Introduction. © Jonathan Zap 2004
Someone once described stories as “equipment for living.” Quality fiction does fit that definition and, of course, so does the right non fiction. The modern Taoist quotes presented here are almost the illustration of this definition. They are like a set of tools, deceptively simple in appearance, but made of an adamantine metal that grows stronger and sharper with long use.
Someone else said, “Don’t read a book unless it is like a ball of light glowing in your hands.” When you find the right book, at the right time, it can be a sphere of light in your hands. The writings of Deng Ming-Dao (a contemporary Taoist whom I excerpt here) were, for me, like a large sphere of amethyst with cooling, calming purple depths. Areas of the sphere had a gem quality transparency and clarity while others had natural inclusions, areas that were clouded by carbon and iron oxide. The quotes presented here are the parts that, for me, had gem quality transparency, that sparkled in my mind’s eye like jewels flashing in the night of time.
If we were to look into an amethyst sphere we would probably all agree on which parts were clear, and which parts were occluded with inclusions and impurities. But if the sphere is a matrix of language, rather than a crystal matrix, the subjectivity of the observer is greatly increased, and the areas of greatest transparency for one may not be the same for another. What I chose to excerpt might not be what you would choose and the selections that follow are no substitute for reading and owning the two books they come from: 365 Tao and Everyday Tao.
365 Tao is set up with a page to contemplate for each day of the year and the pages have been arranged to correspond to the cycles of the seasons and turning points in the calendar. There is even a table in the back that reorients this arrangement for those living in the Southern Hemisphere. I recommend these books as equipment for living and glowing spheres of light for those who have an inner commitment to the Taoist path.
A tangent on “sacred texts” (adapted from an introduction I wrote about Taoist quotes listed on website as “Taoist Quotes”).
I found more of use to me in these books of Taoist quotes than in the Tao Te Ching. They have a sparkling sanity and at times seem almost funny in their humble and common sense veracity. I don’t like the way the Tao Te Ching is presented as a sacred text. That’s because I don’t like it when any text is presented as a sacred text. If someone hands you a “sacred text,” treat it roughly. The truth can take it. Take a pen and scribble disagreeable notes next to passages that don’t jive with your inner truth sense. Take a highlighter to any passages that do ring true, then copy them over in your handwriting in your own journal or notebook.
No, I don’t regard the I Ching as sacred text either. Using the I Ching can be a sacred process, but the text can always be amplified, improved, reedited—that’s why I use multiple versions.
Much of the violence, gross and subtle, throughout our descent into history has been at the hands of persons possessed of and by a sacred text. And that text could be secular too, it could be the Communist manifesto or the DSM III. Once a text is considered superior to the felt experience of individual truth sense it ceases to be a text and becomes an iron lid on human consciousness.
Deng Ming-Dao certainly did not want his writings treated as sacred, and some of his aphorisms and passages worked better for me than others. I think the highlighter more sacred than the text. What lights up in your perception as significant or meaningful is what counts. As Emerson says, “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.”
I like what Deng Ming-Dao has to say because he made me reach for my highlighter often. —Jonathan
This is the moment of embarking.
All auspicious signs are in place.
In order to start, we must make a decision. This decision is a commitment to daily self-cultivation. We must make a strong connection to our inner selves. Outside matters are superfluous. Alone and naked, we negotiate all of life’s travails.
Once we make our decision, all things will come to us.
First comes cleansing of the body…
All growth comes with a shock.
Young people need compassion and guidance, not obscure mysticism. Here are some guidelines for young people:
Remember that you are always your own person. Do not surrender your mind, heart, or body to any person. Never compromise your dignity for any reason.
Maintain your health with sound diet, hygiene, exercise and clean living…
Money is never more important than your body and mind, but you must work and support yourself. Never depend on others for your livelihood.
Choose your friends and living situations carefully, for they will influence you. Find a mentor you can trust, one who can answer your every question, but never give up responsibility for your own life. No one lives your life for you.
A good education is always an asset.
Emotions are transitory and are not a good way to make decisions.
Every day, you must make decisions. Everything you do will have irrevocable effect upon your life. Before you go down any path, consider carefully. Rivers very rarely reverse course.
Know evil, but do not do evil yourself. Remember, there is a way out of the delusions of life. When you weary of the world, find someone who will show you Tao.
(referring to trees) It is with this power that they withstand both the vicissitudes and adornment of life, for neither bad fortune nor good fortune will alter what they are. We should be the same way. We may have great fortune or bad, but we should patiently bear both. No matter what, we must always be true to our inner selves.
Even when it is snowy, the wood cutter must split wood…he must strike the wood with the grain, and he must let the axe fall with its own weight.
Whether it is the time or the method, true labor is half initiative and half knowing how to let things proceed on their own.
Although it is tempting to resent disaster, there is not much use in doing so…Disasters may well change us deeply, but they will pass. We must keep to our deeper convictions and remember our goals. Whether we remain ash or become the phoenix is up to us.
No matter how extreme a situation is, it will change.
It is being off balance that keeps life changing. Total centering, total balance would only be stasis.
That is why, even in the midst of an extreme situation, the wise are patient.
Whether the situation is illness, calamity, or their own anger, they know that healing will follow upheaval.
The closer something comes to completion, the harder and more definite it becomes. Our options become fewer, until the full impact of our creation is all there is. Beauty or ugliness, utility or failure, comes from the process of shaping.
…those who live only for some deferred reward often strain themselves with too much denial.
We must understand how the past affects us, we should keep the present full of rich and satisfying experiences, and we should devote some energy each day to building for the future. Just as a river can be said to have parts that cannot be clearly divided, so too should we consider the whole of our time when deciding how to spend our lives.
The sacred lies in the ordinary.
The action must be complete. It must burn clean; it cannot leave any bad ramifications or lingering traces. An act that leaves destruction, resentment, or untidiness in its wake is a poor one.
Useful trees are cut down. Useless ones survive. The same is true of people. The strong are conscripted. The beautiful are exploited. Those who are too plain to be noticed are the ones who survive. They are left alone and safe.
But what if we ourselves are among such plain persons? Though others may neglect us, we should not think of ourselves as being without value. We must not accept the judgment of others as the measure of our own self-worth…. Thus, to be considered useless is not a reason for despair, but an opportunity. It is the chance to live without interference and to express one’s own individuality.
…wise people travel constantly and test themselves against the flux of circumstance.
Markings in dry clay disappear
Only when the clay is soft again.
Scars upon the self disappear
Only when one becomes soft within.
Demons who enter your circle
must be pushed out.
No matter what world you walk in—office, school, temple, prison, or the streets—-there is an underworld populated with demons. These are people who are avaricious, aggressive, sadistic, and cynical. They not only take advantage of others without compunction, they delight in it. They find pleasure in seeing others suffer.
Whatever you do there is no need to be apathetic toward life. Instead, full participation in all things is the surest way to happiness, vitality, success, and a deep knowledge of Tao.
Worry is an addiction
that interferes with compassion.
When unpredictable things happen, those who follow Tao are skilled at improvisation. If circumstances deny them, they change immediately.
To buffer ourselves, we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives.
We should take the time to appreciate beauty in the midst of temporality.
There are others who follow Tao, but it is not always possible to meet them.
That is why it takes someone both sensitive enough to hear the call and strong enough to walk the solitary path.
The more you walk this road, the farther you are from the ordinary ways of society. You may see the truth, but you will find that people would rather listen to politicians, performers, and charlatans.
In the midst of great difficulty, a tiny opportunity will open, if only by chance. You must be sharp enough to discern it, quick enough to catch it, and determined enough to do something with it.
When faced with a sad situation, it is best not to languish in it. We can change things by being with different people, moving to other places, or, if all else fails, adjusting our own attitudes to take the initiative.
What is it like to feel Tao? It is an effortless flowing, a sweeping momentum.
It is like bird song soaring and gliding over a vast landscape.
If we fall, we must pick ourselves up and get back on the trail again.
You could labor ten years under a master Trying to discern whether the teachings are true.
But all you might learn is this:
One must live one’s own life.
You must not fail to explore anything that interests you.
Make every move count.
Pick your target and hit it.
Perfect concentration means
Each day your life grows a day shorter. Make every move count. All that matters is accomplishing what you envision with the greatest dispatch.
Spiritual success is gained by daily cultivation.
If you practiced for the day, then you have won.
If you were lazy for the day, then you have lost.
…Whatever system of spirituality you practice, do it every day.
We part at the crossroads,
You leave with your joys and problems,
I with mine. Alone, I look down the road.
Each one must walk one’s own path.
Parting is inherent in all meeting. Nothing lasts forever. Transience is what gives life poignancy. Every person is responsible for him or herself. There is no road to walk but your own.
Make your stand today. On this spot. On this day. Make your actions count; do not falter in your determination to fulfill your destiny. Don’t follow the destiny outlined in some mystical book: Create your own.
Your resolve to tread the path of life is your best asset. Without it, you die. Death is unavoidable, but it is not from loss of will but because your time is over. As long as you can keep going, use your imagination to cope with the travails of life. Overcome your obstacles and realize what you envision.
Hide what you know.
Shield your light.
Bide your time.
There is great wisdom in being inconspicuous. …When you know how to hide, you avoid the attention and scorn of others, but retain the strategic advantage of surprise.
When one senses that one has come to the limits of the time and situation, one should conserve one’s energy. Often, this will be in preparation for a challenge to the limits, or a changing over to a new set of constraints.
Ultimately, all relationships are temporary. False attachment to another can become an addiction, a voluntary bondage detrimental to clear perception. We should not bind another to ourselves, should not define ourselves by relationship, should not force another to stay with us…
When it is time to part, then it is time to part. There should be no regrets. The beauty of relationship is like the fleeting perfection of a snowflake.
Life’s pulse is gauged in the hollows, the intervals between events. If you want to see Tao, you must discern these spaces.
Human law is imperfect: There will always be unprecedented circumstances. Thus, we must go beyond rules and operate instead from pure wisdom. We must act with experience, flexibility, and insight. Let us so absorb integrity—experiencing both its triumphs and defeats—-that way we do the right thing intuitively.
Though others have faults,
Concentrate on your own.
Look at a cat as she stretches out contentedly in the sun. There is no thought of the next moment, only the sheer enjoyment of the present. Rest assured that she will still be able to clean herself, still be able to catch mice, and still be able to do all the things that a cat must do. But she is without anxieties, and so she is purely and totally who she should be. She acts as if she were nature’s favorite. And who is to say otherwise?
In all of life, the only thing that separates from Tao is the human ego, because one places oneself before all other things. By contrast, those who follow Tao divest themselves of self-importance and desire for success. They prefer to follow Tao as it flows through the land. They move from place to place as they intuitively sense its direction. Feeling the divine energy, they live in its vital flow. These wanderers have glimpsed the void that is in them and in all
…anything that grows old must be in touch with the sustaining Tao.
It is because of this that those who follow Tao study the ancient. What are the secrets of what has lasted? If we would endeavor to develop wisdom beyond the mere moment, we must ask this question over and over.
When we learn to tap into the power of Tao inside ourselves, we will feel a vitality as strong as a tiger’s. That is pure energy. It is very important to direct that power positively.
Vigilance is not a matter of mere waiting. It is a matter of the correct timing. It takes an exquisite sense of proportion to know that we are not just standing still—we are moving no faster and no slower than required by the situation.
…our essential nature will not change, just as the substance of silk is not changed by dyeing. Nor is our essential nature in need of any change. …we are who we are, and there is no reason to be ashamed of that. That is why we can be immediate in everyday life: we know who we are, and we trust in the process of Tao.
Thus, the ancients taught their students to always accept themselves as they were. This is not only eminently practical—to do otherwise is ultimately impossible—but it is the beginning of the attitude of acceptance that we need to follow the Tao. If we cannot accept ourselves, it is unlikely that we will be able to accept anything that Tao sends our way.
By accepting ourselves, we can then bring great immediacy to our lives.
Without going out of the door, I can know all things on earth.
Without looking out of the window, I can know the way of heaven.
The wise person knows others by observing himself.
The wise person will not go out when fate is in opposition.
The wise person knows when to withdraw into contemplation.
Books allow people to think for themselves, allow access to knowledge forgotten or even out of favor with the times. Books allow knowledge to travel over time and distances greater than the author could ever accomplish in person.
Most important, books encourage allegiance not to kings, but to the learning of the individual. And that is crucial to Tao.
Those who can read the patterns of life are the truly cultured.
Every person who has followed Tao has been a person of culture and refinement. Not only does Tao require study and intelligence, but it also demands the subtle mind of a sensitive person…
The (person who follows Tao) is someone who can read not just human language, but the languages of nature as well. There are patterns and secrets throughout the world—the rings of trees, and tracks of animals, and the traces of water down the sides of a valley are as clear as any scripture. The person who follows Tao does not blindly go through life, but is able to read it on every level. Those who follow Tao are those who know the many languages of life.
…those who seek Tao constantly seek words of wisdom and allow them to accumulate deep in themselves. That is why the ancients always said it takes a person of virtue to hear words of virtue. It takes a person of strength to want words of strength. It takes a person of learning to discern words of learning.
If one is a hermit, one can be quiescent. If one is in the world, one must be aggressive.
To be aggressive…is to have the prowess and cunning of the wolf. A wolf is shrewd. It does not blindly go into a situation. It scouts things out. It has a sense of itself and its surroundings that is nearly supernatural. Trackers have a hard time trapping it. Prey have a difficult time eluding it.
The wolf has its own “virtue” or moral force. It acts according to its own fixed rules. It does not kill excessively, it keeps to its territory, and follows its instinct when mating and caring for its young. If only human beings could be so consistently true to their inner nature!
If those who follow Tao act on a worldly stage, they take the wolf as a model. They know that success in a situation is frequently a matter of aggressiveness. They do not waste their time in trivialities. Instead, they remain supernaturally aware of themselves and their territory. They track others, but in turn obscure themselves. And when the moment of action comes, they act without hesitation.
To be aggressive is the secret of success.
For those who follow Tao, having a strong stance is essential both physically and spiritually. The example of the stance can be applied to every situation in life: you always have to have—and know—your position. Don’t be caught unawares. Don’t be caught without a point of view. Don’t be caught without tactics. The exercise of the stance teaches us that stance must be firm, but never static. From the insight and awareness of one’s strategy, there are dozens of positions to which one can move instantaneously.
In life, as in the practice of stances, one must have both firmness and mobility.
Life is difficult to confront. Chance and ruin are overwhelming; the heart and mind are fragile. Those who manage to assert their will against the odds are admirable. When we are the ones who are able to triumph over adversity, we have reached a rare and fleeting moment.
…Being a hero is a matter of being prepared for a gift in time. Time will give you an opening. It is how you then respond that will decide whether you have taken advantage of your opportunity.
Having any less than heroic aspirations is to settle for mediocrity, and the mediocre never develop the perceptions and reflexes needed to follow Tao.
But if you want to be extraordinary, concentrate only on perfecting yourself…We needn’t care about how others judge us. As long as we grasp the importance of a moment, meet the opportunity, and respond to it with the whole of our being, then we can consider ourselves heroes. This, then, is the true meaning of heroism; you met whatever came your way with every bit of yourself.
To go through life well is to have means at one’s disposal. To have means is to know the laws of life.
…we must have many transformations. Whenever things are not going our way, that is a signal to change. This is called the live way. Those who cannot change, who remain fixed in stubbornness eventually lose. That is called the dead way… Those who follow Tao seek the means that transcend limitations.
Those who follow Tao avoid fixed movements and do not hesitate to act in unorthodox ways.
Tao changes very quickly. Life’s circumstances shift so suddenly that they leave you breathless…
Those who follow Tao do not always do things the straight-forward and orthodox way. Instead of acting according to preconceived ideas, they look for the greatest advantages. Structured thinking or clinging to prevailing dogma are only inhibitions….
When things go badly, those who follow Tao seek the causes and correct them. If the problem cannot be corrected, they shift the entire frame of reference so that the relative importance of the problem is diminished or eliminated….
Therefore, the wise solely follow the shifting and changing Tao and avoid fixed routines. They do not stick stubbornly to ideas or patterns. Tao is formless, constantly creative, and relentlessly in flux. Those who follow Tao seek to change with it.
The inexperienced overreach: they do not know their abilities and limitations. The veterans know exactly what is possible, and they keep everything they need close at hand.
One who knows how to take advantage of natural forces will always be sustained. One who is ignorant of natural forces will be destroyed.
Those who follow Tao are extremely canny. They know the slightest details of what happens around them. Then they take advantage of them. Their lives appear miraculous, but all they do is take advantage of natural events.
Timing is everything in Tao. To act in a way that is harmonious to circumstances and in accord with one’s own heart is rare but precious.
In action, timing is everything
Force doesn’t matter.
Weight doesn’t matter.
Even being morally right doesn’t matter.
All that matters is timing.
…correct timing is something that must be felt in one’s heart. …those who would act according to Tao cannot blame Tao if things do not go their way. It is the individual who must discern what the time calls for and then act accordingly.
Timing means harmonious union. Clumsily destroying things cannot be called good action. To bring things together at precisely the right moment is what deserves to be called timing. A photographer captures light at the right moment. …In these and all other professions, force, cleverness, determination, and power are meaningless if timing does not bring the right elements to bear. What matters is the right action at the right time.
….if you know the time is bad, avoid the situation. If you know a place is bad, avoid it. Evil is inevitable. But it is often possible simply to get out of the way. Some heroes advocate meeting things openly, fighting it out man to man, meeting force with force. Followers of Tao disagree. Whenever possible, they avoid bad times and bad places. They avoid confrontations. In this way, they make as many of their encounters as positive as possible.
(This principle reminds me of an amusing moment in the Castaneda books when Carlos is asking Don Juan, “But Don Juan, what would all your powers do for you if someone was stalking you with a rifle with a telescopic sight?” Don Juan replied: “Well, if someone were stalking me with a rifle with a telescopic sight I just wouldn’t come around.”—JZ)
The crux of following Tao is to know acceptance. If you want to go east, but Tao wants you to go west, then you should go west. If you want to accomplish ten things, but circumstances only allow you to accomplish nine, then accept that. If you meet obstacles to what you want to do, you have to ask yourself how you can adapt. Sometimes you will be able to overcome the obstacles. At other times, you will have to go around the obstacles….
One should never be too proud to adapt. If you see that things are not going your way, adapt quickly. By doing it in a smooth and timely manner, you can avoid disrupting the flow of events. This is call Tao.
JZ: I found an inner resistance in myself when I wrote the line above, “If you want to go East…” There is a flaw in the way Taoist principles are presented, and maybe even in the way they are understood or applied by some Taoists. An impression is given of forever adapting and changing in response to shifts in external conditions. This misses a huge part of Tao. As George Bernard Shaw said: “The mark of the reasonable man is that he adapts to the world he finds himself in. The mark of the unreasonable man is that he expects the world to adapt itself to him. Therefore, all progress is made by unreasonable men.” Tao is not all external, it is internal, intrapsychic as well. Our inner relationship to ourselves is our realm of absolute sovereignty. Aleister Crowley had a concept of “true will”—-an inner calling coming from our deepest self. This is our internal refraction of Tao, and this needs to be followed regardless of whatever resistance external conditions throw at us. We adapt and change with outer circumstances, but never abandon our true will.—JZ
The ancients said that the bird follows Tao, since it is a natural creature, unsullied by human conceptions.
For direction, look to nature. For direction, look into yourself—is it not possible that we have within us an instinct for direction as strong as the bird’s? If you can find that—and it most assuredly exists in each of us—then Tao is sure to follow.
When we walk along a road, we should not regret another road not taken. Those who are mature accept this. We cannot travel on one path while walking another. If we go to one destination, then it is inevitable that we will miss others.
It is tempting to linger upon regrets and suppositions, especially when times are unhappy. Maybe we could have been more famous or richer. Maybe we could have done more as we grew older. But it is far better to remember that we make our own road one day at a time. If we have been fully involved with our own lives and have been making our own decisions, there is no reason for regret.
As we grow older, it becomes critical to fulfill what we find important.
When you think of others before yourself, that is Tao.
When you discipline yourself, that is Tao.
When you feel an activity doing itself rather than your doing it, that is Tao.
When you are aware of what to do spontaneously, that is Tao.
When you can take responsibility for what you do, that is Tao.
When you cultivate different skills with complete attention, that is Tao.
When you enter into lucid stillness, that is Tao.
When you are better than your worries, that is Tao.
When you can control your health, that is Tao.
When you can combine mind and action, that is Tao.
When you can be like water, that is Tao.
When you can be as illuminating as fire, that is Tao.
When you can be as sharp as metal, that is Tao.
When you can be as abundant as the earth, that is Tao.
If you are on the road of Tao and you need healing, seek out the means to acquire it. Whether that means going to a doctor or learning how to maintain your own health, it is a vital part of following Tao. And if you have achieved balance and meet someone you can help, never turn away. Skill is to used not just for yourself, but for the good of those you meet. That, too, is balance and harmony.
What do you do when life is difficult? You could call for help, but that is not always reliable. Sooner or later, life will catch you with no one around.
You might be without food or shelter during a time of natural disaster. You might be alone at a time when help cannot come quickly enough. You may even suffer the tragedy of having all your friends abandon you. That is why those who follow Tao emphasize the importance of having many abilities. If you have the self-reliance that comes with having many skills, you will not lose your equanimity. This cannot be emphasized enough. You cannot truly walk the whole path of Tao until you can cope with the unknown.
People say that those who follow Tao are serene, but that serenity is not because of some meditative trancelike state. It comes from the confidence of one who has ability.
Without controlling how we eat, we cannot control our existence…those who follow Tao have a personal relationship with how they eat and with what they eat. Only then do they have a chance of controlling their destiny.
Secret, private, divine. The left side (of the ideogram Mi–Secret) is the sign for spiritual influence. The right side shows a weapon hidden beneath the two halves of a robe.
What is most precious is always kept secret.
When you do something, don’t hold back. Shoot it all, go for it all. Don’t wait for a “better time,” because the better times are built on what you do today. Don’t be selfish with your skills, because the skills of tomorrow are built upon the performances of today…
When you act, act completely. Follow through. Do everything that has to be done. Be like the fire that burns completely clean: only from that pure stage can you then take the next step.
To live is to work. When we work we learn…It is important to do the type of work that leads not simply to production, but to skill. In other words, the most important type of work is the kind that results from one’s life, not from societal or economic pressures. When we work as part of life it leaves a profound residue in our personality. It produces an attitude of accomplishment, an accumulation of working wisdom impossible to obtain any other way.
The ancients recognized this phenomenon so clearly that work came to signify skill. The kind of work one does—-farm work, art work, spiritual work, or any other work—is not so important. What is important is that one performs one’s work at its most profound level. In olden times, people would say that a craftsperson who had achieved great skill had realized the Tao of that art form.
And once one has realized the Tao in part, the whole is not far away.
It is more trouble to go for what is lasting. People want immediate results and often do not consider the future… The cheap and fast solution becomes useless after a few years and you then have to start over again. Perhaps, over the course of a lifetime of replacement, you even spend more time, effort, and money than if you had acquired or made a lasting item to begin with.
And what of the time spent? Let’s say you need a chest. It is far better to buy one or have a craftsman make you a good one—and then never have to waste time on the issue again—than it is to live out of a series of bags, cardboard boxes, or flimsy wooden ones.
And what of what you do in life? It is far better to do a quality job each and every time in whatever you do. Whether you are repairing a broken door or paying attention to your meditation, do the very best job you can. Then your problems will be fewer.
That which is made by hand improves both the maker and the user.
In the recent past, everything was made by hand.
The objects that were made did not have the precision and regularity of machine-made things. In turn, however, the objects had spirit.
Those who fritter away their energies are ineffective. Those who concentrate surpass others. If you can count the time you’ve wasted in a day, then you know how much room you have for improvement.
The remedy for this is very simple to state but highly difficult to accomplish: finish what you begin. That takes incredible concentration. Once you try this a few times, you will understand. First you will become more realistic about what you can take on. Second, you will marshal all your skill and the greatest perseverance to go the distance. Third, you will be able to complete your task. Fourth, you can only progress by building on the distance you have come.
Finish what you start. That is the great rule when it comes to action. But when it comes to personal development, you are never finished. The great are supreme only because they understand this.
Life is a daily process of compromise, murky meanings, and ambiguity. What is correct one day can be wrong the next. What seems good can all too easily become bad.
And in the examination of character, be as constant as the pine is green—-always.
It is said that there are three levels of friendship. The first is the level of casual acquaintance. The second is where there is sharing. The third, considered most deep, is the level where we trust friends to criticize us.
Ulterior motives at any one of these levels ruin people quickly, and we cannot call such relationships true friendship. When we are with a true friend, we will know, because we can be open and trusting. Such openness is friendship.
When it comes to suffering injustice, there are two types of people. The first says, “I can’t wait to turn around and do this to someone else.” The second says, “This was done to me, and I do not want to do it to someone else.”
When it comes to spiritual accomplishments, there are two types of people. The first says, “I will press on for myself because my knowledge was won so dearly.” The second says, “I will help others, because I know how difficult it is to walk a spiritual path.”
When it comes to facing death, there are two types of people. The first says, “My life is at an end, and I am bitter.” The second says, “In sharing I become more than myself and cannot die.”
In the face of the world’s myriad opportunities, we try to discern what is advantageous to us and avoid the detrimental. We do not move in the world without discrimination, but try to use our own experiences—and not the unreliable opinions of others—to make choices. Thus, although the world is vast, we travel through it in increasingly wise ways.
Even though we acknowledge that our desires are great, we try to pare them down to their most essential. The way to do his is never suppression, but a constant and steady give-and-take between our energies and our opportunities. From the palette of desires with which we were born, those who are wise choose the wholesome. We also recognize that we may have unwholesome tendencies, and rather than feel guilty about them, we seek to discharge them harmlessly. We understand that the more twisted our upbringing and experiences, the more perverse our desires become, so we try to heal the scars of our younger years and keep our lives harmonious.
In trying to follow Tao, there will invariably be conflict between the ideals we pursue and the realities of our lives. Unless we accept this situation, and even learn to work with it, we cannot have the harmony of Tao.
While it’s true that you must pursue truth with no thought of gain, you must, sadly enough, also pursue truth with little thought of support.
We may have lofty ideals, but they are easily thwarted in this turbulent world. The ancients often said, “The more you try to live a good life, the more you will suffer.” It’s true. We must be receptive, even to misfortune: the depths of our character are only revealed upon trial.
..it is a fact that there is no special deal to be gotten by being generous. We should simply be kind because that is the right thing to do. We won’t get a direct reward in exchange for our kindness, and yet nothing else can so awaken us to the spiritual within.
The deepest kindness comes not from simply thinking of others, but in feeling what they feel.
Those who are truly kind are so not because of theory or ethics, but because they feel the suffering of others as directly as they would their own.
That ability to feel human need can develop your sensitivity to feel Tao.
When we understand the importance of moderation, then we will automatically operate from the center.
In all matters, the ancients counseled moderation. For them, the primary sin was excess, for excess destroyed all sense of what was human and plunged a person far from a true way in life.
If all of life can be thought of as a continuous walk along a real path, the worst thing in life is to lose one’s balance on that path. That is why the ancients continually underscored the need for moderation with the word “zhong.”
It is a clearly drawn word—a target with an arrow piercing its center. For the arrow to hit the target, it must fly true. If the archer inclines to the left or right, even by a mere fraction of a hair’s breadth, the arrow will not fly a true path. And once an arrow has hit its target, it has attained the only correct spot—any other place shows imbalance.
So whenever we are confronted with the impossible in life, we need only think back to what the ancients would counsel: be moderate. If we keep that as our aim, then there will be few mistakes in life.
Opposites are really pairs. We cannot have one side without the other.
The ancients believed that all things are divided into opposites, and that it is the interrelationships of these opposites that cause all phenomena in the world.
We have a male side and a female side. We have a left and a right. There is up and down. Without opposites, we literally would not exist.
The trouble comes when we are unable to view things with moderation. We all want to be rich, but we don’t want to be poor. We all want happiness, but we shun disappointment.
That is why the word “dui” is so important. It reminds us that opposites are not mutually exclusive but are actually pairs. If we have sadness, then happiness will come too. If we have love, we will also have to deal with conflict. For all our learning, we will have days where our philosophical outlook will be tried to its breaking point. For all the peace of meditation, we will still have to face work, illness, and stress. There is no path in life that only stands on one side of a pair and never ventures into the other.
The sooner we accept—and work with that—the better off we will be. That is why the way of Tao is the middle way. We cannot have one side without the other in life: it is wisdom to strike a balance between them both.
Know when enough is enough. Some die from hunger, but many die from overeating.
So to be happy, we have to control our desires. The ancients taught two ways to do this. Sometimes they used discipline to curb desire. Sometimes they satisfied their desires. This is the genius of Tao: moderation. We do not need to cling to the extremism of the ascetic. We do not need to lose ourselves in the indulgence of the hedonist. We follow Tao, the middle path.
Hunger comes when food is scarce.
The follower of Tao stays hungry.
Those who follow Tao know hunger and scarcity.
Thus, when times are difficult, they know how to survive. When times are rich, they remember to be cautious.
Those who follow Tao make great achievements, if they are so inclined to come out and act in the world.
Nevertheless, they always stay hungry, so that they are never complacent. They are always out trying to do better. Like an immigrant eager to make a new life, or a boxer trying to win a title, or a tiger searching the jungle for is prey, those who follow Tao know that hunger is a great motivator.
In eating, be moderate. Leave a little room in your stomach. Try to stay lean, not for the sake of fashion, but for the sake of health and motivation.
The mind grows sluggish on too much rich food and fine wine.
However, neither should one become a “hungry ghost,” forever searching the world for something to eat. That is too much the other extreme. Like everything else in life, those who follow Tao use moderation, and they use everything they can–even hunger—to further their travel through Tao.
Having enough to eat: that is joy. Knowing when one is full: that is wisdom.
Eat what is proper. Eat what is right. Although there are elaborate schools of cooking, avoid excess. Although there are fanatic beliefs about diet, fasting, and ritual, avoid obsession. Eat what is natural. Eat enough, but don’t eat too much. The simple application of that dictum is difficult enough.
Feeling and emotion are the colors emerging from the heart.
Not to have feeling is inhuman.
To be carried away be feeling is foolish.
Not to have desire is death.
To be a slave to desire is to be lost.
If feelings are the color of the heart, then let us paint with the brevity and lightness of watercolor.
Just as wind shakes the leaves of the bamboo, so too do we laugh in reaction to the world.
The ancients understood the ephemeral and advised their students not to take life too seriously. Life changes too quickly for us to dwell overly long on any single aspect. Things may go one way for a while, only o change quickly and unpredictably….it is far better to accept and work with its ephemeral quality.
Then, no matter how difficult things are, we can laugh.
As nothing is permanent, there is nothing to take seriously. As there is nothing to take seriously, we should laugh at the world. As we laugh at the world, we should realize that understanding the changeable nature of life is the swiftest way to joy.
Many accomplishments are made by people who study carefully and put in a lot of hardwork, but those who follow Tao would rather celebrate the accomplishments of those who got their best ideas while tinkering, or taking a bath, or eating breakfast, or taking a walk, or sipping tea, or just doing nothing.
A smart person takes play seriously, for in the act of playing is the possibility of going beyond established borders. And Tao, while it is everywhere, is most likely to be found outside of borders. If you want to be with the Tao, it is better to put aside all that is “important” and “significant” and just play. Be natural. You’ll arrive at Tao a lot sooner than if you make a “special effort.”
Build your life brick upon brick.
Live a life of truth,
And you will look back on a life of truth.
Live a life of (delusion),*
And you will look back on delusion.
*Deng used the word “fantasy” in this line and “delusion” in the next line. I feel that “fantasy” was an unfortunate word choice, as fantasy can be life affirming or not depending on the fantasy. A second delusion makes the meaning stronger and clearer, also more symmetrical with the double use of “truth” in the two preceding lines. —JZ
The good of today is based upon the good of yesterday. That is why we should constantly be attentive to our actions.
Take frugal people as an example. They recycle the scraps from their cooking into compost piles. They eat at home rather than in restaurants. They do not waste water. They shop carefully. They do not spend their money on frivolities. This is exactly the type of care that we need for spirituality.
We should not fritter our efforts away on amusements; rather, we should concentrate on endeavors most important to us. We should not randomly gather information; rather, we should try to order it into a comprehensive whole, thereby compounding our abilities to our own advantage…
Whether our lives are magnificent or wretched depends upon our ordering daily details. We must organize the details into a composition that pleases us. Only then will we have meaning in our lives.
Don’t call me a follower of Tao.
Following Tao is an intensely personal endeavor in which you spend each minute of your life with the universal pulse. You follow the fluid and infinitely shifting Tao and experience its myriad wonders. You will want nothing more than to be empty before it—–a perfect mirror, open to every nuance.
If you put labels on who you are, there is separation from Tao. As soon as you accept the designations of race, gender, name, or fellowship, you define yourself in contrast to Tao.
That is why those who follow Tao never identify themselves with the name Tao. They do not care for label, for status, or for rank. We all have an equal chance to be with Tao.
Those who follow Tao strive for perfection, but they are wary about being called prophets. That is a limited role. Being a prophet represents a great trap baited with the temptation of self-importance. The ultimate aim of following Tao is to transcend identity. Those who call themselves prophets or even masters maximize their identities…
Having someone call you by a title is an interference that you don’t need. When you are seeing the greatest wonder of your life, the last thing you want is to have someone blocking the light.
Mind in the center
Radiates to eight legs,
Creating a supreme web
To sift Tao.
A spider is a perfect creature of Tao. Its body is an elegant expression of its mind: It spins beautiful threads, and its legs are exactly suited to create and walk its web. From its center, a spider radiates its world out with a spare economy.
A spider’s posture in regard to Tao is to set up a pattern. Its mind determines this pattern. It realizes the flow of Tao and does nothing to interfere with it. It simply creates is pattern and waits for Tao to bring it sustenance. That which comes to it, it accepts. That which does not come to it is not its concern.
Once its web is established, a spider does not think of expanding unnaturally. It does not make war upon its neighbors, it does not go for adventures in other countries, it does not try to enslave others, it does not try to be intellectual. It is simply who it is and is content with that.
I am not this fragile body.
We are not our bodies…
This fragile body
For mind and soul.
We cannot afford to neglect our bodies, even if we recognize that we must not identify with them exclusively. Actually, in our search for our true selves, our physical existence is the best place to start. We can alter our lives by how we eat and exercise, and we can expedite our search by keeping ourselves healthy. If we are free of physical blockages and pain, we can identify our inner selves much better.
In the search for the mind and the soul, it is wise to understand that the body is not the true self, but it is also wise to maintain the body. There should be neither denial nor mortification of the flesh, but it takes a wise person to both maintain the body and look beyond it.
Sex, coffee, liquor, and cigarettes
Are the totems of today.
Stimulation has replaced feeling.
In today’s world, these are the unfortunate equations:
Do you want intimacy? Have sex.
Do you want to be energetic? Drink coffee.
Do you want freedom from inhibitions? Drink wine.
Do you want a fashionable prop? Smoke cigarettes.
Why is it that these things have replaced what should naturally be done?
Because people have lost the knowledge of how to do these things without artificial stimulation. Why not seek intimacy through sensitivity? Energy through good health? If we overcome our obstacles, we won’t need inhibition.
Pretension will fall away. Only then will there be a blossoming of Tao.
Loneliness need not be despair.
It could be an opportunity.
Some people claim that self-sufficiency is a myth. A person is a social animal, they declare; people cannot successfully live outside of some community. But that is not the correct way to understand true self-sufficiency. What we are referring to is a supreme sense of connection with oneself and the cosmos around oneself. This doesn’t preclude community with others, but it does prevent the excesses and shortcomings that occur when society is one’s only source of union.
Tao surrounds us. One who is with Tao is never lonely but is an integral part of the natural cycle. In the same way that water surrounds a fish Tao surrounds us. If we feel lonely, then it is only because we are forgetting how we are totally immersed in Tao. That is why loneliness can be an opportunity:
It reminds us that we are dwelling on our own egoistic identity rather than on the support of the Tao.
In the minds of those who follow Tao, duality in life is not clearly demarcated. There is a fuzziness at the line. Day does not have a sharp border with night. So it is with the alternations of the seasons. It is not a simple, smooth continuum from summer into autumn. There is complexity and counterpoint.
If nature is full of subtlety and even false appearances, how wise must we be in order to follow life’s rhythms unerringly?
Everyone has their own style in life. The old have perspective. The young have vigor. We can learn from each other, but we cannot have what the other generations possess. We are each shaped by our generations, and to transcend the limitations of our time is a rare occurrence indeed.
…The secrets of life are already written repeatedly in all the holy books.
They are only secrets because we do not take the time to truly read.
Can you see jewels in the mud?
Today we have a very incomplete relationship to our food. We don’t see where something grows, we eat foods out of season, we buy prepared foods made by someone we don’t even know. There is great power in knowing your food, knowing where it came from, preparing it with your own hands. This food, whether vegetable or animal, died for us. The least we can do is partake of it thoroughly and with respect.
You could tell the secret of life ten times over, and it would still be safe. After all, the secret is only known when people make it real in their own lives, not when they simply hear it.
Every morning means a fresh start on things. If yesterday was trying and exhausting, today is a given opportunity to do something different. If yesterday was full of triumph and satisfaction, today is a free chance to go further. All too often we wake up, think of our schedules, and assume that we must act according to the same dull script. We need not. If we find what is unique to each day, we will have freshness and the greatest fulfillment possible.
Although we have talked about our relationship to Tao in terms of positioning and timing, the clear discerning of intervals is just as important. Geese keep a perfect distance between them to establish a dynamic equilibrium; so too must we fit in with the intervals of a day’s events. If we, like the geese, act in unison with these moments, with each other, and with the season, then we will be in total concert with Tao.
Today is poised between yesterday and tomorrow. What you may have started yesterday can be continued or interrupted today. Every morning is a new day. That observation is so simple as to seem trite. If we could observe the simple, there would be no need to study Tao.
Cat sits in the sun.
Dog sits in the grass.
Turtle sits on the rock.
Frog sits on the lily pad.
Why aren’t people so smart?
Those who follow Tao are fond of pointing out the wisdom of animals. When they see a cat sitting motionless in the sun or a turtle who stretches her head upward in a still pose, they say that these animals are meditating. They know how to be still and conserve their internal energy. They do not dissipate themselves in useless activity but instead withdraw into themselves to recharge…
There is no reason to think of meditation as something out of the ordinary. Quite the opposite. Meditation is the purest and most natural expression we can have. When you next look at a cat or a dog sitting still, and admire the naturalness of their actions, think then of your own life. Don’t meditate because it is a part of your schedule or is demanded by your particular philosophy. Meditate because it is natural.
Don’t be afraid to explore;
Without exploration there are no discoveries.
Don’t be afraid of partial solutions;
Without the tentative there is no accomplishment.
Indecision and procrastination are corrosive habits. Those who wait for every little thing to be perfect before they embark on a project or who dislike the compromise of a partial solution are among the least happy. Ideal circumstances are seldom given to anyone for an undertaking. Instead there is uncertainty in every situation. The wise are those who can wrest great advantage from circumstances opaque to everyone else.
Wanting everything in life to be perfect before you take action is like wanting to reach a destination without travel. For those who follow Tao, travel is every bit as important as the destination. One step after another. That is still central to the wisdom of Tao.
Every day passes whether you participate or not. If you are not careful, years will go by and you will only have regrets. If you cannot solve a problem all at once, at least make a stab at it. Reduce your problems into smaller, more manageable packages, and you can make measurable progress toward achievement. If you wait for everything to be perfect according to your preconceived plans, then you may well wait forever. If you go out and work with the current of life, you may find that success comes from building upon small things.
You may be capable of great things,
But life consists of small things.
Big things seldom come along. One should know the small as well as the big. We may all yearn to make lasting achievements and to be heroes, but life seldom affords us the opportunities to do so. Most of our days consist of small things—the uneventful meditations, the ordinary cooking of meals, the banal trips to wok, the quiet scratching in the garden—and it is from these small things that the larger events of life are composed.
We rarely have the occasion to make grand gestures. The champion gymnast’s greatest moment is but an hour out of an entire lifetime….If we want to be successful, it is to the small things that we should pay attention.
We must not fall into the trap of waiting for life to be perfect. They complain that fate is against them, and the world does not recognize their greatness. If they would lower their sights, they would see all the beautiful opportunities swirling at their feet. If they would humble themselves enough to bend down, they could scoop untold treasures up into their hands.
One willing to take his own life into his hands
Will not hesitate to take the lives of others…
Beware the brave man. He may be a hero, willing to risk his very life, but he will also be willing to endanger the lives of others. After all, he is a risk taker and therefore does not see much wisdom in conservation, compassion, and carefulness. Such a person will threaten others, force his will upon others, and even murder others not out of passion but out of something much more deadly—rationale. He will justify his actions according to ideology, patriotism, religion, and principle.
When attacked, a brave man goes forth with strength, power, and confidence. In that boisterousness, there is little awareness of the subtle. Life is not simple, and it takes a great deal of time to master. Perhaps that is why the brave are youthful while the wise are old.
If I don’t want to be known, I cannot be known.
The best actor can divide role from self…
People think that they know you. Soon you begin to play the role that they place on you. Why should you act a certain way to please others? You should do things from you inner awareness and from your own feelings. If they do not accord with the herd, then so much the better.
You should change when it pleases you. Your life is flexible. If you let other people shape you, then you will never know independence.
The sages say that all life is illusory, and they usually lament this. The way of Tao is to use this fact and not let it oppress you. If you want to dodge others, then step behind one of the myriad illusions in this world. If you do not volunteer anything and you neither confirm or deny, the opinions of others can never stick to you. Then you will be left in peace.
True sages never go by appearances. When it comes to introspection, they are not deceived by the appearances their own minds spew out. They know that if they want to get at the truth, then they must pierce to the very core.
So if you would hide from others, avail yourself of the false appearances of life. If you would know yourself, distinguish between the false appearances of life. Above all, do not be put off by the illusory nature of life. Use it.
Everything in this life can be an advantage to the wise.
Though life is a dream,
Act as if it isn’t.
Act with no weight.
You may understand that life is but a dream, but that doesn’t free you from the responsibility to act. This dream may not be of your own making, but you must still engage it and operate within the parameters of the fantasy. You must become the producer, director, and actor of a phantasmic stage play. Otherwise, you are aimlessly adrift.
Meditating is to wake up. Few of us have acquired the skill to be in constant meditation. Therefore, we awake and dream, awake and dream. The moments of enlightenment are like the times when swimmers come up for air. They gain a breath of life, but they must submerge once again. We are all swimmers on the sea of sorrow, bobbing up and down until our final liberation.
The initial difficulty of spirituality is a schizophrenia between true understanding and the sorrow of everyday life. Our enlightenment clashes with the outer impurities. That is why some novitiates withdraw into isolation. Once people gain true spiritual insight, they dispense with this split. They can live in this world and yet not be stained by it. They are the strongest and most serene swimmers of all. They act, and yet they barely disturb the water. Their actions are outwardly no different from ordinary actions, but they leave no wake.
Tao may be known as directly as water is knowable to a fish. My Tao will not be the same as your Tao. We are both individuals, with different background and thoughts. As soon as Tao enters into us, it takes on the colors of our inner personalities. When it passes out of us, it takes on the colors of our inner personalities. This is an ongoing and constant process, like water lowing through a fish’s gills. Just as the water nurtures the fish, so too does Tao nurture and sustain us. As long as we continue our immersion in Tao, we will be as safe as a carp in water. When we separate from Tao, we are as helpless as a fish out of water.
Be self-sufficient but not isolated.
When the king of China closed the borders,
Centuries of stagnation and decadence began.
All the philosophy of Tao is intended to lead to self-sufficiency. Whatever one needs to do in life, one should be able to do on one’s on. Whether one is trapped in the wilderness or whether one is dealing with a social gathering requiring etiquette and grace, one should be able to cope with aplomb and ease.
Being self-sufficient is not the same as being isolated…problems can arise in people who are so self-sufficient that they fail to engage life fully. Either they will implode from the sheer weight of their own decadence and stagnation, or they will explode once the outside world confronts them with something they cannot comprehend.
Those who follow Tao roam the world. They may not avail themselves of the temporary advantages of withdrawal and intense self-cultivation, but they do not become permanently isolated. They flow with the Tao, are with all things, and
therefore avoid decadence.
How do you know when your own life verges on decadence?
Certainly when the force of form becomes more important than the force of substance. When etiquette and morals become more important than understanding and righteousness. When procedure becomes more important than creativity. When gratifying your lust becomes more important than giving to others. When patriotism becomes more important than measured governing and enlightened treatment of other nations. When the act of eating becomes more important than considerations of nutrition…When one’s own comfort becomes more important than the suffering of loved ones. When ambition becomes more important than benevolence. When prestige becomes more important than charity. When the academy becomes more important than the streets. When loud expression becomes more important than listening to others. When outrageousness becomes more important than communication. When connoisseurship becomes more important than simple acts. When style becomes more important than function. When books become more important than teachers. When expedience becomes more important than the elderly.
When you smell these things happening, you are not far from decadence.
Lightning rod at the pinnacle
Attracts power by its mere presence.
In the same way, we must work
For substance and height.
If we want communion with heavenly powers, we need only attain the proper spiritual height. Then heaven will come to meet us as surely as lightning is attracted to a lightning rod. The effort is only in the becoming, in the purification of our characters, in the reaching upward. Once the situation is correct, union is inevitable…
Of course, no one is required to make an effort in life. We can all go the easy way. But then we are still lightning rods. Only the forces we attract arenot the powers of heaven, but the powers of demons, misfortune, and predators…The fact is, no matter what kind of person you are, you will attract something to yourself. One of the major ways to control what comes to you is to refine your substance.
The irony of spiritual living is that you become more sensitive and subtle. Therefore, you become intolerant of the coarse. There is not much choice in this. If you want to catch the subtle things in life, then you must become refined yourself. But the coarser things will then accumulate all the more quickly. A coarse sieve in a rushing stream will hold back only debris and large rocks. A fine mesh will catch smaller things, but it will also retain the large…
The solution lies in floating on the current of Tao, uniting with it. That way we no longer seek to hold or to reject.
Poverty of any kind need not be a deterrent if you know how to utilize the wealth you possess. You must embrace your fate, work with it, and take advantage of it.
Ultimately, we cannot truly grasp anything permanently in life. We re born naked, we die naked, and in point of fact we live naked. What we take to us—our clothes, our wealth, our relationships—are all external to us. They are easily taken away from us by bruising fate.
Perhaps even the poorest of situations is rich, because all the futility of life leads us to embrace Tao…
The wrestler was once more solid than a bull.
He loved to flex enormous, oiled forearms
Before he delightedly vanquished foes.
But now, brittle skin is taut over bone,
And his wheeze is a ghost of his manly bellow.
At any point in life, it is prudent to contemplate the nature of prowess. If you have it, glory in it, and use it wisely and compassionately. But you should not think that it is you yourself who are doing these things. You are borrowing this strength. It isn’t yours. It is a gift, something here for you for as long as you are lucky to have it. …When you have been humbled, what is gone? You are still here, here to feel the pain of not being able to do what you were once able to do—unless you learn how to exercise your prowess without identifying with it.
Those who fail to learn this become bitter old people. They curse life. They lose faith. That is because they placed all their self-worth in their abilities and not in who they were…
Young people often have a mania for more and more information. But mere accumulation is not enough. The more you take in, the more that data needs to be managed. Without that, you have encyclopedic knowledge and miniscule wisdom.
True wisdom is a qualitative value built on a quantitative foundation…
One might say that wisdom is not simply a mental process but the sum total of a human being.
Watching a performance of warriors, I was told, “This fighter’s tradition is six hundred years old.”
And I saw a performance so mired in ritual—-
As if nothing valid had happened in six hundred years.
We must honor the classical without being irrelevant.
What makes a tradition alive? The adherents must be fully capable of manifesting the greatness of their tradition in contemporary settings. If someone says that they are expert in traditional medicine, then they must be able to heal others today…
We should not ape the habits and theories of a long dead people and time in the name of tradition. We must be ruthless in this respect. Unless the force of tradition allows us to manifest a unique greatness, there is no reason to keep it.
The drunk falls from the cart but is not hurt.
You throw hesitation aside but look stupid.
To be truly uninhibited is a rare grace.
Ancient societies were tribal;
The current group did the thinking.
Current society is splintered;
The individual must be complex.
…It is good to strive for purity, but if you conceive of purity as a fight against the filth and dust of the world, you doom yourself to obsession and futility. The only way to achieve actual purity is to realize your essential oneness with all things. If you are one with everything, then even filth is pure. For this to happen, you must transcend all distinctions in yourself, resolve all contradictions. With this erasure, the mirror-bright soul and the dust are all dissolved in a single purity.
…We cannot allow ourselves to be hobbled by the woes and alienation of our race or nation. It is our responsibility to overcome these, even if we can only succeed in our hearts.
By following Tao, we join a larger spiritual order. There is a great comfort in being part of something that is not tied to place or state. Indeed, since Tao is not wholly relegated to the material level, it can never be taken away from us. Even if we are exiled from our homes and thrown into the most miserable prison, Tao is there for us. Once we enter it, we need never be frightened by the threat of alienation again.