Chapter 79 – Obligations

 When a great hatred is reconciled, naturally some hatred will remain.
How can this be made good? 

. Therefore the sage keeps the obligations of his contract and exacts not from others.
Those who have virtue attend to their obligations;
those who have no virtue attend to their claims. 

. Heaven’s Reason shows no preference
but always assists the good man.

Translation by D. T. Suzuki and Paulo Carus (1913)


Like many (or most) chapters of the Tao Te Ching, this one can be read and interpreted on many levels.  The most obvious is that it relates to the “virtuous” (in the sense of Te)

Tao Yuanming by Chen Hongshou (from

Tao Yuanming by Chen Hongshou (from

resolution of disputes between individuals.  An excellent discussion of that interpretation is given by Amy Putkonen (who initiated the idea of Tao Te Ching Tuesdays) on her website,  I will let you read what she has to say in her essay while I suggest some other approaches to the chapter.

First, we can consider the well-known Zen saying:  “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.  After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”  In other words, when a person attains so-called enlightenment, nothing magical happens.  The world remains as it always was, but the way in which it is perceived by the enlightened individual is shifted.  Life goes on, and with it the duties of life such as chopping wood and carrying water.  Emotions like hatred and bitterness, or even greed, would probably not be a part of the psyche of one who is enlightened.  Therefore, such a person would attend to his own duties and let others go their own ways.

The last two lines of this chapter may call to mind Chapter 6 of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  There, Jesus tells his disciples that they should not act like the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees who perform religious duties like giving alms and praying as a show to impress whoever may be watching them.  Such actions are not truly virtuous, so Jesus tells his followers to retreat privately to a closet or small room to pray without anyone else knowing about it.  He then instructs them in what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, Who art in heaven . . .).  Following the discussion of prayer, he says that no person can serve two masters, those being God and money.  He teaches that the Father provides all the food needed for the birds of the sky, who neither plant nor reap; and that the lilies of the field are more beautifully dressed than even King Solomon.  He concludes by saying, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  (Matthew 6:33, King James Version of Bible).

Putting that into the context of this chapter, it could be said that the Scribes and Pharisees were a hateful lot who had only contempt for those who did not believe as they did.  Jesus tells his disciples not to be like that.  Instead, they should follow their own virtue and beliefs.  By doing that, they will not only reach the Kingdom of God, but Heaven’s Reason will also assist them in this life.  They will be given all they need.  Bear in mind, though, that when one’s primary duty is to seek God’s kingdom, the things that are “needed” in the physical world may not include wealth, luxury and comfort.

The distinction between the followers of Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees reminds us that in Chinese philosophy, for many centuries, there has been a distinction between Taoist and Confucian thought.  Perhaps the pre-eminent belief of Confucius and his followers is that each person has a set of duties to his family, to his state, to the emperor and to whomever he interacts with in society.  The virtuous individual – the man of ren – attends to those duties and obligations, which builds a strong and virtuous society.

Taoists on the other hand – despite what this chapter seems to say – were not so concerned with lists of duties and obligations that are often only human constructs*.  Instead, they preferred to follow the way of Nature, often leaving society as far behind them as possible.  That is not to say that Taoists did not recognize certain obligations to family and society.  Those obligations, though, were not the same as the ones recognized by Confucianists.

There is a poem called “The Return” which was written in the early Fifth Century by T’ao Ch’ien (Tao Qian, also known as Tao Yuan-ming) that illustrates some of the differences.  It is fairly long, so I will only excerpt portions for this discussion.  The entire poem may be read here.

It begins with a prologue telling that the author was not able to support his family with what he could grow on a small farm, so his friends and relatives advised him to obtain a position with the government as a magistrate.  With the help of his uncle, he was able to do that.  He began to earn good money, but he soon felt that he had made a mistake because his official duties constrained his sense of freedom.  He said, “I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly.”  As he was entertaining such thoughts, he learned that his sister had died; so he resigned his position and left to attend to his family obligations.  Then he writes as follows about returning to his home:

“To get out of this and go back home!
My fields and garden will be overgrown with weeds–I must go back.
It was my own doing that made my mind my body’s slave
Why should I go on in melancholy and lonely grief?
               . . . . .
Then I catch sight of my cottage–
Filled with joy I run.
The servant boy comes to welcome me
My little son waits at the door.
The three paths are almost obliterated
But pines and chrysanthemums are still here
Leading the children by the hand I enter my house
Where there is a bottle filled with wine.
I draw the bottle to me and pour myself a cup;
Seeing the trees in the courtyard brings joy to my face.
I lean on the south window and let my pride expand,
I consider how easy it is to be content with a little space.
Every day I stroll in the garden for pleasure,
There is a gate there, but it is always shut.
Cane in hand I walk and rest
            . . . . .
Back home again!
My friendships be broken off and my wandering come to an end.
The world and I shall have nothing more to do with one another.
If I were again to go abroad, what should I seek?
Here I enjoy honest conversation with my family
And take pleasure in books and cither to dispel my worries.
          . . . . .
I admire the seasonableness of nature
And am moved to think that my life will come to its close.
It is all over–
So little time are we granted human form in the world!
         . . . . .
I have no desire for riches
And no expectation of Heaven.
Rather on some fine morning to walk alone
Now planting my staff to take up a hoe,
Or climbing the east hill and whistling long
Or composing verses beside the clear stream:
So I manage to accept my lot until the ultimate homecoming.
Rejoicing in Heaven’s command, what is there to doubt?”

 I will end now, leaving you with those words from a true poet.


*There is a concept known as the “Mandate of Heaven” that teaches that the ruler is chosen by Heaven.  Therefore, the duties of the governed and the governing could be considered divine command rather than human constructs.


12 thoughts on “CHAPTER 79 – OBLIGATIONS

  1. Hi Louis,

    I am not sure if you know this, but last year I left a very stressful and crazy corporate job for a somewhat part-time low-stress job close to home. The pay is much less but I am so much happier for this change. In the years leading up to this change, I knew that I wanted things to be different but I felt stuck. I was afraid that if I left that job, I wouldn’t make as much money. Fate intervened and made my corporate job so unbearable at some point that I really had to choose between my sanity and my job. Then the choice was easy and quick.

    I love this poem. My life has been a refinement of this idea. My husband and I are both very determined to create this sort of life for ourselves and we are very close to perfect, even now. I think a little more perfect would be to work only one or two days a week, if at all, but I am getting to that. I am cool with refining it to that point. I am grateful to have a wonderful partner who sees this vision with me.

    I love that part about Jesus suggesting for us to pray privately. In any situation where we are concerned about what other people think, our minds are so distracted by that and our attention is not fully on what we are doing. It’s like watching yourself walk. You just don’t walk as well. I imagine you don’t pray as well either when it is designed for public consumption.

    Have a great holiday, Louis. I am glad that you are the last thing I am reading on the Internet before I shut this thing down and take off for five days with my beautiful family.

    • Earlier today, I was holding my grandson (who is 10 months old) and he fell asleep. I didn’t want to put him down because I was afraid it would wake him, and the Thanksgiving weekend has messed up his schedule and left him very tired. So, I sat and held him and picked up a book to read. It was by Wayne Dyer, who likes to quote things. He reminded me of a poem by an Elizabethan poet, Sir Edward Dyer, that you might also find relevant. It is called “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is.” Again, it is longer than I really want to quote here. I will excerpt a few lines, and you can read the whole poem by clicking here:

      “My mind to me a kingdom is;
      Such present joys therein I find,
      That it excels all other bliss
      That earth affords or grows by kind:
      Though much I want that most would have,
      Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

      . . . . .

      “Some have too much, yet still do crave;
      I little have, and seek no more.
      They are but poor, though much they have,
      And I am rich with little store;
      They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
      They lack, I leave; they pine, I live.

      . . . . .

      “Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
      Their wisdom by their rage of will;
      Their treasure is their only trust,
      A cloakèd craft their store of skill;
      But all the pleasure that I find
      Is to maintain a quiet mind.

      “My wealth is health and perfect ease,
      My conscience clear my chief defence;
      I neither seek by bribes to please,
      Nor by deceit to breed offence:
      Thus do I live; thus will I die;
      Would all did so as well as I!”

      Enjoy your family.

  2. Hello Louis,

    Your commentary on this chapter and T’ao Ch’ien’s poem in particular are a distillation of the thoughts I have attempted to express throughout our exchanges here about the grace of ways and days spent walking the Tao.

    As you know, I have been away from home chopping a lot of wood and carrying a lot of water in other places of late, doing things and meeting obligations and interacting with people whom “God has put in my way.” When such conditions present themselves I find myself in engagements where I have to accept the fact that I can only do my best there and am not in charge of outcomes, and certainly not able to direct the course of events to where I would have them go along the way.

    And, like T’ao Ch’ien, I find myself yearning for “home” in both the literal and figurative senses he expresses. Home in the mountains where the sight of my home fills me with joy, where the pursuit of “enlightenment” is obliterated, where it is easy to be content with what is here, where I have my coffee on the porch and compose my inadequate “verse” beside this media stream we share.

    Here we have a metaphor for the two worlds we live in, the “mountain” and the “valley.” On the mountain there is much of nature and few people, and in the valley there is a concentration of humanity and our works, for better and for worse. On the mountain the air is clean, refreshed by the forest, and the streams are fed by glaciers, pure and much as they have been for eons. In the valley the air is heavy and the rivers are compromised by the concentration of humanity on their shores. We have four distinct seasons on the mountain, and in the valley even that natural cycle seems to have been reduced to the inelegant limits of humanity’s dualistic viewpoint. There are only two seasons there, marked by days which are either bright or dark unless one looks closer.

    We have lived in both places. When we lived in the valley we walked the Tao as we do here on the mountain. Our practice there was much the same as it is here. There is a shift in the balance of what is perceived to be “most present” in both places, yet the virtues of the Tao are in both places and the returns for embracing them are equally enriching.

    Our path there and here is a form of karmic yoga, the practice of chopping wood and carrying water and engaging in the whole of life, incorporating the spiritual into the practical experiences of human society. It’s said “practice make perfect.” Well, we know we are not made “perfect” by practice – it is the practice which is perfect. Always has been. It goes on and on, and always will.

    We’re back on the mountain after a time in the valley where there were moments which were both awkward and contentious, and graceful and full of peace. That’s the nature of our path, this ongoing perfect “practice” we are all engaged in. We will be returning there, too, but for now we are here to rest and refresh ourselves in a place which to us is like the well of the Tao and the pure water of life is clear and present and easily seen from our own perspective points.

    For now, friendships are broken off and family dynamics put aside, and for a time we and the world will have nothing to do with one another. We will have the pleasures of honest conversation together, and books and cooking and music, and coffee on the porch, and not travel anywhere, and enjoy the little time we have here in this human form with no expectation of riches or perfection – simply experiencing the riches and perfections which are here now. When it’s time, just as when it was time to leave, we’ll return to the valley and carry on there.

    And, for purposes of full disclosure, I will say that there are things down in the valley here now which just wear me out. We both had a great, trying, exhausting, sad, joyful, poignantly perfect time in Florida moving Nor’s folks from their home of 57 years to her sister’s home there and seeing her Dad availed of in-home hospice care before we left. I suppose the same could be said about the time being spent with extended family here as they gather to my mom’s bedside after her stroke, but not by me for now. Sometimes it proves to be difficult to appreciate that everything about the practice is perfect… We’re back on the mountain for the time being, regaining a balanced perspective.

    Absolutely great commentary, Louis. One of my all time favorites here for sure.

    • “Spent a little time on the mountain
      Spent a little time on the hill
      Things went down we don’t understand
      but I think in time we will

      “You can’t overlook the lack, Jack
      of any other highway to ride
      It’s got no signs or dividing lines
      and very few rules to guide

      “Spent a little time on the mountain
      Spent a little time on the hill
      I saw things getting out of hand
      I guess they always will

      “I don’t know but I been told
      if the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load
      I don’t know whose back’s that strong
      Maybe find out before too long

      “One way or another
      One way or another
      One way or another
      this darkness got to give.”

      Those words are from “New Speedway Boogie” by the Grateful Dead.

      It seems that you have gone through a tough few weeks. You and your family and extended family are, of course, in our thoughts and prayers (in the privacy Jesus advised) this Thanksgiving. I am certain, too, that you remember that life is for living.

      • Thanks, Louis. It ain’t that bad, really, we’re walking with a lot of acceptance here, just tired in the body.

        I’ve been doing some research on left brain stroke effects in the wake of my Mom’s stroke, and have encountered some insights which relate to everything we speak of here.

        A good place to start is Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of her own stroke. It’s part of the Ted Talks series and can be seen on at: . Thought I’d give it a try with Lenore after she found it on NetFlix and was transfixed by it. After watching I had some reflections I want to share here.

        The left brain is connected to the right brain by the corpus callosum. The right brain is a global receptor, the human source which receives ALL input. The corpus callosum carries global input from the right brain to the left brain, where it is sorted and arranged and processed in terms of our local identity – where we are, what is in play, etc. – and among other things produces most-likely-best scenarios like “Walk through the doorway, not the wall.” Language is formed in the left brain and becomes a foundational matrix of understanding there for local, personal perceptions.

        Epiphanies and transcendental experience of wholeness, oneness, and union with all come when left brain function (identity and selfness – which can be over-prioritized by individual experience to give a high value to selfishness as the best mechanism to promote survival) is persuaded to become calm and still, and the global apprehension by the right brain of all that is comes forward in consciousness. Meditation can produce it, sometimes it “just happens.”

        Lenore and I have good brain balance, 51/49 L/R for me by one assessment, she has a stronger right side but not by much, we seem to be a good example of how two people become one whole human being in more than just the spiritual sense. In the terms of neuroscience it could be said that together we have one good brain between us. An awareness we’ve had for a long time, and an inside joke between us…

        The point being that balance produces a condition where global input from the part of us which apprehends the totality of what we are in (God, the Tao, the Universe, etc.) creates a situation where consciousness of that information is not squeezed down or out by the separated identity. The more fear the self has, the more conditioned the self is by local experience to believe that life is dangerous, hard, tricky, and requiring constant vigilance, the less likely that consciousness of the greater whole will be present.

        This goes to the discussions we have had about selfishness, ego, separation. Our expressions here are processed, linguistic representations of what we “think” about what we “know.” We think, AND we know. God is onboard, in every one of us, literally “within, without, and throughout.” Release the self priority, and God comes through to consciousness.

        This ratifies the tale that when we started thinking and ate an apple from the “tree of knowledge” and became separated as individuals from the Garden of wholeness, we entered into a world of separation and separate identity, separated from the holistic knowledge of what we are simultaneously – all One. This identity created the flaming sword hiding the Eden of total awareness, or heaven, from us – or at the very least making it extremely hard to find behind the curtain of self.

        Dial down selfness and we dial up connection. Pretty cool, and yet another perspective point on the human experience.

        This “thinking” information provides yet another insight into our human differences as well as our mutual connectedness. For Lenore and I, our experience together has been a reflection of an experience balanced between the local and the universal. We live as individuals, connected. We engage in life and all the experiences there in our discreet identities, yet we do so together. We simultaneously stay consciously aware of the connection of all to each through our relationship – we are one whole human being comprised of two parts which are indistinguishable and inseparable as well.

        For others, the connection favors one aspect or the other. The pursuit of a fully conscious, ongoing awareness of wholeness is favored by some; others engage in the whole-hearted pursuit of the aims and desires of the self, and its identity, and the definitions and conclusions and behaviors the individual’s experience has formed. And always, each remains simultaneously a part of the whole.

        At this point I have no idea what any of this information might mean to anyone else. What I can say is it’s information from my “knower” that my “thinker” has evaluated, and has decided it’s worth sharing here.

        There’s something very comforting to me about that insight into why I share at all. The question of whether I really need to share anything at all, and how useful it is really, comes up for me from time to time when I run into the limits of language and thinking, knowing that the experience I seek to share is not really just there, in “thinking” alone. I begin to think that emphasizing this one aspect of our being reinforces the tendency to be there, when really the trick is to be accepting of both aspects of our existence simultaneously. Yet in every communiqué’ I do try to get that essence conveyed to the rest of me, which is you…

        It’s a big universe, full of variation and mystery. Interesting old thing, this life we live…

        • I haven’t had a chance to check out Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, but reading your comment raises a question: How is brain balance measured, and what is its significance?

          That is probably a rhetorical question on my part. Several years ago (back in the 20th Century), I had an MRI of my head. The doctor looked at the film and told me, “There’s nothing there.”

          • Actually there are no “right brain” or “left brain” people, so think of it as a simplistic metaphor which describes processing modalities for individuals which, for lack of a more meticulous scientific term, involves processing and learning “styles.” For me it’s proven to be a very useful metaphor about the nature of our human mind/spirit duality. We think, and we know.

            As far as assessment goes, I first came across tests for learning style couched in terms of right brain/left brain years ago while seeking information about my daughter when she was having some challenges and exhibiting behaviors which were baffling to us. A part of that information involved the effects of IVH (brain hemorrhages) in premature infants, which led me to then-current theories of brain lateralization and related function.

            In that process I found different learning programs which used either their own extrapolations of tests like the MMPI, or had formulated their own tests as a first tool toward determining the best approach to take to teach a student according to their learning style. I took several of those tests then out of curiosity, and the 51/49 L/R stuck in mind because it resonated with my own understanding of how I process information. It’s been a very useful characterization for my own understanding, and I use the metaphor as part of my expression now.

    • I had not previously read the essay by Montaigne. I knew that he advised that people should look at death as a natural thing and get on with life, rather than worrying about it. The quotation does remind me of two quick stories, though. The first is about a Zen master named Roshi Taji. It is said that as he was quite ill and approaching his death, his disciples gathered around his bed. One of them offered the master a piece of his favorite cake. The master smiled and began to eat it, but it became apparent that he would pass away before he could even finish that treat. One of his students asked if there were any last words he wanted to say. “Yes,” he said, “the cake is delicious.” And then he died.

      The other concerns the Indian saint, Ramana Maharshi. It is said that as he was dying of cancer in 1950, his disciples also gathered around him. One pleaded, “Oh, Master, please do not leave us.” Ramana Maharshi opened his eyes for a moment and said, “Where would I go?”

      After considering Montaigne’s words, I am going to practice telling the Angel of Death, “Let’s just wait awhile until I can make you some coleslaw.”

      It is strange to be writing these things. Earlier this week, I had breakfast with an old friend whose wife passed away about six weeks ago. My father died on the day before Thanksgiving in 2010; and here it is Thanksgiving Eve once again.I guess that is part of the seasonality that T’ao Ch’ien mentions.

      On a brighter note, Cathy and I wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving.

      • The time to meet death is when it is here, and the time to meet life is when it is here. When I meet the death of others it is with acceptance that the time for that is here, and I recognize that how that is done is different for everyone. I reflect on the life lived in the body now dying, and celebrate that life the best I know how.

        The way we each meet death is personal and complex, and each individual does it in their own way. An agony of loss may be the way of some, while calm reflections and regard of the whole and holy, perfect fact of a life lived and acceptance of the natural way will be the response of others. Usually it is a mix. Each person’s way must be respected and allowed to be.

        Death is part of life, a single moment which comes and goes. I’ve been close enough to death often enough – in my own experience and at the time of death of others – that my personal regard of it is very similar to the sentiments you both express here through the thoughts of Montaigne, Roshi Taji, and Ramana Maharshi.

        Life is here right now, and death with it. For all the complexity therein, all I can say is that acceptance is the key for me, and that acceptance is the abiding virtue of the Tao which serves me best.

        Life is here now. Live it, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving, enjoying the presence of each and every person gathered around the table with you now.

  3. Hi guys.

    Bob – sorry to hear about your family. I had a friend who died last week. Not a close friend – she was a work acquaintance from my old job, but it was an interesting experience because it has been some time since I have been around death. She had been diagnosed with cancer over a year ago and given only weeks to live. She dealt with death in such a beautiful way that it was difficult to feel sad for her. She had a very strong sense of faith in her religion and I believe that this faith helped her to deal with her death in a way that was inspiring to all of us and that in itself was a beautiful thing.

    As I was driving home, I was thinking about how common death is. I know that might sound strange, but just as every person is born, every person also dies. It is so difficult to not take it personally, though. I know that if anyone very close to me died, I would be very upset about it – no matter how much I have convinced myself in my practice that it is just a part of life. I found myself face to face with this idea that all of my close people will someday die. It made me feel sad, but mostly because it would be hard to live with not being able to share the rest of my life with them. I think that if I can look at this now, maybe I will better appreciate my relationships that I have now and not take them for granted. I just arrived home after spending a good few days with two of my sisters and their families. I am so grateful for these sorts of visits.

    Take care, you two.

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