Return to the Tao – Verse 16: Returning

I’ve recently returned to reading the Tao Te Ching. There truly are few works as simple and profound as this terse yet tremendous tome. I thought the best way to write about it again would be to return to the section I wrote about first last time.

The translation I used last time, Jonathan Star’s, felt almost like a Mahayana Buddhist’s presentation of emptiness and meditation. I found it surprising and compelling. Let’s see how it comes across with some other translations.

Keeping emptiness as their limit
and stillness as their center
ten thousand things rise
we watch them return
creatures without number
return to their roots
returning to their roots they are still
being still they revive
reviving they endure
knowing how to endure is wisdom
not knowing is to suffer in vain
knowing how to endure is to yield
to yield is to be impartial
to be impartial is to be the ruler
the ruler is Heaven
Heaven is the Way
and the Way is long life
a life without trouble
– Trans. Red Pine

Red Pine’s version of this passage feels much closer to what you’d expect of Taoist meditation — cultivating stillness. The stillness itself is what causes the energy and vitality of Heaven to stir (let the seeming contradiction of that hit you – stillness is the cause of great motion). It’s “turning the light around” as put in The Secret of the Golden Flower. This gives an example of a cosmology in action. Returning to Tao is returning to the creator of all. We might question the interpretation of “long life” as the immortal alchemy of the later Celestial Masters because it seems like this could have a much simpler spiritual significance — this approach to life in accordance with the Way may simply be fuller: more at ease and healthy. This is not necessarily due to some esoteric magic but could be seen as being from living in resonance with the Way of existence. The distinction is subtle, I admit, but the point is that we don’t need elaborate systems with hierarchies and three-part progressions of essences (which is where internal alchemy takes the ideas of passages like this), rather a simple return to stillness and emptiness. This is an elegant philosophical expression of our place in the universe – it needs no further esotericism.


Let’s compare this with the translation of Addiss and Lombardo:

Attain complete emptiness,
Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.

Things grow and grow,
But each goes back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
This means returning to what is.
Returning to what is
Means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:

Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to Tao.

Tao endures
Your body dies.

There is no danger.
-Trans. Adidas & Lombardo

This translation feels both less cryptic and somehow less deep. In reading it, I feel like some aspect of Lao Tzu’s thought is a bit farther away, although the whole is more beautifully expressed. At the same time, I find the progression at the end to be more compelling. With Red Pine’s translation, I feel that the bigger picture of cosmology/relationship to Tao is clearer. The nuances of returning to the roots are better expressed there without the vagueness of “going back to the ordinary,” but the Te of what this relationship means for the practitioner is clearer here. A proper relationship with Tao – living in accordance with the Way – is enlightenment. Living otherwise is a blindness that creates evil. If we compare this idea of “evil” with Buddhism, we could say that insight into the Truth of things – Dharma – allows us to live properly and no longer create our own suffering. I find these two surprisingly close. Keep this in mind as we go further.

This proper relationship with Tao opens the mind (the wisdom of seeing as things are – we may take this mind opening as a receptivity to continue the path of enlightenment, to uphold wisdom, focusing on a priming of the ongoing process). The open mind leads to compassion – a heartfelt action of support for others. That leads to nobility – the elegant stature of the ruler (as is made clear in comparison with Red Pine’s translation). This is a greater way of being a human being: a virtuous (Te) being. That leads to transcending the human as heavenliness, and that leads to Tao. Thus, stillness and emptiness begin a transformation that flows from wisdom to loving action to transcendence to the Source.

Notice again that the closing lines haunt us with one last beautiful statement. The transcendence hinted at here in the progression and in the final lines about death is not necessarily a transcendence of the eternal life of the soul (i.e. something more in line with Internal Alchemy’s aims). It could rather be (and I feel more compellingly so) read as the recognition that the Tao is the ten thousand things. With Red Pine’s translation – the ten thousand things come out of stillness and then return to it: they are born and then they die. However, this hints at the conclusion: they were never actually separate from it at any point. Cultivating stillness allows us the wisdom to see that our body is Tao and is not Tao (in the sense that our death is not the death of the whole); not only does it allow us to see it – it allows us to sense it, to live it. The death of the body is the death of the body, but it is not the death of Tao. Tao lives through the body as one of the ten thousand things and then returns to Tao to become something else. Great life cultivates the energy of Tao in life; death is merely the Tao taking a form back into its roots — a form that it was all along. There is no danger – no you to die at all in a much greater sense; rather, the Tao that you are part of continues to go on and “you” shall return to its roots.

May this bring greater depth of meaning to this passage for you. May it help you find your own stillness and emptiness so that you may return to the roots of Tao.


Mindfulness: The Great Challenge

Mindfulness doesn’t live and die on the cushion.
It’s a journey, an opportunity,
In every moment.
I can be here, present:
Composed and compassionate
Serene and serendipitous
Open and observant
Or I can be lost, confused:
Reactive and restricted
Selfish and selective
Dormant and dogmatic.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching §64, Trans. Jonathan Star

The Sage worries not about the journeys or tales of yesterday. Nor does he lose sight of the beginning step while looking at the future destination beyond the horizon. Knowing both, he steps forward, feeling every inch of ground in this step–right here, right now. The Sage’s secret wisdom?–This step is the only step. Each step is the beginning step. Each step is the whole journey. The only step to take is the one underfoot right now. The only journey is the current movement of the leg and foot, and there is no greater miracle than this. The Sage takes this step with awareness and gratitude–not lost, elsewhere, and not attached to any outcome.


The present is direct and straightforward. Your experience of it is heightened through mindfulness. When you are mindful of your breath in meditation, when you mindful of your thoughts, or when you are mindful of going from the practice of meditation to dealing with the kitchen sink, all those situations are in the present. You don’t borrow ideas from the past, and you don’t try to fundraise from the future. You just stay on the spot, now.

That may be easy to say, but it’s not so easy to do. We often find it satisfying to have a reference point to what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past. We feel more relaxed when we can refer to past experiences to inform what is happening now. We borrow from the past and anticipate the future, and that makes us feel secure and cozy. We may think we are living in the present, but when we are preoccupied with the past and future, we are blind to the current situation.

Living in the present may seem like quite a foreign idea. What does that even mean? If you have a regular schedule, a nine-to-five job, you cycle through your weekly activities from Monday to Friday, doing what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. If something out of the ordinary occurs, something that is completely outside of the routine of your Monday-to-Friday world, it can be quite disconcerting.

We are bewildered when something unexpected pops up. A flea jumps on your nose. What should you do? You swat at it or you ignore it if you can. If that doesn’t work, then you search for a memory from the past to help you cope. You try to remember how you dealt with the last flea that landed on you. Or you may try to strategize how you’ll prevent insects from bothering you in the future. None of that helps much. We can be much more present if we don’t pay so much attention to the past or expectations of the future. Then, we might discover that we can enjoy the present moment, which is always new and fresh. We might make friends with our fleas.
-Chögyam Trungpa, Mindfulness in Action, pp. 46-47.

May this inspire you to mindful presence in this moment.




A Musing on “Wu Wei”

Here’s another trip through the musings of Morning Pages. Enjoy!

Anyway, there is a lot to be thankful for in this moment. I’m in a gorgeous part of the world. I have great coffee at hand as well as delicious Greek yogurt. I’m young. I’m smart, and I have the good fortune of being able to learn of the Dharma. There is no time to waste getting caught up in hormonal chaos. I could die at any moment. Practice is paramount.

That makes me think about wu wei. Most think of this as inaction or a bit more subtly, “doing without doing”. The thing is, it doesn’t mean “doing nothing”. It’s more like a rethinking of proper action. For the most part, we think of ourselves as Masters of the Universe, and by the power of Greyskull, anything that opposes our sense of the way things should be must be smote through “MY” action as agent who shapes the universe to “MY” will. The Tao Te Ching says multiple times that those things built by force and will come to an early end. They come to be from delusional thought–a cosmological navel gazing that puts undue importance on my place in the universe and overlooks how I am a part of it all–it’s a view that aspires for permanence, security and grandness. “I”, in truth, am just a momentary coming together of stardust, dancing and shining on this small orb in a backwater solar system. “My existence” lasts for what would be less than a heartbeat from the universe’s perspective.

Unlike this agent-centered push to dominate nature, wu wei is action that flows along with the universe’s unfolding. It is action, but action that correctly sees “my” place in the universe and acts along with the universe, rather than against it.


May this help you see how to act in accordance with the Truth of the universe–wu wei.


Waking Up Now, Not Waiting for “It” to Be All Over

The following set of morning pages were written about hearing Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”. I’m taking out some of the more personal rigamarole to get straight to the point.

It was spun crap about living in the moment. How is that position always turned into a justification for hedonism? Compile a set of moments that you want. Continue to do so. That’s the path to happiness. Such is the implied conclusion of that point of view. In comparison, I’m drawn to a Taoist-Buddhist-Stoic idea of happiness. It’s easy to show up to the moments you like, but if that’s the case, happiness is and always will be externally dependent.

The Sage, the Buddha, the Wise: these individuals don’t require conditions to be just right to be happy. They have cultivated an internal wealth that is not dependent on the schemes of the ego to get everything just right. Rather, they realize, as Lao Tzu tells us in the Tao Te Ching that everything changes, so controlling conditions through force cannot last.

So “waiting to be woken up when it’s all over” is always going to be lost (during and after) and never will realize it. It’s lost in the ego’s search for deliverance–a way out. The “all over” is the escape of better, wanted conditions. The Sage smiles upon such inherent delusion. S/he just lives with joy, no matter what comes–a blooming lotus in the muddy waters.

water lily

For comparison, read my posts on similar points including: Tao a Day: Verse 26 – Inner Virtues, Path of the Dharma: The Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”, and Nothing to Do.

May this bring you the resolve to cultivate your own inner strength, your own wakefulness, and your own pure heart without relying on the world to give you the never existent stability of “just right”.


Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”

This opening chapter shows the way by pointing out the enlightened path and comparing it to the deluded path. The amazing thing about this opening passage is its balance between solid ethical philosophy/cognitive-behavioral psychology and more austerely poetic spiritual maxims. It’s pretty long, so I’ll only cover part of it, and I’ll go through that part in pieces.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran

This initial chapter is called “Twin Verses”, and the reason is clear here. We have the deluded and enlightened paths–samsara and nirvana–side by side, twinned in the same structure and style of explication.


The first sentence is the same in both, and it reveals the importance of karma in a way that resonates with Western philosophy and cognitive psychology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics couches virtuous (that is excellent) action in an ongoing awareness of oneself within a social landscape. This requires an ongoing examination of how I have been molded by my background–upbringing and origin–and how I am molding myself further with each thought and action. Another familiar parallel is cognitive-behavioral psychology, which is more or less the successor of a Stoic understanding of the mind. Our thoughts mold our perception of ourselves and the world. In that sense, all that we are and all that the world is are the thoughts that mold us/it. Therapy, then, becomes an engagement to change the thoughts that harm us and the related behaviors to those thoughts. With these comparisons, the relevance of the Buddha’s position for us from the West is made clear.

Our two paths are displayed before us, and this is where the Buddha goes dramatically beyond these familiar points of comparison. The deluded path of ongoing suffering is the path of selfish thoughts. This includes all the plans oriented on my own aggrandizement. Out of the just listed Western parallels, the Stoics would be the only ones to make this dramatic leap (I’m reminded here of Marcus Aurelius speaking of being a citizen of the Universe). Selfish thoughts, even those oriented toward my success, my story, and my truth, even when they don’t harm others, will lead ultimately to dukkha, i.e. suffering, discontent, and continual yearning.

Why? This is a path that continually tries to get beyond the inevitability of impermanence. It’s an ongoing attempt to rig the game just right to get me that happiness of success that will never dissipate, never change, never fade. If I try hard enough… If I plan thoroughly enough… If I get the conditions just right…

Notice how all these thoughts are turned inward. If the world gives to me just right, I will be happy. That is the crux: external conditions have to be right, whether following the path of avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. The energy of this system goes from outside to inside, from the world to me, thus the inward nature of these thoughts. “I” become the focus and goal of thoughts set up toward making my life just perfect. Even if that perfection includes others, it’s still about my perfect life.

In comparison, the enlightened path is one of selfless thought (and action). Such people (at least attempt to) give joy to all in all their speech and action (that which follows from thought), and hence, they are regularly cultivating joy in situations. It follows them everywhere. This invites a larger discussion of Buddhist psychology and karma, but let’s put this simply: the first path keeps the selfish person in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. His or her actions bring consequences that maintain an enduring cycle of felt dissatisfaction and of fighting to be free of this dissatisfaction with subsequent action … which is ultimately not fully satisfying. Selfish thought leads to selfish action which leads to the karmic consequence of this never-ending cycle: samsara. The other path invites us to at least see the difference. Then, perhaps, we have a gap after selfish thoughts arise–before we speak or act on them. Realizing that they lead only to sorrow, we instead change our thoughts, speech, and actions to more selfless ones. With time, this practiced self-reflection becomes a new mold for our thoughts, and selfless thoughts come on their own. With such a shift, we attempt to give joy to all, attempting to help them find peace, happiness, and health (by inspiring them to step beyond sorrow-laden paths as well). With this, we first begin cultivating more positive chains of consequences (as if that’s a necessary motivation), and ultimately, we step beyond the cycle of ongoing dukkha–that karmic chain is broken.

Notice that this second passage focuses on the selfless person giving joy, not getting it. Here, we have the contrast that this path is not inward-oriented like the first, in the sense of seeing the world’s purpose as to give to me or for me to take from it. Instead, this is outward-oriented. My thoughts are aimed out from myself toward the joy of all. The energy of this system now moves from me outward, rather than the inward grasp of appropriation for self. Through such a step beyond concern about my own joy, beyond “I”, me, and mine, I paradoxically realize that very joy in myself.

Let these discussions open one other passage for consideration:

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law. — Trans. Easwaran

Again, I’m reminded of Western philosophy in that one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns is man’s propensity for “ressentiment”–more or less, resentment. The problem is precisely how inwardly driven this is–it’s literally a feeling again and again, a “re-sentir” (to feel again). This keeps us trapped and tortured, perpetually reactive, rather than vibrant, active, and creative. We get again and again, but we only get the pain of a stung mind, an envenomed heart. As in the passage of Thus Spake Zarathustra (II, 29–The Tarantulas), we feel the toxic bite of the tarantula, again and again, stagnant and rotting with emotional poison, and with Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, the problem is that this reactivity, this “feeling again”, lies throughout our entire human psychology. So the question becomes how do we step beyond this into that active state, rather than feeling reactivity everywhere?

To exemplify this problem, we can take another verse from chapter 18 of the Dhammapada:

There is no fire like lust, no jailer like hate, no snare like infatuation, no torrent like greed.

Notice that all of these are reactive evaluations–wanting to have what one does not have or jealousy of what someone else has (which is really another version of the same). In each, we become trapped in or tortured by reactivity. Hate, the jailer, is an instance of not wanting, and as such, it is wanting. It is not wanting a situation or person to be as he/she/it is, so it is wanting to have the world be completely different for me. (See my comments on love and hate in Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics and also my comments on hope and fear in Reiki-The Five Precepts: 2nd Precept-Faith)

In comparison, the Buddha offers the selfless, enlightened path, one that is not stung by holding on to the continual, reactive poison of internalized wrong done to self:

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

To let go of the resentful thoughts, the bars of the prison of hate, we cannot negate that person or thing out there which has wronged me. This is the most basic impulse in us, but as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Selfish action to escape pain, begets another and another, and moreover, it begets this same resentful and retaliatory (as with hatred) reactivity in others. The only way to get beyond this is to selflessly give–to love–rather than to selfishly take–to hate (remember that hate wants the world to be utterly different in a way more suitable to me; it is a wanting, and it can lead to the subsequent action of taking, through negation). This means even giving up the self-righteous thoughts of being wronged. You instead give yourself to the world, finding connection with it, finding the suffering in those who have “wronged” us, finding the compassion of an awakened heart.


In conclusion, let’s offer this passage of Red Pine’s translation of Verse 63 of the Tao Te Ching which I discussed in a recent post. These guiding words for the Sage go hand in hand with the Buddha’s words for the arhat who walks the selfless path of love, peace, and joy:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

May this inspire you to read the rest of this beautiful chapter and the whole book. May it show you the first steps on the selfless path, and may you begin to walk it towards joy, peace, and love.


Tao a Day — Verse 63: Doing without Doing

Let’s approach this verse in two pieces. We’ll compare the Red Pine and Jonathan Star translations for each piece in that order:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

Act without acting
Give without giving
Taste without tasting

Tao alone becomes all things great and all things small
It is the One in many
It is the many in One

Let Tao become all your actions
then your wants will become your treasure
your injury will become your blessing.
– Trans. Jonathan Star

It’s always interesting to see how different translations of this classic have been approached, and the power of Red Pine’s translation is to get it down to one without artistic interpretation: a simple, bare-bones, as close to the original as possible translation without embellishment. The quote from his translation here boils this down; act without acting in all instances and with everyone, no matter how they treat you. Do this by repaying wrong with virtue. However, what are we to make of the very enigmatic opening lines? Luckily, his book also has chosen commentary from Chinese masters throughout the ages. I found these two bits of commentary quite helpful. Ho-Shang Kung, a Taoist master from around 100 B.C., says: “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.” Sung Ch’ang-Hsing, a seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate and Taoist master from the 1700s, says: “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”  These two pieces of commentary make this short section shine. It fits well with my previous discussion of Verse 8 (What I called: “In Accordance with Nature”), and it also fits with a previous post (in terms of doing what is natural and not imposing oneself on others and the world): Control and Letting Go. The doing without doing, wu wei, is acting in appropriate resonance with the nature of things–situations as they present themselves. It is not about imposing your own will on the world and making it conform to you. The Sage does not see such a separation, and the Tao Te Ching speaks in passage after passage about how that which is gained by force does not last very long: it comes to an early death. Hence, the way to live forever (or live longer and at peace) is to develop the virtue, Te, which goes along with the emanations of the 10,000 things (one aspect of Tao). Acting through force and reactive vengeance is not only ego-centered, it does not embrace Tao. It embraces “me”. That’s all. Acting in that very standard sense of pursuing your own motivations to make the world the way you want it to be, to form it in your own image as some creator-God-wannabe, is not virtuous, not wise, and not seeing the universe and its mysterious origins for what they are. We could look to the comments on Verse 26. Jonathan Star’s translation says pretty much the same thing as everything I just explicated but in a more succinct and poetic manner. As he closes, letting Tao become all of your actions is to act without the intention of promoting yourself. Instead, it is to act in accordance with Tao, the ever unfolding beauty of All, and by so doing, you act without acting. It’s not about complete inaction. It’s about acting through Tao rather than through your “self”.

Here is the second passage from the verse:

Plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard
– Trans. Red Pine

Take on difficulties while they are still easy
Do great things while they are still small
Step by step the world’s burden is lifted
Piece by piece the world’s treasure is amassed

So the Sage stays with his daily task
and accomplishes the greatest thing
Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way
for much ease brings many difficulties

Follow your path to the end
Accept difficulty as an opportunity
This is the sure way to end up
with no difficulties at all.
-Trans. Jonathan Star

Let’s take one more piece of commentary to handle these lines. Te-Ch’ing says (again from Red Pine’s book): “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.” Controlling the mind in Buddhism is mindfulness. This is showing up to each moment just as it is without concept. Taoism’s stories of insight are meant to produce the same result: non-conceptual understanding. We might understand the Sage here as the mindful one of Tao’s unfolding with each moment. A task, no matter how large, is always right now. For instance, the next verse is the one with the famous line “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The thing is: it begins with a single step, it continues with a single step, and it ends with a single step. The task is always the small, easy task of just one step. The Sage approaches doing by not looking at the goal which sees the task in its entirety: huge, hard, insurmountable. Rather, he sees it as this small, single step in this moment. Each moment of doing is a step. Again and again. Yet, the Sage sees it just as the step of this moment, not all the steps that lie ahead. The Sage recognizes the greatness of the task, but he is not daunted, as he approaches it in accordance with the task and with flexibility in each and every step, moment by moment: just this. Through such a mindful engagement with the present action that is in accordance with nature, the Sage will surely accomplish the greatest of things.

May this help you achieve the greatest things without acting.


Suffering & Sweetness

Full of suffering:
A lingering dissatisfaction
And an ongoing attempt
To stack the cards,
To win the game,
To get “my way
You’ll never get it.
The last perfect scoop of sand
–A beautiful sandcastle
My perfect creation!!!
10 seconds later
The wave washes it away
–A heap of sand

The Buddha taught for over 4 decades. He traveled all around India, spreading the Dharma. He went on foot, had few possessions, and was homeless. Despite years of teaching, traveling, poverty, and old age, he said late in his life that there was great sweetness in the world and he could understand wanting to live for another century. Where do you find such sweetness and warm affirmation? In your things? In your perfectly collected set of entertainment and schemed circumstances–the perfect friends, job, life??? Is it external? Do you have it at all?

One who knows others is intelligent
One who knows himself is enlightened

One who conquers others is strong
One who conquers himself is all-powerful

One who approaches life with force
     surely gets something
One who remains content where he is
     surely gets everything

One who gives himself to his position
     surely lives long
One who gives himself to Tao
     surely lives forever
— Tao Te Ching verse 33, trans. Jonathan Star

Previous Older Entries