Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 5

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

Heaven and earth are impartial 
They treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs
The sage is impartial
She treats all people as straw dogs 

The opening of this chapter is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Tao Te Ching. To some it seems harsh, but there is another way of looking at this passage that reveals the beauty hidden within.

Let’s start with the concept of impartiality. The characters used here are variously translated as ruthless, or heartless, or without kindness. These interpretations carry a connotation of cruelty or moral judgment that is not present in the text. Instead, the impartiality here is the same lack of favoritism reflected in the Bible.

He makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. ~Matthew 5:45

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likewise speaks of the generosity of the flower that blooms for all passersby without judgment or preference.

This is not an impartiality of cold, uncaring detachment, but rather the impartiality of an engaged open heart, welcoming all without reservation.

Straw dogs were objects used in sacred rituals, and afterwards discarded. Their value was not in their form, which was unimportant, but in their function, which was holy. All things living on this earth will die, and our form will disappear, but our essence, by whatever name you want to call it, continues unchanged in eternal oneness.

The sense I get from this chapter is of equanimity, remaining balanced in the center of life’s vicissitudes, showing kindness and compassion to all, recognizing the sacredness of, well, everything.

And summarized best at the end of the chapter:

Many words lead to exhaustion
Better to abide in the center 

Oh what would our lives be like if we followed this advice?! My son James, who has autism, has an uncanny way of getting to the heart of things. When he was young, he would hold up his hand when I went on too long with an explanation, and say in a robot voice, “Talking is over.” And he was always right.


  1. I did enjoy reading this one. It would be so awesome if we all could just love one another unconditionally like I know our Savior does. We do have a loving Heavenly Father who loves all His children. There is so much more than just our earthly existence.

    1. Thanks for your comment, LeAnn. Like the Bible, the Tao Te Ching is full of wisdom and guidance for living, reflecting a truth which is, as you say, so much more than just our earthly existence.

  2. When you connect it to the Matthew verse, you can see that by "impartial" it is says, "sees no differences." Very good explanations.

    To James' statement, I remember in a comic book where Hercules told the scientifically droning Black Knight, "Pray explain no more, Sir Knight, lest I understand less than I do now!"

    1. The scientifically droning Black Knight is probably exactly how James perceived me!! Thanks for commenting.

  3. "Talking is over."
    Oh, just to be still and to be! The lessons God has for us come in the most unexpected and blessed ways, don't they? Especially when we hear the voices of the children.
    Love and blessings, Galen!

    1. So true, Martha. It used to crack me up when he did that, and, as I said, he was always right. As this chapter says, many words lead to exhaustion. No wonder I was always so tired!

  4. Well, I definitely have a different perception of this chapter after reading your post.

    I had thought it rather cruel! I am reading one chapter ahead of your comments and it is so interesting to see how my understanding shifts after reading your thoughts. I prefer your take on Chaper 5 over my original one!

    1. So glad, Polly, that you have a different understanding of this chapter now. There are definitely a few passages, more than a few, that lose something in translation, or because of lack of historical context. That is not the fault of any translator--just inevitable given the nature of the original material. I've learned that when a translation seems contrary to the basic teachings of this text, if I go back to the original I can find a different way to look at it.

      I think that's great that you are reading a chapter ahead. The beauty of this text, to me, is that it speaks to our deepest selves in very personal ways. Much better for you to read it first unhampered by anyone else's take on it.

  5. Many words lead to exhaustion. Why did I get paid so much as a lawyer to delve in words previously :) Love the concept you described here and the divinity of all, Galen.

    1. Vishnu, so true! Like you I made a career out of using words as a lawyer. Picture those pages long contracts full of words attempting to predict every possible development and plan for it. The height of hubris! And exhaustion!! Ha!

      Words have their place, for sure. But we put such a burden on them to do what they cannot do.

      Thanks for a smile today.


Your comment is valuable and valued. Comment moderation is enabled to block spam, so please excuse the delay until your comment appears on the blog.