Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 19

This chapter continues the distinction in the last chapter between a conscious effort to be virtuous, and living in harmony with Tao which allows virtue to naturally manifest.

Abandon sainthood, renounce wisdom
People will benefit a hundred fold

In my young adulthood, I visited a zen center in the beautiful wine country outside San Francisco. The monk who led this group seemed to make a point of being “unsaintly.” He would walk around in his black robes with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, but I never saw him actually smoke or drink. I got the idea that he wanted to avoid being perceived as some kind of holy guru. Irreverent and funny, he was unfailingly kind and gracious. The twinkle in his eye suggested a deep love of, well, everything.

The monk’s followers, on the other hand, floated around with beatific smiles and, at least what seemed to me as, superficial humility, while not so subtly trying to outdo each other in enlightened behavior. They let me know in various ways that I was not in their league. Ah, we are so human, aren’t we?

Abandon benevolence, renounce morality
People will return to harmonious relations

As with the last chapter, we might look at some of these things we are supposed to abandon or renounce and wonder what would happen if we did. They seem to be the bedrock of civilized society. If we toss them aside, what is to keep us from devolving into chaos and violence? On the other hand, how well has adherence to a legally-imposed moral code worked for humanity so far? Just sayin....

Abandon shrewdness, renounce profit
People will be free from robbers

This harkens back to Chapter 3 (not collecting treasures prevents robbery). I think it’s interesting that in the Quran, interest is not allowed on loans. I have a friend who is a devoted Muslim and works for the Saudi government trying to bring banking regulation into compliance with this principle. Not sure how that would work, but in its simplest form, I think the principle here is not to take advantage of others, and not to grasp so greedily for things that we care about more than we care about the things that really matter, which, by the way, are things that cannot be grasped, greedily or otherwise.

Therefore heed these teachings:
Recognize the pure, embrace the simple
Reduce the ego, temper desires 

These last two lines can be understood two different ways. It could be four separate encouragements:

1. Recognize the pure
2. Embrace the simple
3. Reduce the ego
4. Temper desires

The alternative is to read them as cause and effect. In others words, the result of recognizing the pure and embracing the simple IS the reduction of ego and the lessening of desires. Personally, I prefer this latter interpretation. Ego and desire naturally fade as we become less distracted by the artifice of our consumer/marketing-driven world.

Just as an interesting (to me!) aside, the character for pure is  , which depicts raw or undyed silk. The character for simple is   , representing an uncarved block of wood. (As we saw in Chapter 15, this image of the uncarved block of wood is a popular one in the Tao Te Ching, suggesting not only simplicity but also unlimited potential.)

So what to make of this chapter? My commentary has been somewhat disjointed as the different lines reminded me of different things, so thank you for indulging my wandering mind. Overall, though, I think the focus here is on releasing our attachments, whether to beliefs, judgments, or desires. Grasping leads to stagnation; releasing allows natural flow. Consider the things we are asked in this chapter to abandon or renounce. If we can become aware of these things in our own life, then we can begin to see the effects of holding onto them. And to the extent we are able to loosen that grasp, even the tiniest bit, we can begin to experience and to manifest the beauty that is our true nature.

[A] truth is a truth until you try to organize it, and then it becomes a lie. Why? Because the purposes of the organization begin to take precedence over that which it first attempted to keep in order.  ~Wayne Dyer


  1. So much of what would make our lives better is so counter-intuitive given the society we've been raised in. But trusting in God enough to make the change is darn scary. Kinda like the trust fall over the piranha aquarium.

    1. Great image, CW! Thanks for commenting.

  2. I had to smile on some of this because of course we see what has happened in our society with the less kindness, morality and etc.
    I liked the thoughts of Recognize the pure, embrace the simple, reduce the ego and temper desires. Your cause and effects helped me thing this one through a little bit more.
    I enjoyed reading your final paragraph. I find your insight always interesting and thought provoking. Blessings and hugs for simulating my brain.

    1. Thanks, LeAnn. I'm glad you liked the cause/effect interpretation. The more I contemplated the Chinese characters in these last lines, the more that made sense to me.

  3. "Grasping leads to stagnation . . ." Oh, it surely does! We cannot hold too tightly to any earthly thing if we want to be truly free in the Spirit.
    You sure gave me a lot to ponder here, Galen!

    1. Thanks, Martha. I wandered around a bit, so there are lots of different things to think about--ha!

  4. I love the suggestion to abandon sainthood. All our concepts of what it means to be spiritual often get in the way of genuine presence and compassion. I know this takes time as there are many layers to unpeel, so a good sense of humor helps.

    1. Yes, that abandoning sainthood is a big relief--ha! Thanks for stopping by, Sandra.

  5. I also prefer the causal interpretation. I think I just found in Gary Snyder that the cure (or treatment at least!) for ego and desire IS recognizing the pure and embracing the simple, e.g., loving the wild mountains and rivers.


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