All posts by libertariantaoist

Just Four Lines…

Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 40, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Nestled in the middle of the Tao Te Ching we find these four lines. Seemingly insignificant, but I think they pack a real punch. Lao Tzu has been talking about centering ourselves in the Tao. And, being in harmony with the Tao. And he takes just this few lines to tell us how to go about that.

We have said before that the way things are is the way things are. And I have been careful to explain that all this means is that there is an operating principle behind the Universe. By realizing this operating principle and becoming one with it, we too, accord with the Tao.

Can you sense the movement of the Tao in the Universe? Sure you can. It is all about return. The most eloquent illustration of this movement is represented in the various natural cycles that we can observe repeating themselves throughout the course of our lives on planet Earth.

We see it every day as the Earth revolves around the Sun. I recently watched the first episode of the updated version of Cosmos. In it, Neal Degrasse Tyson was reminding us that it wasn’t that long ago that the powers that be wholeheartedly believed that the Earth was the center of our Universe, and the Sun revolved around the Earth. For a time, as a child I believed the Sun was standing still. The Earth and all the planets in our solar system were revolving around it, but the Sun was just sitting there. But thankfully, I didn’t stay a child.

Now, I know that the Sun is on the move, as well; orbiting (I think that would be the word for it) around our galaxy. Where is it taking us? Somehow, I think if enough time passed, back around to where we are right now. It is in that way that the Earth every year completes its orbit around the sun. Rotation of the Earth on its axis is what gives us night and day, endlessly repeating themselves. The tilt on its axis, as it revolves around the Sun, gives us our four seasons. Because I take a chapter each day in the Tao Te Ching, that is 81 chapters in all, I get to return to this chapter again with each new season of the year.

But that is just one example of the return that we can see on display. We also can look at the cycles of the Moon as it revolves around us. And we can see it in the cycle of life on our planet. There is birth, growth, death, and decay; followed by rebirth, and so on and on. Once again, endless repeating, endlessly renewed. Return is the movement of the Tao.

And yielding is the way of the Tao. Yielding is a powerful word. More powerful than I think we usually give it credit for being. I used to only think of yielding as slowing down and letting others have the right of way. That is certainly an important part; but if we leave it at just that, I don’t think we have begun to scratch the surface of what Lao Tzu means by yielding as the way of the Tao.

It wasn’t until I started out trying to grow my own food in my small garden that I began to understand a much deeper and more satisfying meaning for yielding. When I plant small seeds in fertile soil, and the Sun and rain nourish that seed, I see a yielding of a whole new sort. Plants grow, first small, then bigger and bigger. And soon my plants are yielding a harvest that has multiplied my few small seeds, a hundred fold. Yielding is the way of the Tao.

And so, Lao Tzu tells us a whole lot about the Tao in just a couple lines. The Tao is about returning and yielding. But that is only the first two lines. There are still two more. And now Lao Tzu talks about being and non-being. He has likened the Tao, the great Mother of the Universe, the Source of all being and non-being. Having said that we can identify the Tao in its movement (return) and in its way (yielding), now he tells us how the Tao makes all things happen in the Universe.

It is in the interaction of being and non-being. Like yin and yang, these opposites are in their own dance throughout the Universe. All things are born of being. And being is born of non-being. But that only talks of birth. And birth is only one part of the cycle of life. That tells me there is much more to being and non-being than I can even imagine. In an earlier chapter, Lao Tzu likens being to everything that we can experience with our senses. It is what we work with.

But non-being, is a much more difficult concept to grasp. Sometimes I try to think of non-being as nothing. But that seems to negate its true power. Without non-being there can be no being. Non-being is infinitely important to us, even though it is beyond our ability to grasp or understand.

I sometimes think of it as an expression of the Tao. It certainly represents the mysterious nature of the Tao. Thinking back on that episode of Cosmos, I think of how certain we have been in ages past, that we had all the answers. And how wrong we were. Now, we seem to be gaining new knowledge and understanding almost in an exponential manner. Yet, we know, we are still just scratching the surface of all that might yet be known.

The Tao is truly infinite.

Earliest Known Environmental Impact Study?

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way things are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel,
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as stone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 39, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lao Tzu has been talking a lot about the world. He has said that it is sacred and can’t be improved upon. He has said that if the powerful could center themselves in the Tao, and stay centered, the world would transform itself into a paradise. In today’s chapter he describes that paradise, of a world that is in harmony with the Tao.

It is quite the beautiful picture. This is the kind of world we all want to live in. And, it is the kind of world that the Tao, while maintaining a state of equilibrium, has provided for all of us.

Unfortunately, Lao Tzu can’t just present the beautiful picture. He also has to tell us the kind of world that we will have when we aren’t in harmony with the Tao. When humans interfere with the natural order. When we can’t let nature sort itself out, naturally. I want to be careful here. I don’t think Lao Tzu intends for us to look at this chapter and see hopelessness and despair.

He didn’t say, “Since man interferes with the Tao…” He said, “When man interferes with the Tao…” And that is an important distinction. We humans are fully capable of being in harmony with the Tao. We can cooperate with Nature instead of being antagonistic toward it.

Lao Tzu particularly takes to task the powerful over this because he rightly understands that it is the powerful that can use their power to do the most good, or the most harm. As we said yesterday, this isn’t a job for the merely ordinary. It takes the extraordinary to see and understand the way things are and work in cooperation with the laws of nature to achieve all that we want to achieve.

The Master is one who is extraordinary. Because he understands the whole, he is able to view each individual part with compassion. He makes it his constant practice to be humble. Pride, hubris, a particularly human trait, is what causes people to think they can improve on the natural order.

If we truly want to be extraordinary, we will need to keep our pride subdued.. Being centered in the Tao, being in harmony with the Tao, means allowing ourselves to be shaped by the Tao, into something as rugged and common as stone. No, we won’t glitter like a jewel. But we’ll certainly like the looks of our world a whole lot more.

Not Content With Being Merely Ordinary?

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 38, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues identifying the paradox that separates the eternal reality of the way things are from what is only mere illusion. As I have said before, whenever we encounter paradox, we are faced with a choice, between holding onto the illusion and accepting what is reality. It is the ability to let go of the illusion and, instead, dwell in reality that separates the truly extraordinary person from one who is merely ordinary.

Throughout this chapter Lao Tzu compares the Master with the merely ordinary. Keep in mind, that even though I call the Master extraordinary, this person could be anyone of us, and even all of us. We don’t have to settle for being merely ordinary. The Master is simply someone who is in perfect harmony with the way things are. And any of us can dwell in the center of the Tao.

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful. There it is again, that word, powerful. Lao Tzu refers to the powerful repeatedly in the Tao Te Ching. If only they could (or would) heed his words. And why don’t they? It seems that the most likely reason is that they are merely ordinary. They keep reaching for power. And they never have enough. Lao Tzu tells us, stop trying to be powerful and you will be truly powerful. That is the paradox. As long as we are reaching and grasping for it, we never will have enough.

And the paradox stretches on throughout the chapter. The Master does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. While the ordinary person is always doing things, yet many more are left undone. I was thinking of this yesterday when I kept seeing posts on tumblr from people who felt truly powerless in the face of the tragedy which is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. We want to do something. We are always looking for something to do.

I am not knocking wanting to do something. It is a very natural response when faced with the kinds of tragedies we see on constant display throughout the world. But please understand the paradox; because when you see and understand the paradox, you too, can leave nothing undone.

Kind people want to do something. Yet, something always remains undone. Just people want to do something and leave many things to be done. And moral people, they are the most determined of all; when they do something, and no one responds, they’ll roll up their sleeves and use force.

This, to me, is why it can never be a good idea for there to be a monopoly on the use of force. It is why I am always skeptical when people in uniforms, and wearing badges, want to tell other people what to do. They believe they have the moral authority to apply force whenever things don’t go their way. And sadly, the people that wield that kind of authority are some of the most ordinary people. And people die.

I know that we have reached the point in the narrative of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri where the aggressor is going to be portrayed as a good, kind, just, and moral guy. And the victim? Well, he will be vilified. You know, he probably robbed that convenience store, don’t you? Yeah, he was a thug.

Now don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying we should fall for the narrative. We are, after all trying to separate illusion from reality. The question on my mind is why it matters? We live in the United States of America. And the last time I checked, the accused were supposed to be afforded due process. And even if Michael Brown was the vile person some will come to believe, it would seem to me, that being ordinary is not enough for the good, kind, just, and moral, to be. But because there is a monopoly on the use of force, being ordinary is enough. There isn’t any competition. And the ordinary can go on being ordinary.

But Lao Tzu didn’t write this chapter for those that are content to be merely ordinary. He writes it for those that would be extraordinary. That is where our journey is taking each of us. But still, we need to see the illusion for what it is. Or we will never let it go, and dwell in reality.

We can see it so very clearly when the Tao is lost. It is in what is left when the Tao is lost. There is goodness. Until that is lost. Then morality. Until that is lost. Finally, there is only ritual. And that is only the husk of true faith. And, it is the beginning of chaos. But things didn’t have to spiral out of control like this.

The Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are, the natural order of the Universe. But we have exchanged what is real for what is only illusion. We fear the depths, and keep to the surface. Instead of seeking out the fruit, we delight ourselves with only the flower. And we are willful in our disregard for what is true.

How merely ordinary of us. And how very different is the Way of the Master.

If we want to be extraordinary, we will need to concern ourselves with what the extraordinary concern themselves. Those depths we have irrationally feared. The fruit which offers us so much more than the simple delights of mere flowers. And we can’t have a will of our own. As long as we are holding onto our own will, we can’t begin to embrace the Tao. We must let all illusions go. We must dwell in reality.

When Desires Are Inflamed, There Can Be No Peace

The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be
transformed by itself,
in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire
all things are at peace.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 37, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is almost a copy of an earlier chapter in the Tao Te Ching (chapter 32). I say, almost, because there are subtle differences that are very important to note.

We have been talking about the way things are. The Tao is just the name that Lao Tzu has given for the organizing principle of the Universe (the Way things are). In talking about the Tao, I have referred to it, and its ways, as mysterious. In chapter 32, Lao Tzu says the Tao, though it contains uncountable galaxies, is so small that it can’t be perceived. Today, he says the Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. This is simply Lao Tzu’s way of confirming the mysterious nature of the Tao.

But just because it is mysterious, that doesn’t mean we can’t see its manifestations and follow it; going with the flow, so to speak. But it can be difficult. Particularly for some people. Refer back once again to chapter 32, “If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace and the law would be written in their hearts.”

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu once again begins with “If powerful men and women…” but notice the subtle shift as he continues, “…could center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.”

In chapter 32, Lao Tzu ponders the question if powerful men and women can stay centered. And by this chapter, he is asking if powerful men and women can even center themselves. This is a subtle difference; but I think it is still significant. Either way, the result is much the same: peace and harmony.

Because, you see, I believe that Lao Tzu is absolutely right. The Tao, though it does nothing at all, accomplishes all things perfectly. The whole world is capable of being transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People are fully capable of being content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony and free of desire.

The bugaboo always comes down to what powerful men and women are going to do. Lao Tzu promises that if they could center themselves in the Tao, and stay centered, the world would transform itself, into a paradise. So what exactly is holding us back?

That was a rhetorical question. The answer is obviously, the powerful; who only want to hold onto their power. Because, if you have been actually picturing the world that Lao Tzu is describing, then you know that it is a place that has no need or use for them. And that just won’t do.

Which is why we see so much unrest in the world today. And I mean all over the world. I have been particularly interested in the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, lately; because I happen to live in Missouri, just a little over 3 hours drive away from Ferguson. My children’s mother grew up in Hazelwood, right next to Ferguson. She actually worked at the McDonalds that the police closed down the other night. So, unlike so many other places that I could be talking about right now, Ferguson seems very close to home for me.

And I think to myself that I am just about certain that the people of Ferguson would very much like to be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. But that can not be, because the powerful have other plans.

Let us never forget how this all got started. Two young men had the audacity to walk down the middle of a street. Jaywalking!?! Well, that is certainly something that demands attention. And attention it got. From the powers that be. I don’t know for sure what all happened after that. All I can say with certainty is that a police officer, sworn to serve and protect, pulled out a gun and fired it multiple times at one of the young men. That man is dead, after committing the crime of jaywalking. And that incident has inflamed all kinds of desires.

And this is where Lao Tzu gets really sad. Because it is freedom from desires that he is after. But no, it will be awhile now, before the people of Ferguson experience any freedom from desires. They desire justice. The police desire control. And things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they ever get better. Because only when there is no desire, are all things at peace.

The Subtle Perception Of The Eternal Reality

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.

This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 36, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu promised us that the Tao would prove to be inexhaustible when it was put to use. He even went so far as to say that when you are centered in the Tao you can go wherever you wish, without danger. That is quite the claim. And it is one that I simply ignored yesterday as I wrote my commentary on the chapter.

But I can’t let a claim like that simply go ignored. He was talking about perceiving the universal harmony even in the midst of great pain, because you have found peace in your heart. It is as if he means that peace in our hearts will manifest itself everywhere we go.

I was talking yesterday about using the Tao to relieve the pain and suffering that we encounter in the world around us. And today, I want to expand on that. How do we go about using the Tao to relieve suffering? Is it really possible that the peace we have found in our own hearts can manifest itself everywhere we go?

I hinted at the answer yesterday when I said that we can use the Tao to see, truly see, the way things are. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu talks about what he calls the subtle perception of the way things are. And when you are wanting to use the Tao to relieve pain and suffering, it is a good idea to start with both understanding and accepting that the way things are is the way things are.

I know I have been over this before, but for my newer followers, I think it is important to explain this concept. When I say that the way things are is the way things are, I am talking about the eternal reality. I don’t want anyone to think that we should just ignore all the bad that is going on in the world; because “the way things are is just the way things are.” And there isn’t anything that can be done about it. That isn’t what Lao Tzu is saying at all. What he is saying is that if we want to shrink something or get rid of it entirely, we have to understand the eternal reality behind it. You can’t just take something. You must first allow it to be given.

We want to work with the Tao, rather than at cross purposes with it. If we are pushing when it is pulling we won’t accomplish the good we aim to do. There are laws of nature at work in the Universe. If we want to succeed, we best understand and accept them. For they continue to operate whether or not we do.

And I know this all seems paradoxical: If you want to shrink something, first let it expand. If you want to get rid of something, first allow it to flourish. If you want to take something, first let it be given. The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast.

Yes, it all seems paradoxical. And I have covered this before, as well. Whenever we encounter paradox, know that we are encountering the difference between the eternal reality and illusion.

Please, let no one say that I am saying we need to let pain and suffering expand and flourish if we want to be rid of it. Because I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that if we want to relieve pain and suffering, and I know that we do; then we need to understand that when we encounter the hard and the fast, we can best overcome it, not by being harder and faster, but by being soft and slow.

The Tao is mysterious. And the Tao works in mysterious ways. Does that sound like a cop out? I hope not. It is simply truth. And just like the Tao, our workings need to remain a mystery. But, oh the results you will have to show.

Especially In The Midst Of Great Pain

She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it,
there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it,
there is nothing to hear.
When you use it,
it is inexhaustible.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 35, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

What is the appeal of philosophical Taoism? That seems like a legitimate question.

The Tao isn’t something that we experience with our senses. That much is certain. Your eyes can afford you all the beauty of nature surrounding you. But you will never find the Tao by looking for it. Your ears know how to appreciate the delightful sounds of music. But if you listen for the Tao, there is nothing to hear. With our noses we can take in all the aroma of good cooking. But we can’t sniff out the Tao. And that good cooking that we have been smelling, tastes as wonderful as our noses hinted at. Meanwhile, words that point to the Tao, seem monotonous and without flavor. So what is the appeal? Well, it sure isn’t to our senses.

And yet, and yet, Lao Tzu says the Tao is something that can be perceived. When we are centered in the Tao, we can perceive the universal harmony. To me it is like something that you will never perceive by trying to perceive it. The Tao kind of sneaks up on you. You realize it when you aren’t expecting to. Maybe only when you aren’t expecting to.

You are just going about your day, just like any other day. But today is different from any other day. And you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly it is that makes today different. You just know that it all makes sense to you. Though your senses might be telling you a completely different thing.

I know when I am centered in the Tao. And I know when I have strayed from the center of the Tao. It isn’t that the world looks, or sounds, or smells, or tastes, or feels any different. But when, in spite of the pain and suffering that I and others around me may be experiencing, I can perceive the universal harmony, and I have peace in my heart; then I know I am centered in the Tao.

It is then that I can put the Tao to good use. It is then that the appeal of philosophical Taoism makes perfect sense to me. In perfect harmony with the Tao, I can use the Tao to see, truly see, the way things are. I can use the Tao to relieve the pain and suffering of all those around me.

There is a lot of pain and suffering. And that is the appeal of philosophical Taoism to me. Because as we use it, we find it to be inexhaustible.

Greatness Is To Be Found In Humility

The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn’t hold onto them.
Since it is merged with all things,
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it,
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 34, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It is tempting to read through this chapter quickly, and say, “Well, all of this is just fine; but what does it have to do with me?” I continue to remind myself that Lao Tzu wrote this for me. He is giving me lessons that I need to be learning along the way.

So while he seems to be talking about the Tao, I know that he is telling me, “Given this, how will you then live your life?”

He says the Tao is great. But he also tells us how it is that the Tao is great. And this, my friends, is a lesson of supreme importance for us today.

I remember when I first read through this chapter, I thought it sounded kind of pantheist. But now as I read through these lines I can’t help but think this isn’t like any god we have ever heard of before.

The great Tao flows everywhere. Okay, so far so good. The Tao is always on the move. But it isn’t ever not everywhere.

And while all things are born from it, it doesn’t create them. Now that is something I wasn’t expecting. It isn’t claiming to be the Creator? It gives birth to all things; but makes no claim of supremacy over them. We owe it nothing in return? No worship, or adoration, or allegiance? Very interesting.

It doesn’t make any claim for itself. No matter how much it pours itself into its work. This goes back to it flowing everywhere. The flowing and the pouring are the same thing. The Tao is certainly hard at work. But it really makes no claim? Because, that seems to leave all of us, how shall I put it, free?

It nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn’t hold onto them. Giving birth to all things isn’t enough. All things require nourishing as well. Yet… That is a big yet. Yet, it leaves us be.

And now we get to the kicker. Having flowed everywhere, having given birth to all things, having nourished infinite worlds, it is thoroughly merged with all things, and hidden in their hearts. Where is this great Tao? It is everywhere, in everything; but so merged with all things that we can’t perceive it. That, my friends, is why it can be called humble. And that humility is everything.

For you see, all things vanish into it; and it alone endures. Therefore, it can also be called great.

Because the Tao is everything and everywhere, the Tao is great. Because the Tao makes no claim to greatness, and instead, seeks the lowliest of places, it is humble. The Tao is so humble that it isn’t even aware of its greatness. That is what makes it truly great.

And that, my friends is the lesson to be learned. Because, like I said at the very beginning, this isn’t really about the Tao, at all. It is about each one of us, vanishing in the Tao. We, too, can be great without being aware of our greatness. And that comes about as we go about everything we do in that same spirit of humility.

Reining Me Back In

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 33, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, Lao Tzu reins me back in. I have been so focused the last few days on what others are doing, or not doing. And knowing others is important. It is intelligent to know others. But Lao Tzu reminds me that is not enough. If I want to gain true wisdom, I need to know myself. That requires me to turn my gaze back on myself.

He says that it takes strength to master others. But if I want to attain true power, I need to master myself. Okay, Lao Tzu, I get it. We’re changing the focus from an outward one; which, while important, doesn’t give me a complete picture of what is going on in my world. I keep insisting that I am my own master. Well then, I better make sure I have me, under control.

And Lao Tzu has two very necessary things to keep me occupied in knowing and mastering myself.

First, I need to realize that I have enough. That is going to require a great deal of both self-knowledge and self-mastery. Because I can easily come up with a list of things that I think I am lacking right now. But that is only because I have been preoccupied with looking outwardly. Once I return my gaze inwardly, I begin to see that he is right.

I must not be distracted. There is a whole lot going on out there right now. And I am easily enticed to turn my attention elsewhere. Besides, when I spend time in introspection, especially after being focused outwardly for so long, I find the inward gaze a little unsettling. I need to calm down. The waters are so muddied. I need to wait for the mud to settle. Then I can see more clearly.

I know that I can’t begin to master myself as long as I don’t fully know myself. But as the mud settles, I can see that all that I require, I already have. It is then, that I come to the realization that I am truly rich.

The second thing is the truly hard one. Lao Tzu reminds me that all those times that he has been talking about staying in the center of the circle, he wasn’t wanting me looking at whether others are, or ever will. His words were always directed at me. It is me that needs to stay in the center of the circle.

And what is this? Embrace death with my whole heart? I have been so focused on just trying to live in this maddening world. But, and this, of course, presents us with yet another paradox; if I will embrace death with my whole heart, I will endure forever.

Remember, we have shifted our focus, our attention. Yes, we have been so focused on this maddening world. That focus has sapped a whole lot of our energy. After all, I want to postpone or avoid death. I fear it. Oh, I don’t fear it because I am worried about what is going to happen after I die. I fear it because I don’t like thinking about end of life issues that happen while I am still very much alive. But what does worrying, fretting, and fearing get me? Is it making the struggle to live any easier? Of course not.

And that is why Lao Tzu says that I need to stop that. Let go of the worry, the fretting, the fear. Instead, embrace the thing I worry, fret over, and fear. Embrace it, and it won’t bother me anymore. Death is coming for me. Oh Noes! No, that is no way to look at it. I want to live in this present moment. And living in this present moment requires something more of me. I need to know me, more intimately than I have ever cared to know myself. I need to master my fears. And not be a slave to them, any longer.

I can’t let the fear of death hold me back from living today and every day.

The Difference Between If And When

The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.

All things end in the Tao, as rivers flow into the sea.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu offers us an if and a when. I think those are two powerfully distinct words; because they offer the difference between dreams and reality. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.

The “if” comes first. This one is about hopes and dreams for a better world in which to live.

If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts.

So much is said in so few words. If they could, then look at the wonderful things that would transpire. Does it sound too good to be true? This utopian dream come true? Living in a paradise on Earth. Everyone living in peace in harmony. And the natural law written in everyone’s hearts. Who wouldn’t want to live like this?

Oh, that powerful men and women could stay centered in the Tao. Would that it were possible. But does Lao Tzu hold out much hope that powerful men and women would ever want this kind of world? Lao Tzu at the very beginning of this chapter gives us a hint at the problem for the powerful. He says the Tao can’t be perceived. It contains uncountable galaxies; yet it is smaller than an electron. Now Lao Tzu has spent a lot of time talking about this unperceivable Tao. And one thing he has talked about over and over is that the only way we can experience the Tao is from a position of humility. The powerful are far too lofty in their ivory towers to ever be able to perceive it, let alone center themselves in it.

People have spent lifetimes waiting on the powerful to do what is right. Many people keep holding out hope that the next election cycle will turn things around. If we just give the right people the power, they’ll fix things.

And oh the disappointment after each election, when the faces change but the policies remain the same. But I just know next election, things will be different….

If all we had was this if, we would probably continue our hoping and waiting and forever being disappointed. But thankfully, Lao Tzu doesn’t just offer us an if in this chapter.

He also offers us a when. I said right at the beginning that I think the difference between if and when is the same as the difference between dreams and reality. There is nothing wrong with dreaming. But there is a time for a reality check. There is a time to know the difference between if and when. And when “when” is now.

When you have names and forms, know that they are provisional. When you have institutions, know where their functions should end. Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.

Knowing when is of the utmost importance. The first important thing that we need to know about when is that when we have names and forms, they are only provisional. Provisional means they provide or serve only for the time being, or temporarily. Names and forms have a temporary function. But that word, temporary, is key. I fear that too long holding out for the if, we run the very real risk that we will miss the when. The temporariness of names and forms.

Now hold on just a minute, what does Lao Tzu mean by names and forms? I think he gives us a hint in his next “when” where he speaks of knowing when the functions of institutions should end. Though I have little idea what, in Lao Tzu’s day he was getting at, I think I am not too far off to conclude that names and forms like capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, monarchy, etc., were all provisional. These served a temporary function. But we need to know when to say when. And institutions, like governments, have served particular functions; and I think they have outlived their usefulness.

No doubt some of you are squirming right now. Some of those isms are sacred to us. Perhaps we are not quite ready to give up on some of them. And are we really ready for anarchism? How will we know when “when” is now. Henry David Thoreau believed that when we were ready for it, we wouldn’t need a government any longer. And I think it is high time to be ready.

But why now? The State would have us fear the unknown. Fear chaos. I mean, who will build the roads? But let me tell you what Lao Tzu feared. Because I fear it too. We fear the danger in not knowing when. These names, forms, and institutions were only ever supposed to be temporary. Their functions were supposed to come to an end sometime. That has always been the way it would be. But if we buy into the lie that now is not the time; let us also remember that the very people that are telling us that, will always tell us that. Powerful men and women don’t want there to be an end. And they will never want there to be an end. We need to know when to say “Stop!” in order to avoid danger.

But what is the danger? I mean, can you at least tell me that? Sure. And here it is.

All things end in the Tao, as rivers flow into the sea. All things are going to come to an end. If you knew that you were running toward a dead end, wouldn’t you like signs pointing out the danger ahead? And wouldn’t you pay attention to those signs? Because that word, dead, isn’t temporary. When we know that all rivers flow into the sea; and we are just lazily going along with the flow of the current; wouldn’t we want to know where the river ends and the sea begins?

The truth is, I don’t know exactly what lies at the end of the road. But I would much rather be prepared for a dead stop, than to not see the end until I go splat. And like it or not, all these names, forms, and institutions are going to come to an end. Oh, I don’t know an exact date. I don’t know how much further down the river we can go. But we better be making plans for the inevitable. Now.

Where Are The Decent To Be Found?

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity;
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.

Peace is the highest value.
If you the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 31, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Given the news today (as I am typing this up), that our Nobel Peace Prize winning, Anti-War President Barack Obama has announced that once again we are bombing the Hell out of Iraq, I think today’s chapter is once again, timely.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about how the use of force is a failure to rely on the Tao. He specifically warned that for every force there is a counterforce; and, that violence always rebounds upon itself. He was framing all of that in the context of being content with yourself and with the world.

Today, Lao Tzu continues where he left off with another beautifully written chapter. This time he targets weapons; which, he says, are the tools of violence and fear. I couldn’t agree more with Lao Tzu. All decent people detest them and will avoid using them except in direst necessity. And in those rare moments when direst necessity requires it of them, they use them with the utmost restraint.

Peace should be our highest value. I know that many scoff at that idea. Many can come up with all sorts of reasons to justify war. They’ll even use euphemisms to call war something else than what it is, so they can then smile in the camera and try to justify how still deserving they are of Nobel Peace Prizes. But your euphemisms can’t mask the truth, Mr. President. If you were a decent man you wouldn’t be dropping bombs on Iraq. You wouldn’t be using drones to target individuals without due process. And you wouldn’t call the innocents killed, just collateral damage. If you were a decent man you wouldn’t be fomenting war all over the globe. So, given your actions, I have no choice but to conclude that you are far from a decent man.

And once again, the peace has been shattered. Oh, whatever do I mean? I don’t think there has been a moment of peace in my lifetime. The United States government doesn’t want peace. It wants war. It has been that way for many decades now. And it expects us to be content. But how can we be content? Without peace, there can be no true contentment. Our enemies are not demons. They are all fellow human beings, just like ourselves. How could we possibly wish our fellow human beings personal harm?

And, war is Hell. The ruling elite, that sacrifice our young men and women in endless and needless war, know this. That is why they insulate themselves from the consequences of this Hell that they wreak on the Earth. Millions have been slaughtered. And we award medals and build statues for the ones who slaughter the most. How could I ever take delight in the senseless slaughter? How could I ever rejoice in the kind of victory that the tools of violence and fear brings about?

Still, Lao Tzu recognized a circumstance he called direst necessity. It is a very rare thing, indeed. If I combed through the history of the United States government, I don’t think I would find one instance of it. There are those that would suggest that we were attacked at Pearl Harbor; and that right there was a real justification for war. Hmmmmmm. Well, maybe. But I am also well aware that we provoked that attack to give us the necessary justification to enter a conflict in which we had no business, and the American public was dead set against. And, after that, all sorts of civil liberties were sacrificed (Japanese internment, anyone?).

But just because I am having a hard time coming up with an example of direst necessity, doesn’t mean that such a thing, though rare, couldn’t exist. And if, or when, it ever happens, we should use our tools of violence and fear, gravely; with sorrow and great compassion, like we were attending the funeral of a loved one. I don’t think going on the late night talk show circuit and joking about it, quite fits the mood.

The reason that I have been having such a difficult time coming up with what direst necessity really is, is because I have been looking for it in all the wrong places. Only decent people know when direst necessity comes. And I won’t find any decent people in the United States government. Not throughout its history.

But decent people understand it. And they are ready for it when it comes. No, they don’t delight in it. But they are ready. I am talking about one of the most basic of human rights, the right of self-defense. Decent people never initiate force or violence on their fellow human beings. But when they have been aggressed against, it is their sacred and somber duty to defend their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, and their own personal property.

But I warn all you fellow decent people out there, indecent people (the State, and its apologists) will call you ugly names, like terrorist. They will defame your name. They will speak all manner of evil against you, saying you are the indecent ones. They will put you on their special watch lists, keeping an eye on your every move and listening in on your most private communications. They will convince many that you are to be feared. And it is all a big lie.

For you are the only ones that can be trusted to wield tools of violence and fear. You are the only ones that truly detest them. You are the only ones that will try to avoid them. You are the only ones that will show the utmost restraint. Only you understand your enemies are not demons, but human beings like yourselves. You alone wish them no harm. You alone don’t rejoice in victory, nor delight in the slaughter of fellow human beings. Peace is truly your highest value. And how can you be content when the peace has been shattered?

Indeed, we cannot.