Comments on the Book of the Tao: Chapters 1 - 41

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The Tao of nature as a whole (natural universe -- heaven and earth). Tao as Way, Path, Gate -- the Way nature operates, the course that the universe follows. A hidden, quiet, subtle power -- beyond human tao and human affairs, as well as human speech. Even human speech must be understood relative to the unspoken, the silent, the speechless. Being arises or is born from non-being. Beings are not made or produced by creator or craftsmen. They emerge mysteriously from the "womb" of non-being, from a pregnant emptiness. Non-being and being are two sides of the same reality. The Tao as the gate between non-being and being, as the way non-being bursts into beings, as the way beings decline and return to non-being. Tao is the rhythm of arising and falling, appearing and disappearing.

2. The relativity of opposites. Compare to Nietzsche and Heraclitus. The relativity of good and evil. "The sage manages things with non-action (natural action -- wu-wei)." Wu-wei: spontaneous action, unforced action, acting and knowing when to stop, natural action, free-flowing action, effortless action, acting by letting arise.

4. Tao and emptiness --inexhaustible power and potential. Openness and emptiness as power.

5. Nature is not moral or humane. Nor is it immoral. Nature does not play favorites; it is not partial. The sage follows nature and is not partial. Compare to Confucius. Humanism vs. naturalism. Compare to Nietzsche. Vacuous and inexhaustible and at the same time active and productive. Activity without quiet reserve (inactivity) is not natural. Much talk makes one stray from his silent base; one must keep to the center. Compare to Buddhism, which would withdraw from the spoke to the hub, from the hurricane to the eye, from movement to tranquillity.

6. Yang and yin, male and female, active and receptive, mountain and valley -- the polarity of nature. Confucianism keeps to the male or active, yet includes the female or receptive. Taoism emphasizes the female and receptive. Wu-wei means non-interfering action, letting happen, letting be born. The Confucian makes things happen. The Taoist prepares himself and then lets things happen, lets actions and words be born.

7. Nature lasts because it is unselfish, because it gives of itself constantly. Nature does not grasp or accumulate; it allows all to go and come freely. The sage lasts because he puts himself last, does not cling to himself. Self-centeredness is self-destructive. Aggression is suicidal. That which competes with others and leaves its base must decline and wither. Forcing things brings about the opposite of what one intends. Making people do things causes resistance.

8. Water and the sage: flexible, indirect, nourishing, gentle. Flexibility is power. Corpses are brittle. Infants are flexible. What is rigid, blunt, and unyielding will not last. And yet water can overcome rock.

9. The principle of reversion. The arrival at an extreme signals the beginning of decline. Life is cyclic. Great success is followed by decline. Great defeat is followed by recovery. Seek the low place and guarantee improvement. Be humble. Do not overdo. Wu-wei means doing without overdoing, without going too far. Excessive riches and honors are followed by impoverishment and dishonor. Nothing is permanent. All things follow the law of arising and falling. One must attune himself to this rhythm.

11. The importance of non-being; the usefulness of non-being. Non-being means no particular being; it also means the space between beings or defined by the forms of beings. What is non-spoke makes the wheel go. What is non-clay makes the bowl useful (the opening). What makes a room useful is not its walls, but the empty space defined by the walls -- the empty room. Emptiness is real and is useful.

12. Excessive sights, sounds, and flavors ruin the senses. Excessive activities ruin one's mind. Excessive accumulation ruins one's activity. The sage is concerned with the belly (the deep, the heart, the profound). He rejects the superficial for the profound.

13. Regarding the world as one's body. Compare to Wang Yang-Ming. Attachment to the body versus attachment to the whole universe. The sage is attached to all, attuned with nature, attuned to the rhythm of nature. He is also attached to all other humans. This attachment makes him qualified to rule.

14. Some negative descriptions of the Tao. The inner essence of things is something that cannot be held in ones hand or seen or heard. It is subtle. Compare to the Buddha-nature. It is no one thing and yet is found in everything. The secret of the unfolding and dying leaf is the same secret found everywhere. No need to search far and wide for the Tao. It is close by. The Confucians emphasized the manifest. The Taoists emphasized the hidden. Recall Heraclitus' statement: "Nature loves to hide."

15. Description of the best rulers: reserved, flexible, natural (like uncarved wood), open, indefinite. One thinks of Descartes' clear and distinct ideas -- the need for precise definitions and exact mathematical forms. Nature is not precise. Nature is not geometrical. It is subtle and vague, complicated and elusive. The river and the growing tree bend and wind irregularly; one cannot use a branch as a straightedge. Yet the branch is superior to the straightedge. Indefinite nature is superior to precise geometry.

16. Keeping to the root. Emptiness. Quietude. All things/deeds/words arise from stillness, then return to stillness. Silent non-being is the source. Returning to the root means tranquillity. Key passage. Non-being is more profound than being. Silence is more profound than speech. Knowing the relation between non-being and being, becoming and perishing, growth and decay is wisdom. Not to know the law of nature (Tao) is disastrous. Such wisdom leads to love (all-embracing), impartiality, and kingliness (universality). Universality means unity with the universe, in accord with Tao. Tranquillity and humility, not activity and assertiveness, are the source of wisdom.

17. Rulers should not interfere. Confucius?

18. When original oneness with all is lost, morality arises. The presence of morality presupposes the absence of peace and harmony. There is no need for morality when people are naturally attuned to nature and to one another. Confucian humanism arises in times of disorder. When family harmony becomes a goal, it means that family harmony has been lost.

19. One must not learn, but rather unlearn. One must move from complexity to simplicity, morality to naturalness. Nature does not operate via a nonstop accumulation. How many twigs and leaves does the bird need for its nest? Recall Buddhism.

20. Debate -- hankering over "yes" and "no" -- is useless. Philosophical positions are all one-sided. Moralities are one-sided. The sage looks indecisive, non-cheerful, inert, poor, ignorant (not having opinions), not making distinctions, wavering, indefinite -- as nature is indefinite. Wisdom looks like its opposite.

21. The Tao is vague and eluding. Nature, like the sage, may be undervalued and taken for granted by self-assertive human beings who seem to know what they are doing. But nature is right; the sage is right; and the self-confident masses are wrong. They do not understand the secret power of the universe. They miss it because it is too quiet for them, too subtle for their senses, too indirect. They are not quiet enough to "overhear" the quiet. They think that power is noisy.

22. The importance of flexibility. Seeking the humble place. The principle of reversion. Hold to the lower place, and you will succeed. Humility is strength, wisdom.

23. Nature says few words. Recall the Confucian chun-tzu.

24. The opposite of #22. Going to extremes; reverting, declining.

25. Some characteristics of Tao: undifferentiated and complete, soundless and formless, changeless, omnipresent, mother of the universe, far-reaching and staying close to the center, expansive and intensive. The sage models himself after the earth.

26. The earth is profound, heavy, deep, tranquil. The sage models himself after the earth.

28. The sage keeps to the female (passive force). The ravine of the world. The infant. The dark. Non-being. The valley of the world. Simplicity. The uncarved wood -- the unity of beings, original oneness and integrity, original naturalness. The carved wood -- variety, diversity, separation.

29. The importance of non-interference in ruling.

30. Against the use of force; against domination. Force leads to resistance. Attack leads to reprisal. Going too far is contrary to Tao and leads to decline.

31. Taoism is non-violent. Lao-tzu knows that wars are sometimes inevitable; but he regards all wars as regrettable. One must preside over battlefields as over a funeral.

33. Compare to Socrates on the unexamined life. Compare to Confucius on "sincerity." The "immortality" of virtue.

36. Tactics. Overcoming others by letting them defeat themselves. Let your enemy expand and be puffed up, and his collapse will be imminent. In martial arts, use the aggressive imbalanced attacks of your enemies against themselves. Let them perish of their own extreme action, self-seeking, etc. Give your opponent room to fail.

37. Free of desires: Buddhism?

38. Compare to Buddhism and Confucianism and Kant. Knowledge of one's own virtue. Wu-wei. Ulterior motives. Righteousness and propriety as loss of virtue. The sage is not righteous or "proper." Once again, the degeneration from original unity to divisiveness and morality, from natural acting to forcing things. We often say, when we are really pressed, that we are "pushing," that is, our actions do not flow naturally from inner strength or balance, but are artificially contrived; our actions do not flow from substance, but are forced and mechanical.

40. The principle of reversion. Being and non-being.

41. Are you laughing? Heraclitus wrote that dogs bark at things they do not understand. There are those who have no eye for the subtle, no ear for the faint. And so they laugh when they hear about Tao.

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Copyright © 1997 - 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.