Tao Te Ching Teachings: Living Lowly


“Dwelling places most people loathe

It is therefore close to the Way!”

Water is everywhere. An indiscriminate wanderer, it resides wherever it can – in valleys, puddles, ditches, toilets, bellies, bladders, swamps, sewers, and just about anywhere else it able to squeeze itself. Being one of the core constituents of most earthly matter, it can’t help living within the lowest of the low, the most ungainly of the ungainly. Living in men and animals, it can be found inside criminals, junkies, alcoholics, corrupt statesmen, and evil warlord; in animals, it can be found in a fox’s asshole, an elephant’s trunk, a horse’s penis, a whale’s spiracle, a badger’s ear. Excepting the most dry and arid of deserts, it’s difficult to find a place on earth where it does not reside.

The same is true of the Tao. Interpenetrating and manifesting in all things, it makes no difference between living in a king’s palace, an alien’s coffee pot, or grizzly bear’s colon – it all the same to Tao. As Chuang Tzu put it in an amusing dialogue:

Master Easturb inquired of Master Chuang, saying, ‘Where is the so called Way present?’

‘There’s no place that it’s not present,” said Master Chuang.

“Give me an example so that I can get an idea,” said Master Easturb.

“It’s in ants,” said Master Chuang.

“How can it be so low?”

“It’s in panic grass.”

“How can it still be lower?”

“It’s in tiles and shards.”

“How can it still be lower?”

“It’s in shit and piss.”

Master Easturb did not respond.

The Way is the greatest force in the universe – it is the force of the universe. If this great force is able to indifferently dwell everywhere, even in complete repugnance, what does this say about the follower of Tao?

We should be no different. The greater and more powerful we become, the more humility, selflessness, and impartiality we should accumulate. We should not consider one place as sacred, and another as profane, as one person as being beneath us, and another as worthy of our respect. If Tao does not make such distinctions, why should we? If you turn your nose up at another, you’re only mutilating your own face. Live in harmony with all beings, not just those you like. Be at peace wherever you are, not just in mountains and valleys.

This is what Zen Masters call overcoming likes and dislikes.


Tao Te Ching Teachings: The Virtue of Non-Competition


“Without going against them.”

As already stated, water is necessarily yielding and subservient to everything around it. Beholden to gravity, is always humbles itself, moving from great heights, to immense depths. As the I Ching has it:

“Fire rises

Water descends”

Even when water does appear to be aggressive, it is not doing so of its own accord. Violent waves, tsunamis and monsoons are produced as a consequence of atmospheric changes, the influence of the moon, the cycle of the sun’s solar flares, and the electromagnetic actions of the heavenly bodies. Water never initiates actions on its own, but always responds to the actions of others. Depending on others for motion, and thereby preserving its own energy, it never wastes away, and can respond in a diverse multiplicity of forms.

The sage is the same. Preserving his energy as much as possible, he rides the currents of Heaven and Earth, following their will, instead of exerting his own. He does not initiate actions unnecessarily or superfluously, but only in accordance to what is of benefit to the world.

Not going against beings means that he does not compete, argue, or strive or struggle at futile, self-aggrandizing pursuits. At the moment, we see a planet torn apart by conflict and disunity. Every being is competing with one another, always wanting the best for themselves, and less for everyone else. And so, we end up with the situation we are in now, where most of the wealth of the world belongs to an incredibly tiny portion of the world, whilst many die from hunger and poverty, denied access to the gifts of the world, which were placed here for all to share.

Competition may seem to have provisional benefits, if you think innovation always means improvement, but it is not sustainable – only co-operation and harmony is sustainable.

The Australian Aborigines were completely non-competitive in their culture. Having no personal possessions, they shared everything with one another. The same is true of the Native Americans, who happily gave gifts to the very first colonists. In both cases, the colonists, corrupted by competition, were bewildered by this guileless generosity, and quickly abused it to the extreme.

When Aborigines were introduced to the game of football by Christian missionaries, they found it impossible to grasp the logic of one team winning whilst another team lost. Surely such a binary outcome leaves fifty percent of the people unhappy at any given time – what benefit could there be in that? So, when they played, they would make sure the score was kept equal at all times, so both teams could be declared to have won!

So, if you want to help people, competing to be better, greater than they are, is not the way to do it, as that always leaves someone excluded. We must be like water, always willing to lower ourselves, serve everyone, and embrace everything, without partiality or prejudice. Going along with beings, we perfect them through harmony instead of conflict. In a piece of eccentric political advice, instructing a minister on how to tame an unruly king, Chuang Tzu says:

“If he acts like a baby, then act like a baby along with him. If he acts unconventionally, then act unconventionally along with him. If he acts without restraint, then you act without restraint along with him. Thus can you awaken him and lead him onto to blamelessness.”

Thus, in not going against others, we fill in their gaps. Where they are deficient, we are full. Where they are excessive, we are balanced and moderate. Where are too complex, we manifest pure simplicity. Balancing out all beings, we give them what they lack, instead of what they want. Like water poured into an empty vessel, we take on the most useful form.

Tao Te Ching Commentary: Sound and Silence


“Sound and silence harmonize one another”

This line simply expresses the beauty of balance – the homeostasis of experience. The necessity of tension and release, presence and absence in life. Music without silence to expand it becomes dense and meaningless, like a dialogue between two people who know how to talk, but not how to listen. Silence is sacred. It is the empty space which is able to suspend the planets of sound and experience.

Tao is just like this. It is the all-pervading silence, or background-drone, that leaves room for every type of sound, noise and music to arise. There is a beautiful dialogue from The Chuang Tzu which illustrates this:

“The Great Clod” said Sir Motley, “emits a vital breath called the wind. If it doesn’t blow, nothing happens. Once it starts to blow, however, myriad hollows begin to howl. Have you not heard its moaning? The clefts and crevasses of the towering mountains, the hollows and cavities of huge trees a hundred spans around: they are like nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like sockets, like cups, like mortars, or like the depressions that form puddles and pools. The wind blowing over them makes the sound of rushing water, whizzing arrows, shouting, breathing, calling, crying, laughing, gnashing. The wind in front sings aiee and the wind that follows sings wouu. A light breeze evokes a small response; a powerful gale brings forth a mighty chorus. When the blast dies down, all the hollows are silent. Have you seen the leaves that quiver with tingling reverberations?

. . . As for the pipes of Heaven . . . the myriad sounds produced by the blowing of the wind are different, yet all it does is elicit the natural propensities of the hollows themselves. What is the need for something else to stimulate them?”

Thus, Taoists are ever in awe of the nurturing and all-creating nature of silence and emptiness.

Tao Te Ching Commentary: Long and Short



“Long and short contrast one another”

What is considered long or short, is, again, a matter of perspective. Time and length are entirely relative according to one’s specific placement within the infinite manifestation of things. To an ant, a tree must seem like a ladder to the stars. But, to a giant in another dimension, all the variegated lights from the stars within our galaxy may just seem like so many compacted photons in the tip of a candle flame. The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu was very fond of saying that man’s lifespan must seem like that of insect compared with trees that can live for thousands of year. How much smaller our lifespans must look when compared with the eternity of The Tao! The point being that we should not trick ourselves into thinking we know everything, when we are share a tiny blip of consciousness in an endless expanse of suchness. Only when we become one with everything will we know everything, because that knowledge will be what we are.