Category Archives: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

Freedom From Your Own Ideas

For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.

The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for the people’s welfare
as a mother cares for her child.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 59, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is the third in a series of chapters on the art of governing, a manual for would-be leaders. Lao Tzu led things off, two chapters ago, by stating the fundamental lesson all would-be leaders must learn on how to govern by following the Tao, “Leave it alone, and the world will govern itself.”

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu touted the virtue of toleration in governing a country, while contrasting it with governing through repression. I understand what Lao Tzu means by toleration. He is talking about letting the world govern itself. But, I also understand that toleration, in this day and age, has come to be something often forced. And, that kind of toleration runs counter to the Tao, which doesn’t force anything.

Today, Lao Tzu touts the virtue of moderation in governing. Once again, I find myself cringing at the word. I was reading a Jacob Sullum article in Reason Magazine, just yesterday, which perfectly illustrates my own aversion to what counts for moderation in politics, today. He said, “The most worrisome thing about Merrick Garland…is that reporters routinely describe him as “moderate”. Although that label is supposed to be reassuring, in politics it usually refers to people who combine the worst aspects of the left and right, united by an expansive view of government authority and a narrow view of individual rights.” I won’t get into the debate on whether or not Senate Republicans should hold hearings on Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court; but, I will gladly say, Lao Tzu’s moderation is nothing like the moderation we have come to expect in politics.

Moderation and tolerance are very much the same thing; so, it shouldn’t be any surprise, when we find Lao Tzu saying that one of the marks of a moderate person is they are tolerant.

But, I am getting just a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up, so we can better understand why Lao Tzu believes, “For governing a country well, there is nothing better than moderation.” If Lao Tzu doesn’t mean, by moderation, the things we have come to expect of moderates in Washington (or wherever seats of government reside), what does he mean?

He describes it for us, quite thoroughly. “The mark of a moderate person is freedom from their own ideas.” Those of us who call ourselves libertarians place a pretty high value on freedom; so, what does freedom from your own ideas, entail?

First of all, it means tolerance. Tolerance being, not what we would consider a “moderate” position, but an extreme one. Remember what we learned about tolerance in yesterday’s chapter. It was contrasted with repression. The tolerant person would let the world, or the country, govern itself. They wouldn’t try to impose their own will. They are content to serve as an example. Repression is the other extreme. Where the will to power is in charge, the people, of any country, are repressed. And, just to make sure we understand how extreme this position of tolerance is, Lao Tzu says the moderate person is tolerant like the sky. The sky is the limit to the freedom you have, from your own ideas.

To understand that tolerance means freedom from your own ideas is to understand that those who would repress us are in bondage to their own ideas. They aren’t free! The will to power is in charge, not them. They, as well as everybody under them, are in bondage.

Moderation, properly understood, is the best way to govern a country well. It doesn’t follow the dictates of the will to power. It follows the Tao. All you would-be leaders, ask yourself just a few questions, to see whether you are free, or in bondage. How willing are you to not be in control? Will you let the world govern itself? Or, do you just have to intervene, interfere, and use force to try to control?

But, there is more to freedom from your own ideas than just tolerance. It is also all-pervading, like sunlight. What does Lao Tzu mean by this? I, along with the majority of the population in the world, live in the northern hemisphere. Here, we have just passed the vernal equinox, and the days are getting longer and longer as we press on to the summer solstice. Every morning I get up before dawn, and go out for my morning power walk. This is how I welcome each new day. As I am walking, I get to see the beginnings of the sunlight as it shines over the eastern horizon; but, while I am out walking, the sunlight slowly creeps across the land. By the time my walk is through, the sunlight pervades all over the land. This is a wonderful illustration of how, when you have freedom from your own ideas, your ideas spread everywhere. Those who want to repress you, think without the use of force, their ideas won’t spread. But, when you follow the Tao, your ideas spread naturally, pervading everywhere. Please understand this, having freedom from your own ideas, doesn’t mean you don’t have any ideas. Of course, you have ideas! But, by following the Tao, your ideas can now flourish.

Being a moderate person doesn’t mean being wishy-washy. It means being firm, like a mountain. Yet, supple like a tree in the wind. Your ideas have roots which run deep. They are firmly planted in the Tao. But, though the wind may blow every which way, the tree won’t be rooted up. It will still stand firm.

This next one is the one which is most often misunderstood. The moderate person has no destination in view. What? No destination in view? But, how will you know, when you get where you are going? Hey, let’s not fail to understand what Lao Tzu means by freedom from your own ideas. You aren’t so bound to a particular direction, or a particular course of action. You aren’t bound by expectations; so, you can never be disappointed. You, my friends, are free. And, that means you can make use of anything, which life happens to bring your way.

There really is nothing quite like freedom. And, you are free! What freedom really means is, “Nothing is impossible for you!” So, there you have it. Why it is so important to let go of every desire to try to control, every desire to make people happy or moral, every desire for the common good. Now, you can care for the people’s welfare, as a mother cares for her child.

What Kind Of Example Would You Be?

If a country is governed with tolerance,
the people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
the people are depressed and crafty.

When the will to power is in charge,
the higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.

Thus the Master is content
to serve as an example
and not to impose her will.
She is pointed, but doesn’t pierce.
Straightforward, but supple.
Radiant, but easy on the eyes.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 58, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today’s chapter is the second in a series of chapters on the art of governing. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu told would-be leaders, “If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao.” For those who are unfamiliar with philosophical Taoism, “the Tao” is what Lao Tzu calls the way things are. He calls it an infinite and eternal reality, which governs our entire universe. To follow it, is to go with the flow of yin and yang. Yin and yang are complements of each other; seeming opposites, they always balance things out in our universe. That is the way things are. Not following the Tao means not accepting how our universe operates. You will find yourself always swimming against the current. The universe is forever out of control; so, following the Tao means not trying to control. If you want to be a great leader, you must stop trying to control. Finally, following the Tao means letting go of any desire to intervene or interfere with the natural order of things. Yin and yang will balance things out, naturally. Would-be leaders, with their fixed plans and concepts, try to set limits; but, yin and yang are limitless. So, if you want to be a great leader, you must let go of fixed plans and concepts. If I could tell would-be leaders only one thing it would be, the world can govern itself, let it. That is what the Tao is all about. It does its thing wholly independently of any scheme we can ever conceive, or put into practice. It doesn’t need our good intentions. It doesn’t need our assistance. All we really need to do is go with the flow, or get out of the way.

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu goes from talking to would-be leaders, to contrasting countries, based on whether they are following the Tao. A country whose leaders are following the Tao is a country which is governed with tolerance. When Lao Tzu talks about tolerance, he is talking about letting, as in letting the world govern itself; or, in the case of a country, letting the country govern itself. The people of that country are comfortable and honest, in a word, content. Would-be leaders, when you let your country govern itself, the people will be content. That is the result, which flows naturally.

Lao Tzu contrasts the country which is governed with tolerance, with one that is governed with repression. This is a country whose leaders interfere with the Tao, instead of going with its flow. Because its leaders interfere with the natural order, the people are depressed and crafty. They aren’t content. And the more they are repressed, the more depressed and crafty they become. This is also a natural consequence. Yin and yang always work that way.

The problem is the will to power. This is entirely counter to the Tao. The first country is governed by leaders who have let go of the will to power. In the second one, the will to power is in charge. These leaders may have the best of intentions; but, the higher their ideals, the lower the results will be. Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery. Try to make people moral, and you lay the groundwork for vice.

This is so important to understand. If you want happy and moral people, then don’t try to make them so. In the first country, the people are happy and moral, as a result of being left alone. The second country tries too hard. And, as things get worse, they roll up their sleeves and try harder. But that isn’t how things roll in our universe, which is why would-be leaders must learn to follow the Tao.

Would-be leaders, if you want people to be content, you must be content, to serve as an example, and not to impose your will.

So, I would ask would-be leaders, what kind of example would you be? Could you be pointed, without piercing? Could you be straightforward, yet supple? Could you be radiant, but easy on the eyes? That would mean you are a master at following the Tao.

Listen Up, All You Would-Be Leaders!

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 57, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today, we begin a series of chapters on the art of governing. In other words, we have reached the point in the Tao Te Ching, which first captured my interest. I was a libertarian before I became a philosophical Taoist. And, Lao Tzu’s instructions to would-be leaders resonated with me, right from the start.

You may not be aware of this, but we are in the midst of a presidential election season. This series of chapters will also give me an opportunity to do one of my favorite things, talk about politics. I hear some of you, already, “Isn’t he always talking politics, anyway? Does he really need another excuse? But, I really can’t help myself. It is something I am passionate about. You don’t really intend to deny me this opportunity?

With that said, I recently posted a Reason “Hit and Run” piece where Gary Johnson, one of the candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination, was being offered as someone that those Republicans who are disenchanted with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, might vote for. I voted for Gary Johnson in 2012. Yes, I was part of the 1% that voted for him. And, I like Gary. But, he does tend to go off on tangents a lot of the time, when he is being interviewed. You may well remember the Reason interview, on the day he announced his candidacy, and his infamous “I will ban burqas” comment. After a huge online uproar, he admitted that wanting to ban burqas wasn’t very libertarian of him, and he assured us, he wouldn’t put any restrictions on the personal clothing choices of anyone. In the most recent article, Gary once again went off on a tangent. Saying, if he wasn’t running for president, and the choice was between Hillary and Trump, he would probably support Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Most of my followers are well aware, Bloomberg is no friend of personal liberty. He instituted a ban, in New York City, on soft drinks he deemed too large for anyone’s consumption. While I do suspect that Gary was saying that Bloomberg’s anti-libertarian views pale in comparison with Hillary or Trump, I don’t necessarily agree, and it does raise further questions. Gary went on to say that while he wouldn’t want to pass legislation limiting the size of sodas, doing it on the municipal level isn’t such a bad thing. And, he loves Michelle Obama and her advocacy of calories and what it is we eat. He would take that to a higher level.

Really? What exactly do you mean, there, Gary? What higher level? And, is municipal legislation, limiting the size of sodas, really not so bad? I know we can “vote with our feet” by moving. But for some of us, moving from one town to another, or one state to another, isn’t as viable an option as you may think it is. As one of my mutuals on Tumblr “wageronliberty” messaged to me on the subject, “I don’t care if the SWAT team coming for my stash of double-stuffed Oreos is serving a municipal, state, or federal warrant when the SWAT team is kicking down my door at 4 in the morning.”

I had a good time on Reason’s Facebook page giving Johnson grief about his being a food nazi. And, I got some favorable responses. But, I also had those who thought I was nitpicking. Nitpicking? Me?

Gary Johnson has yet to respond to my comments.

I said all of that, to say this. Gary Johnson, and all you would-be leaders, here is what you really should do, if you want to be a great leader.

Learn how to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself. That is more than a libertarian prescription for how to govern. It is a libertariantaoist prescription for how to govern. Let the world govern itself. You might be surprised just how well it could get along without all your interference.

The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. Wageronliberty, and I, will only try to find ways to better hide our stash of contraband junk food from your SWAT teams.

Look, I get it, you have good intentions. You only want to help us to be better people. More healthy people. But, when you use force, when you try to control, you are running counter to the Tao. You end up achieving the opposite of your stated good intentions.

The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. This one isn’t directed at Gary Johnson who, I believe, wants to downsize our military. It is more directed at all the unfortunately more viable candidates. According to Trump, Obama has decimated our military capacity. But, Trump is going to make America’s military great again. And Hillary? She is such a neocon, she makes Trump seem like a pacifist, in comparison. But, even with all the weapons we have, and in spite of Trump’s rhetoric to the contrary, we already have the greatest military in the world. Are we anymore secure? On the contrary, the establishment has managed to convince a large segment of the U.S. population to be afraid, very afraid, of a terrorist attack, here, in the United States. What they will never admit is that each of us is a whole lot more likely to be killed by our own police, than we are terrorists.

The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. This one I will direct more to Bernie Sanders. You keep making promises of all kinds of free shit. But there is no such thing as a free “anything” coming from government, Bernie. Those free college educations, and free health care, and every other free thing, comes at a great price. The government doesn’t produce money, it has to take it, or borrow it, or print it. All of these are high prices to pay. But, there is something even more insidious than any of that. You make people dependent, reliant, on your handouts. Less and less do they need to do for themselves. Soon, they can no longer do anything for themselves.

What we need from a would-be leader is someone who will be like the Master. Here are the kind of campaign slogans I want to hear, “I will let go of the law, and people will become honest.” I will let go of economics, and people will become prosperous.” I will let go of religion, and people will become serene.” I know that this might sound kind of scary at first, particularly if you don’t understand what Lao Tzu means, here.

What is he really saying? He is talking about no longer using force. That is what he means by letting go of. I want leaders who won’t interfere by making new, even more egregious, laws. I want leaders who won’t interfere with the economy. I want leaders who won’t tell people what religion they may and may not practice. I want leaders who will leave us alone.

I get that our would-be leaders claim to have a strong desire for the common good. But, if they will only let go of all that desire for the common good, the good would become common as grass.

How? Without anyone forcing it? Without anyone intervening and interfering? Because the world can govern itself. Learn how to follow the Tao, stop trying to control, and let go of all your fixed plans and concepts; you’ll see it is true.

Why We Will Endure

Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.

Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.

Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 56, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu pointed at a newborn child, as a metaphor for someone in harmony with the Tao. I said, “Lao Tzu certainly doesn’t expect us to reenter our mother’s womb, and be born again” in order to be in harmony with the Tao. But, Lao Tzu isn’t quite finished with thinking of newborns, with today’s chapter; and, he IS expecting us to return to our primal identity.

Our primal identity is the way we have always been. It is like being a newborn again, because it is a return to the way we were, right from the beginning. But, how do we return to this state? We already said it is physically impossible.

As Lao Tzu opens the chapter, he does seem to be thinking of newborns, when he says those who know don’t talk. I remember, very well, when my own children, now 25 and 23 years old, were newborns. I remember looking into their eyes. There seemed to be some hidden knowledge there. But, they weren’t talking. By the time they were old enough to talk, all that knowledge seems to have been lost. Those who talk don’t know.

That is mysterious talk, pure conjecture on my own part. But it is, still, one more lesson we can learn from newborns. If we want to return to our primal identity we can begin by closing our mouths. And, while we are at it, block off all of our senses. In newborns, the senses aren’t completely developed yet. Over the course of time, those are refined. Soon, we are relying more and more on our senses.

I think we get further and further away from relying on the Tao as we rely more and more on our senses. Remember, our senses can only tell us the way things seem to be. They tell us about the finite and temporal reality. But, returning to the primal identity gets us tapping into the infinite and eternal reality. That is the reality I think newborns are actually in touch with. But, they aren’t talking.

Newborns know and understand something intuitively. They know, and understand, they can rely on Mother. They know who gave birth to them, who nourishes them, who maintains and cares for them, who comforts and protects them. They know, if they scream loud enough, and long enough, Mother will take them back to herself. That is what the Tao does for all of us; but no screaming is ever required.

We now think we have come such a long way from when we were newborns. Who can remember so far back? We, now, fully rely on our senses, and have forgotten how to rely on the Tao. We have sharpened our skills, becoming quite acute in our presumed knowledge. We are independent now. No longer do we need mother to care for us. So many milestones have been logged in our lives. We tie a knot for each one. Here, is where I first sat up, when I rolled over for the first time, when I started crawling, when I stood up, when I took my first step. Then, I began talking. And, I have never shut up, since. Gee, is that when I stopped knowing? But, I still wasn’t finished logging milestones, tying knots. First day in school. Graduated from school. Got a job. Got married. Had a couple of super duper children. So many knots. And, with age, my glare hardened. I kept rushing ahead, faster and faster. Never letting the dust settle beneath my feet.

If I am going to return to my primal identity, to the way I have always been, the way I was from the beginning, I have a lot of unlearning and undoing to do.

It is time to close my mouth, to block off all my senses, to blunt my sharpness, to untie those knots, to soften my glare, and to be still. Take a step back, and let the dust settle. That is what I have been doing for the last, going on, four years now.

Oh, the things I have unlearned! And, the things I have undone!

I have been asked, before, to try and explain it all. Ah, but those who know don’t talk. And, those who talk don’t know. I am not just being coy; you really do have to experience it for yourself. My journey is my own. There are infinite ways your own journey may be. Don’t limit yourself to my way. Yours will be infinitely better.

Just, be like the Tao. That is what I came to understand. It can’t be approached or withdrawn from. What does that mean? Is the Tao standoffish? No. It means the Tao is present. You can’t approach it, for it is already within you. You can’t withdraw from it, because it remains within you. And, it can’t be benefited or harmed. What can you do for it? What can you do against it? I laugh out loud at a lot more things, than I used to. For I understand just how impervious I am, to both benefit and harm. Things are the way they are. I just go with the flow. Just let things come and go, without effort, without desire. This was only hard, before, because I made it hard. The Tao can’t be honored or brought into disgrace. And, neither can I. I don’t expect results, so I am never disappointed. The Tao gives itself up continually; that is why it endures. And, I just keep on giving myself up continually, too. I simply go with the flow of the Tao, having no will of my own. Mother takes care of me. Mother will always take care of me. I will endure.