Friday, November 4, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 9

The focus in this chapter is on excess. The idea that somehow having more, being more, doing more, gives us value. The chapter begins with four observations.

Better to stop than fill to overflowing

This first line reminds me of the story about the professor who went to visit a zen master. The professor considered himself an expert on zen and pontificated while the master quietly poured tea in the professor’s cup. When the cup was full the master kept pouring until the tea spilled over onto the table and then to the floor. The professor finally interrupted his lecture to exclaim, “Stop! The cup is full. No more will go in.” The master replied, “You are like this cup. You must empty yourself before you can learn.”

When we fill our minds with opinions and judgments, there is no room to consider the opinions of others. There is no room for truth and wisdom.

It also reminds me of a quotation by Suzuki Roshi. “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind are few.” The world is always fresh and full of wonder to a child’s mind. The more we think we know, the less likely we are to see the miracles all around us.

Over sharpen the blade and the edge will soon dull

If you have ever sharpened a knife on a whetstone, you know the truth of this statement.

When I was studying for the bar exam to become a lawyer, I realized a few days before the test that I couldn’t learn any more. The more I studied, the more it seemed that I was losing ground. I had gone past my peak. I promptly stopped and went to a movie!

Have you ever tried to solve a problem or make a difficult choice by over thinking it? Making lists of pros and cons, thinking until your head hurt and the choice became murkier? Or the solution more elusive? And then when you finally gave up, the answer became clear!

Fill the hall with gold and jade, and no one can protect it

When asked in an interview how much more money he needed before having enough, billionaire J.D. Rockefeller responded, “Just a little more.”

I smile every time I see this quote because it’s so true! Whether we want one more donut or a million more dollars, there just never seems to be enough. I love books, as evidenced by the piles of books stacked on the floor next to the overstuffed bookshelves. But I just need one more....

And it’s true that we can’t protect everything we care about, isn’t it? This is a bit of a tangent, but did you ever see the movie Harold and Maude? Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, is an eccentric old woman who goes around, well, stealing things. When Harold protests, she shrugs him off by saying that she is just a gentle reminder of “here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.”

Maude goes on to say that since she understands this principle, she is not opposed to having things. Indeed, her tiny home is full of things she has collected (stolen?). So I guess as long as I’m not attached to all these books, it’s okay to have so many of them. Hmm....

Pride in wealth and titles leads to misfortune

Sound familiar? The Bible teaches that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and is thought by some to be the gateway through which all the others enter.

Why is that? And why is pride so bad and self-esteem so good? I’m no expert (beginner’s mind always!), but it seems to me that pride separates us from others. It isolates us by placing us, in our own minds, above others. It takes us out of the natural energy flow of the Tao, closing our hearts and spirits to the wisdom of the universe.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, allows our true nature to manifest. Because we are neither puffed up nor insecure, we are liberated to be our authentic selves. This naturally connects us to others in the tapestry of all life.

Work is done, person withdraws
This is the way of heaven

These last two lines sum up this chapter and repeat a theme found throughout the Tao Te Ching. When we do not force or grasp, when we simply do what needs to be done and release our attachment, all is well.

Note: Three of the seven characters in these last two lines have a radical, or root, meaning “to go” or “movement.” This includes the character for “way” (Tao ). To me, this suggests the natural flow of universal energy when we allow it to move unimpeded.


  1. I suffer greatly from overthinking, what if, the impossible job of making the best choice for all circumstances. I am many times an example of "Paralysis of Analysis". I am trying to adopt an attitude of good enough rather than the elusive perfect--to do enough to sharpen my knife, but not so much as to dull it!!

    1. When my kids were younger, I read a book called The Good Enough Mother. It was liberating! But as a contracts lawyer, I was paid to think about every "what if" scenario and plan for it in the agreement. A perfect job for an overthinker!! Thanks for your comment, Polly.

  2. All of what you've written here, Galen, is so rich and full of wisdom. You may not be an expert :) , but you've certainly enlightened me today.
    Oh, and I agree - pride is the sin through which all other sins enter.

    1. Martha, I had not thought about that gateway aspect of pride, but it really makes sense. When we put ourselves above others we also close ourselves to divine guidance. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. The first stanza certainly explains current politics... at least by those who practice it on FB.

    Sorry if I'm not very analytical today, but these posts DO give me a lot of encouragement.

    1. No need to be analytic, CW. The Tao reveals itself through an open spirit rather than a rational intellect. I'm so pleased you find encouragement in its wisdom. And so true about politics. The Tao Te Ching often speaks to government or ruling, which can be literal government, or how we rule ourselves. Very timely messages this year!


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