Chapter 48 – Watching the River Flow

One who seeks knowledge learns something new every day.
One who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day.
Less and less remains until you arrive at non-action.
When you arrive at non-action,
nothing will be left undone. 

Mastery of the world is achieved
by letting things take their natural course.
You cannot master the world by changing the natural way

 Translation by J. H. McDonald (1996)

For this Tao Te Ching Tuesday, I intend to keep my comments on Chapter 48 brief.  The way which is called “Tao” is the way of Nature.  We humans think we truly can master our world using our intellect and willpower and technology.  We look around and believe it most of the time – believe it until we are faced with a tsunami or tornado or wildfire or any of the other “disasters” through which Nature gives us a wake-up call.  It has been said that “you can’t push the river.”  That is true, so why try?

My approach to non-action here is to refer you to an excellent discussion of Chapter 48 by a Swedish gentleman named Stefan Stenudd.  On (which you can visit by clicking here), he says pretty much what I think one should get out of this chapter.

Dylan Nashville SkylineHaving nothing much left to say here, I would like to go on for a few minutes and talk about Bob Dylan.  By the mid-1960s, Dylan seems to have forced himself about as far from Nature as he could get.  He had electrified his music, made himself the spokesman for a generation seeking to change the world and used and abused numerous drugs.  That lifestyle was taking its toll and he moved his family to Woodstock, New York to escape the frenetic pace of New York City.  A short time after that he was injured in a mysterious motorcycle accident and became reclusive during his recovery.

When he did start recording again, the general tone of his music had changed.  His next two albums were John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.  Compare those to his next previous album, Blonde on Blonde – or perhaps contrast them, for there is a great difference.

In the early 1970s, Dylan recorded some music that seems to fit into the theme of this chapter.  I would invite you to listen to “Watching the River Flow” (click here), in which the singer feels he should be in the city where the action is, but recognizing the problems there (“I saw somebody on the street who couldn’t help but cry…I saw somebody on the street that was really shook”) finds contentment just where he is, “watching the river flow”; and “Sign on the Window,” (click here) in which the apparent recent break-up of a relationship leads the singer to realize that “what it’s all about” is to have a small cabin and a family and to “catch a rainbow trout.”




  1. Bob Dylan’s presence as an icon of the 60’s is undeniable. I’ve always counted myself as blessed to be a child of the 60’s. It was the greatest American era of spiritual and social revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries, a cauldron of thaumaturgy seeking to transmute the dross of our cultural development, fallen into mechanistic and rational ways and means, back into the gold of natural human truths.

    It failed, of course. Revolutions do that. The mob, never more than yea-sayers and wave riders finding momentary pleasures in the pleasures of the moment, finally found what they always wanted in the bread and circuses of their forefathers and fell away from the banner. The leaders eventually died or fell into exile or compromise, carrying knowledge of those certain virtues which they identified and championed in their hearts and souls and minds, a knowledge slowly eroded by the tribal juggernaut which demanded fealty to its own corruptions in return for the dispensations of bed and bread it afforded.

    These revolutions do not transform societies, they transform individuals. They prod the sleeper to wakefulness. What happens next is up to the individual. There is either a quickening of the soul and spirit, or there is not. Our relationships with society and with each other are based on two things. Truth, and lies. It is a sad thing when we are informed of the truth and yet, for whatever reason, the lies in our lives persist, and we allow them.

    I was neither leader or mob, that was my granted grace in those days. But by the end of that era, seeing the ideals there fallen and the truths abandoned, I found myself in exile in the outlands of America, disenfranchised and disheartened by the defeat of my own hopes for a new world which once were robust and promising.

    I wonder now why I persevered in my ideals when so many proved to be so malleable by corruptions even though they had become informed of them, so pragmatically flexible as to be able to subvert the truth of who they were for the lies of who they were required to be.

    I have my answer, but it is no one else’s – each spirit finds its own way to the truth in a passage through many lies.

    I never gave up knowing that I knew the difference. And the cosmos, built of truth, proved always a bright pole star for me in the dark map of local lies which humanity had so cleverly constructed for its own selfish interests.

    This is the tip of an iceberg not appropriate to the space restraints in place here, so I’ll stop here.

    One more thing.

    RIP, Jesse Winchester. You followed the pole star.

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