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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This is an adapted version of episode 25 of the podcast, which is entitled: "The book of Te: the highest virtue"
In today’s episode, we’re going to be looking at chapter 37 and the first few lines of 38, where we transition from what has traditionally been called the Book of Tao into the second half of the Tao te Ching, the Book of Te. Both of these chapters center around the idea of wu wei, or acting without action. We’ve talked about this before, but we’ll take a different or more full perspective on wu wei today. We’ve defined wu wei in the past as “acting without acting” or acting without forcing things, but it may not have been entirely clear what that means. We can also talk about wu wei as virtue as spontaneous or effortless virtue, as truly virtuous authenticity. The big question that needs to be addressed is this: how can we possibly talk about this kind of effortlessness and spontaneousness in a world of mass protests and destructive pandemics? Is there any way in which these verses from the Tao te Ching can be relevant, or are they just a way of sticking our heads in the sand?
The Tao never does anything, [literally: Tao is wu wei]
yet through it all things are done.
If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms. [other translations: without controlling]
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.
When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.
The first line of 37 explains that the Tao itself is an example of wu wei. The more we are in touch with the Tao, the more this natural unfolding will become obvious to us. If we stay centered in it, then the world will grow, develop, evolve, or transform by its own natural rhythms, which is how Stephen Mitchell translates the phrase here that literally means “things will transform by themselves”.
This sounds nice, but there are some immediate problems that come up. How can we possibly embrace this kind of attitude in a world that seems to be burning down all around us? The US is currently in the midst of some of the greatest political strife it has seen in a long time. Protests and riots are breaking out as decades of pent-up frustration reached a tipping point with the murder of George Floyd. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than half a million people, brought the world to a standstill, devastated the global economy, and forced millions out of their jobs. Rather than uniting us, these crises have only pushed the two sides of American politics further apart.
How can we talk about allowing the world to transform through its own natural rhythms when we are living in devastation? How can we talk about finding simplicity, contentment, and freedom from desire when, as the Psalmist said, “the nations are raging”?
Clearly we need to define what we mean by these words. We’ve already done a lot of work on these topics in previous episodes. We’ve talked about the importance of holding your desires and dreams for the future loosely. We’ve talked about finding contentment in simplicity and getting rid of the trappings of the materialism that our culture is soaked with. But we haven’t talked as much about the central idea for this chapter: the natural rhythms of the world.
The world is wu wei - it acts without action. The clouds don’t plan when to rain; they simply wait for the water to coalesce and fall. The planets don’t will themselves to orbit the sun; gravity takes care of the trick. Trees don’t have to put forth any extra effort to grow fruit; it just grows naturally. And in theory, humans who are centered in the Tao and have embraced wu wei will flourish and grow at the right times and in the right ways.
This is beyond difficult for those of us living in the high speed, crisis-soaked modern world. Is it really acceptable in today’s world to talk about ridding ourselves of desire and living in contentment and simplicity, or taking a relaxed, non-coercive approach to life? Well, yes, I think it is, and so did Lao Tzu. He was teaching during China’s historical Warring States period, so he was familiar with civil war, bloodshed, and social upheaval. Yet still he taught that the Tao, or the Way, is an ideal example of wu wei; and that we should emulate it.
Before looking at this question more, I want to lay a little bit more groundwork by starting to look at chapter 38. It’s a complex and long one, and the best way to really get the full scope of what it is saying is to compare lots of translations and read a lot of commentary. Fortunately, I’ve put in that work, and I’ve put together my own version here. It’s a mishmash of many different translations with some paraphrase and additional lines to make the complex pattern of parallels and contrast more clear. As you read, remember that Te means virtue (although there are other translations, this is the most common one), and specifically, the virtue of someone who is centered in Tao.
High Te? No Te! That’s what Te is.
That is to say, the highest virtue is never a display of virtue. That’s what Te is.
Low Te doesn’t lack Te. That’s what Te is not.
That is to say, the lowest Te is always holding onto virtue. That’s what Te is not.
Those highest in Te live in wu wei
Acting without action,
Those lowest in Te only get half of wu wei
They act by taking action,
Always putting forth an effort.
Those highest in benevolence take action and put forth an effort
But without an agenda, so they accomplish what can be accomplished.
Those highest in righteousness also take action and put forth an effort
But with an agenda, so there is always more to be accomplished.
Those highest in etiquette and ritual take action and put forth an effort
And if people don’t respond
They roll up their sleeves and force others to do things their way.
Therefore Lose Tao
And you’ve got Te.
Lose Te and you’ve got benevolence.
And you’ve got righteousness.
Lose righteousness and all you have is etiquette and ritual.
Etiquette and ritual are a thin shell of loyalty and sincerity:
They are the beginning of chaos.
Knowledge and predictions are only flowery embellishments:
They are the beginning of ignorance.
And so the wise person lives
In the thickness of reality,
Not the thin shell of etiquette and ritual
Or the flowers of knowledge and predictions.
The wise person says yes to the former, and no to the latter.
-Corey Farr (synthesized translation and paraphrase)
In the podcast episode, I give a detailed breakdown of chapter 38 and explain why it is the first chapter in what has traditionally been called the Book of Te, or the book of virtue. Today, we’re just going to be looking at the first four lines. The starting point for the chapter is the person of ideal virtue, or what Lao Tzu calls “high Te”. We are given two defining characteristics of high Te. If we take them in isolation, they are cryptic and vague, because it is the contrasts of this chapter that allow us to make sense of them. Although we won’t get all the contrasts this week, we can at least open up the topic and consider some ways it applies practically.
If you interpret the Chinese characters literally, the first characteristic is, “high Te no Te, this is having Te”, or “high virtue, no virtue”. The next line says that in contrast, low Te never loses virtue. The idea here is that the truly virtuous person isn’t aware of virtue, or doesn’t feel a need to display it. The truest form of virtue doesn’t feel like “virtue” at all because it is just naturally a part of you. Your virtuous actions come from a place that is relaxed, spontaneous, and unforced. There is no reason to draw attention to yourself, but on the other hand, there is also no reason to hide yourself from compliments under a cloak of false humility.
The contrast with low virtue is that it always has virtue. We can read this in two ways: a gracious one or an ungracious one. If we are being ungracious, we could say that low virtue tends to be preachy, fake, aggressive, or dogmatic. Low virtue is like the virtue of the Pharisees, whom Jesus slammed for making a show of their piety, praying the loudest and longest prayers in the meetings, showing off how large their tithes and offerings were, and following every rule to a meticulous level. A more gracious way to read this would be to say that low virtue is indeed a form of virtue, but it hasn’t yet made its way all the way up the ladder. There is still work to be done, and this requires acting intentionally and willing ourselves to do the right thing until eventually high virtue is achieved. We’ll see both of these ways of interpretation next week.
The second contrasting phrase is that low virtue is not wu wei, it doesn’t act without action - it always needs to act by taking action or putting forth an effort. In fact, this idea of “taking action” is the defining characteristic of low virtue and all three subsets of it: benevolence, righteousness/justice, and etiquette/ritual. (We’ll look at those next week.)
Wu we in a world in crisis
So, wu wei is an attitude of acting without action, effortless effectiveness, spontaneous virtue, and total balance. However, it does not have to be about pretending the problems in the world don’t exist. It’s not about sticking our head in the sand or floating on an unattached, existential cloud that has no concern for the wellbeing of the world, for human flourishing, or for peace and reconciliation. Oliver Benjamin, commenting on the “natural rhythms” of the Tao in chapter 37, wrote, “Taoists merely get up in the morning and see where the day might take them. This doesn’t result in torpor [laziness and lethargy] or inactivity, but rather the opposite: a passionate and committed engagement with all the world’s possibilities.”
Rather than getting locked into one sided, all or nothing thinking, those in touch with the natural rhythms of the world are able to see those possibilities. Rather than hot-headed reactionaries, we become adaptive and responsive to new circumstances. Because of our ability to be fully present to the current moment, we can throw ourselves into the task in front of us, working harder than anyone and giving it 100% of our energy, while simultaneously avoiding the anxiety and stress that come with worrying about the outcome - which we cannot control. In other words, even when we put forth a huge effort, there is an element of effortlessness about it. If think that wu wei would be an irresponsible way to engage a world that is full of rising death tolls, falling statues, and burning buildings, then I hope this perspective challenges that assumption. What the world needs, even when facing global pandemics and unpredictable protests about gross injustice, is more wu wei, not less.
Marshall Davis’ translation of the first line of this chapter 37 provides a picture of what this looks like:
A Godly person does not do good things through their own efforts,
Good things happen through them effortlessly.
-Translator: Marshall Davis
Now, of course this doesn’t happen naturally. It has to be cultivated - like tilling the land in order to plant a garden or a farm. It has to be done by deconstructing our natural instincts, like we do when breaking a horse or training a dog (those might be poor metaphors for humans, but hang with me). Although this takes effort and preparation, the ultimate goal is that these behaviors will become second nature. Once broken, a good horse obeys the rider instinctually, almost effortlessly. Once planted in the proper soil with the proper nutrients, we don’t have to coerce the plants to grow.
In Galatians five, though, Paul starts by saying, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Paul writes that walking in the spirit means we reject the desires of our self, which of course resonates with many passages in the Tao te Ching. The purpose of ridding ourselves of these desires is to find the freedom to flourish in the image of God in which we are made, to find our center in what Lao Tzu calls the Tao. Paul ends the chapter with one of the most famous passages of Scripture: the fruits of the Spirit that flow forth from those of us who have found this freedom and died to our own desires - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. This is a list of mostly wu wei virtues. We can’t conjure up love or joy or peace out of nowhere. We can take intentional actions to cultivate them, but they aren’t created by our efforts, and ultimately, the ideal is that they would flow forth without conscious effort on our part.
The thing about fruit is that it just grows all on its own from a healthy plant. Paul doesn’t say, “Those who walk in the Spirit have to do these things.” He is saying, “Those who are centered in the Spirit will find these things flowing naturally.” Similarly, Jesus said that whoever follows him will have “rivers of living water” flowing forth from them. Granted, this is an idealistic vision, and I don’t think it’s something we can ever fully achieve, but we can certainly draw closer and closer to it, step by step. As we do, we will find not only ourselves filled with new life, walking in freedom, and drinking deep from the waters of life; we will also transmit these things to others as we become a presence of peace in a broken world. And if that isn’t relevant, then I don’t know what is.