All posts by libertariantaoist

When you are content to be simply yourself

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 eight, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu uses a variety of different metaphors to tell us of the Tao. But none, more than water. How is the Tao like water, and what can we learn from water as a metaphor for the Tao?

Without having to try, water nourishes all things. That “not having to try” is significant. It is the practice of non-action, which many sadly interpret as passivity. But Lao Tzu isn’t promoting passivity. Far from passivity, water is just being what it is. It doesn’t have to try. It doesn’t have to do. It just is. Everything about water flows (pun intended) from the essence of its being. And that is certainly a property of the Tao.

And Lao Tzu doesn’t intend for us to content ourselves with just agreeing with this idea. Yes, water and the Tao behave according to their natures. But what is that to me? No, Lao Tzu is wanting us to draw a lesson for how to live our own lives. The art of living is all about all of our actions being effortless. Just like water. Just like the Tao. We will have much more to say about this in the coming days and weeks as we go through the Tao Te Ching a chapter at a time.

Another property of water that makes it like the Tao, is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is another property that we will return to again and again. But Lao Tzu is talking about the reality that water is humble. Water is humble? Well, it always seeks out the low places. It is a strange thing indeed to find water running uphill. You know something is amiss when you find that happening.

Whole volumes could be written (and they probably have been) on why people disdain low places. Oh, to be content. Being content with the way things are. Remember, the way things are is likely to be very different from the way things seem to be. I am not talking about being content with the way things seem to be. But knowing the difference between the two, between the truth and the lie, between reality and illusion, between the way things are and the way things only seem to be, that, is liberating. That is something that makes you free to pursue your own happiness to your heart’s content. And being content beats being miserable, any day.

And being content, is what this chapter, and indeed, the whole Tao Te Ching is all about.

So to help us along our journey, and to really give us much more practical advice on how to learn the art of living, or the art of being content, Lao Tzu gives us the rest of the chapter. These one-liners are short and pithy. And they pack a punch.

Are you interested in finding contentment? Or will you disdain what Lao Tzu has to offer?

In dwelling, live close to the ground. I envision a hobbit hole.

In thinking, keep to the simple. Why must we make things so very complicated? It always starts with how we are thinking.

In conflict, be fair and generous. Those are some of the most important words you are ever going to read. If people were fair and generous, there wouldn’t be any conflict.

In governing, don’t try to control. Lao Tzu will have a whole lot to say about the art of governing. But everything he will have to say, he says in a nutshell, right there. Don’t try to control. There. That solved everything.

In work, do what you enjoy. It isn’t like we haven’t heard this in so many words over and over again. If the work that you do is a drudgery for you, you will never be content. You really must make changes. I know how difficult this can be. I spent a good deal of my adult life with my work as drudgery. And that is no way to live.

In family life, be completely present. This isn’t talking about quality time vs. quantity time. Just in case you were thinking that was where he was going. It isn’t about making sure that you spend a little quality time each day with your children, parents. It is about being completely, one hundred percent, present with your family. But it isn’t about time at all. It is about presence. Be completely present.

I think I understand why it is that people disdain the low places. It is because we want respect. We want other people to respect us. We want to respect ourselves. And somehow, we have the mistaken notion that by being content with the low places, we can’t possibly be respected by others, let alone ourselves.

That is what drives us to compare and compete. But Lao Tzu has a very interesting prescription for just what ails us: Learn to be content with simply being yourself.


Why does it seem paradoxical? Reality vs. Illusion

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 seven, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

There are two things about philosophical Taoism that I want to talk about today. The first being, that Lao Tzu once again refers to the Tao as infinite and eternal. And the second being, the idea of paradox as a way of distinguishing reality from illusion, or how things are vs. how things seem to be. Both of these ideas are something that Lao Tzu will be coming back to again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching; so don’t be dismayed if we only scratch the surface today.

First, the Tao, as infinite and eternal. Because we have our own ideas of what it means to be infinite, and what it means to be eternal, I think it is a good idea to take a bit of time defining terms. And Lao Tzu provides us with all the help we need.

Why is the Tao eternal? It can never die, because it was never born. We tend to think of eternal as referring to time. But something that was never born and will never die is not in the realm of time, at all. It is outside, or beyond, time. And that is what we need to understand about eternal when referring to the Tao.

And the Tao is infinite. When we think of infinite we think of, well, not finite. That is what infinite means. But look at how Lao Tzu explains why the Tao is infinite. The Tao is infinite because it has no desires for itself.

We have desires. But the Tao has no desires. The Tao just is. Our desires cause us all kinds of grief. Lao Tzu has already told us that our desires trap us. So, of course, we want to be free. If only there was a way for the infinite, eternal Tao to free us. Well, I have good news. Because the Tao is eternal and infinite, it is present for all beings. And it is in that being present that we are set free from desires.

Which brings me to the paradox. We tend to think of ourselves, and all of nature as having a definite beginning and a definite end. We see ourselves bound by the framework of time. After all, we were born. And we will die.

Also, we see ourselves as being finite creatures. We do it all the time, looking at ourselves as small and insignificant, finite beings in the vast ocean of the cosmos. Just tiny specks on a tiny speck in a remote corner of a mediocre galaxy.

But Lao Tzu invites us to see beyond this illusion (of how things appear to be). Just like we said yesterday. The Tao only appears to be hidden from us. That infinite, eternal reality actually is present for all beings inside each of us.

I know we need to flesh this out; and I promise we will begin to do just that, with the help of the Master, shortly. But right now I want this to sink in. I am not talking about religion. This is philosophy. If religion aids you in your journey, then definitely use it. If religion hinders you, then I think you know what you need to do.

But I am not talking about religion. I am talking about how bound we seem to be by the framework of time and space. But all that seems to be is just an illusion. The reality is beyond all of that. We are infinite and eternal. That is reality. That is the paradox. That is what we keep bumping up against. Because we seem to be finite. We keep encountering the limits we put on ourselves as finite beings.

And this paradox is all the more vivid for us as we behold the Master. Why is the Master ahead? Because she stays behind. Why is she one with all things? Because she is detached from all things. Why is she perfectly fulfilled? Because she has let go of herself. She has let go of all of the constraints of time and space. She is beyond time and space. Beyond good and evil. Beyond beautiful and ugly.

And who is this Master? The Master is any of us. Just any one of us, and all of us, living in perfect harmony with the way things are. Perhaps, we are not ready to let go of the limitations we have put on ourselves. Maybe I am not, quite yet. But I know that the only reason I keep getting bogged down in the illusion, is because I still keep acting like the way things seem to be is the way things actually are.

And I know better.


As Plain As The Nose On Your Face…

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 six, translation by Stephen MItchell)

Day Six. Lao Tzu has been pointing us in the direction of the Tao. Showing us how the Tao manifests itself in our Universe. Desires hinder our ability to understand the eternally real. Our senses can’t really experience the Tao. We have eyes to see and ears to hear, but they can’t see and hear it. It is incomprehensible. And some of you, might just be thinking, “Then, why bother?”

And I would answer, “Don’t. Seriously. Don’t bother.”

Bothering isn’t going to help us along our journey. Trying to understand, trying to grasp something that is ungraspable, is foolishness. Instead of trying, instead of doing anything at all, just stop and breathe and relax. And just be. Don’t make this so hard.

At least, that is what I keep telling myself. Because I, too, get frustrated with the pace sometimes. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if we could just see it with our eyes and hear it with our ears? I don’t know about that. What I do know is that we cannot experience the Tao like that.

But we can experience its manifestations. And we will be able to trace those manifestations, right back to the Source.

So, I am going to follow my own advice and just let Lao Tzu lead the way. What have we learned so far? The Tao is like a well, used but never used up. It is like the eternal void, filled with infinite possibilities. It is like a bellows, empty yet infinitely capable. And today, Lao Tzu builds on all of that.

The Tao is called the Great Mother. Empty (there is that word empty again), yet inexhaustible. That word empty is important. Because of the paradox. When we think of empty, we don’t think of infinitely capable. And we certainly don’t think of inexhaustible. When we think of empty we think this is the end. The well has run dry. It is finished. We are done for. The fat lady has sung. But the fat lady needs to be escorted from the stage, because her presence on the stage was a bit premature. For the Tao’s emptiness is not like any emptiness we have ever experienced before.

Calling the Tao the Great Mother is just another metaphor. We just keep pointing a finger at the moon. Do you see it? Do you see it? No, not with your eyes looking outwardly. That isn’t where we will find the Tao.

But the Tao is called the Great Mother for a very good reason. It truly is inexhaustible; and, it gives birth to infinite worlds.

Oh, but why does it have to be hidden from us? Why can’t it be as plain as the nose on my face? Well….

It is. I know it doesn’t seem that way, at all. Appearances can be deceiving. This shroud of mystery surrounding the Tao. Darkness within darkness. This gateway to all understanding. But reality is so much better than our clouded perceptions. It really is as plain as the nose on your face.

The Tao isn’t off in some far flung corner of the Universe giving birth to infinite worlds, inaccessible to us mere mortals. The Tao may be hidden to your senses, but it is always present within you. And once you have discovered it there, you can use it any way you want.

What is beyond good and evil?

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 five, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

One of the things that I really admire about Lao Tzu is that he isn’t afraid to tackle the big questions. Yesterday, we talked about origins. And where does God fit in the big picture. Today, Lao Tzu tackles the question of good and evil.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu likened the Tao to a well and the eternal void. Today he incorporates those two ideas into one image. That of a bellows.

Like a lot of the chapters of the Tao Te Ching, this chapter can easily be divided into two parts So I want to take these two parts, one at a time.

Being as Lao Tzu begins with the concept of good and evil, it seems like the best place for us to start.

Back in chapter two, Lao Tzu taught us that when people see some things as good, other things become bad. Lao Tzu was introducing us to the idea of good and evil right there. And warning us against choosing sides. Be careful about seeing some things as good. And, I am going to cheat a little bit right here, I am going to go ahead and tell you that Lao Tzu will be returning to the concept of good and bad (evil) over and over again throughout the Tao Te Ching. He has plenty to say about the subject, but he only gives it to us in bite size amounts, giving us a little something to chew on, a bit at a time. The temptation is great for me to expand further than what he has said so far. But I think we would be better served by letting Lao Tzu set the pace for the discussion.

I do think that Lao Tzu feels compelled to discuss the concept of good and evil. After all, we humans, have been troubling ourselves over this for millennia. It seems so very important to us. Interestingly enough, I can’t imagine other beings in our world, troubling themselves with it. But that is neither here, nor there. And it doesn’t necessarily help us to move forward on our journey. For today, I want to limit myself to understanding that the Tao is beyond good and evil. The Tao is simply the way things are. If we can find our way to understanding that, we have come a long way indeed. The more clearly we can see what is beyond good and evil, the more we can embody the good.

The Tao doesn’t take sides. It gives birth to them both. This needs fleshing out; so, thankfully, Lao Tzu brings in the Master as one who is in perfect harmony with the way things are. The Master doesn’t take sides either, she welcomes both saints and sinners.

And isn’t that what it always comes down to when we are asked to choose sides? It isn’t really about whether we are going to stand on the side of good or the side of evil. Ultimately, the art of living concerns itself with something a lot more real. It isn’t concerned with the abstract. What it is concerned with, is flesh and blood. What are you going to do with those saints and sinners? You know, your fellow human beings on this planet.

The Tao doesn’t take sides. And neither should we. We need to hold on to the center. That is where the Master dwells. When we hold on to the center, we won’t be thinking of our fellow human beings as enemies. We will see them as brothers and sisters, just as in need of love and compassion as ourselves. Welcome saints and sinners as you would have them welcome you.

There is, of course, so much more that needs to be said, but I have to keep reminding myself, bite-sized morsels, Chuck, bite-sized morsels. Just give them something to chew on, we will get more as we go further in the journey.

Meanwhile, there was something about a bellows in today’s chapter. Ah, yes, the Tao is like a bellows. It is empty, but it is infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it will produce. This is really what Lao Tzu wants us to understand. That emptiness, that nothing, is everything. We want to chase after things, Lao Tzu wants to direct our gaze on nothing.

But the more I talk of it, the less I understand. So this would be a very good time for me to stop talking.

But What About God? A Question Of Origins.

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)

As anyone who has been following my little blog for long can tell you, I like to spend a great deal of time outside in my backyard; perhaps, in an attempt to connect with nature. During the day time I enjoy sitting out in the sunshine (though I have been known to spend time in the rain, as well). I like looking at the trees and the plants (especially in my garden) and watching the birds and the squirrels and the myriad insects just doing their thing, largely oblivious of my presence in their moment. And during the night time I like to go sit outside while smoking my pipe and gaze up at the great expanse of night sky. If you were to call me something of an amateur astronomer, I would probably laugh and say, let’s just call me an amateur and leave it at that.

But, of course, I couldn’t resist sitting outside this past Friday night and gazing up at what NASA refers to as a super moon. I can only imagine they delved deep into their great scientific vocabulary to come up with that name. Supposedly, our moon was at its closest to the Earth while being full, and I have to admit, I was expecting something a little more spectacular. After all, it was supposed to be super. And I couldn’t help but go, “Meh.”

I guess you could also call me an amateur critic. But I said all of that as an introduction to this chapter, which you would think would have very little to do with the moon after reading it. But, I had been thinking back on Stephen Mitchell’s introduction to the Tao Te Ching which I have relistened to recently. In the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu told us that the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. And so, Stephen Mitchell explains, all Lao Tzu can really do is point at it and tell us what it is like. It is sort of like pointing a finger at the moon. If you look at the finger, you won’t see the moon

So you see, there really is a method to my madness. I wanted to talk about pointing my finger at the moon. Which, by the way, I did on Friday night. And lo and behold, I completely blocked the moon with the tip of my finger. All I could see was my finger. I didn’t see the moon at all. Which is probably the best explanation for my “Meh” moment Friday night.

But that is just my long-winded way of saying that Lao Tzu is showing us what the Tao is like. Don’t get distracted by his finger.

He tells us that the Tao is like a well. Which means, it is to be used. But unlike an ordinary well. It isn’t finite. It can‘t be used up.

He also tells us that the Tao is like the eternal void. Now, when I think of a void, I think of a vast emptiness. But Lao Tzu promises us that this eternal void is filled, not with emptiness, but with infinite possibilities.

So, like a well, we should plan to go to it, over and over again. Using it. Daring to try to exhaust its supply. And when we peer down into the darkness, into that vast nothingness, we will find infinite possibilities await us. If only we will dare to accept the challenges of plumbing its depths.

Our journey will be a rewarding one. Just like drawing water from a well. But realizing the eternal reality, which is the Tao, isn’t going to be some easy task. While the Tao is always present; it is also hidden from us. Lao Tzu has warned us from the beginning that our desires hinder our ability to see what is plainly before us.

But, most of us are looking for meaning in our lives. Where did I come from? Where am I going? What exactly am I doing on Earth? We wonder about the origins of things. Like the Universe. And what about God? And what exactly is the relationship between the Tao and God? Science tries to answer some of these questions. Religion has its own take on these things. I find it, oh so, interesting, that Lao Tzu seems content with leaving a lot of it to mystery.

Still, in what I believe is the only reference to God in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu does take a rather playful look at the question of origins. “I don’t know who gave birth to the Tao. It is older than God.”

Older than God. Sounds like a joke to me. Lao Tzu simply gives God a passing mention and then moves on to what he really wants to talk about, the Tao.

Lao Tzu envisions a Universe that is governed by Natural Law. That Natural Law is the Tao. It isn’t that I think Lao Tzu means to be antagonistic toward religion. I just think he believes that any belief in God is of secondary importance; because he believes that any God that could exist, would have to obey the natural laws that govern the Universe. This God, after all, comes after the Tao.

Now, a natural law does not exist by itself; but through nature, where it manifests itself. Therefore, it has no birth date. It just always has been. Though we might only be able to trace back its origins as far back as its first manifestations. But then again, as long as desires are hindering us, we are only going to see the manifestations, anyway.

There may be a starting point for its manifestations. But the Tao is timeless; eternal, and ever present. People have long associated this kind of description to a God or gods. And some have likened the Tao, itself, to God. But Lao Tzu is pretty clear that the Tao existed first. It was present before anything else ever existed.

Clearly, in Lao Tzu’s mind, there can be a Universe without any gods to rule it. But there can’t be a Universe without natural laws, which even the gods must obey.


The Practice of Not-Doing

If you overesteem 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 they know.

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

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

Here we are! Already to day three of our journey of letting go of the desires which hinder us from seeing through the darkness, and beholding the eternal reality, the Tao. Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about the Tao as the great balancer in the Universe. Today, we begin to tackle the desires that hinder us.

Of course, today’s chapter flies in the face of popular culture. Popular culture inflames desires. Lao Tzu’s words may seem like a wet blanket. But the art of living may require a wet blanket from time to time.

I want to be careful here because this chapter is about over doing things. The problem isn’t with doing things, but over doing them. Moderation is the aim in the art of living. So please understand what I am about to say through the lens of moderation.

I’ll admit it, I have a problem with our modern consumerist culture. The notion that we simply must have the newest, the latest, the most up-to-date _______. (You can fill in the blank)

And no need to worry if you don’t actually have the money to pay for the latest gadget. You can always go a little further in debt to make your dream come true today. Our whole economy is built on debt. Debt that can never be paid off. It simply isn’t sustainable. But don’t let that stop you!!! Oh no, oh no.

One thing we are not teaching the next generation is how to live within their means. How could we? We don’t know how, ourselves.

And then here comes Lao Tzu with his wet blanket. Don’t overesteem great men. Don’t overvalue possessions. But what is the danger in that? Here is the danger: It makes people powerless. It makes them steal.

Does Lao Tzu really have such a grim view of the human race? No, actually he seems to understand people all too well. And he is all for empowering individuals (people). And part of that empowering means warning us to be on our guard against the lust for power. Esteem in moderation is something that all individuals should have. It is healthy. Esteem isn’t the problem, Overesteem is the problem.

And so, when just a few “great men” are esteemed above others, the others feel powerless. The lust for power is a dangerous thing. Whether it is working in those who are trying to maintain their power or those who feel powerless.

Lao Tzu doesn’t want our possessions to take possession of us. The higher the value we place on possessions, the more envy and greed will grow and fester in people’s hearts. It doesn’t matter whether the gap between the haves and the have nots is or is not growing; the lust for overvalued possessions will make people steal.

And the stealing goes both ways. It isn’t just the poor stealing from the rich. The rich do their share of stealing, too. They just seem to get to do it with impunity. We all know who the police serve and protect. It is easy to predict the outcome in courts of law based on who has the most money to spend on lawyering up.

I hope this post is not coming across as promoting class envy; because that is really not my purpose at all. All I am really trying to say, is that human nature is what it is. Class doesn’t change it. It is a universal human problem.

So, how does the Master deal with this universal human problem? The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores.

What does that even mean? Lao Tzu has been talking about the lust for power and the desire for possessions, consuming us. To deal with these desires the Master approaches it in a very interesting way.

From where do desires spring forth? From a mind that is full (obsessed) and a belly that is empty. The Master works to empty the people’s minds of their obsessions. And he fills their bellies.

But that isn’t all. The Master also weakens their ambitions and toughens their resolve. To understand what that means we need to understand the difference between ambition and resolve.

Ambition is an outward focus. Resolve, on the other hand, is an inward motivation. The Master understands that as long as the people are focused outwardly at what their neighbor has, the people will be miserable. He wants the people to turn their gaze inwardly, instead. At themselves, at their own strengths, at all they can accomplish in their own lives.

It is for this reason, that the Master helps people lose everything they know; everything they desire. And creates confusion in those who think they know.

I love that line. And I am happy it is a recurring theme in the Tao Te Ching. Unknowing and unlearning. Those that think they know, really know nothing at all.

Another recurring theme is the practice of not-doing. I even entitled my post today, “The Practice of Not-Doing.” But we have a lot of unknowing and unlearning to do, if we are going to ever understand how anything at all will get done when we do nothing.

After all, we have been trained from early childhood, the art of always being busy, busy, busy. Doing this and doing that. And wondering at the end of our day, why so much is still left undone.

The art of living is so much simpler. The practice of being, not-doing. Letting things come and go; and working with them as they do. It is but to enjoy (live in) the present moment; and everything falls into place. This is the way of the Tao. This is the art of living.

Oh be careful little mouth, what you speak…

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;
she 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 two, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I guess it wouldn’t be philosophy if we didn’t have some discussion about being and non-being. So, with philosophical Taoism. And here in chapter two, Lao Tzu introduces the concept of being and non-being creating each other. We will have plenty to say about being and non-being throughout the Tao Te Ching. I think for the present, if you are having a difficult time wrapping your mind around this right now, it might help to think of these two as being and nothingness or something and nothing. I certainly don’t want us to get in the trap of over-thinking or even trying to understand right now. Over-thinking and trying to understand is not the Way. It is enough right now just to accept that the Tao is the Source of all being and non-being.

But then Lao Tzu does give us plenty to chew on with this chapter concerning being and non-being. Maybe the best way to begin to understand is to recognize how things are manifested by naming them. We often talk about how limiting words can be. Certainly words cannot adequately express all that the Tao is, for instance. Still, naming things is more powerful than we dare imagine.

And that is what this chapter sets out to illustrate for us. By naming something we get both being and non-being. We get both what it is and what it is not. So, when you name something beautiful, something else must be ugly. When you name something good, something else must be bad.

Why is this necessarily so? Because the Tao always brings about balance. That is why Lao Tzu goes on to say that 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 simply can’t have one without the other. This is being and non-being in a nutshell. And it is the great balancing act of the Universe.

We might try to conceive of a Universe where everything is beautiful and good. In fact, I just did. But then instantly in my mind, I conceived of an alternate Universe where everything is ugly and bad. I just can’t imagine the one without imagining the other.

The Master is introduced to us for the first time in this chapter. In the original Chinese there is no distinction between pronouns identifying the gender of the Master. Stephen Mitchell, in his translation, chooses to go back and forth between the feminine and masculine gender pronouns to identify the Master. I certainly understand why some of you might find that problematic. I do wish there was a commonly used genderless yet personal pronoun in the English language that I could substitute for he and she and him and her. Until such time, I will try to maintain Stephen Mitchell’s practice of using the feminine one day and the masculine the next.

It is important to understand that for Lao Tzu’s purposes, the Master isn’t some mythical creation. Any of us can become a master, as well. Lao Tzu simply uses the Master to illustrate someone who perfectly embodies the Tao. She is a model for us. This is our standard. I suppose he could have simply referred to himself as the Master. And then we could strive to emulate him. But I think, as we continue reading through the Tao Te Ching, we will find that humility would constrain him from claiming that mantle.

For today, let’s just look at what behavior the Master models for us in this chapter. I have been rambling and we need to get back to the point of the chapter ,which is that the Tao is always balancing things out in the Universe. The Master certainly understands this. This is why she acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything.

Acting without doing anything? Teaching without saying anything? Yes, early on we are hit with what will seem paradoxical. How does anything get done without something being done? This is simply the Master illustrating going with the flow of the Tao in the Universe. Things arise, and she lets them come. And when things disappear, she lets them go. I promise, this will all get easier once we have quieted our questioning minds down.

The Master has without possessing. She acts without expectaton. And when her work is done, she simply forgets all about it. Yes, I know, it is paradoxical. But this is why the Master’s work lasts forever.

And so we begin again…

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 one, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Here we go again. Back at the very beginning. Just like everything else in the Universe is cyclical, I like to be able to go through the Tao Te Ching a chapter a day. It takes us eighty-one days to make the journey. And then we get to start the journey all over again.

For my newer followers, it gives you an opportunity to see how Lao Tzu takes us through the journey from day one. But for those of you that have been with me for quite awhile now, I think it is an excellent opportunity to see how much we have already learned (or maybe unlearned is a better word for it); and see how much more we can this time through.

Right from the beginning Lao Tzu provides this warning. Maybe it is not just for his readers. Maybe he is wanting to keep it in mind, too. That is, that all that can be said about the Tao is not really the Tao at all. Oh, we can point a finger at it, from a distance. We can say, it is like this or that. But the Tao is beyond words.

Not that I am going to let a little thing like that stop me from trying to apply these teachings in a very practical way to my own life, and by extension yours, as well.

Still, it is something for us to always keep in mind. Even the name “Tao” is not really enough to name it. Lao Tzu just doesn’t have a better name for it, so he calls it the Tao.

The words we use and the names we use do serve a very useful purpose, though. Yes, words are limiting; but they do help us along our way. And naming is the origin of all particular things. Which Lao Tzu refers to as manifestations of the Tao.

Now that we have that caveat as we get started, Lao Tzu warns us that desires will hinder us in the journey. If we want to realize the mystery, which is the Tao, we will need to be free from desire. As long as we are caught in desire, we will only see the manifestations.
Don’t let that discourage you. Sure, we want to be able to see through the darkness. And it isn’t going to be easy. But that mystery that we long to unravel, but can’t see in the darkness yet, will be well worth the time spent becoming free from the desires that hinder us.

In the meantime, keep in mind, that just because we can only see the manifestations, and not the mystery, doesn’t mean we aren’t getting somewhere. After all, those manifestations arise from the same Source where the mystery may be found.

We will learn, along the way, how to trace back those manifestations to the Source, itself. The gateway to all understanding.

As always, I am using Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation of the Tao Te Ching. There are lots and lots of translations and I encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them. But for my purposes, I haven’t found a better translation in its entirety with which to work.

One last thing: I have no problem with reblogs of my posts. Even those of you that delete out my long-winded commentary and just reblog the quote. All I ask is that you will give credit where credit is due. Please give Stephen Mitchell credit for the translation. Thanks so much. And we’ll meet up again tomorrow for chapter two.

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)

I have entitled this post “Looks like this is the end…” for two reasons. The obvious reason is that today’s chapter is the last chapter of the Tao Te Ching. But I have another reason for that title. In my overly-long blog post yesterday I covered, I think, a great deal of ground. We talked about the difference between true contentment and complacency. And we talked about discontentment as a necessary step on our way to find true contentment.

That is our goal, after all – to find true contentment. As long as we are complacent, we will never find true contentment. And that means understanding something that Lao Tzu alludes to throughout the Tao Te Ching – that there is something real out there, with which we can be content. But there are obstacles along the journey. These obstacles are “illusions” which we perceive with our senses. Being content with the way things are will mean being discontent with the illusion, first.

This raises the question, “How can I recognize the illusion?” The easiest way that I can explain that, is to say that whenever things are not what they appear to be, then what you are beholding with your senses, is an illusion.

It is like the title to my post this morning. It looks like this is the end. After all, this is the last chapter of the Tao Te Ching. But in reality, life is cyclical. Everything that goes on in the Universe is cyclical. And just like the seasons of the year, I am just going to start back up again, tomorrow, with chapter one, with fresh and hopefully more enlightened commentary.

I really want to cover the differences between reality and illusions in much more detail; and will try to take advantage of every opportunity as it presents itself in the days and weeks ahead.

Just look at me, I haven’t even begun to cover this particular chapter yet; but I did want to say this one thing about how important it is to reject the illusion; and not settle for anything less than the real thing. Perhaps the nearest and dearest reason for me, is that the State’s power is all an illusion. Its very existence depends upon the great masses of people believing the lie, that the State is necessary. The State wants us complacent. I want us discontent with the illusion. I want us to embrace the way things really are. That is where true contentment may be found.

Okay, now to today’s chapter. I promise, this will be brief.

Yes, today’s chapter was the last chapter. Lao Tzu has said all that needed to be said about the Tao. He has offered us the example of the Master, who always seeks to live out his life, as an expression of the Tao. The Master doesn’t need to be eloquent. And, in fact she recognizes that eloquence tends to masquerade the truth with what is only an illusion. The Master is indeed wise. He is wise enough to have no need to prove his point. The truth is self-evident. Only illusions require justification, or attempts at proof.

The Master doesn’t measure her happiness or her wealth by how much she possesses. The more she does for and gives to others, the happier and wealthier she is.

Finally, the Tao never has to resort to the use of force. It nourishes us all, by just being itself. The mark of a true leader is he never dominates others.

Okay this really is the end. Be back tomorrow.

A Hobbit’s life for me

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 nearing the end of another cycle through the eighty-one chapters of the Tao Te Ching. I just wanted to let all of you know how very much I appreciate you following along with me as we make our way through it, one day at a time. There is little that cheers me more than getting a message from one of you telling me how much you enjoy it. Thanks!

Today, Lao Tzu addresses the importance of governing a country wisely. That right there results in its inhabitants being content. Being content is a good thing. Sometimes I think contentment gets a bad rap. So, I will want to spend a little time on the problem of contentment today.

First, I don’t know how things are in your particular country. I know there does seem to be a whole lot of discontent out there in the world today. Perhaps it has always been this way. Maybe, because of the power of the internet, it just seems more widespread. But, I don’t think the internet is exaggerating the discontent.

The point of my blog post today is to discuss whether contentment is necessarily good, and discontent is necessarily bad.

But before I do that, I do want to discuss the idyllic picture that Lao Tzu paints for us of a country whose inhabitants are content.

Every time that I read through this chapter, I can’t help but think that this is something that J.R.R. Tolkien could have written. This idyllic picture does seem a pretty accurate picture of life in the Shire. And I must admit, I would be quite content living as a hobbit in the Shire. A garden, a pipe, and beer (that, yes, Pippen, comes in pints), would suit me just fine. I am a very simple man with very simple tastes. I would love living in the Shire.

But, I know that isn’t everybody’s idyllic picture. And that is just fine. Paint your own idyllic picture. Go ahead, I can wait….

Okay, now that you have your own idyllic picture in mind. Let me ask you a question. Why aren’t you living that way right now? Because I am. Or at least as close to it as I can. I am a couple feet too tall to be a hobbit. But I have my garden. And I have my pipe. And I drink my beer a pint at a time, thank you very much.

And that brings me to the problem of contentment. And whether contentment is necessarily good, and discontent is necessarily bad.

Lao Tzu certainly suggests being content is a good thing. But like I said before, contentment gets a bad rap sometimes; so we really need to talk about what true contentment means.

The reason I think that contentment gets a bad rap sometimes is because sometimes contentment is defined as complacency. Both contentment and complacency mean self-satisfaction. But complacency has an extra added unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. Whereas contentment is being aware of exactly the way things are, and being content with that. Maybe when we are not being governed wisely, our rulers would like for us to be complacent. But how could we be content when things are not what they should be?

Contentment is awareness. Discontentment is awareness as well. Perhaps, you can see where I am going with this. I want to be aware and content. When I am discontented, it is because I am aware and I can’t be deceived into being complacent.

Which brings me to one of the harder things for me to try to explain about philosophical Taoism. Philosophical Taoism teaches that the way things are is the way things are. And the words contentment and discontentment, and even complacency seem appropriate anytime I read that phrase. What exactly does Lao Tzu mean when he says that the way things are is the way things are?

Does he mean that we shouldn’t be discontent? Is philosophical Taoism promoting a certain level of complacency?

When it seems that way, I am mistaking an illusion for reality. And even given all the metaphors that Lao Tzu uses to try to explain the Tao to us, he is always describing for us what is actually very real. The way things are is the way things are, speaks of reality. What is real. When we are enjoined to be content with the way things are, he is talking about being aware of the reality behind the illusion.

Hopefully that made as much sense as I intended for it to mean. We can really never be content with what is only an illusion. Oh, we might suffer from complacency. I did for a good many years. And I think plenty still do. But it is impossible to truly be content with that.

But when we become aware of the illusion, then discontentment is a very appropriate response. It is either that, or reburying our heads in the sand.

And once we have discovered what is real. When we really are aware of it. Then we can be content. Because all illusions are swept away. Only then can we be truly content that the way things are is the way things are.

I know I have been overlong with my post today, and I apologize for that. But I only have this one more thing to add. Do you remember when I asked you why aren’t you living out your idyllic picture now? Well, why aren’t you? Why isn’t that your reality? Sweep away the illusions; and live your life the way you want. Now. Know the true contentment you were born to know.