Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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In today’s episode, we’ll be looking at chapter 23. There’s a lot in this little passage, but we’re going to hit on three topics: (1) using less words, (2) experiencing oneness with God or the Tao, and (3) embracing simplicity and acceptance of the present moment.
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.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Restraint in Speech
The first line of chapter 23 literally says, “Nature says few words.” This chapter is all about living simply, and here’s lesson number one: Talk less. Use your words sparingly. Or as Ron Hogan says, “When you have nothing to say, you may as well keep your mouth shut.”
Lao Tzu uses the example of nature to illustrate this point. He draws his conclusion from the natural world, not just some psychological insight he has had. It’s true, nature speaks, but she doesn’t overspeak. Even the highest winds and the most torrential rain storms eventually calm and then cease completely. Nothing lasts longer than it should.
Speak, then hush.
Be like nature,
the wind blows,
then is silent,
the rain falls,
then is still.
-Translator: David Jones
It’s clear that we’re dealing with parable here, not didactic teaching. This chapter doesn’t lay out a plan of action or a quick list of how-to steps. Instead, we are presented with a beautiful metaphor drawn from the forces of nature. Lao Tzu believes that on some level, nature is in touch with a deeper reality - the deeper reality. He seems to be thinking on the same wavelength as Paul when he wrote, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
When teaching his followers to pray, Jesus slammed the religious elite who would ramble on and on in their prayers, repeating the same formulas and requests to make sure everyone heard how good they were at praying. Instead, he gave us a simple prayer and instructed us to present our requests simply, honestly, and directly to God. For both Jesus and Lao Tzu, there is a much simpler key to spiritual life: that of union with God or the Tao, which is the focus of the next stanza of this chapter.
David Jones’ paraphrase of this section is one of the most beautiful he has written. He takes the vague idea of oneness and relates it to Christ the Word, the logos or, if you remember from episode one, the Tao. He plays on the idea that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Open yourself to The Way,
and you can embody it completely.
Open yourself to The Truth,
and you can express it clearly.
Open yourself to The Life,
and minutes will disappear as moments take their place.
Walk in The Way and become The Way.
Embody The Truth and become True.
Live The Life and come Alive.
-Translator: David Jones
This kind of language can sound almost blasphemous to those of us who were raised with fear and hatred towards so-called “New Agers” and others who got all tangled up in “Eastern spirituality,” but oneness is a huge theme throughout Scripture, and many of the early church fathers recognized that. The high point of oneness is in the incarnation of God himself. In the words of Athanasius, “God became what we are that we might become what he is.” This is not to say that humans literally can become God; however, orthodox Christian doctrine says that in Christ God became a man, and the fullness of God and humanity were combined in one entity.
In one of his final recorded prayers, Jesus said his greatest desire was that we might be one with the Father just as he is; and in doing this, that we would be one with each other. We can choose to see this as a highly exclusive teaching, setting ourselves up in the right camp over and against everyone else, or we can see it as a divine offer to include everyone. In Christ, the Church says that there is a way for humanity to achieve the unity for which we were intended. This is why the authors of the Bible said that we are to be both one with Christ and one with each other in Christ.
It’s interesting that the Tao te Ching, even though it is not a religious scripture and does not contain anything like doctrines of faith or prayers or rituals, recognizes that there is a fundamental reality or a “oneness” to the universe. There is something “behind” it all, and it is not only possible but necessary for humans to find connection with that oneness. This idea isn’t coming from worshiping a set of gods or practicing a particular religion; it’s something more basic than that.
This begs the question with what to me seems an obvious answer: Is there something built in to human DNA that recognizes this oneness and longs to be united with it? Which then begs the bigger question that really sparks this whole show: how much of this oneness did Lao Tzu grasp? How much revelation, direct or indirect, has taken place in history and might still be taking place today that goes beyond our boxes of what we were taught are the only ways God has revealed himself?
Let’s come back to the issue at hand, though. What does it look like to pursue this oneness? What does it look like to “open ourselves” to the way, the truth, and the life?
Simplicity and acceptance
Silence is a sign of godliness.
A tornado does not last all morning.
A thunderstorm does not last all day.
That is the way God works in nature.
That is the way God works in people.
When we are one with God, we act in accordance with God.
When we are one with Truth, we embody Truth.
Even when we fail in our attempt to be one with God, we are still one with God’s plan.
Those who seek God will find God.
Those who seek Truth will find Truth.
Those who do not seek will be found.
The Faithful One will embrace the faithless.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
Aside from oneness, there are two other key words I would use to capture the idea here: simplicity and acceptance. All three of them go together, though, and it’s impossible to truly find one without the others coming along with it or at least following close behind.
By simplicity, I’m not only talking about the kind of minimalism that I’ve written about before, which is about decluttering our lives of possessions. I also don’t just mean straining out our unhealthy desires and loosening their hold on us. There’s an even deeper level of simplicity that is at the heart of all of these things, and it is this: simply seeing things for what they are and being present. A truly simple life means being able to see and name reality for what it is - both the good and the bad - and to accept it, come to terms with it, and be fully present to it instead of getting caught up in regretting or longing for the past or getting stuck in a feedback loop of your hopes or fears for the future.
There is no better response to spiritual confusion, distress, and anxiety than the path of simple oneness: and step one is seeing and naming things for what they are and accepting them as such. Note that I’m not saying this is a “cure.” Being fully present to the current moment, pursuing union with God, doesn’t exempt you from pain, suffering, and all the gritty realities of life. In fact, being fully present puts you even more in touch with those things. But there is a world of difference when you approach them with simplicity and acceptance.
Acceptance doesn’t mean acknowledging that everything is rosy, but if bad things are to change, then acceptance of the way they are first is the most effective way to become a peaceful, non-anxious presence that can help bring change organically rather than forcing it. Richard Rohr talks about the need for us to “forgive the present moment simply for being what it is” if we are going to move forward in spiritual growth. This is why the concluding line to the section is about being able to come to terms with loss. Different translations say “if you are at one with loss, then loss is accepted willingly,” or “if you open yourself to loss, you can accept it completely,” or “if you’re ready to fail, you can live with failure.”
This isn’t about expecting failure - that would just be another unhealthy approach. Being “one with loss” or “open to loss” is really just like being one with and open to the rest of reality. Success, failure, loss, gain, victory, defeat, sickness, health - they’re all part of reality, and the way we respond to them is dramatically shaped by how much we have learned to embrace oneness and practice presence.
So many people live from a posture of denial: this isn’t real, things just can’t be this way! Others live from a posture of aggression (even if it seems positive) - things shouldn’t be this way! Others are caught in wishful thinking, fantasizing about if things were different. Still others just do everything they can to escape. But the healthiest posture we can have is to look reality straight in the face, in all of its beauty and ugliness - delighting in the former and forgiving it for the latter - and then square ourselves up and say, “Here you are, and here I am.” There’s a tremendous release of anxiety when we’re able to do this.
If you’re ready for Tao,
you can live with Tao.
If you’re ready to succeed,
you can live with success.
If you’re ready to fail,
you can live with failure.
Trust your instincts,
and others will trust you.
-Translator: Ron Hogan
Whether we use the word simplicity, acceptance, or presence, we are just looking at the same reality from different angles. Sometimes, though, all this abstraction can seem difficult to wrap our heads around. But that’s part of the problem. If it starts feeling complicated or overwhelming or confusing - then we’re in the wrong place.
Presence and acceptance don’t need to be complicated. They may be challenging as our souls learn to adjust to them, but they are not confusing. If the idea of accepting your reality as it is feels too overwhelming or absurd, then it might be best to start with the most basic of daily actions, as I wrote about in my post Sacralizing the Ordinary. Our minds are in so many different places at once then we often aren’t even present to what we’re doing at the moment. This utter simplicity and practical presence has been embraced by Christian and non-Christian mystics and spiritual seekers throughout history, because there is something so fundamentally true about just doing what we are doing. And that is the essence of simplicity.
When you eat, eat.
When you sleep, sleep.
When you walk, walk.
When you sit, relax.
That is The Way.
-Translator: David Jones