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, 26 through 46


The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement.

Thus the Master travels all day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.

Why should the lord of the country
flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.

The last stanza makes the rest perfectly clear, I think. Also, why go outside to see the views when you have Google Earth?~


A good traveller has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn't reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn't waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.

Fully agree. Hint: are bad people just inherently bad, or a product of their environment? Is their environment mostly good or bad people?


Know the male,
yet keep to the female:
receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
the Tao will never leave you
and you will be like a little child.

Know the white,
yet keep to the black:
be a pattern for the world.
If you are a pattern for the world,
the Tao will be strong inside you
and there will be nothing you can't do.

Know the personal,
yet keep to the impersonal:
accept the world as it is.
If you accept the world,
the Tao will be luminous inside you
and you will return to your primal self.

The world is formed from the void,
like utensils from a block of wood.
The Master knows the utensils,
yet keeps to the block:
thus she can use all things.

Yin and Yang is a common motif in Taoism, it is important to acknowledge and accept what seem to be opposing forces. But with many opposing forces, without one the other could not exist. Tall is defined by short, and short by tall.

Learn to trust your self for your self, don't overthink everything. If you deny your primal nature, you deny your self, and you will be unhappy. Learn to accept your evolutionary history, and live with it. Change what you don't like, but know the limitations and realize not all we are is bad. If I could alter my emotional spectrum right now, I'd get rid of hate and anger, but I'd keep love. I might tone down the maddening powers of love.


Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

For the first part, I must disagree. This was written thousands of years ago before people could even conceive of nanotechnology and terraforming. The Earth is a cruel place: volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes aren't Good and Nice Things, nor are insects which paralyze their prey but do not dull the pain as they eat them alive. Thus I think if we had the power to stop those, we should, and that would be an improvement.

Now, those are some pretty extreme cases, but it's just showing the world can indeed be improved. As it happens, humans have thus far not had a highly positive impact on environment. Tampering usually ruins it. Treating nature only as something to be manipulated leads to its destruction: treat it like a person, with respect and with care. Pick out the good from the bad, and only try to change the bad. There is nothing useless.

The Master is a patient, accepting person. Stay at the center, and things will move around you without you being caught moving one way or the other. It is often the best case to simply allow things to run their course. And it's not so much about not trying to do anything, but realizing your limitations. If you can save someone from drowning, do it. There is a time for being in motion. If you can't save someone from drowning, don't waste time worrying about what Could Have Been, and don't embark on futile missions. There is a time for being at rest.


Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn't try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counterforce.
Violence, even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon oneself.

The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn't try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn't need others' approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.

As Gandhi wrote, the means are entangled with the ends. You cannot achieve a peaceful end through non-peaceful means. Violence will only ever incite further violence, both in yourself and in your supposed enemy.

Even with superintelligence, even with molecular nanotechnology, I question the ability to send information faster than the speed of light, and I question the prospect of stopping the expansion of the universe or reversing entropy. There are some things out of our control. I can't say forever, but it certainly seems that way. It is a law of the universe that the speed of light will never be exceeded, and that this law will hold forever, but I can't put absolute certainty in this law.


Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

This is largely my present philosophy of violence. I go further, however, to state that violence can only be used in the direst necessity, but that violence should be limited to disabling rather than murdering. I am not convinced there is ever a situation that can only be solved by murdering, that couldn't be solved by disabling, and I am not convinced that what many people consider situations that require disabling or murdering actually require either. I am convinced the prevalence of demonizing the enemy is yet another cognitive bias in our brains meant to allow us to get to the point of killing each other and performing mass punishment, such as what goes on between Israel and Palestine.

It is important to examine the purpose of weapons before applying an attitude of "ban all weapons!" or similar. Weapons in this context means anything meant for the purpose of killing other people. I have no problems with weapons meant for a coolness factor, so long as no one gets hurt when using them, and I have no problems with weapons meant for hunting for food. Hunting for sport is not acceptable and is near the level of killing fellow humans. Serial killers start by torturing animals, you know.


The Tao can't be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.

All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.

Size is meaningless when you speak of the Tao. Anyway, in a world where people were sane, we wouldn't need government. My ideal is Anarchy, on which I have written a bit, but it is really only possible in two extreme societies: a small, primitive community, and a technologically advanced society where every single person would, were they transported to the Now, have the ability to destroy the Earth, but in Then, such a thing is impossible. When people are sane, they do not need laws.

Today, the world is mad and people are crazy. Government is needed. In places and at times when people can calm down, government is not needed. As for where government is needed now, realize that the government should not last forever, and realize where the government can be useful and where it should not bother. The answer for today's society isn't no government, or a highly limited government, but nor is it a nanny state. The government should run the fire departments, should oversee road construction, should provide health care, care for the People it serves, and be allowed to tax fairly. It should not be running a shoe manufacturing industry.


Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

The first stanza is excellent, and I have written about the importance of knowing yourself. The second stanza, I think, should be ignored. The first sentence is important in some contexts, but the whole stanza can be misused by those in power to keep down those without power. Poetic thinking about death made sense once, just to get people to live, but now we need to seriously attack the problem and fix it. Death is not good.


The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn't create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn't hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn't aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.

In truly Christian fashion, I'm taking the passage "it nourishes infinite worlds" for evidence that thousands of years ago Laozi knew about quantum mechanics and Decoherence / Many Worlds. Divine influence, suckers.

Anyway, the message to take from this is to do your work and step back, don't get caught up in thinking yourself so great, just do great work.


She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.

Just because something feels awesome doesn't make it awesome, and even such awesome things aren't necessarily more awesome than things which don't feel very awesome.


If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

The soft overcomes the hard.
The slow overcomes the fast.
Let your workings remain a mystery.
Just show people the results.

I'm taking the second to last sentence as evidence Laozi knew about Object Oriented Programming. Anyway. If you're so wise now and want to remove something, why did you allow it to flourish in the first place? Try planning. Take it slow, make gradual changes. The soft overcomes the hard, rock canyons are carved by soft water, hard men are tamed by soft women, gradual change can chip away at even the mightiest of things.


The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women
could venter themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.


The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

A perfect chapter showing modern religion to be stupid as well as many modern atheist beliefs. (Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.) If you don't see the truth of these stanzas, I don't think I can explain it to you, so I won't try.


In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn't glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as stone.

Do you care for this planet? Then why do you shrug off global warming? Why do you want offshore oil drilling? Why do you want to continue chopping down forests? A care for the whole without caring for the parts is senseless. Do you care for yourself? Do you eat reasonably healthy? Are you trying to improve your life? Are you shaped by others?


Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.

I'm taking this as evidence Laozi's favorite programming language was Python, since he knew of return and yield. What does it mean for something to be? How can something come from the set of things that don't exist into the set of things that do exist? Perhaps both sets are merely abstractions of the mind, existence being an illusion of the brain. Certainly, a truck never comes into existence, the atoms were always there. It is only a truck in a mind's perception of a certain arrangement of atoms. But perceiving our perceptions as reality makes it seem like the truck came from nothing.


When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao.

Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest are seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.

There are fools in the world who will read this and snort. They will write off the entire Tao Te Ching as something not worth reading, not worth considering, something mystical. These people are fools, and it's a pity if they expect paths and attributes to be completely obvious at every turn. The way forward is not very obvious, and often does seem to go back. Truth itself isn't even that obvious.


The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

People are scared of their own thoughts. They fear not being around others, not having others around to help guide them and speak with them. Humans are social beings, but we're such that it's almost a detriment to our society that we want socialization so much.

Regarding the first paragraph, the One can be considered the Universe. The Two can be considered Yin and Yang. The Three can be considered the Heavens, Earth, and Man.


The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master's way.

Another chapter you will either immediately see as true or have to read and think on it over and over, for I cannot express this truth better.


Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Remember from earlier that success is as perilous as failure.


True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Again, true things are not always obvious. In your work, don't be afraid to step back and say "It is finished."


When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and trators.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.
Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.

This cuts at the current policies of the US, with which I have issues. The Military-Industrial Complex is insane. The government, or anyone in a position of power, feeds fear into the People, fear of terrorism, fear of Communism, fear of change, fear of anything those in power can use for their advantage.

Preemptive defense strategies are foolish. As spoken earlier, violence should only be used in the last resort, and only to disable. Preparing a defense is stating you plan to use violence far more than it should ever be necessary; handing out weapons "just in case" is a serious wrong. If you have an enemy, that is pitiful.

Posted on 2010-04-28 by Jach

Tags: taoism


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