Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 38

This chapter contains one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching. Before you read it, consider for yourself what you think the best qualities are for a society or an individual to manifest. 

When Tao is lost, Virtue (Te) follows
When Virtue is lost, kindness follows
When kindness is lost, justice follows
When justice is lost, ritual follows 
Truly ritual is the husk of faithfulness and honesty, the beginning of confusion

So here is the hierarchy:

Tao, the Way
Virtue (Te in the Tao Te Ching), meaning the harmonious                   manifestation of Tao
Kindness, also meaning compassion, benevolence, impartiality
Justice, also meaning righteousness, morality, rules of behavior
Ritual, meaning empty ritual without deeper significance

Did any of the qualities you listed appear in this list? If so, where?

When I taught law, I had my students read this passage on the first day of class, and I had it taped to my office door. We pride ourselves in the United States for being a country guided by the rule of law. Justice is one of our highest ideals, and as lawyers we vow to seek it and uphold it. 

However, as I pointed out to my first year law students, look how far down the list justice falls. Justice rises to the top as a guiding principle only after we have lost Tao, Virtue, and kindness. Justice is the last stand of society before empty ritual gives way to chaos and confusion. 

The Bible tells us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Which seems most important? 

Don’t get me wrong. As a member of the legal profession and as an individual, I honor my commitment to justice. And ritual can be beautiful and deeply meaningful as a way to connect us to each other and to the sacred. 

But this passage reminds me of Steven Covey’s admonition that the “main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” If my focus is on living in harmony with Tao, then everything else in the hierarchy naturally manifests. I wouldn’t have to do justice, because injustice would never occur. Loving kindness would be my natural state. I could walk no other way than humbly, because I would know myself as part of something far greater than my individual ego. 

I sometimes feel frustrated or discouraged when I look around me in the world. When I am in a certain frame of mind, it appears to me that indeed we have fallen all the way down the list into chaos and confusion. People fight over rules, shouting justice, when it seems evident, at least on some days, that there is no guidance being sought from further up the list. 

But, as the saying goes, as within so without. So I need look no further than my own life – my own thoughts, words, and actions – and consider where in the hierarchy my own guidance falls. Can I see when I am not in harmony with Tao? And if I can’t align myself completely with the naturally flowing energy of the universe, can I at least move up one level? 

For example, if I am stuck on the level of justice, perhaps seeing a situation as unfair (especially if it’s unfair to me), can I move up to view the situation through the heart of kindness? Although we might initially view this hierarchy in one direction, losing one level to fall to the one below, I’ve found that sometimes I can work my way back to Tao by seeking guidance from the next step up. 

And no matter where we find ourselves, especially when we feel stuck, can we turn the light of kindness towards our own hearts, accepting ourselves as we are in that moment? 

My religion is kindness. ~the Dalai Lama


  1. Galen, your paraphrase from Micah 6:8 is my life verse. When we lose sight of God (Tao), as I think so many in today's culture have, we devolve and depend on other virtues to keep us afloat. While kindness, mercy, justice are wonderful in and of themselves, they must be grounded in a higher power, or it will be impossible to sustain them.

    1. Well said, Martha! When we are aligned, these other virtues are just naturally expressed--they don't really take effort, and are thus easy to sustain.

  2. I quote this one- in a bit different wording- all the time. A perfect indictment of today's society.

    1. You could look at it that way, CW, although that was not my intent. Rather, for me, the message is that my focus should be on how to align myself with the higher guidance. We can't change what is "out there" until we change what is inside ourselves. And we can't do that by judging or condemning, but by looking within ourselves and on others with compassion.

  3. Wow, I can see more than one level of thought on this one. The best qualities that a society or individual can manifest is that of loving kindness and treat others as you would want to be treated.
    There is man's rule of laws and then God's laws of Justice and Mercy. God's are perfect; man's not so much.
    Society and individuals are frequently fighting the rules and laws. It's all so sad.
    I guess I just wonder why we can't all just love one another and be kind. We are all really spiritual brothers and sisters. We have a loving Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ who love us. If we have faith, hope this will develop into charity and love for all. We then would have harmony in the universe and someday we will.

    1. I just read a quote that there are no differences when we are facing death. And we are all facing death, aren't we? It is sad that we are stuck in our ruts of separation and fear instead of enjoying the gift of this precious life that we have all be given. Thanks for your comment, LeAnn.

  4. I'm currently working my way through the verses, being guided though them by Wayne Dyer. I've taken off the cover to the black binding, having decided this will be my 'bible' . When I get to this chapter 38, I'll be taking extra note, Galen, because I find this hierarchy very compelling.

    1. Wayne Dyer's commentary is full of insight and wisdom--a good choice for a guide. I have read the TTC for decades -- it resonates deep in my spirit. Several years ago, I spent over two years going through the original Chinese. Wow. That revealed a whole new level of deep wisdom.

      If you are interested, you can use the series I've written on the TTC chapters. I can't add anything to the substance of Wayne's commentary, but I do sometimes offer something about the original Chinese that you might find interesting. You can click on the label link at the bottom of the post "Tao Te Ching chapter series" to get the list of posts, if you want to. Or here is the link

  5. Galen, you’ve given me much food for thought, as always. And per usual, our brains are pinging off a massive triangulation of the power grid somewhere between Portland and Dallas! Seriously, I’m grateful for this hierarchy as a reminder not to play so small. I’m often guilty of just that as I rush about tossing my slings and arrows. In my 12-step Community we urge “pausing when agitated”and you’ve just given me cause for pause. Thank you, my friend! Much love and kindness to you!

    1. Not to play so small--I love that. Something I just noticed about the hierarchy (always seeing new things even after decades!) is that as we move further down the list, our sense of separation from others increases. If I'm operating on the level of justice, there must be "others." And even more than that, there must be wrongdoers and victims. As we move up the list, these distinctions blur and finally disappear. Hmmm.

      Pausing when agitated--excellent. And while we're pausing, belly breathe!

      Thanks for stopping by.


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