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But What About God? A Question Of Origins.

The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden, but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 4, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Practice of Not-Doing

If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything they know,
everything they desire,
and creates confusion in those
who think they know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh be careful little mouth, what you speak…

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has, but doesn’t possess;
she acts, but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

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

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

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

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

Why is this necessarily so? Because the Tao always brings about balance. That is why Lao Tzu goes on to say that difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other. You simply can’t have one without the other. This is being and non-being in a nutshell. And it is the great balancing act of the Universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we begin again…

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

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

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

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

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks like this is the end…

True words aren’t eloquent;
eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.

The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 81, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay this really is the end. Be back tomorrow.

A Hobbit’s life for me

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time
inventing labor-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country
is so close that people can hear
its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does it end?

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

Therefore the Master
fulfills her 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)

I used to work at a John Deere dealership, many years ago. I worked my way up from assistant bookkeeper to general manager, so I think I did alright. I was proud of what I accomplished there. We reduced expenses and increased sales every year I was there. I’d like to think I had something to do with the owner’s success. And I was justly compensated for the work I did. Overall, I look back on those years as a success. I know what you are thinking, “But what about failure? Isn’t that what this chapter is about?”

I am glad you asked. Yes, you are correct. And the reason I am recounting my years at that dealership is because of one of the lessons I learned while I was there. Being the general manager, the owner, trusted me to run the place; but, he also made regular trips in to see how things were going. We would have regular meetings of the minds. Or so I called them. I would tell him what was going on and he would tell me what he wanted going on.

He wanted to impart his vision for the company, I was the one who had the obligation to make that vision a realtiy. At one of our meetings, I brought to his attention something very, very bad that happened. It wasn’t like I was going to hide it from him. But I also knew that the failure was mine. I was the one who was responsible. I knew my head could be on the chopping block.

I sat down with him and began to tell him of my failure. Now, of course, I tried to present myself in as favorable light as I could under the circumstances; but I knew I was the one he had entrusted and I had ultimately failed. And that was exactly what I told him.

And this is what he told me: “It looks like we have an opportunity. Now, how are you going to fix things?

I discussed ideas that I had, he interjected a few of his own. We worked together as a team, but then he left it to me. I am just so glad that I didn’t go in trying to point the finger of blame at others. Could I have done that? Sure, I could have made other heads roll. But I never would have been able to live with myself, after that.

I had obligations to fulfill. And mistakes to correct. And nobody but I, was responsible to get the things done. My failure was indeed an opportunity. It was an opportunity to finish the job I set out to do.

You want to be the greatest help?

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 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)

True words seem paradoxical. These are the words that Lao Tzu chooses to close today’s chapter. And they are fitting words indeed. Which is why I thought I would start with them. Because today’s chapter offers truth. But it does seem paradoxical.

We were talking a couple of days ago about the soft and yielding representing life, and the hard and inflexible representing death. As is always the case, Lao Tzu keeps returning to the same ideas again and again. He wants to make sure we get it; and through endless repetition, I think we can.

Today, he returns once again to what just might be his favorite metaphor, water. Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Lao Tzu wants us to be disciples of life. To be soft and yielding like water. And why? Because, for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.

This is a great paradox. But only because it is true. The soft does indeed overcome the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. This is the nature of water. Water is soft and gentle in the world. But it overcomes all resistance. We only have to observe water in its natural environment to see this play out. Water always seeks out the lowest places. It is a very humble teacher.

But just notice the course it takes. There are always a few obstacles along its way. Most of the time, water simply goes around them. But sometimes an obstacle rises up, hard and inflexible; oh, now, this time we will see water held back. Water seems to be defeated. But only for a time. Water is patient. It can outlast the hard and inflexible. And we all know exactly what will eventually happen. Water will win in the end.

Okay, this is all well and good. But what does water have to do with anything? What Lao Tzu is getting at, is the need for us to learn the lessons that nature is teaching us. While everyone knows the properties of water, few can put the lessons we should be learning from it, into practice.

I want to be of help to people. And I know that deep down, that is true of just about all of you. We want to help. Often, we don’t know how. We try. We fail. Sometimes we only make matters worse. But that doesn’t change the fact that we want to be able to help. And so the question is, how can we really be the greatest help?

This is where the Master comes in. You can always count on Lao Tzu to bring in the Master to show us how it is done. But don’t forget the lessons of the water. You can be sure the Master hasn’t.

A lot of the time, when we are most feeling the need to be of help, it is because people are in the midst of sorrow. We want to comfort them. To help them. And Lao Tzu warns us, that it is at just this time, when evil can enter hearts. We must not succumb to the sorrow. We must, like the Master, remain serene.

And once again, Lao Tzu’s words seem paradoxical. You want to be the people’s greatest help? Give up trying to help them.

Giving up on trying to help seems about as cold and callous as can be. Yes, it may seem that way. That is the paradox. But you haven’t forgotten about water, have you? Water is paradoxical. Water doesn’t let obstacles get in the way of accomplishing its purpose. It remains serene too. It can wait. For just the right moment. And then it will act. It doesn’t try to accomplish anything. It just does what it does. It just is what it is.

The Master is like that. And, we can be like that, too.

What it means to trust the Tao

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)

I titled this post “What it means to trust the Tao.” I think I could just as easily have entitled it, “Why I am a market anarchist.” It’s six for one and a half dozen for the other with me. I know that the more immersed in philosophical Taoism I have become, the more of a market anarchist I have become. This chapter became, for me, the prime mover.

What Lao Tzu is teaching in this chapter is that we need to trust the Tao to balance things out. This is true of all things in the Universe. But it especially resonates with me concerning markets. And why I believe they need to be freed.

So what do I mean by freeing the markets? And what does it have to do with the Tao?

Lao Tzu, once again uses a picturesque metaphor to illustrate how the Tao acts in the world. Picture a bow bending. Have you got that image in your head? Notice as the string is pulled, the top of the bow bends downward and the bottom of the bow bends up. This is how Lao Tzu explains how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency. It is always at work to achieve perfect balance. Taking from what is too much and giving to what isn’t enough.

Now I need to stop here and pause just a moment. Because I want the full implications of that to sink in. The Tao is like Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” which is always at work in a free market to bring about, dare I say it, equality.

I want you to keep that invisible hand in mind because the invisible hand is just that, invisible.

On the other hand, those who try to control, those who use force to protect their power, work against the direction of the Tao. Their purposes are always counter to the invisible and natural workings of the Tao. Because they seek to be in control, or stay in control, they want to take the bow and work it how they see fit. And because they have a monopoly on the use of force, they can pretty much get away with their shenanigans.

They will, of course, claim that their intentions are good. They promise to pull that bow just so, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But, in practice, they inevitably take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who already have far too much. I will leave to your own imaginations whether this is deliberate or accidental. I know where I stand.

But for argument’s sake, let’s just say that their intentions are actually good. I am reminded that my dad always told me, “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.” But, I don’t mind playing devil’s advocate for just awhile; let’s just say they mean well; their just stupid.

Because, in practice, their regulations over how a bow is to be operated do always result in a giant tug-of- war between the State and the Tao. And when that happens, we all lose. The bow is very likely going to break.

So, you are free to decide whether the powers that be are merely stupid, or deliberately evil. Either way, that is no way to run an economy. Or anything, for that matter.

That is why I want the market to be freed. Freed of all the visible hands of those who are either too stupid or too evil to be tugging at the bow. Let the Tao, the invisible hand, pull the bow. Trust the Tao to balance things out. That is what the Master does. She just keeps giving; there is no end to her wealth. She acts without expectation. She succeeds without taking credit. And she doesn’t think she is better than anyone else.

I have learned to trust the Tao in my own life. I don’t need or crave power. I don’t have any desire to initiate the use of force against another living soul. The only control I cherish is self-control.  Living simply. Patient with friend and foe, alike. And loving being me.

Are We The Living?

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.

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

The question I pose to you with today’s chapter is, “Are we the living, or are we the dead?”

I don’t suppose there is anything more extreme than life and death. And Lao Tzu likes picturing extremes to get his point across. Whether he is talking about newborn babies or dead men; plant sprouts or dead trees.

Newborn babies and plant sprouts represent life, and all the potential of the Universe. Lao Tzu wants us to embrace that. To be full of life, full of potential. Ever able to adapt to our changing environment. Because, change is inevitable.

The stiff and inflexible can’t adapt to change. Time takes its toll. Change happens whether we can adapt or not. And if we can’t adapt, we die.

We have to be soft and yielding. We have to be willing to go with the flow. To adapt to our inevitably changing circumstances. Only this furthers our growth and perpetuates the force of life within us.

But, of course, Lao Tzu isn’t just intending this to refer to our physical lives. The physical imagery is merely metaphorical. This is something to apply to ourselves as individuals, to our families, to our communities, to whole countries. Enterprises or ideologies – all must be willing to be humble, to learn from others, to adapt to change.

Look around you and you will see plenty of examples of the hard, stiff, and inflexible. Now, note their end. It will be swift.

But as for the soft, the supple, the yielding – they go on and on.