Notes on Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching
These notes are my reactions to Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching.

I am not a follower of the Tao, nor am I knowledgeable about it. I am no longer young, and have found my own way, though I still grope. I look at the Tao because it seems to contain some things which I have found to be valuable in my own life, and I hope to explain some things partly by reference to the Tao.

However, there are things in the Tao that get in the way for me. The first is the metaphysics. I look to the Tao for ideas about how to live and talk of the Tao as some mysterious thing doesn't work for me.
Also, for the Tao to reach us, over the millenia, it must have been institutionalised. When good ideas are taken up by institutions they cease to be a helpful small part of a life which is primarily devoted to other things, and become for some a raison d'être. Then it has to be made much more complicated, why else might one devote a life to it? It must become something which can only be understood by a lifetime of devotion at the feet of a master.
The elements I seek are those which we can take away at the beginning of our life, understanding incompletely, which will help us in finding our own way, and which we can come to understand better through living our life in their light. Better to learn from life than from a master.

Now I do expect, that if anyone who knows about Tao were to read this, they would say that I have thrown away most if the valuable bits, and then misrepresented the rest.

Well that's not a problem, this isn't an account of the Tao, its just some ideas which I have found to be valuable and which are suggested to me by the Tao Te Ching. They stand on their own merits.

Unfortunately this isn't likely to get very far, but we'll see.

I was thinking that, since the Tao Te Ching is about seven thousand words, and I don't care for the mysticism and the more religious elements, if I stripped it down I might have the bits that I do find interesting in three thousand words. But I already wrote maybe five hundred words of notes on the first paragraph, so I think my enterprise is hopeless.
It says at in the introduction to "Tao-te-Ching explained".
The casual reader will never unlock the mystery of his teaching but by bringing you "The Tao Te Ching Explained" we decipher for you, chapter by chapter, Laotse's cryptic code and teach you the books important life lessons.
I'd like them to explain to me why Lao-tzu would have written in a cryptic code something which can so easily be laid bare.

Here in this first paragraph we have three elements:

  • don't expect a complete understanding or a precise description of the way
  • go beyond desire (?)
  • paradox, complements, yin and yang

Some points about opposites arising from each other. An inference to the effortlessness of the master.
Paragraph 1

Here in this first paragraph we have three elements:

  • don't expect a complete understanding or a precise description of the way
  • go beyond desire (?)
  • paradox, complements, yin and yang


To much mystery is made of the mystery of the Tao. How many things do we fully understand?

And of those things we understand best, how many of these can we describe completely?

Naturally, a way of life will be incompletely understood and poorly described.


So the way of Tao involves stripping ourselves of desire? Well I can see how it may get in the way, and that we may see things more clearly if we can detach ourselves from it. But what nonsense to live a life without desire?

Well, here's an idea. When we desire, we anticipate realising the desire, we presume that without the desire this would not happen. This leads us to overreach. Instead, we should reach just far enough, be open to the realisation, allow it to happen. Supplant desire by an openness.

Better perhaps to desire without grasping.

In this we find the pervasive paradox, at every moment of insight, turn it over and find the sense in its opposite. We are to be true to ourselves, to "go with the flow", and hence not to suppress our desires, but rather to work through them. When we have worked through them, fully assimilated them, they no longer stretch us and make us grasp, but we remain ready and open.

He doesn't actually say that one should dispense with or go beyond desire. He says that if you are free from desire then you see the mystery of the Tao and otherwise you see only its manifestations.

But of course, one assumes that he is advocating the former.

It certainly seems to me that desire shapes our perception of reality. One is predisposed to believe that what we desire is attainable (and to abandon desire once convinced of the unrealisability of the goal).

Naming the Tao

Now this more brute paradox of whether the Tao has a name. This seems to me rather like not having a wholly satisfactory description. Lets take the view that for something to have a name, then not only do we need a word for it, but we need a word which has the right meaning. And just as we cannot describe the Tao, we cannot attach to any word a meaning which is quite the right one for the Tao. So this ultimately indescribable little bit of wisdom about life (I continue to distance myself from the metaphysics) cannot have a true name.

But we can do our best, we can chose a word, and we can mean by that word the closest to the Tao that we can actually comprehend.

Then we have two different conceptions of the Tao, the true Tao, which remains nameless, and the Tao which is the meaning of the name, which is not so good as the real thing. And hence the Tao named might be the mother of all things, and the other one is heaven and earth (which encompasses and surpasses the mother of all things).

Paragraph 2
Some points about opposites arising from each other. An inference to the effortlessness of the master.

When we perceive some things as good, we make other things bad.

Presumably this doesn't mean that our perception changes the world for the worse, but that the one perception determined the other (and perhaps that there is no underlying objective reality).

Perhaps also this, that we chose to perceive some things as good, and that we then think of as bad (or as not good) those things which we did not arbitrarily determine to be good.

This I see. I know many whose approach to enjoying life seems to be to do lots of things and to regard them all as good. That other things are not good, is simply what it takes for them to be living the good life.


Not labelled as effortlessness, but it seems the ultimate in that direction. Not just that the master does not need to strain himself to achieve, but that he doesn't need to act at all, it just happens.

And how does this follow from the observations about opposites? (I can't see the connection)

The Master

Why is Tao presented as descriptions of "the master"? The implication that there is one supreme way to be, and we should all aspire to be that way. This seems to me to be one of the by-products of institutionalisation. In order for the Tao to be handed down there have to be teachers. For there to be teachers there must be pupils (or apprentices, followers, disciples, whatever), and in order for there to be pupils the Tao must say that the leaders have knowledge which is all important and which can only be obtained through an extended apprenticeship. So a philosophy which was antagonistic to the consequences of institutionalisation could not survive for us to read it, the mechanisms which secure survival inevitably corrupt.

Paragraph 3

Ah, recognition of dangers of over-esteem. No sign that Lao Tzu was thinking of "the master" here.

I don't really get this paragraph, I have yet to find a reading which I can agree with. The general "go with the flow" is of course a convenient doctrine for authoritarian rulers, since it can easily be read as speaking against rebelliousness. In this the Tao seems at one with western religions, the opium of the masses, doctrines to secure the resignation of ordinary people to their humble place in the order of things.

However, it looks to me like only the first section, in which over-esteem is deprecated, is intended for autocrats, the second part is for sages who are leading their disciples. Still, the no-action idea unless comprehended with its contrary, may be even more effective in securing quiescence if it comes from a sage.

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