persons harmonize themselves with the Way things are.

Holding On To The Center

The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows;
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 5, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Do you remember back in chapter two, when Lao Tzu began talking about how our desire, how we see things, creates all new problems for us? He said, “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” I said, then, the Tao doesn’t make these distinctions, we do. Our desire, how we see things, creates the reality we perceive all around us. Soon, we will find ourselves over-esteeming and over-valuing. That is excess, which leads to deficiency. And, we talked for a couple of chapters about how to deal with the problem of excess and deficiency. Lao Tzu tells us to practice doing without doing, then, everything will fall into place.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins by teaching us how we can avoid doing something, when we really should do nothing. Don’t take sides! If we didn’t see some things as beautiful, some things wouldn’t become ugly. And, if we didn’t see some things as good, some things wouldn’t become bad. We need to avoid making these distinctions. That is our problem. We insist on making these kinds of distinctions. But, “The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil.” Wow! Do you see how unapologetic Lao Tzu is, here? Both, what we see as good, and what we see as evil, have, as their source, the Tao.

A wise and virtuous person doesn’t take sides, either. I want to be very clear, here. I don’t care how knowledgeable you think you are; and, I don’t care how good your intentions are, either. If you take sides, if you choose one side over another, if you say, “ah, this, here, is beautiful, while that is ugly”, or, “this is good, while that is bad”, you are being neither wise, nor virtuous. To practice doing without doing, you must free yourself of all desire, and welcome both saints and sinners.

To further illustrate this for us, Lao Tzu returns with another metaphor for emptiness. For, we really need to be empty of all desire. Yesterday, we saw the utility of emptiness in an empty bowl. Why, you can use it for anything! The possibilities are endless. Today, it is a bellows.

“The Tao is like a bellows; it is empty yet infinitely capable.” Once again, we have perfectly illustrated, the utility of emptiness. A bellows works with both yin and yang, just like the Tao does. When you put it to use, it repeats a process of contracting (yin) and expanding (yang). The expanding takes air inside. The contracting expels air out. It starts out empty. But the more you use it, the more it draws air in, and then pushes air out, the more it produces. When you set it aside, it is empty again. But, when you need it again, there it is, ready to be used again. Infinitely.

The Tao is like that bellows. It is the Way things are in our Universe. Periods of expansion are followed by periods of contraction. And, the reverse is, obviously, also true. Yin follows yang. And, yang follows yin. The Tao doesn’t take sides. Neither yang, nor yin, are preferable. They are one, in unity of purpose. Expansion and contraction bring about balance.

Is there, really, anymore to be said about this? But, the more we talk of it, the less we understand. Just use it. You will see. Don’t take sides! Hold on to the center. Balance will be the result. Don’t interfere!

Tomorrow, we will have another yet another metaphor for the Tao; and, we will find where the Tao is hidden.

The Value In Emptiness

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 yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu introduced what many will call the pressing problem of our time, that of excess and deficiency. It may or may not be a surprise to some, that excess and deficiency were a problem in Lao Tzu’s day, as well. Indeed, excess and deficiency is a perennial problem for us humans. Why is there excess and deficiency? Well, surprise, surprise, the problem is our desire, which Lao Tzu has been addressing the last two days. We create deficiency, when we do anything to excess. The two always go together. If there wasn’t any excess, there wouldn’t be any deficiency.

And, of course, there will always be those who, because deficiency is something “bad” will propose solutions to solve the problem of deficiency. We have been doing this for thousands of years, now. It is so very obvious to us clever humans, exactly, what must be done. We need to do something about that excess. Excess is what caused the deficiency, get rid of the excess and, voila, no more deficiency.

Except… That isn’t ever how it works. When we intervene, when we interfere, we only bring things further out of balance. Oh, don’t misunderstand, here. The Tao will adjust excess and deficiency. And, the Tao will do it by taking from what is too much and giving to what is not enough. But, unlike us humans, with our good intentions, the Tao doesn’t make it personal. The only thing we should do in the face of the problem of excess and deficiency is to do nothing. Yes, Lao Tzu was serious, yesterday. Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.

I wanted to rehash yesterday’s theme, before I got into today’s theme, because it is so very important for us to understand. The practice of not-doing, or doing without doing, is a central tenet of philosophical Taoism. An often misunderstood concept, and one the vast majority are loath to put into practice in their own lives.

The problem is, we don’t see the value in nothing. And, so, Lao Tzu is going to spend a few of our upcoming chapters talking about the value of nothing, of emptiness. Once we start to see that doing nothing is doing something, and the infinity in emptiness, we can really start to harmonize with the Way things are.

In today’s chapter, Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses two different metaphors to point to the value of nothing, emptiness. “The Tao is like a well; used but never used up. It is like the eternal void; filled with infinite possibilities.” But. before I try to work with these two metaphors for the infinite possibilities to be found in emptiness, I want us to look at one other translation of today’s chapter. I talked about Robert Brookes’ translation in my commentary on chapter one. I was just introduced to his translation, copyright 2010, a couple of months ago. And, today’s chapter, is one of those chapters, where Brookes’ translation really gets at what Lao Tzu is conveying.

“The Tao is an empty bowl, inexhaustible to those who use it. Indeed, in its depths lies the origin of all things.”

The reason that the “empty bowl” metaphor works better for me is because the utility of the empty bowl is its emptiness. With a well, we keep wanting to draw something out of it. You might tell me it is empty, but as long as I can draw water out of it, I am not buying the whole “emptiness” argument. And, then to shift to saying it is like the eternal void, while that certainly does conjure up images of emptiness, it is just too abstract to think of the infinite possibilities with which it is filled. But an empty bowl? That I can work with. For Lao Tzu wants us to see the value of emptiness. What is the purpose of that empty bowl? Well, as long as it is an empty bowl, the uses for it are inexhaustible. Are you going to use it for cereal and milk? How about ladling some hot soup into it? Or, maybe you will put it to some other use. I don’t want to spend all my time coming up with the infinite variety of ways that empty bowl can be put to use. The point is, that emptiness has value. It has utility. And, we rarely take the time to appreciate the value of emptiness. Of nothing.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss Lao Tzu’s instructions to practice doing nothing. Everything will fall into place, if we will only get out of the way, and let them.

Robert Brookes points out the emptiness of the Tao, and says that in its depths lies the origin of all things. Stephen Mitchell, too, talked about origins in today’s chapter. “[The Tao] is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”

Older than God? That is just a humorous way of saying the Tao has existed forever. And since it has no beginning, it has no end. Now, what was it we were saying about the Tao in chapter one? Oh, yes, it is the infinite and eternal reality. If we want to break away from the limits of the finite and temporal reality, discovering the value of emptiness will bring us a long way toward tapping into the infinite and eternal Way things are.

Tomorrow, we will look more into the practice of doing without doing. And, we will have another metaphor on how emptiness produces infinite possibilities.

What To Do About Excess And Deficiency

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)

In chapter one, Lao Tzu introduced what he calls the Tao. The Tao is the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. Tao could simply be translated, Way. In chapter one, he also introduced the problem of desire as the cause of our difficulties in realizing the mystery of the Tao. Caught in desire, we can only see its manifestations.

In chapter two, Lao Tzu began to explain exactly what the problem of desire is, it is how we see things; and, what a wise and virtuous person would do to overcome, and be free of, their desire. We also talked of yin and yang. These are manifestations of the Tao. I covered what yin and yang are, quite thoroughly, in my commentary on chapter two, so instead of rehashing all of that, I hope you will go back and read it.

What you specifically need to know is yin and yang is how the Tao brings balance to our Universe. How we see things, some things are beautiful and good, while other things are ugly and bad, traps us in a finite and temporal reality. To free ourselves from desire, we need to see things differently. Behold, yin and yang at work in our Universe, bringing about balance, harmony, and order. Then, you see the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. You, then, can begin to harmonize yourself with the Tao.

As I promised, yesterday, today’s chapter begins by talking further about the problem of desire. If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal. The problem of desire, here, is focused on how we put things out of balance. There can’t be beauty, without ugliness. There can’t be good, without bad. The Tao always works to bring about balance. When we over-do anything, like over-esteeming or over-valuing, it creates an imbalance. With that excess, there comes deficiency. You can’t have excess, without deficiency. It makes no difference whether or not we like that this is the reality, this is just the way things are.

Now, this is where things start to get interesting. People start to get all sorts of ideas in their minds on how to deal with this problem of excess and deficiency. Those who are more ambitious will set out to do something about the problem. But, hold on there! The problem of excess and deficiency is not any of your business to deal with. The Tao will take care of adjusting excess and deficiency. Don’t intervene, don’t interfere, practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.

This is our first real introduction to the practice of Wei Wu Wei, doing without doing, a central tenet of philosophical Taoism. And, that not intervening, and not interfering is exactly what it is about. Leave it to the Tao, to adjust excess and deficiency. If you intervene, if you interfere, no matter how “good” your intentions may be, you will only bring things further out of balance. That, too, is just the Way things are. It is something I really wish I could impress on all would-be leaders.

And, speaking of would-be leaders, Lao Tzu talks, in today’s chapter about what a wise and virtuous leader would do, in the face of reality.

A wise and virtuous leader, is going to practice doing without doing, yes. But, there is more to it than that. A wise and virtuous leader shows the people how to be in harmony with the Tao. They accomplish this, by working with both yin and yang. First, all those heady notions that something can and must be done about this excess and deficiency have got to go. So, empty your mind of that. Your ambition to intervene and interfere, also, has got to be weakened. The emptying and weakening is yin. Now, all we need is some yang to bring about balance. While emptying the people’s minds, they fill their cores. While weakening their ambition, they toughen their resolve. Filling and toughening are yang. While our outer being needs emptying and weakening, our inner being, the core of our being, needs filling and toughening. If you want to be a wise and virtuous leader, help people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and create confusion in those who think they know. Now, the Tao can bring about balance, without any interference.

Well, I think that should just about cover things for today. Lao Tzu has dealt with the problem of desire for the last two chapters. Tomorrow, he will return to talking about the Tao.

How We See Things, Together With Yin And Yang

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, Lao Tzu introduced us to what he calls the Tao, the infinite and eternal reality, the Nature of things, the Way things are. He also introduced the one problem we all have with realizing the mystery of the Tao – our desire. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu will begin to delve into the problem of our desire. And, as he introduces the Master, for the first time, he begins to show us all, through the example of this wise and virtuous person, how to deal with the problem of our desire.

So, first, it is best to explain what Lao Tzu means by desire. By desire, Lao Tzu means how we see things. There is an infinite and eternal reality, which for us is shrouded in darkness. What we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, everything we perceive with our senses, show us the way things seem to be. But, that is only a finite and temporal reality. Some theoretical physicists have suggested that everything we perceive with our senses is a hologram. I would call it, straight up, an illusion. How we see things, or perceive them, traps us in this finite and temporal reality, an illusion. Lao Tzu suggests we can be free from this illusion, finally beholding the infinite and eternal reality, by tracing back the manifestations of the infinite and eternal reality, to their source. The manifestations are something we can see; though our minds, having become accustomed to seeing things a certain way, will try to explain them away, as only part of the “reality” we see all around us. The infinite and eternal reality is very different. And, we will begin to see that, as we trace back those manifestations. So, let’s begin.

Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter by talking about how we perceive a duality in our universe. Many philosophers call it the problem of duality. Lao Tzu, though, will remind us, the problem isn’t duality, the problem is our desire. When people see some things as beautiful, or good, other things become ugly, or bad. In the infinite and eternal reality, there is no such division. There is no beautiful, no ugly, no good, and no bad. These are human constructs. We speak them into existence in our “reality”. They are our perceptions of the way things are. But, they are only the way things seem to be.

What there is in the infinite and eternal reality, and here is where we are introduced to our first manifestations of the Tao, is yin and yang.

Yin and yang are not opposites. That is a common misconception; but, it is a misconception. Yin and yang are complements of each other. Yin and yang is how the Tao brings balance, harmony, and order in our Universe. Where there is yin, there must be yang, and where there is yang, there must be yin. They complete each other. They balance each other out.

To further explain the operation of yin and yang in our Universe, consider the familiar Tai-Chi symbol. It is a circle, representing everything that is, our Universe. Within it, you find the black yin and the white yang, swirling around in constant motion. The relationship between yin and yang is not a static one. It is dynamic. When you look at yin and yang in that circle, you will see that each contains a seed of the other within itself.

Yin and yang, non-being and being, create each other. Like difficult and easy, they support each other. Like long and short, they define each other. Like high and low, they depend on each other. Like before and after, they follow each other. That is why you can’t have beautiful without ugly; or, good without bad. But, that is the problem of desire, how we see things.

Yin and yang are manifestations of the Tao we can see. We see them in female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, back and front. If we see these as opposites, if we prefer one over the other, we are upsetting the balance, and going against the current of the Tao.

The Master, a wise and virtuous person, shows us the way to overcome and free ourselves from the problem of desire. We will talk further about the Master throughout the Tao Te Ching. I did want to explain, when I refer to the Master as a wise and virtuous person, what I mean by wise and virtuous. Wisdom, for our purposes, doesn’t refer to an abundance of knowledge. And, virtuous does not mean good, like we think of good. Wisdom means trusting your inner vision. And, virtue is being in harmony with the Tao.

Wise and virtuous persons overcome, and free themselves from, the problem of desire, by acting without doing anything, and teaching without saying anything. Things arise, and they let them come. Things disappear, and they let them go. They have, without possessing. They act, without expectations. They do their work; and, when it is done, they forget about it. Because of this, what they do lasts forever.

These are attributes, of the wise and virtuous person, which we are only introducing today. We will go into them in more depth as we go on through the Tao Te Ching. The thing to understand about them, today, is this is how to free yourself from the finite and temporal reality, and enter the realm of the infinite and eternal.

Tomorrow, we will talk more about the problem of desire, and how a wise and virtuous person shows us the Way out of the self-imposed trap in which we find ourselves.

The Problem is Desire

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)

And so we begin again. If you are new to my blog and philosophical Taoism, welcome. If you have been following for awhile now, thank you for continuing along this journey with me. I promise all new commentary on every chapter as we go along. I take a chapter each day from the Tao Te Ching (81 chapters in all) using Stephen Mitchell’s excellent interpretation. I have been doing this since 2012 (about four times through each year). My commentary is my own interpretation, what I think Lao Tzu is saying to me, and my readers. It will have a libertarian spin to it, because I believe Lao Tzu might have been the very first libertarian. But it isn’t just political. Yes, Lao Tzu does have some sage advice for would-be leaders intermingled throughout the Tao Te Ching. But, more importantly, I have found it to be a manual on the art of living, a how-to-book on being content with a simple and ordinary life. The book’s title gives it away: Tao Te Ching. Tao meaning “the Way things are”. Te meaning “virtue”. And Ching meaning “book”. Some of you may have seen it written, before, as Dao De Jing. If you have, that is a good indicator of how to pronounce it. Anyway, Tao Te Ching, means “The Way of Virtue Book.”

With that introduction completed, it is time for a second one. Lao Tzu is going to begin by talking about what he is referring to in his book, he gives it the name, Tao. Later, he will talk about Te, or virtue, which doesn’t refer to goodness, like we think of goodness. Instead, it means “being in harmony with the Way”. Tomorrow, Lao Tzu will introduce the Master, I will re-translate this term “wise and virtuous person(s)”, because I think it will be less confusing. Stephen Mitchell alternates between male and female pronouns with each succeeding chapter referring to the Master to be inclusive. I will simply use the pronoun “they”, because that has proven easier for me. One final introductory thought before I begin chapter one: While I am beginning with Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation for the quote, each morning, I am looking at other translations as well, particularly Robert Brookes’, which I was just introduced to in the last couple of months. I will be sure to cite Brookes when I am using a thought I got from him.

Okay, let’s begin. What an undertaking! You want to talk about the infinite and eternal nature of things. But you know, up front, you are limited by your own finite and temporal nature. How can you even ascribe it a name, when it is nameless? Probably the best course of action is just to do it. Just go with the flow. Let the mystery be mysterious. But don’t fail to point out the manifestations, they will show you the way back to the Source.

The tao (little t) that can be told is not the eternal Tao. See, right here, I am acknowledging the trouble. Everything I say about the tao is not the eternal Tao. The Tao is so much more than that. Words are so limiting. But, the Tao is unlimited. Trying to use the finite to speak of the infinite – consider that fair warning.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. Just naming it, the Tao, I have already crossed some line. For…

The unnameable is the eternally real. I am trying to talk about the infinite and eternal reality. The Nature of things, not just the nature of things. The Way things are, even though, with our eyes and ears, with all our senses, all we perceive is the way things seem to be. But, I have to give it a particular name, because…

Naming is the origin of all particular things. Naming ceremonies have always been quite important to us. We have always understood the importance of names. It is almost as if we know, “Don’t screw this up. We must get this right.” And, so we name things from their very beginning. Before we even have a chance to get to know the thing itself. Yet, in our audacity, we give it a name. Will it live up to its name? Or, more importantly, will our name be too confining?

That gives us a pretty good introduction to the problem Lao Tzu believes he was facing, as he begins writing. The infinite and eternal reality, the Way things are, is a mystery. It is a mystery we can’t expect to realize as long as we limit ourselves to the finite and temporal realm. What causes us to limit ourselves to the finite and temporal? Our desire….

Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire you see only the manifestations. As long as we are caught in desire we won’t realize the mystery. We must be free, in order to realize it. This whole work sets us on the path to freedom. Lao Tzu lays out the course for us, when he says…

Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This Source is properly called darkness. Or, even, darkness within darkness. But, it is the gateway to all understanding.

So, before we move on to chapter two, tomorrow, let’s talk a little more about these manifestations. Being caught in desire, for now, we can only see the manifestations. The manifestations of the Tao, are all the particular things, what we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears. Though we can’t trust our minds to properly interpret them, as such. For that, we will need to look deeper, into the core of our being, for understanding. These are truly matters of the heart. Understanding will come spontaneously, and intuitively. As we understand, little by little, along the way, we will trace these manifestations back to the Source. Then, we will know, even as we are known.

Is This Really How It Ends?

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)

Yesterday, we talked a lot about why we are not content. Lao Tzu teaches, if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. And, we talked at length about what true contentment means. How it is tied to living a simple and ordinary life. Whatever is true of a country is true of individuals. I traced back the symptoms of our discontent to the root itself, dissatisfaction with our own selves. Once you realize you, and you alone, are responsible for governing yourself, once you realize you have everything you need to be content with a simple and ordinary life, you realize the choice was always your own. Contentment isn’t about outward circumstances. It isn’t about the outward things you have, or don’t have. It is a choice. If you want to be content, be content.

That wasn’t very eloquent. Being told the reason I am not content is because I choose not to be content may be true; but, it isn’t eloquent. But, there have been plenty of eloquent words uttered which weren’t true.

And, I haven’t set out to prove the wisdom in this way of living I choose. For me, it became self-evident, once I traced it back to the source, for myself. You, my friends, have your own paths to walk. If you are wise, you won’t see the need to prove anything. You will simply live your lives.

The Master, a wise and virtuous person, as Lao Tzu said a few chapters ago, can keep on giving, because there is no end to their wealth. We err when we equate wealth with possessions. But, the Master has no possessions; so, how can they keep on giving? Wealth is happiness. True contentment. The more we do for others, the happier we are. The more we give, out of our abundance of happiness, to others, the wealthier we are.

The Tao never uses force to nourish us. Likewise, we lead our lives by not trying to dominate others.

Is this really how it ends? So simply? Isn’t there something else to be said? Oh, my friends, what more needs to be said? Be content with the simple and ordinary. Don’t have to make your life complicated.