Lessons I Didn’t Learn In A Pool Hall

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)

Thinking back to yesterday’s chapter, and Lao Tzu’s radical solution to the problem of evil, I can’t help but mention the only criticism I have ever heard about Lao Tzu’s teachings: It is foolish, naive to do nothing about evil. We think we know better. We are so much more sophisticated. That is why Lao Tzu teaching us to practice not-knowing and not-doing flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Do we really know so much? Or do we only think we know? If we were to practice knowing not-knowing, we would learn so much more. And, if we would practice doing not-doing, our lives would take on an ease that is now foreign to us.

And, it doesn’t help their case, when the most recent critic of Lao Tzu’s teachings is none other than Lindsey Graham, senator from South Carolina, and yet another contender for president in 2016. This is the man that admittedly learned everything he needs to know about Iranians while growing up in his parent’s pool hall. If I have to choose between that kind of foreign policy experience, and Lao Tzu’s, Lao Tzu wins hands down. I would much rather know that I don’t know, than make a complete ass of myself flaunting my vast pool hall knowledge like that.

I really don’t have to single out Lindsey Graham, however. Regardless what rhetoric they will all be spewing in the weeks and months ahead, whoever will be elected president is going to continue to proclaim they have found evil and set about to do battle with it, just like we have always done.

Meanwhile, I need to move on to the present chapter. Lao Tzu, yesterday, informed us that the Tao gives birth to both good and evil. But that was really just the beginning. It actually gives birth to infinite worlds. To all things. Even to Lindsey Graham? Wait, don’t get distracted. Focus. Well, then, that is why the Tao is called the Great Mother. This is merely a name for the Tao. Great Mother, because it gives birth to all things. Infinite worlds.

Like a well, like the eternal void, like a bellows, the Great Mother; it is empty, yet inexhaustible. It is meant to be used. Go ahead, use it. No worries, you can never use it up. It is always present within you. You don’t have to go on some long journey, some pilgrimage, to find it. It is ever present within you. What? You thought the Tao was off in some remote corner of the Universe giving birth to infinite worlds? I have much better news than that. The eternal Tao is within you. And me. And all of us. It is present in all things. Giving birth. Nourishing. You can use it any way you want.

If only we will humble ourselves enough to know that we don’t know. To practice doing not-doing. To look within ourselves and find we have everything we need. Everything we will ever need.

Don’t Take Sides! Hold 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)

Today’s chapter is another of my favorites. But I admit, I have a lot of favorites. It is our introduction to how to deal with the problem of evil. What I find so fascinating is how unapologetic Lao Tzu is. For many thousands of years we have been trying to deal with the problem of evil. It has been a subject for both religions and philosophies for as long as history records. And, with all of our trying to deal with it, we still find evil ever present. We haven’t been dealing very well. What Lao Tzu offers us is the one thing that no one seems willing to “try” with regard to evil.

We want to take sides. We always want to take sides. It seems ingrained in us. All the religions and philosophies that I have investigated make apologies for evil, while always insisting they are on the side of good. But no one admits what Lao Tzu unashamedly admits. Not only does the Tao not take sides, it actually gives birth to both good and evil. This is important. Having announced in the previous chapter that the Tao precedes God, it would seem to be up to the Tao to answer for itself. The Tao is the responsible party. God is off the hook. After all, God can’t be responsible, having come along later.

So, let’s put the Tao in the dock, so to speak. What does it have to say for itself? Seriously, if the Tao gives birth to both, it has a lot of explaining to do. But the Tao is unfazed by our pleas. Without any remorse, and with no offer of apologies: I gave birth to them both. I don’t take sides. Why do you?

That is a very good question. And somehow I suspect that the majority of us become almost apoplectic, when the question is turned back on us. Lao Tzu tells us how deal with it. And it won’t satisfy those who want to be in control. For Lao Tzu tells us that the way to deal with it, is to not deal with it. Don’t take sides! The Master doesn’t. And because the Master doesn’t, she is able to welcome both saint and sinner, alike. This is a radical idea! I admit it. I am not going to deny that evil exists. It has existed along with good for as long as, well, let’s just call it forever. But, can we admit that we can’t do anything about it? That is it in a nutshell. That you can’t do anything about something that so far precedes you, would seem to be self-evident. But still we want to try?

Why? And then Lao Tzu offers us just a little hint into our problem. Perhaps you have already figured out that good and evil have something of yin and yang in them. Lao Tzu tells us that the Tao is like a bellows. We know what a bellows is used for. A bellows is a mechanism which expands and contracts. It may be used to both take in air and let out air. The Tao is like that. How the Tao acts in our Universe is like that. Expansion and contraction follow each other, just like before and after. The Tao is the mechanism for that expansion and contraction. For both yin and yang.

Good and evil coexist. The Tao gives birth to them both. And what does the Tao do about them? The Tao is empty yet infinitely capable. Just like a bellows. The more you use it, the more it produces. And the more we fuss over and struggle with the way things are, the more we are going to have to fuss over and struggle with.

Don’t take sides! The way things are is the way things are. Deal with it, by not dealing with it; this is doing not-doing. Hold on to the center! Is this all he is going to say? For now, yes. We will return to the problem of evil, later. But for now, this is enough. For the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Things We Know and Things We Cannot Know

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)

Thank you, all of you, for coming along with me on this journey through the Tao Te Ching. The purpose of this journey is to realize the mystery of the eternal Tao. Lao Tzu has been laying the groundwork; now, he can begin talking about the mystery.

He first spoke of the Tao as the eternal reality, in chapter one. There, he identified our problem. A problem that must be circumvented, if we are ever going to realize the mystery. The problem is desire. As long as we are caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations of the Tao. It is only free from desire that we can realize the mystery. What can we do, then? We are going look at the manifestations and trace those manifestations back to the Source. Along the Way, we will learn how to be free from desire; and find ourselves back at the gateway to all understanding.

In chapter two, Lao Tzu addressed how someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao, the Master, overcomes the problem of duality. It was our introduction to yin and yang; the way the Tao achieves balance and harmony in our Universe.

Yesterday, in chapter three, we talked about the need to not tip the scales and a little bit about the need to practice doing not-doing. This doing not-doing is an expression of oneness and harmony with the Tao; making everything that we do effortless.

We have talked some of how the Tao acts in the Universe. But now, Lao Tzu begins using metaphorical language to talk about the mystery of the Tao. He can’t help but use metaphors to point at it. The eternal Tao is shrouded in darkness. We can’t begin to realize it yet. Sometimes, I find myself getting lost in the metaphors. It is something I need to guard against. Lao Tzu isn’t saying the Tao is a well. Just, that it is like a well. The Tao is a mystery. Thus, we have metaphors to describe it. But the metaphors show us how the Tao is manifest in our world; by tracing back the manifestations we will get to the Source.

By saying the Tao is like a well and like the eternal void, Lao Tzu is showing us something that is used, yet never used up, empty, yet filled with infinite possibilities. It isn’t easy to understand this. So, don’t worry that you have difficulties with it. We are still dealing with the problem of desire. Trying to wrap our minds around something that is eternal and infinite, when we are temporal and finite, isn’t going to be easy.

And Lao Tzu is using language that we are more familiar with using to describe God. Hidden, but always present. We want to understand more fully. The Tao isn’t hiding from us. It is present. We can’t see it, because all we can see when we look for it is darkness. This language intrigues us. The paradox of something that is eternally existent, infinite, and ever-present; yet, it is not God. The paradox of something that is both empty and filled. The Tao manifests itself in paradox. And we want to wrap our minds around that? Who gave birth to it? Who were your parents? If I know your parents, I know something of you. But, Lao Tzu can’t answer that question. It is older than God. Is that any help? While the Tao has no parent, it does have children. And those children, its manifestations, will tell us what we need to know. They will show us the Way.

Leave Those Scales Alone!

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)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu introduced us to both the concept of yin and yang (how the Tao acts in the Universe to achieve balance and harmony) and to the Master (our example for how to be in perfect harmony with the Tao). We have talked about the problem of desire. Until we are free of desire, we can’t realize the mystery of the Tao. Caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations of the Tao. We have begun our journey through the Tao Te Ching. It is a journey where we will trace back the manifestations of the Tao to the Source. Along the way, we will circumvent the problem of desire.

Today, Lao Tzu once again confronts the problem of desire. It is manifest whenever we over-do anything. Remember, the Tao is the great Equalizer. It always seeks to achieve balance. It acts in the world to adjust both excess and deficiency. Notice, Lao Tzu doesn’t say there is anything wrong with esteeming great men. Nor, is there is anything wrong with valuing possessions. The problem is desire. The problem is when things are done to excess. Desire causes us to do things to excess. And, that ultimately leads to deficiency.

Excess always leads to deficiency. I want to be careful to explain what I mean by excess and deficiency here. Excess doesn’t just mean a lot. It means too much. But, what is too much? And what is deficiency? Just having little of something doesn’t mean there isn’t enough; that there is a deficiency. Deficiency means too little, not enough. But what is not enough? It isn’t up to any of us to decide. Not me, and not you. Because we don’t know. We can’t know. That is why it is the Tao that decides that. The Tao does know. Where there is excess and deficiency, the Tao will do the adjusting. One of the things we are going to learn, on our journey, is to let go of our desire to be in control. To try to help (or hinder) the Tao in its adjustments.

Excess always leads to deficiency. That is why we need to be mindful to never tip the scales in anyone’s favor. If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. An excess of esteem results in a deficiency of esteem. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal. An excess in value results in unleashing all sorts of unhealthy desires. This is why Lao Tzu said, yesterday, that the Master has, but doesn’t possess. The Master leaves those scales alone. She acts as if she possesses nothing. She doesn’t overvalue possessions.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about the relationship of the Master with the Tao. Today, he talks about the Master’s relationship with the rest of us, the people. The Master is our example. He leads us to follow the Tao by following the Tao, showing us the way. This is teaching without words.

Remember, the problem we have is desire. The Master helps us to circumvent the problem of desire, first, by emptying our minds. Emptying our minds? What does that mean? The problem isn’t with what we know. It is with what we think we know. What we think we know strengthens our ambition. But ambition is desire. That is a problem. The Master wants to help us lose everything we think we know, everything we desire. That is why the Master weakens our ambition.

But, it doesn’t just involve emptying. Where there is emptying, there must also be filling. There is always balance. While our minds are emptying, our cores are filling. I have read quite a few translations where the word for cores is bellies. It means the same thing, but we tend to associate bellies with stomachs, and Lao Tzu means much more than a repository for food, here. Another word we could use for core would be heart. But we aren’t talking about the blood-pumping muscle in our bodies, either. What the Master is after, in filling our cores, is toughening our resolve. Our ambition needs weakening, because ambition is all about desire. Our resolve needs toughening because we need to learn to be content with what we already have. No desiring more. This creates confusion in those who think that they know. We will talk more of knowing not-knowing in the days and weeks ahead.

Today, Lao Tzu ends the chapter with the practice of not-doing. Wu-Wei, doing not-doing, is the central tenet of philosophical Taoism. It is also a mostly misunderstood concept. But we have to understand this; which is why we will continue to talk about it all along our journey. Today he says, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.” Resist the urge to interfere with the Tao. Resist doing when doing nothing is better. Wait on the Tao. Discern its flow. Then, go with that flow. Make all your actions effortless. It is the perfect balance of passive and active, yin and yang. Let things happen; instead of trying to force things to happen. Trying and forcing requires effort. What we are after is effortlessness. Everything will fall into place; if we will only let it.

On How The Tao Manifests Itself In The Universe

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 the problem of desire. We have to be free of desire in order to realize the mystery which is the eternal Tao. As long as we are caught in desire, we can only see the manifestations of the Tao. For me, the Tao Te Ching was written to help us all to circumvent the problem of desire.

Today, Lao Tzu begins to show us the manifestations of the Tao. By looking at the manifestations, we can find the common thread that is evident in the manifestations, and trace them back to the Source, which is the eternal Tao. Today’s chapter is probably the most important chapter in all the Tao Te Ching. It is here that he introduces yin and yang, as a way of understanding the Way of the Universe. It is also here that we meet the Master, Lao Tzu’s ideal person; at one with, and in perfect harmony with, the way things are.

The yin yang symbol is the most familiar icon of philosophical Taoism. It shows the duality that exists in the Universe. When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. This is the duality with which we struggle. The problem isn’t with duality, though. The problem is with desire. And that is what we are going to circumvent as we take our journey through the Tao Te Ching. Yin and yang are going to show us how to do this.

The yin and yang symbol shows how the duality coexists, not as opposites but as complements of each other. It shows the constant state of flux, the motion of the Tao. And, that there is always something of the other in each one. It isn’t a static symbol; there is a dynamic relationship between yin and yang. It is alive with possibilities, with change. And it always brings about balance. That is how yin and yang circumvent the problem of desire.

The relationship of yin and yang can best be explained as the relationship between being and non-being. Between what is, and what is not. They 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. And, like before and after, they follow each other. This last point should not be taken too lightly. Because of the constant flow of change, there is a never ending wave of before and after. Instead of calling being and non-being, what is and what is not, it would probably be more accurate to say that they are what is now and what is yet to come. But, even these words limit our understanding of something that is eternally existent.

Yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open, front and back. Don’t think of these things as opposites. Think of them as complements. Everything in the Universe has elements of both yin and yang in them, otherwise they wouldn’t be complete. I see it as a loving relationship, a dance. The dance of the Universe.

We will talk much more of yin and yang, but that is enough for today. Now we need to continue looking at chapter two. And that means introducing the Master. I said earlier that the Master is Lao Tzu’s ideal person. But I do want to be careful here to not give you the impression that the Master is some superhuman, an unattainable ideal. Without patting myself on the back, I can say with all honesty, that I am becoming more and more like the Master each day. If I can do it, any of us can. I don’t claim to have arrived at some level of perfection. But I am further along today than I was yesterday.

The purpose Lao Tzu has in mind in giving us the example of the Master, is to help to flesh out Lao Tzu’s teachings. The Master is our example. The Master is the Master, because of his or her relationship with the Tao. I say “his or her” here, because the Master can really be any of us. Anyone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. It doesn’t depend on our gender, or our ethnicity, or our family. It doesn’t depend upon which side of an imaginary border you were born. It doesn’t matter what your economic status is. All the various ways we have of differentiating between humans, are non-existent in the Tao.

Now, given that the Master can be anyone, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Stephen Mitchell, whose translation I am using, chooses to alternate between gender specific pronouns when referring to the Master. Today, he is using “she and her.” Tomorrow, it will be “he and him.” Now, in the original Chinese, there is no gender specific pronoun being used. The English language is not so blessed. Mr. Mitchell wanted to include all genders, because he knew that was Lao Tzu’s intention. But back in 1986, when he published this translation, and it isn’t much improved today, it wasn’t easy to render a translation in English, gender neutral. Prior to Stephen Mitchell’s translation, he counted 103 different English translations already. And each of these had, to use his word, “ironically” chosen to refer to the Master exclusively as a man. That word “ironically” was chosen because of how inclusive Lao Tzu’s teachings are. To insist that the Master is a man is to go way overboard on the yang. Where is the yin to balance things out? It was, as if the translators were denying half the population the possibility of becoming masters themselves. To circumvent that problem he chose to alternate gender specific pronouns. You have his permission, and mine, to change the gender specific pronoun to yours as you read along.

I am sorry this is going on so long; but this chapter deserves this kind of treatment. We are going to learn so much from the example of the Master. Just today we will end with the relationship of the Master with the Tao. This is what perfect oneness and harmony looks like. I won’t say much more today. Each of these we will cover in much greater detail in the days and weeks ahead. We will see how the Master acts without doing anything. Wu-Wei, doing not-doing, is central to the art of living. She teaches without saying anything. This involves knowing not-knowing, another important aspect of the art of living. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. That word “lets” is the perfect balance of yin and yang, passive and active, which goes with the flow of the Tao in our Universe. She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect. Having nothing, desiring nothing. She has completely circumvented the problem of desire. Now, she realizes the mystery. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. And with that, my commentary on chapter two is complete.

The Problem With 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)

Yesterday, we ended the journey. Today, we begin it again. The Tao Te Ching is divided into 81 short chapters. I will take a chapter each day, offering my own commentary on each chapter. I have been making this 81 day journey for a couple of years now. And some of you have been around for all that time. Wow! Thank you! Others have come along at various points along the way. Welcome to all of you! All along, I have been using Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Of the bazillion different translations out there, his is my favorite, by far. Still, I do refer back to the original and consult other translations for inspiration. Looking at the same thing from a different perspective is always a good thing. That is also a good reason for me to keep starting this journey over. I am not just rehashing my old commentary on these chapters. I am actually sitting down fresh with it each day. It keeps me renewed. Now, before I go on to the commentary, I just wanted to say, here on a new Day One, how much the Tao has transformed my life. And, how much I want it to transform your life too. That is why I do this each day. And, just so you all know, I love to get messages from you guys. To hear what you think. To answer your questions. I consider you all to be friends. Keep it coming. Now, on to chapter one…

What can be told about the eternal Tao? Just giving it a name presumes more than I can possibly know. How can I, a finite man, possibly expect to fully tell of something that is infinite, eternal? All that the eternal Tao is, is a mystery, shrouded within darkness. I peer into the darkness. I desire to realize the mystery; and to tell of it. But it is just that, my desire, which hinders me. I know, somehow, I know, that within that darkness is the gateway to all understanding. If only I could see through this darkness. How do I circumvent this problem, and tell you about the Tao?

I must be free from desire. That is the only way to realize the mystery. While I am still caught in desire, I can only see the manifestations. This was Lao Tzu’s problem. It is a universal problem. So, how did Lao Tzu circumvent this problem?

Okay, okay, I know that the Tao, being the eternal reality, is unnameable. But I know a way I can get around that. I can’t really tell of the mystery of the eternal Tao; but I can tell of its particular manifestations. Those particular manifestations can be named. They can be described. They can be explained. And maybe, just maybe, if we look enough at the manifestations, we will see a common thread. A thread that will take us back to the Source. The same source for both the manifestations and the mystery.

That is it for today. Just an introduction. We will begin following that thread, back to the Source of both the mystery and the manifestations, tomorrow.

What He Lacks In Eloquence, He Makes Up For With Truth

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)

Well, we have done it! We have completed another cycle through the Tao Te Ching. Tomorrow, our journey will begin again. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Today is what we will talk about. Lao Tzu has a few parting words of wisdom for us. He reminds us that while his words haven’t always been eloquent, they have, nevertheless, been true. He wasn’t setting out to prove some point. He merely wanted to point at the Tao. And let it speak for itself. So, what have we gleaned from this journey through the Tao Te Ching? I don’t know about you; but I think I gained a better appreciation for how to be content in my own life.

It isn’t about my outward circumstances, how many possessions I have, how much money is in my bank account. Oh, those things are certainly nice. I think I could be content if I had a lot of those things. But my contentment doesn’t depend on them.

The Master has learned the secret to true contentment. And he has no possessions. He has found that the more he does for others, the happier he is. I don’t think this means some self-sacrificing altruism. So all you Ayn Rand fans, don’t be distressed.

Having no possessions, just like not-doing, not-knowing, and not-competing doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. Lao Tzu is talking about the condition of the Master’s heart. His happiness isn’t based on accumulating to excess. It is based on giving all he has; which is limitless. The more he gives, the wealthier he is. And, because all his actions are effortless, the more he does, the more he can do.

Refer back to when Lao Tzu told us that true words seem paradoxical. How does the Tao nourish all things? By not forcing. That is the way of the Tao. It leads; it doesn’t drag you kicking and screaming. The Master leads, by not dominating.

There is so much more I would like to say. But I am not eloquent. Words fail me. I just know that my life has been transformed by the Tao. Why? Because I let it.

Where Contentment?

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)

We are down to the last two chapters of the Tao Te Ching. We will devote today and tomorrow to how to be content. Then, we will begin again with chapter one, starting anew the journey.

Today, Lao Tzu offers us one way that we can be content. If our country is governed wisely, we will be content. The reverse is also true. If we are not content, it just may be that our country is not being governed wisely. But, having said that, I want to say this: If whether or not we are content is dependent on something outside ourselves, we are not likely to be content. True contentment is not to be found outside of ourselves. It has to be found inside of ourselves. It is a matter of the heart. Keep that in mind as we take a look, the next two days, at what true contentment might look like.

I say might, because Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, offers an idyllic picture (looking at the outside) of a country’s inhabitants expressing true contentment. To those of you who might say, “that may be your idyllic picture, it isn’t mine,” I say, “fine, but at least, take a moment to glean the inner attitude that is producing this outward picture.” Then, you can come up with your own idyllic picture.

Every time I read through today’s chapter, I can’t help but think of Tolkien’s Shire. It reads like a Hobbit’s life to me. And I would be very content with a Hobbit’s life.

Give me a hole in the ground. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: give me a hobbit-hole, that means comfort. Simple hobbit folk content with their very ordinary lives. Hobbits certainly enjoy the labor of their hands; and, they wouldn’t be wasting their time inventing labor-saving devices. They dearly love their homes; so they aren’t interested in travel. At least that is the case with almost all of them. There was that one odd fellow that disappeared one day. He went on a rather preposterous adventure with a band of dwarves and a wizard to a lonely mountain far away; where he claims to have helped to slay a dragon. That one disappeared a lot after that. But he was always a little queer. Most of us hobbits are content to stay at home. Travel? Adventures? No, thank you. In the Shire, there are wagons and boats. But hobbits don’t use them to go anywhere. There is an arsenal of weapons. But we hope never to have to use them. Us, hobbits, well, we enjoy our food and take pleasure in being with our families. We spend weekends in our gardens and delight in the doings of the neighborhood. In the Shire, though the next country is so close we can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, we’d be content to die of old age without ever going to see it.

Yes, that would be my idyllic picture of true contentment. And I suppose that both Lao Tzu and J.R.R. Tolkien would be content with just that. Smoking my pipe while sitting outside in my garden… Wait, I am already doing just that. Not your idea of contentment? Don’t worry, I wasn’t foolish enough to think everyone wanted to be a hobbit, just like me. And I have no intentions of trying to force my Utopia off on you. It might be a Dystopia for you. I can respect that. Even if I don’t quite understand it.

And I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu is attempting to do with today’s chapter. Maybe you are wondering, what is so wrong with labor-saving devices? And, what is Lao Tzu’s problem with loving to travel? But, I fear that maybe we are missing Lao Tzu’s point. For, there is nothing wrong with labor-saving devices. Nor, is there any problem with loving to travel. The real question is, why aren’t you content? And, what is it going to take for you to be content?

Are your days and nights filled with restlessness, anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction with your present circumstances? Perhaps you don’t even know what you really want. You just know you want something else, something better. I am a libertarian, an anarchist. It is easy to blame discontent on how unwisely my country is being governed. And there is a correlation there. Lao Tzu said, if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants would be content.

But we can’t depend on our government. Even the Shire needed scouring. And Lao Tzu doesn’t want us waiting around for our government to act wisely. He said “if” not “when”; so knowing the statistical improbability, I think we had better start depending on ourselves. Where is true contentment to be found, if we can’t expect to find it in our outward circumstances? We need to look deep within ourselves. That is where it is to be found. There is where we have everything we need. It is inherent in us. I didn’t always understand this. I thought I would need to build me a hobbit-hole. Wouldn’t be content without one. But, I can be content in my little house sitting on the ground. I have my little garden in my little back yard. I smoke my little pipe and enjoy my simple, ordinary life. And you can find your own contentment inside your own self, too.

An Opportunity For You

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 need to do
and demands nothing of others.

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

Lao Tzu closed yesterday’s chapter with the line, “True words seem paradoxical.” And we easily spotted the truth in the paradox, yesterday. The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. If you want to be the people’s greatest help, give up trying to help them.

But, there is something of which it is good to be aware. Lao Tzu didn’t divide his teachings into chapters. The chapters were a later addition; much like the addition of chapters and verses to the Bible. Editors thought it would be helpful to divide even this short work into chapters. While I find it helpful to take a “chapter” a day, I also am mindful that there is a continuity that flows through the Tao Te Ching, from beginning to end. Just because one chapter closes, the thoughts being conveyed don’t end. The truth to be found in paradox is also here, in today’s “chapter.”

So it is that you will most often find me referring to yesterday’s chapter when I begin talking about the present one. Context is obviously important. These aren’t separate islands not connected to the whole. And that leads me to the other thing about today’s chapter, which is very much a continuation of what Lao Tzu has been talking about in the last few chapters. You aren’t going to find the words soft and gentle, or hard and rigid in today’s chapter; but that is still what Lao Tzu is talking about when he says, “Failure is an opportunity.”

Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about the Master being like water, serene, even in the midst of sorrow. Today, he is talking about contractual obligations. From ancient times, humans have relied on contracts to conduct business with each other. There were two sides to every contract between two parties. The side dealing with the obligations of one party, and the side dealing with the obligations of the other party.

When Lao Tzu tells us to see failure as an opportunity, he is talking about how we should act with regard to both sides of the contract. We’ll take these sides, one at a time.

First, there is your side of the contract. What are you obligated to do? If you have entered into a contractual obligation, you are bound to fulfill your own obligations. No excuses. What if you fail? See it as an opportunity. Not an opportunity to start pointing the finger of blame at others. Don’t start doing that; once that starts, there is no end to the blame. But your failure doesn’t have to be the final word. And it shouldn’t be. Now you have the opportunity to correct your own mistakes. To do whatever needs to be done; so that your obligations can be fulfilled. That seems straightforward and reasonable enough. It would have been quite shocking to see Lao Tzu recommending we try to weasel out of our obligations.

But then there is the other side of the contract. The other party’s. What about their obligations? What happens when they fail? Are we going to be hard and rigid, now? Or, are we going to be soft and gentle? Obviously, if the other party was you, you would be setting out to correct your own mistakes, and doing whatever needs to be done to fulfill your side of the contract. But you aren’t the other party. And their failure is an opportunity for you of a whole different sort.

What are you going to do? How are you going to act? If you respond to the hard and rigid, the contract, by being hard and inflexible, you just missed out on a wonderful opportunity. Instead, Lao Tzu teaches: Be soft and yielding. Demand nothing of the other party.

Demand nothing of the other party? But, but they owe me! How dare they! You mean to tell me that I can’t weasel out of my own obligations; but, I am just supposed to roll over and let them weasel out of theirs?

I know we are almost all the way through the Tao Te Ching (only two chapters left, until I start it back up again with chapter one in three days), but let’s not forget what Lao Tzu has been teaching us all along. We need to give up our need to control. We need to let go of all desires. We need to be simple in our thoughts and actions, patient toward friends and enemies, and compassionate toward ourselves. We need to be like water. And, we need to trust the Tao. As it acts in the world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow. Excess and deficiency always get leveled out. Will you let the Tao balance the ledger? The Master is good to both those who are good and those who are not. That is true goodness. The Master trusts both those who are trustworthy and those who are not. That is true trust.

True words seem paradoxical. But are they, really? Failure is an opportunity. An opportunity for you to prove the Tao is alive and well in you.

Nothing Can Surpass It

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)

Lao Tzu always comes back to water. It is his favorite metaphor. And we have heard this so many times. We know this. Why does he keep going on and on about it? The reason he goes on and on about it is because, while we all think we know it, few can put it into practice.

The last time I wrote my commentary on this chapter, early in March of this year, I spent a great deal of time talking about water. But we already know this. So, I am not going to rehash the qualities of water that are readily apparent to all. We know what water is. We know how it acts in the world. What we need to graduate to, is putting this teaching into practice in our lives. We need to be like water. How difficult can this be, since we are mostly made of water?

It isn’t enough to know what water is like. That would be like observing the flower, without partaking of the fruit. We need to be soft and yielding, like water. We need to, like the Master, remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow.

I think you know the kind of sorrow I am talking about. The hard and inflexible kind of sorrow. It is the kind of sorrow that demands that we do something. And being the good people we always strive to be, we allow evil to enter our hearts right here. Our serenity is lost. We must help. We want to help. With our good intentions. Those good intentions that my Dad always insisted paved the streets of Hell. Have you ever paused and considered how hard and inflexible, good intentions always are? We see before us a problem and we are right there with our solution. And you better do things my way… We are attempting to deal with the hard and inflexible with the hard and inflexible.

How do we remain serene? Even in the midst of this kind of sorrow. How do we keep evil from entering our heart? How can we be soft and yielding? This is where true words seem paradoxical.

Sorrow is making demands on him. But the Master remains serene. He seems indifferent. His heart, unmoved. Sorrow screams out its agonizing despair. The Master remains serene. He is as indifferent as water. Is he not going to help? He is present, yet still serene. He doesn’t try to help. He doesn’t intrude on the sorrow. He doesn’t put forth any effort to make it go away. He has given up helping. Still, he is present. Still, serene. The sorrow passes. Still, he is present. Still, serene. Few can put it into practice. But this is how to be the greatest help. Nothing can surpass it.