TAO TE CHING 35: The elephant



Attain the great principle and the world under Heaven goes along;
goes along but without harm, in complete peace and calm.
Music and food will induce a passing traveller to stop,
but what issues from the Tao is mild and without savour.
It’s nothing to look at, nothing to listen to.
Use it, it never runs out.


The world under Heaven goes along. We try to interfere, but it has its own way. The spiritual life involves great acceptance, but we can easily get bored. We crave excitement, music and dance, food and revelry. The Tao is not exciting in that way, but is deeply reliable. Making a lot of noise and commotion one is soon exhausted, but the Tao never runs out because it is nothing in excess.

This is a bit like drinking clear water rather than lemonade. Sweet drinks have an immediate attraction, but you cannot drink a lot without feeling sick. Water has less savour, but quenches the thirst more effectively. Taoism favours a simple, unpretentious approach to things.

The image of the passing traveller being induced to stop at a roadside inn makes us think of those times long ago when travel was slow and journey’s took a long time. Along the way one might stop for a night or a day or two or even longer to relax between long periods of walking or riding. At such times people would exchange stories. Lao Tzu is said to have written the Tao Te Ching during such a pause in his journey to the west.

The word Tao means “way” or “wayfaring”. The Taoist is somebody who is on the way. Zen Master Dogen says “Travelling is hindered by arrival.” The Taoist way is not goal oriented so much as principle driven. Keeping to his natural path the sage wanders on.

Interestingly, the character 象, here translated “principle”, and rendered as “image” or “symbol” by some translators, literally means “elephant”. Some say that the metaphorical meaning comes from the fact that Chinese people hardly ever saw a live elephant and only knew of the existence of elephants from their skeletons. Therefore elephant came to mean skeleton and hence the skeleton or principle within things, as when we say, the skeleton of an idea.

In any case, the image of an elephant lumbering along, slow but unstoppable, is not wholly inappropriate for the Tao as described in the rest of this chapter.

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