Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but 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 the 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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Chapter nine is all about one very important paradox: that having too much can easily turn into having nothing at all. It’s not just saying that if we try to have it all, we can lose it - although it does say that too. But it also goes on to say that when we are constantly grasping for more and more and more - wealth, fame, approval, self-perfection - all we are actually doing is making prisoners of ourselves.
Chapter ten rehearses and goes deeper into some themes we’ve already seen - non-dualistic thinking and wu wei, or actionless action. I’ve talked a lot about wu wei before, but in this chapter we see how letting go of our ego and our attachments and learning to love without controlling are at the heart of a healthy person, or what the TTC calls the wise person, or the master, or the sage.
I think it’s really obvious how much all of this lines up with the teachings of Jesus, but if it isn’t yet, I hope it will be.
Chapter 9: The paradox of how too much becomes nothing at all
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
Chapter nine is full of beautiful, parable-like imagery that really cuts to the core of human experience - especially in our world of consumerism and constant competition. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of always wanting more, and the TTC gives us three pictures that, for me, illustrate three different ways in which we can do this.
First, there is the picture of the bowl or cup. If we try to overfill it, then we are bound to spill some - or even all - of it. Mitchell’s translation says this in the negative, as we just heard: fill your bowl the brim, and it will spill. For me, this picture is about ways in which we try to fill our lives. It’s so easy to always be grasping for more and trying to squeeze more things into our already busy schedule. I mean really, how many times a week do we hear people talk about how busy they are?
The truth is, we are addicted to being busy. Or as I call it in my not yet released book, we are in the “business of busyness.” Our culture has idolized being “productive” to the point that we feel compelled to have as busy a life as possible. In fact, we often feel guilty for not being busy!
The second picture in this chapter is that of sharpening a knife. “Oversharpen the knife, and the edge will soon blunt.” When I read this metaphor, I think of the search for perfection. We work so hard to refine ourselves, to perfect ourselves, and it can often backfire. Of course, it’s very important to make intentional choices and establish rhythms in our lives that help us to grow. We don’t just “become” healthy, functioning, mature people. We have to live our way into it.
But I often find myself caught up in the lie that with enough willpower and intentionality, I can become a perfect person; but the simple fact is, even if that were true I don’t have the willpower or the intentionality to make it happen. I do my best, but honestly even the concept of “perfection” - as though it were an achievable state - is itself the kind of dualistic thinking that authors like Richard Rohr and the TTC itself warn us about and challenge us to deconstruct. This isn’t a binary, black-and-white thing, as though there were a state of “perfection” that we can just achieve and wear it as a badge of honor.
The simple fact is that every part of life is a journey, a never-ending process of both failure and growth. Once again, everyone seems to know this deep down, but it’s so hard to believe it. If we think achieving perfection is binary, like flipping a switch or changing our status to “in a relationship” on Facebook, then we’re bound to face disappointment and completely stunt our growth into wholeness.
The third and last picture is the most direct: “chase after money and security, and your heart will never unclench.” It’s not just that those who have too much money can become a slave to it - although both Jesus and the TTC are very clear about that. It’s that even those who want to have more money and titles and approval from people become enslaved just to the idea of those things. Jesus was quite clear when he said that no one can serve two masters. You can either serve God or money (or, we might say even the striving for money, fame, success, etc).
The last paradoxical line is, “Care about people’s approval, and you will become their prisoner.” It’s so easy to enslave ourselves to the pursuit of wealth or fame or recognition or titles or even just being viewed as “the best” that we can fail to truly live “into” who we really are. Ron Hogan translates this in a slightly different way, but it only helps to draw out the same principles even more:
If you hoard wealth,
you fall into its clutches.
If you crave success,
you succumb to failure.
A better way
So what do we do in response to all of these dangers? The last couple lines of this chapter paint a better vision for what it means to be wise and healthy:
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
Or as Gia-fu Feng translates:
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.
Or Ron Hogan:
Do what you have to do,
then walk away.
Anything else will drive you nuts.
Basically, those words speak for themselves. We have to be present enough to see the next step in front of us and do it well. And it’s true, sometimes that next step is planning for future steps. I’m not saying we should just “go with the flow” so much that we don’t think about tomorrow. However, there’s got to be some truth in that idea - Jesus himself told us not to worry about tomorrow, for today has enough cares of its own. He also told a surprising little parable about a man who kept building bigger storehouses to accumulate his growing wealth into a massive “saving account.” And then, guess what happened? He dropped dead without ever really putting any of it to good use.
We have to find a balance between being present and looking towards the future, and I believe this chapter gives us a better picture of how to view the future. If we look at it as only a constant search for more - more wealth, more things to do, more fame, more popularity, even more feelings of “success” - then we will only end up in a spiral of worry.
Chapter 10: Wu wei (again)
Chapter 10 is a beautiful one that just continues to draw out some of the ideas we’ve already talked about in past episodes. It elaborates on wu wei (acting without acting) as well as non-dualistic thinking, both of which we have looked at before. I think it really complements chapter nine nicely by showing us a different way to live and to view the world.
If I had to sum it up, I would say there are two main ideas here. First, the importance of sort of a curious innocence, an outlook of wonder at the world - or what Jesus called a “childlike faith.”
Second, how do we live with this innocence in a world where we can’t just actually “let it all go”? We have to live in that tension as wisely as possible. We can’t stop and do nothing - we have things to do. We can’t just let things run wild - we have to “lead” in each of our different situations. We can’t just give away every single possession we have - we still have to have things. (Although I would add I think the vast majority of us could afford to give away a lot more and live on a lot less.)
Can you hold on to your ego
and still stay focused on Tao?
Can you relax your mind and body
and brace yourself for a new life?
Can you check yourself
and see past what’s in front of your eyes?
Can you be a leader
and not try to prove you’re in charge?
Can you deal with what’s happening
and let it happen?
Can you forget what you know
and understand what’s real?
Start a job and see it through.
Have things without holding on to them.
Do the job without expectation of reward.
Lead people without giving orders.
That’s the way you do it.
The first verse is kind of a summary for the whole idea of this “innocence” or “childlike wonder.” Hogan says, “Can you hold onto your ego and stay focused on the Tao?” Here are two translations of that same line:
Nurture the darkness of your soul
until you become whole.
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Three totally different ways of putting it - holding onto the ego, or nurturing the darkness of our souls, or keeping our minds from wandering - but the same goal: becoming whole, or becoming more in-tune with the Tao (which, remember, we are using to describe the divine order, the flow of the universe - the way things God intended them to be).
The next stanza just continues unpacking this challenge. The questions are all very different, but they’re really all directly related to this idea of wholeness through self-surrender.
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
For me these words are kind of like a picture of what it means to really have “childlike faith.” Jesus said that we need to have faith like little children, and to be honest I’ve never been quite sure what that meant. The first time I read it, Mitchell’s translation of letting our bodies become “as supple as a newborn child’s” really weirded me out, but then I made the connection: all of these things are about maintaining a childlike innocence!
We often use childlike or childish as an insult, but there’s another sense in which it can be a very positive thing - or at least Jesus seems to think so. Can we really love and lead others selflessly, adapt to whatever situation comes our way, and be present to the world if we aren’t “childlike” in this way?
The last stanza of this chapter returns to some of the key themes we’ve heard over and over again throughout the TTC, only now we have a new point of reference to attach them to. As Mitchell translates,
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.
I love the line “having without possessing.” Most of us can’t simply drop it all and get rid of everything we own - but we can learn to have things without possessing them - meaning to hold onto them as part of our identity … or, more accurately, to give them a hold on us.
Another powerful line for me has been “acting with no expectations.” We can’t just drop it all and do nothing, but we can choose to hold onto our expectations very loosely. This was one of the most important lessons I learned in my training for overseas work. We all have expectations for everything, whether good or bad ones. There’s no denying that. But there’s a difference between having expectations and holding onto those expectations. If we can’t adapt to the way things actually turn out, but we keep holding on to the way we wanted them to turn out, it’s a recipe for disaster. Here's another translation of those lines:
When Heaven gives and takes away
can you be content with the outcome?
-J. H. McDonald
The fourth line, “leading without control,” is really just a logical extension of these ideas. If we have without possessing, and we act without holding onto our expectations, then we will become the best kind of leaders: those who are able to do what needs to be done to serve the people they love, without flexing our muscles and trying to force things to fit our personal agendas.
And to sum it all up, Mitchell simply says, “This is the supreme virtue.” Another translation says,
Human beings call this virtue.
It is the very embodiment of Tao— Tao manifesting itself via the human heart.
To live this way is to embody the Teh, the virtue of the Tao, the virtue of God as he always intended for humanity to live. Sadly, we often get so caught up in all of the little details, our possessions which are possessing us and our expectations which are keeping us in chains, that we fail to see the big picture. And in the irony of all ironies, these two chapters tell us that seeing the big picture often means letting go of a lot of things, rather than trying to fit it all into our minds, hearts, and schedules at the same time.