Chapter 56 – One Who Knows Does Not Speak

 Those who know, don’t talk.
Those who talk, don’t know. 

Shut your mouth.
Be still. Relax.
Let go of your worries.
Stay out of the spotlight.
Be at one with the world
and get right with Tao. 

If you get right with Tao,
you won’t be worried
about praise or scorn,
about winning or losing,
about honor or disgrace.
That’s the way to be.

 Translation by Ron Hogan (2004)

shhhThis is the famous “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know” chapter of the Tao Te Ching.  I have chosen Ron Hogan’s translation for this week’s Tao Te Ching Tuesday consideration.  Like much of Hogan’s approach to Lao Tzu, it is probably more an interpretation than a literal translation, and here I believe his interpretation is on target.

The sage is the person who is at one with the world and right with Tao.  That state of being is not something that is taught through words, but is acquired through right action.  Such a person is not concerned how others might perceive him or her.  Being free of the need to conform to others’ judgments, a sage teaches by example and not by preaching or prescribing exercises or requiring rigid adherence to a curriculum.

That other kind of teaching often does not produce results, anyway.  The knowledge we need to be one with the world is certainly in the world – but not somewhere out there in the world.  It is within each person in the world.  The words of a teacher or guru may help some of us; however the learning must occur silently within the soul, the essential being.  Be still, we are told.  Relax.

I could quit now; and if you would like to quit reading at this point, please do.  I am going to continue for just a bit, though.

Some of the other translations of this chapter that I have seen include language that goes beyond the advice to “shut your mouth,” and advise the reader to close doors or close gates in order to achieve a “primal union.” That could be interpreted as instruction in meditation concerning the control of chi as it flows through the body’s energetic gates, such as the dan tien

I don’t want to discuss the belief of some that there are secret techniques by which a person can tap into and control Universal energy for personal benefit.  Really, if Lao Tzu or I knew how to do such a thing, it is not something about which either of us would speak.  Beyond that, such quests for power or control have no place in the Natural Way that I have been calling Tao.  Instead, history has shown how they can lead to incidents like the beliefs of the Maoshan Taoists (a sect that believed in magical practices) culminating in the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the 19th Century, an event which resulted in over 100,000 deaths, brought Manchuria under Russian control*  and led to great oppression of the Chinese people.

I assume without knowing that Lao Tzu did meditate from time to time, but I don’t see the Tao Te Ching as a meditation handbook.  Certainly meditation was practiced in later Taoism and I would like to share a bit about meditation from Lieh Tzu.

Lieh Tzu was a Taoist sage who supposedly lived about 100 years after Lao Tzu, during the violent Warring States Period.  Reflecting the dysfunctional culture in which he lived, Lieh Tzu is supposed to have been essentially a hermit who wanted nothing to do with rulers or governments or armies.  The text attributed to him is a collection of stories assembled several centuries later, many of which evidence a negative view of society and the physical world.**

Eva Wong, who was my Tai Chi teacher for several years, and who taught me most of what I know about Taoist Meditation, has “translated” Lieh Tzu in a book called Lieh-Tzu:  A Taoist Guide to Practical Living (1995).  I have put the word “translated” in quotation marks because like Ron Hogan, Eva has presented us with more a modern interpretation than a literal translation.  I have taken the following story from her book, and I think it represents her view at least as much as Lieh Tzu’s”

When I asked Old Shang to be my master and Pai-kao-tzu to be my friend, I decided to work hard to discipline my body and mind. After three years, I was afraid to have notions of right and wrong, and I did not dare to speak words that might offend or please. It was only then that my master glanced at me and acknowledged my presence. Five years later, I thought freely of right and wrong and spoke freely of approval or disapproval. My master gave me a smile. Seven years later, my thoughts came naturally without any conceptions of right and wrong, and words came naturally without any intention of pleasing or offending. For the first time, my master invited me to sit by his side. Nine years later, no matter what came to my mind or what came out of my mouth, there was nothing that was right or wrong, pleasing or offending. I did not even entertain the idea that Old Shang was my master and Pai-kao-tzu was my friend.

As Ron Hogan might say (see above):  That’s the way to be.

If I go on speaking (writing), it will probably disclose how little I know.  I do know that I should be silent.


* And that, of course, is a candidate for other kinds of control.

**For example, in the infamous “Yang Chou Chapter,” Lieh Tzu points out that a human lifespan has a limit of about 100 years, and fewer that one person in a 1,000 attains that age.  Nearly half of life consists of infancy and feeble old age.  During the 25 or so years of life’s prime, half of one’s time is spent sleeping or wasting time while awake.  Then we must factor in pain and sickness, sorrow and suffering, loss of loved ones and general worry and fear. He concludes, then (as translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)):  “I reckon, there is not one moment in which we can be happily at ease without worry.”  You can see why his is referred to as “negative Taoism.”


  1. All superficial evidence to the contrary as present in my ongoing commentary, I do know that stillness and detachment are absolutely necessary for knowing. That’s a period after that sentence. Everything which follows is optional.

    First, a question. What does the sage say, and what do we hear?

    This famous observation by the sage is often taken by the mind as an either-or proposition that must prevail across the board of our experience in every moment. As such it has contributed very much to the silly, solemn facades of “holy ones” down through the generations who have learned to purvey – for their own satisfactions – the magical commodity of their own bottled brand of spiritual knowing to the innocent seeker and desperate soul.

    It is an interpretation which creates the odd assumption that those who know have a certain appearance which constitutes undeniable cosmetic proof that enlightenment is present, and is a criterion we can apply in order to judge the level of consciousness present in ourselves and others.

    In that perspective these words of the sage are taken as being one-dimensional, which they are not.

    It is an observation. The sage observes that when we know we are beyond speaking, and when speaking we are involved in the realm where individuality and identity occur, and so engaged in a separated condition rather than a united state of being. And the sage offers some insight into thoughts and actions which, when in place, promote stillness and acceptance rather than manic attachments, and which facilitate “knowing.”.

    Secondly, the simultaneous presence of speaking and being active and engaged while also being still and detached seems an odd and impossible combination. Is it possible that two such antithetical conditions could coexist in a moment? Or is it necessary that one should exist and the other should not?

    Where does the sage assert or deny one in favor of the other? We speak. We know. When speaking, we are where speaking is. When knowing, we are where knowing is.

    When we are speaking, do we still know? When we know, can we speak it?

    I find detachment from desire a good thing to remember when I am speaking. When I speak I experience, among other things, certain desires about being articulate and graceful rather than incoherent and clumsy, and a desire to be accepted rather than rejected. Yet at the same time I am aware that those desires are taking place in a condition which is as much dream as real, and it really doesn’t matter how “I” say something, or what “I” say – what matters is the energy therein which rides out to others and rides back again, that energy of the Tao which manifests everywhere, in every moment.

    Speak your knowing, Louis. The universe exudes knowing in every moment, and last time I looked we were both located somewhere in the universe, and part of it, and speaking of our knowing the best we know how.

    • One more thought. When the Dalai Lama speaks of a free Tibet rather than its status as a subjugated satellite of China, or when he laughs with us at the baffling nature of perspective, or when he is watching tigers on Animal Planet on his TV screen in Dharamsala, does he “know” less? Flow, balance, moment to moment being is just that – flow, balance, moment to moment being. For every solemn buddha there is a laughing buddha, for every still buddha there is a dancing buddha, for every silent buddha there is a speaking buddha. And because there is a moment for everything, there is a buddha for everything, and that buddha is the same buddha from moment to moment.
      Best I can say it.

      • Bob, for the answers to several of the questions you raise, you are going to have to ask the sage. I am afraid I don’t know, so let me talk about it.

        That was a joke. I don’t think old Lao Tzu ever intended an absolute prohibition on speaking by those with some knowledge. When I tell my grandson, “This is your nose….this is your foot,” I do it with words coming out of my mouth; and that is the correct procedure for that kind of teaching.

        The main problem is, as it often is, the limitation involved in words in general and translations in particular. As I understand it, a pretty direct translation of the Chinese characters would be something like:

        “Knowing the ones not speaking; speaking the ones not knowing.”

        Various translators who have tried to make sense of those characters have either elucidated or obfuscated by the interpretations which are required to give us a proper English sentence. This is especially true in some of the “modern” translations. For example, Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003) write: “Those who really understand it do not talk about it, and those who really talk about it do not understand it.” What they adds is basically “it.” So what is it that is either understood or spoken about? I will come back to that in a moment.

        In the translation by Thomas Z. Zhang and Jackie X. Zhang (2004), the lines are rendered: “Knowledgeable people rarely show off. Boastful people are not truly knowledgeable.” That is often true, but I don’t think that is precisely what the sage is telling us. However, one of the great things about the Tao Te Ching is that it is quite apt and applicable over centuries and distances and in circumstances that were never contemplated by its author.

        To answer the question I raised as to what “it” is, I would like to go back to James Legge’s 1891 translation, where we find: “He who knows [the Tao] does not [care to] speak [about it]; he who is [ever ready to] speak about it does not know it.” His parenthetical additions make a lot of sense. Since the book is the Tao Te Ching it seems logical that the author would be talking about Tao and/or Te. Thus we harken “back” to Chapter 1 which tells us the Tao that can be named or spoken is not the true or eternal Tao. That Tao is beyond words.

        I put the word “back” in quotation marks because scholars tell us that in the earliest extant versions of the Tao Te Ching we find what is now Chapter 56, but Chapter 1 seems to have been added at a later date. I know this is a fantasy, but I picture the first edition coming out and some callow critic remarking, “Old Lao Tzu has sure spoken a lot for someone who tells us that those who know do not speak.” Trying to rectify the situation, Lao Tzu then added a preface to his second edition saying, “What I am telling you here isn’t really the eternal Tao. That eternal Tao is beyond words. In this book I am talking the talk, but for the eternal each of us must walk the walk.”

        It didn’t really happen that way, I know.

        Anyway, here are a couple of insights from some who are more sagacious than I. First, Chuang Tzu (and actually this is a paraphrase from with my parenthetical observations):

        Speech is not mere breath. It is differentiated by meaning. Take that away and you cannot say whether it is speech. Can you even distinguish it from the chirping of young birds? [And that chirping may be close to what Lao Tzu says is nameless] But how can the unvarying way [Tao] be so obscure that we speak of it as both true and false? And how can speech be so obscure that it admits the idea of contraries? How can the unvarying way [Tao] be gone and yet remain unvarying? How can speech exist and yet be impossible? The unvarying way [Tao] is obscured by our lack of comprehension. Speech is obscured by the superficialities of this world.

        The other is from Robert Frost:

        We dance around in a ring and suppose,
        But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

  2. A very nice explication by you and two excellent observations by two other sages, Louis.

    We have often spoken of the limits of language and the way mind sees the appearance of the “Word” in the Tao as a sequential development proceeding out of the One. Language is a part of a subset of the Tao where our linear, logical process exists, and indeed even the expressions of a “whole” and a “subset” exist in that realm which we apprehend as being “separate” and dualistic. Chuang Tzu’s observations of the limitations of speech are quite apt.

    When I read Chuang Tzu’s observations I again found myself asking the same question I asked of the sage’s words in this chapter; What does Chang Tzu say, and what do we hear? It is natural to assume we know what he is saying. Yet do we? Is he really telling us anything, is he passing along a set of plus and minus values which we are being instructed to incorporate into our own consciousness in “this world?” Or is he simply making observations which, when they are brought to our attention, conduct us beyond language? The best words reverberate with the essence of the Tao, and it is what every expression ever attempted in that pursuit is about. Not the words. It’s about the resonance, the connection; language is a bridge which exists and then dissolves behind us.

    Chuang Tzu is speaking of AND from “this world.” Yet what he says forms a transcendental bridge between this world and the Tao. Chuang Tzu is not seeking an answer for himself so much as he is asking us to discover the answer to his questions for ourselves.

    Speech is indeed obscured by the superficialities of the world. Even the best of speech constitutes only a shadow of the essence of the Tao. There is so much speech which is worse than that that we come to the place where we see that silence in the Tao avails us of a much more immediate and direct communion with the essence there.

    Yet we have speech, and so we speak, too. Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Robert Frost, Louis and Bob all speak, each in their own way, each devoted to their particular expression of the common essence.

    My answer to Chuang Tzu’s questions are the same answer. I have spoken before of paradox, of the mind-crunching acceptance of the simultaneous existence of seemingly antithetical things which we assume must be sorted and assigned value. Acceptance of simultaneity is not a mind thing and is not something arrived at after a long traverse through a logical process. It’s a realization. Embraced in mind, expressed in speech, ratified by logic, yes – but after the fact, just as speaking follows out of the Tao.

    The answer is in acceptance of paradoxical simultaneity.

    Chuang Tzu is not speaking from some elevated alternate aerie of understanding which has transcended the limits of speaking and somehow magically conveys its whole essence in linguistic bits.

    Chuang Tzu is speaking from some elevated alternate aerie of understanding which has transcended the limits of speaking and somehow magically conveys its whole essence in linguistic bits.

    We dance around and speak in rings
    while the secret sits in the middle and sings
    and while the secret dances around us in rings
    we sit in the middle and sing.

  3. And so yet another post script. These things are so predictable by now I can imagine you there regarding my latest reply and then patiently saying to yourself, “Wait for it, wait for it…” as I breathe in and out one more time and speak the next breath. If those who know don’t speak then truly I am dumber than a rock. If it be so, all I can say is – I’m good with that. And I will be content speaking what follows even if I never speak another word, unlikely a thought as that may be.

    What a great conversation this has turned into! The thing spoken of here is the essence of what I have been speaking of throughout these shared commentaries first inspired by Amy. I recall observing somewhere in these exchanges that we are that which knows it knows not what it knows. Yet even so – we know.

    When we accept “paradoxical simultaneity” all our constructs crumble. We step into an egoless void when the construct has crumbled, yet nothing has died. The rain still rains, the flower blooms, grass grows green, the rock abides and the river flows, and we are still here, not dead, not gone, walking in it all, still unique yet not special. We are just here, doing what we do, being who and what we are, letting it all be what it is.

    When the great formidable construct of language towers above us, armored in layers of careful, laborious complexity, and then the moment comes when it suddenly bursts into a cascading shower of confetti, it is hard to say whether we released it and then it disappeared or, because it dissolved, we released it. What we can say is it disappeared, and release was there. And that is the moment when we laugh, and the Buddha awakes.

    And how do we get there? The Tao Ching and the Te Ching and the Noble Eightfold Path are good places to start. Then we walk, listen, see, learn, grow and know. If I died suddenly, I would be very glad of having said what I’ve said here about “paradoxical simultaneity” before I went.

    Thanks, Louis.

    • I could probably sit around all day not speaking and coming up with more interpretations of knowing. My most recent recognizes that in my essay on Chapter 55 I included pictures of my 4-month old grandson Ryder, who is not quite to the point of saying actual words, and my dog Darcy, who only speaks on occasions like that described in my Chapter 53 comments.

      Last weekend, Ryder was around several other babies and seems to have picked up a cold or some illness from one of them. I was caring for him yesterday while his parents were at work, and he was not his usual happy self. He had a slight fever, was coughing and sneezing and he tended to cry when I wasn’t holding him. When Suzanne (his mother) came to pick him up, she placed him in his car seat which was sitting on the floor. Darcy walked over and licked Ryder’s face. As Suzanne moved Darcy’s head away, Ryder began laughing and laughing. Darcy moved her head back over by Ryder, and he laughed even harder. He laughed and laughed all the way to the car.

      As Rudy quoted in his comment on Chapter 55 – “I am a child, I last awhile, you can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.” Or of the knowing in my laugh.

  4. It just occurred to me, after reading Bob’s second comment, that the reason why silence is appropriate is because if we are all one entity, as in Tao, then words are completely unnecessary because we all already know everything there is to know.

  5. I also love how you guys so poetically spoke quite a lot about not speaking. It is precious. So Tao! That duality comes to bite us every. single. time. 😉 I love you guys!

  6. I wish there was an edit feature to comments. lol. I haven’t read through them all and as I get further along I have more I want to say. I know you two often get on a dialogue that goes a bit but I just found this one so hilarious and wonderful at the same time and it just left me wondering if you were thinking as you wrote it about how you are playing out the opposite of silence but how perfect that is that you would do that as a natural expression of Tao, balancing itself out. It makes me wonder if perhaps I might find this dichotomy more often if I look for it in everyday life. How could I not?

    • Amy!
      So nice to hear your voice and I for one have to say that it is just so great when one with eyes which see and ears which hear comes to share this conversation! You, too, have hit it on the nose – or, more correctly, you have walked up to it, touched it gently on the nose and smiled, because you Know.

      Yeah, it does demonstrate balance, and the laugh is in there too, and while it is a conscious “thinking” expression your consciousness of it all as a natural expression of the Tao, manifesting, is perfect. You know the first cause, the Tao, and behold it in the expression..

      We get into a lot of history and principles here in this conversation and cerebrate a lot, that’s for sure. A petal on the lotus, that’s all that is. One of my personas is a sort of aphid, best as I can describe it, a bug getting sustenance from the essence which forms the petal. It’s fun and worthwhile for me, because “I jest growed that way.” It’s in my nature. Louis will have to provide his own metaphor. Which will be interesting, if he does… ; )

      I see from my aphid’s viewpoint on this petal a Teacher/Sage who, with wisdom, insight and compassion, teaches practical, straightforward, powerful action principles embodying the Noble Virtues and Noble Path every day. That’d be you, Amy. Namaste’.

      • And just to keep the theme about thinking and speaking here intact, another one of those inevitable speaking-Bob postscripts… There’s a classic song from 1980 by Kool and The Gang that has an alternate title and lyric, which I will trim down a bit for brevity:

        “Cerebration” (with apologies if – but probably not – necessary to Kool and The Gang)

        Cerebrate good times, come on!
        Let’s cerebrate…

        There’s a party goin’ on right here
        A cerebration to last throughout the years
        So bring your good times and your laughter too
        We gonna cerebrate your party with you!

        Let’s all cerebrate and have a good time!
        It’s time to come together
        It’s up to you, what’s your pleasure?
        Everyone around the world come on!
        Let’s all cerebrate and have a good time!
        PPS: Ever despair of how humanity seems to be so uncooperative with each other? Take heart. The song “Celebration” was written by:

        Robert Mickens, Chris Brown, Michael Stevenson, Steven Howse, Bryon Mccane, Anthony Henderson, Earl Toon, Cameron Thomaz, Jonathan King, Eumir Deodato, Ronald Nathan Bell, Ciaran Lawrence Gribbin, Robert Bell, Cameron Jibril Thomaz, Claydes Smith, Jayceon Taylor, Dwayne Carter, Dennis Thomas, Charles Scruggs, Jereme Powell, George Brown, Tim Middleton, Andre Lyon, Gary R. Stroutsos, Marcello Valenzano, Buelent Aris, James Taylor, and Toni Cottura.

    • Another reason for words, maybe more than necessary, is that there are also some who do not know and do not know how to hear. Such people need to have explanations from many directions. This thought came to me when I was looking at a different blog concerning this chapter. The writer did not try to explain, saying the meaning was left to “personal imagination. The first person to comment said he or she was trying to find the meaning of the words and was very disappointed that no attempt was made to interpret. I am paraphrasing because the actual comment was quite vulgar (you can read it here, if you care to and do not mind crude language: I do hope that if there is someone out in cyberspace who really wants to find out what it means that one who knows does not speak, and if that person ends up here, all these words will at least give a direction for thought and further research.

      • Well, I read the comment(s) there and would say that people in spiritual distress can experience a lot of pain and general samsara which makes them thrash around a lot, but in the end the only people the words hit were people who were willing to believe that they had been hit. By words, of all things!

        Which is not to say that I don’t experience the same feeling of being hit from time to time. Words are powerful things in part of the universe. It’s just good to remember that if in the moment they seem to strike hard and are ugly and frantic, a moment will come when a different perspective will be possible and release will come, sooner or later, and we will let it go.

        The beginning of the path for some is the moment when they angrily challenge Tao to appear because they don’t think it’s real, and then later realize that if they didn’t believe it was real they wouldn’t have been challenging it and cursing it at all; their true unbelief would have made it unnecessary and unthinkable. And so the next step appears for them. Which as you affirm is indeed learning to listen, learning to learn, learning to be guided, learning to speak less and hear more.

        Viktor Frankl said it well; “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is a spiritual distress but by no means a mental disease.” In other words, a person may be twisted out of shape, but not twisted out of touch. We are all a bit bent by samsara, and sometimes broken there, but that’s part of how we discover what can’t be bent, what can’t be broken, and what remains whole in the center of the fragmenting explosion.

        But damn, it’s hard as hell to keep these lower-consciousness creeps at arms length with one hand and club them with the other, they move around and squirm so much, I just hate that sh*t!

        • Of course we are dealing with the internet. That comment could have been from the blogger’s grandmother playing a little joke on him. What do I know? I meant to point out that I am aware that from time to time there are cyber-wayfarers who are trying to find information about such things as the meaning of one phrase or another from the Tao Te Ching. The medium on this site is essentially words, and I hope that some of those words may somehow prove helpful in some way to somebody sometime.

          • LOL about Grandma. I did understand and do agree completely with what you said, just added a few adjunct thoughts of my own. You know.

            I’d say the odds are pretty good that somewhere in here there are at least a couple of words spoken in order to help our own understanding which could also help someone else somewhere at some time as well.

            I suppose we could go even further down this particular rabbit hole – the place where speaking is – and co-write a book using the commentaries as our base material and hope that someone, somewhere, at sometime might read it and then go down to the river Tao and throw it and themselves in there.

            Or we could just continue to be engaged in the moments here, knowing that sufficient unto this place are the evils hereof, where sometimes a fluttering wei-wu leaf finds itself incarnated as a page in the ethereal winds of the internet.

            I could go either way. And usually do. ; )

  7. I’ve only just begun to read and yet am already so very impressed. Lao Tzu is one of my heroes, and I have always needed to ask questions. So, how pleased I was to read questions re Ch.56:
    1. What does the sage say and what do we hear? I love it, for, of course, anything anyone can say can mean different things to different people and still miss the mark of what was meant by the speaker.
    2. Re: “The simultaneous presence of speaking and being active and engaged while still being still and detached seems not only impossible. Is it possible that such antithetical conditions can co-exist in a moment, or is it necessary that one exists and the other not? I suggest that the concept of “detachment” would be more easily understood in our society if it were replaced with “owning” or “claiming” as in holding on to something that isn’t ours to hold on to. Knowing is a personal activity of mind and speaking is sharing with community. Since we share that which we know, and yet have to translate what we know to a spoken language that can be understood by the one we would share our knowing in, yes, we can do it at one and the same time. It’s only a matter of expanding and focusing our thoughts in a vibrating movement. without any disconnect between. Energy moves into and out of our mind in a continuous rhythm. I hope I can save the article and finish it later.

    • Jean, thanks for your comment. I don’t think you are asking for any response right now, so I took a minute to look at your blog. It seems interesting. I hope you find something worthwhile in what you read here.

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