Saturday, 31 December 2011

Verse 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 people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self interest
and leaves no trace.
When the work is done,
the people say: “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves.”

Verse 17 begins a section of the Tao Te Ching that is focused largely on leadership. Lao Tzu was perhaps addressing governmental and state leaders during what was a time of great upheaval in ancient China. His words, however, apply to anyone who is in a position of leadership or authority, including parents and teachers.

Very often, people’s egos dramatically inflate the moment they are put in a position of authority, no matter how great or minor. Many people can’t help but make it about themselves, as they want to be seen as a great or effective leader.

Lao Tzu suggests that the best leader is one whose presence is barely felt or recognised, a notion that runs counter to the demands of ego. Instead of trying to control people and micro-manage every detail, Lao Tzu advises us to trust people, to step back and gently guide from behind the scenes, without self interest (ego involvement) and to “leave no trace” once the work is done.

By keeping ourselves out of the picture as much as possible, we can allow people to flourish. As another famous quote from the Tao Te Ching states:

“If you don’t assume importance, you can never lose it.”

Verse 16


Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each being in the universe
returns to the common Source,
to what is and what is to be.
Returning to the Source is serenity.

If you don’t realise the Source
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realise where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kind-hearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.

Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes you are ready.

Here we are urged to empty our mind of all thoughts, be aware of the turmoil around us and to realise something that most people don’t readily like to admit: that, like it or not, we’re all on a return trip. Returning is the nature of the Tao. A wave rises above the surface of the water but must ultimately return to that from which it came. So too it is with us. Lao Tzu calls this wellspring from which all life arises the ‘Source’.

Although we appear to be separate beings cut off from our Source, the truth is we shall all return to that Source, whether by physical death or by consciously aligning ourselves with it while we are still alive. This is called “dying before we die”. It allows us to consciously realise what we truly are. Many spiritual teachers over the centuries have highlighted this as the essence of spiritual awakening – simply, to know who and what we are.

Until we realise that from which we came, our lives are difficult and we stumble around in fear and sorrow. But when we realise where we came from – which is inseparable from what we are – we reach a state of peace with life. We naturally become tolerant, kind-hearted, disinterested (or detached, which simply means not unduly caught up in the transient comings and goings of life) and even amused by life.

In short, we are able to deal with whatever life throws our way because we are no longer caught up in the illusion that we are separate beings, disconnected from the whole, having to fight to survive in a hostile universe.

We no longer place undue emphasis on that which is but a transient dream, ever morphing and shifting – and, because we know what we are at the deepest level, we no longer fear death. Because we no longer fear death, we no longer fear life (which is really a far more tragic and crippling fear). Some have called this state of being ‘enlightenment’.

Verse 15


The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it.
One can only describe them vaguely
by their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing a frozen stream in winter.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Yielding as melting ice.
Shapeable as a block of uncarved wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Amorphous as muddied water.

But the muddiest water clears
as it is stilled.
And out of that stillness
life arises.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfilment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

Lao Tzu here describes the “Masters of old”, those that lived their lives in constant alignment with the Tao.

He poetically depicts them as being like elements of nature and this is a central theme of the Tao Te Ching; that by observing and aligning with nature and the natural rhythms and flow, we reconnect with our deepest essence, that which might be described as the Tao.

The Master is awake, alert, kind, malleable and receptive. There is no element of self-seeking and, precisely because of this, the Master has an openness and can, as another translation of this verse states, “remain like a hidden sprout that does not rush to early ripening”.

Take some time to reflect on which of the characteristics spoken of by Lao Tzu you already possess, and which you can develop, cultivate or strengthen. Contrary to popular assumption, our our personality is not rigidly set in stone. In fact, it changes all the time, and with a little conscious effort can easily moulded and developed.

Lao Tzu makes reference to muddy water, which could represent our unconscious neuroses, fears, aversions, attachments and the assorted mind-stuff that continually churns around our head. How do we clear this muddy water? Do we get agitated and try to stir it up or boil away the mud? Such actions only serve to worsen it. Instead, Lao Tzu suggests retreating to that still place within, in which we are in constant connection with the Tao. He urges us to be rooted there; to wait patiently, allowing the mud to settle and allowing right action to spontaneously arise.

By letting go of our constant grasping and craving – and our never-ending quest for happiness and fulfilment – we can reach a place of peace, in which we are more in tune with life in the present moment; and in which all things begin to shine.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Verse 14


Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Its rising brings no dawn,
its setting no darkness;
it goes on and on, unnameable,
returning into nothingness.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can’t know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realise where you came from:
this is the essence of wisdom.

Try describing the indescribable! Where do you even begin? Here Lao Tzu again provides some pointers to that which he has labelled “the Tao”, but which he again stresses is actually nameless and beyond all conception and grasping.

Like the Buddha, who often used negative terminology in order to prevent people from projecting concepts onto that which is far beyond conceptualisation, Lao Tzu demonstrates that the ultimate truth is far beyond our ability to ‘capture’ with thoughts and beliefs. To even try would be like trying to catch water in a sieve; the two just don’t – and can’t – mesh.

The words of this verse will be meaningless, perhaps even ‘stupid’ and ‘pointless’ unless the perceiver has a certain degree of openness and has the ability to step beyond the mind-stream, if only for a few seconds. Because, as this verse states, you can’t understand it, you can only be it.

Being goes far beyond thought. Awareness of the vast and intangible realm of the Tao can only happen when we are able to step beyond the surface ripples of thought and immerse ourselves in the still, deep river of being – even if only for a few seconds before the gravity of thought pulls us to the surface again. Even then, we can ask ourselves “what is the source of these thoughts?” What is the source of our attention, our awareness? What is this consciousness in which all external phenomena are made manifest? What is it? Where did it originate?

No words or concepts can provide us with these answers. They can only be known by being the knowing. The “essence of wisdom” is knowing “where you came from”.

No one can answer that for you. Can you sit in silence and find the answer for yourself...and then resist the urge to conceptualise it? This is the “returning” that later verses speak of.

Verse 13


Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet upon the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
If we have no selves,
what trouble would we have?

Man’s true self is eternal,
yet he thinks “I am this body and will soon die”.
If we have no body, what calamities can we have?
One who sees himself as everything
is fit to be guardian of the world.
One who loves himself as everyone
is fit to be the teacher of the world.

This verse of the Tao Te Ching further deconstructs the way we see ourselves and relate to the world. Based upon the level of form, in which we appear as separate bodies, it’s considered ‘normal’ for human beings to be locked into a separate sense of ‘self’. This self is a conglomeration of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, conditioning and memories, all bound together by the glue of hope and fear, or what the Buddhists might refer to as attachment and aversion; the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Lao Tzu warns that this sense of self, which might be referred to as the ego, is at the root of most of our troubles. This was echoed by one of the great Zen masters who, when asked to define Zen, simply stated: “no self, no problem”.

When we believe that we’re a separate ‘somebody’, alone and struggling to ‘make it’ in the world, our constant craving for success can actually be a great hindrance. Any attempts to climb the ladder will inevitably put us in a shaky position, no matter how high we might get. In fact, the higher we get the higher we have to fall – and inevitably we will fall, because what goes up must come down. Sooner or later we’ll have to come down from that ladder, either through choice or by force. Instead, Lao Tzu suggests that we might be better to keep our feet firmly planted upon the ground, for it is only there that we will find true solidity and balance.

The rest of the verse deals with what Albert Einstein referred to as an “optical delusion of consciousness”: namely, that we are separate selves enclosed in separate bodies.

Our true self is eternal, Lao Tzu states, yet so few people are aware of this and instead are bound by the tangible. Most people are aware only of the level of form and are completely unaware of the invisible, formless essence that breathes life into it.

If we could make a quantum shift in our awareness to encompass the greater aspect of our being instead of being stuck in the hollow surface level, we would be able to open our heart to all beings, because we would recognise the inherent oneness and interconnectedness of all life. As another translation of this verse simply states: “See the world as your self. Love the world as your self, then you will care for all things.”

I already referenced the words of Einstein and he beautifully encapsulated this wisdom in the following quote:

“A human being is a part of a whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Verse 12


Too many colours blind the eye.
Too many tones deafen the ear.
Too many flavours dull the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is as open as the sky.

One of the central messages of the Tao Te Ching can be summed up in the adage “less is more”, which is especially pertinent in a society that instead lives by the assumption that “more is better”.

Lao Tzu’s words are simple, but his message is timeless and relevant to us all. Isn’t it usually true that the less you have, the more you appreciate? Unless, of course, you’re locked into the acquisition mindset that grips our world, in which case you are likely to feel misery because you’ve bought into the mass illusion that the more things you have, the happier you will be.

Perhaps it would benefit us to find ways to simplify our lives, to reduce our possessions, emptying our cupboards of the nonessentials that we tend to hoard but never use or appreciate. Maybe it would be better to give such items to charity.

In putting Lao Tzu’s words into practise, we might also seek to reduce the amount of extraneous – and often destructive – thoughts that compulsively dart through our minds unchecked. It’s been estimated that we think approximately 60,000 thoughts each day and around 90% of those thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday. In other words, the vast majority of our thoughts are unproductive, useless and repetitive. Sitting even for just ten minutes in meditation can help us to still and steady the mind, as well as reach a deeper state of peace and balance in the rest of our lives.

The final lines of this verse provide more insight into someone that has mastered the Tao: the primary focus of their attention is not outward, but inward. The Master doesn’t lose himself in the world, as most of us tend to.

Instead, he stays rooted within, trusting his inner vision. Inner vision relates to what some call the ‘zen mind’; that still, transcendent place within that lies beyond thought and conceptualisation. It’s the part of us that’s at one with the pure, unconditioned state of consciousness prior to its manifestation in thought, word or action.

This is the point of the Master’s power. And because he knows this to be his true nature, he is not unduly attached to things, but can let them come and go, while retaining a heart that is “as open as the sky.”

Verse 11


Thirty spokes are joined together in a wheel;
but it is the centre hole
that allows the wheel to function.

We mould clay into a pot;
but it is the emptiness inside
that makes the vessel useful.

We fashion wood for a house;
but it is the inner space
that makes it liveable.

We work with the substantial,
but the emptiness is what we use.
The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.

Most people relate to the world with a complete fixation upon external objects and forms.

I remember one occasion when this object-fixation was temporarily suspended for me. One day at art school we were given a still life to draw, but rather than drawing the objects themselves, we were instructed to draw the space around the objects. I found it surprisingly difficult, for I was so used to focussing upon the form and ignoring the space around it. But in that moment, I suddenly saw things in an entirely different way.

The human mind constantly grasps at and holds onto forms, rarely able to recognise the value of space. Our minds are almost like junkies, desperate to keep thinking, keep conceptualising, keep playing the same old stories, always seeking new input. It doesn’t matter whether it takes the form of socialising, reading, watching television or surfing the internet – any kind of mental input will do. More, more, more! It’s uninterested and quite averse to space of any kind.

However, this space, or emptiness as Buddhists often refer to it, is essential to our well-being and sanity. To be unable to step out of compulsive thinking is a most deleterious affliction. Yet most of us take it to be normal, so we keep pumping our mind full of fresh input, until there’s not even the slightest gap in our mental stream.

But, as Lao Tzu explains, without emptiness or space inside, the wheel, the clay pot and the house would be of little use, and the same is true for us. Emptiness and space give us the gift of stillness, which enables us to come into alignment with our essential nature. As a result we stop creating so much stress for ourselves and others and we gradually come into flow with the Tao.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Verse 10


Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep it to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you can see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and govern your domain
without self-importance?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting without expectation,
leading without controlling or dominating;
this is the primal virtue.

This verse imparts the essence of Lao Tzu’s teaching with great directness and clarity. The first sentence, asking if we can coax our mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness, urges us to tame our restless minds and be rooted in that still centre of peace within. This is the art of meditation: finding the space of pure awareness that existed prior to every thought, memory, emotion and perception and remaining centred in that.

This is again referenced when Lao Tzu speaks of cleansing our inner vision, which is often obscured by the untamed mind’s relentless barrage of thoughts in much the same way as heavy storm clouds block the sunlight. He compels us to step back from our own minds and thus allow true understanding to emerge. The Tao cannot be understood by the analytical mind and indeed, it may even sound quite nonsensical. But beneath the surface there is a place of inner stillness in which these words of wisdom can be understood and realised; the part of us that is fully at one with the Tao, in its pure undifferentiated state.

The rest of the verse relays some of the other prominent themes of the Tao Te Ching, as Lao Tzu implores us to lose our rigidity, relinquish our attachment to possessions, let go of our need to control others and instead let events “take their natural course”.

The entire Tao Te Ching might be seen as a set of directions to bring us back in touch with our essential nature and to live our lives more in tune with the flow and rhythms of the natural world, of which we are part.

Our perpetual striving and grasping is not only harmful for us and those around us in the long run, but it also runs counter to our true nature as expressions of the Tao. To live in tune with this mysterious essence is to rediscover “the primal virtue”.

Verse 9


It is easier to carry an empty cup
than one that is filled to the brim.

The sharper the blade
the easier it is to dull.
The more wealth you possess
the more insecurity it brings.
The more you care about other people’s approval
the more you become their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
This is the only path to serenity.

“Less is more” is clearly the message of this verse of the Tao Te Ching. Again, it is a notion that runs counter to the pervading values of our society, in which most people are obsessed with getting more: more wealth and security, more possessions and more esteem in the eyes of others. It’s very easy for us to fall into this trap, because it’s the way we’ve been conditioned and socialised since we were children.

But perhaps it runs counter to our true nature and certainly, as Lao Tzu points out, it can create more problems and suffering than it does satisfaction and fulfilment. The more we have, the more we have to lose. Even when we make it in the world, our satisfaction tends to be fleeting because we then become terrified of losing it. And, such being the nature of life, at some point we inevitably will lose it. Any attempt to grasp at things and create lasting security and permanence is ultimately futile, because life is characterised by impermanence and it is the nature of things to be fleeting.

Yet Lao Tzu isn’t suggesting that we abandon all doing. Instead, he advises that we do our work – which might mean whatever is in front of us, or whatever we love or feel drawn to do – and then step back, being unattached to the fruits of our labour.

With this detachment, life becomes a joyous dance in which we are no longer engaged in the stressful grasping that characterises so many people’s existence. We can be at peace and enjoy whatever comes our way without continually trying to force things to be different.

Verse 8


The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all of creation
without trying to compete with it.
It gathers in the low places unpopular with men.
Thus it is like the Tao.

Live in accordance with the nature of things.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In dealing with others, be fair and generous.
In governing, do not try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
One who lives in accordance with nature
does not go against the way of things.
He moves in harmony with the present moment,
always knowing the truth of just what to do.

In this verse, Lao Tzu describes the Tao as being like water. The paradox of water is that although it is one of the softest of substances, it is also one of the most powerful. Whilst water is gentle and flows around obstacles, it is also powerful enough to cut through rock and erode mountains. This is to say nothing of its essential life-giving properties. All forms of life are completely dependent upon it. Without water, there would be no life on this planet.

Lao Tzu muses that rather than climbing upward, water is content to flow downward, for that is its nature. This is the opposite of most people, who prefer to elevate themselves and are constantly trying to climb their way up the various ladders of life, making themselves ‘bigger’, ‘higher’ and ‘better’.

The rest of this verse offers Lao Tzu’s sage advice for living in alignment with the nature of the Tao. The key points are simplicity, gentleness, kindness and balance. He warns against competing and trying to control others and urges us to be in harmony with the essential nature of life and ourselves. All too often we see ourselves as somehow separate from life. Indeed, there’s an erroneous collective assumption that “me” and “my life” are somehow two separate things. Yet, as much as our egos might balk at the notion, it’s nevertheless true that we don’t “have” a life, we are life! That's a humbling but strangely comforting realisation.

Perhaps we could take Lao Tzu up on his analogy and see ourselves as water. Instead of trying to climb ever upward, what would happen if we allowed ourselves flow downward? When we try to act against our nature we usually experience blockages of some kind. The human mind likes to call the shots and determine our trajectory, but in doing so it often operates counter to our true nature.

If we could allow ourselves to be like water and to simply flow in the direction that life takes us, unafraid of the ‘low’ places disdained by those obsessed with getting ahead, then perhaps we will discover a peace and joy beyond understanding?

Being like water, we are soft and gentle, yet immensely powerful. We are able to offer life-giving and life-sustaining nourishment to any and all that might need it. And as with water, if we really have patience and perseverance, we can even move mountains.

Verse 7


The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.

The Master puts himself last;
that is why he ends up ahead.
He is detached from all things;
that is why he is one with them.
Because he stays a witness to life,
he is perfectly fulfilled.

What has never been born can never die. This applies to the Tao and it applies to us, as manifestations of the Tao. We’re told that we are born and will die and we assume this to be true. But upon closer inspection, we see that it although it is true for the body and its constituent parts, the same cannot be so easily said about the “I”, the formless awareness that comprises our being.

In essence we are consciousness, which operates through the brain and body but which is never actually born into form; it remains elusive, intangible, like an invisible vapour. Scientists can scan the brain and highlight the areas in which consciousness appears to operate, but this is no more than observing footprints in the sand. It tells us no more about that elusive essence than the footprints tell us about the person who left them.

We are the microcosm of the macrocosm; the Tao is the vastness of the universe and the essence behind and within all manifested forms. It is infinite and eternal, and it was never born (in spite of the appearance and dissolution of matter), and thus it can never die. It has no desires for itself, because it doesn’t see itself as separate from anything. At the deepest level it is all one, so all works in harmony. This is as true for us as it is for that which we call the ‘Tao’, because we are not separate from it; we are it.
The Master, fully realising that he is one with the Tao, can see beyond the illusion of being a separate self, a separate ego, which is little more than a cluster of memories, thoughts, habits and conditioning. Aligned with the effortless action of the Tao, he gives and gives with no regard to this notion of being a separate ‘self’. Being detached from the myriad things of phenomenal existence, he is at one with all things.

Many of us spend our whole lives trying to make ourselves happier, more fulfilled, successful and balanced. One of the biggest secrets in life is simply this: the way to true, lasting fulfilment is to take a step back from this compulsive, obsessive trap of self-interest. When we instead focus on helping and serving others, we align ourselves with the essence of the Tao, which is not about taking, seeking and acquiring, but is about creating, giving and nurturing.

The Master realises that true fulfilment and joy does not come from focussing on what we can get out of life, but by focussing on what we can give to life. As another translation offers:

“Serve the needs of others and all your own needs will be fulfilled. Through selfless action, fulfilment is attained.”

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Verse 6


The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible.
It gives birth to infinite worlds,
yet its immaculate purity is never lost.
It assumes countless forms,
yet its true identity remains intact.

Listen to its voice,
hear it echo through creation.
Although invisible, it endures;
it will never end.
Without fail, it brings us
to our own perfection.

Using different translations of the Tao Te Ching, I rearranged the words of this verse quite a bit to best reflect what I feel is the essence of its message.

Lao Tzu moves deeper into his meditation upon the nature of the Tao, which is here referred to as the “Great Mother”, or the “mysterious feminine” and states that it lies at the root of creation.

Perhaps this “Great Mother” might be envisaged as being like a vast ocean. From the ocean seemingly separate forms might appear, such as waves rippling on the surface of the ocean and water rising as vapour and appearing as clouds in the sky. But the nature and substance of these forms remains of the ocean and, before long, the forms dissolve and return back to their source. As it happens, the Tao is compared to water more than once in subsequent verses of the text.

Although the Great Mother has taken form as universes, galaxies, stars, planets and various life forms, its true nature is unchanged and undiminished and can still be found within the forms themselves, as their very essence.

Although the myriad forms of life change and eventually dissolve, the great Oneness of the Tao remains untouched and unchanging throughout it all.

Verse 5


Heaven and earth are impartial;
they give rise to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.
To her none are especially dear,
nor is there anyone she disfavours.
She gives and gives, without condition,
offering her treasures to everyone.

The space between heaven and earth
is like a bellows;
it is empty and inexhaustible.
The more it is used, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you comprehend.

Hold on to the centre.
Man was made to sit quietly and find
the truth within.

Albert Camus once spoke of “opening our heart to the benign indifference of the universe”. The Tao is impartial and is far beyond taking sides or judging the conduct of humankind. Whereas we might categorise others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ and treat them accordingly, the Tao supports and nurtures all beings without discrimination.

The Master, living in alignment with the Tao, behaves in kind, refusing to get drawn into the pettiness of human affairs, refusing to be swayed by the world’s definition of people as either ‘saints’ or ‘sinners’. Instead, he offers his treasures to all, much as the sun shines its light on all creatures, without a hint of reservation or favouritism.

The remainder of this verse offers more pointers to understanding the mystery of the Tao. Again Lao Tzu reminds us that the more we talk of it, the less we will comprehend it. So, instead of using words and concepts to try and understand, he urges us to instead “hold on to the centre” and find the truth within.

Verse 4


The Tao is empty but inexhaustible.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.
Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things.

Within it, the sharp edges become smooth;
the twisted knots loosen;
the sun is softened by a cloud;
the dust settles into place.

It is hidden but always present.
I do not know who gave birth to it.
It is older than the concept of God.

Lao Tzu here endeavours to describe the indescribable, to provide some pointers to this mysterious essence that is ‘the Tao’.

He tells us that the Tao is like an eternal void that is empty yet inexhaustible, filled with potentiality and that it is the source of all things. Later verses of the Tao Te Ching elaborate on this, suggesting that the Tao is ‘intangible and evasive’, that it has always existed and yet is beyond both existing and not-existing and that it might be regarded as ‘the mother of the universe’.

When reading the Tao Te Ching, it is perhaps best not to read with one’s analytical mind. In order to grasp the core of its teaching, it is necessary to go beyond our mind and thoughts, which comprise only the surface level of our awareness. Beyond the perpetual stream of thoughts that pass through our minds is a place beyond all concepts, ideas and beliefs – a place of pure knowing, the unconditioned awareness that exists prior to the content of our consciousness – and it is only from here that true understanding be gained.

We tend always to be focused on the outer manifestations of life; things, objects and outer appearances. If I were to ask you to describe a room, you would probably tell me about all the objects and furniture, as well as the colour of the walls and carpet. In all likelihood, the very essence of the room would be ignored. This essence – the very thing that allows the room to be – is space; empty yet inexhaustible, filled with infinite possibilities.

This verse suggests the Tao is a field of potentiality existing beneath, within and beyond all objects and forms, and which sustains and supports all phenomenal existence. Like air, it is invisible, yet ever-present and without it there would be no life.

“It is older than the concept of God,” Lao Tzu tells us, suggesting that any attempt to conceptualise it is futile. It’s beyond understanding. It simply is.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Verse 3


If you overvalue status
you will create contentiousness.
If you overvalue possessions,
people will begin to steal.
Do not display your treasures
or people will become envious.

The Master leads by
emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambitions
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those that think they know.

Practise not-doing.
and everything will fall into place.

At the start of this verse, Lao Tzu warns that chasing after status, prestige and possessions can have an adverse effect on us and those around us. Alas, these are arguably hallmarks of our society, which is rooted in competition, acquisition and a perpetual race for greater status, recognition, more money, bigger houses, better cars, fancier gadgets and ever more lavish lifestyles.

This leads to an imbalance, whereby emphasising the need for more highlights the perceived ‘lack’ and makes people unhappy, dissatisfied, envious and covetous. Even those that do succeed are rarely satisfied for long, because they’re still locked into the mindset of ‘striving but never arriving’.

The Master of the Tao takes a very different stance. Urging us to forsake the demented race to perpetually accumulate and acquire, he instead advises us to empty our minds and weaken our ambitions. This is the opposite of what we’ve been taught by our society. But by letting go of our ambitions, desires and all the things we think we need in order to be happy, we stop projecting our happiness into the future and can instead be at peace and content in the present moment, now.

In modern terms, perhaps what Lao Tzu is suggesting is that we step out of the rat race, because as the joke goes: even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. He urges us to “practise not-doing”, allowing everything to “fall into place”. This is the first mention of not-doing in the Tao Te Ching and is an important and perhaps perplexing concept. I feel that in this instance, it refers to acting without being attached to results and without the need to unduly chase after unnecessary acquisitions and status.

Lao Tzu claims that if our action is, as one translation offers, “pure and selfless”, everything we need will come to us. Then we can be happy and at peace without always being compelled to seek more.

Verse 2


When people see some things as beautiful, 
ugliness is created. 
When people see some things as good, 
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other. 
Difficult and easy complement each other. 
Long and short define each other. 
High and low depend on each other. 
Before and after follow each other.
The Master lives openly with apparent duality 
and paradoxical unity. 
Therefore he acts without doing anything 
and teaches without saying a world. 
Things arise and he lets them come; 
things disappear and he lets them go. 
He has but doesn’t possess, 
and acts without any expectations.
When his work is done, he takes no credit. 
That is why it will last forever.

The essence of the Tao is non-duality. Whereas most people tend to reduce the world into bite-size pieces and label each constituent part ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the Master (one who is at one the Tao) knows that all seemingly separate parts are actually indivisible pieces of a far greater whole.

The image of the yin and yang symbol which is associated with Taoism perfectly illustrates this point. Light and dark, rather than being construed as separate and either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ are seen as two aspects of an inseparable whole, joined in perfect unity. Both are necessary, for both are as inextricably interconnected as day and night. And so it is with the world and all the seemingly separate manifestations. A greater unity exists beyond all apparent separation.

Because the Master has realised the “paradoxical unity” beyond the surface-level duality of life, he is able to see beyond the illusion. His life is no longer governed by the cycle of attachment and aversion. He no longer feels the need to cling to certain things, circumstances and events and desperately avoid others. Because he sees the underlying wholeness of life, he lives his life from a place of deep trust and humility. He surrenders to the flow of life, allowing things to happen as they will, opening herself to the perfection inherent in each situation, in every moment. That perfection is sometimes outwardly apparent, but is just as often hidden beneath seeming adversity.

The Master follows his heart, doing what he feels compelled to do, yet being unattached to the fruits of his labour. In this way, he knows peace and unity, for he is at one with the innate perfection of the Tao, of life itself.

Verse 1


The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only what is visibly real.
Yet mystery and visible reality arise from the same source.
And the mystery itself is the gateway to all understanding.

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching opens on an almost cautionary note, warning us that the ultimate truth is beyond conceptualisation and abstraction. How then can we seek to express the inexpressible with words and concepts without losing its very essence? How do we approach this eternal Tao and understand the mystery from which all life arises?

The tendency of the mind is to create concepts and to regard these concepts as being the ultimate truth, when at best they can merely serve as pointers to this truth. A famous Zen story highlights this plight. In the parable, truth is analogous to the moon in the night sky. A wise man catches sight of the moon and attempts to point it out to his followers. However, most of his followers fail to realise that it is necessary to look beyond the tip of his finger to see what it is pointing to. Instead they mistakenly believe that the finger itself is the moon. From this fundamental misperception entire religions have been created, where words and doctrines (the pointing finger) have become more important than that to which they were pointing.

Most of us keep our attention fixed solely upon the visible manifestations of life; the world of the ‘ten thousand things’ as many translations of the Tao Te Ching describe it. We’re so fixated upon objects (and this includes the objects in our minds, such as our thoughts, beliefs and ideas), that we are totally unaware of that which lies beneath, beyond and within them. Or, to use a metaphor, it’s as if we’re so focussed on the words in a book that we’re completely unaware of the paper upon which they are written and without which the book wouldn’t exist. Only when taking both into account – the words and the paper; the forms and the formless – can true understanding be gained.

The Tao is the intangible, formless essence from which all forms arise and subside, like waves upon the ocean. It is the noumenon at the root of all phenomena. Without it, nothing could exist and yet with our senses we perceive only the outward visible manifestations, the 'particular things' of life. We name them and create abstractions about them in our mind.

From language, concepts are born and it is through this screen of concepts that we filter our reality. Our tendency is then to mistake our interpretation of reality as being reality itself. Instead of experiencing reality purely and directly as it is, we inhabit a virtual-reality determined by our ever-shifting thoughts and interpretations.

This is a second-hand experience of life at best. To lose ourselves in mental activity and abstract interpretation, forever engaged in naming, analysing and categorising the outer forms is to lose touch with the deeper essence of the Tao. When this happens, understanding remains incomplete because, in a sense, we’re living a one-dimensional existence, aware of and relating only to the surface level of life. A life without depth is one that is perpetually unfulfilling and endlessly frustrating.

Our fixation with objects is rooted in desire. Desire obscures our perception and keeps us locked in the ceaseless mode of acquisition and attainment. We become lost in a mindset of 'never quite enough', always craving more and more things, unaware that what we truly yearn for is an experience of the Tao – the everything and nothing ('no-thing') that underlies all existence.

When we cease to fixate on and grasp at material objects, we are able to touch upon the mystery that lies at the heart of life. We move beyond a strictly one-dimensional experience of life and the innate richness, depth and beauty of life begins to reveal itself. This is what Lao Tzu calls the “gateway to all understanding”…