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.

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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.

You Are Not Your Body

Another blog post I wrote for the youth organisation Tune In Not Out.

***

What’s more important: who you are, or the way people see you? What do you value more: a healthy body that doesn’t look particularly “attractive”, or an “attractive” body that’s quite unhealthy? Although the answers these questions might seem obvious in isolation (generally speaking you’d want to pick the healthy body, right?), in this complex society we live in, they are not always easy to answer. We live in a world where we are pressured to maintain appearances, sometimes at the cost of our health. We might see this manifesting in choosing to wear a short dress on a freezing night, depriving ourselves of food in order to avoid putting on weight, choosing shoes that kill our feet but look fantastic, and other such markers of appearance before practicality. But when we struggle to lose weight or gain muscle, to appear taller or look curvier, what are we really trying to achieve?

The world is in a constant state of composition and decomposition. Every moment of the day, some of the cells in your body are dying, and new cells are being created to replace them. Almost every part of your body is literally being replaced every couple of months. And unfortunately, your body is going to break down and stop working one day: it’s part of the package deal of life. Why then do we cling so desperately to the image of something that is constantly changing? When you look at it like that, being attached to your body seems to go against the nature of life itself!

There is more to you than the body you’re inhabiting. Quick exercise: point to your consciousness/soul/identity. You can’t, right? Who you are, your sense of “self” does not exist inside the brain, or the heart, or anywhere in the body. The brain might be a tremendously complex information processor, but there are many schools of thought (including the neurosciences) that believe that the “mind” (consciousness/soul/identity etc.) exists separate from the brain. Buddhists believe in reincarnation- that your body is like a car. You own it for a number of years, taking good care of it so that it will last a long time, but you can get into accidents or it can break down with age. It’s nothing to worry about: the driver can get out of the car and buy a new car when the old one stops working.

Taoists believe that behind the material world there is an immaterial world that cannot be seen, touched or sensed physically. Because the material world is in a constant state of destruction and renewal, life and death, yin and yang, only a fool would cling to it. The wise person instead realises that nothing that matters can ever be destroyed, and therefore lets go of his or her attachment to the material world. Personally, I believe that all life is fuelled by energy and that when we die the energy is transformed, not dissipated. Basically, I believe that who I am is not what I am, and that the who is infinitely more important than the what.

At its essence, the body is just a bag of flesh to help you move through the world! In Paul Jennings’ story “Clear as Mud”, the people of the world get infected by a strange disease that turns their skin transparent. Imagine that when you looked at your best friends and loved ones you could see their organs- it’s hard to look “attractive” when your bowels are showing! And that’s exactly what our bodies are: meatbags. But what wonderful meatbags they are! From my studies of human bio, I have been constantly amazed at the incredible complexity of an organism made of billions of unique cells, functioning in remarkable harmony. The closer I look at the human body, the more awed I become at its genius and miracle. But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s constantly changing, and that as we grow older it deteriorates. Rather than resisting this change and being obsessed with physical appearance, it’s so much healthier to focus on being a good person rather than a good looking person.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feel good about the way you look, or that you shouldn’t try to look attractive to other people. You’re on the earth, and you have a body, and you may as well enjoy it. Humans are social creatures and are drawn to connect with one another. But a friend of mine once said “Looks draw people in, but personality makes them stick around.” There’s more to you than just your appearance!

And besides, “attractiveness” is highly subjective, and there is no perfect model of a human being. TV, magazines, our friends, our societies, and the world in general might seem to promote a particular type of look or style, but in the end it’s all artifice. There’s no reason to take my word for it, but please trust me when I say that your idea of “attractive” is not universal. For every part of your body that you want to change, I guarantee that there is someone in the world who wants you to stay exactly as you are because they love you. And really, if someone is going to judge you for the way you look, they have such a shallow insight into what’s really important and they’re really not worth your time and company. If you’re lucky, you’ll have people in your life who see you exactly as you are, without veneer or facade, and who accept you unconditionally. If you don’t have any such people in your life, start looking, because it’s not worth lying to yourself and others in order to feel accepted.

So next time you get on your bathroom scales, or you suck in your stomach when you take your shirt off, or you pick clothes that show off a certain amount of skin, remember that what you are is not the same as who you are. There’s more to you than just your body, and once you accept that, how wonderful it becomes to be alive on the earth!

Stay healthy everyone- I hope you’re all around to enjoy life for many years to come.

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.