Chapter 54 – How do You Know?

 He who is well established (in Tao) cannot be pulled away.
He who has a firm grasp (of Tao) cannot be separated from it.
Thus from generation to generation his ancestral sacrifice will never be suspended. 

When one cultivates virtue in his person, it becomes genuine virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in his family, it becomes overflowing virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in his community, it becomes lasting virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in his country, it becomes abundant virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in the world, it becomes universal. 

Therefore the person should be viewed as a person.
The family should be viewed as a family.
The community should be viewed as a community.
The country should be viewed as a country.
And the world should be viewed as the world.

How do I know this to be the case in the world?
Through this.

 Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)


 Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for.
It’s nothing
It’s something I learned over in England.

Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free No. 10” (1964)


Until the last two lines of this chapter, it could almost be read as a Confucian text.  Confucius taught of a social morality within a hierarchy of relationships.  The individual has certain responsibilities to his family.  Each family owes duties to the community.  The communities are responsible to the country or kingdom.  And the kingdom should assume its proper role within the greater world.

Confucius did not believe that humans are capable understanding the divine.  Therefore, the proper focus of each of us is the world around us.  The goal of this life is to take the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAactions necessary for each of us to achieve our highest purpose as a person (jen).  Since we cannot understand sacred time and sacred space, our ordinary worldly time and space essentially become the sacred.

The most sacred of all was seen as the family and the relationship among family members.  Those relationships are the template for all social relationships from inter-personal to inter-national.  Thus, if each of us acts to his or her highest potential we will live in a world in which virtue is abundant and society is in harmony.

From that perspective, it may not even be necessary to consider the interactions of kings and nations.  What the individual can control is his or her own virtue – and that is enough to begin the entire process.

Lao Tzu also adopted this line of thought, at least in its first stages.  He has said throughout the Tao Te Ching that each person must reach his own understanding and act according to the Way of Tao – a way that is expressed through individual virtue (Te).

Of course there are differences between Lao Tzu’s approach and that of Confucius.

Confucians believed much more that rites and ritual are necessary to express and cultivate virtue.  Lao Tzu did not emphasize those practices.  The first three lines seem to try to reconcile these two lines of thought, but they were probably added sometime after the original text.

The most, shall we say, “Taoist” part of this chapter appears to be the last two lines.  The text leading to them has postulated that individual virtue and virtuous action can lead to a better world.  How do we know this?  In Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation, above, he answers, “Through this.”

To some, that answer leaves a little bit of uncertainty.  I have reviewed several translations to see how that question was answered by others, including the following:

James Legge (1891):  “By this.”  That doesn’t add much clarity, does it?

Witter Bynner (1944):  “Because it could all begin in me.”  Not satisfying. The previous lines have already told us that not only could it; it does begin there.

D. C. Lau (1963):  “By means of this.”  Like Dylan’s song says, what has us baffled is just what the this that keeps turning up is or is for.

Stephen Mitchell (1988):  “By looking inside myself.”  To me that sounds like something Lao Tzu would think.  However, it seems an interpretation and not a translation.  Still, it is helpful and there is much to learn from that thought.

Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng (1989):  “By looking.”  Awareness is the way in which much of the Tao is brought into each of our lives, and we become aware by looking – and listening and touching and smelling and feeling – and then interpreting.

J. H. McDonald (1996):  “I observe these things and see.”  The same concept as English and Feng, and it is more satisfying than some of the earlier translations.

Ron Hogan (2004):  “I just do.”  In Chapter 49, Lao Tzu said that the sage deals with the people as his children.  I guess that gives him the right to tell them, “Because I said so; that’s why.”

Setting my flippancy aside, I really do like Mr. Hogan’s answer to this question best.  I find it firmly rooted in the Tao because it brings to mind a famous story from Chuang Tzu.  It seems that Chuang Tzu and his friend were walking by a river when Chuang Tzu commented how happy the fish were that day.  His friend took exception and said, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes them happy?”

Chuang Tzu replied, “Since you are not me, how can you know whether I know what makes a fish happy?”

The friend said, “That is exactly my point.  Just as I am not you and cannot know what you know, you are not a fish and cannot know what a fish feels.”

Chuang Tzu said, “Wait a minute.  Let’s go back to your original question.  You asked, ‘How do you know what makes them happy?’  So we both agree that I do know what makes fish happy.  Now I am going to respond directly to your question and tell you how I know.  I know the joy the fish feel in the river from my own joy in walking next to it.”



7 thoughts on “CHAPTER 54 – HOW DO YOU KNOW?

  1. Another excellent commentary Louis, and much of what you observe resonates in my own “matrix of understanding.”

    It’s an interesting thing, this evolved body of information we gather and arrange from our individual experience. It becomes individual and unique in each of us, and depending on the individual can be simple and straightforward, or complex and convoluted.

    Our unique, individual experience becomes just that, seemingly separated into discreet spheres which intersect here and there, and the nodes of those intersections mark those places where the descriptions of our “understanding” are mutual. Yet often we forget that there is a greater sphere which holds us all – that thing which is, that basic realm which inspires all forms and understandings.

    It has always seemed to me that there is a schism, a bridgeable yet nonetheless separating chasm, between my own personal understanding and that which is and beheld before the personal matrix of understanding proceeds to be built up. A thing that was here before us, and is here with us, and will be here long after our personal understanding has disappeared.

    So I am inclined to agree with Confucius that people are not capable of “understanding” the divine, and I would agree that it is good to focus our understanding on the world around us. Yet I would add an emphasis there, and say that it is possible to know in full what we understand in part. That we are all able to see through the dark glass of personal understanding and know what is shining behind it. Because, as Ron Hogan’s interpretation says, “We just do.”

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that there is more joy in reflecting upon the Tao rather than the matrix of my personal understanding. Oh, there is a bridge between the two which becomes more substantial as time goes on. Engagement with my own understanding and building up that bridge involves much more time and toil and confusion and dissatisfaction than simple “being.” I still think the moments of clarity gained there are worth it, even though that thought often comes into question.

    And what are those moments of clarity? They come when I stop building the bridge and give up the idea that it is my job and up to me to make the connection between the Tao and “me.” In those moments the Tao rushes across the chasm in a torrent and fills up my understanding with knowing. And when what I “know” observes that part of me which “sees,” the sense I have there is much like what Bob Dylan wrote: “It’s nothing / It’s (only) something ‘I’ learned…”

    The story of Chuang Tzu and his friend is comfortably laughable in a certain sense. Out of an engagement with the simple fact of the fish in the river a conversation of perspectives on that which is – the fish in the river – arises. It proceeds logically. The first assumptions which established the ground of the conversation are clarified and then arranged to be mutually resonant, and the initial result of Chang Tzu’s final expression of his own understanding gives way, finally, to the simple fact of the fish in the river and Chang Tzu and his friend being where they are and doing what they do in the greater river of the Tao and the “joy” there.

    And so it would seem that there is joy everywhere: joy in seeing, joy in knowing, joy in building bridges between that which has never been separated and which is the light Leonard Cohen observed leaking into everything.

    And to pull the string through these rough beads and draw them back round to where you began, it is good to incorporate and cultivate within the matrix of our personal understanding – and the actions taken and relationships present there – the Virtue which flows across the bridge and suffuses everything.


    I made a vase of words and placed a word-flower in it;
    the vase did not hold water for long,
    the flower lost its fragrance.

    I went down to the river where a trillium bloomed
    and there I lay down, and there I am still.

    The stars turn above me and the earth turns below me.
    All the words have been lost, forgotten.

    And there I am still,
    joyful in the river
    in the joy of the bloom.

    • Your comments have brought a whole swarm of thoughts rushing into my head. I am going to simply continue to think most of them, but will write about a few, in no particular order.

      1. Yesterday I was conversing with a gentleman named Al Brown who retired awhile back as the best plumber in Clear Creek County. Now he is the person who knows more about A Course in Miracles and The Way of Mastery than any of my other acquaintances. The discussion started when another friend had begun talking about issues of control and awareness related to driving. Al’s suggestion for that situation – and probably for all others – is to pause your thoughts, say “Holy Spirit,” and then go on with whatever you were doing but turning “control” over to the Holy Spirit. You may need to do it again 5 seconds later, but eventually you will allow the Holy Spirit to provide guidance. That is sort of like Frank Kinslow’s teaching about stopping thoughts – and like many other teachings. It is also like those times you stop building your bridge and let the Tao rush across the chasm.

      2. The story from Chuang Tzu could have been used to support any of the translations I mentioned. I do like the story because it is a good illustration of the thing you have described as the greater sphere that inspires forms and understandings; and of your observation that we can sometimes know more than we understand.

      3. One part of this chapter that I did not discuss (though it is important) is that which tells us to view person as person, family as family, community as community, etc. It is true that the virtue of a single person can be the cornerstone for true virtue throughout the world. In other contexts we have been told that the light of a single candle can transform even the greatest darkness. Still, in the real world it requires more than the one virtuous person (even Sodom and Gomorrah had the one) to create a world of universal virtue. For example, during the Holocaust there were “good Germans” like Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame), and their presence did not prevent the wholesale atrocities. Conversely, there are periodic news stories about men and women who are working to bring humanitarian aid to war-torn regions who are captured or killed simply because they are American (or British or some other nationality) in a land where one side of the conflict views the United States as evil.

      I had intended to go back to “I Shall Be Free No. 10” to point out that Dylan begins the song singing, “I’m just average, common too/Just like him and the same as you/I’m everybody’s brother and son/I ain’t no different than anyone/So it ain’t no use talkin’ to me/It’s just like talkin’ to you.” There are contexts in which that may be true, however (without wishing to even consider the whole ACIM teaching about “separation”) it is not true in others.

      There is also the idea that some Transcendental Meditation practitioners express that there will be some kind of quantum shift in the minds and spirits of any community or nation or world in which merely 1% of the population practices TM. Maybe. Who knows? That would appropriately require viewing community as community, though; and not as the individuals making up the community.

      4. A Bit of trivia as you wait comfortably by your trillium: The trillium is the official flower of Ontario and the official wildflower of Ohio. Tomorrow, May 31, 2014, the Columbus Crew and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer are playing the second of the three games that will decide this year’s “Trillium Cup.” Toronto won the first game 2-0 back in April.

      • Well said, Louis, and nice return! I now have a swarm of thoughts inspired by your good ones on my side of the net. In the process of addressing them my reply got so lengthy I decided to post it over on my blog instead of here. Thanks for the inspiration, and boy was I glad when I got to the end of my own particular exhalation on the subject!

        It’s here:

      • To continue the trivia, let me report that Toronto beat Columbus 3-2 to claim the Trillium Cup, no matter which team wins the third game. Two of Toronto’s goals were scored by Jermain Defoe, an Englishman who was not selected to that country’s national team for the upcoming World Cup. Press reports indicate that he is not happy about that situation. At least his team can keep the Trillium Cup this year.

        • Hmmm… Bit of a crunch and grind here as I shift gears. The only thing I can come up with is a note to self: “There are more trilliums in heaven and earth, Bob, than are just in your forest…” It is also good to note that one of those (in the form of a cup? ! ?) is soothing a pained soul rejected by his homeland.

          Question: Is soccer that game where everybody shows up on a tilted field (a pitch? or is that the game with the fat paddles?) and, when all the players have been kicked nearly unto death by each other and fall down from hitting the ball with their heads, it comes to an end when an unruly crowd tramples several acres of each other before going off to have a beer together in a triage pub somewhere? In this case, a beer served with a trillium bloom floating delicately upon the foamy head? Sounds like good fun to me. I’m in! When’s the next game?

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