The Tao [Way] Teh [Virtue] Ching [Classic] was written or compiled in 5th century BC in China. It consist of a series of short passages and takes an hour or so to read, yet it has been massively influential. This page contains ideas and extracts from the translation of what I regard as the best work in English on the Tao Teh Ching. It is by Herrymon Maurer, and it is a book I have read more than any other (and I have dyslexia). It has heavily influenced my thinking and I find it an endless source of relaxation and inspiration. Maurer wrote the best translation which balances clarity with elements of the original idiom, such as leaving ‘Ten thousand things’ rather than translating it as everything. Other translations either remain too cryptic or ploddingly literal, neither of which seem to carry the sense of the ideas properly. There is also an excellent introduction which explains the concepts better than any other books I have come across. The structure of this page follows the structure of that introduction. Maurer also has foot notes about each passage which discuss issues in translation and references parallels from other religions for the ideas expressed there.
Other books that I have found useful are the novelist Ursula K Le Guin’s creative blend of translations, ‘The Tao of Pooh’ which uses the characters from Winnie the Pooh to explore some of the concepts, and ‘f**k it!: the ultimate spiritual way’ by John C. Parkin which shows how to directly apply some of the ideas.
Lao Tzu – the first dropout
“Whoever keeps to Tao
Does not want to be full.
Not full, he can practice
Concealment instead of accomplishment.”
Almost nothing is known of the author of the Tao Teh Ching who is called Lao Tzu [old philosopher/child]. His early biographer, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, records the following:
“In the State of Chou, he was historian in charge of the secret archives….Lao Tzu practised Tao and virtue. His teaching was the concealment of self and not having names. He lived for a long time in the State of Chou, but foreseeing its decay he departed and came to the frontier. The officer of the frontier was of the name Yin Hsi. He said, ‘Sir, you are about to dropout. I urge you to write a book for me.’ Lao Tzu then wrote a book of a first and second part, discussing Tao and virtue, and he wrote five thousand and some characters. Then he departed. No one knows where he died.”
Some doubt that he ever existed at all. Maurer says, “The Chinese throughout their history put down the barbarians to the north and west of their country. Their moral weakness was the mark of Chinese superiority. Indeed, the flight of their old Sage to the people they despised remains an eternal symbol of the despicability of conventional success.”
Lao Tzu left a book of around 5000 characters in 81 passages. Maurer says “He wrote with vividness, with starkness, with simplicity, not without humour, and with such force that his short work bred Taoism, shaped Buddhism, led to Ch’an and Zen meditation, created Chinese landscape painting…” It is “a guidebook for persons everywhere who look for the inward power that brings inward meaning and comfort.”
Maurer writes, “Lao Tzu’s message is not that his readers should believe in what he says in order to achieve a salvation of some sort, but rather that they should accept reality and turn to it, enjoying, as a consequence, inward well-being: a sort of spiritual hedonism in which there is joy and meaning and vitality, however much these may co-exist with pain and sorrow and suffering.”
Maurer writes, “The way of convention is to give names to all things in the universe out of a petty will to control life. The names may attach to matter or monsters, duties or deities, objects or operations, but they represent an effort to dominate reality through the agency of abstract cogitation…….Lao Tzu disagrees. ‘When law and order arose,’ he writes, ‘names appeared. Aren’t there enough already? Is it not time to stop?’ His practice and his counsel is not to name things but to be intimate with them. Truth itself is beyond name, and the name of Tao cannot be its name……For Lao Tzu celebrated rather than analysed the mysteriousness of life. He did not wonder about the universe but felt wonder towards it.”
The nothingness of Tao “often speaks directly to our inward ears in a way that can be described only by analogy.” By far the most common metaphor for the Way is water. It is soft, flexible, low and patient. It can be felt but never grasped.
The Vinegar Tasters is scene that appears in many versions within traditional Chinese painting (this is discussed in The Tao of Pooh). It shows three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu respectively. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his religion: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state. Another interpretation of the painting is that, since the three men are gathered around one vat of vinegar, ‘the three teachings are one’.
“When Tao is lost, there is virtue
When virtue is lost, there is humaneness
When humaneness is lost, there is morality
When morality is lost, there is ceremony.
Now ceremony is the shell
Of loyalty and trust
And the beginning of befuddlement.
As to foreknowledge,
It is a blossomy path
And the beginning of folly.”
Maurer writes, “The notion that nature can be magically manipulated to further personal interests is foreign to the Tao Teh Ching. In view of the association of later Taoism with magic and foretelling and the occult in general, it is well to emphasize that the Taoism of Lao Tzu is not less iconoclastic than other prophetic faiths. The I Ching, a work now popular among Westerners, reflects a mixture of wisdom and divination that characterized the Chou dynasty during which Lao Tzu lived, but its conventionality and superstition are not Tao but what Tao is against.” It is also against dietary systems, list of exercises, prohibitions and potions all of which are now associated with Taoism.
“It is ominous to improve on life,
Injurious to control breathing by the mind:
Things overgrown fall into decay.
This is not Tao
And what is not Tao soon ends.”
Maurer writes, “For Lao Tzu speaks about the joy of following a way of life, not about the tension of acting on the world and chasing success or about winning a reputation and making a big splash. He writes about a meeting, a relationship with Tao, with nature, with other persons: not about obeying one or another set of precepts and persisting in them against all comers.”
“Therefore the sage
Puts himself last,
Finds himself first.
Abandons his self,
Preserves his self.
Is it not because he has no self
That he is able to realize his self?”
Maurer writes, “For persons brought up on counsels of achievement and self-reliance, the possibility of self-abandonment seems at first as remote as it is unwanted. The pain that success-seeking inflicts on people is typically seen by them not as something not as something they inflict on themselves but as something inflicted upon them by external circumstances, often in the form of other competing people. For person brought up on praise and blame, giving up guilt seems like nothing less than the defeat of all law and order, since they se principles and precepts as the moral adornments of successful people, even though it is obvious that dedication to principle is characteristic of dictators and scoundrels of the sort who exist to punish those who differ from them. Indeed, a great demand of Western society, imposed alike by people of ill-will and good-will, is ideological purity, an inescapable consequence of trying to make self the centre of the cosmos….Self-will’s basic urge is to control something.”
“To know and to be unknowing is best;
Not to know and to be knowing is sickness
Only by being sick of our sickness
Are we not sick. The sage is not sick.
He is sick of his sickness And therefore not sick.”
Or as we say “Fuck it!” as observed John C. Parkin in his book of the same name.
The Failure of Success
“Hold onto fullness?
It’s better to stop.
Handle sharp edges?
They can’t long be kept.
When gold and jade fill a house,
No one can protect it.
Pride in wealth and fame
Breeds its own collapse.
Do your work, retire
This is the Tao of Heaven.”
Maurer writes, “When the Tao Teh Ching is used as a critique of our contemporary time of troubles, it is evident that the troubles result not from a series of particular ills but from an attitude toward reality wherein people desert Tao and try to find meaning and motivation in their own selves, or, by self-projection, within their own groups, which can enhance the value of self by devaluing outsiders. Indeed, man’s false view of himself, in which he sees himself as the centre of the universe, is the key not only to Lao Tzu’s denunciation of success but also to his praise of Tao. If a man does not follow Tao, or in Western terms worship God, he will have nothing to follow and nothing to worship but himself. The deceit of this idolatry is so pernicious that it becomes a sickness. Other sicknesses of opulence and oppression and violence, whether expressed in hatred of others and a will to stand supreme, or in self-hatred and a will to be overwhelmed, spring from this central deceit.”
You are part of the universe, not the centre of it. You are part of the universe, not detached from it. To change the world people need to change, but change that is only from the outside will not change the central drive to their actions.
In places of work places self-will drives us to measure ourselves against others. Maurer writes, “We seek the status of telling other people what to do: we try to avoid the non-status of being told. When possible, we denigrate the labour of others, if only in our own minds, in favour of our own. We show off. We gossip. We constantly compare. We conspire to have ourselves recognised and others overlooked. Unless, of course, we are aware of the enticements of low-ego, whereby self-will feeds on self-denigration…..Establishing supremacy often fails, but establishing inferiority always succeeds. Deceits of this sort lead men and women to interpose compulsions and evasions and escapes, not to mention fantasies and compulsions and combats, between themselves and reality: to such a degree, indeed, that it is difficult to distinguish fact from self-will, a state of affairs hardly conducive to work or play.”
“The Sage does not compete with anyone
And no one beneath heaven can compete with him.”
But Maurer writes that for those not following the Way it is more like the following,
“Because you compete with others,
Everyone will certainly compete with you.”
Maurer writes, “The fascination with power among people of libertarian intention lies in the fact that power is the act of impressing one’s own will on or the will of one’s group on others, regardless of the size of the issues involved, be they large ones of state or small ones of daily life. An obvious power play is manipulating children to act affectionately instead of demonstrating how to go about being affectionate. When affection fails at home, just as when peace fails abroad, the answer is more power. Few peace-making parents are alert to their tyranny over their offspring.” Or as Francis Gallop once over heard a parent say to her children, “Here you. Fucking play nice, alright!”
Maurer writes, “Once the way is sensed, things inward and outward fit readily into place. Men and women look within themselves and look outside of themselves, and in both directions they see purpose and direction and meaning in life…..When Tao is shunned, men and women look within themselves and find nothing more than a meaninglessness they try to overcome through self-awareness, consciousness-raising, and other ego centric stirrings that prompt them to seek success.”
John C. Parkin says, say ‘Fuck It’ to searching “We’re all searchers. We’re always looking for more meaning. The search is relatively unconscious for much of our life. We search for meaning in relationships, in friendships, in jobs, in money, in hobbies, in ‘missions’ to help other people…..For whatever reason people get spiritual apparently towards the end of their pursuit of meaning….meaning creates tension and pain when it comes into conflict with what life is. So the more meaningful your belief/spiritual/religion is, the more potential for tension and pain there is….So here’s another cosmic joke: the search in our lives leads us to try to find meaning beyond what ‘is’ in our lives. Our loves, our money, our achievements are not quite enough, so we look for more. And we look for it in ‘spirituality’, which usually involves the ‘unseen’. Whereas the answer to everything possibly lies in this: not looking for more meaning, but looking for less. When we strip away meaning from the things that are already meaningful in our lives, that’s where we find peace and the divine.
- God is not more than we know . He’s less than we know.
- The less you search, the more you find.
- The less you want, the more you receive.
- The less you look, the more you see.
- The less ‘You’ the more ‘Is’. ”
If God is less when we are looking for more, then spirituality is not some preserve of believers. Spirituality is everything as it is. Everyone is spiritual, as is everything….This means that there’s nothing you have to do to be spiritual or ‘good’. You don’t have to go anywhere or achieve anything. You can truly say Fuck It to the whole thing and still be spiritual!”
“Thirty spokes share one hub; In emptiness lies the wheel’s utility.
Kneeding clay makes a pot; In emptiness lies the pot’s utility
Cutting doors and windows makes a room, In emptiness lies the room’s utility.
Gain can be had from somethingness, But use can be had from nothingness.”
And everything will get done.”
Maurer writes, “Positively, nothing-doing means something so vital and profound that it is not to be talked about. It is inherent in the spiritual-physical reality of Tao that pervades all things and all beings, that make events fruitful by not channelling them but by freeing them: the reality that creates history not out of the decisions of a controlling few but out of the thoughts and actions of everyone alive. Nothing-doing even provides a compelling means of communicating, whereby what a man is and does speaks louder than what he says. In the long run, nothing-doing always wins over something-doing, but its workings are best described by analogy with soft things like water which wear away all hardness.”
Maurer quotes Martin Buber (author on Hasidism) who writes – “An immediate relation to God which does not embody an immediate relation to the world is self-deception if not deception; if you turn away from the world to turn to God, then you are not concentrating on the reality of God but merely on your own idea of Him. The religious element in isolation is not really the religious element.”
Maurer writes, “Defacing nature, destroying property, thieving goods and setting fire to cities: all these are essentially acts of self assertion and of establishing oneself as a somebody instead of a nothing. Mugging and murder, in which victor directly confronts victim, are dramatic acts of establishing superiority. Even if the victor is caught, he may still get on television, and this event is almost universally considered the pinnacle of contemporary recognition of self.”
I realised that most knowledge is not very important. For example all the detail I know about Brean Down and Dyrham Park and other sites is only relevant to those places and only then sometimes. When I go on some visits it is pointless for me to go on about all those details to those who are with me. But it is so tempting to experts always to go on about how their pet subject is really so important, in reality it is a platform to make themselves feel important. Very little that I know is of any great importance. Probably an awareness of this book is one of them. In the grand scale of things I know nothing and I am not important. I make a positive contribution to the world from where I am and that is all. Hopefully this website is part of that and not an ego platform.
Maurer writes, “Just as fussiness of something-doing leads Lao Tzu to uphold nothing-doing, so does the fuzziness of something-knowing lead him to applaud nothing-knowing: an emptiness of mind akin to the selflessness of speech in the famous quotation, “He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak.” Nothing-knowing has to do with more than self. A key to the ultimate nothingness, it has to do with creation, how it is and how it may be experienced.”
Lao Tzu contrasts hopeful condition of “stupid stupid” with the hopeless condition of “clever clever”. Those who realise they know nothing, contrasted with to those who claim to know everything. Which statement is more accurate? It is the former but all of the social and media pressure encourages to think the later.
Maurer writes, “To most Western scholars, such language suggests distaste for the edifices of intellect they inhabit, and it is conventional for those of them who know anything about the Tao Teh Ching to dismiss it as mystical and quietist and mindlessly subjective. And yet it is not mystical in the sense of seeking absorption in the All; nor is it quietist in the sense of withdrawing from the here and now. Written in the form of a handbook on how to govern (possibly because those who governed were then the only people who knew how to read), it is intensely social in its purposes and dedicated to the well-being of commoners, not the power of rulers. The book, more over, is obdurately factual. Lao Tzu treats what is as inviolate, avoids subjectivity, and turns his back ahead of time on the superstition that later Taoism embraced. Subjectivity and superstition result from relating reality to one’s self and trying to control it, while factuality results from relating to Tao and avoiding any effort at control.”
“Without going out of the door
You can know beneath-heaven.
Without looking out of the window
You can see heaven’s way.
The farther you go,
The less you know.”
Maurer writes, “The absoluteness of fact is only too easily compromised by the ego-centrism of the observer.” Conceptualising and naming in an attempt to control the world as the ego demands. “Knowledge is thus given an ego spin, and remarkable simplifications and personalisations often result.” Facts are manipulated. “Deceit of this sort can be self-deceit. If I hold that facts are not sacred, I can find myself at the mercy of the notion that the universe is not meaningful but that I am, and that I can make of everything precisely what I will. It is difficult, indeed, to be in relationship with even simple everyday facts without being in a relationship to an ultimate Truth from which a fact emerges to be exactly what it is. The egocentric choice, of course, is to gather more and more data and have it pertain less and less to anything beyond self. Hence:”
“To get learning, add to it daily.
To get Tao, subtract daily.”
In some areas of research “investigators are known for the positions they take rather than for the facts they discover…..Such misuse of fact leads to calling things by name……A considerable part of human learning amounts to little more than a pigeon holing of reality, very much in the manner of the stone-age people who sought to control things by knowing their secret names and by intoning the names under proper conditions and in suitable sequence. Trying to control reality by naming it – or by having a special vocabulary for describing it – is so unappealing to Lao Tzu and using names to exalt self is so abhorrent that his teaching may indeed be said to consist simply of not having names.” [See Stephen Fry and Oscar Wilde.]
“Keep to simplicity,
Grasp the primal,
Reduce the self
And curb desire.”
Maurer writes, “Lao Tzu’s phrase for simplicity is nothing-wanting, which is neither an action nor a non-action but a state of being. And while he counsels against possession of people and things, he by no means counsels retreat from life and from other people in the guise of non-involvement and non-attachment. He counsels against self-involvement and self-attachment, and he decries anything that separates from the primal, anything that enlarges the self, anything that encourages the covetous. The counsel of nothing-wanting leads to simplicity whoever wants to get there.”
Than not knowing what is enough,
No fault worse than wanting too much.
Whoever knows what is enough
Our modern world leads us into confusion of forever wanting more, but leaving us unsatisfied, frustrated and forlorn.
“Knowing what is enough avoids disgrace;
Knowing when to stop secures from peril.”
Maurer writes, “When compulsion operates on the lower than clinical levels, it is seldom recognized as compulsion or anything anyone ought to get over for it is seen as nothing more than the inordinate pursuit of things commonly considered good in themselves, such as work, housecleaning, education, churchgoing, book reading, woodworking, picture making, concert going, and gift-getting…..When the pursuit of anything at all, whether good or bad, involves dependency on it, that thing plays the same role as the more obvious compulsions: it is pursued because it hides reality. Compulsion is inwardly more destructive than the objects pursued…..Even the good of society. When it becomes a compulsion, it is as destructive to chase after it as status and riches and fame; and it is doubly destructive to be clever about it:”
“When Tao is cast aside,
Duty and humanity abide.
When prudence and wit appear,
Great hypocrites are here.”
Maurer writes, “Once the compulsions of something-doing, something-knowing and something-wanting are cast aside, the Way opens.”
The Success of Failure
Maurer writes, “There is a general misapprehension that the Way of the prophets – of Isaiah, of Lao Tzu, of Gautama (Buddha), of Jesus – is a very exalted way that can be followed only by very remarkable people, and that it requires a giving up of the normal activities and emotions of mankind and a rising up to heights of spirit which few human beings area capable of achieving. In the light of the teachings of the prophets, directed to ordinary people in ordinary walks of life, this misapprehension is nonsense. It is convention’s effort to keep people under the dead hand of the past, to preserve at all costs the sway of violence and oppression and acquisitiveness and compulsion, and to prevent people from grasping the fact that they have only to become sick of their sickness to be set free from it. [‘Fuck it!’ as John C Parkin would say]. It is as if a man, seated on a stove that became hot, were to be informed that impossible fortitude would be required for him to get off it, when all that he needs is normal response to discomfort. Actually, it takes great fortitude to persist in old pain…..To get rid of the pain, nothing more is needed than a willingness to admit failure and to give up and get away. It then becomes possible to accept life rather than to battle it, to simplify it rather than complicate it, to be open to it rather than understand it.”
“Tao is empty! Use it
And it isn’t used up.
Deep! It seems like
The forebear of the ten thousand things.
It blunts edges, unties tangles,
Harmonizes lights, unties all dusts.
Existent and deep!
I don’t know whose child it is.
It looks to be the source.”
Maurer writes, “The Way is social also in the manner by which individuals can witness against violence and oppression. A group of people, inwardly concerned for peace rather than wilful for outward success, can show the depth of their concern by taking trouble and suffering upon themselves (not, note well, by imposing trouble and suffering on others) and can in this way operate in the realm of spiritual reality, appealing to the deeper levels of being that people usually forget they possess. Thus did the followers of Gandhi appeal in their various campaigns against untouchability inIndia, showing concern by standing for very long periods of time in an attitude of prayer. Such groups in effect renounce success since they realize that concerns of peace and freedom can prevail only when other people are inwardly stirred. The getting of publicity, the calling of epithets, the brandishing of signs, and the enacting of skits and burning of dummies produce no inward stirrings, which are the result not of cleverness but of example. [Embody the solution, rather than act against the problem and become part of the problem] To trust the Way that directs to peace is to trust its natural operations in the hearts of human beings once it is clearly shown to them. The Way the universe is constructed is the Way along which human beings sooner or later will come to walk. It is a Way not of justice or any other retribution. It is a Way of love.”
“The sage has no fixed heart.
He finds his heart
In the hundred families’ heart.
He is good to the good;
He is also good to the not-good,
For virtue is good.
He is faithful to the faithful;
He is also faithful to the unfaithful,
For virtue is faithful.”
Maurer concludes, “The Way, clearly is the Way of the Kingdom of Heaven, but the kingdom is not simply at the end of the path; it is also the path itself. Truth may someday triumph totally, but the contribution of the billions of men and women and children to that triumph are small daily triumphs, and it is to these that Truth impels them. In history as in personal life, a very little bit of Tao goes a long way, and a turning to Tao that is hesitating and incomplete can mean life itself for a sick world and for sick people trying to keep alive in it. It can make all things new, and bring people to a new stillness and a new simplicity, so that they come to resemble the ancient masters:”
“The ancient masters were
Inwardly subtle and darkly perceptive.
Their depth was beyond understanding.
Because they were beyond understanding,
They can be described only by appearance:
Hesitant as if wading a river in winter,
Reluctant as if fearing a neighbour,
Reserved as if acting as guest,
Effacing like ice starting to melt,
Simple like uncarved wood,
Open like a valley,
Confused like muddy water.
Who else could clear muddy water
By quieting it?
Who else could move clear water
By bringing it to life?”