TAO TE CHING 34: The branching river



Great Tao is a stream that divides and reforms, now left, now right.
All living things rely upon it to grow and thrive and it is there for them.
Good work accomplished, it has nothing.

It clothes and nurtures beings without making anything special of it.
Always being without desire, its name could be Small.
All living things return to it, but without making anything special of it.
Therefore it could be called great.
Real greatness is to not do things with a view to personal greatness.


Near to where I live the great rivers Allier and Loire have many islands. The river stream divides and comes back together again. If it were not for human interference there would be even more channels. This image of the branching stream captures the way that the Tao flows along, bringing nurturance to the land and all creatures.

The Tao achieves and benefits but does not possess. It has no ambition for itself. We might think it a small matter or we might realise that it is the most important thing of all.

The words “It clothes and nurtures beings” makes me think of the passage in the Bible where it says that Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed as well as birds of the field. The natural working of things generates the most amazing wonders. It does not do so with any intention of making a name for itself. The sage follows suit, doing what is necessary without putting on airs, without thinking of fame or reputation.

Real greatness is a matter of acting selflessly. Acting selflessly is a matter of keeping one’s mind on one’s task and duty rather than self concern. There are always a hundred good things one could be doing. If one is concerned with self, one thinks “I should…” and at the back of that ‘should’ is a wish to be judged as a specially good and worthy kind of person. In this way one wears oneself out trying to do all the good things (and be seen to be doing them) and seeking perfection, yet whatever is accomplished is at least a bit tarnished. On the other hand, when one is not concerned about self one simply chooses one of the hundred things and gets on with it, neither slacking nor over-taxing oneself, but just doing what comes naturally. One thing leads to another. Things get done and some get left, perhaps to be picked up again later or perhaps to resolve themselves in another way one had not thought of, but, in any case, one is not keeping count. Somehow it all works out as it should. Those who are benefitted flourish, but it is no big deal. The Tao goes on flowing.

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