Daoist Writings & Primitivist Ideals Pt. 4: Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching has the distinction of being the most venerated anarchist text in history.  And ironically so, since it is written as a guide for rulers.  The Tao Te Ching’s graceful, simple philosophy takes its power from the careful observation of natural harmony.  The author of the text, Lao Tzu, applies his understanding of primal consciousness and natural phenomena to the spiritual, social, and psychological ills that result from authoritarian rule.

I have only reprinted verses I find to particularly resonate with anarchist dialogue, but I assure you the entire text is precious and reading this article alone is like trying to play a piano with so many missing keyes.  I suggest you read the text whole and then dive into the limited comments below.

I hope you enjoy these wise words as though they were spoken by an old friend who left long ago and never returned; that’s exactly what they are.


Chapter 5

Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.

In the olden days, the Chinese made little dogs out of straw and placed them with a lot of respect and reverence onto ceremonial altars, then after a time they would throw them into the road so they could be trampled and destroyed.  Such is life.  You stroll through a field, crushing grass stocks and nearly invisible insects with each step, a veritable walking apocalypse—are we favored any more by the clear blue sky, the blazing sun, or the misty earth, which smother each and every life ever ever ever born one by one without exception?  All life falls to the coyote teeth of death, but the source of life and that to which it returns are one.

So is this reality of certain death really such a harsh one?  Or does it just seem that way because you have been taught to think of death as the most undesireable thing in the universe?  Because life is supposed to be an all-or-nothing kind of deal, something you can’t get out of until you kick the bucket.  Whether you like your life or not, you’re stuck with it, unless you kill yourself.  But if you originate from the same source which you return to at death, and if this very thing sustains your entire life, if this source is in fact YOU in the truest sense, what dies?  What is born?  Who cares about a straw dog?

Chapter 6

The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.

(Beautiful text, isn’t it?)

Chapter 7

Heaven and Earth last for ever.
Why do Heaven and Earth last for ever?
They are unborn,
So ever living.
The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

What does this mean, that heaven and earth “are unborn, so ever living”?

Well let us ask, what is the shape of the earth?  Roughly round, yes, but it is constantly changing.  Mountains are growing and falling, the winds erode magnificent patterns into stone, the rains and rivers wear grooves into the landscape… Despite scientific narratives about “the creation of the world,” in reality the earth has never attained a final form, for it is always changing, and so it can never be said to have passed away.  If no-thing has been created, what can possibly meet its end?  This is something of the concept of “voidness” so central to Eastern philosophy—the realization that this thing we call existence isn’t really going anywhere.  There’s no finale to the universe.

We should see our own lives as such.  The sage, Lao Tzu says, gets ahead by staying behind.  Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching echoes this in the hexagram of Modesty when it says that the lowliest man is like a mountain in the earth: being so lowly, nothing can pass him by.  All the high mountains which grow up out of the earth, like those who seek fame and greatness, rely on lowliness for their heights.  Which will outlast the other?  Does the sun remain at its zenith for long?  Does it even have a conception of high or low, up or down?  Does the sun see day as day and night as night?

Chapter 12

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

The five colors, tones, and flavors represent the classical Chinese categorization of these senses, much as for colors we have the seven-fold ROY G BIV system (probably invented by Crayola), for tones we have a twelve-note scale, and for flavors we have spicy, sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and sometimes even sandy on bad days.  But these categories do the infinite variety and acuity of experience absolutely no justice.

Lao Tzu is dwelling pretty near to John Zerzan’s theoryopolis here.  Both see language as an invention just as alienating as virtual reality.  What happens when we run a sensual experience through the old language program?  Do we experience the event more vividly, with more juicy exhilaration and intimacy, or do we just get a barrage of kind of junky thoughts?  Try an experiment or two and get back to me.

Alan Watts says it like this: “The world when looked at without [mental] chatter becomes amazingly interesting. The most ordinary sights and sounds and smells, the texture of shadows on the floor in front of you. All these things, without being named, and saying ‘that’s a shadow, that’s red, that’s brown, that’s somebody’s foot.’ When you don’t name things anymore, you start seeing them. Because say when a person says ‘I see a leaf,’ immediately, one thinks of a spearhead-shaped thing outlined in black and filled in with flat green. No leaf looks like that. No leaves–leaves are not green. That’s why Lao-Tzu said ‘the five colors make a man blind, the five tones make a man deaf,’ because if you can only see five colors, you’re blind, and if you can only hear five tones in music, you’re deaf. You see, if you force sound into five tones, you force color into five colors, you’re blind and deaf. The world of color is infinite, as is the world of sound. And it is only by stopping fixing conceptions on the world of color and the world of sound that you really begin to hear it and see it.”

Chapter 13

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.

Why do we see the world as something separate?  Something outside the windows of the eyes, like a fruit dangling too high on a tree?  This is not the nature of things.  This very world is this very life.  Our breath is the air and our blood is the rain, our bodies are made of the fruits of nature.  Have faith that this whole world is your whole self, just as the whole horizon is reflected in a dew drop.  Respect it as such, love it as such, and don’t lord yourself over it like a tyrant—only then will the world have faith in you in return.

Chapter 16

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.
The way of nature is unchanging.
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be openhearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.
Being at one with the Tao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.

I include this chapter just because I like it, and I think that there is something of a spiritual rewilding to be divined from its advice.  But do not try to use an iron key to unlock a cloud.  (Don’t argue with a rainbow!)

The phrase “ten thousand things” which keeps popping up was a colloquial Chinese equivalent to “myriad” or “multitude” in Lao Tzu’s day, signifying the sum total of all things in existence.

Chapter 19

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.

These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one’s true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.

This chapter brings us back to one of Chuang Tzu and the Primitivist’s major points: that obsessing over virtues, such as sainthood, kindness, and ingenuity, does necessarily make for a good life.  The neurotic adherence to these values only sends troublesome ripples through the clear pool of the mind, frustrating our natural, intuitive reaction.  It’s better to hold to the simple truths and not get on a high horse.  It can be very lonely on a high horse and you have to shout down at people to get them to notice you.

Chapter 30

Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe.
For this would only cause resistance.
Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.
Lean years follow in the wake of a great war…

Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of Tao.
That which goes against the Tao
comes to an early end.

Here Lao Tzu is giving us timeless advice: cut with the grain, and your work will be easy.  If you insist on changing the world through force, the supple conditions which nourish life are ruined.  Only stiff, armored things such as thorn bushes and cockroaches can survive the tumult.

Industrial civilization, with all its bulldozers, ghettoes, and police, is what we get for trying to “use force to conquer the universe,” and compared to the joyous exuberance that nature produces of itself, these are lean times indeed.  But by cultivating peace and plenty instead of ravaging the world into short-sighted scarcity, by turning human hearts to what is good and natural (like eating beans and corn, laughing, and enjoying ourselves), we do a small service to the world by brushing the dirt off of the door to the old way.  If we do not keep sight of the light which will carry us through—our humanity, our understanding, the utopia within—we have cut our ties to the Tao, and our efforts will be sure to fail as they are not yet ripe for harvest.

Chapter 34

The great Tao overflows left and right,
The ten thousand things depend on it for their lives, and it never disowns them.
Its work is done, but it has no name.
It clothes and nurtures the ten thousand things, yet it does not lord over them.
It is always free of desire.
It may be called small.
The ten thousand things return to it, yet it does not lord over them.
It may be called great.
Because it never regards itself as great,
It can accomplish its greatness

Remember, the Tao Te Ching is essentially a manual for rulers and kings.  This chapter especially flaunts the stupidity of king-as-god or god-as-king in the face of authority.  The Tao “clothes and nourishes the ten thousand things, yet it does not lord over them.”  Many religions, and their societies, have a monarchical view of the universe—that the Ultimate of Existence is the Big Boss, the Head Honcho—but the Taoists have a very different opinion.  Ask a bird to bow before the glory of God, and it will say, “Tweet?

Chapter 36

That which shrinks
Must first expand.
That which fails
Must first be strong.
That which is cast down
Must first be raised.
Before receiving
There must be giving.

This is called perception of the nature of things.
Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.

Fish cannot leave deep waters,
And a country’s weapons should not be displayed.

Revolutionary idealists could learn much from this chapter, especially in the first verse.  Raising the flag of war brings armies to your doorstep.  Wise warriors make their attack so silent and unforeseen that no retribution is possible, for they are like a ghost.  Like fish in deep water, they stay obscure and true to their nature.  Like a nation wanting peace, they do not bare their teeth at tyrants.  Waste your strength on a fight you’re bound to lose, and the battle will leave you even weaker than when you began.  Or it will leave you in jail.  Or at the mercy of a street medic.  Chapter 69 conveys essentially the same message in more elaborate detail.

Chapter 43

The softest thing on the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.

Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few.

When Christ said in his Sermon on the Mount, “The meek will inherit the earth,” he meant something very similar to this passage by Lao Tzu.  Which will destroy more concrete: a sledgehammer, or the gentle, persistent penetration of wind and wood?  Which of these will endure across the eons?  Which is made by hand, and which is made by heaven?

Chapter 57

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.

People naturally seek to enjoy themselves.  We don’t need to be fascists to see that the people enjoy sunshine and the taste of corn.  Nor do we need federal laws to decree that plants grow upwards and pine trees produce pinecones.  The more force you apply, the more resistance will inevitably follow.

Chapter 74

If men are not afraid to die,
It is of no avail to threaten them with death.

If men live in constant fear of dying,
And if breaking the law means that a man will be killed,
Who will dare to break the law?

Here the fundamental premise of government is exposed for what it is: a process in which an irrational fear of death is forcibly internalized by people, causing them to shut their eyes to the infinite possibility and grandiose enjoyment of life by threatening any funny business with what we might call “an uncertain fate.”

The stark shadow of death is always perched on the borderland where civilization meets nature.  It is that invisible raven which embodies the fear of bears and cougars, of the bitter cold with nothing to warm us and eminent hunger with nothing to feed us.  Of course anyone who knows better knows these things are really mostly phantoms of our own imaginations.  And that awful anxiety of how you will make money to buy bread and afford a roof and pay the bills is backed up only by a rather enigmatic fear of death, the same which looms over the vast and wild mountains.  Thus, the very key to our obedience is the very key to our freedom.

As Alan Watts put it, “By and large the art of government is to fill that void beyond death with threats of a rather unspecified nature, so that we can rule people by saying if you don’t do as I tell you, I’ll kill you. Or you’ll kill yourself. And so long as we can be scared of that, and so long as we can be made to think of death as a bad thing we can be ruled.”

Chapter 76

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

Rust is small and delicate, and yet in time it turns even the most monstrous machines into little more than sand.  The greatest highways will not outlast a decade of weeds and wind.  Will rust ever come to an end?  No, it is something of the process of the Tao.  Will cars and highways ever come to an end?  Yes, they are unyielding in their function.  Change is in the nature of things.  That which cannot yield to change is quickly done away with.

Chapter 77

The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much
and give to those who do not have enough.
Man’s way is different.
He takes from those who do not have enough
to give to those who already have too much.
What man has more than enough and gives it to the world?
Only the man of Tao.

A full moon is on the brink of waning, and the coldest nadir of winter soon gives way to spring.  It is not in the way of nature to store things up beyond what is needed, and only those who need little have more than enough.  If you could have a heap of gold ten feet high, would this solve all your worries?  Or will you be ringing your hands and jumping at every bump in the night, imaginary bandits lurking in every shadow?

A high mountain gathers clouds at its summit so rain will fall across the plains.  It keeps only a little snow for itself, and even that melts beneath the sun, filling up the river valleys which fill up the lowest oceans.  It disperses the light of heaven and the wandering winds across the lowlands—this is like the “man of Tao.”  It reminds me of Robin Hood.  But, “Man’s way is different,” Lao Tzu says.  Man’s way is to store up an ocean at the peak of a mountain!  Thankfully, “That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.”

Chapter 80

A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster
than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no on uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,
their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
They live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

This is the Tao Te Ching’s vision of utopia.  Here the laws of the Tao find their reflection in the lives of the people just as the light of the high-up moon is reflected in a little pond.  This is not so much a blueprint for a society or a well-dissected political philosophy, but rather Lao Tzu showing his love for what is humble and sustainable.  The contentment of people, the disuse of clever devices, the right to a simple life free of trouble—these are ideals enough.  What more could we desire?

Chapter 81

Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.

Do not take these or any words as gospel, they are not magic incantations.  The heart behind them is what’s important, and only in the heart can they come to fruition.  Adhering to beauty for beauty’s sake is frivolous—the paintings don’t hold up the wall.  However, let the unspeakable sentiment contained in these words guide your very root, and perhaps you will become the truth.

In truth, you are Way.


Lao Tzu


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s