Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Tao Te Ching Reflections, 1 through 13

Before I was atheist, I was an agnostic Taoist. I still retain some Taoist principles, but lately I've noticed myself forgetting them when I need them most. I've read the Tao Te Ching several times, and I am going to read it again now. I will be reflecting on each of the chapters as I go along. This will encompass a series of posts, and I will put the chapter numbers in the title.

I will be posting the translations of the chapters one by one in quotes, along with my thoughts or interpretations or disagreements. (Skip over them if you don't want to hear what I think; my thoughts are underneath the chapters and not in quotes.) If I say nothing, it can be assumed that I consider the message clear and agree with it.

So, let's begin. The copy of the Tao Te Ching I have is apparently translated by Stephen Mitchell.


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 realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

It starts rather cryptic, in my opinion, but it gets very clear later. It is first expressing how difficult it is to explain the Tao; one must experience it. Words simply don't do it justice, thus take the rest of this book as not a tell-all definitive explanation of the Tao. Read this a step back, for if you seek too strongly you will only see words, and it will appear very mysterious. Realize the mystery and understand.

Seeing how a thing operates and seeing what a thing is are separate, but are simply part of the same source that is ignorance. Only from within ignorance can you understand, or else you would know it already; read this book from ignorance.


When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

It is best to see things as they are: things. Beautiful, ugly, those are perceptions, not facts about a thing. A plain rock is just as beautiful as a finely cut diamond. Indeed, without the plain rock to compare, we might consider diamonds nothing special. Never forget the opposite to things.

The Master flows, like water, and events happen and are dealt with. There is a sense of ease about her: she does what is necessary, without ruining the deed by doing more or less, and does not tie herself to her work or her possessions. There are coders in this world who get personal over their code: it is better to remain detached, so that when bugs arise, they will be fixed, and when your code is rewritten by another, you see their wisdom and your folly, and correct for it without indignation. Work that is not bound tightly to the individual can outlast the individual.


If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

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

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

It's a sickness of this world that people grow up constantly repeating to themselves "I could never be as smart/talented/great as person." It is true that not everyone is a genius, it is true that setting yourself up for failure is a sure way to fail, but it is also true that the distance between idiot and genius is not great. We are all human, we all have the same flaws and strengths, the only differences being minute on the grand scheme of things.

Even by thinking in terms of possessions, you think of what you have and do not have. This thinking drives people to steal, it drives people to misery, it drives people to amusing zealotry over some trifle. I broke a button today, I know many people would be very frustrated and angry at themselves. It's annoying to me, yes, but it would be silly to let it affect me. It is only a button, and not an important button, and not entirely broken. I'll forget about it.

Eastern philosophy challenges people, I think. If you think you can't learn anything from it, you're just going to be confused by it and wave it away. If you're already dedicated to a one true position, you will read with bias and not internalize any of it.

Relax. The concept of Wu-Wei is fundamental to Taoism. There is a time for action, and a time for inaction. You can accomplish most by not-doing. This is one of those things, like the Tao itself, that is very hard to put into words.


The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

The Tao is... everything. Looking at the sciences, we can see it in the fundamental quantum physics that is the giant configuration space over "possibilities" (though each one physically real). We can see it in energy, used but never destroyed. You can't give an age to it, it is beyond our concept of time.


The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
Hold on to the center.

The Way is neither good nor bad, it just is, and is neutral to our concepts of good and bad; the Master is like the Way. It is important to be tolerant, even if you consider others sinners or evil. That said, I don't think one should stand idly by as powers wage against each other. There are times to take sides, even if often the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Hold on to the Way, which is at the center of all things. If the Way opposes a belief, you should adjust your belief. If the Way opposes those around you, help them, but be tolerant, for they do not know the Way yet. And do not argue ceaselessly, as the more you attempt to convince, the more distant they will become, and you as well. Instead, teach by not teaching. Act, and accept all who would wish to study you. When people see the Master, they ask for help: the Master does not need to seek out people to help.

And all that said, there are many that need help that do not know how to ask. Seek those out, and guide them to the Way. But in guiding them, let them find it themselves. You can simply open the door and give a nudge.

This is something I probably need to practice more. Arguments can be fun but are usually pointless and can lead to gross misunderstandings. Better to just go do, and let others see your way working.


The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

Being human, we have the ability to manipulate matter surprisingly well. The Tao is here, it is everywhere, we can use it. I find it interesting that the concept of infinite worlds was around so long ago, considering it's a proven consequence of standard, modern quantum mechanics that Many Worlds (aka many decoherent blobs of amplitude) physically exist.


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 stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

I can't really express the importance of letting the Self join into all things. When you detach yourself, you see the grand picture, you see the silliness of your actions and those around you. The world is almost a comedy, such is the silliness. You can only see this when you detach; those attached to so much are blind.

I am amazing, but my computer is also amazing. The grass is amazing. The rocks are amazing. My carpet is amazing. Fundamental physics is amazing, and truly we're all made of the same stuff, which is also amazing. Everything is so connected, in a real, physical sense. Why should I be so attached in myself and possessions? There's so much more!


The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't 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.

Being like water is such an important aspect of Taoism. Flow, wash over things, let things wash over you, penetrate deep and be penetrated. Accomplish effortlessly, even if a task takes tremendous effort.

I take the line on thinking in the context of complicated propositions. Reality isn't complicated or mysterious, don't go for mysterious-sounding things. Use Occam's Razor liberally. In short, be wary of complication, especially in your thoughts. Tell a lie and you get a complicated web of lies to cover other lies. Program in a non-modular way and you'll become confused. Use abstraction, but know when the abstraction is more complicated than the metal.


Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

This is perhaps my favorite chapter in the entire Tao Te Ching. Unfortunately it's one of the harder ones for me to consistently apply in life. If you don't understand it, I'll leave you to try. It is important.


Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child's?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
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 with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.

Debias yourself. If you think debiasing is easy, read some cognitive psychology. Be bending, don't fall for the trappings of absolute certainty or only seeing one way. Be willing to see how the Tao works, and keep to the oneness that is the Tao. Seek after the Tao, keep close. The Tao is Truth.

Can you keep your own self out of matters? Can you recognize the right path does not always flow with how you want it to, or how it might most benefit you? Can you learn to have, without possessing? If you can learn that, you are close to the Tao.


We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

Another of my favorite chapters.


Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

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

Observe, but do not overly trust your senses. Do not overly trust your thoughts, for our biases even undermine what we consider rational thinking. Learn to experience the world, and to let parts of it just pass by. There are many things to be interested in, it is not a loss if you miss something.


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 on 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.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

Another favorite. Love the world as it is, marvel that it works at all. Don't be so sure that your meddling is the right approach. If all you can think about is your self, expand your self to include the world.

Thoughts of success, failure, emotions of hope and fear, these are phantoms and it is silly how important we consider them. When it is warm again, I shall try roller blading as a Taoist. If I fall, I fall, and I should not fear, for it is just a part of the way things are. When trying new things it is very easy to become paralyzed with fear, because we are thinking of our self in a very irrational manner. People lie awake at night, thinking of the self, thinking of what will happen to the self if success or failure arises. Detach yourself, and be at peace. It is all only a trifle.

Posted on 2010-03-22 by Jach

Tags: taoism


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