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. 

The language here can be read as responsive to the Confucian “Doctrine of the Mean.”  I say “Confucian,” but Confucius did not speak much on the subject.  In the Analects, the only mention seems to be in Chapter 6:29:  “The Master said, the virtue embodied in the doctrine of the Mean is of the highest order.  But it has long been rare among people.”  (Translation by Burton Watson (2006)).

Perhaps one reason that the Analects do not discuss the doctrine further is mentioned in Chapter 5:12:  “Tzu-Kung said, ‘We can hear our Master’s [views] on culture and its manifestation, but we cannot hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven [because these subjects are beyond the comprehension of most people].’” (Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)).

Simply because Confucius might have believed that the subject was too esoteric for the majority of us, some dared to consider it and within a century or two after Confucius, the first versions of the classic called The Doctrine of the Mean were formulated.  This was traditionally attributed to Confucius’ grandson, but is probably the work of various thinkers.

Discussing The Doctrine of the Mean is beyond the scope of this essay, but two paragraphs from Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963) are helpful in understanding how it fits into the thoughts expressed in this chapter:

“Even before this Classic attracted the Neo-Confucianists, its subtle doctrines had strong appeal to both Taoists and Buddhists.  From the fourth to the eleventh century, Taoist and Buddhist scholars wrote commentaries on it, and one Buddhist monk in the eleventh century called himself by the name of the book.  It formed a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism and the Confucian school and in this way prepared for the influence of Buddhism and Taoism on Confucianism, thus ushering in the Neo-Confucian movement.

“What attracted the Taoists, Buddhists, and the Neo-Confucianists were the two main subjects of the book, the very subjects on which Confucius’ pupils ‘could not hear his views,’ namely human nature and the Way of Heaven.  Human nature, endowed by Heaven, is revealed through the states of equilibrium and harmony, which are themselves the ‘condition of the world’ and the ‘universal path.’  The Way of Heaven transcends time, space, substance and motion, and is at the same time unceasing, eternal and evident.” (at Page 95)

This Chapter 77 contrasts the Way of Heaven with the way of man.  The Way of Heaven is seen as seeking balance and moderation, while man is perceived as disrupting the natural balance for the benefit of the rich and powerful – and to the detriment of the poor and weak.  Here, though, a third way is proposed, the way of a sage.

“Who is able to have excess to offer the world?  Only the man of Tao.”  A “man of Tao” is a person who acts with the virtue of Te.  So, does this imply that the hermit Taoist sages living in mountain caves horded huge sums of gold and money that can be given to the poor?

No.  Sages in general may have developed their spirituality to the extent that it can be offered to the betterment of mankind, but most are in no position to resolve the world’s material problems and inequalities.  In ancient China, only the ruler – the prince or emperor – could make that kind of difference in the lives of the people.

Perhaps, then, this chapter, like Chapter 75, is advice given to the ruler by the sage.  That advice is to rule like a sage (like Plato’s philosopher-king), and follow the Way of Heaven so that the people may do likewise.

Keep in mind, though, that, as mentioned in Chapter 73, the Way of Heaven and the way of man both differ from the eternal Tao, which precedes and forms all other “ways.”  In Chapter 34 we learned that Tao flows unobstructed in every direction.  It is present in the Way of Heaven and the way of man, in excess and in deficiency, in the high and the low.  It is present in a way that is, indeed, beyond, the comprehension of most of us mortals; although most of us can see the wisdom of the suggestion given to the ruler here.

Let me close by quoting an e. e. cummings poem:

“when any mortal(even the most odd)

can justify the ways of man to God
i’ll think it strange that normal mortals can

not justify the ways of God to man”


10 thoughts on “CHAPTER 77 – THE MEAN

  1. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, saith the Lord. Neither are your ways my ways. For as far as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8

    • That is a great quote from a wonderful chapter of Isaiah. As you know, Isaiah’s Chapter 55 begins with the famous lines, and now popular song, about all who are thirsty, let them come to the water; and all who have no money, let them come to the Lord. It then tells us all are foolish who spend their treasures for food and drink that do not satisfy. Satisfaction is achieved by turning to the Lord for sustenance and mercy – and then comes the quote you mention.

      I bring up the song, which is perhaps only popular in Catholic churches, because it was written by one John Foley, S.J. Father Foley has written many excellent religious songs, and whenever I see his name I keep wondering if he is the same John Foley who was my 9th Grade baseball coach. He was a Jesuit scholastic at that time, becoming a priest a few years later. He had some musical talent. Father Foley who writes the songs was born in 1939, which seems about right for the Mr. Foley I remember. I haven’t seen him for more than 50 years, but I keep wondering when I hear his songs.

  2. Hello, guys.

    It has always been my thinking that, if we assume the best in people, they will strive to match up to our beliefs. Although this is easier said than done, I try to live this out. The best way of living this sort of thing out is to test it out on your family and friends. I got lucky with my daughter, so she is almost a cheat. She’s a good kid. I really almost don’t have to parent her at all because she just helps herself. Although I do still have to open her soda bottles for her and she is 13, so perhaps my glasses are rosie colored. I dunno. Maybe I come across as naive, but I think that people are capable of very deep levels of sageliness if we approach them as capable of it. What do you think?

    • Amy, as usual you have asked a question worthy of Socrates at his best. The simplest answer is, “Probably.” However leaving it at that does not fulfill the purpose of the Socratic method, does it? I am supposed to propose some kind of answer, aren’t I?

      On most Thursday evenings I meet with a group of people in the mountains West of Denver who have, for the past nearly three years, been discussing a book (or three books) called The Way of Mastery. That is “channeled” instruction that was supposedly given by one Jeshua (who is our “Jesus”). In the first book, the Way of the Heart, Jeshua tells us, with respect to his physical life on Earth 2000 years ago:

      “How might I discover how to see only that shimmering radiance? Would it be possible for me to see my brothers and sisters as my Father sees His children? I discovered that the way to see with the eyes of Christ begins with the acceptance that I, as a creator—created in the image of God—literally choose every experience and call it to me, that I create the veils through which I view creation. I began to shift my perspective slightly. And I began to be seen as someone who was rebelling against the teachings of my Essene elders. For I began to move away from striving for God, striving for perfection, and began to cultivate within myself the process of allowing.”

      The Way of Mastery is sort of a continuation of A Course in Miracles and strongly emphasizes the illusion of “separation.” Thus, if that illusion is overcome and stripped away, we are all certainly capable of sageliness because we are all united as children of the Father.

      That unity is not on the physical level, though. Rose colored glasses may help to see the sage in many of our co-humans when you view them as physical beings. I think rose colored glasses may detract from seeing anyone or anything as a spiritual being because the glasses influence our physical eyes.

      I am not explaining my answer very well, but it is all I can think of to say at the moment.

  3. Wow, Louis, you are so lucky. What a great thing to have a group to study that kind of thing with! If Denver were closer, I’d be there in a heartbeat!

    You amaze me. I think when you die, you could donate your brain for them to study it. But then, your magic is probably not so much inside your physical brain but more in the way that you are able to process and remember and recite information. It’s remarkable. I am so grateful that you have used your talents to investigate this work. To me, the most important work that is out there to do. For me, it is such a treat to have your work available to enhance my work. Collaboration! Gotta love it.

    I would like to read those books. I find it interesting that several people have come forward with books that were supposedly channeled from ancient and important beings. The jury is still out for me on what my thoughts are on this. On the one hand, I have no doubt that beings are able to speak to other beings in ways that we are not yet ready to accept in our general populace at the moment. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if perhaps these people are just not ready to accept their own power so they put it off on another being. “How could I write such stuff?” they might ask. “It must be channeled.” We are all God. All of the great ones that I have been studying have said that, time and again. Yet, if we try and “own it” like it is us and NOT THEM, we get into karmic trouble. It is not exclusionary. How do we explain that to people? I think the default answer is to just not own it. I am not that. (But I am.) I don’t want to get into trouble with my fellow human beings, I don’t want to surpass them, because they are claiming that they are not there yet. But yet, we are all there. We were there yesterday, too. We will be there tomorrow. We have always been there. Two thousand years ago, Jesus was saying that if we take the ultimate original “channeled” book, The Bible, to heart. You are a Child of God. You are like me. (Jesus always said.)

    I think that our social conditioning is so strong, our sacrifice to our true state is to stay where we believe that others believe that we are at. We are all staying small FOR EACH OTHER. History has taught us that there are severe punishments for surpassing your fellow beings. Like the monkey experiment, where the later monkeys were taught never to climb the ladder for the bananas because of some old training that had long been forgotten. Monkeys that were never sprayed with water when climbing the ladder taught other monkeys to never climb the ladder because they had been taught that it is just bad to do that. No one asked why. They just followed. Like those monkeys, we live small JUST BECAUSE. In reality, we are not small, but we play it out because we are afraid of getting sprayed with water like the monkeys. But does anyone remember getting sprayed? If we are not Christian, we might. For me, this plays out as flashes of witch references as a child. Witches got burned for not following the way things were supposed to be done. I was just reading something the other day about the Catholic Church and how they don’t want people to claim any sort of powers to heal or powers of miracles. These sorts of claims are supposed to not be trusted, according to what I was hearing. I am not Catholic, so I can’t really confirm that, but I am guessing that is still true. Is that not like the water being sprayed on the monkeys? Or, probably more accurately, like the monkeys telling other monkeys not to climb up and get the bananas?

    • Wow, Amy . . .

      So many good issues raised here. Let me briefly respond to a few of them.

      The Way of Mastery books are distributed by an organization called the Shanti Christo Foundation. Its website is here. According to the website, there is someone in St. Paul who is either the facilitator for a study group, or is planning a study group. Here is his contact information: Jim Durnin — 952.953.3765 –

      I am generally leery of information that is supposed to be “channeled.” Some of it seems to me to be very wise and some seems complete garbage. The Way of Mastery contains many ideas I find to be worth considering, regardless of the ultimate source of those ideas.

      I looked up several articles on the monkey experiment. It seems that the version of the story that you mention is the most popular one on the internet, but does not actually describe what occurred in the experiment. The experiment did show what was styled the “cultural acquisition of a specific learned response” with respect to the bananas, so the principle is the same. It reminds me of a story about humans. It seems that an American was visiting a Christian church founded by missionaries in Africa. When he entered the church he saw that everyone was sitting on the left side of the center aisle, so he also sat on the left side. As the service proceeded, a few of those attending began to move over to the right side; and within a short time everyone but him had moved to the right, so he moved to join them. After the service he asked several people why that movement had occurred and no one had a good explanation. Finally he talked with one of the oldest members of the congregation who told him, “Oh, before the new heating system was installed, we had a wood stove on the left side. On cold mornings everyone would sit over there to keep warm. But soon it became too hot sitting next to the stove, so we had to move to the right.”

      With respect to the Catholic Church and its attitude toward “healing” and “miracles,” I would say, as one who attends the Catholic Church, that those vary greatly among both the clergy and the laity. As an example, here is a link to an official statement of doctrine by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning Reiki. Most people who know Reiki would tell you that these bishops misunderstood quite a bit about Reiki, and there are many priests, nuns and other religious who use Reiki in their work. Any Catholic would think that praying for healing is fine with the Church.

      It would be interesting to sometime discuss what we mean by “healing,” but this reply is already pretty long and I think I will quit.

  4. Pingback: Scattered Life Collective: November 21st | Tao Te Ching Daily

  5. I loved your story about the African church. That is hilarious.

    Thanks for that link about the Catholic Church’s views on Reiki. It was interesting to get this sort of inside view on what is agreed upon by the church. I wrote an article about this topic on my blog some time ago ( and like many times, as the result of being an “off the cuff” kind of writer, I got a rather detailed response from a woman who was a Reiki practitioner that firmly believed that the two (faith healing and Reiki) were not related at all either.

    What I find challenging about the views of the Christian way is that some, not all, feel that Christ is the only being that can help us out. This has always disturbed me and has been one of those “defining moments of realization” that has stuck with me since my earliest recollection at about the age of ten. What disturbs me about this belief is that it assumes that the majority of the world is WRONG. Not just wrong, but going to burn in an eternal Hell after they die because of it. I just cannot get on board with that type of thinking. It is arrogant and naive.

    That being said, I also believe that the majority of Christians want to help others. I think that many of the doctrines put forth by the church are to save people from themselves and this is a good thing because we are all often tempted to run amok if we don’t have some sort of system to keep us in check. I admire the church (and this includes all types of Christian religions) for bringing people together on a regular basis for what is basically good and helping to people. I can get behind that. I wish sometimes that I could find a church that I could attend that basically was in agreement with my own beliefs but that allowed me to believe what I want as well and accepted my beliefs because, as a Taoist in Midwest America, this is challenging to find. My distrust of religion has caused me to be wary of going to any churches. Years ago, I did go to Unity Church for several years. I enjoyed it. The community there was wonderful, but that church is about an hour away now and I just can’t see driving two hours a week to go there. I’ve thought of joining a Unitarian church, as they seem to have a more universal appeal, but they often seem to be more political than spiritual to me. Who knows… maybe someday I will find my church. Jury is still out on that one.

  6. Rickie’s comment is certainly spam but I was trying to delete it using my iPhone while at the airport. The result was that I pushed the wrong button and approved it. I read it again when I came back to un-approve it. It seems to capture a sense of what I end up writing sometimes and of how I think in airports. I think I will leave it (unless I start getting other spam from this person.

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