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Tag Archives: Tao-te ching

when suddenly a light goes on …

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… and, for a couple of seconds, clarity reigns. And so it was during last night’s meditation. As I told fellow-sitters afterwards, my blogging days are coming to an end. If not an end, then to a drastic slow-down. In a couple of weeks it’ll be the 1,500th posts since I began — almost one per day for four years.

The time has come for me to walk more quietly. “He who knows does not speak”, it says in the Tao te Ching, and “he who speaks does not know.” There’s a fair amount of ego involved in keeping a blog: thinking that what I have to say is of interest and even benefit to others.

What brought this on? The mind likes to figure things out, label it, put a neat bow on it. In reality, as with an avalanche, many tiny events contributed to the shift. For one, the question of what matters bubbled up on my 68th birthday. So did Steve’s decision to toss his TV and disconnect from the Internet. Also the facts that, in my family at least, the previous generation has died out … and that an offer to father a child has come too late. My days are numbered (statistically) and I notice the hours spent at the keyboard.

All these are just thoughts, of course.

Looking back on life we see
that nothing remained the same.
things came
and went
without permission or control.
The future will unfold in the same manner.
What is there to do
but sit in mindful appreciation
and watch it come
and go.

source: Martin, W. (2010). The sage’s Tao te Ching: ancient advice for the second half of life. New York: The Experiment, p. 114. image:

caregiver’s curiosity

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I hosted a jizo ceremony for members of our mediation group yesterday — an occasion to reflect on personal losses, sew little garment, and place them on statues in our meditation garden. All done in silence, except for a couple of chants and poems; solemn, some tears. Afterwards two people wrote to say that “it was more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. We both noticed a sense of lightness ….”

While I guided the proceedings, I also visited my own grief. Once everyone had left, I marvelled at this wonderful practice. How did I get to be so fortunate (blessed?) to have the tools and opportunity to be of service? I felt drained and took to bed; woke up an hour later, refreshed and still.

Many friends are caregivers: nurses, counsellors, health care providers, volunteers, companions, teachers, parents. How do you do it, day in and day out?

What motivates a caregiver’s actions?
Why are we willing to be with another’s pain?
Who can say?
We want to help,
but that’s not the whole story.
We feel obliged,
but that’s not it either.

Beneath the many motives of the conditioned mind
rests the mysterious Tao,
which is the true source of all caring.
We can’t see it or understand it.
We can only trust that it
is the origin of what we do
and the power that helps us see it through.

source: Martin, W. & M. (2011). The caregiver’s Tao te Ching. Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 24. The Tao te Ching is a 2600-year old Chinese text. The term tao can be translated as “way” to mean course of life and its relation to eternal truth. 

ahhh! everything’s imperfect

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The time comes when we realize
that the ducks will never be in a row.
It is the nature of ducks to fly about.
The house will never be perfectly clean.
It is the nature of a house to accommodate clutter.
The project will never be done just right.
It is in the nature of projects to evolve into other projects.
The future will never be perfectly secure.
It is the nature of life to be unpredictable.

Sit still and watch for a moment.
Perfection will be built
from all that is imperfect.

From a modern-day adaptation of the Tao te Ching by William Martin. (2010). Ancient advice for the second half of life. New York: The Experiment, p. 71; ISBN 978-1-61519-024-9. image:

more along the ‘way’

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Further to yesterday’s post. In addition to the many scholarly translations from ancient Chinese are versions that reflect someone’s personal worldview. Ursula K. LeGuin, author of more than 58 books of fiction, poetry, and essays, explain that the first Tao te Ching she ever read belonged to her father and had been published in 1898. With her own version she wanted “a book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, … not seeking esoteric secret, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul” (p. x). Here’s a chapter on what may well be about meditation techniques:

Can you keep your soul in its body,
hold fast to the one,
and so learn to be whole?
Can you enter your energy,
be soft, tender, and so learn to be a baby?

What sweet instructions, especially to some of my earnest friends, sitting “hard” and saying they wished they could do “better.” Soft, tender, as a baby!

Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring?
Can you love people and run things,
and do so by not doing?

Do by not doing, a theme that runs throughout the Lao Tzu’s verses, what’s termed wei wu wei in Chinese: Act without acting. You do nothing yet it gets done. How difficult, as impossible this seems for me (as Westerner, German-born, male, ageing codger), to let things be to the point of non-doing. A life time of being trained to get things done, to assert myself, not to be lazy.

To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not to lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power.

To have and to let go, to be and not to try being, to allow what is to reveal itself on its own time. Seemingly impossible yet possible. Yet there are moments of ecstasy, such as a lover’s embrace, a runner’s high, a perfect sunshine: can you recall such instance? And to act and not to claim speaks to me of utter selflessness and compassion. No gain, no credit, no achievement.

source: Lao Tzu: Tao te Ching: a book about the way and the power of the way. New English version. LeGuin, U.K., with Seaton, J.P. (1997). Boston, Shambhala, p. 13. image:

which way to the railway station?

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The Tao te Ching is a collection of verses dating back to 300 BCE, translated into Western languages over 250 times. Several versions sit on my bookshelf and the one I reach for most often is by Stephen Mitchell. Critics argue whether it’s the best, most accurate, or most genuinely Chinese version, while for me it’s been a silent guide along the Way (tao) for 30 years. It brims with wisdom, grace, and generosity. You won’t understand most of what I have to offer, it seems to be saying, but in some respects you already know.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

How straightforward and yet unattainable; how contrary to our Western ways. Taoism is said to have influenced many Asian religions and philosophies, including Chinese Buddhism from which Japanese Zen was born. What I write about and how I approach my spiritual practice is informed by this.

Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate towards yourself,
you reconcile all being in the world.

If I had only these words to guide me — if they were the only text from which to learn about living a good life — I could think of no better instructor.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These are our greatest treasures.

text source: Excerpts from Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao te Ching. New York: HarperPerennial. image credit: Frankfurt/Main railway station, NY Times AP Photo.

going into battle with kindness

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(Further to the two previous posts.) To situate the sidewalk incident in a broader context, I turn to an ancient text on Japanese swordsmanship. Zen master Takuan (1573-1645) writes that “adepts do not use the sword to kill people; they use the sword to let people live. …. Whoever attains this freedom is invincible against anyone on earth and is utterly peerless.”

According to Thomas Cleary, the translator, the moral basis for this approach comes from Taoism: “Good warriors are not militaristic, good fighters don’t get angry, and those who are good at defeating opponents don’t get caught up in it.  … If you go into battle with kindness, then you will prevail; if you use it for defense, then you will be secure” (Tao te Ching).

Taking ‘warrior’ and ‘battle’ as metaphors for life in an essentially chaotic world helps to unfetter my thinking. Comments to yesterday’s post reminded me that “you’re human” and “not the Dalai Lama.” What a relief, I thought when I read that, even if my intentions — to save all sentient beings, for instance — are as unattainable as his. “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness,” the Dalai Lama says, “in the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

text source: “Tai-a ki: notes on the peerless sword” by Takuan, in Cleary, T. (2005). Soul of the samurai: modern translations of three classic works of Zen & Bushido. Rutledge, VT: Tuttle, p. 144; image credit:

wu wei

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Who what? Not a typing error, but a key principle in counselling, coaching, and intimate encounters of various kinds. It comes to us from the Taoist philosophy and means not doing. Lao-tsu, best known as author of the Tao te ching writes,”When Heaven gives and takes away, can you be content to just let things go? And even when you understand all things, can you simply allow yourself to be?”

As John Mabry, our principal teacher here tells us, this concept is difficult for Westerners to fathom. It seems like laziness and runs counter to our go-go and just-do mentality. As much as I welcome the noting of “just being” with others, I’m aware of a tendency to want to rush in with advice, clever observation, and witty repartee. But when I’m with someone who wishes to be heard — at the bedside, say, or whenever I sense that the other person is burdened in some way — I am able to shut up, to listen deeply, to put aside or side-step my self-centred thoughts and give full attention to what’s in front of me.

Today’s seminar will provide many opportunities for me to practice wu wei. I’ve noticed that I’m an active participant in that I frequently respond to an instructor’s question before others do. My intention is to watch this urgency to jump in and show off, and to hang back instead. As Lao-tsu says, “The sagely person is like water. Water benefits all things and does not compete with them” and”Loving all people … can you do that without imposing your will?”

sources: Mabry, J. (2006). Noticing the divine: an introduction to  interfaith spiritual guidance. Harrisburg, NY: Morehouse Publ., p. 24. Mitchell, S. (1984) (trans). Tao te ching. New York: Harper Perennial.