Concluding interpretations of the Tao Te Ching

I finally finished all 81 verses after half a year of semi-regular study. How relieving! But of course, all things in the Tao are cyclical, and I am certain that I have forgotten much which I will one day remember. I hope to re-read it again soon, but for now, here are my thoughts on the final five verses. I’ve put Verse 80 last because I found it the most poignant; it is the dearest vision of my heart, and it reminds me fondly of gashuku.


Verse 77

One who follows the way shares his abundance with others.
What man has more than enough and gives it to the world?
A man of the Tao.

Such a man can keep on giving
because there is no end to his wealth.
He acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and does not think he is more important than anything else.


Verse 78

Nothing in the world is softer or gentler than water.
But for wearing away the hard and unyielding,
nothing can surpass it.

The weak overcomes the strong.
The soft surpasses the hard.
All people inherently know this,
but none can master it.

The wise woman remains serene in the midst of sorrow;
no darkness can enter her heart.
Because she no longer strives to help people,
she becomes people’s greatest help.


Verse 79

After a bitter quarrel, some hurt remains.
What can be done about it?
Eventually, someone must risk responding to injury with kindness,
or else hostility can never turn into love.
Thus the wise always give without expecting reward.

It is best to be content with what you have.
One who knows the Way always seeks to give.
One who does not know the Way always seeks to get.
The giver receives the bounty of life.
The taker receives only emptiness.


Verse 81

True words are not beautiful;
beautiful words are not true.
Good men do not argue;
men who argue are not good.
Those who have virtue do not judge or search for faults;
those who judge or fault-find are not truly virtuous.

Wise people do not accumulate anything,
but share all they have with others;
the more they have, the more they give.

Heaven is good to all beings,
and does no evil to anyone.
A wise woman emulates this,
acting for the good of all
and opposing herself to none.


Verse 80

Imagine a small country with few people.
They have weapons but do not use them;
they enjoy working with their hands
and do not waste time inventing labour-saving machines.

They take death seriously and do not travel far.
Although they have boats and carriages,
no one uses them.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they are not interested in travelling far from them.

They are content with healthy food,
pleased with useful clothing,
satisfied in cosy homes,
and protective of their way of life.

Although they live within sight of their neighbours,
and crowing cocks and barking dogs can be heard across the way,
they leave each other in peace
while they grow old and die.

More volunteering, and the Tao Te Ching: Verse 76

This morning I travelled into the city to see my dentist for perhaps the sixth time this year (mainly for my bashed in face, but also for general check up/cleaning. I really don’t think I need to see her every six months, but I can never say no to her because she’s just so darn cute). After the appointment, I had about an hour to spare before I needed to head off for another appointment. I contemplated doing some shopping, but I decided I’d go to PAWS and do some casual volunteer work instead. I got there about an hour and a half before opening time, but they let me in anyway. The only people that were there were the dedicated/employed staff who were setting up for the day- there were no other volunteers yet. I helped out by folding some tea towels, making a green juice (Bethwyn would be so proud) and decorating a raw pizza. It all took a surprisingly large amount of time, but it was fun work with great company. I think Hadley, the manager, is getting more used to me being around, and he didn’t seem to mind that I was helping Carly prepare the food behind the counter. I hope that maybe he’d be okay if I helped prepare and serve food more often- I think there’s more joy in that than washing dishes (though they’re both important tasks).

I talked to Carly about the sort of people that volunteer at PAWS. From her observations, many of them were court-ordered into some voluntary community service, or needed to work in order to receive welfare payments. Most of those people tended to be unhappy, hanging around the back, trying to do as little as possible and still get away with it. It was really unpleasant being around such people, but working with Carly and Hadley in the kitchen felt great! It was so wonderful to open my heart and embrace the work, given out of love of service to others. Plus, I got some free cake to go with it! I’ve decided that, despite how delicious and vegan PAWS cake is, it really does make my stomach hurt. I’m just not used to eating so much processed sugar, so a few bites is plenty for me. I look forward to more early mornings and late evenings, when the company will be more enjoyable.


Now, onto the verse I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. This verse reminds me of waves crashing upon the rocks; in order to survive, they disperse their momentum and dissolve into mist. If they tried to solidify like chunks of ice, they would be shattered. Instead, their momentum allows them to withdraw with the waning moon and try again eternally. In a very basic martial sense, there is a notable difference between meeting an attack head on, and melting out of the way at the moment where it would impact you. For instance, if I was soft and yielding as someone punched me in the arm, the impact would be negligible and the effect would be like trying to punch leaves off a tree (as opposed to being rooted and solid like the trunk). In a philosophical sense, I see little point in being argumentative, obstinate or dominant. So many of life’s problems can be weathered by bending like grass in a storm, without giving up what we believe in. How senseless it is to try and be a hard ass!


Verse 76 [my interpretation]

Humans are born soft and gentle,
and when they die they are hard and stiff.
All things in nature are soft and pliable in life,
and dry and brittle in death.

Thus it might be said that stubbornness and rigidity lead to death,
where flexibility and adaptability lead to life.

An army that cannot yield will be defeated.
A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind or be uprooted.
The hard and inflexible will be broken;
the soft and yielding will prevail.

Tao Te Ching, verses 74 and 75

To my friends, who fear the changing nature of life and the possibility of death.

Verse 74 [my interpretation]

Once you accept that all things change,
you can realise there is nothing you need to hold on to.
When you are not afraid of dying,
there is nothing you cannot achieve.

There has always been a lord of death.
Anyone who supposes themselves able to play the lord of death
is like an amateur who uses the tools of a master carpenter;
they are sure to cut their own hands.
(Death is an inevitable part of life. You cannot have one without the other.)


This goes out to my friends who have difficulty letting go of controlling others. I include myself among this number, and will strive to relinquish my opinion of “the right way” people “should” act.


Verse 75 [my interpretation]

When the taxes are too high,
the people suffer.
When the rulers are too controlling,
the followers lose faith in the leaders.

Let every action you do benefit others;
trust others to perfectly express the Tao,
and to do what they need to do
exactly when they need to do it.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 72: Inspiration and awe

This particular verse resonates with me having recently returned from gashuku. I can recall a particular instance towards the end of the week where I was walking through the bushland, waiting for one of the seniors to arrive. I looked down and saw a tiny red flower with small tendrils extending from its core, and upon each of these tendrils was a tiny drop of dew. The effect was quite startling- it was as if the flower were wearing a circlet of diamonds. Shortly after I found a plant that had been covered in a fine layer of spiderwebs, as if a soft cotton mat had been spread across the ground for some kind of small animal to sleep on. Another time, I was about halfway up a mountain when I stopped and turned around. The sun had just risen and was casting golden rays through the murky clouds, illuminating lush and verdant fields throughout the countryside. I took a deep breath and felt humbled that be alive, with the great privilege of bearing witness to the beauty of the world. It seems so unusual now to be bored or disinterested in a world that is so full of wonder.

In another instance, the wind upon the mountainside was so powerful and unpredictable that it was difficult to walk in a straight line. I looked out into the storm and laughed, because it seemed absurd that I, one tiny, fleshy little person, thought I could possibly stand against the powers of Gaia. Humans have become deeply arrogant by supposing themselves the most important organisms on earth. How little we are compared to the great powers of nature!

Verse 72 [my interpretation]

When people forget how awe-inspiring the world is,
disaster strikes.
When people do not humble themselves before the powers of nature,
greater power arises.

Do not place limits on yourself.
Do not reject the life you were born into.
Do not resist the natural course of your life.
In this way, you will never have cause to be bored with life
as you recognise all the wonder around you.

Thus the sage knows who he is
without being egotistical.
He loves himself,
but places no extra value on his life.
He values what is within to what is without.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 71: Living without sickness

This verse rings especially true to me after my adventures on gashuku. Having slept well, eaten well, exercised well, interacted socially well, and found a high level of spiritual health over the course of a week in the mountains, returning to city life has been challenging. I’ve instantly noticed the effects sugar has on my body, and I’ve come to understand my sleeping patterns much better. Good health is surprisingly easy to maintain, but with the trappings of the city life, it’s easy to get bogged down. I aspire to maintain a light and healthy life, wherever I am!

Verse 71 [my interpretation]

Knowing you are ignorant is wisdom.
Ignorantly knowing is folly.

Only when you choose to be healthy will your sickness disappear.
The sage knows that a healthy mind keeps a healthy body,
and she has no tolerance for unhealthy thought and action.
Yet she also knows that it is the nature of the body to experience pain and illness,
and she accepts them when they come.
She knows that what happens to her body need not affect her spirit.

Knowing these secrets is the key to good health.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 68

Verse 68 [my interpretation]

A true warrior is not violent.
The strongest martial artist hides no anger behind his technique.
The greatest victor is not competetive.
Good employers serve their workers.
The best leaders make decisions in accordance with the will of the people.

Such persons are the embodiment of noncompetition;
they have no need for ego.
Instead, they know the virtue/power of using the skills of others;
Even “enemies” have much to offer them.

Since the ancient times,
our ancestors have known the virtue/power of being united with all heaven and earth.
When one recognises oneself as the Tao,
there is no one left to compete with.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 67: The Three Treasures of the Tao

This verse is amazing. It is absolute gold. Keep these treasures close to your hearts my friend, and I will try to do likewise!


Verse 67 [my interpretation]

There are many who talk about the Tao as if they know it well;
as if they can find it in a book, or get it from their parents.
What folly!
The Tao is not something gained by knowing or lost by forgetting,
or else it would have been lost long ago!

The sage has three treasures which she holds close to her heart:
The first is compassion/love.
The second is frugality/simplicity/moderation.
The third is humility.

From compassion comes courage.
From frugality comes generosity.
From humility comes leadership.
If one were courageous without compassion,
if one were generous without frugality,
if one was a leader without humility,
one would surely die.

Love conquers all opponents;
it is invincible in its defence.
When heaven wants to protect someone,
does it send an army?
No, it protects them with love.

Tao Te Ching, Verses 65 and 66: Simplicity and Humility

Forgot to share yesterday’s insightful verse, so a double-dose of Taoist wisdom today (haha, look at that, alliteration. Beautiful!)


Verse 65 [my interpretation]

Our predecessors were simple-hearted and lived as common people.
They did not draw the spotlight or rule the cunning,
thus the nation was fortunate.

When people think they know the answers,
they can learn no more.
When people know they are ignorant,
only then can they find the answers.

The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with a simple life,
you can show all people the way back to their true natures.

This verse made me think of the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, for those who haven’t read the books) series by George R. R. Martin. Ned Stark, open, honest, honourable (alliteration win!) was undoubtedly the most well-loved Lord in all of Westeros. What he loved most was his people, praying to the Old Gods and being home with his family. Consequently, the common folk (many of which he knew by name) were loyal to him and respected his law and judgement because they knew he ruled with justice and love for his people. On the other hand, Cersei, Tyrion and Tywin Lannister, Littlefinger and the other great schemers of the realm all lived in misery and paranoia, fearing rebellion and treachery almost every hour of the waking day. Comparatively, their commonfolk cared nothing for what happened to their leaders, so long as they had enough food and money (which they often did not, as the kingdom was constantly ravaged by war). If only there were more Ned Starks in the world.


Verse 66 [my interpretation]

Why is the sea king of all streams?
Because it lies below them.
It is virtuous/powerful because it embraces humility.

Thus if you wish to be above others,
you must practice being beneath them.
If you wish to be a leader,
first you must learn to follow.

Thus when such a person is a leader,
those under him do not feel oppressed.
When he stands his ground to confront others,
they do not feel offended.

The sage stays low so that, in a way,
the world is always bowing to him.
He remains a servant
so that the world never tires of making him its king.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 64: One Step at a Time

Although similar to the verse on baby steps, this verse is a powerful reminder not to care too much about what needs to be done, but to draw your attention back to what you are doing. That’s certainly something I could practice a lot more.

Verse 64 [my interpretation]

A rolling ball is easiest to stop before it gains momentum.
What is not yet manifest is easy to prevent.
Act before things exist,
manage before there is disorder;
prevent problems to avoid having to solve them.

The tree that fills a man’s embrace begins with a seedling.
A tower nine stories high begins with a single brick.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Act, and it is destroyed.
Grasp, and it is lost.
The wise woman never aspires nor attaches,
and thus she never loses nor destroys.
People usually fail when they’re on the verge of success,
so give as much care at the end as at the beginning.

The wise woman does not attach to what is difficult to obtain.
She does not hoard treasure, or cling to ideas.
She helps all things discover their own nature,
but does not presume to lead them by the nose.

If your goal is writing a novel, don’t stress about the thousand pages you are hoping to write. Put your pen to the page (or fingers to the keys) and, just for today, write the starting paragraph. The future is unpredictable and will never come; it is only in the present that you have the power to change anything. So do something now without worrying about whether you can do it tomorrow. An example that springs to mind is the 30 Day Cold Shower Challenge that I began. I went to training one night, heard about it from Rob (who reminded me of Kancho’s opinion that people have it too easy nowadays and that we don’t have to struggle for anything) and went home to a cold shower that very night. It involved flinching and shivering, despite my practice and techniques to bear it, and I climbed out miserable but determined. The next day was easier, though not pleasant on a winter’s eve. Day by day it got easier and easier until, two weeks into the challenge, it’s no longer a bother for me. I think that first one was so hard because I knew what to expect, and I spent much of that shower going “Why am I doing this? Why don’t I turn on the hot water?” The next time it was easier because I didn’t let myself question my choices or contemplate an alternative, I just did it. And so, one day at a time, it became pleasurable without my realising it. Who knows what the future brings if you just focus on the step you’re taking right now?