Chapter 60 – Ghosts: Evil, Boo Evil

Govern a great country as you would fry small fish: [neither gut nor scale them.]

 If with Reason the empire is managed, its ghosts will not spook.
Not only will its ghosts not spook, but its gods will not harm the people.
Not only will its gods not harm the people, but neither will its holy men harm the people.
Since neither will do harm, therefore their virtues will be combined.

Translated by D. T. Suzuki and Paul Carus (1880)

The translation by Suzuki and Carus is one of the oldest English renditions of the Tao Te Ching, and it seems to be one of the most literal. It is one of the few I found that speaks directly of ghosts. In Wayne Dyer’s comments on this chapter he counsels that one should exclude evil from his or her life. Ron Hogan talks about “misfortune.” Stephen Mitchell is another who uses the word “evil” instead of “ghosts,” as do Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng.

Casper the Friendly GhostIt is easy to see why a modern intellect would look at a reference to ghosts as a metaphor for the concept of evil; but 25 centuries ago Chinese ghosts, and especially ancestral spirits, were considered to be very real and not a metaphor for anything. The Chinese culture had practiced ancestor worship or veneration since at least the late Neolithic Period, more than 5,000 years before the time of Lao Tzu; so I think the Old Boy was using the term “ghosts” in what was then the popular sense.

The ancient Chinese practice arose from the belief that spirits of the dead could influence the world of the living, for good or for ill. The worship of one’s deceased ancestors was intended to keep those spirits happy so they would look favorably on their descendants, and even intercede to help the living.

Such beliefs were not confined to the Orient or to ancient times.

A more modern recognition of ancestor veneration may be seen in a book entitled To Be a Revolutionary, by Fr. J. Guadalupe Carney, S.J. (1985)*, which is an autobiography of a Jesuit priest – a World War II veteran from St. Louis, Missouri – on the path to radical liberation theology through his missionary work in Honduras. Discussing his first visit to that country in the early 1960s, he writes (at page 140):

“Latin Americans have a real cult of the dead, It is an inheritance from the Indian religions and from the Africans who came as slaves. Almost everyone believes that ‘souls wander around,’ that a dead person’s soul can return to its house to bother people, and that it cannot find rest because it had not carried out some promise made to a saint. Many will swear that this dead person spoke to them or that they clearly saw it.

“During the all-night vigil for a dead person, they always light four candles, one at each corner of the coffin, and they put out a glass of water for the deceased. Many believe that the next morning there is less water in the glass. They feel they have to pray the novena for the souls in purgatory for each dead person; this is more important to them than a mass.”

The idea, then, is to keep those who have died happy so they will not cause any trouble among the living.

This chapter begins by advising the ruler of a large country to govern as if he were cooking a small fish. That is, to not poke and cut and turn it, causing the delicate fish to break into small pieces. Again, this is the concept that the best government is that which governs least. By taking that approach, the whole country will be able to move to the rhythms of Nature – and that is the way the ghosts and gods and shamans like it. Those beings will have peace and the common living beings can enjoy it, too.

There is another problem with the interpretations of this Chapter 60 that focus on evil or misfortune. Anyone who has read this far into the Tao Te Ching should know that evil is a complement of and on a continuum with good. Fortune and misfortune are relative terms. Thus, those interpretations actually run contrary to some basic tenets of Tao.

Before closing, I should explain the title of this essay, “Ghosts: Evil, Boo Evil?” It is a bit of a private joke that probably nobody but me would think funny.

A number of years ago, I took a course in spoken Chinese (Mandarin). I do not remember very much from that study, but I recall that bu (pronounced “boo”) is a negation. So wo shr or wo shi means “I am,” while wo bu shr or wo bu shi means “I am not.” One method of asking a question is to follow a noun with both the positive and negative forms of a verb. For example, Shoubiao mai bu mai? Would literally mean, “Wristwatch buy not buy?” but could be translated as ,“Will you buy a wristwatch?”

That may not be a totally correct explanation – it’s been a long time – but it puts the title into some perspective. It is a play on words asking whether or not the ghosts are evil; and ghosts, as we know do say “boo.”

* Father Carney’s path became a sort of a Tao of Social Revolution, as he came to blame the economic and social problems of the campesinos on the rich landowners, the CIA and the United Fruit Company. He was eventually expelled from Honduras and became a “chaplain” to a group of revolutionary fighters in Nicaragua. That group returned to Honduras in 1983. Father Carney “disappeared” at that time and is assumed to have been killed. It seems that is what he would have wanted, for several times in his book he says that if you truly love someone you will want to experience life as it is experienced by that person. He also makes it clear that he truly loved Jesus. He believed that Jesus died to bring a better life, both socially and religiously, to others. I have to assume that he perceived his own death occurring for those same purposes.

6 thoughts on “CHAPTER 60 – GHOSTS: EVIL, BOO EVIL

  1. Pingback: CHAPTER 61 - HUDDLED MASSES |

  2. Hi Louis. Excellent commentary, as always, and the heart of the matter is in your title, which I would reflect as “Te Aye or Te Nay or Chai Latte’?” 😉

    Gods and ghosts and holy men, and demons and spirits. These are metaphorical things which can occupy us, for better or for worse; things that can inform, guide, terrorize, haunt, and/or inhabit our minds and contribute to our experience. And not so metaphorical as well because, as Terry Pratchett observed, there are a lot fewer metaphors than most people think.

    The spirits of our ancestors are handed down to us in our families and in our culture in written, spoken and culturally embedded ways and means. They come to us in preserved models of action and as wisdoms and recorded experiences, observed in the present as well as handed down from the past, and have a hand in forming our own perspectives and behaviors.

    When those ways and wisdoms and experiences survive the passage of time and are tested and verified by the generations they constitute a useful, proven body of information and guidance. The spirit of our human experience, the virtue of Te, is present in all, and so we have an eternal, mysterious connection with our elder spirits as well as with the information they have bequeathed to us.

    But there is a corrosive element in play in each new generation which can meddle with the spirit of this coherent stream of historical information and our mutual spiritual unity. Each generation is confronted in its own experience with a critical question. “Me? Or We?”

    Identity is the ages-old existential quandary of humanity. Who am I? Am I “me,” or am I “we?” We are confronted with a seeming paradox by our dualistic perceptions of the “real world.” Our local ego tells us we are singular, individual. We are separate from others even as our nature quietly informs us that we are part of something greater. Our true identity includes an awareness of being part of a great unified field which constitutes something greater than the sum of its parts. When we are informed of the unity there and our place in it then we realize our true identity. We are beings connected with creation and one another rather than discrete, individually separated entities.

    For my own understanding of this chapter I found myself examining the word Reason because of contemporary misunderstandings of Rationalism. Even though I am aware of those misunderstandings, which tend to incorrectly separate mind and spirit, I wasn’t comfortable with the word as being an accurate carrier of the concept of this chapter. And it is the pivotal word upon all which follows is based upon. It seems to me as though reasonableness would be a better word, and mindfulness would be even better.

    If we remember to conduct ourselves reasonably – i.e., remember it is better to be here, in the present, and to “rule our reality“ not with rigid control and desire but instead with the flexibility which comes with acceptance of things as they are, and a light touch when it comes to acting, and remaining mindful of and not in conflict with the essence of our being – then we are not troubled by that mysterious connection we have to all spirits, past and present. When we are in conflict, distress results, and our lack of harmony and cooperation with the very essence which forms us, and that distress is manifested in many ways. Spiritual distress, fear, anger, loneliness and a multitude of “dis-eases” occupy us.

    Demons come to torture us when we are out of alignment with our essence. Ghosts of the past haunt us with reminders of ego-based perceptions of past actions which occurred because we were not mindful, not in alignment with our true nature. The ghosts of the historical past come to chide us for our mistakes now. The great One and the lesser gods of various bailiwicks of creation seem against us, actively thwarting our desires and consigning us to bitter fates.

    And of course the root of such things is the ego, which desires, and so devises and deeds itself into actions serving itself alone. When we sever ourselves from awareness of our true identity and true nature and rightful place in creation we become “spooked” and thwarted and cursed and harmed in every aspect of that illusory experience we create when the separated ego seeks to acquire its own satisfactions rather than to be content with the greater satisfactions which are ever-present in our essence.

    And as for “holy men” – well, don’t get me started on that… 😉

    Suffice it to say I will assume that the sage references truly whole and holy teachers who point toward the way and not themselves, and refers to those times when the way pointed to is counter to our own ways and desires. Our ego feels threatened or otherwise offended and “harmed” by the information. It tries to maintain its own separation from awareness of its true identity and rightful place, even though such a thing is impossible and only a desperately held illusion. The “harm” done is not perpetrated by the whole and holy messenger, it is perpetrated upon the “little ego” by the “little ego” for the “little ego” with concordant small results – although demons and ghosts and vengeful gods and the pains and harm and turmoil perceived there do come in all sizes and magnitudes.

    PS: All that for what it’s worth, as always. I express cerebrally, a bit fuzzily I’m afraid in this particular instance, and wonder at times whether it’s worth much at all. I certainly do know that it’s optional and certainly not required for self awareness, mine or anybody else’s. It’s just what I do, as you know.

    Of late I’ve felt a drifting away from this sort of thing in my life, both circumstantially and fundamentally. Recently I’ve been confronted with a couple of circumstantial existential challenges which have served to focus me more on the aspects of our human experience involving suffering and mortality, and I’m going with the flow there to see where it takes me.

    A ten-year-old grand-nephew died suddenly recently, and then Lenore took a heavy hit from a side effect of her cancer treatment in 2001 – radiation-related gastroenteritis which is characterized as IBS – and went for a nice ride in an ambulance at 2 am to the ER in Portland. Long story, but the short form is she manages it well, gets hit hard a couple of times a month, and then because she is tough and strong and without self pity and a great lover of life and engagement in it she just stands back up and carries on as the extraordinarily kind, loving, caring, friendly person she is. This time it took morphine and hydration, but so far we think that was an anomaly rather than a harbinger of the future.

    Yet that experience and the loss of our grand-nephew has put us in touch with how fragile life can be. And along with the effects of aging, which we are aware of more than ever of late, we have been called to “be” more and think less. A good thing, but it may slow down my contributions here. Just wanted to let you know in case I appear less frequently in these commentaries.

    Keep up the good work, Louis. It seems your commentaries get better every week – and they have always been pretty darn good! Namaste’. That means “the God in me sees the God in you,” remember? And it does.

    • There is a lot to think about in what you have said here. I hardly know where to start.

      Actually, I do know where to start. I am very sorry to hear of your loss and of Lenore’s suffering. Cathy and I will certainly keep you in our thoughts and prayers. If you think Reiki or other “healing energy” would help, we can send that to you, also.

      I understand too what you mean about the effects of aging. I find this whole getting old thing is getting old. I’m ready for a little more youthfulness. Let me know if you see any.

      Turning to your other comments, I agree that there are a lot fewer metaphors than many people think. Again, I do not believe that Lao Tzu thought he was employing metaphors in this chapter.

      You mention some trepidation with respect to what it means to govern with “reason”; and rightly so. Legge’s translation says, “Let the kingdom be governed according to the Tao.” Wing-Tsit Chan says, “If Tao is employed to rule the empire.” J. H. McDonald renders it, “When the Tao is used to govern the world.” I like all of those better than the idea of governing with “reason” – but none of those translations talked about ghosts. I believe Suzuki and Carus meant that the way of Tao was the path of the reasonable ruler, so that when the kingdom is governed reasonably, following Tao, then God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world(s), seen and unseen.

      The trouble that could be caused by the “holy man” is something I just mentioned in passing – and you with a smiley face. Much could be written about the separation of holy man (church) and state. Think of the Old Testament conflict between Elijah and Ahab. Or think of theocracies that have risen in various places. Or think of Merlin’s assistance to King Arthur. Or perhaps you would think of the shamans who would need to try to act as intermediaries to unhappy ghosts. There are so many things to think of – but in the end, a king whose rule embodies Tao will be recognized and supported by the true holy men.

      I may have said this in something else I wrote, but I will say it again: A few years ago, as an exercise, while I was in a very beautiful part of Glacier National Park, I decided to silently say “Namaste” to every person I met while hiking on the trail. On the more obscure trails, that felt good. Later, while hiking the very popular trails, it was “NamasteNamasteNamasteNamasteNamaste…” It became a bit overwhelming, but I learned it is possible to see a lot of God in a lot of ordinary tourists.


  3. Focused chi is always welcome. The underlying principle of Reiki has been present in this connection since we first began these dialogues. In this continuum of exchange energies have been circulating and reflecting and reverberating and manifesting as teaching and healing from the beginning because that is the nature of chi, of Te, of the essence we are immersed in and permeated with.

    Karmic bounce back occurs in such exchanges because it is a fundamental rule of the universe. In every transaction involving the transformation of energy no energy is lost, it only occurs in a different form, and those forms proceed into other forms. The energy of chi has always been here, in thought forms and word forms and, behind our separate discrete terminals, in feeling and knowing forms where the flowing chi comes to heal the healer and teach the teacher and lighten and in-lighten and enlighten each of us. It’s all good.

    What follows is something I will share with you which I have shared only with a few others. For most folks I felt it would trouble them rather than be helpful to them or me in the circumstances of the moment. I reserved my thoughts for them and in certain instances was able to have this conversation with them later. In the moment, though, I focused my energy upon ways and means of healing which I knew worked.

    Our exchanges here have led me to believe you either already understand about healing or are capable of recognizing the knowing of it that is already in you because of your awareness.

    The short form is Lenore and I would rather have one person praying a prayer of gratitude for our life and who we are really than ten thousand people praying for our deliverance from some sort of catastrophe they perceive and project onto us and onto themselves and into the world. Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather have one person somewhere in the world praying a prayer of gratitude for you because they are glad you are in the world and have had such a wonderful life, full of joy and sorrow and celebration and grief and mistakes made and wisdoms gained, and because you are truly a child of God and the Tao and are a truly powerful and worthy person simply because that is what each of us is, really? I would.

    When Harmony was born 27 weeks premature and when Lenore went through her cancer experience and treatment and recovery the concrete foundation beneath all of the rest of our thoughts and feelings was the clear “knowing” we have of the unknowable mysteries of spirit and the truth of life. In crisis moments this knowing rises up like a tide above all personality and feeling and thought and the limited realm of existential ego and its manifestations, and we give ourselves to it.

    Practically speaking what that meant in those instances was that I told, as gently as I could, many of the concerned and worried and loving persons who came to us in those times to leave us alone. In those times the presence of their energies often constituted a form of psychic interference which tempted us to focus our energy into gaining an understanding and compassionate perspective on the mental and emotional and spiritual conditions of others when, quite frankly, it just wasn’t the time to be doing that. It was not helpful to have these folks come to us saying everything would be all right while the energy beneath their expressions projected into our circumstances their true belief that disaster and doom and tragedy was at hand. We knew it was not. Knew it, in the core of us. And in those times it was necessary to embrace that knowing, focus on it, and not drift or be distracted from it.

    We focused on acceptance and reconciled ourselves to every possible outcome. We focused on positive things, hoped for the best, allowed it all to go where God would have it be, and went along for the ride. And they were great rides. Just the best. And the outcomes were far greater and more soul-filling than we could ever have gained for ourselves if we had tried to be in charge rather be carried along by it all.

    Karma yoga is a good path even for all the mundanity experienced there – or more correctly because of it – but there are times when only dwelling in the heart of God will do.

    Why I say this here and now I have no idea, except perhaps that the context here has brought it forth. I have no doubt, friend, that the energy you send in our direction is positive and helpful and based in the knowing that health is present here and any perceived affliction is not, and we welcome it – and you – here.

    • A lot of stories and thoughts – good and bad – that I don’t think I will tell or express.

      For the 10,000 people vs. 1, if we assume the energy is some waveform (and it very well may not be, but if we assume) it is very hard to get 10,000 peaks and troughs lined up.
      Therefore you often end up with nothing or worse.


  4. Pingback: CHAPTER 62 - REFUGE |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *