Reflections on Tao Te Ching

A daily exercise, reading and reacting to several translations of randomly selected verses from the Tao. Starting on January 1, 2021. I’ll be adding a verse each day to this post until March 22, give or take.



In one translation, Hogan says use all you want; there is more than we’ll ever need. In another, Star says it is empty, yet fills every vessel. Hidden, but it fills every corner.

Evocative, to say the least. Also to say the most, which I guess is the point. 

One thing all the translations I have looked at make clear from the beginning:  Don’t try to pin it down. If you can define it, you’re leaving something out. I find that at once refreshing, frustrating, and liberating. 

Celebrate the mystery. You might as well. 


In Hogan’s translation, he says don’t worry about the score, just do what you have to do. Star’s translation says honor is founded on disgrace and disgrace is rooted in honor, so both should be avoided. 

Fame and misfortune are both fleeting and depend on other people, who are doubtless wrestling their own demons and so are hardly objective. Making the opinion of others the measure of my worth is a snare I find myself in over and over. You would think that having to disentangle myself would teach me a lesson, but evidently I need to learn some things more than once.


If one has lost the Way, there is still integrity. If that is lost, there is kindness. If kindness is lost, there is still justice. If justice is lost, all that is left is rules of conduct. 

We spend much of our time, energy, and resources creating, codifying, and enforcing rules of conduct, which in this list is set as the lowest bar. It’s the most easily quantified, so there is that advantage.

In Star’s translation, he says that when men rely on rules for guidance, ignorance abounds. 

Maybe following the rules is the least we can do. 


Star’s translation says that if you need rules to be kind and just, if you “act” virtuous, this is a sure sign that virtue is absent.

MacDonald says that talk of patriotism is a sure sign that the country is falling into chaos. The same theme shows up in all four translations, whether the example is country or family. Talking about it, labeling it, be it patriotism or family loyalty, is seen as a substitute for the real thing. 

The teenagers I used to work with who were truly dangerous individuals never talked about it. And everyone knew they were the real thing. Those guys knew that if you had it there was no reason to advertise it.

Just do the right thing, the kind thing, the just thing. Don’t talk about it or make rules about it. 


In their translations, Hogan says the greatest beauty is invisible, and Mitchell says that the greatest art seems unsophisticated. What at first glance seems contradictory is apparently a glimpse into the great unknown.

Star’s translation says that Tao is always becoming what we have need for it to become. If it couldn’t do this, it would not be Tao.

I find myself hearing that last bit as both mystifying and reassuring – another seeming contradiction. I’m not sure whether I need to look deeper into that or just roll with it, although I’m leaning toward the latter.


In Mitchell’s translation, it says that when the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals the lower the results. Watching the strength of the addictive nature of power play out in real time is very difficult, though not surprising. The lure of power may be the most potent drug there is.

Star’s translation says that good fortune hides within bad fortune. In light of today’s events, I hope that good fortune comes out of hiding. For me and for many people I know, a touch of good fortune would be most welcome. It’s something to hang on to, even though the Tao isn’t much in favor of hanging on to anything.

It’s funny; this exercise was supposed to be a respite from the day-to-day, an exploration of more universal themes. Today’s randomly selected verse was so clearly aligned with the unfolding events as to make the thought of respite irrelevant.


Get rid of sanctity and morality, Hogan’s translation says. His reading, like the others, points to the basic goodness of people. We all know, on some level, what is right and good and moral, and those who take it upon themselves to instruct us in those things more often than not just get in the way. We have a harder time rediscovering love on our own, which is the only true way to get to it, if someone is whispering in our ear or shouting from a platform about what it’s supposed to look like and sound like and feel like. The teens I once worked with were barely functional (much less successful) in “normal” environments, frequently crashing into one set of rules or another. Almost without exception, though, when the situation was genuinely important they not only knew what was necessary and right, they did it without instruction or argument. Remarkable, really.

Also from Hogan: Do your work as best you can. Don’t think about what you get for it. Stay focused.

Just stay at the center of the circle, says Mitchell. On my good days I have a sense of where the center is, and on my better days I can spend some time there.


Star’s translation says give without conditions and people will prosper. The singer Dolly Parton gives in large measure on a regular basis, from books for children to fire relief to medical research, and undoubtedly much more that we don’t know about. She doesn’t lack for money as a result of this, and is seen as a shining light not only by those touched directly by her giving, but by those who hear about it and are similarly inspired. There is a saying in the Christian tradition: Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return a hundredfold. There are many real-life examples of the value and rightness of giving without strings attached.

Hogan says a wise leader keeps quiet and people do the right thing on their own.

Mitchell:  If you want to be a great leader, stop trying to control.

We don’t need leaders to tell us what’s good. Most folks are doing their best, frequently in difficult circumstances. Changing the world a little bit at a time. We could let ourselves recognize and celebrate that more often, and help it grow and spread. Casting our bread, so to speak.


Star:  Wealth is the fruit of generosity.

Possession for its own sake leads to misery; the more you have, the more you have to lose, and the harder you have to work to protect your pile of stuff. Accumulating beyond what it takes to sustain is a burden we not only accept but ask for, sacrifice for, believe will bring happiness and security. This is false. Being generous creates the kind of wealth that cannot be stolen and does not need to be guarded, because it cannot be measured or possessed, only experienced.

Mitchell:  When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.


Hogan:  Doing the right thing is like water. It’s good for all living things and flows without thinking where it’s going.

It’s that last part that struck home on this reading. It is difficult to act without an agenda, whether open or hidden, but if we can do the right thing without worrying about whether it ripples out or stays close, damages or enhances our reputation, gets us blame or credit, inspires others or goes unnoticed, then it’s more genuine. There are so many unintended consequences in this life that trying to figure out all the ramifications of our actions is fruitless, and, more importantly, misses the point. Star, in his translation, said when acting we should remember that timing is everything. I’ve heard that’s true of comedy. It only makes sense that it’s also true in a larger context.


Star:  We recognize beauty because there is ugliness, virtue because of sin.

Things exist together; difficult and easy, high and low, life and death. Seeing that the existence of one depends on the existence of its opposite runs counter to wishful thinking of all types, and means, among other things, that as long as there are kind people there will also be unkind, as long as there are privileged there will be those without privilege, and so on. Terms that assign value exist only and always because their opposite also exists. I think one thing we can understand from this is that we don’t give in order to achieve a certain end or receive something in return; rather, we give because we have something available to us that we can give. Later, we will be in a position to receive. We experience joy knowing that sorrow will certainly come to us, and experience sorrow knowing that joy is its companion and will show up in due course. Whatever we are experiencing, it won’t last.

Gia-Fu Feng:  Creating, yet not possessing. Working, yet not taking credit. Work is done, then forgotten.

Do the job, and move on to the next one. Let the thing that is leaving, leave. A skill I’m still trying to master.


Hogan: Don’t spend too much time thinking about stupid shit. Why should you care about things that worry others?

Watching other people rush around, appearing to have goals and purposes, can make us feel like guests, like we don’t belong in this world. There is an advantage, though, in having that kind of vantage point. The wind and waves only appear to be aimless; they have direction and intention, it’s just not obvious from our viewpoint. Getting tied to things or places makes some things difficult to see. It doesn’t mean they’re not there. Being adrift on the sea of faith, for example, opens us up to truths from multiple perspectives.

Star:  Should I fear darkness when that light is shining everywhere? Nonsense!


Star:  Tao is eternal; it brings all things to completion without their even knowing it.

McDonald: Because it doesn’t seek greatness, it is able to accomplish great things.

It’s certainly the case that often the person out in front who is receiving all the attention is not the person who is actually getting the job done. Those who shun the spotlight are sometimes the ones who deserve the most credit. Without them, the people seeking the spotlight would have no accomplishments to display. The invisible ones are the key to much that is done for the benefit of us all. In the current pandemic sweeping the globe, those previously invisible are lauded as heroes, when by and large, they are all just doing their job. More difficult and dangerous due to the virus, but they’ve kept things running for a long time without being noticed. The fact that they do their work with no fanfare, no public recognition, is a measure of how great they truly are.


McDonald: Know the honorable, but do not shun the disgraced; embrace the world as it is.

Recognizing both light and dark, honorable and disgraced, idealism and reality, allows us to glimpse the whole world. Several of the translations refer to the Uncarved Block, reality before it is divided into “useful” tools. The Uncarved Block carries limitless possibilities. Detaching pieces of it means you have something useful, but imposes limitations on what you can see and experience. Quite a high price, if you think about it that way.

Star: When the opposing forces unite within, there comes a power abundant in its giving, unerring in its effect, flowing through everything.

Mitchell: If you accept the world, the Tao will be luminous inside you.


Star: No greater curse than desire; no greater fault than selfishness

Much of our time is spent trying to satisfy desires of one kind or another. The structure of our society has encouraged a competition among us to accumulate more, larger, “better” stuff and more elaborate experiences. Many of us buy into this world view, which leads to envy, selfishness, desire, and a host of other ills we carry with us as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Laying aside all desires is certainly out of reach for most, including me. I have luxuries it would be difficult for me to leave behind. It doesn’t follow that I shouldn’t, but the act of leaving them behind also means a setting aside of the desire to immediately replace them with something else equally unnecessary. A life without desire is frightening to contemplate.

Mitchell: There is no greater illusion than fear.


Star: A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.

Hogan: If you are rigid and unyielding you might as well be dead. 

The young people I worked with some years ago would frequently back themselves into a corner by being stubborn. A sometimes dangerous and always unfortunate situation resulted when the staff who were charged with caring for and working with these teenagers behaved in a similar fashion. 

Many times conflicts between individuals or groups reach an impasse when both sides take the position that they will change as soon as the other side does. This rigidity makes compromise impossible and a solution elusive.

Pierre, a man we hired to fell some trees close to our house, once told me, “Never climb a tree that won’t bend.”


Star: Now if one is fearless but has no love, abundant but has no moderation, rises up but has no humility, surely he is doomed.

Hogan: If you want to get ahead, show people compassion. It’s the most powerful force in the universe.

Compassion for those we like and respect is easy; for those outside that circle, not so much. It helps me to remember that just because I think I know the reasons someone is acting or believing in a certain way, that doesn’t make it so. People are much richer, deeper, and more complex than we think they are, and the same thing is true of ourselves. Taking an honest look inward (or at least as honest as we can manage) can help foster compassion for self, which makes compassion for others possible, if not always easy.

Star: Love vanquishes all attackers.


Star: Be tranquil like the rain of spring.

Hogan: If you stay calm, the world will sort itself out around you.

Staying calm is a rare and precious skill in any circumstance, and especially so in difficult times, when the cacophony of voices around us are insisting that we do the opposite. I have read that we are hard-wired to pay more attention to signals that indicate danger than those which indicate the lack of danger. If true, knowing that about people impacts news programs, magazine editorial content, political campaigns, deciding which verses to use as the basis for next Sunday’s sermon, and so on. Telling us we must not remain calm is good sales technique, but believing it is a poor approach to long-term health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual.

Mitchell: The Master allows things to happen. She steps out of the way and lets the Tao speak for itself.

The fact that Mitchell translates the Master as female in this verse is refreshing, to say the least.


Hogan says that verse 42 boils down to “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

Reap what you sow, cast your bread on the water and it will return to you a hundredfold, sow the wind and reap the whirlwind, what goes around comes around, instant karma’s gonna get you, the list goes on. Almost everyone is familiar with this lesson from the Tao. It is remarkable how many folks think they are exempt from this basic law of human interaction. There is always give and take, and we can’t opt out of that basic truth. The interplay of yin and yang fills the universe, says Star, who goes on to say:

Only at the still point, between the breathing in and the breathing out, can one capture perfect harmony.


The presence of Tao doesn’t mean that evil ceases to exist, only that it loses its power.

Certainly a different way to consider what to do about the existence of evil in the world; the conventional wisdom, and the mantra used in many cases to encourage a group’s willingness to fight, is that evil must be eradicated. Acceptance of the requirement that if there is good there must by definition also be evil and that, rather than eliminating it, we should act in a way that robs it of its power turns the whole concept on its head. This might be a good and necessary thing to do.

Star: It’s not that they (dark spirits) have no power, it’s that their power can’t harm anyone.


Star says that Tao is everywhere; to see it in a person, see it as a person. In a family, see it as a family. In the world, see it as the world.

A while back our minister told the story of a Sufi mystic who was talking to someone who told him he saw God in everything he looked at: trees, flowers, people, and so on. The Sufi’s reply? “I never see anything but God.” 

I find it comforting to think that Tao is everywhere, around us and in us, ready for us to choose to recognize its presence. That it dwells in the realm beyond language doesn’t make it inaccessible, just impossible to pin down or categorize.

Mitchell: Let the Tao be present in your life and you will become genuine. Let it be present in the universe, and the universe will sing.


Mitchell: We work with being, but non-being is what we use.

In our modern day quest for information and stimulus we risk losing appreciation of silence, emptiness, the pause between phrases. Two people who know and respect each other can sit in silence without distress. Silence in a piece of music helps us appreciate what led up to it, and the player’s decision about how long to hold the silence says as much as the notes that precede or follow it. The space between trees that allows a view of the mountain beyond or the river’s path leading away is as necessary as any other component but usually goes unnoticed unless it is so vast that it dominates (like the Grand Canyon). While the examples in this verse are physical – the hollow in the cup, the hole at the center of the wheel, the space inside a room – I thought immediately of music and poetry. In the practice of Tai Chi the twinned concepts of full and empty speak to the same idea.

Gia-Fu Feng:  Benefit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.

Star: When a thing has existence alone, it is mere dead weight.


Mitchell: When they think that they know the answers, people ae difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way.

One of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Church is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are more interested in questions than answers, and so as a rule do not dictate a view or explanation to be accepted and followed by all. The thing that keeps it from being a “believe whatever you want” approach is the word responsible. The expectation is that having a theology includes doing the work to make sure it is honest and coherent; nobody checks your work, but the belief is that honesty and coherence leads to a fuller, richer life in all its aspects. More than a little Taoism in there.

Star says that at every moment Te (energy, vitality) seeks Tao (the Way). This is the impulse that leads all things back home.


Star:  The most yielding thing in the world will overcome the most rigid.

Think water wearing away stone, or a seed lodged in a rock crevice that germinates and eventually splits the rock in two. Or Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and the destruction of the giant statue by wind and weathering. Use of force is a blunt instrument, effective in the short term but clumsy and unsustainable.

Star again: Rare indeed are those who are still. Rare indeed are those who are silent.


Star:  Tao is the great wealth of those who are awake, the great protector of those still sleeping. 

The Way is there, waiting for us to come around, waiting for us to recognize it. There is no punishment meted out to those who don’t get it; we all fail to get it at one time or another. If we are dealing with someone wicked, we should continue to be the person we are and not change in reaction to their deeds; we should show them our deeds instead. If Tao is protecting them, then who are we to sit in judgment? If we are right with Tao, as Hogan puts it, we are wealthy. It would be a mistake to turn away from that. Better to share it with those who are able to accept it, and be patient with those who aren’t.

Star again: Within, within. This is where the world’s treasure has always been.


Hogan: When you have nothing to say, you may as well keep your mouth shut.

Open yourself, Mitchell says. To use insight fully, we must open ourselves to it. With loss, to be open to it allows us to experience it fully. 

The only way to move on from something, whether good or bad, is to go ahead and experience it. Hanging on to good times, we run the risk of self-parody as well as missing out on the present. Hanging on to bad times only means that we experience the negative again and again while the present is continually reinventing itself all around us. We should let things be what they are and not try to force them into sticking around after they’re done.

Mitchell: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place.


Gia-Fu Feng: Knowing ignorance is strength. Ignoring knowledge is sickness.

The contrast is not between strength and weakness, but between strength and sickness. The Tao does not advocate the pursuit of knowledge in order to demonstrate cleverness or superiority, but it does say that if you don’t know the things that need to be known, the results will be terrible. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which says that people who know the least are the most self-assured and confident of their knowledge, has led people, some in positions of great responsibility, to produce all manner of disastrous results.

McDonald says that only by recognizing that you have an illness can you move to seek a cure. The idea promoted in recovery groups that you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired has ancient roots, as it turns out. 


Gia-Fu Feng says that self-righteousness, boasting, bragging are unnecessary luggage and do not bring happiness.

Trying to consider what value Lao-Tsu, or Jesus, or any of the great teachers would find in social media as it exists today is an interesting thought experiment. For that matter if, as Star says in his translation, self-promoting is something that must be left behind, there is much more in our daily lives than just social media that needs examination. 

 Mitchell: To be in accord with Tao, just do your job, then let go.


Hogan says, This is how Tao works: It doesn’t push itself, and it always succeeds. It can’t be rushed; it’s always on time.

Bravery mixed with passion will get you killed; bravery mixed with calm preserves life. 

Good fortune and bad fortune both tether men to this world, in Star’s translation. The best course of action is to be, as much as possible, in harmony with Tao and not worry about future outcomes or grand plans. These things are unknowable anyway, so dwelling on them gains nothing.


Mitchell says that all streams flow to the sea because it is lower; humility gives it power.

Hogan: If you want to teach people, don’t talk down to them. If you want to lead them, find out where they want to go.

In my career I worked with teens in treatment centers and alternative schools, and most of them had been talked down to for so long they assumed I would too. It took a while to get past that, but no teaching was possible through that barrier. Convincing those young people that I was not only able, but willing, to treat them with respect opened more doors than anything else I did.

Also Mitchell, speaking of the Master: because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her. It takes two to make a contest of any kind, whether it’s to accomplish something or to win an argument. Refusal to compete is a great source of power, even though it is seldom seen in that way.


Serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. Mother of the Universe. For lack of a better name, I call it Tao.

Like Mitchell’s translation above, the other translations I have at hand all say that this source, this way, is beyond language. Tao is the name they give it, but they all acknowledge the inadequacy of spoken or written language in the face of it. 

I find this recognition that the most important stuff is beyond naming very comforting.

Mitchell says that humanity follows the earth. Earth follows the universe. The universe follows the Tao. The Tao follows only itself.


Star says those who know do not talk and those who talk do not know.

Hogan: If you get right with Tao, you won’t be worried about praise or scorn, about winning or losing, about honor or disgrace. That’s the way to be.

When I think about how much of everyday life is centered around these dichotomies it emphasizes how difficult it would be to step away from all of it. Likes on social media, reviews on books I’ve written, competitions of all kinds requiring a winner and a loser, the emphasis on reputation, all of this stands in opposition to Tao. It all comes down to desire, of course, which is the major impediment to embracing Tao.


Hogan: People waste time and energy trying to be strong or beautiful, and their strength and beauty fade. They’ve lost touch with Tao.

The pressure to become and remain strong and beautiful is relentless, and thus we lose the wisdom and perspective of the old among us. Fighting the natural order of birth, growth, maturity, and death, trying to hold on to a phase of life that is slipping farther and farther away, is not only misguided but fruitless. We could celebrate the important perspective that comes from having seen life from multiple points of view. Disregarding that robs us of the present, which is all there really is.

Star: A full life — this is your blessing. A gentle heart — this is your strength.


Star: The best warrior fights without anger. He puts himself below and brings out the highest in his men.

McDonald: The best leaders become servants of their people.

Having been raised in the Christian tradition, when I read this verse I immediately thought of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. There is both power and value in humility and modesty, a lesson that has to be relearned over and over again. Leaders who make themselves the focus instead of the goal make everyone’s job more difficult and confusing. They also carve a path that does not lead to attainment of the goal, whatever it is. It leads instead to their feet, and then there is nowhere else to go.


From Star’s translation:   . . . to Heaven and Earth all are the same; the high, the low, the great, the small — all are given light, all get a place to rest.

Mitchell goes on to say the Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners.

It is we who divide people into acceptable and unacceptable. The Tao makes no such distinction. All are the same for Tao. According to Hogan, if you keep using Tao, it works better. Mitchell says the more you talk about it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.


Mitchell: Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Gia-Fu Feng says that mastering others requires force; mastering the self needs strength.

It is very easy (and very common) to confuse force with strength. Force always implies movement, while strength can be still. Sturdy, a friend of mine once called it. “Not everyone can be forceful,” she said. “We can all be sturdy.” Maybe she was a Taoist. I never thought to ask.

McDonald says that those who know they have enough are truly wealthy. Again, stillness. There is no need to run around chasing after stuff; be content with what you have and you will be rich.

Just take a moment and consider how wealthy you actually are. Not possession wealth. The other kind. The enduring kind. The kind you have to be still to notice.


Star: Let them be content in their homes and joyful in the way they live.

Lao Tzu is thinking about, dreaming about, a small village and an unhurried life. In his village, machinery to speed things up would go unused, and weapons would remain in storage, out of sight. I wonder what he would make of the level of frenetic activity that characterizes much of our lives, and our pride in the quantity and ferocity of our armaments.

Mitchell: People enjoy their food, take pleasure in being with their families, delight in the doings of the neighborhood. 

Star again: The people must take death seriously and not waste their lives in distant lands.

Home, family, community. These are the important things.


Confront the difficult while it is still easy, says Mitchell in his translation.

Hogan: Get the job done before it becomes a chore.

In Star’s translation, he says: Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way for much ease brings many difficulties.

In today’s world, and my guess is also in the times that came before, the lure of the quick and easy way is so seductive as to be almost impossible to resist. Accepting that things, especially great things, have an element of difficulty in them and confronting this head on instead of trying to sidestep it is, again from Star, the sure way to end up with no difficulties at all


Learn how to stand still if you want to go places.

You can go far if you don’t have anything to carry.

These are both from Hogan’s translation of verse 22. It’s hard to imagine laying down all the stuff I carry. The notion is very attractive but seems impossible, and I think that’s because much of my self-definition is bound up in the baggage I’m carrying around. Not a particularly good thing to admit, but as I typed it there was the ring of truth in the words, and I knew I was on to something. 

The question that naturally arises is, after we lay down our baggage, our burdens, all the false shame and false pride, the minimizations and exaggerations and outright lies we have been telling ourselves, what then?

As Mitchell’s translation says, if you want to become full, let yourself be empty.


In his translation Star talks about women in colorful gowns, men carrying well-crafted swords, and overflowing food and drink, while the fields grow barren and the granaries are empty.

The lure of material wealth is a strong addiction in our society, as it has been for others in the past. “The one with the most toys wins” is a point of view shared by all too many. There are those among us who could not possibly use their wealth in a dozen lifetimes and continue to accumulate more and more. The fact that when one of them gives back in some significant way it is big news is an indicator of how prevalent greed is. Star says it’s like thieves boasting after a looting and is contrary to Tao.

Hogan puts it a little more bluntly: They’re nothing but gangsters and crooks, he says. That’s not what Tao’s about.


In Star’s translation, Lao Tzu says his teachings are easy to understand and to practice, but those who follow his ways are rare.

For me the interesting thing about this verse is that Lao Tzu doesn’t speak of people following him. He is not important; the teachings are. The ego trap is so deadly and seductive that a person leading a movement has to take care not to make himself or herself the focus. I’m reminded of the old civil rights slogan, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” 

From Star again: Those who follow my ways . . . . even if they wear the clothes of a beggar they carry a priceless gem within.


Hogan says to be light on your feet, you need a steady mind. If your body is active, your mind should be relaxed.

There is a concept in Taoist Tai Chi: Equal and opposite. Intention in one direction by the left hand is balanced by intention in the other direction by the right. If you’re reaching up, you should also be reaching down. And so on.

The notion of equal and opposite, of balance, of light and dark, is a recurrent theme in the Tao Te Ching. Hogan’s translation sees this, as does McDonald’s:

Heaviness is the basis of lightness. Stillness is the standard of activity.

Balance, balance.


Mitchell; What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.

In Star’s translation, he says giving and receiving are one. This is called the very heart of all that is true.

I think this is a beautiful way to look at both giving and receiving; recognizing that they are one, that they always and only co-exist not only makes either one easier, but shows them both to be the obvious thing to do, the very heart.


Hogan: Create something without holding on to it. Do the work without expecting credit for it. That’s the secret.

Holding on and expecting credit are deeply woven into the fabric of our society. To operate without doing either would be a challenging way to live, but I can see the possibility of liberation there. Much of the Tao Te Ching involves deciding to lay aside the things that bind you, whether they are material things or not. A person such as myself, raised and steeped in Western tradition and values, could see this as a rejection of a lifetime of teachings. Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s a recognition of the lack of importance of possession.

Every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao.


Hogan: Tao doesn’t have a name. Names are for ordinary things.

Stop wanting stuff; it keeps you from seeing what’s real. When you want stuff, all you see are things. Those two sentences mean the same thing. Figure them out, and you’ve got it made.

The first time I read the Tao Te Ching and it began by saying the name that can be named is not the Name, I knew I was on to something. I’ve believed for a long time that there are things that are beyond language, and to see that same thesis as the starting point of one of the most well-known spiritual works around was thrilling. I’m still working on what ripples out from that spiritual framework. It’s rich and layered and, Lao Tzu would probably say, simple in the extreme.

McDonald: Mystery and reality emerge from the same source. 


Mitchell: Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?

Patience is seldom extolled as a virtue; the addiction to immediate action, right or wrong, is powerful. Those who act are seen as perceptive, strong leaders, even when their actions turn out to be wrong or even dangerous. A delay in acting can, however, lead to better, more consequential results.

Star says the masters, mysterious and profound, are deliberate as one crossing a mountain stream, watchful as one surrounded by danger, reverent as if receiving an honored guest, selfless like a melting block of ice, pure as uncarved wood, accepting as an open valley. 

Such rich imagery.


Star: If one doesn’t trust himself, how can he trust anyone else?

The basis of how we feel about others lies in how we feel about ourselves. This shows up in other religions as well; Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and there is a version of the Golden Rule in almost every religious practice. A song occasionally sung by the choir at the church I attend is based on these readings, and is a powerful piece of music. When I think of the admonition, “love your neighbor as yourself,” my first thought is that’s exactly what we all do to a greater or lesser degree. If we feel anger or contempt toward others, it’s a safe bet that we also feel that way about ourselves. Love and acceptance of self is a first step, easier for some than others.

Hogan: When a Master takes charge, hardly anybody notices.

This is the opposite of ego-driven leadership.


The last verse in the Tao Te Ching.

Star: Those who have virtue do not look for faults. Those who look for faults have no virtue.

Criticism and fault-finding is all the rage right now, and counter to the central message of Tao. Finding fault with self, other individuals, and groups is common and makes for attention-grabbing headlines in the various types of media, but has no power to move us forward, no guidance for those of us seeking a better way of doing and seeing. 

Kindness and generosity are key. Star again, speaking of the Sage: By giving to others he gains more and more. By serving others he receives everything.

All things go as Tao goes; all things move as the wind blows


McDonald: If you want something to return to the source, you must first allow it to spread out.

Travelers on a spiritual path sometimes see interesting possibilities off to one side or another. A path that refuses the possibility of exploration or questioning runs the risk of losing travelers it otherwise would not. 

Star: The gentle outlast the strong; the obscure outlast the obvious.

Acceptance of obscurity means, among other things, that no energy is wasted on maintaining a public face, and no concern for ego has a chance to interfere with the task at hand.


McDonald: To understand the small is called clarity.

It isn’t easy to allow ourselves to see the small, apparently inconsequential things and events swirling around us. Slowing down, taking a real breath, allowing things to reveal themselves, is the only way. This kind of thing can’t be forced.

Hogan: It takes insight to see subtlety. It takes strength to yield gently to force.

Star: Only the inner light . . . can guide us back home.


From Star’s translation: The treasure of life is missed by those who hold on and gained by those who let go.

It’s easy to find this truth in other spiritual teachings; the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle comes immediately to mind, as does the Buddha’s caution against desire. I wonder if Lao Tzu meant this in a broader sense, encompassing all the non-material things that possess us: reputation, desire for recognition, and so on, although the surface reading of the verse has more to do with government and its tendency to meddle in people’s lives.


Weapons are the bearers of bad news, says McDonald’s translation, and all people should detest them.

Calling them bearers of bad news seems to be quite an understatement. My limited experience with a weapon being used has become a marker in my life. The phrase bad news doesn’t begin to cover it.

Hogan’s take is more forceful: Weapons are terrible things. If you want to get right with Tao, reject weapons.

He goes on to say that the Master recognizes what he has in common with his enemies and tries to avoid conflict. I am reminded of the words of a mystic who, when asked how we should treat others, replied that there are no others.

Star: One who is proud of victory and delights in the misfortune of others will never gain a thing in this world.


Star: Don’t limit the view of yourself. Don’t despise the conditions of your birth.

Many of the young people I worked with during my career were self-limiting to an extreme level. I believe that most people, certainly myself as one example, impose limits on themselves that are unnecessarily harsh. While it’s not true that one can be whatever one wants (there are physical limits, age limits, etc.) it is the case that we sell ourselves and each other short on a regular basis. 

McDonald: The Master knows herself but is not arrogant. She loves herself but also loves others.


Hogan: Every act of violence backfires.

In my own experience, Adkisson, whose purpose was to break the church if not destroy it completely, succeeded only in making it stronger and drawing the rest of the community into a web of support. Oppressive regimes do not generally eliminate the opposition, merely drive it underground, where it becomes more agile and dangerous than before.

McDonald: When the battle is over arrogance is the new enemy.

Victors who think they have won something do not take into account that every push results in a push back, whether immediate or delayed, and succumbing to arrogance makes seeing that next to impossible.

Mitchell: The Master .. . understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.

Star:  A knower of Truth does what is called for and then stops.


Star: All things are born of the existent world. The existent world is born of the nothingness of Tao.

I have to confess, this one baffles me. Unless it’s reminding us of the essential mystery of Tao and the futility of trying to understand it as we understand the world, I’ve got nothing. 

Maybe that’s the point.


Mitchell: Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?

Our minister once told the story of a Sufi who was talking with someone who said, “I see God in everything.” To which the Sufi replied, “I never see anything but God.”

McDonald: When Heaven gives and takes away, can you be content with the outcome?

Those who pray, asking for intercession or drawing attention to themselves, demonstrate their lack of contentment for all to hear. Meister Eckart once said that if the only prayer one ever said was, “Thank you,” it would be enough.

Star: As your wisdom reaches the four corners of the world, can you keep the innocence of the beginner?

In the Christian tradition, one of the main goals is to become as little children.

There is much more commonality among the great teachings than is generally pointed out.


Mitchell: When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.

We come from nothing and return to nothing. Tao arises from nothing to encompass everything. Becoming one with Tao opens us to seeing the great dance of everything, from nothing to flourishing to nothing again. Tao is the constant.

Star: Be still. Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.


Intangible and evasive.

Verse 21 says the greatest virtue comes from following the Tao, even though it’s intangible and evasive. Or maybe because it’s that.

Star: From the first moment to the present, the Name has been sounding. It is the gate through which the universe enters.

He asks rhetorically how he could come to know this, and replies that the very Name has told him, the one that is sounding here and now.



Mitchell: Those who are good the Master treats as good. Those who aren’t good she also treats as good. She trusts people who are trustworthy and also people who are not.

Evidently we should treat people in a way that reflects who we are, not who they are.


McDonald: The highest good is not to seek to do good, but to allow yourself to become it.

Don’t try to make it happen. Allow it to happen.

Star; Where there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within . . .

Our conscience, the still small voice, our moral compass, all are heard only if we shut up and listen.


Hogan: If people’s lives suck, and they look forward to death, what good does it do  to threaten to kill them?

Often a gang member from an inner city in the US will be quoted as saying he doesn’t expect to make it to 30, or 25, or some other arbitrary number. Likewise, the teens I worked with in treatment centers saw little joy and fulfillment in either their present circumstance or anywhere in their future. 

With that world outlook, what punishment can authorities hold over them that would be meaningful enough to persuade them to change?

A young person who has had the hope crushed out of them by whatever means is a sad commentary on our society, and a very difficult student. The most heartbreaking aspect is that they do not see the other side of the coin, that having no fear of death can be a liberation.

Mitchell: If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.


Mitchell: Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.

I have spent much of my life as a prisoner, then, and have some personal understanding of how difficult it is to break out. The fact that it’s a prison of my own construction doesn’t make escape any easier. Quite the opposite.

Star: Complete the task at hand; be selfless in your actions.

This is the way of heaven. This is the way to heaven.


Gia-Fu Feng: (Tao) cannot be seen, it cannot be heard, and yet it cannot be exhausted.

Most people look for deeper meaning than is obvious, whether through Christianity, one of the other major religions, or more secular pursuits. There is a need to believe that there is more than meets the eye. There is comfort and the possibility of renewal there.

Star: Let the world pass as it may.


Star:  I hear that one who lives by his own truth is not like this

He walks without making footprints in this world

He dwells in that place where death cannot enter

Living by our own truth means first that we discover what that truth is. Not an insignificant endeavor, that. At best I feel that I have seen glimpses of truth, and that is not insignificant, either. Maybe that’s how truth arrives – in glimpses.

Mitchell: He holds back nothing from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.


Star: The farther one goes, the less one knows.

Mitchell: Without opening your door, you can open your heart to the world.

There is no value in going from place to place looking for answers, seeking wisdom. All that is within us already.

Mitchell again: The more you know, the less you understand.


Hogan: When you defend yourself without any show of force, you give your opponent nothing to fight.

When two forces oppose each other, the winner is the one most reluctant to fight.

Again I think of the teens I used to work with, how the truly dangerous among them never bothered advertising the fact, and never picked a fight. It meant, among other things, that the most dangerous were also the most peaceful. 

The point of this verse is different, of course. Lao Tzu does not call on us to be dangerous, only to fight with reluctance when necessary, and to only fight when there is no option.

Mitchell says in his translation that the victory will go to the one who knows how to yield.


Mitchell: A great man thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.

This strikes me as one of the fundamental teachings of Lao Tzu; fact that good and evil, low and high, light and dark, always coexist, whether it’s in the nation or in the person, is a basic in Taoism. Rather than deny it, it is best to recognize it. To deny it is to deny reality.

Hogan: Power flows down to every level of existence like a river to the ocean. 

If you want to get ahead, lay low and bide your time.

Again, as in other verses, the admonition is against self-promotion. Do your job. Just do that.


Hogan: Be strong, but pay no attention to hollow praise. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t make a scene.

McDonald: the great view the small as their source, and the high takes the low as their foundation. Their greatest asset becomes their humility.

One of the most common traps I warned educators about when I was doing staff training was the trap of ego. Thinking the conflict was about them personally and that therefore they had to “win” it caused many problems and made the situation, whatever it was, more difficult to resolve.

Stepping back, making it about the solution instead of the individuals and who carries the blame, is the quickest route to resolution.

Star: What honor can there be without humility?


Mitchell: Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame.

There is also no end to the blame for someone who always blames themselves. This habit creates a spiral that is almost impossible to escape from, and can lead to self-loathing.

Star: One with true virtue always seeks a way to give. One who lacks true virtue always seeks a way to get.

To do battle against the drumbeat of a consumer society that says, over and over, that getting is good, is a worthy endeavor and takes much strength and courage.


McDonald: Too much wealth causes crime.

Hogan: Desire messes with your heart. The world messes with your mind.

Desire is a natural feeling exacerbated by the tendency, also natural, to compare our lot in life to that of others. No matter who we are or how wealthy we are in material things, there is always someone who has more, or has something that exists as a singular unit and thus can’t belong to more than one person. Desire, envy, jealousy, all tear at the heart and stand in the way of peace.

Star: He holds to what is deep and not what lies on the surface.


Probably the most quoted passage from the Tao Te Ching. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

There’s a lot more here besides that: 

Give as much care to the end as to the beginning.

Prevent trouble before it arises.

The Master simply reminds people of who they have always been. He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things.


McDonald: Tao is nameless. 

Naming is necessary for order, but naming can not order all things. Knowing when to stop naming, you can avoid the pitfalls it brings.

The drive to attach names to things is very strong; the difficulty arises when it is assumed that because you have named something you have explained it. I think this is what is meant by knowing when to stop naming so that pitfalls can be avoided. Star says in his translation that every word can become a trap. Recognition that the Tao is beyond names and explanations sidesteps the trap. We can say what it is like, but not what it is.

Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.


Nothing is softer or more yielding than water. Yet, given time, it can erode even the hardest stone.

The martial artist Bruce Lee made this truth the cornerstone of his discipline. “Be like water,” he said.

Star: Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard and the yielding triumphs over the rigid. Why then so little faith?

It seems paradoxical that the weakest can overcome the strong, but the great teachers say this. The meek shall inherit the earth, Jesus said. 

Important truths show up over and over, no matter what teaching you follow.


If you overvalue possessions, people will begin to steal.

Star: Putting a value on status will cause people to compete.

A movie called, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” from several years back begins with a small African tribe leading an idyllic life, with few possessions and much sharing and generosity. A passing airplane pilot throws out an empty Coke bottle, which is found and brought to the village. It is a marvel, used for everything from making music to pounding roots for food. The fact that there is only one almost immediately begins to sow anger and discontent among the villagers, leading to fights and angry feelings. The village leader decides that the bottle is evil and only crazy gods would sow so much trouble in his tribe, so he undertakes a journey to the edge of the earth to throw the bottle away. The movie goes on from there, and is a wise and funny film.

Hogan: Stop doing stuff all the time, and watch what happens.


Hogan: Everybody has Tao in them. They just have to use it.

One of the things I found in working with young people was that even in the angriest, most damaged, most hopeless among them there was something that wanted to figure things out, to be competent, to get it right. I believe this relates to what the translators are talking about here.

McDonald: Use it effortlessly.

Mitchell: Empty yet inexhaustible.



There is a time for being ahead,

a time for being behind; 

a time for being in motion,

a time for being at rest;

a time for being vigorous,

a time for being exhausted;

a time for being safe,

a time for being in danger.

Hogan: Want to take over the world? Think again. The world’s a holy place. You can’t just fuck around with it.

Mitchell’s translation tracks so closely with Ecclesiastes in the Christian Bible; it’s another example of how the important truths show up in one form or another in all the major religions and teachings.

My initial reaction to Hogan’s translation was that it should be on every desk at the UN and on the official desk of every world leader.

The middle section of Hogan’s quote is the important part. The world is a holy place.


Star: One who gives with the secret hope of getting is merely engaged in business.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching. To give freely is a fine thing and unfortunately a somewhat unusual one. Not everything is or should be transactional.

Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course.


Hogan: They don’t worry about what they can’t control. That’s why they’re always satisfied.

Star: Having no claims to life, they cannot be claimed by death.

Letting go, one of the more difficult concepts to master, is central to Tao. It show up in verse after verse, stated in different ways, always with the message that freedom comes with releasing. 


Mitchell: You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.

Gia-Fu Feng:  Look, it cannot be seen-it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard-it is beyond sound.

McDonald: Approach it and you will not see a beginning; follow it and there will be no end.

Hogan: You can’t hold on to Tao, no matter how hard you grab. But it’s there. It’s in you, and it’s all around you. Remember that.

Star: Beyond the senses lies the great Unity—invisible, inaudible, intangible.

Tao is beyond our comprehension, and yet is in and around us always. The trick is to recognize and remember that, and leave it at that. It can’t be defined.


Tao takes energy from where it is, and sends it where it needs to be.

All of the translations talk about how the way of Tao runs counter to the ways of men. Men take from what is already lacking and give to what is already abundant; this is especially true of material wealth. Tao is the opposite, taking from what does not need, and giving to what does.

McDonald: Who is able to give to the need from their excesses? Only someone who is following the way of the Tao.


Hogan:  If you get right with Tao, nothing is impossible. If you get right with Tao, there’s no limit to what you can do.

Getting right with Tao. That’s the key.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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