Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained

Further Thoughts

by Derek Lin

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.

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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 sight.
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.
Page xii 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.

Page xii 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 them.
Page xiii "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 resource.

Page xvi 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.

The project transcends its creators - the work itself is infinitely greater than any one individual contributing to it, even the project's originator.

Page xvii Chinese people 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 - Tao.

Page xviii 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. :)

Page xviii It can also lead to an idea expressed by some Western authors that Taoism is opposed to another prominent Chinese tradition, Confucianism...
Benjamin Hoff 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 lessons.

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.

Page xx The ultimate 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 back.
Page xx 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 ideas:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Page xxi 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.