Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 17

Chapter 17 is one of the more cryptic verses in the Tao Te Ching, not in the mysterious way we saw in Chapter 14, but in a literal sense. The characters are so sparse that any attempt to discern meaning requires a great deal of subjectivity. While frustrating on one level, the beauty is that you can take what is given and consider it in so many contexts.

What is given at the outset is a hierarchy. This hierarchy is viewed in various translations as applying to government, sages/teachers, Tao, a time in history, or a more amorphous “greatness” or “highest.”

In its simplest form, the hierarchy is:

little known (or unknown)

When distilled to this essence, what I notice is that the levels below the top one all involve some kind of judgment or evaluation. Praise, fear, and scorn are all based on an evaluation that something is good or bad.

But the top level of being little known or unknown is neutral. At the level of government, we might see this in the context of a society that operates in harmony with Tao, in which case, government has little to do and operates in the background without forcing or imposing its power on the people. [This is not a political commentary on our current state of affairs, and as said, assumes the overall harmony of an enlightened society.]

The best teacher, for another example, is one who empowers and inspires the students to learn rather than dominating them.

The rest of the hierarchy shows an obvious degeneration. Yes, praise is better than scorn, but as we saw in Chapter 13, honor and disgrace both speak to the ego and disturb equanimity.

This de-emphasis of the ego is seen again at the end of the chapter.

Work is completed. Things are in order.
The people say “All is well.” 

Notice the use of passive voice, that is, the absence of an actor. “Work is completed.” There is no ego credit for who did it. This is a theme throughout the Tao Te Ching. In the roughly 5,000 characters of this text, the character for “I” or “we” is used only about 40 times, and even then not to take credit for some accomplishment.

Try this as an experiment. Describe your day, or just a single event, without using self-reference. Don’t worry about smoothness; there will likely be some awkward sentences. This is not a literary effort, but rather an exploration of how your see yourself in the story of your life.

I found this very challenging! My tendency to make myself the subject of my life reveals to me those places where I try to direct or control. But when I am able to get myself out of the story, I can begin to see the natural rhythm of my life, and of life in general.

There is not a “right” way to do this. Just try it and have fun. For example:

Laundry is done. Grandchild helps fold towels. There is teaching and playing. Laughter fills the room. Towels are put away. Hearts are full of love.

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. ~Larry Eisenberg


  1. Can't wait to try this! Sounds fun and a challenge at the same time.

    1. Yes to both--challenging and fun! Let me know what you come up with.

  2. You know this writer will definitely want to experiment with this, Galen! Taking ourselves out of the picture once in a while would certainly bring a fresh perspective about our egos, something we all need to work on.
    And I love, love, love the quote by Larry Eisenberg! Perfect!

    1. Thanks, Martha. Let me know how your experiment goes. And yes, I love that quote, too!

  3. Hmmm...


    1. Ending with peace is always a good thing, CW!

  4. What a wonderful activity this will be. Write something of your day leaving self out. Afraid that in todays world the selfie is number one. Really enjoyed the thought of an harmonious enlightened society; what a beautiful thought. This is something to pray for. Loved this one; hugs~

    1. Let me know how your effort goes, LeAnn. Have some fun with it! Thank you for your comment.

  5. Boy, I just can't say how gratifying it is to read support for the passive voice. Number one most annoying thing in law school! (Obviously there are appropriate applications for both.) The mystical tone of the passive is appreciated!

    1. Very funny! Passive voice does NOT work in contracts, as you might remember. But here...yes, it works perfectly. And really, if that was the number one most annoying thing in law school, you must have had a wonderful experience!


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.