Chapter 67 – Three Treasures

The whole world says that my way is vast and resembles nothing.
It is because it is vast that it resembles nothing.
If it resembled anything, it would, long before now, have become small.

I have three treasures
Which I hold and cherish.
The first is known as compassion,
The second is known as frugality,
The third is known as not daring to take the lead in the empire;
Being compassionate one could afford to be courageous,
Being frugal one could afford to extend one’s territory,
Not daring to take the lead in the empire one could afford to be lord over the vessels.

Now, to forsake compassion for courage, to forsake frugality for expansion, to forsake the rear for the lead, is sure to end in death. 

Through compassion, one will triumph in attack and be impregnable in defence.
What heaven succours it protects with the gift of compassion. 

Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)

This is another of the most famous chapters of the Tao Te Ching.  It even has its own entry in Wikipedia.  When the master himself tells us, “I have three treasures which I hold and cherish,” that should certainly get the attention of his students – even those studying millennia down the road (down the tao – small “t”).  We think this is might be where we should take notes.

Many students have taken very good notes, and it is easy to find excellent commentaries Glowing Treasureon these “treasures.”  I think that Wayne Dyer’s Change your Thoughts – Change Your Life does an excellent job of discussing these treasures, so that is one work to which I would refer a reader.  In this essay, though, I would like to make a few observations that I have not found stated expressly in other commentaries I have read.

As soon as I wrote that last sentence, I knew it was not true.  It is probably more honest to say that from the bits and pieces of other people’s thoughts I have picked up along the way (tao – small “t”) I don’t know exactly where I started thinking along these lines.

This chapter is included in the portion of Lao Tzu’s work that could be called the Te Ching – the “Classic on Virtue”; and not in the first part of his work which could be the Tao Ching – the “Classic of the Way.”  Therefore, this chapter seems to be telling us that the Great or True Virtue (Te) is comprised of three essential elements, compassion, frugality and humility.  His teaching is specifically directed to the ruler and to (as well as from) the sage; but it certainly applies to us ordinary folks as well.

Considering these traits as the essence of Virtue has led me to consider the “virtues” that have been studied in Western philosophy.  Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle regarded temperance, wisdom, justice and courage as the most important character traits.  As Christianity began to be the prevalent religion, these four were referred to as the “cardinal virtues” and three “theological virtues” (faith, hope and charity) were added to counterbalance the “seven deadly sins.”

The first of the cardinal virtues, temperance, would fit in well with Lao Tzu’s treasures.  When one acts with compassion or frugality or humility, he does not go to any extreme.  Perhaps frugality is the best example of this.  The Old Master does not tell his readers to own no goods or have no money.  Rather, we should not be attached to material possessions and use them wisely.  The ruler is told in this chapter that if he does not spend all his money in one place, he may frugally spread it around to extend his territory and influence.

The lack of attachment is important not only in dealing with material goods, but with the other treasures, too.  A person is able to act with compassion when he or she recognizes the feelings and views of others, without being bound by personal prejudices and beliefs.  Similarly, humility is possible only when a person is not attached to his or her position or prestige.

Avoiding those attachments is a kind of temperance, but it is also the wise thing to do.  The virtue of wisdom is, therefore, inherent in each of Lao Tzu’s treasures.

The next cardinal virtue is justice.  A just person must see all sides of a situation with a sense of compassion; must apply the principles of justice in an appropriate and frugal manner; and must recognize that his own position should not influence the concept of what is right or appropriate.  The virtue of wisdom, then, also permeates each of Lao Tzu’s treasures.

The last of the cardinal virtues is courage.  In this chapter, Lao Tzu tells us that “being compassionate, one can afford to be courageous.”  The implication is that, as we often read in the Tao Te Ching, seemingly opposite concepts are actually complementary and must co-exist.  The same structure is found in the text when we are told that frugality permits the extension of territory, and humility (or not seeking to be first) allows a ruler to lead others.  But are those really opposites?

We could answer, “yes and no”; and then they would be opposite.  However, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to answer at all.  We can simply allow them to be examples Lao Tzu has given for the application of his treasures.  In fact, the Old Master tells us that to forsake what he has termed a treasure for a seeming opposite leads to “death.”

I believe the Chinese word translated here as “death” is ”si” and that word also meanGollums fixed or rigid.  I feel, then, that we are being told that if we are not wise and temperate and such, we become attached to goods or money of feelings or beliefs; and such attachment makes us rigid.  We cannot change with the constantly changing world.

The world says that Tao is vast and empty and resembles nothing because it has no attachments.  It flows.  It changes.  As soon as we think we see it, it is different.  That Tao cannot be tied down and made small.

The Old Master has not left us without opposites and contradictions, though.  We have been looking at them throughout this commentary.  We think of a treasure is something to hide away and horde for ourselves.  They create attachments, as with Gollum and the One Ring in J. R. R. Tolkien’s books.  However, the essence of Lao Tzu’s treasures is the lack of attachment.  Also, the treasures described here are not to be buried.  They may seem “hidden” in the vastness of infinity, but they must be employed in the light of our small world to be meaningful.

Tao, though, may be hard to see, even in the light.  “It resembles nothing,” so why not take a minute now to look at nothing or hear nothing or think nothing.  Close your eyes, if you wish.  Perhaps you can see it better.



13 thoughts on “CHAPTER 67 – THREE TREASURES

  1. Good comments, Louis, and very stimulating, particularly with regard to your inclusion of the cardinal and theological virtues and the seven deadly sins. There’s enough grain in that pile to run the grist mill until the cogs break down… I’m grinding a bit laboriously today myself, so I’ll stick with the basic precepts here, which seem simple and direct to me.

    First, unspoken, is the message that if one masters the internal kingdom of self then the external kingdom will follow, in manifestations of that mastery.

    The mastery spoken of is the recognition and embrasure of humility, frugality, and compassion. For my own understanding, if I were to convey them by priority, I would have to say the sage has reversed their order.

    Humility is first, always. Every person I’ve met who has evolved a deeper level of awareness of what works in life, regardless of their religion, has identified selfishness as the fundamental source of evil, of what doesn’t work. The example I often use is the metaphorical example of Lucifer, the fallen angel aka Satan, who desired to place himself first, above all of creation. In one account his downfall was in his egocentric, self-exalting desire: “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation… I will be like the most High.”

    If you want be in heaven, whether now or later, then the first thing to master is personal selfishness. We can master it by locating all the manifestations in our experience which are selfish and, as a very wise, unselfish person told me, “learn to just not do that no more.”

    Once that consciousness is established and that learning is underway, frugality follows quite naturally. One realizes that they do not need a lot of the material world to meet the needs of material existence in a body, they just need enough to sustain it. If we need four wheels and an engine and a seat of some sort to get around, there’s no difference between a 30 year old hammered beater and a brand new Mercedes other than the immense gulf manifested by the cost and assigned value of each. They function the same, fulfill the same need. The unselfish ego, not desiring to be first, would just naturally choose a vehicle most likely somewhere between the two, with a priority placed upon basic function, and reliability.

    Frugality practiced opens up an awareness of compassion. The frugal person, existing at a level of basic need, is more aware of what it is to lack that. I often see generosity appear from those who have very little, yet share what little they do have with others much more willingly than those who have accumulated much for themselves. In my experience, if I found myself starving on the street, it is much more likely that a person with only one sandwich will offer half to me, while a person on their way to a banquet will not even notice my plight.

    In the practice of these awarenesses the humble become great, and the frugal become rich, and compassion results in an experience of heaven, here and now.

    Victor Mair’s translation of this Chapter ends this way: “Whomsoever heaven would establish, It surrounds with a bulwark of compassion.”

    I’d paraphrase that observation like this: “Whomsoever establishes compassion is surrounded by heaven.”

    • Bob, I think your comment that “if one masters the internal kingdom of self then the external kingdom will follow” is, in fact, “the bottom line” for many chapters of the Tao Te Ching. After all, it is believed that this part of the work was supposed to offer advice to rulers. Perhaps, though, when the internal kingdom is mastered, the external one will not seem so important. We probably lose a lot of good rulers that way – leaving us with the ones who get it backwards, if they get it at all.

      I think you could market that sentence and replace all of the so-called law of attraction gurus out there.

      Your discussion of the importance of humility as the prime virtue is interesting. In Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life, Wayne Dyer’s essay on this chapter also looks at at the hierarchy of virtue and says that mercy – which is the translation he uses for what is referred to as compassion in my post – is the most important. He talks about the ‘quality of mercy is not strained” speech from The Merchant of Venice, and reflects on how mercy and love are the attributes of God.

      It could also be said that frugality is the most important of the three. Indeed, Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation of Chapter 59 begins by stating, “To rule people and serve Heaven there is nothing better than to be frugal”

      I have previously mentioned Len Chandler as a little-known 1960s singer-songwriter-activist. I think he should be better known (after all, he taught guitar chords to Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King borrowed his lyrics to use in speeches and he toured with Jane Fonda and friends to stop the Vietnam War), so I would like to take this opportunity to quote from one of signature songs, “To Be a Man.”. He sings: “If you give a boy just half a chance/he might become just half a man.”

      How does that fit in here? I think that A AND B AND C = C AND B AND A. True virtue (Te) requires all three.

      • I agree, Louis. It’s quite true that ultimately there is no order or value to the aspects of Te which mind produces, because beyond mind these virtues exist simultaneously, in no particular order and no particular value of assigned worth.

        Yet we have the mind thing going on here, the sentient part of existence, the place where pragmatic navigational skills are in play. It’s been observed that the road is about the journey, not the destination. It seems to me that the journey is in part about where it ends up, and also where it goes from there. Those who reach the “destination,” like Guatama Buddha and Jesus, are returned to the road – if indeed they ever really leave it – and their perspective is perfectly balanced between the personal and the universal. All the virtues we recognize are wholly evident in their conduct and thought and speech, and they navigate the “after-path” of the enlightened individual, in the world, with a profound, exemplary grace which has become a template for the generations who came after them.

        I certainly wouldn’t want to be the proponent of yet another rigid dogma of spiritual instruction, and assign value to which virtue ought to be learned first. Ideally, every person would learn of all the virtues and the antitheses of each and, knowing of them and able to recognize each, would then proceed upon the path of their life perfecting the recognition, practice and incorporation of all virtues into their own experience.

        That being said, if I were to convey how to develop a practical skill of “spiritual navigation” to another mind, and in particular offer a path of practice which would pragmatically convey to another mind a way to master the inner kingdom, I would offer the three steps of humility, frugality and compassion in that order. I believe that the antithesis of humility – pride, hubris, selfishness – is the most powerful adversary on the path, and when it is in play is able to compromise every other virtue.

        I know it seems strange that compassion would be the third step rather than the first, considering that once we know what compassion is every aspect of our thought and conduct and knowing will flow from it. Yet start someone there, telling them “First, practice compassion,” and confusions can enter in because the beginner may have no idea, or often a mistaken idea, of what compassion is.

        “First, practice compassion” is indeed the only necessary message when learning has produced navigational skill, and the skill has navigated an individual to this realization, when ultimately compassion proves to be the first basis required for building all other internal, and thus external, mastery.

        It’s good to establish a basis of comparison, and some experiential familiarity with the fruits of compassion, even though the aim is to deliver the learner’s eye from the fruit to the tree, the source. And humility is a good place to start.

        I think humility, once learned, will naturally lead to frugality, and experience of the two will lead naturally to compassion. It’s that natural progression in which one step flows from the other present in the order of humility, frugality and compassion which appeals to me.

        If, for instance, one were to instead begin with a practice of frugality, the fruit of that practice would be awareness of the principle that “enough is enough” and excess is wasteful, yet there would, in the absence of humility, be an opportunity to exalt the self for its own superior frugality, taking the practitioner off the path rather than conducting them to the next step. Or it might create an opportunity to regard compassion as being an exclusive thing, due only to those who live in the same manner and embrace the same values.

        If practicing compassion were to be the first step in the absence of humility or frugality, it could produce inflated self regard for “good works,” and an egoistic addiction to the thrill a gratified ego experiences, leading to a profligate practice of publicly trumpeted acts of “compassion” which would not serve others so much as the ego of the practitioner. This would be another step leading off the path rather than naturally conducting the practitioner to flow into the next step on the path.

        Perhaps the best first step of all is to practice all three virtues simultaneously. After all, a hierarchy is not present in their essence, as you thoughtfully observe.

        In the practical sense, for me, the spiritual journey of a thousand steps begins with awareness of humility, and a commitment to practice it. It of course need not be perfected in the first step before other steps can be taken, and so in that sense as consciousness is acquired, but not mastery, soon one is able to practice because they have a consciousness of what it is they are practicing. I think it is vitally necessary, or at least most beneficial, that humility is held in consciousness, that one be aware of what it is, and especially what its antithesis is, from the very beginning of the path.

        The Buddha and The Christ were both confronted with the antithesis of humility in the tempting forms of Mara and Satan. They each recognized their adversary, and they were aware of what the adversary represented. Mara and Satan attempted to make the separated, egocentric, unbalanced life, heavily weighted with self glorification and satisfaction of personal desires, attractive. When Buddha saw Mara, he said, “I see you, old friend,” and poof, Mara disappeared. When Christ encountered Satan offering the seductive rewards of selfishness, the reply was “Get thee behind me.”

        The point being that both Christ and the Buddha were aware of the value of the virtue of humility, and recognized its antithesis and the powerful temptations thereof, which came around often. Lack of humility will derail all the other virtues. Frugality will be the first out the window, but love of others – true compassion – will be right behind it, as self interest relegates it to a lesser priority.

        Humility – true humility, and not the paltry façade of it which the ego often develops – is about acknowledging that yes, of myself I am only one of eight billion people on this planet, and yes, all the billions of us who have lived and will ever live are nothing more than an infinitesimal atom in the infinite cosmic universe. Yet true humility is the one the sage speaks of which, when established, produces a “lord over the vessels” there. It does so because of the knowing that even the least bit of creation is a vital part of the totality of creation, and without it the One would not be whole.

        Knowing this, a human being can walk in power, with their head up and without pride or fear or shame, owning the fact that while they are small they are also enjoined with and empowered by the Tao itself, and so invested with all its virtues.

        Humility is by far the hardest lesson for the existentially separated ego to learn. It finds itself in a condition which incessantly offers it evidence that it is individual and alone. Humility deserves to be the first lesson introduced in a curriculum which seeks to develop mastery of the internal kingdom and transcend it, because it takes the longest to learn.

        Selfishness is the greatest block human consciousness encounters on its way back to the “Garden,” or “Heaven,” or “Enlightenment.” The separation it creates between the personal and the divine is represented in many stories describing the advent of apprehension of the universe as a dualistic place containing good and evil, requiring the separated individual ego to fend for itself in an adversarial rather than cooperative way because it is alone and connected only to itself.

        In the lives and records of great beings the message comes to us that selflessness and true humility is the torch they pass to those on their own journey; the hard-won knowledge of how very essential it is to know we are neither separate or alone, but instead connected to one another, and the trees and the stars, and the infinite universe of the unknowable Tao.

        I’ve spoken of humility, hubris and paths before (Chapter 21, at the CW), and something observed there bears repeating here:

        “The path, then, is our own life, unique and yet completely and wholly common in the Tao, its source and destination.

        And there is a way on that path. I believe the “way” we first seek and then refine on our journey involves learning how to keep the symbiotic, essential link between our mind and our essence functioning.

        The mind has a simple job, really. It is to inform us if our actions are in accord with our nature, our essence. So long as it remains connected to what we are, to our essence, it functions properly and in its humble place. It informs us if our actions in creation are in accord with our nature, because it has something to compare our actions to.

        When the link between mind and essence is broken, mind consults only with itself. In that separation hubris is born, and with it all the antithetical actions humans engage in which are contrary to their nature.

        So the way on the path is to learn how to remind the mind that it has to remain connected to the essence which birthed it, or it’s useless.”
        The presence of spiritual possessiveness – the idea that “I have a handle on this and you do not, and will not until you adopt my handle on God” – reveals lack of humility. As I say as often as I can, we have the answer within, and it is only necessary to point the way, not proscribe it for others. Don’t get hung up on the pointing finger, follow it to what it is pointing at. Don’t pray this way or that way, to this or that; don’t practice in this way or that – just pray and practice, that’s the message I respect.

        My own proscription and presentation of an order and hierarchy of “instruction” here is hopefully taken as more of an informative sketch for others, one drawing a rough picture of the nature of the ground rather than establishing a handbook of rules and requirements.

        My personal basis, or one might say bias, against most modern-day, media-driven gurus is the lack of frugality the fact of their lifestyle betrays. As I said, when humility goes out the window frugality is right behind it. By their fruits we know them, and manifestations, too. When frugality is lost it indicates an absence of humility, and for me that’s a deal killer when it comes to accepting someone as a valid spiritual information source. Although, by the same token, I do acknowledge that there are those who speak well and informatively of what they know well in their mind, even though in their heart they know it not. I guess my personal response to that is “If you’re so spiritually smart then how come you ain’t spiritually rich?”

        Which (sigh…) I suppose applies to all of us still slapping words onto the face of God…

        And this brings me yet again to the moment when I remind my mind that it has to remain connected to the essence which birthed it, or it’s useless. Let the blessed riches of silence commence…

        • There are so many good thoughts here that I don’t really know how to craft a proper response. Trying to speak of concepts that words fit very poorly is sometimes frustrating. The frustration is further complicated by the vicissitudes of translation.

          Let us consider, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” There are references to Jesus being subjected to temptation during his 40 days in the wilderness in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; and of course they are not all the same. Some translations say that Jesus was tempted by “Satan”; others by “the Devil”; others by “the tempter.” Do those things mean the same thing?
          The Hebrew root pf “Satan” essentially means “to obstruct or oppose.” In some contexts, “Satan” means simply “the adversary.”

          In Islam, “Shaitan” derives from an adjective meaning “astray” or “distant”; and the name is sometimes taken to mean “enemy” or “rebel”

          During the 40 days in the wilderness was not the only time Jesus is said to have uttered, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” He said the same thing to Simon Peter when that apostle advised him not to talk about going to his death in Jerusalem. I don’t believe he was saying Peter was, in fact, the Devil. It seems that in both instances Jesus intended to remove obstacles and temptations from before Him so He could move with the proper focus to fulfill His purpose on this Earthly plane.

          And Mara . . . In the interest of keeping this from becoming way too wordy, let me just say that I sometimes feel hesitant to sit down in a chair to meditate. I think, what if Mara came to tell me that I had no right to believe I could raise my consciousness, and asked who my witness is. I could hold my hand out like Buddha, but Mara would say, “What? A La-Z-Boy is your witness?” I wouldn’t be taken seriously, would I?

          • I think a La-Z-Boy is a good choice for meditation if there is one handy. Much better than a freezing cave in the rocks of the Tibetan plateau.

            If Mara came, he wouldn’t disappear because you recognized him, it’s implicit in the Buddha’s response that he means, “I see you, you come around often like an old friend, I am familiar with your temptations, and I reject them. And you, Mara, know that.” Then Mara disappears. No sale. Again. Shucks. It’s the refusal to buy that sends Mara off, the decision to follow the Way.

            Mara would not take you seriously in your La-Z-Boy, would challenge your ability to raise your consciousness, and would deprecate your witness. Screw Mara. (laughing…)

            You are meditating, you are connecting in consciousness, and your witness is your life. Your life is whole, separate yet not separate, a unique experience from birth to death involving victories and defeats, waking and sleeping moments of consciousness, La-Z-Boys and places by the river, a whole and holy thing both perfect and imperfect. If Mara wants to separate you from all that and put you in a narrow, limited experience of life, then to hell with him, send him back there where he chooses to exist.

            I’m with you on your answer to the purpose of life (in re your comments at How can that be a “wrong” answer, that the purpose of life is to live it? It’s been my experience that a tautological response is one way to bar the door to further sales pitches by Mara, where he has the opportunity to get into my head and confuse me with complicated thinking.

            I have always felt that “I think, therefore I am” is, if not wrong, only a very limited observation and its deficiency is revealed by considering it alongside the statement “I am, therefore I am.” Sometimes things don’t need a reason or an explanation, they just are. To speak of a thing which exists as a fact in and of itself, as a thing which exists as a fact in and of itself, isn’t a tautology – it’s clarity. Unlike that sentence… But you know what I mean.

            The mind has plenty of legitimate opportunities for complex thinking in this life, but it’s wasteful using it to explain facts that are in our face. Life is life. We live life. Thinking our way through it is part of it, but certainly not the raison d’etre’, the reason for existence. We may form a local reason, but the fact is life doesn’t require a reason to exist. Life Is.

            Always enjoy and get a lot of good from your commentaries, Louis. I raise my coffee cup to you. Cheers.

  2. Hi Louis & Bob,

    I grew up in small Midwest towns with church lady appeal. My parents, not really being Christian in their philosophies but wanting a sense of community, did their best to fit in by bringing us to Methodist churches. I remember thinking to myself that something was very messed up with a system that basically ignored the beliefs of what was taught to me in school to be the majority of the world.

    In the beginning, I declared myself an atheist. (I was about 10 at the time.) It was all I knew. Then, in my twenties, I found out about the Taoist philosophy. I probably had exposure to it earlier, but it never had a name. What I loved about it was its inclusiveness. Everything and everyone is a part of it.

    One of the things I have admired about my husband is that his philosophy is much like mine – we look for what is similar in all of the major religions and start with that. Eric has read all of the religious texts, in search of similarities. He was not exposed to religion growing up. His parents never talked about it and didn’t go to church. He grew up in a small town where religion was never discussed among friends. So it was not until college that he was exposed to fundamental religious conversion types. They were trying to convert him and he felt that he needed to know what they were talking about before he could make a solid argument so he read the Bible, cover to cover. Then he went on to read the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. I believe he also read the Koran and probably several other texts I don’t even know about. My husband has an excellent memory so his religious debates got really interesting after that with those college fundamentalists.

    To me, Taoism most closely mirrors what has been the fundamental virtues suggested throughout the various religions so I stuck with it. I love your comparison of the virtues of the different religions. I think that finding our similarities instead of focusing on our differences will bring us closer to world peace than anything else I know.

    • Hi Amy, Bob here. My absolute favorite work which addresses the singular source and shared spiritual basis of several religions, including Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity is “The Perrenial Philosophy” by Aldous Huxley. Sounds like it’s very likely your husband has already read it, but thought I’d mention it here. Huxley refers to that source as the “divine ground” which all share. Here’s the wikipedia link for it:

      • First, let me say I agree with Amy’s observation that if we look for similarities rather than differences between people, the world will be a much better place.

        Next, I just learned that The Perennial Philosophy may be downloaded or read online here:

        Finally, another book that is different, though in the same vein, and which I have always liked, is Thomas Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters. Yet another is William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

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