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!

  4. I went back in your blog to see what commentary you made on chapter 9 , I love all of the Tao te Ching but chapter 9 has been a favorite lately . I am close to retirement age and I am slowly withdrawing from excess overtime shifts. I reached the point where more is less and less is more . Like the sharpening of the knife , to continue sharpening makes it dull. Another analogy is to know when its time to get of the treadmill. "Do your work then step back ,the only way to serenity" Stephen Mitchell version of the Tao Te Ching, the last sentence of ch 9 . There is so much wisdom in the writings of Taoism it will take a lifetime to absorb it all.

    1. Isn't it great how we can be drawn to different chapters at different times? I have read the TTC for decades and loved it, but when I spent several years going back to the original Chinese it opened up profound depths of wisdom that continue to delight me and inspire me. It's also great to look at different translations and interpretations. Stephen Mitchell has some lovely passages in his book.

      I'm glad you found my blog and I look forward to hearing more from you about your own experience.

    2. PS--I just visited your website--wow, you are a talented painter!!! Since you are cutting back on work, you will now have more time for painting! Really, I loved your work.

  5. Did you have to learn Chinese?
    I find Tao to be the path of peace , harmony and often serenity. In the past when I thought of God as a personal being out there somewhere who was easily offended by my actions and thoughts, it created a guilt complex and it was more stressful , fearful then it was liberating. I don't get that in Tao centered living. It is more about getting in the flow of life as it was always meant to be. I enjoy life as it comes now. This living in the now is becoming easier as I practice the natural way of Tao. It actually develops into a more disciplined life then the fear and quilt ladened approach when you believe in the anthropormorphic version of God. What are some other good books on Tao besides Tao Te Ching. I want to go deeper into Tao centered living. I enjoy your blog.
    Thanks for the comments on the painting site. I haven't painted much in the past 6 years. I took up other interest at that time. I found myself in a long search for truth after a crisis of faith which led me away form Christianity and resulted in a move toward eastern philosophy. I was a Christian fundamentalist for 35 years. I don't consider it a lost . It was my first step toward spirituality and I learned a lot in those years. Its all part of the journey.

    1. Thanks for sharing some more of your thoughts and background.

      If you mean did I have to learn to speak Chinese, no. Ancient Chinese is very different from modern Chinese. It would be like trying to learn English by reading Chaucer. However, I do have a basic familiarity with how Chinese characters are put together, and I do speak and read Chinese at a VERY rudimentary level. That helped in my contemplation/study of the Chinese in the TTC.

      I don't know of any particular books, although I'm sure there are many. However, you might like the magazine The Empty Vessel, published by the Abode of the Eternal Tao. I subscribe to this magazine and enjoy it very much.

      There are a number of translations of the TTC that include commentary. You might go to the library and browse. I have quite a few and I find that each one offers something unique.

      But there is no substitute for simply practicing what the TTC teaches. It would be like reading about meditation and never meditating.

      About your fundamentalist background, I find that there is much in evangelical Christianity and Christian mysticism that is compatible with the teachings of the TTC. Different vocabulary but same basic principles of surrender of the ego self. The Cloud of Unknowing, written by a Christian monk in the 1600s (1400s? I can't remember) is a lovely description of living in the mystery of the sacred.

      Christianity has lost its way, I think, in trying to "organize" the truth that Jesus taught. Bruce Lee said, "You can't organize truth. That's like taking a pound of water and trying to wrap it up in paper." By requiring specific beliefs or behaviors, religion became about the structure rather than the truth. That's my take on it anyway!

      Thanks again for the conversation!

  6. It would be so cool to understand the Chinese characters. I love the fluidity and seemingly spontaneity of Chinese art.Like the Tao, it looks simple yet it is very complex as well. Each one of the characters are all like individual pieces of art.

    The empty vessel sounds good . I will look it up.

    You are right about practice . I find that with meditation it was best to just do it. I did learn some basics at first but for the most part meditation techniques are learned by practice and is very individualistic. It seems the same way with following the Tao. When we live it ,it comes naturally.

    I went through a period of rejection of the Christian belief system but now I have discovered a renewed interest in the teachings of Jesus. His teaching was very profound.
    Stephen Mitchell's "the gospel according to Jesus " was very helpful for me in understanding the authentic sayings of this enlightened man. Jesus seems to have had a Taoist/Buddhist influence in his teaching.

    I enjoy the conversation, I can't talk about this topic with most people. But I do find the Taoist lifestyle does impact others in a positive way . When we practice and are living in simplicity, with humility, serenity, compassion it gets noticed . Living in what one author called "the art of creative drifting" (Wu-Wei) seems to be like living in a flow of peace and order that is very attractive and counterculture to most peoples experience. So it seems in my experience that just simply living the Tao is enough to impact others in positive way. This is very encouraging.

    1. True, the teachings of Jesus are very compatible with Buddhism and the TTC. Your description of how to live in harmony with Tao reflects the deep truth in all these wisdom teachings. I look forward to continuing our conversation! Thanks so much.


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