It Is All About Balance

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 three, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we talked about the Tao as the great equalizer. Bringing all into balance through the loving and complementary relationship of yin and yang. We also talked about the Master’s relationship with the Tao. The Master is any one who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Near the end of the last chapter, Lao Tzu was describing the dance between the Tao and the Master. The Master lets the Tao lead throughout the dance. The first component of that dance is that the Master acts without doing anything. I didn’t say much about that then. And, I didn’t want to begin going through the list that follows, the different components of the dance, because we are going to be covering them so thoroughly in the days and weeks ahead. My commentary tends to get overly long. I don’t want to discourage my readers with too much information.

That concept of acting without doing anything is something we are going to begin to talk about today. But first, Lao Tzu has plenty more to say about the need to keep things in balance.

Let’s just be clear right from the get go. There is nothing wrong with holding great men and women in esteem. That is, as long as the scales are well-balanced. It is when we start tipping the scales, when we start over-esteeming them, that the problem of duality arises. The more you tip the scale, the greater the problem. The powerful become more and more powerful, while other people, of necessity, become powerless.

Lao Tzu will have plenty to say about possessions. In the previous chapter, he said that the Master has but doesn’t possess. The problem with possessions is in overvaluing them. Everyone and everything has value. The things we have have value to us. But when we overvalue having things then the scales, once again, are tipped. Our possessions, and even lack of them, becomes something not in keeping with the Tao, which keeps all things in balance. Those overvalued possessions become the target of thieves.

Understanding all of this, through his dance with the Tao, the Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores. This is still a balancing act. Emptying people’s minds means teaching them knowing not-knowing. That is a teaching that we will cover more in the days and weeks ahead. Today, to keep today’s commentary as short and sweet as I possibly can, it just means teaching people to know that they don’t know. As long as people think they know, their ambition will know no bounds. The Master wants to help people lose everything they think they know. He wants to weaken their ambition. Ever keeping things in balance. Those that think they know will easily get confused right here.

While emptying their minds, the Master fills their cores. I have read a variety of different translations that have “bellies” for cores. Filling their bellies sounds like they are having their minds emptied and their stomachs filled. The end result being very fat ignoramuses. But that certainly isn’t Lao Tzu’s intent, here. I think “cores” is a better word than bellies because what Lao Tzu seems to be talking about is something a lot more significant than our stomachs. That would be the heart. The very core of our being. The Master is filling hearts, toughening resolve. For those of you that wonder what is wrong with ambition, you might consider that resolve is a much better thing for keeping things in balance.

Finally, we get to the last sentence of today’s chapter. Where Lao Tzu once again brings up acting without doing anything. This is part of the Master’s dance with the Tao. Lao Tzu wants each and every one of us to practice not-doing. And for those of you that are new to philosophical Taoism this may seem a very strange practice. What? We aren’t supposed to do anything? That is what he seems to be saying. But things are not always what they seem to be. This is wu-wei. Which means doing not doing. Yes, we are going to do. We are going to act. But our actions, our doings, are going to be effortless. They are going to flow with the Tao, instead of at odds with it. Much like the Master in his dance with the Tao. The Tao leads. The Master follows. The Master leads the people by following the Tao. We follow the example of the Master. We are going to learn how to never interfere with the Tao. We are going to learn not to force things. We are going to learn how to follow the Tao. Until we, too, are in perfect harmony with the Tao.

If you don’t quite understand doing not-doing just yet, don’t worry. This is going to be a major component of the dance. We will be talking more and more about this in the coming days and weeks.


Will You Join In The Dance?

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 two, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, in the opening chapter of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, we were introduced to the eternal reality. That eternal reality, Lao Tzu hesitantly called Tao. I say, hesitantly, but I don’t really know whether that was really the case, or not. I just know that he wanted us to understand, right up front, that any words he used to describe it, and any name he was going to give to it, couldn’t possibly do it justice. In its essence, the Tao is unnameable and indescribable. That is its mystery. But how this mystery manifests itself in our Universe is something that we can describe and name. That is why we will spend a great deal of our time describing and naming the manifestations of the Tao; as we let go of all desires along our journey to realizing the mystery of the Tao.

Naming the unnameable. That is what we are about on this journey. Today, Lao Tzu introduces us to the concept of yin and yang, as we start naming things. Yin and yang are the Taoist way of dealing with the problem of duality in our Universe. He begins with the problem. When people see or name some things beautiful, other things must become ugly. When people see or name some things good, other things must become bad. This is the problem of duality. For there to be beauty, there must be ugliness. For there to be goodness, there must be badness.

I am sure you would like to try and imagine a Universe where there is only beauty and goodness, with no trace of ugliness or badness. The only way I have managed to do this, has been in imagining a parallel Universe, coexistent, where there is only ugliness and badness, with no trace of beauty and goodness. You hopefully can see the problem. The reason we can’t have one without the other is because we must have some standard by which we measure these things. You could argue that we could have standards of beauty that don’t correspond to ugliness. We could just say that one thing is more beautiful than another. But even then, the least beautiful thing measured up against the most beautiful thing, leaves us with the same duality. No matter what euphemism we use for the word ugly.

The real problem with duality lies in our seeing these things as opposites. And, determining the one is good while the other one is bad. Beauty, that is good. Ugly, on the other hand? Well, just try to make the ugly out to be good. All you are really doing is making the ugly, beautiful; and, the beautiful, ugly. Then, we are right back where we began.

If this is all beginning to get ugly for you, consider this: This is not the way Lao Tzu wants us to see things. Instead of seeing yin and yang as opposites, we should be seeing them as complements. I want to make sure that you don’t confuse complements with compliments. They are entirely different things. When Lao Tzu introduces yin and yang, he is introducing complements. They complete each other. The Tao is the great equalizer. Yin and yang is the way the Tao equalizes, or balances, everything. And, that will take care of the problem of duality.

Being and non-being create each other. We are going to talk a lot about being and non-being in the coming days, so I don’t want to spend a great deal of time today explaining what Lao Tzu means by the two. Today, let it suffice to say that they are not opposites, but complements of each other. They create each other.

Yin and yang, female and male, dark and light, negative and positive, passive and active, closed and open. These are not opposites, but complements. The one is not complete without the other. You can’t have one without the other. I don’t mean to discourage any one from messaging me, please do. But before you do, I just want to say that I am not saying that a woman needs a man, or a man needs a woman. Female and male here, refer to more than woman and man. Each and every one of us, whether male or female (or something else I can’t seem to define) have both yin and yang in us. We need to let those be in balance in us. Sometimes I am much more yin and sometimes I am much more yang. But in the grand scheme of things, it all balances out.

Where there is yin, there must also be yang. They balance each other. One is not good, while the other is bad. The only thing that would be bad is if there is not balance. Yin and yang create each other. They support each other. They define each other. They depend on each other. They follow each other. That is what Lao Tzu is meaning when he talks in today’s chapter of being and non-being, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, before and after.

As long as we are thinking of them as opposites, we are thinking of them as being in conflict. That is the problem with duality. But Lao Tzu wants us to embrace them as complements of each other. See how they create each other, how they support each other, how they define, depend on, and follow each other? This isn’t conflict. This is a loving relationship.

I almost wish I could end today’s commentary with that picture of a loving relationship between yin and yang. Perhaps I can. But first, Lao Tzu introduces to us the Master. This is only an introduction. She or he, is going to appear again and again throughout the Tao Te Ching. Resist the urge to treat the Master as some unattainable ideal. A superhuman.

The purpose that Lao Tzu has in mind with giving us the example of the Master, is to help us to flesh out his teachings. Any one of us can be a master. It is only a matter of our relationship with the Tao. The Master is someone who is in perfect harmony with the Tao. Stephen Mitchell, in his translation is going to alternate between calling the Master a she and a he. The reason he has for this is two-fold. First, because the original Chinese does not have a gender specific pronoun with which to reference the Master. And, second, because he doesn’t want us to fail to be able to see ourselves in the role of the Master. Our goal in this journey is to learn to master ourselves, both our minds and our bodies. Prior to Stephen Mitchell’s translation, he had counted 103 different English translations. And each one had, using his word, “ironically” chosen to refer to the Master exclusively as a man. That word “ironically” was chosen because of how inclusive Lao Tzu’s teachings are. To insist that the Master is a man is to go way overboard on the yang. Where is the yin to balance things out? It was as if the translators were denying half the population the possibility of becoming masters themselves.

But enough of explanations. What I really want to end today’s commentary with, is the relationship (dare I call it, loving) between the Master and the Tao. Lao Tzu is going to cover each of these ideas in much greater detail later. Today, I just want to watch the Master dance with the Tao. How they complement each other. She acts without doing anything. She teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come. Things disappear and she lets them go. She has, but she doesn’t possess. She acts without any expectations. When her work is done, she forgets all about it. That is why it lasts forever. Like the dance; it goes on and on and on.

The Gateway To All Understanding

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)

So, we begin anew. For many of my followers, this may be a little old hat. I go through the eighty-one chapters, one chapter at a time, each day. I have been cycling through the Tao Te Ching for a couple of years now. I have been using Stephen Mitchell’s translation all along. His words remain the same. But my commentary, I hope, is improving as I am gaining more and more understanding. I want to welcome those of you that, because you are some of my newer followers, have never before encountered chapter one with me. I feel a special bond with Lao Tzu, forged over years of reading through and meditating over many of the translations of the Tao Ching. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on philosophical Taoism. I think of myself only as an apprentice; with Lao Tzu, as the Master. But, I am learning. Wait, maybe unlearning would be a better term to use. With each chapter we are going to be echoing what Lao Tzu says. And, I will be encouraging you to put Lao Tzu’s teachings into practice in your own life. Join with me as a fellow apprentice. Let’s discover where this journey will take us.

Let’s get the rules out of the way first. Actually, I can only think of one rule. I certainly hope you will want to reblog these postings each day. I kind of like the exposure. But I just want to say that I know some of you like to reblog just the quote, without my commentary. And, that is perfectly okay with me. Lao Tzu’s words are so much better than my own. How could I be offended? The only thing that I ask is that you give Stephen Mitchell the proper recognition as the translator of Lao Tzu’s work. There are a bazillion different translations of the Tao Te Ching, out there. Yes, I counted them all. But Stephen Mitchell’s is my favorite, by far. I don’t know Stephen; but, my appreciation for his work on translating is only surpassed by my appreciation for Lao Tzu originally writing it. He deserves to be cited for his work.

Okay, with that out of the way, where to begin? This is what I imagine Lao Tzu must have been thinking as he sat down to write the Tao Te Ching: Where to begin? I have discovered an order to the Universe. A Law or Principle that governs everything. This is something that is eternal. Not just in the sense that it goes on and on and on. But eternal in the sense that it is transcendent. It is mysterious. It leaves us clues for those with eyes to see. These are its manifestations. But the full scope of what it is is beyond our understanding. It is the way things always have been and always will be. It is the way things are. I don’t even know what name to call it. But I must call it something. That is what I think Lao Tzu must have been thinking as he sat down to begin writing.

And, so he begins with a caveat: What I am going to be talking about is more than what I can possibly say about it. Words are limiting. It is beyond anything that I can say about it. I am going to point at it. Like, I can point at the Moon. I only hope you won’t get distracted by my finger. That is what I think Lao Tzu is conveying when he says that the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. He even has trouble giving it the name, Tao. Any name that I can give it is not the eternal Name.

The eternally real. That is what I am talking about. And, that is unnameable. But naming is important. That is why I have to give it a name. Naming is the origin of all particular things. Just try to understand that the name that I give it is not its real name. There is so much more to the eternally real than anything I could ever tell, or name that I could call it.

The eternally real. That is a mystery that you can realize. But only once you are free from desire. As long as you are caught in desire, you will only see its manifestations. I am going to be talking with you a lot about both the mystery of the eternally real, and its manifestations. Don’t be discouraged right now that you can only see the manifestations. Along the way we will learn how to let go of all desires. Once free of them, we will begin to realize the mystery.

And, you should be encouraged to know that both the mystery and the manifestations arise from the same source. While we are beholding the manifestations, they are pointing at the mystery. No, we can’t yet realize the mystery. But, they both have the same source.

That source is darkness. This is what makes it so difficult. Peering into the darkness. Darkness within darkness. At first, you won’t see anything. Don’t be discouraged. Our eyes will adjust. This is the gateway to all understanding.

Master Yourself, Not Others

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)

Today’s chapter is a fitting ending to Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching. We have come so far in just eighty-one days. I think of that; and, then I think of starting the journey all over again from the beginning, tomorrow. This chapter begins to almost seems anti-climactic to me. That is why I need to concentrate on today. Today is sufficient. Tomorrow can wait.

So, not looking forward, I will focus on today’s chapter. The words that Lao Tzu has shared with us haven’t always been eloquent. But they have always been true. And throughout, Lao Tzu hasn’t been trying to prove any point. He has just pointed at the Tao, and let the Tao speak for itself. That is some wisdom that I am still developing.

He has just a few parting words to impart. And, no surprises here, they are about the Master. We have talked a lot about this mysterious Master that Lao Tzu keeps referring to. I keep insisting that the Master is a human, just like us. But there is something that sets him, or her, apart from the rest of us. If only to be an example for the rest of us. What the Master has accomplished is mastering him, or her, self. Both mind and body. This is something that all of us can do. Otherwise, why have the Master as an example? It seems downright mean to set before us something to aspire to that we can’t possibly achieve. And that doesn’t seem the spirit of Lao Tzu’s teachings, at all.

When Lao Tzu speaks of the Master having no possessions, let’s remember what he seems to always mean by that negating word no. Whether he has talked about not-doing or not-knowing, he has never meant that nothing was going to be done or known. He has always talked about letting the Tao do its thing, and going along with the flow. Of not holding on to fleeting things; instead, letting them come and go. Not having possessions doesn’t mean that you won’t have things. It means they won’t have you. We are talking about mastering ourselves, mind and body.

Lao Tzu has talked a lot about the art of living, of a life of contentment. Here, in the last chapter he is giving us one last word. Do you want to be happy? Here is how to pursue that. The more you do for others, the happier you will be. Lao Tzu has also spoken before of what is the true measure of wealth: it is measured in the amount you give to others.

But, don’t think for a moment that Lao Tzu is speaking of applying force to make people do these things. You aren’t going to get happy by being forced to help out others. And you certainly aren’t going to get wealthy by having your money confiscated by some central government to redistribute to those who are less fortunate. The Tao nourishes by not forcing. By not forcing us, we are nourished. Those words are so very important. By not forcing us, we are nourished. We simply must understand the importance of not using force on others. This is the way of the Tao; so, this is the way of the Master. Lao Tzu is teaching us to master ourselves, instead of others. Then we can lead. The Master leads by not dominating.

What It Means 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 devices.
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)

Another cycle through the Tao Te Ching is almost complete. Tomorrow we will talk about the last chapter. And then? Well, then, I will start all over again with chapter one. Every time I go through these chapters I find them fresh and new. That hopefully results in compelling new commentary from me.

But for today, Lao Tzu takes one last look at a country that is governed wisely. In the past, he has told would be leaders how to govern wisely. Today, he doesn’t tell us how. He simply tells us what the results will be. And that is the theme of today’s chapter.

What does it mean to be content? We probably have a pretty good idea what it means to be discontent. It is marked by restlessness, anxiety, depression, a dissatisfaction with our present circumstances. We may not know what it is we really want. We just know we want something else, something better. Most people probably don’t think their discontent is caused by how they are being governed. But, Lao Tzu has insisted there is a correlation there, throughout the Tao Te Ching. Still, while it is easy to recognize the symptoms that we are not content, it isn’t so easy to know what it is going to take for us to be content.

True to himself, Lao Tzu paints an idyllic picture of true contentment. This is the way he describes a country whose inhabitants are content. It is an idyllic picture. It reminds me of Tolkien’s Shire. And, I have never been too shy to admit that a Hobbit’s life in the Shire is my own picture of true contentment.

Give me a hole in the ground. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: give me a hobbit-hole, that means comfort. Simple hobbit folk content with their very ordinary lives. Hobbits certainly enjoy the labor of their hands; and, they won’t be wasting their time inventing labor-saving devices. They love their homes; so they aren’t interested in travel. At least that is the case with almost all of them. There was that one odd fellow that disappeared one day. He went on a rather preposterous adventure with a band of dwarves to a lonely mountain; and, he claims to have helped to slay a dragon. That one disappeared a lot after that. But he was always a little queer. In the Shire, they have wagons and boats, but they don’t go anywhere with them. And that arsenal of weapons? Well, they hope never to use them. Us, hobbits, well, we enjoy our food and take pleasure in being with our families. We spend weekends in our gardens and delight in the doings of the neighborhood. In the Shire, though the next country is so close we can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, we’d be content to die of old age without ever going to see it.

That would be my idyllic picture. Smoking my pipe while sitting outside in my garden. I already am doing that. But, I am not so foolish as to suppose that is everyone’s ideal picture of contentment. The point of today’s chapter isn’t to question what is wrong with labor-saving devices. Just in case you were grumbling to yourself that you weren’t going to part with yours. And, it isn’t to wonder exactly what is wrong with loving to travel. If Bilbo Baggins can go on an adventure and still long for home, you can too. The point of today’s chapter is to get us thinking about what it is going to take for us to be content. While there really isn’t anything wrong with labor-saving devices, there is something wrong with not being content with the labor of our hands. And, while there isn’t anything wrong with loving to travel, there is something wrong with not dearly loving our own home. Why aren’t we content? And what is it going to take to be content? What does true contentment with your own life look like?

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu very clearly states that if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. There is your panacea. But I don’t think Lao Tzu wants us to be dependent on our rulers to cure our discontent. No. Indeed, throughout the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu has been talking about the art of living; which, he has described as a life of contentment. And, there is one thing that he has repeated over and over again. Our happiness can not depend on our outward circumstances. Not even being governed wisely. Because he never has held out a lot of hope that was going to happen. No, if we want to find true contentment, we are going to have to look deep within ourselves and find it there. We have every thing we need. It is inherent in us. Find it there, and you will be content.

It Isn’t About The Others. It Is About You.

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)

Previously, in the Tao Te Ching we have talked about success and failure. Lao Tzu asked the rhetorical question, “Of the two, which is more dangerous?” And, he talked about the problem of being on the proverbial ladder of success; saying, “We are always in danger, as long as both our feet aren’t squarely on the ground.” We are nearing the end of the Tao Te Ching, now; and, as these chapters draw to a close, it is a good idea to come to the understanding that we are going to fail, a whole lot more than we care to imagine. Failure isn’t optionial. We are going to fail. Now, don’t get down. Failure isn’t the end of the world. It is just a fact of life. You will also succeed much more often than you can imagine.

But today’s chapter is more about failure than success. Or, maybe it would best be described as how to turn failure into success. The key is in how we choose to view failure. Lao Tzu wants us to view our many failures as opportunities. For example, we now know how not to do whatever we just failed at. There are certainly plenty of lessons to learn. But that isn’t what interests Lao Tzu in today’s chapter.

When Lao Tzu is talking about failure and opportunity. He is talking about contractual obligations and conflict resolution between two parties. That theme comes through more clearly in the original, I think, than Stephen Mitchell’s translation, but we can still see it in the translation we have before us.

Lao Tzu sees failure as an opportunity because it gives you one of two very different paths to take when it comes to dealing with the other party to the contract. He begins with the failure being your own. But he also will cover the opportunity you have when the failure is the other party’s.

First, the opportunity you have when the failure is your own. You could, because it is so very tempting, go down the path of blaming someone else. That, we should not be surprised to learn, is not the path that Lao Tzu would have us walk. You start walking down that path and there will be no end to the blame.

There is a better way. When we fail, we are at a crossroads. One path is the path of blame. But there is another path to take. And that is the path of fulfilling all of your obligations. Correcting all of your own mistakes. Doing whatever needs to be done.

The way I saw this expressed in other translations of today’s chapter was as a contract between two parties. Every contract has two sides. There is the side where you have what you are obligated to do. And the side where you will find what the other party is obligated to do. This is the best illustration of what Lao Tzu is referring to in today’s chapter.

You have contractually obligated yourself. And, you have failed. Now, what do you do? This is where you correct your mistakes to the very best of your ability. Those obligations still need to be fulfilled. Do what you need to do in order to fulfill those obligations. That seems fair enough. And, though it is going to be difficult, you still need to do it. It is the right thing to do. So far, so good.

But there is more to this failure thing than that. Because there are two sides to that contract. What if the failure is not your own? What if the other party to the contract is the one who has failed? Even that other person’s failure is an opportunity for you. Obviously, we hope the other party will behave the way we know to behave when the failure was our own. But the failure is theirs not ours. And now the shoe is on the other foot. That is when Lao Tzu tells us that we are once again at a crossroads. This is when Lao Tzu tells us to choose the right path. If the failure is the other party’s, make no demands of them.

That is right. Demand nothing of them. That is where we leave it to the Tao to balance things out. We take care of our obligations. And, we leave it to the Tao to balance things out, demanding nothing of the other party.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on television. But, I think that the whole world would be transformed if, one by one, we each would put this into practice in our own lives. Stop saying, “But what about the others?” It isn’t about the others. It is about you. Fulfill your obligations. Trust the Tao. Demand nothing of the others.

When You Encounter The Paradox, You Have Found The Truth.

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)

In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu brings together a couple different concepts that we have been talking about the last few days. The first, is that to be soft and yielding is to be truly living. If you are hard and inflexible, you may be alive; but you are not truly living. You are, instead, among the dieing. The second, is that everyone knows this is true. But knowing is not enough. You have to progress beyond mere knowing and start putting these teachings into practice. Few seem able to do this. It requires that further step of realization.

And, Lao Tzu returns to one of his favorite metaphors: which is water. There are many things about water that Lao Tzu points at to illustrate what he is teaching. Today, he begins by talking about how soft and yielding it is. We all know this. If you push your hand into a pool of water, the water yields to your hand without any effort. Water is soft and yielding.

As we observe the flow of water at a beach, along a river, even a drainage ditch, we will see water in its natural element, doing what water does. It flows effortlessly. Because it is soft and yielding, whether we are talking about the ebb and flow of the tide of an ocean or the current of a stream, water moves effortlessly along its course. Where it encounters obstacles, like rocks or other debris, it usually just moves around those. At least that is how it appears, superficially. But if we look beyond the superficial, we begin to see what is actually taking place. That soft and yielding water is making an impact on everything it touches. How much of an impact, depends on how long the water is touching that something it is encountering.

For instance, push your hand into that pool of water. The water immediately gives way to your hand. But your hand is immediately impacted by the touch of the water. Your hand gets wet. Keep your hand in the water long enough and your hand will start to wrinkle up because of its exposure to the water. If we go back to a stream of water, we can see the effect the water has on the rocks and debris it encounters. It immediately begins to dissolve the hard and inflexible. Oh, it appears to go around it, but it is actually busy gnawing away at it, too Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. But even the most hard and inflexible thing will dissolve because of its encounters with water.

Like we said earlier, we already know this is true. The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. We know it; yet, we often fail to realize exactly what this means. How do we put these teachings into practice?

It might help to remember that we aren’t talking about water. The water is just a metaphor. I only mention this because I know that I sometimes get lost in the wonder of the metaphor. And like Lao Tzu has said before, we are then merely enjoying the flower; without tasting the fruit. There is some fruit here. We need to look beyond the flower. And begin to appreciate the fruit.

So, what is the fruit? Ah, that is where we need to look to the Master. The Master doesn’t merely know these things. He puts them into practice: by realizing them. Soft and yielding. Remaining serene, even in the midst of sorrow.

In the midst of sorrow, what is our most basic instinct? HELP! We either want help or want to be of help. For our purposes today, let’s say that the sorrow we are in the midst of is not our own, but some others. Perhaps someone we love, though it doesn’t have to be. It could be a perfect stranger. But we want to help. We don’t like it when someone is in sorrow. It touches us deep down inside. To our very heart. We want to help. And just when we want to try and help, we find we are not being at all helpful.

This is where this all starts to sound paradoxical. You know what I mean. When a statement seems like it is self-contradictory, but it just might be true anyway. Well, that is what Lao Tzu assures us. True words seem paradoxical. I want to help, but as long as I want to help, I am not much of a help. The Master has learned how to protect his own heart from the evil of having good intentions. What? Having good intentions is evil? Good intentions are some of the most evil things that can enter your heart. You’re wanting to help. That is a good intention. A really good intention. Pat yourself on the back. Good job, you. Now, that the self-congratulation is over, let’s take a look at the truth. It will seem paradoxical. But it is still true.

Your good intentions are going to motivate you to interfere. To try to make things better. After all, who likes sorrow? Sorrow isn’t good, is it? Why not try to make that person happy? That is what good intentions do. Oh, we aren’t wanting evil for this person. We only want to make them happy. So, we are going to circumvent the process. We are going to take matters into our own hands. Kind of like grabbing that bow. Remember that one yesterday? Our good intentions are evil. There, I said it. Do you really want to be people’s greatest help? Stop trying to help them. Give up helping.

I know, I know, this sounds paradoxical. And maybe cold. Uncaring. At the very least, indifferent. So, most people are not going to put this into practice. But indifference is so much better than good intentions. That is the Master’s way. Let’s get back to him. He remains serene even in the midst of sorrow. That serenity will seem like indifference, too. And, you know why? Because it is. It is that indifference that keeps evil from entering his heart. He has given up helping. He is indifferent, yes. But, watch what happens. Because he hasn’t allowed evil to enter his heart, because he isn’t trying to help, to interfere, to make that person or persons happy, he is now their greatest help.

Paradox, indeed.


Leave That Bow Alone! Be The Best That Humans Can Be.

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)

Yesterday, we were talking about living, as being flexible; and dieing, as being inflexible. That was a good introduction for today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu begins by talking about the bending of a bow. The bending of a bow. That is the metaphor that Lao Tzu uses to point at how the Tao acts in the world. It is about how things are in the natural, living world. As the string on a bow is pulled, the top bends down and the bottom bends up. This is easy for us to picture in our mind, even if we have never actually handled a bow previously.

Lao Tzu tells us this metaphor represents how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, naturally. And through nature, perfect balance is achieved. The Tao takes from what is too much – that is, excess. And gives to what isn’t enough – that is, deficiency.

I want you to notice in this first stanza that the Tao is being represented as an impersonal force of nature. What is too much, not who has too much. What isn’t enough, not who doesn’t have enough. I think it is important for us to understand this precision. It is both natural and impersonal. It isn’t anything personal. The Tao is merely balancing the ledger books. Where in the short term there may be excess and deficiency, in the long run there is perfect balance. No excess. No deficiency. That is the way of the Tao. Everything is constantly changing. The bow is constantly moving.

Now, we humans, being persons, like to make things personal. And that is where we always end up coming into conflict with the Tao. The problem is we want to be in control. And we are ever ready to use force to both get and maintain that control. It is all about power. People don’t like not being in control. They want to believe they have the power. The Tao is an impersonal force of nature. It is a what. People don’t want a what in power. They want a who. And they would prefer that who to be them. Even if their seeming power is an illusion, that is okay, as long as they believe strongly enough in the illusion.

I think that is an important thing for us to understand, as well. It is something about all us humans of which we need to ever be mindful. I am not saying it is human nature; as in, it is the sum total of all that makes us human. But it is a very real part of our nature as humans. It is something that we need to guard against. Lao Tzu has a very high opinion of us humans. He lists us as one of the four great powers. Pretty significant, that. Still, we are only one of four great powers. And the other three are more significant. That is something for us to try to remember as we struggle to keep ourselves from thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.

So, given our tendency to try to control, is it any wonder that some will use force to protect their power? And inevitably, that will mean working against the direction of the Tao. Now, first of all, let’s take a look at those who have good intentions. That is how they always snag us, isn’t it? With their good intentions. The pace of nature is too slow. They just want to help the Tao along. They want to grab hold of that bow and pull with the Tao. Just faster and further. It is very important for us to understand that this isn’t going to help things at all. The Tao, and the Tao alone, knows how to bend the bow. All our efforts to bend the bow, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are not going to result in bringing things into balance any faster. They are only going to result in a tug-of-war. And guess who loses that one?

I wanted to first talk about those who promise they have good intentions because no one ever announces they have evil intentions. No one is ever going to say, “Hey, you know what? We want to take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much.” No one will ever own up to those kinds of intentions. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what your intentions are. Whether your intentions are good or evil, the results are going to be the same. When you try to control, when you use force to protect your power, you go against the direction of the Tao. That is the only way that it could be. Going with the flow means not being in control. It means not using force. The very fact that you are trying to be in control and are using force puts you counter to the Tao. No matter your intentions. And the results are the very opposite of what the Tao would otherwise achieve. Instead of excess and deficiency being adjusted, it is expanded. That is why we continually hear that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This just empowers the “Do-gooders” more in their efforts. And the more empowered they are, the greater the problem, they aren’t solving, becomes.

This is where the Master comes in. The Master, here, is a real leader. Not one of our elected officials. Because they are all about power and control and the use of force, they’ll never get it. But the Master gets it. We can learn a lot from the Master. Until we all become like the Master. She can keep on giving because there is no end to her wealth. Friends, this is not referring to money. We are talking about leaving the bending of the bow to the Tao here. And learning from the Master. There is no end to her wealth of wisdom. That is why she can just keep on giving.

She acts without expectation. Just let that one sink in. Acting, expecting nothing in return. She succeeds without taking credit. Hmmmmm. She doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. Wow! Do these seem like superhuman traits? They aren’t. Remember earlier when I was talking about our tendency as humans to want to be in control? To want to believe we have the power? Those are certainly human traits. But so are these traits of the Master. Consider them our better angels. Certainly we can be the worst that humans can be. But we can also be the best that humans can be.


Are We The Living Or the Dieing?

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)

Today, Lao Tzu talks about disciples of death and disciples of life. He has told us before that death is a natural and inevitable part of the life cycle. We shouldn’t fear it. Being afraid of dieing holds us back from truly living our lives. Not being afraid, frees you to live your life to its fullest.

We are all born soft and supple. That is how Lao Tzu describes the beginning of life. We are born that way. Plants are born that way. Indeed, all beings start out that way. Being soft and supple, tender and pliant; those are the attributes of living. Lao Tzu wants us to always be soft and yielding. This is what he means by being a disciple of life. And, as long as we remain soft and yielding we will always be alive.

It is our fear of dieing that makes us stiff and hard, brittle and dry. We fear it, so we become it. Even while we are very much alive, we have taken on the attributes of death. By being stiff and inflexible, we have become disciples of death. And, our fear becomes our reality.

I hope you understand that to the extent Lao Tzu is picturing physical attributes he is speaking metaphorically. If we see these only as physical attributes, we are merely concerning ourselves with the flower and not the fruit. We need to see beyond the surface and begin to plumb the depths.

How sad it is that the still living have become as if they were already dead. They were once so flexible. Able to go with the flow of the Universe. Letting things come and go as they will. What a shame it is to cease yielding. To become rigid. To try to hold on to fleeting things.

We are still needing to transition from merely knowing these truths to actually realizing them. Disciples of death will never realize these truths. They will die before their time. Only disciples of life will come to realize these truths. Living their lives to their fullest.

More On The Difference Between Knowing And Realizing

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)

Yesterday, we talked about the difference between knowing that all things change and realizing it. The difference between knowing and realizing is both profound and subtle. And, it is all the difference in the world. We talked about how to know when we have made the shift between merely knowing and actual realizing. But we didn’t talk much about how to make that transition. The reason for that is because putting these teachings into practice is so profound and subtle. It involves all that we have been talking about all along. The not-knowing knowing. The not-doing doing. The not-competing competing. Lao Tzu teaches without a teaching; meaning, he points at the truth, hints at it, over and over again; but he can never just come out and tell it to us plainly. Why is that? He answered that question in the very first chapter of the Tao Te Ching: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” That may be frustrating to us. But it is the way things are. If we are going to transition from merely knowing to actual realizing, it doesn’t require knowledge or doing or competing. It requires letting things come and go as they will. As long as we are interfering, as long as we are trying to be in control, we are never going make that transition. We need to let go. And that, my friends, can be the hardest thing of all.

As hard as that is for each and every one of us, you can probably imagine how very difficult it would be for the people in power: our rulers. They, more than anyone else, think they have all the answers. You can’t teach them anything. For they already know. They are the ones that can’t resist doing something. They must always be interfering with the natural order and attempting to control outcomes. And, for them, the urge to compete is most acute. As soon as one election is done they immediately begin competing in the next.

That is what today’s chapter is all about. It is the people vs. the rulers. Let us for a moment, give our rulers the benefit of the doubt; and say that they know when taxes are too high the people go hungry. And while we are at it, let us also assume that they know when the government is too intrusive, the people lose their spirit.

The problem is that merely knowing this doesn’t matter at all. It certainly doesn’t change their behavior. They need to make the transition from merely knowing to actual realizing. Because only then, will it start making a difference in how they govern.

I am just going to be honest here. I don’t hold out a shred of hope that our rulers are going to voluntarily transition from merely knowing to actually realizing. My blog isn’t for them. It is for the rest of us. Those of us that are going to have to pick up the pieces after the system inevitably comes crashing down all around us. It is we, the people, that will have to not just know, but realize these truths.

We already think we know that when taxes are too high, people go hungry. But let’s make sure that we aren’t just giving mental assent to this. People talk a decent game about taxes. I don’t know of anyone that wants their taxes to be too high. We understand that money that is taken from us, is money that we could be better spending, on ourselves and others. That is why the only taxes that anyone seems to be in favor of raising are the taxes levied on “the wealthy.” I put that in scare quotes for what I hope are obvious reasons. Many people think (mistakenly) that because “the wealthy” can afford it, no one is going to go hungry due to these taxes. So, they have already betrayed that they don’t really know when taxes are too high, people go hungry. Please, don’t send me messages here about people needing to pay their “fair” share. I put that word, fair, in scare quotes for very obvious reasons as well. The reality is that it doesn’t matter whose taxes are too high. When taxes are too high, people are going to go hungry. Why? Besides the obvious, because that is the way things are, there is what I already said earlier. Money that is taken in taxes is money that could be better (more efficiently) spent by the persons that earned that money, both for themselves and for others. There is no better example of a people who are suffering from a delusion than those that think that the government can and will provide better than we can for ourselves. Go ahead, send me your list of things that the government can provide better than we can provide for ourselves. I think it is good to confront your delusion and get made well.

Speaking of delusions, here is another one: If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear. This is the line that propagandists have been feeding us for a very long time. They keep intruding on our freedom, insisting that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear. But I, for one, am not fully knowledgeable of all that is contained within the ever-expanding U.S. Criminal Code. The truth is that I may have plenty of things that I want hidden from the prying eyes of our rulers. Things that I don’t know have been deemed unlawful. Ignorance of the law, I have been told, is no defense. Common sense informs me that where there is no victim, there is no crime. But our prisons in the United States are filled to overflowing with “criminals” where there was no victim. So common sense isn’t going to help me to steer clear of the eye of Sauron. Ordinary people, like me, are waking up to this truth more and more each day. That is why we are losing our spirit. The government is too intrusive.

We need to transition from merely knowing to actually realizing. When those of us, that are called upon to be leaders of a better tomorrow, act for the people’s benefit, it will be because we trust them; and leave them alone.