Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tao Te Ching–Chapter 2

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching introduces two themes: non-duality and wu wei.


The first part of the chapter illustrates the nature of non-duality with a list of complementary qualities which we often see as opposites, showing that our perception of these qualities comes from their manifestation into being. So, for example, we know the manifestation of beauty because of ugliness, and the manifestation of kindness because of unkindness.

Before they manifest, there are no opposites. Chapter 1 says “The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” So not only does naming “create” but it also separates, or distinguishes. We see this reflected in the creation story in Genesis. God separated the heaven and the earth, the waters from the land, the light of day and the dark of night. And how fascinating that God did all this by speaking, as in “let there be light.” Naming caused manifestation.

Before God spoke, Genesis says that the earth was formless and empty, which is also how the Tao is described. Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching says “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth.” The Tao is that empty, formless void, not barren at all, but brimming with infinite and undifferentiated potential, which then, through naming, manifests.

We perceive the manifested “ten thousand things” as separate, and even opposites, but Chapter 2 shows us that we are perceiving various facets of one whole. We perceive distinctions according to the lens through which we look. If two people viewed opposite sides of earth from space, one person would see the earth as dark; the other would see the earth as light. It’s the same earth; the darkness and light are surface appearances that shift with the rotation of the earth and its orbit around the sun.

Our perceptions reflect further separation when we add in judgments. For example, one might think that the dark side of earth is beautiful. Another might think it is frightening. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” When we can recognize our own participation in our perception, we can begin to relax our hold on our own world view and become more open to, well, everything.

Which brings us to...

Wu Wei

The second part of Chapter 2 shifts our focus to a familiar character in the Tao Te Ching – the sage.

Thus the sage acts effortlessly...

Because wu wei literally means without acting, and is thus often translated as non-action, people sometimes mistakenly believe that what is being taught here is a passive, doormat, being buffeted by life’s waves kind of approach to living. I think of it more as action without ego, more of an allowing rather than forcing. As Fritz Perls said, “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.” When our actions are in harmony, they seem effortless, almost like we aren’t doing anything, but rather things are happening through us.

...and follows no words teaching

This line can mean that the sage practices no words wisdom herself, or that she teaches others without words. This is one of my favorite lines in the Tao Te Ching. Like many of the passages, the original Chinese lends itself to multiple meanings. Since I spent much of my career as a teacher, I’m drawn to the blurred distinction between teaching and learning present in this particular line.

A Course in Miracles says that we are all teachers, and that we teach what we want to learn. When I was interviewed for a book about teaching practices of law professors, I related the story of my most successful class. I had come down with a severe case of laryngitis; I couldn’t even squeak. Canceling class was my least desirable option, so I created some projects for the students to work on in groups during class. When class began, I handed out instructions and sat back to watch. After a few moments of confusion, students arranged themselves in groups and got to work. I walked around the room to listen, and was amazed by the level of engagement, excitement, and accomplishment taking place.

They learned more that day than I ever could have “taught” them with my own words, and I learned the most of all.

As a result of the sage’s practice of wu wei and no words teaching, the ten thousand things follow their natural course.

Work is done and then forgotten. Because it is forgotten, it is never lost.

So how do we reconcile the two concepts in this chapter – non-duality and wu wei? What does the correlation of opposites have to do with effortless action?

Perhaps when we truly understand the illusion of opposites, there is no longer a need to judge them as good or bad, no need to force circumstances, no need to condition our well being on a particular outcome. We allow transitory circumstances to arise and pass without attaching to them, like water washing over us, or a breeze ruffling our hair. Like the creek by my cabin, nature is always moving but always there.

Perhaps by recognizing the unity of apparently opposite manifestations, we can develop a sense of nonresistance or allowing, an ego- and judgment-free attitude towards life, a respect for the natural movement of the universe and our place in it.

As long as words are used to denote a truth, duality is inevitable; however, such duality is not the truth. All divisions are illusory. ~Yaga Vasistha


  1. You do a great job of explaining things to make this flow without working at it too hard. I do have a philosophical thoughtline: I am thinking here about Satan. Casting himself as an opposite, or "alternative" to God. If evil is then an illusion Satan created by naming himself- does that sound about right? Does this mean then the problem lies not in God naming us, but in naming ourselves? Is that the concept of pride? How do we "fall out" of Satan's illusion? No answers, but then the best answer is one that leads to the next set of questions.

    1. Interesting questions, CW! Let's see--Satan casting himself as an opposite to God, when God can in reality have no opposite?!

      Naming in itself is not a bad thing, I don't think. In Tao Te Ching terms, the ten thousand things flow from Tao and return to Tao. The things are not good or bad, except by our own judgment. Maybe that is what you mean by our own naming. Hmm.

  2. This was an interesting read. However, it is one I will have to think about for a bit. I can see some correlation with opposites which in essence is part of God's plan that we have choice, agency to choose good over evil. In order to use our agency and make choices we must experience oppostion in all things. Thanks for stretching my mental capacity for the night! Blessings~

    1. LeAnn, you bring up an interesting issue about good and evil. I've always been fascinated by the Eden story in which God says to Adam and Eve that they can eat of every tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. One could assume that before they ate that apple (!) there was no knowledge of good and evil. Was that because good and evil were not separated before they became "knowledgeable" about it? Like CW, great observations to keep our minds open to all the questions.


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