The Tao Te Ching’s origins are enveloped in mystery. We know that it emerged in China over two thousand years ago during a period of prolonged civil wars, the same social conditions that also produced another classic, Sun Tze’s The Art of War.
In ancient China, it was common practice to attribute literary works either to the reigning emperor or to mythical figures, adding an aura of importance and mystery. In this case, the writing is credited to an author called Lao Tze, an epithet translated as “Old Man,” “the Ancient Child,” or “the Citizen of Everywhere.”
It’s possible that the Tao Te Ching, which means, The Way and Its Power, is an anthology of Taoist aphorisms. However, legend has it that this influential book was written by a highly accomplished statesman who, at age 160, disillusioned of corrupt government, decided to withdraw from his position at the Chinese Imperial Court and leave the world behind.
But on his journey, his progress was barred at the entrance to the high mountains by a gatekeeper who demanded that before he pass on, Lao Tze write down all he knew as a legacy to future generations. He willingly complied. The result was the Tao Te Ching.
Regardless of its actual origins, the book’s influence has been vast. According to translators Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:
The eighty-one short chapters known as the Tao Te Ching have been translated more often than any other book in the world, with the single exception of the Bible. Like the Bible, the Tao Te Ching is a book whose appeal is as broad as its meaning is deep. It speaks to each of us at our own level of understanding, while inviting us to search for levels of insight and experience that are not yet within our comprehension.1
The discrete sections of this collection, alternatively called chapters, aphorisms or passages, resonate with timeless themes familiar from the world’s major scriptures.
Moreover, its thought is saturated with the overarching influence of the preeminent and enduring I Ching, which actually maps the laws of nature to which Lao Tze only alludes.
Throughout, this text refers to the accomplished person who understands and lives in accordance with these natural laws as “the sage.”
The designation “passage” is preferred over “aphorism” or “chapter” below because it suggests the potential that contemplating Lao Tze’s wisdom has to open doorways of the mind to new levels of understanding, serving as a passageway to higher possibilities of awareness.
The title of this text is taken, on the suggestion of an appreciative reader well-acquainted with the Tao Te Ching, from Passage 1:
The sub-title, Lao Tze’s Common Sense Way of Change, indicates the Tao Te Ching’s immediate relevance to Americans now, as well as its resonant link with Tom Paine’s 1776 call for Common Sense. It also evokes Lao Tze’s reverence for the Tao, the Way, as well as the underlying presence of the perennial Book of Change, the primary influence informing Lao Tze’s vision.
Written at a time of wide-spread, economically draining wars, and therefore especially relevant to the current times, the Tao Te Ching offers insight into the causes of inevitable misfortune as well as an alternative, more harmonious approach to life.
Eastern wisdom traditions, especially the Chinese Tao Te Ching and I Ching, offer an approach which, at the very least, complements Western theologies and sciences, filling in gaps where, in isolation, our own knowledge base has been proven by recent history to be sadly incomplete.
They serve as the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In The Secret Teachings of the Tao Te Ching,2 Mantak Chia and Tao Huang describe three minds harmonized by integrative practices. The upper, middle and lower centers (tan tiens) correspond with the three levels of the Positive Paradigm Wheel — mass, energy and light.
Because the simple but world-loved Tao Te Ching is regarded as a major piece of the Taoist canon, a description of the Tao and Taoism is provided below, followed by a brief investigation of major themes and influences which apply to immediate world concerns.
* Taoism *
“Tao” is the Chinese word for the original life source, that which Christians call “God.” Muslims name it “Allah.” Hindus worship it as “Brahman.”
The Tao is that which is beyond words, beyond form and beyond human comprehension. It is the “supreme ultimate” — timeless, mysterious and humanity’s deepest heart’s desire, residing at the very core of who we are. Nature and nature’s laws are its creative extension.
Tao is often translated as “the Way,” because living in harmony with the Tao is regarded as the practical way to attain self-knowledge and personal fulfillment, the viable foundation upon which to build social harmony and political stability.
Taoists are people who follow the Tao. The Book of Change, or the I Ching, is the primary text they work with to plumb the depths of their own inner nature and then, by extension, to understand the ways of the world and workings of the universe. The Tao Te Ching is one set of observations from one particularly resonant time in history as to how these laws operate in action.
* The Laws of Nature *
Political theorists base their concepts of right governance on their understanding of natural law. Tom Paine, author of Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet that became a catalyst of the American Revolution, regarded natural law as the standard of legitimate governments. The observations Paine made regarding nature and the power of nature then seem not only pertinent, but even prophetic, now:
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature has given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure is the author.3 [Emphasis added.]
This concept of natural law, as well as its context within the larger framework of divine law and its relevance to human law, was written into the consequent Declaration of Independence:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God, entitle them . . . 4 [Emphasis added.]
According to The Common Sense Book of Change, “Approaching natural law from the deeper understanding of the ancients could inspire a reinvention of democracy now.”5 The purpose and potential benefits of not only studying but actually living and governing in accordance with natural law are described in I Ching Hexagram 20, Awareness.
Similarly, in Passage 67, Lao Tze correlates living in accordance with natural law with the attitude of common sense:
In Passage 39, Lao Tze draws the connection between governance and natural law:
Further, according to sages, the primary benefit of respecting natural law is that its mastery is instrumental to achieving spiritual goals — overcoming the delusions and suffering of duality, achieving self-transcendence and ultimate union with the Tao.
Working with nature as an aid, rather than an obstacle to enlightenment, is a Taoist keystone. As Lao Tze puts it in Passage 6:
According to legend, Taoist immortals, by mastering their inner nature, were able to transcend the illusion of time. Their attainment is described in Passage 2:
Passage 42 describes the yogic accomplishments of sages who have purified, integrated and mastered the elements of their animal nature. Like the numerous watercolors and ink drawings which depict Lao Tze riding his ox, sages harness instinctive impulses to the service of intentional goals, in this way reaching their metaphorical mountain top destination.
On the flip side of the coin, consequences of failing to be aware of and live according to natural law have always been with us. Passage 18 observes:
Passage 38 warns:
It is the dangerous consequences that follow from mindless immersion in nature, forgetful of the Tao, that Lao Tze would prevent.
As the German translator Richard Wilhelm wrote in Lectures on the I Ching:
. . . so long as man is constructed into, and interwoven with, the fabric of nature, he is subject to certain laws of nature. In this fabric of nature, man is the point of transition; or perhaps the point where warp and woof cross.6
What Lao Tze has given us in the Tao Te Ching is a vision of humanity’s ultimate hope: the possibility of maintaining a sage-like balance between our instinctual, transitory nature on one hand, and our deepest, unchanging divinity, on the other: the experience of the manifest and unmanifest sides of the Tao as a seamlessly joined unity.
* Virtue *
Taoists correlate virtues with nature’s elements and power with the vital energy that comes from inner atunement with the Tao. Noted I Ching and Tao Te Ching translator R.L. Wing defines the word “Te” in Tao Te Ching as a very unique kind of virtue:
In the West, virtue suggests righteousness, but in fact Te is a term that refers to the potential energy that comes from being in the right place and in the right frame of mind at the right time.7
Confucius, a devoted I Ching scholar, compared virtue to an oriel. He observed this bird as being perfectly in harmony with nature: precisely accurate in the timing of its flight, poised upon well-chosen landing, and sweet in its song. He asked, “How often are humans this virtuous?”
In keeping with this tradition, in Passage 8 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze also defines virtue in terms of nature:
He expresses the humanitarian aspect of virtue in Passage 51:
Lao Tze, however, is skeptical about attempts to change others, especially through coercive measures that fail to respect free will or to regard human aspirations with understanding compassion. Thus, in Passage 57 he observes:
In the same vein, in Passage 58 he laments:
Change and the Unchanging
Throughout, Lao Tze reminds us of the relationship between nature and its unchanging, creative source. According to Passage 4:
Passage 14 also captures the relationship between the changeless source and its dynamic creations:
Thus, alluding to the ancient, intuitively experienced awareness of what Einstein later expressed as physics in his famous formula, e = mc2, Passage 51 begins:
Passage 42 explicitly defines the relationship of light to energy and mass, which sages apply to the personal attainment of enlightenment and, just occasionally, demonstrate in feats of magic.
In contrast to Westerners, who have applied insights into nature’s workings to explode atomic bombs or reap financial fortunes, sages prefer the option of using wisdom to cultivate harmonious relationships, as well as heal, serve and uplift the less fortunate.
* The Tao of Physics *
In The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Fritjof Capra discusses the implications of the I Ching in chapters on “Chinese Thought,” “Quark Symmetries,” and “Patterns of Change.” He also refers numerous times to the derivative Tao Te Ching in “Taoism” and “Beyond Thought.”
Capra describes the relationship between Lao Tze and the I Ching.8 On one hand, he writes to assist fellow physicists in overcoming what Einstein called “the fateful fear of metaphysics.” On the other, he astutely rescues the badly misunderstood and therefore underrated science of the I Ching from the taint of superstitious abuse.
The purpose of consulting the I Ching was thus not to know the future, but rather to discover the disposition of the present situation so that proper action could be taken. This attitude lifted the I Ching above the level of an ordinary book of soothsaying and made it a book of wisdom.
The use of the I Ching as a book of wisdom is, in fact, of far greater importance than its use as an oracle. It has inspired the leading minds of China throughout the ages, among them Lao Tzu, who drew some of his profoundest aphorisms from this source.
Lao Tze and the I Ching before him are leading us towards personal, internal applications of Einstein’s inspired formula.
* Yoga *
In many ways, the work of Lao Tze and Patanjali are similar. On one hand, like the Tao Te Ching, the Yoga Sutras appear to be an anthology of teachings collected from many different sources. On the other, they been attributed to a single author, Patanjali, who is also said to have lived between 500 and 200 B.C. Again, however, as with the Tao Te Ching, the origins of the Yoga Sutras are shrouded in fable and mystery.
In any event, Lao Tze seems uncannily familiar with traditional yogic practices. For example, in Passage 10 he asks:
Further, Lao Tze demonstrates a keen familiarity with the psychology which underlies the practice of meditation. For example, in Passage 12 he warns that the senses can deceive, concluding:
In Passage 27, Lao Tze describes a meditative attitude as a necessary component of disciplines which cultivate sage-like, yogic awareness:
The conservation and manipulation of energy — the basic foundation of magic — are also familiar to the mythic figure of Lao Tze. In Passage 50, we are told:
Through yogic disciplines, Lao Tze tells us, sages succeed in opening the doors to mystery which can’t be forced, accessing the bottomless well of unending energy and pure intelligence. Passage 35:
It is this carefully cultivated, unbiased clarity which enables the sage to practice non-interference and thus live effectively and generously in the world, without being sucked into its conflicts and incessant warfare.
* Non-Violence *
Taoists abhor selfish meddling and gratuitous violence as equally destructive to individuals, society and the environment.
In this, their thinking is in accord with the most fundamental tenet of the yoga. Non-violence is the virtue listed first among the commitments which constitute the fundamental basis of progressive yoga disciplines. The attitude of harmlessness, or non-violence, is the preliminary foundation upon which all more advanced spiritual practices depend.
In Sutra 35 of Book II, Patanjali informs us that:
When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.9
Similarly, in Passage 55 Lao Tze describes sages as being accomplished in the ways of ancient yoga masters:
Lao Tze describes non-violence as the cornerstone of social stability. In Passage 68 he tells us:
Reinforcing this view, in Passage 38 Lao Tze tells us:
* Contentment *
Contentment is another fundamental yoga tenet which Lao Tze likewise commends. According to Sutra II.42, “Through joyous contentment, one gains supreme happiness.”
Similarly, in Passage 20, Lao Tze describes himself:
In Passage 37, Lao Tze describes the results (admittedly Utopian, but theoretically possible) which would occur if leaders cultivated this attitude of contentment:
On one hand, in Passage 46, Lao Tze describes the experience of well-being that comes with practicing contentment.
On the other, in Passage 80, he describes the general discontent most of us experience as a result of jealously comparing ourselves to our neighbors, in stark contrast to the peace of mind experienced by followers of the Tao.
* Moderation *
Moderation is another of the indispensable virtues set forth by Patanjali in the preliminary stages of yoga practice. Again, Lao Tze’s words accord with yogic teachings. In Passage 52 he notes:
Further, in Passage 29, Lao Tze describes the way in which sages moderate extremes to establish external balance and attain self-transcendence:
Adhering to moderation in business practices and government policies is indispensable to fulfilling the responsible leader’s primary duty to protect and preserve the people.
In Passage 59, reminiscent of the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt, Lao Tze advises:
Conversely, when moderation is abandoned, the masses suffer grievously. In Passage 75, Lao Tze notes the difference between nature and “civilized” humans.
Repeatedly, Lao Tze pairs the concepts of moderation and balance. Both terms reflect a basic premise of the Tao Te Ching’s great grandfather, the I Ching itself.
* Balance *
The value and effect of balancing opposites and moderating extremes to which Lao Tze repeatedly alludes are expressed in several of the I Ching hexagrams. For example, The Common Sense Book of Change, Hexagram 15, Balance, reads:
On the other hand, Hexagram 38 of the I Ching, OPPOSITES, warns of the difficulties and potential dangers in attempting to reconcile opposites.
In The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra offers an intriguing insight into the consciousness-raising, psycho-spiritual methodology of the Tao Te Ching. He describes Lao Tze’s poetic imagery in terms of both the physicist’s communication dilemma and the Zen Buddhist’s deliberate use of mind-boggling koans:
Both the physicist and the mystic want to communicate their knowledge, and when they do so with words their statements are paradoxical, full of logical contradictions. 10
The main Taoist scripture, Lao Tze’s Tao Te Ching, is written in an extremely puzzling, seemingly illogical style. It is full of intriguing contradictions and its compact, powerful, and extremely poetic language is meant to arrest the reader’s mind and throw it off its familiar tracks of logical reasoning. 11
This apparent clash of opposites, perceived by the dualistic mind as contradictory, makes clear and comprehensible sense to the enlightened sage-mind, with its capacity to balance, bridge and transcend apparent gaps, thus apprehending the underlying unity inherent in natural phenomena:
All these koans have more or less unique solutions which a competent master recognizes immediately. Once the solution is found, the koan ceases to be paradoxical and becomes a profoundly meaningful statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken.12
In this light, reading Lao Tze’s Tao Te Ching as a mind-expanding exercise, releasing expectations that it conform rigidly to the constraints of rational logic, seems an appropriate and beneficial approach.
* Impartiality *
Lao Tze advocates non-discrimination, which in his view is in accordance with the Tao. In Passage 5, he affirms the Tao’s expansive inclusiveness, which sages aspire to emulate:
In Passage 3, Lao Tze compares the inevitable consequences of unnatural competition with the social harmony resulting from respectful acceptance.
In Passage 39, the theme of respecting all aspects of nature repeats:
From Lao Tze’s common sense perspective, human origins extend far deeper than biological family or even national identity. Further, whenever we loose sight of our common humanity, we inevitably end up in deep trouble. This perspective has profound underpinnings in the I Ching.
According to The Book of Change, while it is important to respect one’s elders, family traditions and social norms, cultural conditioning is but one relatively superficial layer of experience which depends upon a single source.
Thus, Hexagram 48, Origin, reads:
In this vein, Passage 62 of the Tao Te Ching expressly describes the forgiving inclusion of all humanity within the compassionate embrace of the all-encompassing Tao:
In this, Lao Tze’s experience of the Tao mirrors the teachings of Christ, personalized as instruction, conveyed by St. Matthew in the New Testament:13
* Compassion *
Sages know that in nature, virtues practiced in extreme or taken out of context change into their opposite vices. In the same way, vices are changed into virtues. To offset the danger of heartlessness inherent in impartiality, Lao Tze balances it with the classically Buddhist virtue of compassion. Thus, in Passage 49 we read:
The value sages put on compassion compares to the importance placed on the equivalent, overarching virtue of charity by St. Paul, who was himself transformed from “sinner” to “saint:”
The quality of compassion which reverberates throughout the Tao Te Ching isn’t an optional luxury; it is the practical basis of survival. In Passage 67, we are warned:
* Environmentalism *
The urgent need for respect of nature, as well as the catastrophic consequences of failing to honor the balance of Earth’s elements, is documented both in film and writing by geneticist and author David Suzuki. In The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, he quotes Lao Tze, making the point that:
All religions explore the place of people in the natural and social worlds around them. They provide explanations for mysteries such as death and disorder, and use myths and moral teachings to relate human and nonhuman spheres. The earliest forms of contemporary world religions . . presented an animated, integrated worldview. As Lao Tze put it, “The virtue of the universe is its wholeness.14
Suzuki describes the elements of earth, water, air and fire in turn, and catalogs the Titanic-like disasters which follow from upsetting their balance in the natural environment.15
Further, he quotes a document titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” released in November of 1992, signed by over 1,600 senior scientists from 71 countries around the world. This warning, virtually ignored by the media, begins:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources.
If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.16
In Passage 39, Lao Tze not only concurs, but takes this view one step further, faulting leaders for their lack of respect for nature, identifying their attitudes as a precipitating cause of natural disasters:
The question then arises, “What fundamental change would serve to ameliorate if not reverse the collision course which Suzuki and the senior scientists of the world described more than a decade ago?”
As suggested in the introduction to The Ultimate Personal Survival Guide: Sixty-Four Essays on the Book of Change, the required change is not in what we think, but more fundamentally, in the very way we think:
As Einstein put it, ”The splitting of the atom has changed everything, save how we think. Thus,” he observed, “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
Yet within Einstein’s warning is the kernel of hope: a solution. Changing the way we think is the best way to prevent and/or prepare to meet the challenges of “interesting” times. The Book of Change offers a time-tested method for changing not what but how we think — about ourselves as well as our relationship to others and the environment.17
Giving careful thought to the eighty-one passages of Lao Tze’s Common Sense Way of Change may well serve as a useful introduction and transition to the more ancient and comprehensive map of natural law which so greatly influenced his views.
* Warfare *
Like his Taoist contemporaries, Lao Tze puts great value on foresight. Problems are best prevented before they arise, or else handled at the onset, when they can be quickly solved if not eliminated.
In this, he has much in common with Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War. Sun Tzu, like Lao Tze, put much stock on understanding conflict not only as a way to resolve it, but as a means for avoiding it altogether.
Sun Tzu described military strategy in medical terms:
In the same vein, in Passage 60 Lao Tze says:
In Passage 63, Lao Tze compares healing and enlightened warfare to organizational planning:
Lao Tze sees the use of brute force as counterproductive. Open warfare is the option of last resort. He laments the long-term consequences of warfare as detrimental to the common good. For example, in Passage 30 he observes:
Passage 31 comments on the dangers of armament. It prescribes the right attitude to take even in victory.
In American history, this attitude was admirably demonstrated by President Abraham Lincoln, who expressed himself with the soul of a sage on many occasions. This is what he said in honor of the fallen on the field of a terrible battle between polar forces of the North and South in his Gettysburg address:
. . . in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on.19
Since every peak moment is subject to change, Lao Tze advises victorious leaders to look to the future so that no ill-advised actions precipitate later reversals of fortune. Accordingly, Passage 69 reads:
Applying this worldview to military involvements abroad is instructive and could still have useful consequences.
* The Law of Karma *
The law of karma, like the Book of Change itself, is widely misunderstood. It doesn’t imply fate or predestination, as if humanity had no free will. Rather, it can be described in terms of physics. For every action in time, there is an opposite and equal reaction.
Human beings are free to choose, but are subject to the logical consequences that follow. Working with the I Ching helps to recognize possible outcomes of alternative actions, to make wiser choices, and as a result, improve the direction of likely future events. In Understanding the I Ching, Cyrille Javary explains:
Unlike any kind of fortune-telling, prophecy, or magic, the I Ching does not tell the future, it can only analyze the present. Its use does not allow one to make forecasts, only diagnoses.
If there were a comparison possible with a Western equivalent, it would not be to the crystal ball but to a chess playing computer program that analyzes the current situation in order to choose one of a number of options. 20
Separating from England at the time of the American Revolution was one such choice among numerous possible options, the consequences of which are still in the process of evolving. According to the Ultimate Personal Survival Guide:21
The United States was founded in reaction to European governments which violated natural law, subordinating merit to class interests and siphoning the resources of workers to fill the coffers of a privileged few.
In contrast, the ideal of the original American dream honored the natural law of cause and effect. Every person was free to advance according to merit. Each was entitled to receive just compensation for honest work. All were entitled to protection of individual civil rights under the law.
Throughout history, there has been a push/pull tension between those who respect the biblical maxim, “As ye reap, so shall ye sow,” and those who would make themselves exempt from the law. In nature, there are times of plenty and times of want, times of success and times of defeat.
Some, however, ignorantly try to short-circuit the process, by-passing the hard times that teach us humility, abusing human law to short-sighted, political ends. They’d rather, by cheating natural laws, be ceaselessly, excessively prosperous, at the expense of others who suffer in perpetual want. Rather than engage in the give-and-take process on the chess-board of life, where the light and dark, yang and yin, alternate in orderly succession, such people would fold the board, refuse to play, and withdraw from the life process. But even the attempt to evade natural consequences has consequences.
Lao Tze repeatedly reminds us of the reciprocity inherent in natural law. Passage 23 warns:
Passage 44 confirms the existence of free will, but with a caveat:
Honor the law of karma with positive action, says Lao Tze in Passage 67, and it becomes a friend:
However, the law of karma is the worst enemy of thoughtless aggressors. Passage 74 observes:
* Leadership *
Although Lao Tze advocates non-violence, he is by no means a pacifist. “Harmless” should never be misconstrued to mean “defenseless.” Thus, in the Tao Te Ching we learn that sages are neither fearful nor helpless in the face of evil.
According to Passage 74:
In fact, sages have their own ways of dealing with injustice. Just as, on one side of the coin, Taoists practice passive meditative arts, on the other side, they also practice the active martial art of Tai Chi Ch’uan. When the people cry out for a leader to protect them, the greatest sages hear and respond. In Passage 78, Lao Tze tells us:
Sage-observers of nature’s laws in operation have long told us that every extreme in time changes into its exact opposite. Thus, individuals, like drops of water in the ocean, may seem insignificant. However, when the people are united by a common cause, driven by the powerful force of conviction and commitment, they become — as Hitler learned — irresistible.
Whereas most rulers suffer the unanticipated consequences of ignorance, pride and greed as shock, humiliation and undoing, sages intentionally harness the forces of nature to positive ends. Thus it is, that throughout history, at the right time, in the necessary circumstances, leaders of ordinary and humble beginnings have catapulted to extraordinary levels of accomplishment, effecting broad political and social change.
By voicing the collective yearnings of the suffering masses, perennial sage-leaders shed the light of eternal hope on times of greatest darkness. By inspired words and living example, they recreate ever-new the I Ching vision of opportunities hidden within the outward experience of hardship.
As Hexagram 47, Depression, reads:
To those in harmony with the Tao, no situation is hopeless, no challenge too great. As Hexagram 58, Inspiration, confirms:
Here, I Ching wisdom is reminiscent of Lord Krsna’s timely response to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Like the Tao Te Ching and Yoga Sutras, this Sanskrit scripture also dates back to 500 – 200 B.C. It too is attributed to a mythical sage, Vyasa.22
The Gita describes Arjuna’s despair at the battlefront. Overwhelmed, he puts down his weapons and refuses to fight.
But at this crisis and turning point, his chariot driver, Lord Krsna, reveals himself as a god and speaks inspirational words of encouragement and wisdom. He reminds Arjuna of his purpose, encouraging him take heart, to fight and win the righteous battle against evil.
In Passage 18, Lao Tze echoes the Gita’s premise, confirming the widely-held belief that from time to time, at the nadir of historical cycles, God incarnates in varying places and in different forms, for the instruction and deliverance of troubled truth seekers:
On a smaller scale, closer to home, each of us has the potential to be a hero in some respect, if only by becoming victorious over one’s own negative emotions, overcoming one’s doubts and finding the courage to do what is right. In Passage 54, Lao Tze asserts the primary responsibility of each individual to live self-responsibly:
Here Lao Tze underscores the fundamental I Ching axiom that every individual is a perfect and complete miniature of all creation. Every unit, from atom to individual, mirrors the structure of the solar system and universe entire. So restoring order and balance to one’s own life does in effect save a world complete, one life at a time.
Lao Tze’s premise, that the world can be changed only one person at a time, and from the inside out, repeats in the teachings of Confucius, who is quoted as teaching:23
Leaders who align themselves with the Tao are a blessing to themselves and everyone their influence touches. Passage 25 tells us:
Unfortunately, in today’s world, leaders truly aligned with the Tao are rare indeed, and more often harassed than honored. The natural consequence of this state of affairs is the common experience of our times. Passage 53 describes it:
In this, Lao Tze’s sentiments resonate with King Solomon’s Proverbs. For example, we read in Proverbs 29:2, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.”
The effects of interference are described in Real Power: Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching:
Repression provokes resentment, and there is nothing more likely to spoil the workplace environment. These powerful feelings can move people to do the wrong thing, because they convince themselves that they are entitled to do whatever they can to feel less repressed or to feel they have extracted some retribution.24
In The Tao of Personal Leadership, Diane Dreher describes the growing interest in applying Lao Tze’s concept of self-responsibility to management:
The current crisis in leadership is part of a larger paradigm shift, a redefinition of power at almost every level of life. Our leaders aren’t like they used to be because leadership itself is changing. . . “We won’t have a healthy society because somebody — whether it’s Ronald Reagan or John Kennedy — comes riding a white horse and tells us how we ought to be.” We must find that power of leadership within ourselves.25
A careful exploration of the yogic teachings from which this not-so-new leadership paradigm has been borrowed would be beneficial to those interested in exploring the depth and breadth of what personal power and self-responsibility involves.
To the point, in Passage 70 Lao Tze explores the paradox that though his words seem easy to understand, following them is different story:
* Fear of Death *
Wisdom is Lao Tze’s antidote to the instinctive dread of death. Assuring us that merging with the Tao overcomes the illusion of mortality, in Passage 16 he illumines the apparent paradox that death cannot change the sage:
In Passage 21, we are told the that every ending is prelude to renewal:
Passage 33 reiterates this faith in the Eternal:
Lao Tze suggests that, to the sage, conscious life continues on, rooted in a reality larger than one’s individual lifetime. In Passage 54 we are told:
From the work on death and dying by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, we’ve learned that flat denial is often the earliest stage of coping with unwanted change — whether it be financial loss, lifestyle reversals, uprooting of relationships, death of a loved one, one’s own mortality, or the looming end of civilization as we know it.
Recognizing the creative opportunities inherent in every danger is a necessary first step in moving beyond denial towards awareness and acceptance.
Ignorant fear of death is identified in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a primary cause of human suffering. In Sutra 3 of Book II:
The causes of suffering are ignorance, egoism (illusion of separate identity), lust, hate and fearful clinging to life.26
A primary purpose of yoga practice is to overcome the root causes of unnecessary suffering. Patanjali identifies diligent study of scriptures as an antidote to ignorance and ardent, honest self-study as a primary step in decreasing, even preventing, further suffering.
Internalizing wisdom teachings which inform us regarding the nature of change — as well as that which never changes — is a powerful way to face and overcome natural fears.
According to the six-thousand year-old I Ching tradition upon which Lao Tze draws, endings imply new beginnings. Therefore, the finish of one stage is best used preparing for the one which follows next. Thus, Hexagram 64, Finish, the last of the 64 changes, reads:
This observation applies equally to personal, organizational and even planetary changes now in progress. Denying, resisting, succumbing to rage or even presuming to bargain with the inscrutable Tao is unwise and futile. A profound respect for and humble acceptance of nature’s ways is the common sense approach to the future most likely to bear positive fruit.
* Service *
The inseparable bond between teacher and student are, according to Lao Tze, woven into the fabric of nature, at the very core of life’s ultimate purpose. Passage 27 puts it this way:
Thus, Taoists hold that those attained in the ways of the Tao have a responsibility to teach and serve, that others may also attain the ultimate freedom of which Abe Lincoln’s liberating slaves of the South was only a first symbolic step.
Accordingly, Passage 22 describes the sage’s duty and reward:
Paradoxically, as Passage 52 suggests, unselfish service on this side is the sage’s way of earning safe entry into the far side of life eternal:
In keeping with this ancient tradition, the mythic Lao Tze earned his passage to the high mountains by first stopping to honor the gatekeeper’s request to record what he’d learned during his sojourn in the world for the benefit of those to come.
In this spirit, may the modest effort offered here prove helpful to its readers and pleasing to the powers that be.
P. E. West, Wisconsin, U.S.A., May, 2004