Tao Te Ching: How to
Deal With Suffering

by Jos Slabbert


Suffering is an inescapable part of life.

Most religions are preoccupied with suffering, and offer ways to deal with it.

In Buddhism, suffering is seen as intrinsic to the endless cycle of birth, life and death. Most Buddhist schools offer ways to escape this endless cycle of suffering.

Taoism, too, as will be discussed in this essay, has its own unique way of dealing with suffering.

The inescapable and the avoidable

Even in paradise
the fool
will turn the emotions clouding his mind
into the reality of suffering.
The Taoist sage
has a mind
empty as the blue sky.
She avoids
the avoidable,
and faces the inescapable
with equanimity.

(The Way is Tao, 21)

Suffering has many forms. When I think about the suffering I have experienced, and when I observe the suffering around me, I cannot else but come to the conclusion that it can be divided into the inescapable and the avoidable.

The inescapable

The inescapable forms of suffering include the obvious: being born, aging, and bodily decay. In medicine, we have been desperately fighting to avoid and postpone the inevitable, but in the end we all have to suffer the pain of aging and dying.

Of course, one should adopt a lifestyle minimizing suffering caused by disease, but even then the deterioration of old age ultimately brings disease, suffering and death.

Suffering through old age and death are part of the natural way of Tao, and should be accepted as such. It is part of wisdom to accept these inevitabilities with equanimity.

Unavoidable suffering also includes the results of your previous actions that will still influence your life in negative ways. Again, like with suffering coming from old age, you just have to accept these effects when they come, and deal with them in the best way possible.

Inescapable suffering includes certain mental traumas as well, like experiencing the deaths of beloved ones and separation. It also includes some of the suffering others inflict upon you.

Inescapable suffering encompasses everything that is linked to impermanence, which is extensive. Its common denominator is the pain of decay and separation.

The avoidable

The ignorant
create their own agonies
when they allow
their desire, greed and hatred
to turn the fiction in their minds
into the reality of suffering.

(The Tao is Tao, 79)

Avoidable suffering includes physical, psychological and spiritual forms of suffering that can be avoided, eliminated or at least reduced.

These forms of suffering would also include our inability to deal with unavoidable forms of suffering. For example, the way we handle our own illnesses can either alleviate or increase our suffering.

Most forms of our suffering are the results of inventions of our own minds, and our inability to deal with our thoughts and emotions.

The greatest tragedy is to suffer unnecessarily, as so many people do. You have probably seen it or experienced it, haven’t you? People who have everything - wealth, health and good friends - and they nevertheless turn what should be paradise into their own personal hell.

There is a restlessness in people that comes from neglecting the spirit, and which can only be satisfied in the sphere of the spirit. As long as this aspect of the human being is neglected, the human will never come to peace, and will suffer in many ways. No amount of material wealth, success and status will satisfy this need. In fact, material wealth and success often prevent the development of the spirit.

It is only when the needs of the spirit are satisfied that most of the unnecessary forms of suffering will cease.

The Nature of suffering


Suffering is an all-encompassing phenomenon, and it includes forms of suffering the sufferer is not even aware of.

All forms of attachment incorporate suffering. These forms include attachment to the senses, and emotional attachment, which would inevitably lead to sorrow.

The impermanence of things is the main reason even "positive" forms of attachment ultimately lead to suffering.

Suffering cannot be totally eliminated in this life and this world. Even the enlightened suffer in this world. Sometimes their suffering is caused by their compassion and wisdom.

Schools dedicated to the Bodhisattva tradition argue that suffering cannot end for anyone as long as a single creature on earth is still suffering. It is very true, isn’t it? How can anyone filled with compassion be totally happy as long as there is still suffering around one?

Causes of suffering

Attachment and the ego are closely linked, and they are the main causes of suffering, for they encourage perpetual action to satisfy their unsatiable needs. The ego not only causes harm on a personal level, but it is a source of destruction and hatred on a wide scale. As long as people are run by their egos, there is no chance for rest and peace.

Attachment, the ego and greed are intertwined. Greed causes tremendous suffering not only to persons in service of their own greed, but also to those in the service of the greed of others.

Attachment, the ego, greed and their natural ally, hatred, perpetuate suffering and destruction not only on a personal, but also on a vast geopolitical scale.


The main problems of suffering lie in the sphere of the spirit, and they are problems of the mind. They are elusive problems difficult to solve.

Their solutions often lie outside the reach of political programs. Many of the problems plaguing the world fall in the realm of the spirit, and they cannot be solved by political programs only. In fact, political interference sometimes seems to aggravate some of these problems, which does not mean that one should not take political action to combat problems like greed or hatred. Political programs, however, tend to tackle the symptoms more than the causes.

As long as the human being has not solved the problem of greed in his heart, and as long as he is serving his own ego, any political system, no matter how noble, will be corrupted by the very people who should implement and protect it.

The Tao Te Ching and Suffering

Taoism seems to ignore aspects of suffering as it focuses on the positive aspects of life. In the Tao Te Ching, the word "suffering" does not appear once. So, does this mean that it does not deal with this central issue? Of course not. Taoism deals extensively with suffering, but it focuses more on the cures than the problems, and it does so in a lighthearted way.

It is almost as if the author of the Tao te Ching knew that to take suffering too seriously will only entrap one even more deeply in suffering. A light, delicate touch is needed. It is the way of acceptance and detachment.

What follows is an effort to describe some of the aspects of suffering dealt with directly or implicitly in the Tao Te Ching.

This essay does not cover all aspects dealt with in the Tao Te Ching, and full justice will never be done to this wonderful masterpiece.

The essay focuses on the practical aspects and solutions proposed or implied in the Tao Te Ching.

Forms of suffering and their solutions

Desire and ignorance

Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

(Chapter 1)

Desire and ignorance are closely linked. When you are too attached, you focus on form, and cannot penetrate the surface of things. You become superficial, and fail to understand the essence of life. Desire turns you blind to the essence. This is the worst form of suffering, for you will go through life chasing illusions, instead of finding peace. You will, for example, try to become wealthy to find fulfilment, not realizing that material possession has little to do with fulfilment. You will adorn yourself with the gloss of success in the hope that the gloss will, somehow, establish the essence, and your disillusionment will be terrible when you discover that your success does not give life true meaning.

This text also offers the solution. You must become "free from desire". Then you will "realize the mystery".

Easier said than done, you could respond, and you would be right. In a world focused on the illusionary and the superficial, our suffering seems to be preprogrammed, and escaping it would entail an act of tremendous spiritual liberation from the shackles of materialism and greed, which are seen as positive attributes by our society.

Does "free from desire" also imply that intimate relationships only bring sorrow? Should we all become monks or nuns living in abstinence?

There are no rules in Taoism. There are simply ways to minimize suffering and to live in harmony with the Tao.

In relationships, it is all about how much the own ego is involved. The more ego one has, the more one tends to inflict suffering on oneself and others. The less ego is involved, the more harmonious relationships become. It is impossible in this life to avoid all forms of desire. The very fact that we are alive is a manifestation of desire!

Relationships should be unfettered by rules. Provided your ego is not in charge, relationships should be spontaneous, stimulating and full of fun, and they should be supportive and compassionate. Friendships without personal agendas are probably the most fruitful and joyful.

In a love relationship, obviously, physical desire will be part of the equation, and it should be allowed to go its natural course. Again, a selfish focus on the self to the exclusion of the needs of the partner could of course have devastating results on a relationship. Sex should be a function of harmony. If it is based mainly on the ego, it becomes divisive.

Desire is quite simply unavoidable in this life - and the suffering that is part of it. One should know this. When you fall in love, you have made a choice. The choice will give your life additional meaning if you tackle it wisely, but even if it should be a perfect relationship full of joy and fulfilment, and even if very little ego is involved, it will still inevitably bring the sorrow associated with impermanence: the suffering of parting at death, or of seeing the partner ill and suffering. Attachment brings sorrow. There is no escape from this.

Suffering is part of life.

The Taoist sage will not deliberately choose the way of suffering to enrich himself - he loves life too much for that. Neither will he shun joy to avoid suffering - he loves life too much for that.

One should live a natural, spontaneous life of compassion, unintimidated by the specter of suffering.

The sage is free, for he is not intimidated by suffering.

He knows it is the way of the Tao.

It is possible. Many people before us have shown us the way.


When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good,other things become bad.

(Chapter 2)

We easily become victims of our own discriminatory faculties, which are closely linked to desire. We desire because we discriminate in terms of what we observe to be quality and beauty, or desirable and undesirable.

We are then easily driven by our own ideas of what should be rejected, and what is desirable and should be obtained. It turns life into a quest for material gain, and our relationships become a selective process often driven by lust and a desire for status.

But is this a form of suffering? Many would argue it is not. It is in fact the spice of life, they would claim. It gives life meaning, they would insist. They would argue that there must be a reason why consumerism has become such an obsession in the modern world.

Do not be fooled by this. This preoccupation with possession, manipulation and exploitation is a symptom of spiritual confusion, in fact an acute form of suffering. Like hungry ghosts, people are trying to satisfy the insatiable. They are driven by their greed, and can never be satisfied, and they never find rest. They are like creatures trying to quench their thirst with salt water. The more they drink, the thirstier they become. Their suffering is acute, no matter how happy they pretend to be.

There is a solution to this.

Cease being run by your discriminatory faculties. Only then will the essential tolerance on a spiritual level be possible.

Quite simply accept life as it is. Be like a child. The world is the way you see it. If you see it as full of innocence and beauty, it will be full of innocence and beauty. It does not mean that you deny the presence of ugliness and evil in the world. No, you just refuse to focus mainly on the gloomy side and do not give it a chance to change your perspectives and darken your own spirit.

You do not have to search for meaning. Just get rid of your negative thoughts. The meaning of life is life itself. Live it. In this way, you will fill the world with beauty and meaning. It is more powerful than any political program.

Greed and Crime

If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.

(Chapter 3)

Crime is the source of much suffering. It is the most visible manifestation of greed, and symptomatic of a society focused on material gain.

No police force or economic system is going to stop the crimes of theft, corruption and its violent adherents, for the problem lies in the confused minds of people, and the solution is a spiritual one.

Only when society ceases to run on greed will crime itself start to disappear. Any other "solutions" are simply tampering with the symptoms.

In a society not running on greed, there will be no poverty co-existing next to callous affluence. If status is not linked to possession, possession will not lure people into crime and exploitation. Even though many forms of exploitation are not illegal in many countries, exploiting people is nevertheless destructive, and it will produce more crime. The poor created by the greedy will return to haunt the greedy. The material affluence flaunted so openly by the wealthy will turn their own homes unsafe. Exploitation and injustice will keep our streets dangerous - no matter how moralistic we are and how little tolerance we show to crime, and how many police are patrolling our streets - as long as we allow greed to run our lives.

The only true solution is a society without greed: one of justice and true compassion.

Is this solution an impossible utopian dream? No more than assuming you could change people’s behavior without changing their hearts. Or that you could get rid of crime without getting rid of its real causes.

The sooner we accept the realm of the spirit as part of reality, the sooner real solutions will become possible.


The Master leads by emptying people's minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.

(Chapter 3)

Being overambitious is an acute form of suffering. It tends to leave no space for spiritual development, for its sole intent is to serve an insatiable ego.

It is only when you become less ambitious that your "core" is filled; that you acquire true substance which is of a spiritual nature.

It creates the kind of constructive confusion in you that is a prerequisite to spiritual development. It is only when your certainty based on illusion is taken away from you, when you have stepped over the precipice to realize that there is no foothold beneath you, that you are able to truly develop.

Spiritual development is not made for those who cling to security. Nor is it for people who cling to the illusionary security provided by their possessions. It has an exacting price. You lose much of what you desire and know. You often quite simply have to start all over again as your old values are replaced by an emptiness which offers no support in the banal world of competition.

You need courage to face a world of no illusion, but it is the only way to eliminate unnecessary suffering.


Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.

(Chapter 3)

Part of our suffering is our belief that we will reach our destiny only through action. What a harmful superstition this has turned out to be. Its destructive path can be traced through the mayhem caused by "men of action" in the course of history.

Action is often driven by the ego. It is often part of self-glorification. It not only causes personal suffering, but suffering on a vast scale.

The text is clear about what you should do: "Practice non-doing." Let go of your false self. Find peace in your emptiness, and you will come to a state of mind where this suffering has ceased to exist. You will not suffer, nor will you spread suffering. You will be without agendas, and you will have the peace of mind of someone filled with wisdom and compassion. Your silence will become a blessing, and your non-action a way of leading people to the way of the Tao.


The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.

(Chapter 8)

If anything, this is the age of immodesty, of people blatantly flaunting their talents and successes.

Politicians and even spiritual leaders often lead in this display by nauseating example.

There is little space for the humble and the modest, who unconsciously carry the true seeds of spiritual greatness in them.

It is our inability to recognize "supreme goodness" which accounts for much of our suffering. The leaders we elect are often a reflection of our confusion.

And yet the power that emanates from humility is immense. It is part of the supreme good "which nourishes all things". And it does so without trying, "content to be with the low places that people disdain".


The Master doesn't take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners.

(Chapter 5)

Being prejudiced is a form of suffering. Not only do those injured by prejudice suffer, but those filled with prejudice.

Prejudice is the basis of hatred and destructive actions. It is a source of unfairness and denial of dignity. It causes lack of mercy, and mercy is the essence of civilized society.

If you are prejudiced against "sinners", "sinners" have no second chance, and reconciliation becomes close to impossible.

To be able to welcome "both saints and sinners" is only possible if you can forgive and forget. This ability nurtures an environment of tolerance, mercy and compassion, where people can live without fear, and where true healing and real closure can take place.


The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled.

(Chapter 7)

Attachment is often being part of the rat race, which is a form of acute suffering and stagnation. The first two lines are clear. It is only by staying behind, by giving up your ambitions and abandoning the rat race, that you will truly develop.

Detachment is the key. You only become one with things if you are detached from them. It is true, isn’t it? If you are, for example, emotionally too attached to your children, you often lack the wisdom to be truly compassionate to them in a constructive way. It is only when you put your emotions aside, when you are detached, that you can truly understand others, that you become "one with them", and will have the courage to help them.

The last two lines of the verse describe the essence of detachment. You must let go of yourself. You must sacrifice your ego and you own ambitions, and you must abandon your selfish agendas. Only then will you be at one with your own emptiness and will you find fulfilment. It sounds like a sacrifice, doesn’t it? The price is worth it, though, for this form of sacrifice conquers suffering.

Clenched heart

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.

(Chapter 9)

What a painful, suffering state it must be, this state of a "clenched heart". How lonely you must be, and without real consolation. It is ironic. Obsession with security and money does not weaken, but it increases your feelings of emotional insecurity and isolation. Your ego stands between you and everything your spirit longs for.

It is only when you give up your materialism and obsession with security that your heart will unclench, and real life will begin.

This poet would be seen as some radical by mainstream society today. The last thing our capitalist, materialist, consumerist society would want to hear is that materialism is in fact a form of suffering and that our economic systems have not liberated us, but turned us into captives. That is why this society will continue suffering, and they will continue blaming everything else but their greed for it. That is why our "progress" is a movement towards despair, and not towards spiritual peace and fulfilment. What the poet is saying in simple clarity is that economy based on greed and not compassion leads to despair and suffering.

Prisoner of opinion

Care about people's approvaland you will be their prisoner.

(Chapter 9)

Many people are trapped by other people’s opinions. It is probably one of the worst forms of mental suffering. Being trapped in this way prevents any form of spiritual liberation.

There is only one way out of captivity. You must abandon your ego mercilessly, no matter what pain it entails. For it is not really you that are trapped. It is your ego. If you let go of it, you will find that you are as free as the emptiness in you.

Success going to your head

Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.

(Chapter 9)

Not bathing in your accomplishments is another form of very sensible detachment. Basking in your glory leads to the enlargement of your ego, and easily leads to stagnation both in creativity and spiritual growth.

Stepping back is a way of disallowing the ego to take over. Victories and successes are dangerous, for they inflate the ego and turn what should have been development into regression. Stepping back is an acknowledgment of your emptiness, and it is the source of power for your next task. It is an elegant way to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Murky inner vision

Can you cleanse your inner visionuntil you see nothing but the light?

(Chapter 10)

Having no true insight is an acute form of suffering. This is often the result of emotional turmoil disabling you to see clearly. Your inner vision must be one of detachment from emotions and thoughts, which are part of your volatility. It is only when you are serenely empty in your detachment that your inner vision becomes clear, and it is only when your inner vision is clear that you will see reality in undistorted clarity. This is true enlightenment, for you will see "nothing but the light".

Lack of perspective

Can you step back from you own mind and thus understand all things?

(Chapter 10)

Being enmeshed in you own problems, unable to gain perspective, prolongs and increases suffering, for it traps you in a cage, which is you own mind, from where there seems no escape.

Only when you can step back from your mind will you be able to gain understanding and be able to take the right steps to liberate yourself. You cannot escape this trap unless you demolish your ego, which has convinced you that your false self is the center of the universe. Only when you have freed yourself from the control of your thoughts, will you come into that "unthinking" state of mind where you will clearly understand.

Too high expectations

acting with no expectations, ... this is the supreme virtue.

(Chapter 10)

Taking life too seriously is the symptom of a lack of perspective. Expecting too much from life is a certain sign that your ego is in control. Living with too high expectations inevitably causes stress and anxiety, and often disillusionment is the outcome.

Living without expectations is a supreme virtue, for it carries with it the power of modesty and humility. It is to realize that one is not more important than any other creature. It is the wisdom to know

The Tao favors no-one,
not even those close to it.

Living without expectations equips you with the ability to take the worst setbacks in your stride. In fact, setbacks only become setbacks when you have expectations. Without expectations, there are no setbacks. Only opportunities. Having no expectations nurtures gratitude and optimism. It is the essence of equanimity, which is detachment from suffering.


Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don't see the self as self, what do we have to fear?

(Chapter 11)

Many people live in fear. Not only fear, but angst. If fear is the fear of something specific, angst is the fear of something overwhelmingly vague and indefinable. It is the feeling of dread and foreboding so many people walk around with daily. Living in fear or angst is a terrible form of suffering, the source of many mental and physical illnesses.

This text is unequivocal in its analysis. Fear, it says, comes from thinking too much of the self. It is the flip side of hope, which is also part of suffering.

It is only when you realize that the false self, which you fear for, does not exist, that you can be liberated from this fear and hope. To be without hope does not mean to be hopeless, but it means not to be trapped by the hope that comes from too high expectations.

It is only when you have exposed the false self for what it is - an illusion created by yourself - that you will become truly free from fear. Your fear, this text clearly shows, is self-inflicted, and your liberation from it is an act of self-liberation.


Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?

(Chapter 15)

Impatience can lead to real suffering. Often we only increase our suffering through our impatience. We stir up mud instead of allowing it to settle.

Often, action is the result of impatience. This has led to incredible suffering on a personal as well as a social scale.

The wise man knows how to remain "unmoving" until the "right action arises by itself". Patience is a liberating virtue only possible with very little ego and no set agenda, for patience allows one to remove turmoil and suffering without causing unnecessary pain in the process.

Frustrated fulfilment

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.

(Chapter 15)

Even what seem to be the most virtuous impulses can lead to disaster. Actively seeking fulfilment is often the formula for frustration, and leads to the opposite of peace and fulfilment.

It is clear. It is when you do not seek any advantages for yourself, not even spiritual ones, that you are able to move forward spiritually. It is when you act with no expectation of success or spiritual gain that you can truly gain.

It is when you are detached from spiritual ambition, when you are free from the demands of the ego, that you can be fully present in the here and now. It is then that you are truly alive and in harmony with the Tao, and can "welcome all things" as you live a life of wisdom and compassion.

"Virtue" as suffering

When the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear. When the body's intelligence declines, cleverness and knowledge step forth. When there is no peace in the family, filial piety begins. When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born.

(Chapter 18)

What is remarkable about this poem is its claim that positive attributes, like goodness, piety, cleverness, knowledge, filial piety and patriotism, can in fact be nothing else but our efforts to deal with our separation from the true source. As such, they may be symptoms of suffering.

When people do not live in harmony with the Tao, they often demonstratively show goodness and piety, which have deteriorated to a facade devoid of substance. In fact, this is corruptive, for it turns what should be true manifestations of the spirit into vain show. We have often seen this, haven’t we? People, who live lives of vanity and greed, showing off their charity and religiosity to the world. Their corruptive influence as role models cannot be underestimated.

In the third line of this poem, the poet speaks of the "body’s intelligence" as opposed to "cleverness and knowledge", which are negative in this context. The "body’s intelligence" is the intuitive, natural intelligence - the gut feeling of what is right - of someone living in harmony with Tao. When one loses contact with Tao, true intelligence, which is wisdom and compassion, declines, and cleverness takes over. Cleverness and knowledge without compassion are products of disharmony with the Tao; they are vain efforts to gloss over lack of wisdom. Unlike wisdom, they cause suffering and do not find solutions to suffering. They are superficial show, often totally in service of the ego, and as such they are corruptive and harmful.

"Filial piety", according to the poet, is often a cover up for lack of peace at home. Like in all previous cases, form is a facade camouflaging the lack of true substance, which should be peace which comes from compassion and harmony.

"Patriotism", that incredibly abused word, has too often been the main sentiment in countries which have fallen into spiritual chaos. The chaos the poet is referring to here is a confusion of the spirit, where people live in a sociocentric society, dedicated to their own collective greed. In such a country, patriotism becomes a fuzzy but emotive word to spurn people on to immerse themselves even more in their own egotism and suffering. This word often justifies cruelty and war. It can easily become an effective propagandistic control of people’s minds. Where there is fervent patriotism, there truly is chaos.

Futile thinking

Stop thinking, and end your problems.What difference between yes and no?What difference between success and failure?Must you value what others value,avoid what others avoid?How ridiculous!

(Chapter 20)

The poet’s advice here must be quite shocking to most people who have been taught that the solution to our problems should be solved by thinking about them. The poet advises us in this poem to stop thinking.

Of course, he is not telling us to live like idiots and to abandon the rational in a rational world. That would be disastrous, for in a rational world we have no choice but to use our reason to survive. No, the poet is advising us to stop brooding over problems that cannot be solved by thinking.

There are forms of suffering that cannot be solved by thinking about them. They can only be solved by some form of action, or even non-action. These problems fall in the spiritual sphere. The poet makes clear what he means. Many mental problems are problems related to our dependency on others’ opinions, and our dedication to our own egos. We tend to give our own status, as well as success and failure, too much weight. We are led by others’ values and prejudices. These are all symptoms of being run by our own egos and our corresponding fear of society’s opinion. We have lost contact with our own selves. We are blown about like leaves in the wind. Isn’t this a terrible, ridiculous form of suffering?

No amount of thinking can relieve you of this suffering. You will have to turn towards your true self again, and find harmony with the Tao. It is a personal, spiritual act of liberation.

Dealing with loss

Express yourself completely, then keep quiet. Be like the forces of nature: when it blows, there is only wind; when it rains, there is only rain; when the clouds pass, the sun shines through. If you open yourself to the Tao, you are at one with the Tao and you can embody it completely. If you open yourself to insight, you are at one with insight and you can use it completely. If you open yourself to loss, you are at one with loss and you can accept it completely. Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place.

(Chapter 23)

The word "open" is repeated often in this poem. Most people think the only way to handle suffering is to withdraw and to close yourself. The poet is clearly saying in this poem that the opposite is true:

If you open yourself to loss, you are at one with loss and you can accept it completely.

This openness, a willingness and courage to face reality, is the only way to deal with suffering, particularly inescapable suffering. But the openness the poet is describing is more than just facing reality. It is facing reality in total harmony with the Tao:

If you open yourself to the Tao, you are at one with the Tao and you can embody it completely.

It is only when you "embody" the Tao that you can face suffering with true equanimity. You will then have the openness that insight into your own nature and the natural way of Tao brings you. The right approach to suffering is only possible when you have reduced your ego to a minimum. The less ego you have, the less you suffer. Facing death with unresolved agendas is a terrible form of suffering. You will have to let go of selfish interests and futile aims to concentrate on dealing with the moment.

It is the acceptance of the inevitable that makes suffering bearable.

On his death bed,
his family mourning,
he is serene,
for he knows
is an illusion:
there is no beginning and no end.

There is only the endless flow of Tao.

The man of Tao has no fear,
for he walks with Tao.

(The Tao is Tao, 154)


A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.

(Chapter 27)

Plans, aims, objectives and agendas have become the routes of suffering for so many people, and not only the ambitious. Agendas often take spontaneity and joy out of life. In the process, many people have become bad travelers, concentrating only on their objectives, and arriving at their destinations only to find that even their destinations are not really worth the trouble.

Having no fixed plans? This does not sound like survival in a modern technological environment, does it? I mean, who but the extremely fortunate have the luxury of not having agendas running their lives? In most cases, one could justifiably point out, agendas are forced on you by your professional and familial obligations. You do not really have a choice, do you?

How could one then become a good traveler through life in this modern world? I think the key lies in the second line of the quotation. One should not be "intent upon arriving". You should adopt an attitude of detachment. The moment your aims become egocentric, your suffering increases. The less your own ego is involved, the less seriously you will take life, and the more you will enjoy the journey. It is easier said than done, though, particularly when the job you are doing seems to be devoid of meaning, and the activities on your agenda tedious. They might even go against what you truly believe.

It is clear. To become a good traveler in the modern world often entails more than just a change of attitude. It could also mean changing your life style, even your profession. It could mean taking risks in the process. But liberation has always been a risky undertaking, hasn’t it? People are willing to take risks for the most mundane things like profit and possession. Why not take a few risks when your spiritual progress is at stake? Truly good travelers often leave the beaten track and become masters of their own far more adventurous journeys.

Tampering with the world

Do you want to improve the world? I don't think it can be done. The world is sacred. It can't be improved. If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

(Chapter 29)

If anything, the Twentieth Century will be called the century of social engineering. Simplistic ideologies, like fascism, were used to try to change the world, with terrible consequences inducing suffering on a scale never seen before in the history of the human being. A savage economic system based on greed - capitalism - has ravaged the world.

Yet, the human being has not learnt from this. Still, politicians show their ignorance by tampering with the sacred. It is the age of management, that euphemistic word for manipulating society. It is still happening. What else are many political programs but tampering with the sacred and ruining it in the process? It is the source of endless suffering.

Forcing issues

Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men doesn't try to force issues or defeat enemies by force of arms. For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself. The Master does his job and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.

(Chapter 30)

Understanding that the universe is out of control is the key to wisdom and patience. No amount of tampering with the universe will change this. In fact, the more we tamper with it, the more damage we will do.

Does this mean that suffering is a natural state of affairs in this world? Yes, it probably does.

Does it mean that one should resign oneself to the fate of things, and let events run their course? Isn’t the poet here guilty of a terrible form of uncompassionate withdrawal disguised as wisdom?

No, for the emphasis is on "dominate":

... trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.

The poet is warning against the kind of approach which worsens rather than alleviates the situation. It can take the form of impetuous, forceful action against the natural run of events.

Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself.

It can take the form of the impatient forcing of issues when patience is needed to allow matters to be settled without undue interference.

Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men doesn't try to force issues

The word "dominate" clearly shows an ego at work, and not the kind of wisdom and compassion essential to the true solutions of problems. A person run by his ego would not act as depicted in the first lines of this poem:

The Master does his job and then stops.

No, he will force issues, act impetuously, impatiently or even violently, and in this way he will increase instead of alleviate suffering.


Weapons are the tools of violence; all decent men detest them. Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity and, if compelled, will use them only with the utmost restraint. Peace is his highest value. If the peace has been shattered, how can he be content? His enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself. He doesn't wish them personal harm. Nor does he rejoice in victory. How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men? He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.

(Chapter 31)

This poem is addressing what is still the scourge of the world. The poet could not have expressed himself in stronger terms:

Weapons are the tools of violence; all decent men detest them.

If it is true what the poet is saying, then there must be a lot of indecent men around. Just look at the weapons cult in many societies, where weapons are admired and seen as the natural adornment of "real males". Some people even see the possession of weapons as part of the "inalienable" and "democratic" rights that go with personal freedom.

And yet the poet is not proposing that weapons should not be used at all. Their use, however, should be extremely limited:

Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity and, if compelled, will use them only with the utmost restraint.

It is very clear, isn’t it? Weapons should only be used when survival is at stake, and even then they must be used "with the utmost of constraint".

To the true sage in harmony with the Tao, victory in warfare is something bitter, for it involves "the slaughter of men". There is no place for victory parades and rejoicing after the battle. Only sorrow.

He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.

You could argue that this poem does not offer us much consolation. In fact, the poet seems to admit that warfare is sometimes necessary.

Yet, if everyone should have the attitude towards inflicting suffering depicted in this poem, war would hardly ever, if at all, take place. It would be too unpopular.

Peace is his highest value. If the peace has been shattered, how can he be content?

Clinging to life

If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren't afraid of dying, there is nothing you can't achieve. Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter's place. When you handle the master carpenter's tools, chances are that you'll cut your hand.

(Chapter 74)

Clinging to life is indeed a form of suffering common to most people. It is a form of fear: the fear of dying. As the poet clearly says in this poem, it is the most difficult fear to overcome. Once you have managed to conquer this fear, "there is nothing you can’t achieve."

Being ruled by this fear shifts your focus from the present to the future, which you will then try to control, but the only thing that will happen, the poet emphasizes, is that you will harm yourself.

In fact, what becomes clear is that it is essential that you accept "that all things change." Once you have accepted this on a spiritual level, "there is nothing you will try to hold on to". Only when you do not cling to life, will you be able to live a life free from fear, and will you have the courage to accept all stages of life, and will you be able to face life and death with equanimity.


Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

(Tao Te Ching, 76)

Inflexibility is, indeed, an acute form of suffering. The poet is referring to our inability to adapt and to accept the natural development of things.

He could not be clearer in his expression. Inflexibility makes you "a disciple of death". This expression sends cold shivers down my spine. It must be a terrible form of suffering to live in the service of death.

The very next lines bring the solution:

Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.

The word "yielding" is significant. It indicates action or non-action without ego. It does not mean "soft" as a symptom of weakness, but as a manifestation of strength. Only the truly strong can be "soft and yielding", for their strength comes from emptiness. The last line of the poem suggests that these qualitites bring power:

The soft and supple will prevail.

This approach to life is superior to any other approach in terms of spiritual survival.

Control through force

As it acts in the world, the Tao is like the bending of a bow. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. It adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and give to what isn't enough. Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. They take from those who don't have enough and give to those who have far too much. The Master can keep giving because there is no end to her wealth. She acts without expectation, succeeds without taking credit, and doesn't think that she is better than anyone else.

(Tao Te Ching, 77)

The poet is referring to suffering inflicted on people by people hungry for power. The poet is very clear about what he feels about it:

Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao.

People who live in harmony with the Tao will never try to control other people; nor will they use force to establish and maintain their power.

I find it quite amazing that this poem was written two and a half thousand years ago. What the poet is saying is acutely relevant today.

The exploitive nature of this kind of ruler is clear:

They take from those who don't have enough and give to those who have far too much.

On a global scale, this is exactly what is happening today. For example, people in power are taking the raw materials from the Third World at exploitative prices, and the real profits are made by those of the First World "who have far too much". The rich become richer, and the poor become poorer.

What is terrible is that most people of the First World think it is their God-given and inalienable right to live in luxury, and they refuse to see the link between their affluent lifestyles and the abject poverty in other parts of the world. They simply lack the master’s humility, who "doesn’t think she is better/than anyone else".

Only when we come into harmony with the Tao, will balance and justice be possible:

It adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn't enough.

Alas, this "perfect balance" is very from being realized, for we live in a world where greed seems to be out of control as suffering increases.

The gentle solution

Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice. Therefore the Master remains serene in the midst of sorrow. Evil cannot enter his heart. Because he has given up helping, he is people's greatest help. True words seem paradoxical.

(Tao Te Ching, 78)

The poet clearly shows that only the gentle and soft can overcome suffering. Someone with these qualities is able to remain "serene in the midst of sorrow."

A person in harmony with the Tao is immune against evil, for "evil cannot enter his heart."

The next lines explain the source of this power:

Because he has given up helping, he is people's greatest help.

The Taoist sage lives beyond ambition; there is not a taint of ego in him. When he helps, it is with the dispassion of someone who is not interested in self-improvement. The Taoist sage does not help because he needs to, but because others need it. He helps with the gentle detachment of someone who has conquered his ego. Because of his selflessness, he is "the people’s greatest help".

This dispassionate, detached approach is the most effective way to deal with suffering. It is the way of the Tao.


Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame.

(Tao Te Ching, 79)

Failure is mostly painful. People’s fear of this form of suffering often prevents them from becoming creative, for every venture carries with it the risk of failure. This fear will keep people imprisoned in what they consider to be their own comfort zones, but which are often nothing else but zones of stagnation. This is particularly dangerous on a spiritual level.

The poet is clear about how to handle failure. You must accept full responsibility for it. If you try to blame others, your suffering will continue and become worse.

Most people will accept the poet’s advice when it comes to accepting responsibilities in life. A surprising number of people do not realize that this also applies to their spiritual lives. If you stagnate spiritually, do not blame anyone else but yourself. Do not blame karma, or the devil, or your parents, or your church. You alone are responsible for your own spiritual development. If you do not accept responsibility, your stagnation will continue, and your suffering will only increase.

Compassion: the true solution

The Master has no possessions. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is.

(Tao Te Ching, 81)

This verse is breathtakingly simple and true. Compassion banishes suffering. It is compassion that has no interest in possessions.

Happiness and wealth have a profound spiritual meaning in this passage. It is the wealth of a spirit intent upon eliminating suffering and spreading joy, and which has become immune to its own suffering.

The ultimate solution

Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don't realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother,dignified as a king.

Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.

(Chapter 16)

Being able to "deal with whatever life brings you", even to be ready "when death comes", is certainly the ultimate state of mind. It is the supreme ability to deal with any form of suffering.

According to this text, a few preconditions must be met to acquire this state of mind.

  • This state of mind is only possible when you have become detached from your thoughts - where your thoughts no longer run you.
  • Your heart must be "at peace", i.e. your emotions must be under control - they no longer run you.
  • Even though you are part of life, watching the "turmoil of beings", this turmoil must never become part of you. The only way this is possible is to live a life of compassion aimed at relieving sentient beings from their turmoil. Control of your emotions is only possible when you live a life of compassion.
  • You can only serve if you have returned to the source and found peace of mind. You must have conquered your ego and found you true self. Only in emptiness will you find the equanimity which is a prerequisite to serenity. If you do not, you will be part of suffering as you "stumble in confusion and sorrow".

The results of finding this serenity are tremendous. It is a truly liberating experience. Accepting your own emptiness, and realizing that you are in total unity with all other sentient beings, you will acquire the qualities of a truly liberated person.

  • You will become "naturally tolerant". You will also become "disinterested", for your own ego will not be involved. Your compassion will be real and constructive.
  • You will be "amused", for you will see life from a detached vantage point giving you the insight and lightness not to take yourself and life too seriously. Your humor will often be a liberating force to you and those around you. It is so true, isn’t it? There is nothing like a good laugh to get rid of silliness and aggression. Not taking yourself too seriously often lightens the load that suffering brings. Laughing at yourself promotes the kind of humility essential to spiritual development.
  • No matter what gender you are, you will become "kindhearted as a grandmother". Isn’t it a wonderful description? What is more kindhearted than a grandmother to her grandchildren?
  • You will nevertheless be "dignified as a king". It is the dignity of someone who has conquered his ego and faces life with complete equanimity.

Isn’t this a breathtaking description of someone who has conquered suffering? Even though unavoidable forms of suffering will also visit those living in harmony with Tao, they will be liberated from them, for they will be able to deal with "whatever life brings", and they will be able to face what sentient beings often fear most: death itself.

Jos Slabbert 2001
Postal Address: P.O. Box 4037, Vineta, Namibia
Fax No.: 09264 64 46 1014 E-Mail: jos_slabbert@hotmail.com

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