The Theosophy of the Tao Te Ching, Part Two

Part 2
Richard W. Brooks

Lao Tzu uses a number of interesting metaphors to describe Tao--interesting because they are not what one would expect in a very male-dominated, material-valuing society like that of ancient China: the female, an infant, water, a valley, a bellows, an uncarved block, and raw (that is to say, unpainted) silk. But those metaphors aptly convey the idea that Nature is without show, ego, and preconceptions. Rather it works best when it draws theleast attention to itself, when it nurtures without expecting accolades, isempty, is simple, is humble. It follows, then, that to be most effective ininterpersonal relations--or what we might even call personal spirituality--wemust imitate Nature:

A man with highest virtue (te) is not virtue-conscious;
That is why he has virtue.
A man with lowest virtue never loses sight of his virtue:
That is why he has no virtue. [ch. 38]

Nothing under Heaven is softer or more yielding than water,
Yet for attacking the hard and strong there is nothing better, it has no equal.
That the weak (or yielding) overcomes the strong 
And that the soft (or submissive) overcomes the hard
Everyone under Heaven knows,
Yet none are able to practice it.
Therefore, the Sage says:
He who suffers humiliation for the state
Can be called a ruler worthy to offer sacrifices to the gods of earth and millet.
He who takes upon himself the misfortunes of the state
Can be called a king worthy of ruling the empire.
Straightforward words can seem paradoxical! [ch. 78]

 But we cannot practice humility--for that would make it self-conscious and unnatural. To attain this state of humility or lack of egocentricity naturally we must empty ourselves of our preconceptions and conceits, we must become like a valley or a bellows--we must practice what Lao Tzu calls “emptiness”:

Empty yourself of everything;
Hold firmly to tranquility. [ch. 6]

Again, we must do this because that is the way Nature works to accomplish its creative purposes:

Tao is empty, yet use will not exhaust it.
Like an abyss! Like the ancestor of the ten thousand things! [ch. 4]

Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?
While empty, it is never exhausted;
The more it works, the more it yields.
Much talk inevitably leads to exhaustion;
Better keep to the center. [ch. 5]

Here, again, Lao Tzu requires us to look at things in a new way. We usuallyfocus our attention on the substance of things, matter or “being.” Butemptiness, space, or “nonbeing” is just as important, as he points out:

Thirty spokes unite in a wheel’s hub;
It is upon nonbeing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
Clay is shaped into a vessel;
It is upon nonbeing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
Doors and windows are cut to make a room;
It is upon nonbeing that the usefulness of the room depends.
Therefore, advantage [or value] comes from Being,
But usefulness comes from Nonbeing. [ch. 11]

This leads us to perhaps the most puzzling term in the Tao Te Ching, in Chinesewu wei. The word wu is a negation, “not” or “without”; the wordwei as a verb means “act” or “do,” but it could also be a noun meaning“action.” In fact, wu wei is often translated “nonaction” or “inaction,” butthat gives a very misleading impression of its meaning. The term wei has theimplication of “purposive, self-conscious, or preplanned action”; its opposite,therefore, is not lack of action, but “spontaneous, creative, or unselfconsciousaction.” When Lao Tzu is read with this in mind, his recommendation forinterpersonal relations becomes quite intelligible--and reminds one very much ofJ. Krishnamurti:

The Way (tao) is constant in inaction (wu wei),
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and nobles were able to maintain it,
The ten thousand things would transform of themselves.
If, after transformation, they desired to act,
I would restrain them with Nameless Simplicity.
Nameless Simplicity is free of desires;
Without desires they would be tranquil;
And the empire would be at peace of its ownaccord (or would correct itself). [ch. 37]

The phrasetranslated ‘Nameless Simplicity’ above is literally “without name uncarvedblock.” As noted above, the uncarved block (p’u) is one of Lao Tzu’s severalmetaphors for the tao. Another passage further develops the same idea:

In the pursuit of learning, everyday something is acquired;
In the pursuit of the Way (tao), everyday something is dropped.
Less and less is done until nonaction (wu wei) is achieved.
When one achieves nonaction, nothing is left undone.
The empire is ruled by not interfering (or meddling).
If one interferes (or meddles), one
is not worthy of ruling the empire. [ch. 48]

Here the notion of “nonaction” is applied to“learning,” which in Chinese implies (especially for Confucius) the study ofancient (largely mythological) history to extract moral lessons from it and thestudy of the rituals of proper social behavior so as to become self-consciouslyrefined. Obviously, such a “learned” approach would make one a carefully plannedindividual, rather than a natural, creative, unselfconscious person. Perhapssome people might feel that the majority of mankind need this as a step towardstrue spiritual development, but certainly spiritual teachers like Christ,Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, and Krishnamurti did not recommend it.

To develop this attitude of selfless, spontaneous“nonaction,” Lao Tzu recommends a technique that sounds very much like thewithdrawal of the senses from sense objects in the Bhagavad Gita (2.58) andPatanjali’s stilling of the activity of the mind in the Yoga Sutras (1.2):

Close the passages,
Shut the doors,
And to the end of your life your strength will notfail;
Open the passages,
Increase your doings,
And to the end of your life youwill be beyond help. [ch. 52]

Block the passages,
Shut the doors,
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knots,
Soften the glare,
Become one with the dustyworld;
This is called Profound (hsüan) Union. [ch. 56]

Commentators generally acknowledge that the “passages” and “doors” mentionedin these two quotations are, as D. C. Lau (77) puts it, “the apertures throughwhich the senses acquire knowledge.”

Lao Tzu further recommends that we do awaywith all distinctions or value judgments. He reasons that, since our concept of“good” is always associated conceptually with “bad,” if we want to get rid ofthe “bad” in the world, we must eliminate the concepts of both “good” and “bad”simultaneously, relying on our inner nature to make us naturally,unselfconsciously good. This is best illustrated in a passage that at firstreading seems very paradoxical:

When all under Heaven know beautiful as beautiful,
There arises the recognition of ugliness;
When all under Heaven know good as good,
There arises the recognition of not-good:
Thus, Being and Nonbeing produce each other;
Difficult and easy complete (or complement) each other;
Long and short contrast each other,
High and low support each other,
Sound and voice harmonize each other,
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore, the Sage handles affairs by nonaction (wu wei)
And spreads teachings without words.
The ten thousand things arise and he doesn’t turn away from them;
He nurtures them, but doesn’t possess them;
He benefits them, but doesn’t expect gratitude;
He accomplishes his task, but doesn’t claim credit.
It is because he doesn’t claim credit that it lasts forever. [ch. 2]

One can understand Lao Tzu’s point better by realizing thatone cannot have a world in which everything is long or high. That makes nosense. Long only exists in contrast with short, high with low. By making valuejudgments like “you’re good,” we keep conceptually alive the contrastingjudgment “you’re not good”--the very thing we are trying to eliminate! So thetruly enlightened person must teach by example, staying always in thebackground, refusing to accept reward (or punishment).

That leads to another important recommendation: that we come to interpersonalsituations with an open mind, that we listen to what others are saying insteadof trying to bully our way through such situations by imposing our preconceivedopinions on others:

The Sage has no fixed mind (hsin, literally "heart", the seat of judging things);
He regards the people’s mind as his own.
Those who are good, I treat with goodness (or regard as good);
Those who are not good, I also treat with goodness (or regard as good).
Thus goodness is attained.
Those who are sincere (or honest), I treat with sincerity (or regard as honest);
Those who are insincere (or dishonest), I also treat with sincerity (or regard as honest);
Thus sincerity (or honesty) is attained.
The Sage, when dealing with the world, is one with it;
His mind harmonizes with that of the people.
The people turn their eyes and ears to him.
And he treats them as his grandchildren. [ch. 49]

Lao Tzu’srecommendation here seems to be like that depicted in the episode of “TheBishop’s Candlesticks” in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables in which policeapprehend Jean Valjean with silver candlesticks he had stolen from a bishop whobefriended him; when the police bring Valjean back to the bishop’s manse, thebishop tells the police that they were a present, whereupon Valjean is so struckwith remorse that he completely changes his way of life. In any event, it isclear that like Nature, which doesn’t boast of its magnificent creations, theSage stays so much in the background that the people are unaware of his (or her)contribution:

[The best ruler] completes his tasks, finishes his affairs,
Yet the people say, “We did it ourselves” (or “It just happened”)
(tzu jan, literally “self-so”). [ch. 17]

All of that is what might be termed the negative sideof the Sage’s interpersonal behavior. Lao Tzu identifies a positive side as wellin what he calls his “three treasures (or jewels)”:

I have three treasures that I hold and cherish:
The first is compassion (or deep love) (tz’u),
The second is frugality,
The third is not presuming to be first in the world.
Being compassionate, one can be courageous;
Being frugal, one can be generous;
Not presuming to be first in the world, one can become a leader (orminister).
Now, trying to be courageous without compassion,
Trying to be generous without frugality,
And trying to be a leader without humility
Is sure to end in death.
For compassion brings triumph in attack and strength indefence.
What Heaven wishes to preserve it surrounds with compassion. [ch. 67]

It is obvious,then, that there is much of interest in this little book, the Tao Te Ching, muchof which is of immediate relevance to our own dealings with other people.Certainly a compassionate, humble, nonjudgmental, open-minded attitude isimportant for anyone to adopt towards others. Certainly, attempting to still themind with daily meditation is highly desirable. And we could all benefit frompracticing “yielding” when in a confrontational, hostile situation since meetinghostility with hostility accomplishes very little, if indeed anything worthwhileat all. It certainly does not resolve a tense situation. And even if we prevail,the person we prevail over is surely left with resentment, as the Tao Te Chingpoints out:

When great enemies make peace,
Some hostility is bound to remain.[79]

But that is not to say that we will agree with everything in thislittle classic. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Way it recommends isin its concept of the ideal State or form of government. The latter has alreadybeen hinted at in the quotations from chapters 37 and 48 above on the concept ofwu wei. It is a policy of laissez faire, in which there is little or nogovernment interference in the lives of citizens. Perhaps the most quaintexpression of this idea is in the first line of chapter 60: “Ruling a largestate is like cooking a small fish.” That is, as commentators explain, too muchhandling will spoil it! Or as the following lines put it:

The more prohibitions a state has,
The poorer the people will be. . . .
The more laws and edicts there are,
The more theft and fraud there will be. [ch. 57]

Certainly, as the Mahatmas point out in their letters to A. P. Sinnett, humanfree will is inviolable, and must not be subjected to the will of another. Butthe Tao Te Ching seems to imply that people only steal and defraud when they areaware of laws against such things--that, otherwise, they would be naturally freeof such self-centered, acquisitive impulses. That seems to border on the naive.It also fails to take into account that, as Theosophy teaches, humans presentlyare at very different stages of evolution as far as intelligence and moralityare concerned; what greatly troubles one person’s conscience does not botheranother’s at all. Furthermore, the above passage fails to distinguish betweencriminal law and civil law. Surely, one would want some sort of general rulesabout which side of the road to drive on (whether in an oxcart or anautomobile), which days are workdays and which holidays, how streets are to belaid out and cared for, and so on. An orderly society needs such generalorganizing rules just as much as it needs prohibitions against murder andtheft.

But that’s not all. The Tao Te Ching also envisions a society in whichpeople lead extremely simple, very static lives--a peasant society in whichpeople never leave their villages, abandon writing, and even refuse to employlabor-saving machinery:

Let the state be small.
Even if there are weapons enough for an army, the people will not use them.
They will not want to travel to distant lands.
They will look upon death as a momentous thing.
Even though they have boats and carts, they won’t use them.
Even though there are armour and weapons, they won’t make a display of them.
They will return to the use of knotted ropes [in place of writing].
They will take pleasure in their food,
Delight in their clothing,
Be happy with their homes,
And be content with their livelihood.
Though they can see the neighboring states
And hear the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks.
Yet they will grow oldand die without visiting one another. [ch. 80]

This sounds very much like a society in which people are happybecause they are kept fat and dumb! Surely, one cannot realize the inherentbrotherhood of humanity if one has no contact with the rest of humanity. Onecannot even meaningfully form a “nucleus of the brotherhood of humanity” if oneis unaware of people who are different from oneself--racially, religiously, andculturally.

Nevertheless, the foregoing is a relatively minor part of thisbook. Ideas compatible with Theosophy outnumber those at variance with it. And,of course, there is much more that has not been discussed at all. Perhaps theforegoing will serve to whet the appetites of those unfamiliar with the Tao TeChing to find several translations, such as those in the reference list below,and begin their own meditative study of it. 



Chan, Wing-tsit, trans.The Way of Lao Tzu. Indianapolis, IN:Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

Feng, Gia-fu, and Jane English, trans. Tao Te Ching: A NewTranslation. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Henricks, Robert G., trans. Te-Tao Ching.New York: Ballantine, 1989.

Lau, Dim Cheuk, trans. Tao Te Ching. Hong Kong:Chinese University Press, 1989.

Wei, Henry, trans. The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu. Wheaton, IL:Theosophical Publishing House, 1982.

Richard Brooks, PhD, taught philosophy and logic at Oakland University,Michigan, until his recent retirement. A member of the National Board ofDirectors of the Theosophical Society, he has recently taught a course onparapsychology for the Olcott Institute Elderhostel program. This article isadapted from the Theosophist, December 1998.

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