Friday, 24 February 2012

Verse 81


True words are not eloquent;
eloquent words are not true.
Wise men do not need to debate;
men who need to debate are not wise.
Wise men are not scholars;
scholars are not wise.

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

The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
The Master imitates this,
acting for the good of all
and opposing himself to no one.

One of the insights in this final verse of the Tao Te Ching appears to echo the opening words of the first verse: namely that truth cannot be expressed or contained in words, however eloquent or beautiful they might be.

Truth is beyond words. Therefore there is no need to debate it and even less need to try and seek it through acquired knowledge. Truth is nothing, and yet everything. It is the Tao; the great expanse of emptiness, the unmanifest, the well-spring of pure potentiality from which everything emerges. But don’t get hung up on the words. As Lao Tzu stated in verse one, the moment you try to label it and express it with words, you’ve lost it, for the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.

Much of the Tao Te Ching is comprised of Lao Tzu’s portrait of the Master: he or she who has fully realised the Tao and who effortlessly embodies it in daily life. Being deeply rooted in the Tao, the Master has no need to fixate on the outward forms of life, the world of the 10,000 things. Why fixate on something (some thing) when you know your true essence to be nothing (no thing)?

Things are just taken care of. There is nothing to strive for and nothing to achieve. The Master’s nature is to give, in much the same way as the sun’s nature is to shine and water’s nature is to nourish. This isn’t a manufactured or calculated giving; it is simply a natural propensity not to old back and contract, but to expand, reach outward and share. What does the Master give? He gives whatever the situation requires and whatever his heart prompts him to give.

The final pearl of wisdom in this timeless treasure of a text, is to refrain from forcing things. The Tao, operating through nature, has no need to force. Any attempts to force invariably end in calamity. Flowers and trees bud and blossom at exactly the right time, just as day follows night and Spring follows Winter at exactly the right time.

There is no need to force anything. Letting go, we can see the perfection inherent around and within us and life becomes an exquisite exercise in allowing. When we remove the obstructions created by our grasping minds, things naturally come into balance. There’s nothing we need to do, but allow the Tao to flow through us, directing our words and actions. Surrendering to this inherent power within us, we come into alignment with the truth of what we are and become an instrument of harmony in this world.


Thank you for joining me in my Tao journey, I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. It's been great revisiting this and revising my commentary. I love the message of the Tao and believe it is as deeply relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago, if not more so. 

I have compiled the content of this blog into a small book, originally conceived as a gift for friends and family who might be interested but not especially 'blog people', and I intend to make it available on my website if I'm happy with it, and perhaps even Kindle too. I'm also thinking of somehow translating this blog to YouTube. Stay tuned, I will post it here too :)

In the meantime, I intend to get back to my other blogs Lucid Exposition and Dreamlight Fugitive! See you there I hope. 

Monday, 20 February 2012

Verse 80


Imagine a small country with few people.
They enjoy the labour of their hands
and do not waste time inventing
labour-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they are not interested in travel.
Although they have boats and carriages,
they are rarely used.
Although there may be weapons,
nobody ever uses them.
They are content with healthy food,
pleased with simple clothing,
satisfied in snug homes.
People take pleasure in being with their families,
spending weekends working in their gardens
and delighting in the doings of the neighbourhood.
Although the next country is close enough
that they can hear their roosters crowing and dogs barking,
they are content to leave each other in peace.

Here Lao Tzu describes what might be considered a utopian existence; one that is rooted in simplicity, harmony and contentment with what is. The very word ‘utopia’ has a connotation of unattainable, rose-tinted idealism. However, we are each responsible for creating our own personal utopia and we do this through the choices that we make. It is the nature of life to present difficulties and challenges. Once we accept this, we can begin to transcend it. We can choose to live a life that is in harmony with the principles of the Tao.

Instead of constantly striving for more and more, we can be content with what we already possess – and, indeed, perhaps even give some of it away. The need to constantly attain and acquire is a terrible affliction, for there is no end to it and satisfaction is never achieved. Directing our attention to the present moment and appreciating the boundless riches around us, enables us to live more joyfully, more harmoniously and to let go of the pathological need to compete, struggle and strive, a mindset in which we live life as if it’s a kind of trench warfare.

It’s often the simplest things in life that bring us the greatest joy: the feel of sunlight on your skin, the moisture of fresh raindrops falling on your face, a simple cup of tea, the smile of a loved one, a glimpse of the sky at sunset. When our mind is continuously in the future, striving to acquire and achieve more, we are blinded to these simple joys – which are the essence of life itself.

Know when enough is enough. Become more aware of the present moment, and embrace simplicity. Be happy with what you are, where you are and what you have. Immediate and lasting happiness is guaranteed. This, I believe, is Lao Tzu’s message in this penultimate verse of the Tao Te Ching.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Verse 79


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

Someone must risk repaying injury with kindness,
or hostility will never turn to goodwill.
So the wise always give without expecting gratitude.

Therefore the Master
always seeks a way to give.
One who lacks true virtue
always seeks a way to get.
To the giver comes the fullness of life;
to the taker, just an empty hand.

This verse speaks of the virtue of giving. Perhaps because of the way we are conditioned and brought up, this is not something that comes easily to many people. We tend to reserve our generosity and kindness to a small and select group of people closest to us and close off our hearts to the rest of the world, failing to realise than it reality we are all one family; one being.

We are conditioned to believe that it’s a “dog-eat-dog world” and that if we want to get ahead, we have to be willing to take what we want and beat others to it. This mentality underlies most of the core institutions of our society on both a large and small scale. Competition is the fundamental principle that drives our economy, our politics, the business world and even our education system and entertainment pursuits.

Why not substitute competition for cooperation? Instead of focusing our entire existence on taking as much as we can, how different would it be if we could truly live to give? Anyone that has ever performed an act of kindness for another, however small, will know the joyous feeling that comes from helping someone in need. The more we re-orient ourselves to live in such a way, embodying a spirit of generosity, the more we might inspire others to do likewise. The change always begins with us.

If you look at the natural world, you will see that it isn’t all about taking. The sun shines its light with no expectation of reward, gratitude or acknowledgement. It gives of itself, freely, endlessly, without expectation of anything in return. The same is true of water, without which there could be no life on this planet. Both are essential to our very survival and they naturally give of themselves without question and without end. This is the Tao in perfect expression.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Verse 78


Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and rigid,
nothing can surpass it.

Everyone knows that the soft and yielding
overcomes the rigid and hard,
yet few can put this knowledge into practise.

The Master remains serene
in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up trying to help,
he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

The Tao Te Ching is filled with paradoxical words that at first glance might seem nonsensical to the mind, but which can nonetheless be verified upon deeper reflection. Perhaps it was deliberately written this way to shake us out of our complacency, our unconscious assumption that we know exactly how the world works and how life ought to be.

In order to truly know, any pre-existing assumption of knowledge must be discarded, until ultimately the only thing we know with certainty is that we don’t know, that we can’t know, that it is beyond the capacity of our mind to know.

Again and again the Tao is likened to water. Water is the softest and most yielding of elements, but it is perhaps also ultimately the strongest. Whilst wind, fire and even earth have the power to create and destroy, their power is finite. Only water, the seemingly weakest and most ineffectual of substances, has the power to, over time, cut through solid stone and literally tear down mountains.

We are invited to emulate water and in so doing emulate the Tao. Soft and flexible, water exists in one of two states: it is still, or it flows; it is active or passive. It does nothing of itself, it simply follows its nature and effortlessly adjusts itself according to the circumstances around it, manoeuvring around any obstacles and always flowing back toward its source.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Verse 77


The Tao works in the world
like the drawing of a bow.
The top is bent downward,
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.

The Tao takes from excess
and gives to that which is depleted.
The way of many people is to take from
those who do not have enough
and give to those who have far too much.
Who is able to give to the needy from their excess?
Only someone who is following the way of the Tao.

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit
and does not glory in any praise.

To live in alignment with the Tao is to live in balance. Life naturally exists in a state of perfect balance; you need only look at the natural world to see that.

On the other hand, the average human mind – which has lost all trace of the natural balance – doggedly pursues its own agendas, which are invariably rooted in self-interest and disregard for the whole. This is why the rich strive to get ever richer, often exploiting the poorest of people in order to do so.

Anyone who lives in such disconnection from the Tao and from the natural laws is bound for a life of continual misery and discontent, for themselves and everyone around them. Those that have never discovered the joy of giving and being of service to others live a tragic life indeed. We all must endeavour to give at least as much as we take, for this is the natural balance of life. This is the way of the Tao.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Verse 76


The living are soft and supple;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
In life, plants are flexible and tender;
in death, they are brittle and dry.

Stiffness is thus a companion of death;
flexibility a companion of life.
An army that cannot yield
will be defeated.
A tree that cannot bend
will crack in the wind.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

Lao Tzu here compares the qualities of softness and rigidity. The former is characterised by life, for it is the hallmark of youth, vigour and strength, while the latter is evident in death and decay. To be soft and yielding is to be strong, alive and vital. To succumb to rigidity and inflexibility is to lose our vigour and invite death.

Be aware of any tendency you have to slip into rigidity – either physically or mentally – and shake yourself loose. Let go of rigid belief systems and relinquish any old grudges, resentments or anything else that may be weighing you down. Approach each moment anew. Be willing to see things differently. Be willing to do things differently; acting not from habit, but from clear awareness of the needs of the situation.

To consciously remain soft, supple and flexible is to retain youth of body and mind and to live in balance, aligned with the natural harmony of the Tao.

Verse 75


When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

The words of this verse have a literal meaning but they also point to a deeper, fundamental aspect of the Tao: specifically, that it doesn’t try to control, manipulate or coerce anything.

Such a desire could only stem from mistrusting the process of life, the root of which lies in our ignorance of the true nature of reality. It’s ironic that the things we try hardest to control are often the very things we end up stifling and destroying.

The innate good tends to spontaneously manifest if it’s allowed to do so – and it doesn’t need to be cajoled or artificially coerced. Often such attempts at control only obstruct the flow.

We can best trust others, ourselves and the process of life not by getting stuck upon the changeable surface-level, but by going beneath it and seeing the Tao within all. With this comes the realisation that we don’t need to manage, govern and control anyone or anything. We can allow the Tao to direct life. Because ultimately, whether we like it or not, it’s going to anyway.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Verse 74


If you realise that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you are not afraid of dying,
there is nothing you cannot achieve.

When we try to control the future
we are like an inexperienced child
trying to take the place
of a master carpenter.
When try to you handle the blade
of a master carpenter,
chances are you will cut your hand.

Contemplation of impermanence is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist teaching. It may at first seem morbid and depressing to focus on the transience of life and the fact that all things eventually pass away. Yet the very root of our suffering is our attachment to the world of the transient. When that’s our only reference point, our only measure of fulfilment and stability, then each time something passes away, it’s a tragedy of universal proportions. It’s as though our entire world collapses, leaving a gaping void until next we find something upon which we can build a ‘stable’ structure. The problem is that no structure is stable. Everything in this world of form exists in a state of entrophy and erosion, diminishment and dissolution.

When we know the Tao, this is no longer a problem, because we are rooted in something far deeper, something that can never collapse or disappear. It’s as though we’re plugged into the mains rather than relying on battery power alone. To be willing to surrender everything and know that we are sustained by an inexhaustible fire within is the first step to living a life free of the fear of change and the fear of death.

Another important aspect of this verse is Lao Tzu’s suggestion that we not try to impose too much control over the future. Fear and desire form the basis of most human behaviour. It’s deeply ingrained into us that we should plan for the future and be sufficiently adept at manipulating events and circumstances to our advantage. There may be a place for this, but Lao Tzu appears to suggest that when we act from fear and desire, we’re like a blind man fumbling in the dark, desperately trying to grasp at things but clearly unable to see what he’s doing.

We can only see a small part of the overall picture. Often the things that seem most desirable are the things that would prove most detrimental to us. So why not work with the Tao and not against it? The Tao is like the master carpenter of the universe. It’s not a good idea to steal its tools and try to take over its job. You’re only likely to hurt yourself and make a mess. Instead, why not trust in the Tao? As much as it pains the ego to hear this, the truth is, it knows better than you do.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Verse 73


The Tao is always at ease.
It does not compete, yet overcomes,
does not speak, yet responds,
does not command, yet is obeyed,
and does not act, yet accomplishes all.

Its net covers the whole universe;
its mesh is coarse,
yet nothing slips through.

Why is the Tao always at ease? How can it possibly overcome without competing, respond without speaking, secure compliance without commandeering and accomplish without acting? Is it possible for us, as expressions of the Tao, to live in a similar manner?

The closing lines offer some insight. The Tao’s ‘net’ pervades the entire universe and nothing slips through it. In spite of all the comings and goings, highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies of phenomenal existence, the Tao is constant, and our ‘return’ to it is assured. It’s never in question.

Furthermore, we don’t have to do anything. The Tao does all. Every thought that we think, every word we utter, every action we undertake comes not from ‘us’, but ultimately from the creative energy that infuses and sustains the entire universe. We are not separate from it. The more we let go, the more we can see that, of ourselves, we do nothing. We’re being done by the Tao.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Verse 72


When they lose their sense of wonder,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend upon authority.

Do not limit the view of yourself.
Do not resist the natural course of your life.
In this way you will never weary of this world.

The Master knows himself
but makes no show of himself;
loves himself
but does not exalt himself.
The Master steps back
so that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without teaching
so that people will have nothing to learn.

Lao Tzu advises us to avoid turning to outside authority for answers. To do so is to exhibit a lack of trust in oneself and in one’s true nature.

The best that any authentic spiritual teacher can do is to point us back inward, to look within our own heart for that which we seek. The focus of the seeker’s attention is almost like a game of ping-pong; first it bounces outward (into the world and onto the teacher or teaching) and then, if the teacher hits his or her mark, it’s directed back inward.

If we really ‘get it’, the focus of our attention then settles inwardly. But this isn’t easy for most people, for our minds are trained to remain focussed outside of ourselves in the world of form and objects. If we are unable to fully grasp the enormity of our true nature, our attention again gravitates outward into some other teacher, resource or authority. And so the game continues, back-and-forth.

All we really need to do is just stop and just be. As one translation of this verse states: “the Master prefers what is within to what is without.”

Verse 71


Knowing that you don’t know is true knowledge.
Presuming that you know is a disease.
Only by recognising that you have an illness
can you move to seek a cure.

The Master is her own physician.
She sees her illnesses and treats them.
Having healed herself of all knowing
she is thus truly whole.

Having spent many years trying to learn all I could about the nature of life, death and reality, I eventually came to a humbling – and frankly quite devastating – realisation. There’s actually very little we truly can know.
All knowledge is of the world of the 10,000 things, which is to say, the manifested world of forms and objects. True knowledge of that which lies beyond form is impossible, because it is beyond the mind and beyond every thought, belief and concept we can endeavour to clothe it in.

Yet, for those that have gone within and deigned to look beneath the surface, we know it is there. It has to be there! For we know that we are here, as an expression of it. Beyond our certainty that it exists because we exist, it is all a great mystery.

The Master delights in the mystery. She may offer pointers to help others become aware of it also, but she has given up trying to explain the inexplainable or fathom the unfathomable. She uses her energy more wisely than that, and that is why it can be said she is truly whole.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Verse 70


My teachings are easy to understand
and easier to put into practise.
Yet so few in this world understand
and so few are able to apply what I teach.

My teachings are older than this world
and the things I do are done for a reason.
How can you grasp their meaning?
Because you do not know me,
you are not able to understand my teachings.

If you want to know me,
look inside your heart.

Lao Tzu speaks from the perspective of one who has forfeited the baggage of a personal ‘self’, a construct limited in time and space, created out of memories and conditioning and upheld by habitual mental activity. Open and unconstrained, he allows life to flow through him, directing the words that come through his mouth, guiding his activities and effortlessly informing his teachings.

Why do so few understand his teaching? Perhaps one reason is because many turn his words into conceptualisation and out of that create deadened, mindless rituals; the tragic fate of so many spiritual teachings.

“If you want to know me, look inside your heart.” When Lao Tzu says “me” I believe he is referring to the flow of the Tao that directs his every word and deed.

If you grasp hold of the teachings but blind yourself to the essence of what he is trying to say – the necessity of going within and finding the Tao within oneself – you lose everything and the teaching becomes meaningless, even counterproductive.

Verse 69


There is an old saying:
“Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
It is better to retreat a foot
than to advance an inch.”

This is called
going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons.

There is no greater misfortune
than feeling “I have an enemy”;
for when “I” and “enemy” exist together,
when you believe your enemy to be evil,
you destroy your three jewels
and become an enemy yourself.

When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go to the one
that knows how to yield and
that enters with the greatest compassion.

People often oppose us in life: agendas conflict, misunderstandings arise and many people behave with limited integrity due to their conditioning and the limitations of their personality.

But they don’t become “enemies”, as such, until we cast them in that role by creating a mental script and narrative about them in our minds. We then cease to see the being beneath the behaviour and see only the less-than-shining mental image we’ve formed of them. Dehumanisation is the one of the greatest evils in the world and it’s perpetrated by humankind all the time on a massive scale.

To ditch the story we spin in our minds is to see beyond the conditioned behaviour of our so-perceived enemy. Better still, to be able to recognise the spark of Tao shining within them, however dimly it might appear, is to end conflicts before they begin, using the most decisive and powerful of all weapons: compassion.