When Everything Falls Into Place

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

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

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

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

We are on day three of our journey through the Tao Te Ching. On the first day, Lao Tzu introduced the Tao to us. The Tao is the eternal reality, the way things are in our Universe. In most respects, the Tao is a mystery; which we can’t hope to realize, as long as we are caught in desire. But don’t let that discourage you. There is also its manifestations, which we can observe, and trace back to the Source.

There are limits to what we can realize. We are finite, while it is infinite. We are temporal, while it is eternal. But what really puts limits on us is our desire. That is a problem which we will work on throughout our journey. The Master, who Lao Tzu introduced, yesterday, will be our example for how to follow the Tao, and be in perfect harmony with it. He will show us how to let go of desire; so we can then be free to realize the mystery.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu introduced pretty much everything he will be teaching us throughout our journey. The one thing he spent the most time on, is the concept of yin and yang. This is how the Tao maintains balance and harmony in our Universe. I don’t want to try to repeat everything we said yesterday; I hope you read it, or will go back and read it. I think it is the most important chapter of all.

That isn’t to say they aren’t all important. Especially today’s, where Lao Tzu introduces what I have observed is the emergent order. The way that everything will fall into place, if only we will let them be.

In talking of yin and yang, yesterday, Lao Tzu talked about the so-called problem of duality, which is the way things are in our Universe. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.”

This doesn’t have to be a problem. It is only a problem, if we don’t accept that this is the way things are, and we just need to go with the flow. Yin and yang, necessarily, create each other, support each other, define each other, depend on each other, and follow each other. Don’t resist, and you’ll be just fine.

Today, he continues this theme as he says, “If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.”

Why do we over-esteem and overvalue? Why do we take things to excess? The problem is our desire. And that is a problem, because the way things are requires that there be balance in our Universe. That is exactly what Lao Tzu was saying in that first stanza of today’s chapter. Where there is excess, there will follow deficiency. Things must balance out. That means, when we over-esteem some, others will become powerless. And, when we overvalue things, people will desire them all the more.

So, how do we circumvent this problem? Well, how does the Master do it? Remember, he is our example. He leads by realizing the nature of our Universe, how yin and yang complement each other. And that realization leads him to work with both yin and yang on the people he is leading. The problem with our desire for excess is a two-fold problem that requires a two-fold solution. Yin and yang. First, people’s minds need to be emptied and their ambition weakened. That is yin. But yin, alone, is not sufficient. Yang follows. Along with the emptying and weakening, comes filling and toughening.

Their minds need emptying, but their cores need filling. This may speak to our dual nature. Some people think of us as mind and body. But I tend to think of core as being a bit more comprehensive. I think our core is the center of our being. Our core is actually who we are. And that is where the Tao resides. I may be getting a little ahead of myself, here. So, I apologize, if I am. But core isn’t necessarily a familiar term to us. And I thought it would be helpful to understand just a little of what I believe Lao Tzu is getting at. It is from the core of our being that intuition and spontaneity arises. If we are going with the flow, it is because we are acting on direction from the core of our being. As long as our mind is involved, the possibility that our body will offer up resistance is ever going to be a problem for us. That is why the Master seeks to empty minds and fill cores.

But then, where does ambition and resolve come in? He weakens our ambition because ambition speaks directly to our desire. It is ambition that brings us to over-esteem great men and overvalue possessions. The Master is taking on that desire, from the outset. Notice, also, that ambition is always focused on outward things. As far as ambition is concerned, what I already have is never, can never be, enough. That is a prescription for misery, when we could be content. Our ambition must be weakened. Resolve is the antithesis to ambition. Resolve is very much an inner thing. It is something that arises from the core of our being. Resolve can be content with whatever it has. We just need to have it toughened up.

What the Master is helping us to do is lose everything we know (that is mind), everything we desire (that is ambition). And those that think they know are going to be confused. That is to say, we are learning to practice knowing not-knowing, knowing that we don’t know. That is the only way to really ever learn anything.

We need to learn how to not rely on our minds. We need to not let ambition drive us to excess. If we learn how to follow our heart, the core of our being, we will find that our every action flows effortlessly, intuitively, spontaneously. This is the practice of Wei-Wu-Wei, doing not-doing. It will take all your resolve to do this. But if you do, you will find what I have found, everything falls into place.

An Introduction To All That Is And All That Is Yet To Be

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)

If you weren’t around over the weekend, you probably missed that we both ended another cycle through the Tao Te Ching and began another one. In chapter one, which I talked a little about yesterday, Lao Tzu explained the duality that exists within the Tao. There is both the mystery and the manifestations. The mystery is eternal. It is infinite. Naming it, or even telling about it is not possible. Why? Because, we are caught in desire. Until we are free from desire we can’t realize the mystery. But, thankfully, that isn’t the whole picture. There is the other side of the Tao. Its manifestations. Those we can see. And those we can name. Because he can tell us about the manifestations, we can trace those manifestations back to the Source.

Today’s chapter is probably the most important chapter, and a much better introduction to what Lao Tzu is going to be talking about throughout the Tao Te Ching. He introduces everything he will later talk more about. Lao Tzu will hint at the mystery, he does this throughout the Tao Te Ching. But, mostly he is telling us of how the Tao manifests itself in our Universe. It is the only way to be free from the desire which now prevents us from realizing the mystery.

The first half of the chapter deals with yin and yang. The second half will introduce us to the Master.

I have often heard philosophers complaining about what they call the problem of duality. This is how Lao Tzu states it: “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” But, I don’t think Lao Tzu would agree that this duality is a problem. Instead, he would say, this is just the way things are. The problem isn’t with the way things are. The problem, as he said in chapter one, is our desire. It is our desire that causes us to see some things as beautiful and other things as ugly. It is our desire that causes us to see some things as good and other things as bad. The Tao, which is the Source of all particular things, doesn’t differentiate between things in this way.

The Tao only brings about balance. Where there is yin, there must be yang. That is the nature of the Universe, the way things are.

We need to talk just a little about the familiar Tai-Chi symbol, with its black yin and white yang swirling around in a circle. The circle represents the Universe, everything that is. Both yin and yang, contain a little bit of the other in themselves. In that black yin there is a white dot. And, in the white yang there is a black dot. And, these are not static symbols. They are in a constant state of flux. Like what is now and what is yet to be. This symbol represents a dynamic relationship between complements of each other. You can’t have one without the other.

Here is how Lao Tzu describes the dynamic of yin and yang; “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.”

This is very important for us to understand, just because it explains exactly why it is so very foolish to think we can live in a Universe with only beautiful and good, without the corresponding ugly and bad.

Being and non-being. I am certain I make this more difficult than it needs to be. And Lao Tzu is going to be returning to the relationship between the two many times. We think we understand being. It is simply everything that is. But what is non-being? Everything that isn’t? Expect me to be wrestling with this for the next several days. Though I hope I am getting better at understanding. I am going to take my first stab at it right now. Agreeing that being is everything that is. I want to say that non-being is what is yet to be. Okay, here is another stab at it. We talked, yesterday, about the dual sides of the Tao, the mystery and the manifestations. Since the manifestations are all particular things, we could say that is being. That leaves the mystery as non-being. Which might explain why I have such a difficult time realizing what non-being is. Okay, one final stab at it. Non-being is yin, and being is yang. I think, for today, that should suffice. They create each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. And, they follow each other.

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 them as opposites. That is a common misunderstanding about yin and yang. They aren’t opposites. They are complements. They complete each other. You can’t have one without the other. The reason for the constant state of flux is that they are always being brought into balance. That is the nature of our Universe, the way things are. Well, I hope that is a satisfactory introduction to yin and yang. Let’s move on to the Master.

Who is this Master? First off, this is master, as in master as opposed to apprentice, not master as opposed to slave. I don’t see myself as a master, yet. I still see myself as an apprentice. However, the Master can really be any of us. That is, any of us apprentices can attain the stature of a master. For Lao Tzu’s purposes, the Master is indicative of one who is living in perfect harmony with the Tao. The Master is our example. Follow him or her to live in perfect harmony with the Tao.

I say, him or her, because Lao Tzu used a gender neutral pronoun in the original Chinese to talk about the Master. I am using Stephen Mitchell’s excellent interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, so I will be using his formula for expressing this gender neutral format for describing the Master. Because the English language hasn’t yet evolved to the point of having a gender neutral personal pronoun (no, “it” doesn’t count), Mr. Mitchell alternates between referring to the Master as her and him each chapter. Today, he uses she and her. Tomorrow, he will switch to using he and him. I have no objections to how Mr. Mitchell solves this problem with the English language.

So what is the Master’s example for us today? How does the Master circumvent the problem of our desires in dealing with the duality which is the nature of our Universe?

“She acts without doing anything.” This is our introduction to the first principle of philosophical Taoism, the practice of Wei-Wu-Wei, doing without doing. We will cover this a lot more in the days and weeks ahead, so I won’t add anything more today.

“She teaches without saying anything.” This one sounds very mysterious. But it involves the second principle of philosophical Taoism, knowing not-knowing. We will cover this more later, as well, so I will leave further discussion of it until later.

“Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go.” This is what living in perfect harmony with the Tao looks like. The all important word here is “lets”. It is the perfect blending of yin and yang, passive and active. This is another thing which we will discuss at great length.

“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.” I know I keep repeating myself by saying we are going to be going into much greater detail about all these things in future chapters. But that is the problem with introductory chapters like today’s. Lao Tzu is introducing everything to us in three quick stanzas. I am tempted, of course, to go into great detail about them all. But I have already made this commentary longer than anyone wanted to read. And then what will we have left to talk about? So, continue the journey with me tomorrow, when we will learn about how the Master leads.

The Way To Get Back To The Beginning

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

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

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

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

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

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

Today, we are starting our journey through the Tao Te Ching, all over again. Because it is a new beginning, especially for my newer followers, I thought it would be a good time for me to introduce my tumblr blog, libertariantaoist, to all. I have been on tumblr since July of 2012. I got off to a slow start, not exactly sure what I wanted to do. So, it began with mostly lots of reblogs of the excellent content of other people on tumblr that I follow. That satisfied me for awhile, but I also wanted to offer more original content. I, had started posting just a chapter a day, from the Tao Te Ching, without any commentary from me. But, after cycling through the 81 chapters once, I decided to take the plunge and start offering my own commentary, each day. I have been doing this daily for I don’t know how many moons now. I think I have probably posted at least twelve different versions of commentary on each chapter. Those early days were rough. Looking back at some of those early commentaries, I just shake my head. I had no idea what I was talking about then. But, hopefully, with each new cycle I have come to a better understanding.

That is the primary purpose of my blog. Posting that chapter each day with my own commentary. But, the Tao Te Ching is an ancient text. I also wanted to offer something that spoke directly to current events. So, because I have been a longtime reader of Sheldon Richman’s many writings over the years, I began to post new articles of his, as he writes them. He is quite prolific. Usually, I can count on him writing at least a couple articles a week. The thing I like about Sheldon Richman is that I have never not loved whatever it is he is saying. Long before I came to realize I was an anarchist, I loved and absolutely agreed with everything he had to say.

I do want to take this moment to apologize to all the wonderful people I follow, whose blog posts I used to so regularly reblog. The truth is that I just don’t spend a whole lot of time on tumblr anymore. So, you won’t see me reblogging the exceptional content that I am sure is still available. I miss you guys! I still think about you all. And, I am happy when I get messages from you. You guys really helped me to shape my blog into what it is today. I am not going to name any names, because I will undoubtedly leave out somebody that I shouldn’t have. You helped me in a way that Lao Tzu, or Stephen Mitchell (by virtue of his excellent translation of the Tao Te Ching) or even the awesome Sheldon Richman (over the many years that I have read his writings) did not. You helped me to realize that carrying libertarianism and philosophical Taoism to their logical conclusions brings you to anarchism. Thank you, by the way, to anarchei, who is responsible for my icon on tumblr. That A in the center of the Tai Chi symbol is for anarchism. And all those colors represent all the flavors of anarchism we have to choose from.

But enough of introductions, I really need to get on to today’s commentary. I am always a bit torn when I get back to chapter one. How do I approach this? Do I begin as if this is our first introduction to the Tao? But how can I ignore that I have read through this again and again and again? The reality is that this isn’t my first time. And for a lot of my followers, this isn’t your first time either. So, I approach today’s chapter one, knowing all that I know, and being fully prepared for all the unknowing that awaits me. For the reality is that I only think I know.

Right from the start, Lao Tzu is concerned about this undertaking. What can really be said about the Tao? It is infinite. It is the eternally real. It is not a particular thing. It is unnameable. It is shrouded in darkness. It is a mystery. Just trying to put this into words is limiting. We are finite, not infinite. We are temporal, not eternal. And, there is the problem that we are not free from desire. Caught in desire, how will we ever realize the mystery? Thankfully, Lao Tzu didn’t let that stop him. He came up with a way to name that which is unnameable and talk about something of which nothing can be said.

This is how he explains it. The Source, this darkness within darkness, is the gateway to all understanding. We can’t realize the mystery; not, now, in our present state of being; not until we are free from desire. However, we can see its manifestations. These manifestations are all particular things. We can name them. The manifestations arise from the same source as the mystery. So, by naming them, we can trace them back to their Origin. Once we get there, then we will understand.

 

A Few More Parting Words

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)

We have reached the final chapter in the Tao Te Ching. No worries, I will be starting again with chapter one, tomorrow morning. I have gained quite a few new followers over the course of this current cycle and look forward to beginning the journey again with you all. But enough about tomorrow, let’s talk about today.

Just a few chapters back Lao Tzu said, “True words seem paradoxical.” Today, he adds that true words aren’t eloquent. I suppose that seems to be something of a paradox, as well. How easily we are enamored by eloquent words. Don’t be. They aren’t true. Fools, hoping to pass themselves off as wise, like to boost their arguments by appearing to be eloquent. It is because they are always motivated by a desire to prove their point. But, if they were truly wise, they wouldn’t have to prove their point. True wisdom doesn’t appear, dressed up in fancy clothes. The truth is plainly self-evident.

I kind of like sassy Lao Tzu. You can tell that after putting up with all the goings on while serving in the ruling Chinese dynasty of his day, he has had all of it he can take. He is on his way out of the city, riding out on a donkey, (never to be heard from again?) Well, that is the legend regarding Lao Tzu, anyway.

But first he has a few more parting words about the Tao and the Master.

Remember a few chapters back, when Lao Tzu said about the Master, “there is no end to her wealth”. I warned you, then, not to misunderstand what Lao Tzu means by wealth. He was talking about how she can keep on giving and giving and giving. Today, Lao Tzu qualifies what he said earlier by saying the Master has no possessions. Once again, I don’t think Lao Tzu is saying that the Master lives in some kind of voluntary poverty. Instead, he is talking about the Master’s attitude. What he has are not possessions. Therefore, they don’t have any control over him.

The Master’s contentment is based, not on what he has, but what he is able to do for others. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is. You see, wealth isn’t a measure of how many possessions you have. It is a measure of how much you give.

I know that I have been complaining over the last few chapters about the high standard to which Lao Tzu is wanting to hold us. This is also something of a paradox, since he has earlier maintained that the great Way is easy. If it is so easy, why is it so hard? But Lao Tzu was ready with an answer for me. The great Way is easy; we just prefer the side paths. We prefer to make our lives hard. Ouch!

And ultimately, that is just the way things are. The Tao isn’t going to force you to let it nourish you. Lao Tzu has called the Tao the great Mother. We need to be like newborns, happily drinking from the great Mother’s breasts. But you can refuse. Of course, then, you won’t thrive. Life won’t be easy. But it could be. You just have to drink.

And, the Master doesn’t lead by dominating. I think it can rightly be said, a whole lot of people have gotten so used to being dominated by the ruling elite, that their own ability to imagine anything better, has been stunted. They aren’t thriving, either. But they could be. All that is necessary is that we open our eyes and see the great Mother’s breasts, right there in front of us, plump and ready to offer nourishment. The Master shows us the way. He is our example. Will we follow that example?

Oh, To Be Content!

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)

No matter how many times I read through the Tao Te Ching, I am always gleaning new insights from these chapters. For instance, for the longest of times, I read this chapter thinking Lao Tzu was providing us with his ideal for how to be content. I compared it to Tolkien’s vision of life for a hobbit in the Shire. I could be content to be a hobbit. That sounds great to me. But, I think I have had an epiphany of sorts concerning this. I no longer think that Lao Tzu is offering his ideal. So, what is his point?

Let’s begin with the very first sentence. “If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content.” Lao Tzu has spent a good portion of his time telling would-be leaders how to govern wisely. And, he has waxed eloquent with his description of the kind of paradise that would result, if only they would. Today’s chapter is really no different. If your country was governed wisely, you, and the rest of its inhabitants, would have everything you could possibly need to be content.

Now, Lao Tzu goes on to talk about what being content looks like. This is where I think I have previously read more into it than what Lao Tzu is actually saying. This isn’t painting some idyllic picture. This is bringing to the forefront exactly what it means to be content.

For instance, when Lao Tzu says, “They enjoy the labor of their hands and don’t waste time inventing labor-saving machines” I don’t think Lao Tzu’s is saying that inventing labor-saving machines is a waste of time. Likewise, when he says, “Since they dearly love their homes, they aren’t interested in travel” I don’t think Lao Tzu is saying there is anything wrong with being interested in traveling. Yet, these were two objections that I was always able to conjure in my mind as long as I was imagining that this was Lao Tzu’s ideal.

If you are asking, “What is wrong with labor-saving machines?” or, “What is wrong with loving to travel?” you are asking the wrong question. The question is, “Why aren’t you content?” Because, if your country was governed wisely, you would be.

Just imagine, enjoying the labor of your own hands so much that you would think inventing labor-saving machines a waste of time. Just imagine, so dearly loving your home that you have no interest in traveling. That, my friends, is what it means to be content. Not the labor of your own hands and not dearly loving your home. But being content with your simple and ordinary life. Whatever that life might be. Perhaps, your simple and ordinary life is inventing labor-saving machines. Or, perhaps, your simple and ordinary life is traveling around designing or building dearly loved homes.

I’ll be honest, here. While I don’t see the utility in having wagons and boats, if they aren’t ever going to be used; it is your life. If you just want them sitting out in your yard with grass growing up around them, that is your business.

On the other hand, I kind of like the sounds of having an arsenal of weapons that nobody ever has to put to use. Self defense is important. And, I have that arsenal, ready, if ever I need it. But I would really prefer never to have to resort to that.

Oh, to be content! If my country was governed wisely, I just know I would be.

Imagine enjoying your food, taking pleasure in being with your family, spending weekends working in your garden, and delighting in the doings of your neighborhood. What a shame it is that we don’t enjoy our food. Or, take pleasure in being with our families. That we think working in our garden on the weekends is a chore. Or, we take no delight in what is going on in our neighborhood. Suffering from discontentment is no fun, at all. How highly do you value being content?

If your country was governed wisely, then it wouldn’t matter if the next country was so close that you could hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking; you would be content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it.

Once again, Lao Tzu isn’t saying that there is anything wrong with traveling, or loving to travel. That isn’t his point. But just imagine, being so content with your simple and ordinary life, with how wisely your own country is governed, with your own home, with your own family, with your own neighborhood, with your own garden, that you would be happy to die of old age, having never known what it is to be discontent.

The Opportunity In Failure

Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.

Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.

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

Okay, I will admit it. Yesterday’s chapter was a tough one. Lao Tzu was talking about how the Master is able to remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. That ability, to appear indifferent, disinterested, to give up trying to offer help, when sorrow is making its demands, is not easy to put into practice. At least not for me. I get that this is the way to keep evil from entering my heart. I know, how I know, that having the best of intentions can be something straight out of Hell. I get it. But it is so much easier to let sorrow move me to do something, anything. Even if it doesn’t end up being any real help. Because, at least I did something. I guess what I am saying is that I know what Lao Tzu is saying is true. That, if I really want to help, I must give up trying to help. But that is still a far cry from realizing the truth of it. I still have a long way to go.

Let’s see if today’s chapter is any easier to put into practice. We are still talking about the need to be soft and yielding, instead of hard and inflexible. Today, Lao Tzu begins by telling us that failure is an opportunity. And, I immediately say, “Yay!” Because I certainly fail often enough. Failure is an opportunity. But don’t start looking for ways to point the finger of blame at someone else. Once you start down that road, there is no end to the blame.

So, if failure isn’t an opportunity to blame someone else, then what is the opportunity? As Lao Tzu explains it, it is an opportunity to be soft and yielding, instead of hard and inflexible.

Now, Lao Tzu is talking about contractual obligations. From ancient times, humans have relied on contracts to conduct business with each other. With every contract between two parties, there are always two sides to the agreement. One side deals with the obligations of one party. And, the other side deals with the obligations of the other party. When Lao Tzu tells us to see failure as an opportunity, he has both sides of obligations in mind.

Let’s say that you have entered into a contract with another party. You now have a list of things that you have obligated yourself to do. The contract is hard and inflexible. So, if you fail in some way, the temptation will be great to blame somebody else. Don’t do it. Here, the Master shows us exactly what we must do.

Do whatever you need to do to fulfill your own obligations. Whatever mistakes you have made, it is time to own up to them, and correct them. Failure is an opportunity to demonstrate that you are truly a man or woman of your word. Your failure isn’t the final word. It is only an opportunity to prove to yourself and everyone else that you are worthy of their trust.

Well, no surprises there. We certainly weren’t expecting Lao Tzu to encourage us to try and weasel our way out of our contractual obligations. But that only deals with one side of the contract, our obligations. What about the other side? What if the failure isn’t ours, but the other party’s? What is the opportunity, then? The contract is just as hard and inflexible on their end as it is on my own. What will I do?

This is where we really get to put to the test our three greatest treasures. Remember those? Will we be simple in our actions and our thoughts? Will we be patient with friends and enemies? Will we be compassionate toward ourselves? And, remember being compassionate toward ourselves is realizing that we are not alone, separate from every other being in the Universe. We are all connected. We are all one. To be compassionate toward ourselves is to reconcile every being in the Universe.

What am I getting at? Weren’t we talking about contractual obligations? Yes, I haven’t forgotten. When the other party fails to fulfill their obligations, this is our opportunity to be soft and yielding, instead of hard and inflexible. Once again, the Master shows us the way.

Demand nothing of the other party.

What? Is Lao Tzu out of his mind? They owe me! Yes, they do. And, if you are hard and inflexible, you risk destroying your three greatest treasures. That is why Lao Tzu encourages us to be like water, soft and yielding. Remember, that as it acts in our world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow. We need to trust the Tao to adjust excess and deficiency, instead of insisting on our right to be in control. Will we trust the Tao? Let the Tao balance the ledger books, when you have been wronged.

Wait just a doggone minute! This isn’t any easier than what Lao Tzu was asking of us, yesterday. Still, if we want to learn how to be content, we need to guard those treasures.

That’s A Lot Of Water

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)

We have been talking, for the last couple of days, about the need to be soft and yielding to be a disciple of life. It is the only way to prevail in living. What runs counter to that are those who are hard and inflexible. They will be broken; since they are not able to go with the flow of the Tao. Today, Lao Tzu continues this theme, contrasting the soft and yielding with the hard and inflexible, by returning to his favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao, water.

Lao Tzu returns, again and again, to water; because, for him, the attributes of water perfectly illustrate how to be in harmony with the Tao. And, when you consider how abundant water is on our planet, it would seem to be something that everyone can immediately relate to. In addition to the fact that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, there is also the fact that the human body is comprised mostly of water – anywhere from 50 to 65 percent in adults, and an astounding 75 to 80 percent in infants. That’s a lot of water! When Lao Tzu tells us to be like water, he isn’t really expecting us to be anything other than what we already are.

He has talked so much about water in preceding chapters. He has said, for instance, that it nourishes all things, without trying to. That is how he shows us the practice of doing not-doing. And, he has talked about how water always seeks out the lowest places, making it a metaphor for the practice of humility.

Today, it is how soft and yielding water is, that has Lao Tzu’s attention. Nothing compares with it. To illustrate just how soft and yielding water is, I want you to draw yourself a nice hot bath. Go ahead, you need this. Light some candles, put on some of your favorite music, and let your body luxuriate. Did you notice, as you lowered yourself into the water that the water offered up no resistance to the intrusion of your body? It just acquiesced to your presence, allowing your body to displace it. Soft and yielding, isn’t it?

Doesn’t that feel nice? But, if you stay in there too long, your body will start to shrivel up like a prune. Our bodies may be mostly water, but there is also a part of us that is hard and inflexible. And water, over time, always does a number on the hard and inflexible.

Yes! Yes! Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone “knows” it, but just how few can put it into practice?

It is because there is such a difference between merely knowing and realizing, that Lao Tzu brings in the Master, once again, to show us just how to practice being soft and yielding to overcome the hard and inflexible.

How many times have we all been told that all we really need is a good cry? Tears, water, are certainly a good antidote to sorrow. Have a good cry. Cry until you have no more tears to shed. Then get a bowl of water and wash your face, for good measure. That is quite helpful for most sorrow. But what about a sorrow that isn’t assuaged so easily?

Sometimes, sorrow can be quite implacable. Sorrow can be one of the hardest and most inflexible things you will ever encounter. It demands your attention. All of it. And if you don’t give it your complete attention, its demands only become all the more urgent. What does sorrow demand of you? It demands that something be done. And that is where people, with the very best of intentions, will step in and try to help. After all, every fiber of your being is crying out to you to come to the aid of someone who is suffering. It isn’t easy to turn away when you see someone suffering, and you know you can help. But, I learned a lesson from my father, many years ago. He said it often enough, I will never forget it. “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.”

Is Lao Tzu asking us to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering? Not at all. But, watch how the Master deals with it. This is where true words are going to seem paradoxical. The Master knows exactly how to remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. He doesn’t let evil enter his heart. He seems indifferent, disinterested. What are his intentions? They are neither good, nor bad. He actually has no intentions. Oh, I suppose he will rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. But, his heart doesn’t seem to be into it. He is present; but he isn’t swallowed up by the tidal wave of emotions that are consuming everything and everyone around him. The waves come crashing down. Then, the waters recede. He is still there. Still present. Now, he can be the people’s greatest help.

That was a lot to chew on. I would suggest you get yourself a tall glass of water to help wash it down.

They’re Making It Personal

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.

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

The previous two chapters couldn’t have seemed more dissimilar. In the chapter two days ago, Lao Tzu explained that if those who govern us really wanted to act for the people’s benefit, they would trust us and leave us alone. Then, in yesterday’s chapter, Lao explained how going with the flow of the Tao is a matter of life and death. To be soft and yielding, supple and flexible, is being able to go with the flow of the Tao. It makes you a disciple of life. When we are stiff and inflexible, we are taking on the characteristics of that which we fear the most, death. But, as is always the case, Lao Tzu explains, in today’s chapter, exactly how these two chapters very much relate to each other.

He begins today’s chapter (one of my favorites, by the way), by picturing something flexible, a bow bending, as a metaphor for how the Tao acts in our world. Picture that bow in your mind. Its top is bent downward, and its bottom is correspondingly bent up. This is Lao Tzu’s metaphor for how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, so that there is perfect balance in our world. When he says, this is how the Tao acts in our world, he is saying, this is a universal law. This is how things work in our universe. I like to call it, the way things are.

Did you notice that Lao Tzu doesn’t picture anyone bending that bow? If there is some hand bending it, it is an invisible hand. I think it is significant that he doesn’t picture someone bending that bow. He doesn’t want to give us a face; that would make it personal. But, as it acts in our world, the Tao is impersonal. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. Excess and deficiency are adjusted by taking from WHAT is too much and giving to WHAT isn’t enough.

I said this is the way things are. If I were to narrow down Lao Tzu’s philosophy into one sentence, what would it be? Practice these things and you will learn to be content with the way things are. Our being discontent certainly doesn’t do anything to promote health and well-being in our lives. So, let’s learn how to be content. What would help us, here, is understanding exactly how the Universe operates, how the Tao acts in our world. Then, we can go with that flow. We must be flexible, like that bow. How else is the Tao to adjust excess and deficiency in our own lives. Why would we fear this? Why would we interfere with the Tao, as it does what it does in our own lives? Why wouldn’t we want balance and harmony, instead of excess and deficiency?

When talking about the way things are, it is important that we not confuse it with the status quo. The status quo is a system set up in opposition to the way things are. It is the ruling elite that set up this system as a way for them to try to control. It is a system based on the use of force to protect their power. It always and inevitably goes against the direction of the Tao. The questions I asked in the last paragraph were really meant to ask one question: Who would oppose the Tao? Now, you have your answer. You see, they make this personal. In order to protect their power, they will take from THOSE WHO don’t have enough and give to THOSE WHO have far too much. The “what” becomes “who”.

Now, the picture in my mind of the bending bow is becoming all distorted. Multiple hands appear out of nowhere; each attempting to grasp the bow, and push back against the direction of the Tao. Whose hands are these? Those who want their excess and your deficiency to be increased. I said in my opening paragraph that today’s chapter shows how the previous two chapters relate to each other. Do you see it? When taxes are too high, people go hungry. When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit. You have to be supple and flexible, a disciple of life, in order to prevail. When you are stiff and inflexible, you may remain living for a time; but, you are already dead. The status quo, as much effort as is put into maintaining it, is unsustainable. The stiff and inflexible will be broken. Have no worries for that bow. It is flexible. It will prevail. But, those who oppose it are already dead. They just don’t realize it, yet.

Here, is where it would be a good idea to take our cue from the Master. Lao Tzu says there is no end to her wealth. Someone might be thinking that she is a prime example of those who have far too much. But you are misunderstanding what Lao Tzu means by wealth here. She hasn’t been hoarding; she has been giving, always giving. That is why there is no end to her wealth. The more she gives, the more she has to give. She acts without expecting anything in return. She succeeds without ever needing to take any credit. She doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. Why not? She certainly sounds a whole lot better than quite a few people I can think of. But I am not seeing things the way the Tao sees things. There isn’t any reason to make this personal. Let the impersonal Tao act as it acts in our world. Excess and deficiency will be adjusted, and balance and harmony will be the result.

The Power Of Life And Death

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

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

Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu talked about how being afraid of dying keeps us from living in the present moment. It isn’t a fear of dying in the future. That isn’t what scares us. What keeps us from living today is our fear of dying today. We hold ourselves back from being able to achieve anything, because of this fear. Today, Lao Tzu returns to talking about life and death. He opens with a couple familiar metaphors.

First, he reminds us of our primal identity. When we were born, we were soft and supple. That is our beginning. And, that is the way we want to always be. The same is true for all beings. Even plants are born tender and pliant. Being soft and yielding, and remaining so, is what he calls being a disciple of life.

Of course, we can also be a disciple of death. Being stiff and hard, brittle and dry, in other words, inflexible, these are all signs of death. Right here would be a good time to say that Lao Tzu isn’t talking about being physically hard, stiff, and inflexible. He is, of course, speaking metaphorically.

Are you resistant to the flow of the Tao? Or, are you able to bend, and go with the flow of the Tao? All things change! How often he has reminded us of this great truth. Let things come and go as they will. Shape events as they come. But also, allow the Tao to shape you as it will, molding you into whatever it will.

Death is going to happen for all of us. It is a natural part of the life cycle. It is true for us, just like it is true for plants, and for all beings. But, don’t let fear of dying keep you from living today. In other words, don’t prematurely take on the characteristics of the very thing you fear. To be hard and stiff before death, only hastens the death you fear. You will be broken. If you want to prevail, you must remain soft and supple to the end.

I Won’t Be Holding My Breath

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 75, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

I won’t go over all the details, I have rehashed them again and again, many times before. But today’s chapter is a prime example of why I call myself libertariantaoist. The name, itself, is a bit redundant. For me, at least, calling myself a libertarian and then saying I am a philosophical Taoist is not really adding any knew information about me. I am not saying that you can’t be a libertarian, if you don’t also claim to be a philosophical Taoist. Nor, that you can’t be a philosophical Taoist, if you don’t likewise admit you are also a libertarian. I am only talking about me. I was a libertarian first. I knew nothing of Lao Tzu or the Tao Te Ching, then. But when I first started reading the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s libertarian streak was so blatantly obvious to me that I immediately knew philosophical Taoism was right for me. I call myself libertariantaoist and not, taoistlibertarian only because I came to philosophical Taoism through libertarianism. The before and after, just made sense to me, like yin and yang.

But enough of that, let’s look at the chapter. Lao Tzu has spent a good chunk of his time writing instructions to would-be leaders on the art of governing. Today’s chapter, music to my ears, is something that I would think is self-evident. But sadly, people only think they know these truths. They give mental assent to them. But they don’t realize their truth. Otherwise, it would change how we are being governed.

I am still amazed at the ways in which people can fool themselves into justifying the most horrific of things. Of the many terrible things that people justify, the belief that the State is a necessary evil, is one of the saddest ones for me to tolerate. Why, if we really believed when taxes are too high people go hungry, would we tolerate, and justify, taxes? Wait, you might argue, we don’t want taxes to be too high, but we must have taxes. The government provides very essential services. So, people immediately give up their high moral ground for opposing taxes. They immediately justify why their system of taxation won’t be too high. On one side, they will argue that they only want taxes on the very wealthiest. Leave the rest of us alone. But the wealthiest aren’t paying their fair share of them. On the other side are those who say the poorest aren’t paying their fair share. They are the ones that are getting off scot-free. But both sides are missing the whole point. Forget the lies you have been told. The purpose of taxes is not to provide essential services. You will be told it is for the children, or for the poor, or for this or that popular program. But that is all a huge lie. Only a tiny portion of any taxes collected ever get funneled down to any of those “essential” services. There has only ever been one reason for taxation. And that is enriching the ruling class at the expense of everybody else.

Look how much we spend on education every year per child. Or, look at the war on poverty. Have we gotten our money’s worth? Was your education worth the price that was paid for it? Are there any fewer people in poverty since LBJ launched his so-called war on it? The reality is far different. I don’t think I have to tell anyone where U.S. education ranks compared with the rest of the world. We haven’t improved thanks to all that money spent. But more will help? And as far as poverty is concerned, many more, not less are in poverty than ever before. Your tax dollars at work. Not really, though. Because your tax dollars actually went elsewhere. To enrich the ruling class, who is doing quite nicely, thank you very much.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking that all of this is because we haven’t yet got the right people in office. When we get the right people in office, then our tax dollars will be spent on what we want it spent on. Where have you been for the last few decades? The same two parties have been in power forever. They switch places, but it never makes a bit of difference in the way we are governed. Look at this one, he is making grand promises. So? Once he got elected, all he ever did was the same things as his predecessor.

People go hungry when taxes are too high. People lose their spirit when government is too intrusive. This is two sides of the same coin. The two go hand in hand. When one set of people have the fruit of their labor confiscated by another set of people, someone is going to go hungry. And it won’t be the ones collecting the taxes. But this goes way beyond taxes. Lao Tzu is talking about governments who intrude in every aspect of our lives. What about how the government regulates behavior between two or more consenting parties? What and how much can I produce? Who can I sell it to? Who must I buy it from?

Our benevolent rulers will always insist their plans for us are well-intentioned. My dad would always say, good intentions are what paves the streets of Hell. My dad was smart like that. Look at the elaborate and ever-expanding system of rewards and punishments they have designed to “benefit” us. Who can I hire to work for me and at what rate? Or, say I want to work for somebody else. They are required by law to pay me a minimum rate. Really? Why am I not free to work for less? All of these restrictions, these regulations, for our benefit, only end up harming the very ones they are promised to benefit. No wonder people go hungry. No wonder they lose their spirit.

I could really go on and on with examples of how very intrusive the government is in all of our lives. I haven’t even scratched the surface, yet. But I also don’t want my commentary to be overly long. Our so-called leaders always insist they want to act for the people’s benefit. So I say, “Fine, then, trust us and leave us alone.” In the meantime, I won’t be holding my breath.