For a project that was called “Tao Te Ching Tuesdays,” I wrote a series of essays commenting on one chapter of the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) each week for 81 weeks.  This page has links to each of those essays.


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Chapter 81 – Beautiful Words

True words are not beautiful;
Beautiful words are not true.
A good man does not argue;
He who argues is not a good man.
A wise man has no extensive knowledge;
He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.
The sage does not accumulate for himself.
The more he uses for others, the more he possesses of his own.
The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.
The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.

Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

This final chapter of the Tao Te Ching contains several brief generalizations that are probably good to keep in mind, can be applied in a variety of circumstances and each could be discussed for pages. They do not, however, seem to add much, if anything, to what we have been told in the earlier chapters.

Tracing of an engraving of Sosibios vase by John Keats (from Wikipedia)

Tracing of an engraving of Sosibios vase by John Keats (from Wikipedia)

For my initial pass at interpretation, I would like to continue the fiction that the Tao Te Ching was composed sequentially, as a book, by a single sage named Lao Tzu. As the last chapter, this would be sort of an epilogue written to bring closure to the work. Seen in that light, Lao Tzu would be saying something like:

Back in Chapter 1 I told you that the Tao that can be expressed in words is not the true Tao. In this book I have written as well as I know how, but words are limited and only approximate the truth. I have not tried to argue with any other schools of philosophy. My own knowledge base is limited, but is focused on the things about which I have written. I wanted to share those with you, my readers. If I had kept them to myself, it would be of benefit to no one.

Perhaps I should leave it at that and spend a few paragraphs as my own epilogue concerning what I have done and learned as a result of writing about Lao Tzu’s beautiful words for well over a year and a half. However, I will leave that for another day and use this space to express a few thoughts on the first two lines of the chapter: “True words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not true.”

Anyone who has ever taken a college or high school class on English poetry, is certainly reminded of the last lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” At first glance, Keats seems to have directly contradicted Lao Tzu. Is one of these great men right and the other wrong, or can they be reconciled? Continue reading


Chapter 80 – Knotted Cords

With a small State, sparsely populated,
supposing that I had weapons for a thousand men, I would not use them.
I would rather teach my subjects to think seriously of death, and not to emigrate to a distance.
Then, though they might have ships and chariots, nobody would mount them;
though they might have armour and weapons, nobody would set them in array.
I would make them return to the use of the quipu,
render their food toothsome,
beautify their clothes [by cultivating the silkworm],
live tranquilly at home,
be happy in their domestic usages,
keep watch with neighbouring states for their mutual safety,
and let the crowing of cocks and barking of dogs be heard by one another [from their numbers and proximity].
Thus the people would die of old age without ever coming into [hostile] collision with each other.

Translation by Frederic Henry Balfour (1884)


Knotted Cords from Meyers Konversationslexikon of 1888

Knotted Cords from Meyers Konversationslexikon of 1888

Chapter 80 is one of those parts of the Tao Te Ching that is sufficiently ambiguous as originally written that several differing interpretations arise based upon the way it is translated.  A reasonable “word-for-word” translation (taken from http://www.centertao.org/tao-te-ching/carl/chapter-80/) seems to be something like:

Small country, few people.
Enable the existence of various tools, yet never need them.
Enable the people attach importance to death, yet not travel around.
Although there exist boats and carriages, there is no place to ride them.
Although there exist weapons, there is no place to deploy them.
Enable the people to again use the knotted rope.
Find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful.
Peaceful in their lives, happy in their customs.
Neighboring countries mutually seen in the distance,
Of chicken and dog sounds mutually heard.
People until death not mutually come and go.

Let us begin by looking at some of the ways in which the first few lines are translated by others than Balfour.  In Arthur Waley’s 1934 translation, he begins “Given a small country with few inhabitants, He could bring it about that though there should be among the people contrivances requiring ten times, a hundred times less labour, they would not use them.  He could bring it about, [etc.]”  Waley continues writing in the third person rather than the first, changing the focus of the entire chapter.

D. C. Lau’s 1963 translation takes a different tact. He begins, “Reduce the size of the population and the state. Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them. . . .” This seems like the writer is giving advice or direction to someone else, which is a different approach than Balfour’s or Waley’s.  Another consideration here is that Lau and Balfour both consider the “tools” mentioned in the word-for-word translation to be weapons or other instruments of war, while Waley sees them as labor-saving devices.

Lin Yutang’s 1948 translation begins this chapter as follows:  “[Let there be] a small country with a small population, where the supply of goods are ten or a hundredfold, more than they can use.”  This is yet another approach.  By saying “let there be,” he may be invoking the God of Genesis who created the world by issuing commands such as, “Let there be light.”  Or, perhaps, the language represents a plea or a prayer; or even a vision of some Taoist Utopia.  This is very similar to Wing-Tsit Chan’s 1963 translation:  “Let there be a small country with few people.  Let there be ten times and a hundred times as many utensils but let them not be used.”  In a footnote Lau states that what he translates as “utensils” could mean “military weapons.”

Now let us look at the end of this chapter in these same translations.* Continue reading


Chapter 79 – Obligations

 When a great hatred is reconciled, naturally some hatred will remain.
How can this be made good? 

. Therefore the sage keeps the obligations of his contract and exacts not from others.
Those who have virtue attend to their obligations;
those who have no virtue attend to their claims. 

. Heaven’s Reason shows no preference
but always assists the good man.

Translation by D. T. Suzuki and Paulo Carus (1913)


Like many (or most) chapters of the Tao Te Ching, this one can be read and interpreted on many levels.  The most obvious is that it relates to the “virtuous” (in the sense of Te)

Tao Yuanming by Chen Hongshou (from Wikipedia.org)

Tao Yuanming by Chen Hongshou (from Wikipedia.org)

resolution of disputes between individuals.  An excellent discussion of that interpretation is given by Amy Putkonen (who initiated the idea of Tao Te Ching Tuesdays) on her website, taotechingdaily.com.  I will let you read what she has to say in her essay while I suggest some other approaches to the chapter.

First, we can consider the well-known Zen saying:  “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.  After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”  In other words, when a person attains so-called enlightenment, nothing magical happens.  The world remains as it always was, but the way in which it is perceived by the enlightened individual is shifted.  Life goes on, and with it the duties of life such as chopping wood and carrying water.  Emotions like hatred and bitterness, or even greed, would probably not be a part of the psyche of one who is enlightened.  Therefore, such a person would attend to his own duties and let others go their own ways.

The last two lines of this chapter may call to mind Chapter 6 of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  There, Jesus tells his disciples that they should not act like the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees who perform religious duties like giving alms and praying as a show to impress whoever may be watching them.  Such actions are not truly virtuous, so Jesus tells his followers to retreat privately to a closet or small room to pray without anyone else knowing about it.  He then instructs them in what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, Who art in heaven . . .).  Following the discussion of prayer, he says that no person can serve two masters, those being God and money.  He teaches that the Father provides all the food needed for the birds of the sky, who neither plant nor reap; and that the lilies of the field are more beautifully dressed than even King Solomon.  He concludes by saying, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  (Matthew 6:33, King James Version of Bible).

Putting that into the context of this chapter, it could be said that the Scribes and Pharisees were a hateful lot who had only contempt for those who did not believe as they did.  Jesus tells his disciples not to be like that.  Instead, they should follow their own virtue and beliefs.  By doing that, they will not only reach the Kingdom of God, but Heaven’s Reason will also assist them in this life.  They will be given all they need.  Bear in mind, though, that when one’s primary duty is to seek God’s kingdom, the things that are “needed” in the physical world may not include wealth, luxury and comfort.

The distinction between the followers of Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees reminds us that in Chinese philosophy, for many centuries, there has been a distinction between Taoist and Confucian thought.  Continue reading


Chapter 78 – More Water

In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.
This is because there is nothing that can take its place.

That the weak overcomes the strong,
And the submissive overcomes the hard,
Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.

Therefore the sage says,
One who takes on himself the humiliation of the state
Is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millet.
One who takes on himself the calamity of the state
Is called a king worthy of dominion over the entire empire.

Straightforward words seem paradoxical.

 Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)

 Straightforward words often do seem paradoxical, but sometimes they begin to make sense when we hear them enough.  Certainly, we have heard most of what is said in this

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAchapter before.  In bringing forth his teaching about Tao, Lao Tzu uses many images.  The most common one is the image of water, with the feminine and the child or infant running a close second and third.

Here, of course, the image is of water.  Therefore, a good starting place for discussing this chapter is to re-read Chapter 8 which (again in Lau’s translation) contains the following:

Highest good is like water.
Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way.
. . . . . .
It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault.

The fact that the highest good settles in the lowest places calls to mind what was said in Chapter 66 (still using Lau’s translation):

The reason why the River and the Sea are able to be king of the hundred valleys is that they excel in taking the lower position.
Hence they are able to be king of the hundred valleys.

Therefore, desiring to rule over the people,
One must in one’s words humble oneself before them;

And, desiring to lead the people,
One must, in one’s person, follow behind them.

Therefore the sage takes his place over the people yet is no burden;
takes his place ahead of the people yet causes no obstruction.
That is why the empire supports him joyfully and never tires of doing so. 

It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.

Applying the thoughts from those earlier chapters to what is said here, I once again get the feeling that this chapter was written by someone other than Lao Tzu, and sometime after his teachings had received a degree of recognition.

This Chapter 78 first re-emphasizes that water, which benefits all things is submissive and weak, yet it is able to gradually smooth away even the hardest rocks or impediments.  That metaphor calls to mind a lazy stream or river following the path of least resistance  – a path that changes over time as it erodes its banks and the surrounding land.

However, water does not always work so subtly.  Continue reading


Ah, 1967, the Summer of Love, when all the groovy and mellow flower children migrated to the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco to live, high on life, in communion with Nature and all her creatures.

Actually, not quite all of the flower children.  Perhaps the most laid-back and mellow was in the UK, a Scottish singer, songwriter and musician named Donovan Leitch, who recorded simply as Donovan.  He had first gained recognition with folk-influenced works like “Catch the Wind” and “Try for the Sun,” but became a true international superstar with his “rocking” numbers like “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.”  Though neither of those hits really rocks by today’s standards, the Sunshine Superman album included “Season of the “Witch,” which has been covered by many artists ranging from Dr. John to Vanilla Fudge to Brian Auger and the Trinity, and which truly can rock your socks off.

When Donovan went back to the studio to record the album to follow up Mellow Yellow, he decided to record two new albums.  One, called Wear Your Love Like Heaven, featured electric instruments and was intended for listeners of his generation who were – or would become – parents.  The other, called For Little Ones, was acoustic and meant to speak to the children.  The two were released together in a boxed set entitled A Gift from a Flower to a Garden.  It was perhaps the first rock boxed set and included not only the two albums, but also artwork, lyrics to the songs on For Little Ones, an infrared cover photo and more.

As if Donovan was not sufficiently mellow on his own, he had, by 1967, become a student and devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a photo of the Maharishi is on the back cover of the set.  I have read that “Isle of Islay,” from For Little Ones, was the Maharishi’s favorite song.

To escape the stress of modern life, a person could sit down and listen (really LISTEN) to almost any track on either of the albums – three minutes that could save years of meditiation practice or psychotherapy.  This week’s Song of the Week is “Little Boy in Corduroy” from Wear Your Love Like Heaven.  It is the song that has been in my head, and it has a great duet between an organ and a whistler.  Although it is probably not the best song from the set, it doesn’t really get any better than this.

Continue reading


Chapter 77 – The Mean

Heaven’s Way is indeed like the bending of a bow.
When (the string) is high, bring it down.
When it is low, raise it up. When it is excessive, reduce it.
When it is insufficient, supplement it. 

The Way of Heaven reduces whatever is excessive and supplements whatever in insufficient.
The way of man is different. It reduces the insufficient to offer to the excessive. 

Who is able to have excess to offer to the world? Only the man of Tao. 

Therefore the sage acts, but does not rely on his own ability.
He accomplishes his task, but does not claim credit for it.
He has no desire to display his excellence. 

Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

JusticeIf these words sound familiar, it is possibly because we have heard them before.  Look at the last lines in the translation above and compare them with the following language in Chan’s translation of Chapter 2: 

“He acts, but does not rely on his own ability.
He accomplishes his task, but does not claim credit for it.”

In Chapter 10 of Chan’s translation, we find:  “To act, but not rely on one’s own ability.”  His translation of Chapter 51 includes:  “[Tao] acts, but does not rely on its own ability.”

The beginning lines in this chapter also come with some familiarity.  In the comments on Chapter 9, I mentioned the similarity between aspects of Tao and the Middle Way of Buddhism and Aristotle’s Golden Mean.  The first four lines seem to follow that line of thought.

The fifth and sixth lines tell us that the way of man generally does not follow that “middle way.”  Rather, those that have take from those who do not have – the rich get rich and the poor stay poor.  This, too, has been said previously; as recently as Chapter 75.

However, I think that rather than a simple repetition of ideas, this chapter is included to make a particular point.  For reasons that will become clear in the following discussion, it also seems that it was probably added sometime after Lao Tzu’s original writing.  Continue reading


Chapter 76 – You Are Old, Father William

When people are born they are gentle and soft.
At death they are hard and stiff.
When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.
When they die, they wither and dry up.
Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.
The gentle and soft are the followers of life. 

Thus, if you are aggressive and stiff, you won’t win.
When a tree is hard enough, it is cut. Therefore
The hard and big are lesser,
The gentle and soft are greater.

 Translated by Charles Muller (2011)

I have come to understand that this is a difficult chapter to translate, and various translations I have read use differing words and images.  All of them, though, convey the sense that all things begin life as something soft, tender, gentle and flexible, only to become stiff and hard as they age and eventually die.  Charles Muller’s translation expresses the concept well without any superfluous language, so it was chosen for this essay.

You Are Old, Father William

You Are Old, Father William

Even though the work of translation may be difficult here, the concept expressed is neither difficult nor new.  It can be tied back to chapters like Chapter 6 which praises the receptiveness of the Divine Feminine or to Chapters 10 and 36 in which I referred to the art of tai chi ch’uan to illustrate the power that comes from the gentle and supple movements of the internal martial arts.

A further discussion of the concept might include the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:3 that unless “ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven”; or in Matthew 5:5 that “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”  It might also include further discussion of the treasure of humility highlighted in Chapter 67.  Instead, though, I am going to offer for consideration “You Are Old, Father William,” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which goes:  Continue reading


Last year, I posted a list of the songs that were played at my daughter’s baby shower (you can click here to see it).  An average of about 20 people per day have visited that page since then.  Apparently there is a need to remind folks of some of the good songs you or I may have heard over the years.

There are some songs get stuck in my head so that I think about them over and over for several days, so I thought it appropriate that I should start posting a song of the week to try to pass what is going through my mind on to someone who is trying to find a song.  This is my first try at doing that.

Since today is Halloween, it would make sense to choose “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett as the song of the week – especially since that was the first record I ever purchased.  Or, since next week is national election day, I could choose the Byrds’ “I Wanna Grow Up To Be a Politician.”  However, neither of those songs have been stuck in my head (until now, anyway).

Rather, last weekend, my wife, Cathy, and I were hiking with our dog, Darcy, at Staunton State Park, which is near Conifer, Colorado.  As we were walking along, just looking at the scenery and listening to our footsteps, I started thinking about Jackson Browne’s old song, “These Days” – “I’ve been out walking/I don’t do that much talking/These days.”

“These Days” is a piece that I have long considered to be an “accidentally” good song.  If you are familiar with it, you know that it gives a sense that the singer is world-weary and world-wisened.  However, Jackson Browne wrote it when he was only 16 years old.  If you listen to the words, or look at the lyrics (printed below) , you will find examples of his youthfulness showing through his words.  For example, when he says that he thinks about the things that he forgot to do, he adds “for you”; and I always found that distracting.  Similarly, when he says he will keep on moving because things are bound to be improving, it seems a good thought, but somehow out of place.

The song was first recorded by Nico in 1967.  Jackson Browne was only 19 then, but Nico was an older woman.  She was in her late 20s.  Besides that, she had a foreign accent that gave the song a sense of gravitas.  It introduced a segment of the public to Browne’s songwriting, but I never particularly liked her version.

A much better rendition was recorded in 1970 by Tom Rush.  Though he was also in his late 20s, Rush has always had a voice and delivery that made him seem older and wiser than the listener.  His version suffered a little from being over-produced, but I have always liked it.

Jackson Browne released his own version in 1973 on the album, For Everyman.  He was 25 years old.  I thought his arrangement also suffered from over-production, but it was done well (for one of his advanced age).

Recently, I came across the following “live” recording of Tom Rush singing “These Days,” with just a guitar accompaniment, when he was about 70 years old.  I like it – and he does not say “for you” at the end of the fifth line.  I like that, too.

Continue reading


Chapter 75 – Life Should Be for Living

 People starve
If taxes eat their grain,
And the faults of starving people
Are the fault of their rulers.
That is why people rebel.
Men who have to fight for their living
And are not afraid to die for it
Are higher men than those who, stationed high,
Are too fat to dare to die.

Translation by Witter Bynner (1944)
(This is Chapter 74 in Bynner’s translation)


 Come you Masters of War
. . . . .
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

 Bob Dylan, “Masters of War,” (1963)


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have chosen Witter Bynner’s translation for this chapter primarily because I wanted some symmetry with the commentary on Chapter 53 that started with Bynner’s version and then a quote from Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

It does not require much analysis to see that the Tao Te Ching’s “men who have to fight for their living” can be compared to the bleeding “young people” in Dylan’s song, or that those who “are too fat to die” are like the “Masters of War” who hide in their mansions.

I am tempted to end this discussion with that observation.  I hate to break it to you, though, that I feel I must resist that temptation.  Instead, I am going to set our many more words because I would like to consider several other translations: Continue reading