Chapter 53 – Some Dogs (and Sages) Appreciate Word-Play

 If I had any learning
Of a highway wide and fit,
Would I lose it at each turning?
Yet look at people spurning
Natural use of it!
See how fine the palaces
And see how poor the farms,
How bare the peasants’ granaries
While gentry wear embroideries
Hiding sharpened arms,
And the more they have the more they seize,
How can there be such men as these
Who never hunger, never thirst,
Yet eat and drink until they burst!
There are other brigands, but these are the worst
Of all the highway’s harms

 Translated by Witter Bynner (1944)


 Now as through this world I ramble
I see lots of funny men,
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

 Woody Guthrie, “Pretty Boy Floyd” (1939)


 A great thing about the Tao Te Ching is that although it was written 2500 years ago its insights remain valuable today.  In the commentary for Chapter 19, I mentioned the story of how Lao Tzu became disgusted with the corruption at the royal court so, the story goes, he left town on a water buffalo to follow the Way and commune with nature.  Apparently he remained disgusted as he wrote this chapter lamenting that rulers use their wealth and power to tax and coerce the common people – robbing from the poor and giving to the rich (themselves), as it were.

Darcy/Super Dog

Darcy/Super Dog

Even today, there are many people in many parts of the world who have the same view of governmental oppression.  In the United States, we are also becoming irate over the perceived greed of huge corporations and their executives.  Although Lao Tzu was writing about the abuses of rulers, the thoughts on inequality in this chapter are meaningful when considering the acts of the corporate elite.

This issue was recently given considerable news coverage in connection with the annual shareholders’ meeting of Chipolte Mexican Grill.  That company has two co-CEOs, and between them they were paid just under $50 million last year.  The fast casual restaurant chain has about 45,000 employees whose median salary is less than $9/hour – or about $18,000 per year.  If you do the math, you will see that each of the co-CEOs received as much income as 1,400 of their typical employees.

Let’s take a quick poll.  How many of you out in cyberspace believe that a corporate CEO provides as much value to a company as 1,400 of its employees out in the field doing the work to bring the company income? . . .  OK, I see one – no, two – hands.  It looks like a CEO has raised both hands for this vote.  No one else?

That is just about the result I expected.  At Chipolte’s shareholders’ meeting it wasn’t quite that lopsided.  Still, 77% of the shares were voted against the proposed executive compensation plan.  It was a non-binding vote, but I assume that the recent publicity is going to cause Chipolte to make a show of some type of compensation reform.

For the last few years of my career in the title business, I worked, through no fault of my own (which is a story for another time), for a Fortune 500 company that not only underwrites title insurance but also owns restaurant chains, an auto supply chain and other businesses.  I still work for the company part-time and I own some of its stock through an employee stock purchase plan.  A few days ago I received proxy material for the annual meeting which, among other things, asked me to vote to approve the new executive compensation plan.

Because of the publicity surrounding the Chipolte executive compensation, I did some research to find what our CEO is making.  I learned that it takes him three weeks to earn $1 million.  That is only about 60% of what the Chipolte guys were taking down, so I wondered how our CEO is able to live that hand-to-mouth existence.  Then I found an article from Forbes that pointed out that our company paid nearly half a million dollars in 2011 (the year before the article was written) for company executives to unwind at a guest ranch in Montana – a ranch that was owned by the CEO, personally.  The company spent another $55,000 at wineries, restaurants and a hotel owned by the CEO, personally.  That made me feel better.  That supplemental income was probably enough to keep him off Food Stamps for one more year.

I then voted against the compensation package.

I was planning to write more about societal inequalities*, but I got a bit carried away talking about CEOs; so I would like to change the subject and tell a story about my smart-aleck dog, Darcy.


 The other day Darcy and I were out walking.  She had gone down by the creek and I was standing up on the bank.  When I thought it was time to move on, I called, “Darcy, up here!”

She didn’t come up.  Rather, she looked at me and said (yes, she thinks she can talk), “Why?  Did you think I disappeared?”

I waited a few seconds, and then said again, “Come on!  Up here!”

“Whose peer,” she asked, “yours or mine?”

Now, when I think a dog doesn’t understand what I am trying to say, I often try communicating with repetition, so I said, “Let’s go!  Up here!  Up here!  Up here!”

She looked up and said, “We’re going to have a peer appear up there?  That sounds interesting.”  Then she bounded up the bank

When she didn’t see anyone else, she took it to mean that she has no peers.  Then she chased a squirrel.

That story is relevant to this chapter because . . .

According to, the Chinese word for “robber” is 強盜, and is pronounced “qiang-dao The Tao which is the subject of the Tao Te Ching is pronounced “dao.”

One of the premises of Lao Tzu’s teaching was that a ruler should, by his example, lead the people in the Way of the Tao.  So he was saying, “What the government is doing now is showing us the way of the qiang-dao, not of the dao.”

Thus, Lao Tzu was making his point by playing with words.  Darcy says she appreciates that in a sage – especially if he likes to chase squirrels.




* While there is too much greed in the world, there are refreshing exceptions.  At mass last week here in Arvada, a visiting priest told about a hospital run by the Church near his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo on a budget of $11,000 per month.  If an American hospital had to operate on that budget it could hire a part-time administrator or a part-time doctor, but certainly not both (and no other staff).  He told us that a $10 donation to that hospital could literally save a life.  I believed him, so I gave some money.


  1. An excellent commentary, Louis. I will take a word-play cue from Darcy and say yes, the highwayman’s way is not the High Way. Those who have chosen to stop and lurk in shadows and prey upon pilgrims on the path are indeed robbers of the Tao, they are qiang-dao, and their ways and means are not the Path.

    Money as energy is a good thing. It is not money that is the root of evil, it is the love of it. What is sad is that human beings, having generated with their innate nature such an extraordinary amount of energy, have been lured into thinking it is OK to allow that energy to be trapped in pockets where it serves a few and no longer circulates freely in the veins of the human economic continuum.

    It’s always about perspective. The perspective on money has become so skewed, so corrupted by the demands of ego, that even the pilgrim on the Path can be convinced that it is OK to allow the highwayman to inhabit their persona just a little bit, because that’s what everybody is doing, and if we didn’t do it we would have nothing.

    “If I have even just a little sense,
    I will walk on the main road and my only fear
    will be of straying from it.”
    (TTC Chapter 53, Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

    • First, I really should point out that Darcy is the nicest, sweetest dog you would ever want to know. She is 2-1/2 years old, which is sort of equivalent to a human teenager; so sometimes she gets a little bit silly. Sometimes I do, too.

      I did talk about money in discussing this chapter, though that was only an example of the problems that Lao Tzu and many others have observed over the centuries. The larger problem is that rulers and those with might have used their power to oppress the weak; the rich have used their money to oppress the poor; the developed countries have used their power to exploit the third world. It is very much an ego thing. A major reason some humans act like that is because they can.

      I don’t know a lot about Islam, but an example from the history of the Prophet Muhammad comes to mind. When Muhammad began his teaching in Mecca, he had only a few followers and little power. During that time he taught that all religions should be respected and emphasized how he was bringing a continuation and culmination of the traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Later, when he had moved to Medina, his message reached greater numbers of followers and his power increased substantially. With that power base he was able to spread a different message of destroying infidels. That is simplistic thinking on my part, in part because my knowledge of the subject is limited. It does illustrate a point, though.

      Another thing about the energy of money is that the exchange of that energy is a zero-sum game. For every person who gains money there is a concomitant loss somewhere. In many ways the energy of nature is not like that. In some ways it is zero-sum, but in other ways there can be an increase of energy for all involved in an interaction.

      Certainly you are correct that the love of money is the root of evil. Money, itself can be used for good or bad. I mean, I happen to like having a little money. Uh oh! I feel the roots starting now.

      Finally, I am reminded of a few lines from a couple of Leonard Cohen songs. In one, he says “the rich get rich and the poor stay poor/that’s how it goes, and everybody knows.”

      The other is this verse from “Tower of Song”:

      Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
      The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
      And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
      You see, you hear these funny voices
      In the Tower of Song

  2. I absolutely agree with you about the core of the problem being an ego thing. Money is a metaphor and much more when it comes to observing the power-dynamics of ego. It is a manifestation of energy which provides the observer with a vector pointing to its source. “Follow the money” is an axiom which inevitably will lead one back to the ego-sourcing of the age-old problems you mention.

    Even the Tao can be seen as a zero-sum game as far as the ego is concerned. We can accept that perspective, of course, but when we do we accept the definitions and limits imposed there and cut ourselves off from the larger view which beholds the circulation of energy in the Tao as an open, dynamic system, flowing freely.

    If energy can not be added or taken away but only transformed within creation, then it is the form it takes which applies here. And more to the point, the unnatural forms it is forced into by the ego. Ego would convince us that money represents the energy contained in a limited, closed system representing finite and limited resources; in other words, a reflection of the ego rooted in fear, which is intrinsic to its ongoing existence. If there’s not enough to go around, then we have to get ours no matter what the cost to others.

    Perhaps money represents a zero-sum game so far as the realm where ego prevails, but I would say that it has the potential to reflect the energy of the Tao as well, and does when ego is kept in check. It’s all up to the individual whether they choose to allow the energy of the Tao to flow freely through them, and to what degree of power they give to the ego which blocks that flow and claims it for itself as an exclusive possession rather than a constantly replenishing resource which in its natural state would flow freely through them.

    Money employed as a tool to build something would imply a much different consciousness present than money employed in such a manner that its effects were more similar to the effects of a weapon rather than a tool, and others were being hurt either by its incorrect application by the self-serving ego, or obstructed in its flow by the same mechanism.

    When I think along these lines I remember that selfishness is the root of all sins, the deadly ones, the ones of commission, the ones of omission. And ego, the root of selfishness and the amplifier of fear, is the Satan to which we are instructed to say, “Get thee behind me.” Money is too often embedded in consciousness with great attachments to fear. The Sage’s observation in Chapter 50 that only one in ten lives without fear is indeed generous considering how rare it is that humans do not have a fear relationship with money.

    • Money and power can certainly be used as tools as well as weapons. I think in this chapter Lao Tzu was saying that the rulers 25 centuries ago were using power in a way that he deemed inappropriate. The same kind of things still happen today.

      You also mentioned A Course in Miracles, which reminded me that I don’t know what anything is for. I don’t know what money is for, or power is for, or different energies are for. My experience has been that money is definitely finite. I have also seen it used both as a weapon and a tool. However, the Course also tells us that I don’t even know what money is. I don’t know what anything is.

      Finally, you have mentioned Satan. In some traditions – and I am thinking of some that study Kabbalah – the term “satan” is pronounced differently than we usually think it should be (something like “suh-tan”) and is the force or energy of confusion. Almost everyone’s relationship to money is a bit confused, so your comment is apt. I guess I don’t know what satan is for, either.

      I am playing with words again, and not doing it as cleverly as Darcy. Perhaps my problem is that I am judging here – saying that certain uses of money are good and others are bad. Lao Tzu, on the other hand, is not so much judging as pointing out uses of power that are not in accord with his concept of Tao. That is something different than judging, but the concepts are too wrapped up in Satanic confusion. I think that for tonight I am going to stick with saying I don’t know what anything is for.

      • One of the powerful messages of A Course In Miracles is the constant reminder that the local perspective of the separated self is filled with hallucinations. It sees illusions and does not know what anything is for.

        It’s a principle transmitted in messages across many traditions. “Of myself I am nothing.” ”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Or, in less accusatory and more objectively observant words, “Everyone has an ego on board which can, through the agency of free will, choose separation and exclusivity and so forget its rightful place in the Tao.”

        And without going off-topic for too long, I will observe that there is a rightful place for ego in the Tao, but it is more about being a useful navigator and secondary reference system. Ego is good at mapping out where it can go and what it can do, but it’s completely insufficient in its ability to decide whether it should or not. There’s another system on board which informs us of that. The problem comes when the navigator mutinies, takes charge of the ship, and ignores the higher system.

        Satan is another metaphor for this local, separated ego. Confused, definitely. Illusion-ridden and hallucinating as well. It has an inflated sense of self, a lust for power, a thinly-disguised fear of being less than, and in one enduring historical form is represented as the creature Lucifer who says, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation… I will be like the most High.” And in the effort it casts itself out of the Tao and into a place of separation from it.

        The most powerful message ACIM imparts is that we can know who and what we are truly if we release ourselves from that perspective. When we give those perceptions up, giving them to truth and giving truth to them, and embrace humility by remembering that the self-interested ego does not know truth because of its own innate limitations, then the mysterious miracle occurs. It manifests in consciousness and without the efforts of ego or local mind because it is what is and was and will forever be – the Tao, the essence of our existence.

        We can know who and what we are, really. It’s an oddly simple thing. We can know who we are really because we really are who we are really. But take that to the ego’s mind and see how long it lasts there.

        • Think of this reply as, perhaps, practice for my next career as a comedy writer. I believe that whenever I try to express my thoughts about concepts like EGO, the hosts of heaven and spiritual masters gather to share a great laugh. They think I am funnier than Dave Barry.

          So, to begin: What is this EGO I have tried to discuss? Many people who talk about the concept know subjectively what is meant; but it is very difficult to define, at least with the English words I know. The task is made more difficult by the fact that the term is used differently in different contexts.

          The word “ego,” of course, is the nominative case of the Latin pronoun for “I” (“ego” = “I am”). It became a popular word in psychology after it was used by Freud to describe the part of personality that acts in accord with principles of reality.

          In many metaphysical systems, including ACIM, people talk of “ego” as the part of a person that seems to be doing things and that is affected by the physical world, but which is not the true self. That ego is participating in a kind of dream world similar to the Hindu concept of maya.

          One theme running through many of the approaches is that EGO is a part of an individual personality or part of a complete being. Trying to figure out just what part is difficult.

          If we can do that – and I am not sure we can – it is probably best to start at the beginning. In the Book of Genesis we are told that God made man in his own image. What that image is exactly is probably beyond my poor means to understand or discuss. There are many who believe that the image of the divine is not one, but three. Christians accept a God consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Hindus believe that the Lord himself is expressed through the deities known as Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).

          There are also philosophical systems that see humans as triune. Freud explained his theory incorporating the id, the ego and the superego. The Hawaiian Huna belief is that each of us is made up of three selves, a lower self (ku or unihipili), a middle self (lono or uhane) and a high self (kane or aumukua). While these approaches help to explain many things about the human psyche, none of the divisions coincides what I believe the EGO to be.

          Rather, EGO is a construct that borrows from all parts of the psyche. It consists of certain beliefs, emotions, reflexes, neuro-peptides, brain waves, evolutionary choices, etc. that have developed and coalesced to protect the physical body from harm and destruction. We normally think of the EGO as a human attribute, but the same forces may be seen in other living things.

          As such, the EGO is certainly not evil. Without it, most of us would not survive for very long in this world. It is the consequences of the need for survival that have caused many spiritual thinkers to feel that the EGO must be “overcome.”

          For the physical body to be aware of and respond to danger, the EGO develops a sense of distinction between that body and the rest of the world. Therefore, the concept of separateness is with us. As a corollary, EGO often causes us to view anything different from our individual identity with suspicion, making it difficult to trust other species or races or genders or religions or social classes.

          To stay safe from outside forces that could harm the body, the EGO teaches the brain and nervous system to categorize all that is perceived as good or bad, safe or harmful, causing pleasure or causing pain. Thus, we are judgmental beings. Again, the more the thing we perceive differs from the way we look or think or smell, the more it seems important to judge.

          In order to avoid the distraction of too great a sensory input, EGO permits our sensory organs to develop (through evolution and individual growth) only to the extent that they can perceive those frequencies that give information relevant to our physical well-being. Other animals must be protected against different dangers, so they do not have the same ranges of sensory perception. None of us, though, is able to be aware of everything. We can only sense what the EGO thinks is needed for survival.

          The EGO leads our minds in an analysis of those things needed for survival to the pre-ordained conclusion that they are all available only in limited quantities, fostering competition.

          It is also notable in humans that the collective work of generations of EGOs has developed our language and communications systems in a manner that makes it difficult for us to express or understand any concept of reality beyond the physical – that is, beyond what we need to survive.

          I know that what I have written is simplistic. I could go on for pages – or days, whichever comes first. For now, though, I am just trying to make the point that EGO wants the physical body with which it is associated to survive, avoid pain and enjoy a bit of pleasure. Sometimes it gets carried away in working toward that goal. EGO can come to believe that survival requires wealth, power, control – often to irrational levels.

          Having said all of that, I would like to try to tie these desultory ponderings back to my original comments on this chapter. The angels and masters have already laughed themselves silly.

          So, here is a quotation from the beginning of an article by Candice Choi and Tammy Weber of the Associated Press, published Friday, May 23, 2014, with a couple of editorial comments from me:

          “McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson [whose annual compensation is reported to be some $13.8 million –ed.] sought to address a growing chorus of critical issues including worker pay . . . at its annual meeting Thursday.

          “As hundreds of protestors chanted for higher wages outside, Thompson told the audience in the building that the company has a heritage of providing job opportunities that lead to ‘real careers.’

          “’We believe we pay fair and competitive wages [the average worker making $6-10/hour, many without other benefits because they are employed part-time –ed],’ Thompson said.”

          I know you are thinking you went to high school with a guy named Don Thompson, but this isn’t him. That Don Thompson has a cement business.

          I think this Don Thompson was expressing the thoughts of an EGO which believes that it requires an 8-figure income each year in order to be certain of survival. That EGO also probably believes that Mr. Thompson is a humanitarian whose company is doing all it can to help the disadvantaged and impoverished raise themselves to a higher standard of living; if for no other reason, then because that feeling of helping others brings Mr. Thompson a degree of pleasure and satisfaction.

          I also think that the hundreds of protestors were expressing the beliefs of their EGOs that to simply survive in modern society a person needs to earn something more than $10 an hour. Those EGOs also seem to believe that the ability to survive at a given level of comfort increases in direct proportion to take-home pay.

          Again, I am being very simplistic and trying to set out basic facts for the sake of argument. Many of the “underpaid” workers are employees of some franchisee, and not of McDonald’s. The income of many of those workers is supplemented by public assistance that is provided from taxes paid by McDonald’s and Mr. Thompson (and you and me). The idea of working for pay arises in capitalist system that would find a way to replace more and more of the workers with machines if wages rose to a level that automation was more economical. But that is not the “point,” is it?

          In this Chapter 53, Lao Tzu seems to be warning once again that the way of the Tao is moderation, not excess. Different segments of society should support each other. The sage is seen as a simple person with simple needs. When the opulence of the royal court is supported by taxes that empty the granaries of impoverished peasants, the excesses are obvious. This is the way of the brigand or robber because, Lao Tzu observes, the inequalities are enforced by those in power “hiding sharpened arms.”

          The poor farms and fine palaces both represent excesses deviating from the happy medium of the Tao. Mr. Thompson’s compensation at a level of 700-800 times greater than the average worker is another example of taking the side roads of excess away from the smooth path of the Tao.

          EGO creates the drive and desire for excess – in order to protect the organism. EGO causes protests against real or perceived excess – in order to protect the organism. Perhaps the best way to avoid the effects of EGO is to hop on a trusty water buffalo and head off down that smooth path at a moderate pace.

          Sages and masters do, themselves, indulge is some excessive behaviors – mostly laughing. They are laughing at me so hard right now that I can’t think what I should be writing. It seems what I have written so far is both excessive and hilarious. My EGO wants me to quit and no longer act the fool. The sages should go listen to an old Bob Newhart record if they want to keep up the insane sense of hilarity. Or I have a Dave Barry book I will leave out for them.

  3. The contextual definitions of ego are indeed legion and confusing. “I am” is particularly befuddling because it can represent the individual ego-self, or it can represent the most inclusive aspect of the triune perception of the Tao, the “I Am” which is regarded as the “that which is,” the “ thou art that,” etc.

    Your explication of the several definitions of the concept is very useful. Christians, Hindus, Freud, Hawaiians, and many others have produced their own versions of this constantly recurring tripartite archetype. It is rooted in the divine ground which all share. As you observe, it appears in expressions describing local perceptions of the nature of the individual as well as the whole.

    I especially like your explication of the nature of “EGO.” It’s a textbook rendition of the nature of what I call “the little navigator.” It is not evil, it is an evolved system, it does engage quite nicely with the space-time continuum, it is fine-tuned to environmental conditions and predisposed to sort them into a dualistic value system, assigning them a value in terms of harm, destruction, protection, survival, danger, safety, suspicion, trust, etc. And yes, it does have an innate and singular commitment to the individual physical reality, because that is what it is and what it does.

    The problem being, as you note, that “sometimes it gets carried away.” It becomes ingrown upon itself, or stops growing entirely, believing that for its own purposes it has acquired all the information it needs for its own survival. And so we have the great rationalized righteousness of overpaid CEO’s who have mastered the art of explaining why their personal damming up and hoarding of money-energy and the resultant obstruction or miserly release of what can be a flowing stream of sustenance is really a good thing.

    Yet I believe that even there the ego gnaws upon the bone of existence, reaches the marrow of it, and sometimes sends out a message: “Wait a minute! I just noticed something!” And it starts laughing “at” itself in the light of this new information.

    Sometimes the ego wakes up to certain conditions it did not account for in the rush to construct an awareness of and strategy for the ground it found itself in. It studies the ground again and begins to perceive relationships which are not ego-centric, but which are… Tao-centric.

    I get what you mean about that comedic feeling which comes along with any attempt to employ words and explanations. I think it might be a message from our ego which is awake to its own limitations, a reminder that “explanations” are optional.

    My experience of consciously knowing who I am really is like having a meal at Douglass Adam’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe. There, a diner is projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe – which the customer can observe and experience at their leisure – and then is projected back in time to their own temporal and spatial locality.

    When I return I find myself in a circumstance where the local, temporal/spatial “me” finds itself compelled to construct a bridge of words between “here” and “there.” I suspect this to be a mechanism of ego which it instigates with the ultimate purpose of gaining control of the whole business for itself, which is really just not too becoming or attractive or even workable, all things considered.

    The ego is perfectly adept at putting lipstick on its piggishness and flouncing itself about anyway, and putting “Private Property” signs and word-fences around the truffle patch. While “here” I do try to restrain myself, sometimes more successfully than other times.

    At times my ego becomes aware of what it is reflexively programmed to do, remembers its humble place in all of creation, and laughs “at” itself. And in so doing it finds itself laughing with the Masters and Sages, who laugh with us all – and never at us.

    It’s all part of the Path.

    The other day one of the acolytes here, practicing his own nature, rushed over to the Master’s quarters to report. “Master, Master! Bob has missed the Morning Salutation again and I hear the sounds of Smith-Corona in his cell!”

    The Master replied, “uhmmm… Okay…”

    “He’s writing again,” the acolyte reported.

    Again the Master replied. “Okay.”

    “No,” the acolyte continued. “I mean, he’s writing! Again! Using words! He’s in there right now, chopping up Truth with his very own dicer-slicer, shredding Truth into sloppy rags of, of, of… well, sloppy rags! He needs our help!”

    The Master thought about it for a moment, and then replied. “Listen,” he said. And he began to laugh. Then the acolyte heard it. Bob was laughing. And then they were all laughing together.

    • PS:
      All of which brings to mind another funny thing I do. After I write something, I want to explain it. Explain the explanation, sort of. It’s like a piece of writing becomes a cartoon telescope, extending cylinders of itself ever further outward until it begins to droop and eventually ends up in the dirt…

      This too is, I think, an ego thing.

      Anyway, the Master and the acolyte and the person named “Bob” in the story are all the same person. It could be Bob, or Louis, or Harry, or anybody.

      We are the Master, we do know. We are the bifurcated clam-head which catches ourselves being special, we are the one who laughs at our self. The moment of Samadhi, perfect and transient, is in the laugh which sees it and releases it all.

      I shall wait a bit now before extending the telescope another section. Or at least we can hope…

    • I am still confused. Since I don’t know what anything is for, I do not know if the words “ego” and “EGO” and “little navigator” are the same.

      This discussion drove me to the library earlier today where I borrowed Michael Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story. Cathy and I just finished watching it and the masters and hosts of Heaven seem to have finally taken a break from laughter, at least to catch their collective breath. I think I heard one move away with the comment, “So long and thanks for all the fish.”



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