Interpreting the Tao Te Ching -- Verse 26

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


    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.]


    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.]


    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.]


    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.]


    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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