Chapter 5 – Straw Dogs

Heaven and earth are not humane:
The 10,000 things are straw dogs to them.
Sages are not humane:
People are straw dogs to them. 

Yet heaven and earth
And all the space between are like a bellows:
Empty and inexhaustible,
Always producing more. 

Longwinded speech is exhausting.
Better to stay centered.

 Perhaps we should blame Sam Peckinpah for some of the misconceptions people have about regarding or treating things and other humans as straw dogs.  His 1971 movie, Straw Dogs, took its name from this chapter of the Tao Te Ching.  It showed a dark, primal side of humanity through graphic scenes of violence and rape.

I’m sorry, Sam, but that is not the way of the sage or of Nature.

However, Peckinpah was not alone in what might be said to be his “interpretation” of the text.

Lao Tzu 1Twenty-five centuries ago in China, straw dogs were just that – dummies made of straw in the shape of a dog.  At an even earlier time, real dogs had been sacrificed in religious ceremonies.  That practice changed so that the straw dummies were substituted for the living animals.  It is often said (dating all the way back to Chuang Tzu) that before the ceremony, the straw dogs were venerated and treated with extreme respect; but when it was over they were tossed aside and trampled in the ground.  Pieces were taken to be used as kindling.  Knowing that history, a number of translators working 40-50 years ago, produced works saying that both heaven and earth and sages are “ruthless” or “unkind.”  Peckinpah’s movie took such translations to a ridiculous extreme, but we can’t lay all the blame at his feet.

To properly understand this chapter, one must consider what words Lao Tzu actually used.  Unfortunately for us, he did not write in English.  He did not say the sage is “ruthless” or is“not humane” or is “not kind” or is “not benevolent.”  As I understand it, he wrote that heaven and earth and sages are BU REN.

The word bu expresses a negative, so we may say it means “not.”  The word ren has always proved difficult to translate.  In a special sense, it is a central concept of Confucianism, which exhorts everyone to become a “man of ren.”  That is, to be fully human.  To do that, a person must interact properly with other humans, fulfilling one’s duties to his family and community.  The proper way of acting was prescribed by li or rites which provided the guidelines for human conduct.  That sense of being human was thought necessary for a person or a society to develop culture and civilization.

Here, it seems that Lao Tzu is telling us that Nature (heaven and earth) and the Taoist sage are not concerned with human rules of etiquette or ritual because
the things and people of the world are really the equivalent of straw dummies.  As the Buddhists would say, the physical world is an illusion.  It is as if we are living among shadows on the wall of a cave, according to Plato.

Accordingly, the wise person is not focused on artificial rules of human interaction, but on the true nature of all things.

This way of looking at Chapter 5 is reinforced by a story found in Chapter 14 of Chuang Tzu in which Confucius has come to visit Lao Tzu to seek advice.  Confucius has diligently studied and organized the Six Canons (poetry, history, rites, music, changes, seasons) and has presented his work to 72 princes; but none of them would follow his suggestions for governing the people.

“It is well for you, Sir,” replied Lao Tzu, “that you did not come across any real ruler of mankind.  Your Six Canons are but the worn-out footprints of ancient sages.  And what are footprints?  Why the words you now utter are like footprints.  Footprints are made by the shoe; they are not the shoe itself.”  He then tells Confucius that if he wishes to provide guidance to others, he must attain the Tao, for with it there is nothing that cannot be accomplished; though without it, nothing may be done.

Confucius returned home and spent three months locked in his house, contemplating the words of Lao Tzu.  After that period, he again went to Lao Tzu and announced:  “I have attained [the Tao].  Birds lay eggs, fish spawn, insects undergo metamorphosis and mammals suckle their young.  For a long time I have not been enlightened.  And he who is not himself enlightened, how can he enlighten others?’

La Tzu said, “Yes, Ch’iu, you have attained.”

The rest of the chapter is as fully complex (and simple) as the first four lines.  It is from the void that the Nameless, the Tao, creates without end the 10,000 things to which we apply names in our world of illusion.  For now, however,

my words are getting in the way
of my understanding, or lack thereof.
I should be quiet –
and centered.

Amy Putkonen of has begun a project challenging anyone who may be interested to comment on a chapter of the Tao Te Ching each “Tao Tuesday.”  You may check that site for links to other considerations or interpretations.

I would like to credit the image of Lao Tzu, but I have not been able to learn who created it.  It seems to exist in the public domain.


9 thoughts on “CHAPTER 5 – STRAW DOGS

  1. Hi Louis,

    I love the way you do these chapters. It is obviously different from the way that I do them, but that is the beauty of it. Your story of Lao Tzu and Confucius and the sage’s shoes is a perfect analogy. Thank you!

  2. “…footprints are made by the shoe; they are not the shoe itself…”

    Yes. Remember the story about “teach them only about shoes?” Engage That Which Is directly, the making of shoes, and the spiritual light will come forth from direct engagement with That Which Is.

    The sage directs the seeker, as Lao Tzu directed Confucius, to become directly engaged with what is rather than trying to recreate it in personal, local, separated impressions. Our impulse is to create with words and thoughts and emotional memory that which is already created, and our efforts create only straw dogs, poor facsimiles of that which is in us and around us.

    After three months of contemplating what is and what isn’t, Confucius returns and announces he has seen the difference. “Birds lay eggs, fish spawn, insects undergo metamorphosis and mammals suckle their young.”

    Tat Tvam Asi. Thou art That. That art Thou. No matter where ya go, there ya Are.

  3. The lesson here, for me, was that in attempting to winnow the wheat from the chaff of ancient spiritual teachings, the historical context in which the teachings were given is absolutely essential to a meaningful understanding. Lou did a wonderful job.

    • Rick has concisely pointed out one of the two (at least) main problems in understanding The Way as it is described by Lao Tzu: We don’t really know the historical context in which it was written.

      Was Lao Tzu (which simply means “Old Master” or “Old Teacher”)a real person? Did he live in the 6th Century B.C.E or the 3rd Century? Did he really write this work as legend tells us or is it a compilation of his sayings compiled by students centuries after his death? Were the sayings only those of one Old Master or is the book a compilation of teachings by several ancient masters?

      The second major difficulty in interpreting the work is that Lao Tzu (assuming now that he is real) clearly did not intend to write a lengthy exposition of philosophical principles or to explain how the Tao should be incorporated into everyday life. He couldn’t – the tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.

      No, Lao Tzu is does not instruct us concerning the Way; there is no concrete doctrine. I don’t think he is even asking his readers to live according to the Way. Rather, Lao Tzu himself was a human embodiment of the Way. The Tao Te Ching is experiential and invites us to share the very essence of Lao Tzu; to become one with him and all that is.

      As a consequence, skilled translators and learned commentators often see the work from completely different perspectives. That does not mean they are right or wrong. Each is a unique being following his or her own path to the Oneness.

      [OK, Sam Peckinpah was probably wrong if his Straw Dogs was really interpreting this chapter – but his way (small “w” and small “t” on the tao) revolved around a lot of alcohol and violence (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, etc.) and an early death.]

      Still, as we move toward the Oneness that Lao Tzu may show us, we must remember he was writing in this world of 10,000 things and his writing is a product of his space-time even as it may have been transcended.

      I think that is enough – probably too much – comment. I hear the Old Master whispering that I have not attained; I need to become quiet and find a center.

  4. Yes, Louis, so much to resonate with in what you say.

    Here we are, Louis and Amy and Rick and Bob, all in the art studio occupying different positions around our central subject. Our perspective varies, the subject does not. We produce single, separate interpretations of the subject from different angles, hopefully in a collaborative effort to represent the truth of the subject rather than a personal effort to strive to make our picture the best. Our tools are shadows, and the subject emerges in light as we surround it with our shadowing. We each benefit from the other.

    You astutely observe that “skilled translators and learned commentators often see the work from completely different perspectives. That does not mean they are right or wrong. Each is a unique being following his or her own path to the Oneness.” So it is with each of us, according to our path, regardless of our skill or learning.

    Dionysius the Areopagite reflects your thought this way: “…to see and to know…is not unlike the art of those who carve a life-like image from stone; removing from around it all that impedes clear vision of the latent form, revealing its hidden beauty solely by taking away.”

    I also resonate with what you say about Lao Tzu. No matter whether he is/was a real person or apocryphal or the figurehead for a collection of wisdom. Lao Tzu is here with us now, collaboratively sharing his perspective point of a consciousness. The complexities and nuances of philosophy, and the ways and means by which that consciousness can be made part of our everyday life, are left to us.

    Thank you, Louis. I will say it again. Your orderly and thoughtful insights, your skill and learning, and most particularly the gentle, kind, loving and wise person you are – in evidence throughout your blog and posts – are a great benefit to all of us here in our little “studio.”

  5. Pingback: Tao Te Ching Chapter 5 | The Cascadian Wanderer

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  7. Pingback: 62: Dogs in Antiquity: China | Ancient Art Podcast

    • This “pingback” is from a site called, which is run by a guy named Lucas Livingston. Mr. Livingston is an assistant director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently in the middle of a three-part podcast/blog looking at “Dogs in Antiquity.” He talks about the bonding that occurred between dogs and humans and shows examples of how dogs have been depicted in art. I was not familiar with Mr. Lucas’s work until today. I have looked at some of the things he has posted and find them interesting. It is certainly worth checking it out to see the recipe for home brewed beer inspired by the art of ancient Egypt.

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