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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching -- Verse 26

    Tuesday, February 19, 2013, 4:42 PM [General]

    26

    The heavy is the root of the light.
    The unmoved is the source of all movement.

    Thus the Master travels all day
    without leaving home.
    However splendid the views,
    she stays serenely in herself.

    Why should the lord of the country
    flit about like a fool?
    If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
    you lose touch with your root.
    If you let restlessness move you,
    you lose touch with who you are.

    In this verse we get back to the idea of the interrelatedness of the things we generally consider to be opposites.  There cannot be lightness except in contrast to that which is heavy, or movement except in relation to that which remains stationary [lines 1-2].  Thus things that we consciously consider to be dualities are in fact not differing states, but rather reflections of a single underlying condition that varies only in degree.  They cannot exist independent of each other.  For this reason, one can remain at home and yet be a traveler, for movement is relational [lines 3-4].  And so, no matter what external conditions we may encounter—whether positive or negative—we can learn to remain serene in ourselves by recognizing that ALL conditions exist only in relation to each other [lines 5-6].  We therefore do not have to travel about in search of one thing or another, but can simply allow ourselves to encounter things as they are.  Because ultimately, reality is one [lines 7-12].

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching -- Verse 25

    Monday, September 20, 2010, 1:59 PM [General]

    [As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed are strictly my own; this is what I make of the text.  I welcome comments from anyone who might wish to share.]

    25

    There was something formless and perfect
    before the universe was born.
    It is serene. Empty.
    Solitary. Unchanging.
    Infinite. Eternally present.
    It is the mother of the universe.
    For lack of a better name,
    I call it the Tao.

    It flows through all things,
    inside and outside, and returns
    to the origin of all things.

    The Tao is great.
    The universe is great.
    Earth is great.
    Man is great.
    These are the four great powers.

    Man follows the earth.
    Earth follows the universe.
    The universe follows the Tao.
    The Tao follows only itself.

    This verse is sort of a restatement of the fundamental idea of what Tao is.  Lines 1-8 allude to its transcendental nature; it existed before there was a universe -- before there was space, or time, or substance.  Thus it had no form, it was infinite, it was eternal.  But the change from past tense [lines 1-2] to present tense [lines 3-8] indicates that the Tao still is all these things.  Because its transcendent reality cannot be aptly described in words, it cannot be named; and thus it is called simply the Tao [lines 7-8].  But there are several words used to describe this transcendent reality: serene, empty, solitary, unchanging, infinite, eternally present.  All of these give some insight into what it means. 

    The first term is "serene," and to me this means the Tao is in perfect balance.  From our personal perspectives it may seem quite out of control – we may see conflict and suffering and destruction and poisoning of the earth – but all of this is incorporated within a single overall system that is not spinning out of control but rather continuing to exist in harmony with itself.   This is the only possible condition, because the Tao is also "solitary," there is nothing for it to be in conflict with.  There is no way to put it out of balance because it is the system as a whole.  So if it seems overbalanced in one direction, it just means it is building greater force toward its eventual move in the other direction.

    The second term used to describe the Tao here is "empty" -- the same idea as was expressed in verses 4 - 6.  The Tao should not to be conceived of as a thing in itself, but rather as the source of things.  Everything that exists springs forth from the Tao.  If the Tao was a specific "something" then nothing could come into existence that was other than that thing -- there could be no polarity, no opposites.  If that were the case, there would be nothing dynamic, no movement, no process.  More than a thing, the Tao is a process.  It is the ongoing process of existing.  And while this process happens through an ongoing interaction between opposing forces (Yin & Yang, etc.) the nature of the process, the way it works, remains the same.  Thus the Tao is called "unchanging."

    And because everything that exists is a manifestation of the Tao, it can be said to be "infinite" as well as "eternally present." 

    But the Tao is more than just the physical world.  It is not simply a structure or entity that contains the universe within it.  Rather, it is a reality that interpenetrates every point in the universe [lines 9-11].  It is that interpenetration that in the context of time, appears as an eternal ongoing flow that emerges from the Tao and returns to it.  I think line 10 is significant, in that it indicates that the Tao is not just contained within up – like the western concept of the soul – but is also outside of us, manifest in all of reality.  It is panentheism

    Lines 12-20 talk about the Tao giving rise to the Universe, which gives rise to the Earth, which gives rise to Mankind.  Mankind at last has the capacity to conceive of and understand the earth, the universe and the Tao.  But inasmuch as Mankind came into existence on the earth, we are inherently a part of it.  Our behaviors, our patterns, the cycles we manifest are an expression of the cycles and patterns of the earth.  Similarly, the earth follows patterns and cycles that are inherent in its being part of the Universe.  The Universe's patterns, cycles, and behaviors arise from its being a manifestation of the Tao.  Only the Tao is beyond outside influence because it transcends anything that could be "outside."

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 24

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 12:08 PM [General]

     

    [As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  I welcome comments from anyone who might have other insights to share.]

    24

    He who stands on tiptoe
    doesn't stand firm.
    He who rushes ahead
    doesn't go far.
    He who tries to shine
    dims his own light.
    He who defines himself
    can't know who he really is.
    He who has power over others
    can't empower himself.
    He who clings to his work
    will create nothing that endures.

    If you want to accord with the Tao,
    just do your job, then let go.

    In this verse we continue the message about fully embracing what is and not trying to control the experience [see verses XXII & XXIII], only this time we do so by considering the futility of doing otherwise.  Where verse 22 said "if you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked," this verse talks about what happens when you do not just let yourself be what you are, but rather try to make yourself into what you are not y forcing the situation.  When you do this, you are ultimately bound to fail – you will lose your stability [lines 1-2], wear yourself out [lines 3-4], or otherwise undermine yourself – because you are not accepting the Tao as it is. 

    The more extreme versions of this effort are described in lines 7-12, where we consider those people who become entirely caught up in conceptual abstractions [line 7] and lose sight of the transcendent reality of Tao [line 8].  If we attach ourselves too much to one side of the scale (of power or prestige), we lose sight of the fact that it is just one pole in a spectrum, one side of a coin that cannot exist without the other.  Because we cannot see this reality, we wind up wasting time trying to c ling to the abstraction instead of embracing the whole.  And because our efforts are focused on only one side of things, they are unbalanced; they cannot help but bring about an increase on the other side of the spectrum because the Tao cannot long be unbalanced.  And so our efforts undermine themselves [line 12].

    The answer is to avoid attachment to the outcome and just act naturally.  We need to experience the situation as it is, embrace what is real, and respond accordingly.  And then, let it go [lines 13-14 (also verse XXIII, lines 4-6)].

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 23

    Monday, August 23, 2010, 1:24 PM [General]

    [As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  I welcome comments from anyone who might have other insights to share.]

    23

    Express yourself completely,
    then keep quiet.
    Be like the forces of nature:
    when it blows, there is only wind;
    when it rains, there is only rain;
    when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

    If you open yourself to the Tao,
    you are at one with the Tao
    and you can embody it completely.
    If you open yourself to insight,
    you are at one with insight
    and you can use it completely.
    If you open yourself to loss,
    you are at one with loss
    and you can accept it completely.

    Open yourself to the Tao,
    then trust your natural responses;
    and everything will fall into place.

    This verse is about as straightforward a piece of advice as can be had from the Tao Te Ching, and it carries over the message from verse XXII rather nicely.  In that verse, we talked about not trying to control things – not trying to bring about specific outcomes, but rather responding to what is actually manifesting around us at each moment.  This verse talks about how that works.  In lines 1-6, we compare this way of action to that of nature.  The idea is that when something is happening, it is happening – the rain doesn't question whether it's coming down too hard, or whether it should let up a little, or whether it's doing too much damage.  It simply does what it does, and when it stops, it stops and a new situation unfolds.  There is no question as to whether enough rain fell down, or whether it could have rained a little more.  That is how we should behave as well; in each action we should be completely present, completely committed.  We should do what we intend to do, and then stop when we are done [lines 1-2]. 

    Lines 7-15 talk about "open[ing] yourself to" an experience and becoming "at one" with it.  The idea again is to open yourself to things as they are and embrace that reality completely.  This holds true in both good times and bad; even the experience of loss is not something that you should try to suppress or ignore, but rather it should be fully accepted as the reality of the moment.  When you are able to open yourself to the moment, your corresponding actions are authentic; there is no ego perspective holding you back.  Then, you are acting in accordance with the Tao, and everything works out the way it should [lines 16-18].

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 22

    Monday, August 23, 2010, 1:21 PM [General]

    [As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  I welcome comments from anyone who might have other insights to share.]

    22

    If you want to become whole,
    let yourself be partial.
    If you want to become straight,
    let yourself be crooked.
    If you want to become full,
    let yourself be empty.
    If you want to be reborn,
    let yourself die.
    If you want to be given everything,
    give everything up.

    The Master, by residing in the Tao,
    sets an example for all beings.
    Because he doesn't display himself,
    people can see his light.
    Because he has nothing to prove,
    people can trust his words.
    Because he doesn't know who he is,
    people recognize themselves in him.
    Because he has no goal in mind,
    everything he does succeeds.

    When the ancient Masters said,
    "If you want to be given everything,
    give everything up,"
    they weren't using empty phrases.
    Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.

    At first, this verse seems contradictory and nonsensical.  How can one achieve any of the things in lines 1,3,5,7 & 9 (which I'll call the "odd lines") by letting oneself fall short of them [lines 2,4,6, 8 & 10 (which I'll call the "even lines")?  It doesn't seem possible.  But the key phrase here is "let yourself."  The point is that it's not about attaining the desired outcome, but rather accepting the reality that already is.  Only by doing so can you transcend the conceptual duality of whole or partial, straight or crooked, full or empty, etc.  And only when you do transcend that dualistic thinking can you achieve what you are looking for. 

    The same idea is presented from the other side in lines 11-20, where we have the Master's example.  Lines 19-20 seem to sum up the whole idea: by not trying to bring about a preconceived notion of what is "best" or "most advantageous," but instead allowing things to develop as they will and then responding to them appropriately, the Master can never fail.  Success and failure are concepts that occur only when we believe there is a right way for things to happen.  If they happen that way, it is a success, and everything else is a failure.  For the Master, things can only turn out one way – the way they turn out, the way that is compatible with the Tao.  So the only real option is to let that happen as it will.  Desire for something different cannot change it, and will only bring dissatisfaction.  The point is, we need to give up the idea of controlling situations, controlling outcomes.  The Tao is what it is, regardless of what we might think is "better," or "more valuable."  Instead of trying to force reality to conform to our will, we should focus our will on responding to what is real. 

    Ultimately, we cannot tell whether one outcome is better than another, because we don't have the big picture, we cannot see the whole interrelated system.  "Better" or "worse" are concepts; they exist only within an individual perspective.  There is no point in fighting to get people to judge things the same way, because that only reinforces the idea that individual perspectives are meaningful.  Individual perspectives are abstractions, only the Tao is meaningful, because the Tao is everything.  To attain oneness with the Tao, we need to transcend all the abstractions of individual consciousness [lines 22-23] and let the Tao be what it is.  Rather than trying to control the experiences that unfold in our lives, we should try to let Tao control the experiences, and simply live the life that unfolds.  We should be lived by the Tao, not the other way around.  In the end, Tao is the experience anyway; we are simply part of it.

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 21

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010, 4:15 PM [General]

    [As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  I welcome comments from anyone who might have other insights to share.]

    21

    The Master keeps her mind
    always at one with the Tao;
    that is what gives her her radiance.

    The Tao is ungraspable.
    How can her mind be at one with it?
    Because she doesn't cling to ideas.

    The Tao is dark and unfathomable.
    How can it make her radiant?
    Because she lets it.

    Since before time and space were,
    the Tao is.
    It is beyond is and is not.
    How do I know this is true?
    I look inside myself and see.

    This is a decidedly difficult verse to interpret because it raises a lot of questions, but provides only basic answers that -- in their simplicity -- make things more confusing because they are assumed to be so obvious.  I think this is deliberate, like a Zen koan ("what is the sound of one hand clapping?") that cannot be answered logically.  Nonetheless, I'll try to apply some logical reasoning to get at the ineffable truth within.

    Lines 4-6 basically repeat the same message we've seen before: the Tao is totality, and is therefore beyond any concept or idea because concepts are individual and differentiated.  The Tao cannot be differentiated, because there is nothing to differentiate it from.  Therefore, by not clinging to ideas, or not trying to approach things from an analytical perspective -- the word "analyze" means to break into separate parts in order to understand the whole – the Master is able to maintain oneness with the Tao, even though the Tao itself cannot be grasped.

    The issue of "radiance" [lines 3 & 8] is a bit more difficult.  I think there is a clue in the use of the word "dark" of line 7.  If we take the word "radiance" in a literal sense, something radiant gives off light, it shines.  In this context, "darkness" can be considered its opposite, and therefore it makes sense to question how something that is dark can make something else shine.  The answer to this question [line 9] is really no answer at all.  But "radiance" has more than just a literal meaning.  We can speak of a person being radiant because they are filled with joy, not because they are actually reflecting light; and from this perspective, the answer in line 9 makes more sense.  So the point being made here is not so much that the Tao makes you radiant, but that "radiant" is a concept, a label.  Like any label, it implies its opposite ("dark," line 7) and is limited in its ability to express reality.  It creates confusion because the label is not the thing itself, but merely a description of the thing.

    Lines 10-12 serve to explain the conceptual enigmas created by lines 4-6 and 7-9.  I particularly like the use of the verb "is," rather than "was" or "has been" in line 11.  It indicates that the idea here is not an issue of time – first there was the Tao, and then the Tao generated all these separate things – or of space – the Tao exists "out there" and the world exists "within" it.  Rather it transcends both time and space; it is time and space and everything else.  They are all simply manifestations of the Tao. 

    And finally we get lines 13-14, which repeat the same "conceptual enigma" pattern as in the previous stanzas.   Clearly line 14 cannot be taken literally, because it is impossible to physically look inside oneself; and I think this is again the point.  It is a fundamental limitation of perception that there always has to be a perceiver to do the perceiving.  Thus, you can never really observe yourself completely, because there is always a part of you that is doing the observation and therefore cannot also be the thing observed. And so you can never really know the most fundamental "you," because that is the very part of you that would have to be doing the knowing.  The same holds true with the Tao, in exactly the same way; it is impossible to fully grasp because any point from which you might try to get perspective on it is also part of it-- and so is the mind that's trying to get the perspective!  Thus when you try to look inside yourself and realize that it's impossible, that very same realization can show you the truth of the Tao: "Since before time and space were, the Tao is.
    It is beyond is and is not."

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 20

    Friday, June 11, 2010, 1:55 PM [General]

    [As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  I welcome comments from anyone who might have other insights to share.]

    20

    Stop thinking, and end your problems.
    What difference between yes and no?
    What difference between success and failure?
    Must you value what others value,
    avoid what others avoid?
    How ridiculous!

    Other people are excited,
    as though they were at a parade.
    I alone don't care,
    I alone am expressionless,
    like an infant before it can smile.

    Other people have what they need;
    I alone possess nothing.
    I alone drift about,
    like someone without a home.
    I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

    Other people are bright;
    I alone am dark.
    Other people are sharper;
    I alone am dull.
    Other people have a purpose;
    I alone don't know.
    I drift like a wave on the ocean,
    I blow as aimless as the wind.

    I am different from ordinary people.
    I drink from the Great Mother's breasts.

     This verse returns us to the personal application of the Taoist principle, and is unique because so much of it is written from a first-person perspective.  The only previous use of the word I was in Verse 4:"I don't know who gave birth to it.  It is older than God."  In this verse, we see our Taoist narrator turn away from talking about external, third-person things ("the Tao is like this," or "the Master is like that…") and from speaking directly to us in the second-person voice ("you should be like this," or "(you should) let things be that…").  Now we have something more like a description of the day-to-day point of view of the Taoist master.

    Of course, we start with a kind of lead-in; a rejection of the "regular worldview" [lines 1-6].  I imaging the narrator at a point of exasperation here -- tired of trying to explain things to the conscious mind that keeps saying "yes, but what about…" he finally just says "stop thinking about those things!"  Concepts like yes and no [line 2], or success and failure [line 3], have no real meaning.  All that exists is what is, so there is no point in worrying – or even thinking – about what could be.  There is no such thing as "better," there is only "as such."  And so to make value judgments [lines 4-5] is simply ridiculous.

    And so, having cast off that worldview, what are we left with?  Our narrator tells us: empty, expressionless, dark, dull, unknowing, adrift.  At first gloss, none of these sounds particularly appealing.  And yet, these conditions are described with compelling similes.  They allude to a profound freedom, a deep inner calm that surpasses what can be attained in the worried rush of our mundane world– "like an infant before it can smile" [line 11], "like a wave on the ocean" [line 23], "aimless as the wind" [line 24]. 

    The point here is that it's fine to be dark, it's fine to be dull, it's fine to not know.  Sharpness, purposefulness, excitement -- these are manifestations of separated consciousness.  They can only come about when there is some particular goal being sought, some particular outcome being pursued, some thing that is needed.  But when those things exist in one's consciousness, then there must also exist the sense of want for those things, as well as the sense of fear that you might not get them.  And along with that must come the feeling of failure or dejection if those goals and outcomes "do not" come to fruition.  Having judged one outcome as desirable or "better," then any other outcome must of necessity be worse, or less desirable.

    On the other hand, if you embrace the Tao, then you understand that there's no need for a purpose, no need for a particular outcome.  There is no need for anticipation or excitement.  The point is to embrace that which is, not the abstract idea of that which might be [lines 7-10].  Moreover, there is no need for possessions and no way to really "possess" something, anyway [lines 12-13].  You then have the freedom to go where life takes you, to fully experience each situation as the truly awe-inspiring moment that it is, without being distracted with thoughts about how it could have been better, or about what the next moment might bring.  If you can maintain this perspective, then you truly will be different from ordinary people [line 25].  You will to extract peace and joy from the mere fact of being alive and experiencing reality -- without the need for purpose, without regard for "success" or "failure," "yes" or "no."  You will draw your sustenance not from any specific series of outcomes or manifestations of reality, but directly from reality itself; you will drink from the Great Mother's breasts [line 26].

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 19

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010, 4:09 PM [General]

    As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  In many cases, the concepts are confusing or difficult to express, and I welcome the insights of anyone who might have a better way of putting things.  Please feel free to comment.

    19

    Throw away holiness and wisdom,
    and people will be a hundred times happier.
    Throw away morality and justice,
    and people will do the right thing.
    Throw away industry and profit,
    and there won't be any thieves.

    If these three aren't enough,
    just stay at the center of the circle
    and let all things take their course.

    This verse continues the consideration of Tao on the societal level, and like the previous verse it undermines our assumptions about "positive" virtues by applying an idea that was first developed in verse 3: that "virtues" only exist in the context of their opposing "vices."  And so when you define correct behavior (morality) and enforce rules of conduct (justice) that require people to adhere to it, then by default you will wind up with situations in which people do not follow the assigned rule and therefore need to be "punished."  But if you throw away these arbitrary concepts, then you allow people to respond to situations according to their natural tendencies, in ways that seem appropriate to them.  In the absence of interference from conceptual frameworks that compel people to do otherwise, no one will deliberately act in a way other than what comes naturally.  Why should they?  And thus, people will do the right thing [lines 3-4]. 

    The same holds true with "virtues" like industry and profit.  When you define profit and make it a value, then any time someone fails to earn their profit on a transaction, the person on the other side of the transaction must have somehow "stolen" that profit [lines 5-6].    

    Since concepts like "vice" and "virtue" only have meaning or comparative value (i.e. one is to be cultivated and the other avoided) in the mind of an individual judge, they are not real but merely judgments.  And all judgments imply separation from the Tao, which -- as has been mentioned in several previous verses -- is impossible.  So lines 7-9 give us direct advice to sum up the lesson: don't cling to the abstractions and value judgments.  Just let things be what they are, without trying to enforce "virtues" or penalize "vices."  If you can do this, then there will be no need for enforcement or punishment, no need for wisdom, morality, justice, or industry.  Things can simply be the unfolding of the Tao.

    [Personal note:  I'm less than 20 verses into this project, and I'm beginning to find it pretty difficult.  In some way, the verses seem to be just repeating the same idea over and over again (which is probably why my explanations have gotten shorter).  Maybe I just didn't realize that before I started.  If that's the case, I guess I now have a better understanding of the book, just by writing about the first quarter of it.  But by the same token, is there a need to keep going through the rest of the verses?   From the Taoist perspective, I guessI can keep on or I can give up.  There is no obligation to do either, and it is neither a success to complete the project of a failure to quit.  So, that being the case, I suppose I will go on writing when it feels like what I want to do at the time, and when it's not, I won't write.  I guess I don't have to write about every verse, either...]

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 18

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010, 3:33 PM [General]

    As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations and opinions expressed here are strictly my own, and may not in fact correspond with "standard doctrine" about Taoism -- this is what I make of the text.  In many cases, the concepts are confusing or difficult to express, and I welcome the insights of anyone who might have a better way of putting things.  Please feel free to comment.

    18

    When the great Tao is forgotten,
    goodness and piety appear.
    When the body's intelligence declines,
    cleverness and knowledge step forth.
    When there is no peace in the family,
    filial piety begins.
    When the country falls into chaos,
    patriotism is born.

    This is another of the "societal level" verses of the Tao Te Ching.  At first glance, it doesn't seem to make sense: goodness and piety, cleverness and knowledge, filial piety, and patriotism generally have positive connotations; and so it is odd to see these things portrayed as negative outcomes.  But they actually emerge as the result of losing touch with the Tao, because when the Taoist perspective is maintained, there is no need for any of these "positives;" the natural state of things makes them unnecessary.  Moreover, these "positive" values can only exist in relation to their opposing "negative" values; it is impossible to have one without the other.  That is why the positive values described here can only come about after the negative condition exists. 

    This means one has to judge the current situation to be negative before the positive value can be defined.  For example, there is no need for "patriots" [line 8] to protect and honor their country unless chaos and rebellion are perceived as the current condition.  But this perception is a judgment, an abstraction.  From the vedantic perspective, there can be no such thing.  Chaos can only exist within the mind of a leader who envisions the "order" that he wants to bring about, and judges the current situation to be different.  A "patriot" can only exist as distinct from a "traitor."  But in reality, everyone just is who they are.  The distinction only appears when one decides that one set of beliefs and actions corresponds with loyalty, then judges everyone else based on that scale.  

    In all of these cases, "the great Tao is forgotten" [line 1].  So even though there are positive connotations assigned to the qualities in lines 2, 4, 6, & 8, the point of this verse is that these are not really positive.  They're not desirable attributes because they only exist in contrast to their opposites, and these only exist when a negative judgment has been made, separating the judge from everything around him, and all things from each other.  This is not the natural state, because the Tao is one and the Tao is all things.

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    Interpreting the Tao Te Ching: Verse 17

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010, 4:24 PM [General]

    (Standard disclaimer: As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here.  The interpretations here are strictly my own, and may not correspond with "standard Taoist doctrine.  In many cases, the concepts are  difficult to express, so please feel free to comment if you insight to share.)

    17

    When the Master governs, the people
    are hardly aware that he exists.
    Next best is a leader who is loved.
    Next, one who is feared.
    The worst is one who is despised.

    If you don't trust the people,
    you make them untrustworthy.

    The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
    When his work is done,
    the people say, "Amazing:
    we did it, all by ourselves!"

     

    In this verse, we move from the personal level to the societal level.  Several verses of the Tao Te Ching   discuss how one might run a country according to Taoist principles, though these can of course be applied in one's personal life, as well.  This verse begins with the idea of leadership or governance. 

     

     All too often, the person in control of an organization (whether it be a kingdom, a family, or a small business) wants everyone to understand that they are the leader.  All actions need to be approved by "the boss," all decisions are made by "the boss," and all rules lain down by "the boss" need to be obeyed.  In such a case, there are three possibilities [lines 3-5]: 

    1. If the boss is considerate and kind, he may be loved by those he leads. 
    2. If his rules are strict and the penalties for breaking them are uniformly enforced, the boss may be feared by those he leads. 
    3. If the rules are arbitrary and enforcement is unevenly applied, the boss will be despised by those he leads.  

     

    But ultimately, none of these situations is the ideal, because instead of allowing people to act naturally, they all set arbitrary systems of rules and regulations for people to follow.  This reinforces abstraction and pulls people away from understanding the reality of Tao.  For this reason, the ideal (Master) governor is almost unknown to the people he governs [lines 1-2].  Not because he is neglectful or uncaring, but because he is able to let things be; he allows people to act naturally.  Perhaps more accurately, he makes the natural response or "right action," the rule.  People don't have to worry about whether their normal actions will inadvertently break some arbitrary the law, because the law is that people should do the normal, natural thing.  Thus, people can live their lives without ever having to encounter the legal system, without ever having to be aware that there is a legal system.

     

    Now a governor hearing this idea would most likely find it very difficult to accept.  It is usually the case that people who have control are afraid to simply let things be, they think they are exercising their power for "the good of the people" -- as if society will fall into chaos and anarchy unless someone specifically defines for people what they can and cannot legally do.  But this goes back to the idea in verses 2 and 3: that when you define things by giving them a label, you also create their opposites.  And when you place value on one thing, you automatically devalue its opposite.  So if you pre-decide that you can't trust the people you govern to do what's right on their own, then you have defined your people as untrustworthy.  And as long as you hold the belief that you must control their actions to keep them in line, it will never be possible for them to prove otherwise [lines 6-7]. 

     

    This concept of trust is at the heart of governance.  Basically, trust is the belief that other people will do what you want in favor of doing what they want.  If you trust someone to keep a secret, you expect them to keep it to themselves, even if an occasion comes up where they may be tempted to reveal it.  Laws exist to help "enforce" our trust in each other by punishing those who break that trust.  But the only way you can really trust someone to do what you ask, is if you ask them to do what they already want to do, what already comes naturally to them. 

     

    And that is how the Master governs-- by making his rules be one and the same with the natural tendencies and desires of his people.  If your will as a ruler is the same as the will of the people, then letting the people do what they want is sure to bring about what you want, because the outcomes are one and the same.  Thus, when the Master brings about his goals, it is not by forcing people to do his bidding, but by setting goals that correspond with what people would do by their own will.  Since the people are just doing what they do naturally, they do not realize that they are also accomplishing the Master's work [lines 10-11 AND 1-2].

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