Ching: Annotated & Explained
This article is intended to provide
more depth and details about the material in Tao
Te Ching: Annotated and Explained. Each note references a specific
passage from the book, marked by page number.
If you like the book,
please recommend it to friends who may benefit from it.
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share them with me at Tea House 2.0.
Page xi - xii
Even though its words remain the same, people change, and their
additional life experience allows them to see new lessons that had been
there all along but had gone unnoticed - lessons hidden in plain
When I started studying the Tao, my approach to life tended to be
over-the-top. I attacked problems with vehemence and thought
emotional intensity was key to success, so I did not agree with the
principle of wu wei. After going through several life
experiences (and the school of hard knocks), I realized this approach
was not working out for me. Suddenly, detached action seemed to make
much more sense than before. I gave it a try and achieved success despite
my negative preconceptions. This was the first of many instances where I
rediscovered the lessons hidden in plain sight, and had to admit the Tao Te Ching was right after all.
Its author, Lao Tzu, does not claim divine inspiration, infallibility, or
indeed any basis of authority.
This is an important point I would like the emphasize. Although I
talked about the Tao Te Ching as being similar to the Bible in
having many translations, it is in fact not a sacred religious book
like the Bible. You cannot use it to fight off vampires and zombies,
I am sorry to say. :)
Seriously though - we should not treat what the Tao Te Ching says as
dogmatic, absolute truth that we must never question. The real Tao
is not in this or any other book; it is in the heart as we put its
wisdom to the golden test of actual usage.
Birth of Tao Te Ching
Although this story may seem like fiction, it is in fact at the
halfway point between fiction and historical fact. There are no detailed historical
records of Xin Yi's encounter with Lao Tzu, so I based the story on
the Chinese oral tradition, which asserts the authenticity, in broad
outline, of the conversation that took place between the two of
"I find it difficult to imagine all
those books in one place. Only a king can amass such a collection. I
consider myself lucky to even see one book; a library is almost
beyond my comprehension."
Sometimes we forget how lucky we are.
Back in Lao Tzu's days, everything associated with books was rare
and precious: writing media (at that time mostly silk and bamboo
instead of paper), calligraphy brushes, ink, and literate ability
to write. Today we take such things for granted, and any of us
can own a personal library that, in ancient times, would be the
envy of kings.
The rarity of writing tools was also
a reason why the ancient Chinese wrote in that greatly abbreviated
and distilled style - they had to make the most of a limited
In time, other
sages of ancient China understood what Lao Tzu was trying to
accomplish, and over the next seven centuries they added to his work
wherever they noticed gaps.
Think of the Tao
Te Ching as the world's first Open Source software development
project - except instead of talented programmers, we have sages, and
instead of software for computers, they wrote software for the
spirit. The concept of collaboration is the same.
transcends its creators - the work itself is infinitely greater than
any one individual contributing to it, even the project's
throughout history have applied the term to every school of thought
and every discipline, including martial arts.
The word "Tao,"
although pronounced dao today, sounded like doh in
ancient times. This pronunciation spread outward from China to
Korea, Japan, and the Canton province. When the Manchu army
conquered China and initiated the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese language
was changed to Mandarin, but the outlying regions maintained the old
ways. Even today, the character for Tao is still pronounced doh
in Japanese, Korean, and Cantonese.
This is why you see so many
"do" endings in the names of martial arts. Kendo (Japanese), the Way
of the Sword; Hapkido (Korean), the Way of Harmonizing Chi; Jeet
Kune Do (Cantonese), the Way of the Intercepting Fist. Other
examples include Judo, Taekwando, Aikido, and so on. In each case,
"do" means "the way" and goes right back to the very same character
Because of the
Tao's inclusive nature, when Buddhism entered China 1,800 years ago,
it found easy acceptance despite its differences from Taoism.
In the West,
there is considerable confusion between the Tao and Buddhism. The
trendy nightclub Tao (there's one in New York and one in Las Vegas)
uses Buddhist icons to represent it. When we were discussing the
cover for this book, there was a question if we could use an image
of the Buddha - because, for many Westerners, that is the mental
image conjured up by the word "Tao."
The Chinese are not very
helpful here - they ought to know the difference, and yet they also
mix the two liberally. In China, it can oftentimes be difficult to
tell religious Taoist temples from Buddhist temples.
The bottom line still is that the true Tao encompasses all.
Therefore, the Buddha is only a partial representation. In that
sense it would be just as valid to put Jesus on the cover. But of
course no one would think that's a good idea. :)
It can also
lead to an idea expressed by some Western authors that Taoism is
opposed to another prominent Chinese tradition, Confucianism...
expressed this idea in The Te of Piglet. Although his
knowledge about Taoism is mostly accurate, in this case he is
mistaken. Other authors have also pointed out how Chuang Tzu pokes
fun of Confucian proponents in his stories. This is not entirely
correct either. Chuang Tzu also depicts Confucius as a sage in his
stories, and uses the Confucius character to convey important
Yet another misconception is that Taoism is pro-feminist
while Confucianism is anti-feminist. The truth is more complex. The
Tao does indeed revere the feminine energy - it is, after all, the
source of life. Both Taoism and Confucianism are expressions, or
aspects, of the original Tao. By themselves they are not necessarily
"anti" any particular group of people, but they can both be twisted by individuals with
ulterior motives to push a particular agenda.
Even today, the West still does not
understand very well that in a Confucian society, the power of women
manifests in accordance with the yin principle - subtly, internally
and in non-obvious ways. Secure in this power, women generally do
not feel the need to compete against men in male-like fashion.
For instance, it is customary in
Japan for the husband to have his entire salary automatically
deposited into his wife's bank account. From this income, the wife
decides on a monthly allowance to give to the husband. So, despite
the surface appearance of the man being the external authority
figure, it is in fact the woman who holds the power of the purse
string in the family - a formidable internal power.
purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to provide us with wisdom and
insights we can apply to life. If we cannot do that, then it doesn't
matter how well we understand the passages.
By far the most
common disconnect between knowing and doing in Tao
cultivation has to do with debates. Lao Tzu tells us not to get into
them. We all know, or should know, that it is a bad idea to debate.
But when we're challenged on a particular issue, it can still be
extremely difficult to resist the urge to jump right in and fire
In the West,
study of the Tao has led to mixed results.
The situation is
no different in the East. Some people experience profound life
transformations with the Tao while others do not. So how can you
tell if you are on the right track? Let me suggest the following
- The Tao is practical and result-oriented, so judge by what
actually happens in your life. Positive, lasting results mean
you must be doing something right. "Lasting" is particularly
important here. Quick fixes do not last; the benefits of the
true Tao last forever.
- The Tao should impact multiple aspects of your life. It
should not just give you some ideas to play with in your head.
Nor should it give you only peace of mind and nothing else. The
Tao, when properly leveraged, should also give you greater
prosperity, career success, improved relationships, and better
health among other benefits. If such multi-faceted results are
not consistently present in your life, then it may be time to
reflect on your approach to the Tao.
Let us think
of the destination as a mountain that we, walking in the forest, can
glimpse through the tree branches from time to time.
At this point
someone who does not really understand the Tao may ask: "Why do I
have to go anywhere at all? I am already in the Tao no matter where
I happen to be, therefore I simply enjoy being here and now and feel
no need to be anywhere else."
The choice to remain in place means
having no purpose in life or not making any progress toward a
particular goal you have envisioned for yourself. This usually
manifests as stagnation, boredom, lack of energy and lack of meaning
- a far cry from the joyful existence of real Tao cultivators.