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.

A Reflection before The Image of God



“A reflection existing before the image of God –“

This is a particularly significant passage. Perhaps one of the reasons Taoism has endured for so long, yet remained so obscure, is because Taoism is without a supreme divine personality. Taoists understand that as soon as we create a god, and begin to give it an image and attributes, we are already playing a deception upon ourselves. We are giving form to that which is formless, thereby limiting it, and reducing its scope.

Of course, there is a reason we do this. The infinite is a concept that is very difficult to fathom and grasp. To many people, it seems daunting and unimaginably cold. However, once we bestow a finite form upon this infinity, we make it more approachable, knowable, loveable, discoverable. Far from being a formless void, it is now something warm, fearsome, or personable that we feel we can have a specific relationship with.

So, there is definite use to creating/recognizing gods. Tantric Buddhists, like myself, and many other mystic practitioners, often meditate upon these forms of god to generate specific attributes within ourselves. We meditate upon Avalokiteshvara to cultivate compassion; Yamantaka to attain transcendental fearlessness; Manjushri to manifest wisdom. But we recognize that these images are just provisional realities emanating from a source that has no image.

In this way, all gods are just a reflection of the pre-existent Tao. Every religion is a form of Taoism, in one with or another, and one does not have to let go of their existing religious beliefs in order to become a Taoist – only willing to deepen them.

But, just because The Tao doesn’t have a cuddly or frightful avatar to represent it, that doesn’t mean we can’t enter into a personal relationship with it. Once we learn to experience and intuit directly, such images will lose their importance to us. The Lakota call the divine ‘Wakan Tanka’ which means ‘The Great Mystery.’ Learn to love that which has no face or name, and your love will radiate everywhere. Learn to understand that which cannot be understood, and your wisdom will flow everywhere.

Tao Te Ching Commentary: Empty the Mind, Fill the Spirit


“Therefore, the sage’s way of life

Empties the mind and fills the spirit”

So, the sage empties minds, because he knows that a mind full of thoughts, delusions, and dross can only bring about disaster. As emptiness is one of the basic characteristics of the universe, a being needs to thoroughly empty his own mind if he wants to comprehend existence. We need to be empty in order to draw on the infinite energy of that emptiness. We cannot hope to fill our minds with the spirit, if the gateways to our mind are already obstructed with ignorant beliefs and erroneous perceptions. Thus, the sage empties and cleanses our minds, so that we are ready embrace a new state of awareness – complete unity with the spirit.

This simple phrase is also a basic formula for meditation and internal alchemy. Once our hearts and minds are settled – (for the Chinese ideogram for ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ is the same) – we make ourselves receptive to the primordial energy of the Way. This is something that has to be experienced to be understood. The primordial energy of The Way is simply not able to take up residence in a busy mind. The Tao is never forceful, and is yielding by nature. We need to yield to it, in mimicry, before it will ever yield to us.

Once we realize the bliss of a thought-free mind, we begin to realize just how draining thinking is. Thinking robs of us of energy. It exhausts us. When we don’t think, we conserve energy, which we redirect towards higher-functions. So, learning not to think really does help us to fill the spirit.

‘Fill the spirit’ can also be translated as ‘reinforce the centre.’ Not thinking enables us to stay centred, as we have no wily thoughts to lead us off track. The more we practice emptiness, the more reinforced the centre becomes, bequeathing us with an energy, power and self control we could never have previously fathomed.

Teachings from the Tao Te Ching: Killing The Competition of Competition


“Do not exalt great men over others

And people will not compete”

Taoists, like most mystics, are anti-hierarchical. As soon as we designate one thing as ‘superior’ that automatically makes something else ‘inferior.’ With such tiered thinking as this, how could we ever achieve true unity in the world?

Hierarchies make men and beasts compete with one another. In a communion of equals, everybody co-operates with one another, and functions in accordance with their own natures. But, as soon as hierarchies are introduced, and, with it, the possibility of being better or worse off than one’s neighbours, co-operation and integrity go out the window. People fight, debase and kill one another, all in the hopes of winning a higher position, or being able to lord it over others. So, the concept of being ‘better off’ than someone else does not make for a ‘better off’ world.

In contrast, many indigenous peoples, such as the Australian Aborigines and Native Americans, were completely without hierarchy. European invaders were frustrated to discover they had no ‘chiefs’ or ‘kings’ with whom they could negotiate. They would perfunctorily nominate some member as ‘the leader’ and use that conceit to enable their insidious dealings. But amongst the Australian Aborigines, even great elders, who might be respected for their wisdom and spiritual attainment, would be considered as essentially no greater than anyone else. It was no one’s right to rule over any other, for the only just rule is self-rule. When beings rule themselves, and see all others as their equal, there is no opportunity for divisive conflict to arise.

Tao Te Ching Commentary:Wu Wei and The Sage

Wu wie.jpg

“Therefore the Sage dwells in non-doing”

The sage is a character who appears prominently in all Taoist literature. He is a transcendent human being, living perfectly in accordance with The Way. Having mastered himself, and his oneness with the world, he is a perfect symbol of everything we should aspire for. Every time you see ‘The Sage’ in The Tao Te Ching, take it as a direct hint from Lao Tzu that this is how you should be if you wish to attain the ultimate.

‘Non-doing’ is a phrase that it not quite so easy to explain. Coming from the Chinese ‘wu wei’ it could variously be translated as non-doing, ‘non-action, empty-action, effortlessness, non-activity, passivity, or without interference’. So deep and rich is its meaning, that only all of these translations combined provide some sort of indication as to its true experiential meaning.

When somebody embodies wu wei they have so thoroughly mastered The Tao – the underlying principle behind everything – that everything they do, everything they are, occurs so naturally, that it is almost as though they aren’t doing it. The way a duck can effortlessly float on water, or the way the sun can shine eternally without even breaking into a sweat – so can a master of wu wei gracefully and peacefully drift along with all the transformations of the world. Like a leaf tossed about by the breeze without being harmed by it, the sage goes along with life, unresistingly unifying himself with it.  

It is a phenomenon most of us have experienced as some point in our lives. Musicians and sports practitioners commonly refer to it as ‘being in the Zone’ – that sweet spot when you feel happily and tranquilly in control of a situation, all of your actions flowing directly from you, without your having to think about it. This is why Taoist philosophers continually recommend aspirants do all that they can to tame or reduce the intellectual mind. The intellect analyzes and dissects things so deeply, that it forgets to let us respond in a natural way. Our actions should not be the result of a drawn-out judicial committee – rather, they should be a natural response to circumstances, like an echo responding to a sound, or a shadow being cast by the reflection of light.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas: In The Muddle Thick of it All!


One of my favorite books is the ancient Chinese ‘Classic of Mountains and Seas.’ The character depicted in the picture above is the deity, Muddle Thick. The Classic has this to say about him:

“There is a god here who looks like a yellow sack. He is scarlet like cinnabar fire. He has six feet and four wings. He is Muddle Thick. He has no face and eyes. He knows how to sing and dance. He is in truth the great god Long River.”

On the face of it, such descriptions may make the classic seem like a ridiculous bestiary. But, when we remember that it is a Taoist sacred text, and that Taoists loved to hide profound, mysterious teachings underneath absurd surfaces, the symbolic, shamanic richness of the text begins to become clear. The various gods described in the classic are just symbols for the variegated attributes of the Tao, which itself, can never be illustrated or described.

Let’s start with Muddle Thick. Muddle Thick is just a middle. Like eternity, has no beginning, no end, just a never-ending present; and, being the middle, he is also a symbol for the moderate mind and lifestyle of the Taoist Middle Path.

His very name is itself a perfect example of Taoist humour. Whilst Taoists advocate cultivating wisdom, spiritual power, undying strength and flexibility, eventually attaining spiritual immortality, they know that the more great power and wisdom are flaunted, the more readily will they be lost. Thus, they recommended wayfarers to ‘hide their enlightenment’ appearing to be ordinary, even dumb, absent-minded, and dull, so that their light could be preserved, only displaying and using it when beneficial and necessary. As it says in the I Ching, Hexagram 36:

“Light enters into the Earth, illumination is concealed. Thus do superior people deal with the masses, acting unobtrusively, whilst in fact illumined.”

And Hexagram 38:

“Above is fire, below is a lake, disparate. Thus are superior people the same yet different.”

So, Muddle Thick, embodiment of sagacious wisdom, gives himself a stupid form and a stupid name, saying he is confused and dense, when he is actually clear and enlightened. If you walk around wearing jewels, everyone will want to rob you. But if you hide your gold within, and robe yourself like a beggar, no one will touch you or harass. They think you have nothing to offer them, when in fact, you have it all. Muddle Thick is following the same principle, increasing his infinite greatness by countering it with lifelong humility. Trees with the best wood are chopped down. Great statesmen attract assassins. Who would want to bother a lifeless torso?

That he is a yellow sack shows that he is earthy, grounded, and receptive, capable of being filled with infinity, and receiving all wisdom – yellow being the color of the Earth in the Chinese philosophy of the Five Elements, located in the centre – in the very Muddle Thick of it all!

Cinnabar is a substance much prized by Taoists, and constantly mentioned in the classic. A scarlet rock containing mercury sulphide, it was an ore of transformation. Mercury is unstable, volatile, elusive, changeable. This is just like Tao, which is impossible to pin down or grasp, always changing so as to transcend all definitions. Fire has the same qualities, and also represents the heart – the need for compassion and silently roaring joy.

Having six wings shows that he has risen above the five elements by combining them into one; his four feet show that he flows in all directions. With no face, eyes, or distinguishing features, he has completely renounced the shackles of selfishness by making himself faceless, unknowable, incapable of being seen. Having no face, he can take on all faces. Having no eyes, he can see through all eyes, beholding everything, everywhere.

Though mouthless, he sings and dances, because his silence makes him capable of singing every possible song, and making every possible noise in the entire universe. Dancing, moving and shaking, he demonstrates the movement and change that arises from stillness and constancy. Being in truth, a Great River, he flows on into eternity.

So, we see how the profound can be hidden within the seemingly stupid; how sobriety and sagacity can be hidden in sheer absurdity. Be like Muddle Thick. Belong to The Way.


Tao Te Ching Commentary: Empty of Desire – Perceive Mystery


“Empty of desire – perceive mystery”

This adage is a simple recipe for perceiving the Truth of The Way. By the Truth, Taoists do not mean facts or figures – they mean the mystical principle that governs the inner workings of all things.

In Buddhism, The Buddha recognized that desire and craving are the sources of all suffering as part of his Four Noble Truths. When we crave and desire things, it means we are discontent with what we already have, which puts us in a dissonant mental state, and state of being. If you aren’t at peace, exactly as you are, then you are already at odds with The Way. Wanting means that peace is always eluding us, something we are forever postponing into the future. If we consider happiness to be the gratification of all our desires, then we will forever be ill at ease and unhappy, because desires can never be satisfied by worldly things. Like an addict, we just keep calling out for more and more. The present is torturous for us, for we are not yet satisfied. Yet, even once are desires are fulfilled, and we finally get the food, drink, sex, fame, or money that we’ve been longing for, then our stress does not subside. It is not enough. We always want more.

Fortunately, both Buddhism and Taoism are antidotes to this delusion. Lao Tzu is telling us something very simple yet profound here. When we are filled with desires, it warps our perception of reality. We become so obsessed with the object of our desires, that is narrows our awareness to that end, and we end up projecting this delusion onto reality, like a thirsty man seeing a mirage of an oasis in the desert.

Let’s take sex as an example. Imagine a man filled with lust in the world’s most comprehensive art gallery. Despite being surrounded by some of the greatest art of all time, in a building of stupendous and awe-inspiring architecture, because there are some beautiful women in the gallery, he is completely unaware of it. Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso or Dali mean nothing to him in that moment, because all he is thinking about is the breasts, bottoms, skin, lips, perfume, hair and other delightful appendages of the women present – women he would like to kiss, touch, have sex with, etc. Lost in these fantasies and delusions, his body is present in the gallery, but his mind is not.

And that is just why desires are dangerous to the seeker of The Way – they prevent one from being present. The Truth cannot be felt tomorrow or yesterday – only right Now.

This doesn’t mean that Taoists are prudes. Some Taoists are celibate recluses, whilst others are tantric mystics who utilize sexual intimacy as a means to cultivate The Way. Both would acknowledge that desire engenders delusions, and that one needs to be free of them to see The Way. Being free from desire doesn’t mean we are free from pleasure – it means we are free from our selfish attachment to it.

If you are having sex with your partner, and are only concerned with gratifying your desires, then your selfishness will prevent you from being truly unified with your partner. If you are only concerned with their pleasure, then you will be attached to their desires, which makes you no less selfishly attached. But, if you can just be with your partner, without expectation or desire, then that is where the true bliss begins.

This is true of anything in life. If you can renounce any of the desires and expectations that you have of life, then you can be that much closer to life, satisfied with everything you experience, because there is no dissonance between what you want, and what you actually have. Desires separate us from pleasure – desirelessness creates a gate where bliss can enter in.

So, when your being is empty of desires, then you are in a position for The Way to enter into you, and for you to enter into The Way. You will be able to truly perceive mystery, because you will have forsaken all pre-conceptions of what that mystery might be. Returning to the state of The Blank Slate – what Lao Tzu calls ‘The Uncarved Block’ – Mystery becomes ours to know.

Taoist Phrasebook: Martial Refining


The phrases used in Taoist literature can often seem very recondite and abstruse, if not nonsensical. But these strange, mysterious phrases are very useful, for they teach us to think symbolically. And once we’ve mastered that, we can go beyond thinking all together to a higher state of being. I will do a series of posts of important phrases for you to ponder over, which I hope will help you in your own meditation practice, and commitment to refining your mind.

MARTIAL REFINING: The term is all about keeping the mind pristine, and refusing to allow to be corrupted by negative influences, either externally or internally. Once we have achieved calm and stability through practice and cultivation, often all it takes is one tiny negative thought or occurrence to dislodge our harmony,and send up back to imbalance, making us vulnerable to stress and delusion. But, through Martial Refining, like a warrior, our spirit is always alert and on guard. As soon as we notice the slightest inkling of vulnerability within us, where a negative thought or state could possibly arise, we go straight to it; patching up the spot, forcibly killing the negative thought, and possibly replacing it with its opposite. With something as sacred as the pristine mind,  we cannot be so foolhardy as to leave it open for attack, anymore than we would leave a priceless jewel in open display, or neglect to lock the doors of an expensive car. Stay receptive to the truth; slaughter untruth – then your purity of mind will be safer than any bank vault.