Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 18

This modest little (four lines) chapter does nothing less than represent the entire debate between Confucianism and Taoism, two major philosophical traditions originating in ancient China. (Confucius and Lao Zi, purported author of the Tao Te Ching, were contemporaries, both living in China around 500 BCE.) 

When great Tao is lost, there is kindness and morality
Intelligence and knowledge emerge, and there is great artifice
Family relations are not harmonious, and there is filial piety and parental devotion
The nation is in disorder and discord, and there are loyal ministers

If you look at the second part of each line, you might wonder what the problem is. What’s wrong with kindness, filial piety, and loyal ministers? (I’ll come back to artifice in a minute.) The answer is that nothing is wrong with these virtues. The issue, I think, is one of direction. Does Tao lead to these virtues, or do these virtues lead to Tao? 

With apologies to scholars and philosophers for my gross oversimplification, Confucius believed that the conscious cultivation of identified virtues led to personal, social, and governmental harmony. Lao Zi, on the other hand, believed that when we live in harmony with Tao, these qualities naturally manifest without conscious effort. The “Te” of the Tao Te Ching  means virtue, but in a much broader, organic sense than the moralistic, judgmental connotation we often attach to this word. 

So back to our question about whether Tao leads to virtue or whether virtue leads to Tao -- does the “direction” matter? 

This is where artifice comes in. The character used here  伪 carries connotations of pretense, hypocrisy, falsehood. But the character itself breaks down into person  人   and action  为  , suggesting something that a person does or makes. And indeed, one of the meanings of this character is man-made. Man-made has a more neutral connotation, and even a positive one. Indeed, we are often very proud of what we can manufacture and produce. In this sense, the character might be thought of as indicating something originating from the ego, or self. 

If we think about it this way, the question becomes whether we can find Tao (God, the Sacred, whatever name you like), through the ego’s efforts. The Bible offers some insight.

Paul taught that when one surrenders oneself (ego) to the Holy Spirit, one naturally manifests the “fruit of the spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – just like fruit on a tree grows because of its intrinsic nature. I think this is similar to Lao Zi’s view that the highest virtue is not consciously cultivated in accordance with some moral code, but rather naturally flows through us when we are in harmony with Tao. In this sense, we are “not acting” ourselves. This represents the theme in the Tao Te Ching of wu wei, or non-action.

In contrast, some of you might be familiar with the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, a bunch of people got together and decided to build a tower high enough to reach heaven. Great idea, but, as you can guess, they were unsuccessful. 

Going back to the Chinese characters, the Tower of Babel is more like the sense of “artifice” conveyed by the character  伪  in this chapter.  Remember that this character combines person  人   with action 为   to convey the sense of something man-made. The fruit of the spirit is more like the theme of wu wei, or non-action, which permeates the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei is two characters, 无  meaning without, and 为  meaning action. Notice that the “action” part 为   Is the same in both concepts. One is the person acting; the other is non-action.

The point of this chapter is, I believe, that while kindness, morality, filial piety and parental devotion, and loyal ministers are all good things, they are, in the words of one author writing about this chapter, “second best.” They are like the artificial light we use and value when the sun goes down. It is man-made and useful when we have lost the natural light, but cannot duplicate or replace the sun itself.

The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.  ~Deng Ming-Dao 

[Note: In response to a reader's comment that the posts are hard to read with the white print on the red background, I'm trying a larger font. I welcome feedback!]


  1. We must surrender ourselves completely in order to find ourselves . . . This does go against all the world teaches, but it IS the only truth there is in loving God, in hoping for His kingdom to come. As John the Baptist said, "He must increase, and I must decrease."
    So love your thoughts and insights here, Galen!

    1. Thanks, Martha. It's amazing, isn't it, how at a deep level, many wisdom teachings are so similar? Glad you stopped by.

  2. Comment on white on red. It seems ok especially with the larger font. Since these are short the colors may not matter. I was involved for some years in user interface with computers and there is much literature on what background/foreground colors are best for ease of reading and which fonts are best. You might research this a bit.

    In response to Chapt. 18 I suggest the flow is circular so there is no direction. I guess you could argue who started the circle but not sure it matters. If it starts with man and flows to God it then flows back from God to man which in turn flows back to God. If it starts with God to man and flows back to God which then flows back to man it ends up in the same place.
    Just something to consider.

    1. Thanks, Bob, for your feedback on the color scheme, and for your observation about the circle. Yes, it all ends up in the same place. Your comment reminded me of a quote about coming home after all your journeys and realizing you never left. I'll check into the research you suggested.

  3. My eyes suck either way, it's all good. ANYway, I cannot add anything to this post. I find it by far both the most enlightening so far and your best explanation. Gold star!

  4. I'm reminded of what they tell budding lawyers: Fake it till you make it (we know how well that worked out for me). I agree that the best way is to allow these virtues to come in naturally, through the tao or the holy spirit; but I can also accept that in those difficult times when you just aren't feeling it, maybe just going through the motions can build the habit so that the virtues eventually become intrinsic. That position is consistent with seeing the Confucian ways as second best, but still useful.

    1. We taught budding lawyers that?? Well, we probably did regarding confidence, but not skill, I hope! As for faking virtues, that works better for some than others. For example, faking kindness totally works--it will lead to sincere kindness. That is how I taught my kids kindness. And you are right--it becomes a habit. Good observation--second best but still useful. I think that's why the TTC doesn't say that kindness is bad, but only that the need for it arises when Tao is lost.

  5. I find it so interesting how the two philosophical Traditions really have similar truths as found in many different religious beliefs. Principles of light and truth can be found in most of all the major religions of the world. We believe truth and light are found in the Bible and then have the fullness of truth as found in The Book of Mormon. This book of scritpure is about the ancient inhabitants of the America's that came here in 600 BC from Jerusalem. This would have probably been around the same time period of Confusious and Tao. This is a post I need to ponder upon. Thanks for stimulating my brain. Blessings and hugs~

    1. Like you, LeAnn, I find it so fascinating that many various wisdom teachings from across time and cultures share the same truths. How interesting that the people described in The Book of Mormon lived at the same time as Confucius and Lao Zi. I admit I know little about your sacred text, but I'm going to read about it now.

  6. Such a fine explanation and discussion starter, your Chapter 18 posting. Thanks. So, Paul's "invitation" to surrender to the Holy Spirit infers that one has been somehow "introduced" to the Holy Spirit (or the concept). Would this not be so with regards to Tao, as well? Or can I "be still and know that" there is Tao without having been "introduced" to Tao? On a different note, I remember telling my subordinates (as a training proverb), "When your knowledge exceeds your Wisdom then you know to much."

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, CD. I think the answer to your question is yes, you can be still and know there is Tao without any introduction. You might not have the label, but that's sort of the point. The label is not Tao. As Chapter 1 says, the Tao that can be understood is not the eternal Tao. So there is no need to be introduced to Tao because Tao is our natural state.

      Same with the Holy Spirit, I think. (Apologies to Christian theologians!) The Holy Spirit naturally enters where we make room. The concept is not the Holy Spirit itself, any more than the concept is the Tao.

      Am I understanding correctly what you mean by "introduce"? Is this responsive to your question?

      Love the training proverb! And exactly on point.

    2. Yes, it seems as though you do understand my question. So, when one is being still the un-introduced "label" may be Tao, the Holy Spirit, the Word, the I AM may become aware to us. We must, therefore, be able to discern from whom this "message" has been received? Or, we must have gained the Wisdom to incorporate (non-action) the "message" into our behavior/nature/present moment. Or, do we merely contemplate then accept the message regards of the Source? Finally, could these Sources be one and the same? Does it matter, in terms of our Wu-Wei?

    3. Personally, I think the sources are the same--that which is beyond naming--but I know there are those who would disagree. As soon as we begin to differentiate one source from another, we are in the realm of the ten thousand things, the manifested, rather than the original source.

      From the original source, by whatever name, there is no message as such. Again, a messages assumes that there is one who sends the message and one who receives it. There is simply the manifestation or movement of Tao (or the Holy Spirit) through us. Or not even through us--there is just the manifestation or movement. I think this is best expressed by the quotation by Todd Jackson at the top of the blog page.

      As always, I enjoy our conversation.


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