TAO TE CHING 41:Seeming paradoxes






When a superior person hears of the Tao, he diligently puts it into practice.
When a middling person hear of the Tao, he sometimes grasps it, sometimes loses it.
When an inferior person hears of the Tao he bursts out laughing.
If he didn’t laugh it would not be the Tao.

Therefore, the Book of Sayings has it:
The bright Tao seems dark
entering the Tao you seem to go backward,
the straight Tao seems full of knots

Great Te seems like a valley
Immaculacy seems like humiliation
All-encompassing Te seems insufficient
Well-founded Te seems tricky
The steady character seems changeable.

The natural has no nook
A big pot is not made in an instant
The raucus admires the refined
The elephant is invisible

The Tao is secret and without name.

The ordinary man is alone, but Tao backs him and brings success.


This is a quite long and complicated chapter. In the first section we see the three contrasting attitudes to the Tao. Only those who have already made some spiritual progress appreciate it. The advanced adept grasps it enthusiastically and puts it into practice. The middling student sometimes gets the point but sometimes doesn’t. The Tao seems slippery and difficult to grasp. The inferior student just thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and does not give it any credence. The text comments thast if the ignorant did not laugh at it is would not be the real article. This is another way of saying that what the majority think is generally wrong. Common attitudes lead one astray.

The second section begins with a reference to a book that is no longer extant, but which seems to have been a book of aphorisms and proverbs. Many of these have an ironic twist. Thus the shining Tao seems dark. It seems dark because not easy to discern. The superior student who discerns it appreciats its brilliance, but the ordinary person misses it or considers it a mystery.

Entering the Tao you seem to go backward. The Tao is not about building a reputation or worldly advancement. The person of Tao adopts a simple way of being retires from the rat race and cultivates his vegetable patch.

The Tal is straight in the sense that it is honest and straight-forward. What you see is what you get. However, to the person used to worldly ways, it seems to be a very knotty problem.

Great Te seems like a valley. The term valley, gu 谷, occurs with great frequency in the Tao Te Ching. The main meanings are either “valley” or the crops that grow in a valley. The implication is of a settled homestead area where things follow the natural cycles of the year. According with the Tao here means according wit those natural cycles. Te is the application of Tao. If Tao is the music, Te is the dance. The valley, giving a picture of idyllic rural life, typifies such a life.

Immaculacy seems like humiliation. The person of pure mind often takes the most humble position. Such a person has no high opinion of him or herself and in many situations acts in a meek or accommodating manner. This can easily be misconstrued by the casual observer who does not see the strength of character.

The all-encompassing Te seems insufficient. People easily become bored and crave excitement. Doing the same things day in, day out, they long for something more. Ambitions arise. Schemes develop. The old ways are abandoned. This is when danger comes to the community.

Te, though it is well-founded, can seem tricky and difficult. Social situations seem always to complicate themselves in ways that, if one takes a broader perspective, seem completely unnecessary. It takes a mature character to remain in touch with what is fundamental when all about them are becoming hysterical.

The steady character seems changeable. Thus the steady character is not biassed in a tribal manner. He or she considers each situation on its merits. If there are two factions, sometimes one is right, sometimes the other. Because the person of Te stays with what is true they can seem to be changing sides.

The natural has no nook. A nook is a place to hide or a side alley to slip away into. The person who acts in a natural way needs no hideaways. They do not have a hidden agenda. What they say is not devious. There is no spin.

A big pot is not made in an instant. The implications are much the same as our phrase “Rome was not built in a day”, though the Chinese also carries the implication that a sound character in a person does not appear overnight but takes many years to mature.

The raucus admires the refined. You may well have seen a parent who continually shouts at his or her child while the child continues to be disobedient and fractious, then you see another parent who speaks quietly and seriously to their child and gets conformity and easy response. Making a big noise is rarely as effective as being quietly confident.

The elephant is invisible. The Chinese did not see elephants in their country. They only knew of them from prehistoric skeletons. Thus the elephant came to represent things from long ago of which we only have a hazy notion. This, of course, is also a description of the Tao. Like the elephant, the Tao is secret and has no name.

Man often seems alone and lost, but when he conforms to the Tao it supports him and brings success.

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