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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Success and the Tao


Derek, the title of your new book, The Tao of Success, is a bit puzzling to me. Shouldn’t the Tao be more about spirituality rather than the pursuit of success?


The book addresses this question in its introduction, so the best way for me to answer is to present an excerpt from the relevant section:

There are those who feel strongly that the Tao is diametrically opposed to the quest for lifelong success. They may have studied Eastern philosophy previously, and some of them may say, “there is no success or failure in the Tao” or “ultimately, success has no meaning” or “there is nothing to do in seeking success, because you are already successful.”

These expressions all seem quite profound, and yet if you delve into Chinese culture, you will discover that there are no common sayings that match them. The Chinese people are very much success-oriented. They will gladly discuss cheng gong zhi dao (the Tao of success) with you, but if you try to convince them that it is ultimately meaningless, you will only puzzle them. They may point to the parent working hard to build a family, or the kung fu master practicing rigorously for years to perfect a skill. These honorable individuals certainly do not believe they are already successful, or that they have nothing to do.

How can this be? How can Chinese people themselves not understand the basic concept of wu wei, the essence of nonaction in the Tao? Haven’t Taoist thoughts permeated every aspect of the culture for centuries?

The simple answer is that the Tao that is usually presented in the West is not the same as the ubiquitous Tao of the East. The version we see has been distorted by the language barrier. Wu wei does not mean nonaction, and some of the teachings we end up with are more like the fortune cookie or chop suey—widely assumed to be Chinese but are in fact invented in the West.

The truth is that there are deeper teachings of the Tao that go beyond the meaningless nature of everything. Most people never get exposed to them, so some will automatically assume that the lack of meaning must be the highest form of wisdom. In actuality, it is only the entry point.

The Tao tradition has a story that illustrates this:

Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a young man who was so awestruck to learn about the emptiness of existence, he could not stop talking about it. He told anyone who would listen: “When you get to the bottom of it all, you realize nothing has any intrinsic meaning.”

One day, a sage heard him discussing this topic with his friends. “Everything is meaningless,” he insisted. He challenged them to refute his statement, but his reasoning seemed so strong that no one could do it.

The sage joined them and asked the young man: “Why do you suppose that is? Why is everything meaningless?”

The young man said: “Why ask why? Reason is also meaningless. Perhaps there is no reason at all.”

“There is always a reason,” the sage said. “Everything is meaningless because that is exactly how it should be. It has to be that way because its void is what frees you to create your own meaning. The emptiness of a vessel is what gives it usefulness. Existence is a blank slate that invites your creative contribution.”

It was as if a light came on in a dark room. Everyone gained a piece of enlightenment that day. The young man also became aware that he had a lot more to learn. His path on the Tao was just beginning.

It is exactly the same with success. What you have here is an open invitation to create your own meaning and contribute your creativity. Make use of the emptiness and fill it with your unique, personal definition of the good life. Your path on the Tao of success is just beginning.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Same Great Truth

Therefore the good person
is the teacher of the bad person
The bad person is the resource of the good person
Those who do not value their teachers
And do not love their resources
Although intelligent, they are greatly confused

- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Chapter 27

“I have learned silence from the talkative; tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”

- Kahlil Gibran

Different minds, different cultures, different expressions
same great truth.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Killing Plants


Derek, some of the people who study the Tao are vegetarians and some are not. When I ask those who are about their dietary practice, they tell me they prefer to avoid killing. I respect that, but I also think they contradict themselves, because eating plants is killing, too. You are taking life every time you eat something, whether it is meats or plants, so what's the difference? If you say the difference is suffering, well there are experiments that demonstrate plants also feel pain. Doesn't this prove that life is just life, and in the Tao there really is no distinction whatsoever?


This idea, that there is no difference, has become a popular meme. It is likely to come up whenever people discuss vegetarianism, whether online or in person.

The authentic Tao is not so much about mystical vagueness as it is about practical, everyday reality, so the first point to consider is whether the idea can survive the real-world test. Compare using a machete to hack away at vines versus puppies. Is it really the same to kill a plant as it is to kill an animal? Can you really convince yourself that there is no difference between the two?

Another angle is to ask if little kids can tell the difference. Children have not yet learned the many methods of rationalization that sophisticated adults employ on a regular basis. If they can tell the difference between killing plants and killing animals while we cannot, then chances are pretty good that we may be using philosophical sophistry to fool ourselves.

Yet another angle is to test the implications of an assertion. If there is no difference between eating plants and animals, then what about the difference between eating animals and humans? We are animals too, so whatever makes us different from cattle would be nothing compared to the difference between beef and broccoli. If everything really is the same, then can you honestly support eating meat but not give cannibalism the same enthusiastic support? Why apply different standards if life is just life and there is no distinction whatsoever?

Also, take a look at the consumption of fruits. Plants use fruits to recruit animal assistance in the hopes of spreading their seeds more widely. Can one really claim that the eating fruits hurts fruit trees? Where is the killing there, exactly? And what about the consumption of leaves?

Lastly, let us address the assertion that plants feel pain. What the experiments actually show is that plants have reactions to external stimuli that are imperceptible to our senses but can be measured by our instruments. Thus, we cannot say that the plants are completely oblivious to being cut down just because we don't hear any screaming. At the same time, we also cannot say that the reactions of plants are the same as the physical pain of animals. It is a stretch to equate the two, and the more one understands the central nervous system and the lack thereof in plants, the more of a stretch it becomes.

The foundation of the Tao paradigm is learning from the patterns we observe. Therefore, we should be wary of accepting assertions blindly, no matter how commonplace such assertions may be. Instead, we should engage the mind in making our own observations, extracting wisdom from the lessons we learn, and remaining truthful to ourselves in the Tao.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sage Has No Goals?


Derek, I love the line in the Tao Te Ching that says, "Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." Can you expand on this wisdom, and give us some thoughts on how we can let go of goals?


Many people express a liking for this idea, and talk about how it is radically different from the Western mindset of endless goal-setting and tiresome to-do lists. However, the truth is that this line is a mistranslation that bears little resemblance to the original Chinese. The idea agrees with how people imagine Eastern philosophy to be, but not what it actually is.

The line comes from a popular translation of chapter 22, and is the last of four lines describing a Tao sage:

Because he doesn't display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn't know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

They are supposed to match the following four lines from the original Chinese:


The abovementioned English version shifts the order around and moves the fourth line to the second position, but even when you take this into account, the translation still fails. The first translated line corresponds with the original, but the other three do not. The original does not speak of goals, success, trust, recognition, or knowing oneself at all. Instead, all four lines describe how a sages does not show off or brag, and therefore becomes well known and enjoys an excellent reputation. Here is what they actually say:

Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting

The line that says "Without praising themselves – and so have merit" is the one that has been mistranslated as "Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." The translator, knowing virtually no Chinese, mistakenly uses "goal" for "praise" and "success" for "merit." The result is a sentence that is not even close to the original in meaning, but by a quirk of fate has become embraced by some Western readers.

The larger, more important issue here is that there are no teachings in the Tao tradition that speak against setting goals. Quite the opposite. For instance, Lao Tzu's journey of a thousand miles and tower of nine levels are both metaphors for great goals that require long, sustained work. Chuang Tzu's flight of the giant Peng bird is also a metaphor for an ambitious, awe-inspiring goal. These sages not only want us to have goals, but also encourage us to think big.

If asked about letting go of goals, they would probably point out the paradox that the goal of letting go of goals is itself a goal. Goal-setting is just another tool that we can use to get what we want from life, neither positive nor negative by itself, so there is not much more to it than using the tool in a skillful way. Goals need not be the annoying burdens or traps as some seem to believe... so there is nothing we have to do to "free" ourselves from them.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Having More

Recently, I chatted with a friend I hadn't seen in a while. He was an entrepreneur, so I asked him about his business.

"It's doing extremely well." He perked up: "We are growing, and I am hiring more people while my competitors are downsizing."

"That is great news," I congratulated him. "It must be satisfying to run a successful company, especially in this economy."

"Well... believe it or not, it's quite the opposite." He winced: "At the moment I am actually feeling more frustration than satisfaction."

"Why?" I was curious: "What can be so frustrating about a company that is doing well?"

"It's not so much the company but the people in it - my employees!" He explained: "The thing that really bugs me is seeing them do so little with their lives. I'm always looking to better myself by reading books and learning more about business. They go home and vegetate in front of the TV, or they go out partying
and get drunk. Where they are today is exactly where they were when I hired them years ago. They have not advanced themselves in any way. It's such a waste of time and potential."

"What makes them that way?" I asked: "What do they lack so that they end up wasting time and potential?"

He paused for a moment. "Motivation perhaps. Or, maybe they just don't realize that life is short and we have to make the most of what we have."

"We can call that clarity, in the sense that they are not seeing the finite duration of life clearly."

"Yes, that would be accurate," he nodded. "They don't have enough motivation and clarity, and that is why they waste their time and potential. Is there a Tao teaching that will help me not feel so frustrated with them?"

"There is - the same teaching as the one for people who are highly intelligent, and become arrogant or impatient with those who are not as smart as they are."

He was puzzled: "Isn't that humility? I don't see the connection at all."

"Take a look at chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching." I pointed out the relevant passage to him:

Long and short reveal each other
High and low support each other

"I remember your lecture on this," he searched his memory. "You said it was about things being relative to one another, and how every description gave rise to its opposite, like the complementary pair of yin and yang."

"Excellent!" I encouraged him: "Now apply that concept to what you just described. If some of your employees have less motivation and clarity, it must mean that you have more."

"Sure, that makes sense."

"If it were the other way around - they have more and you have less, then it may be that your situation today would be the exact opposite. You may be working for them instead of them working for you, and they may be feeling frustrated with you right now about your lack of motivation and clarity."

"Yes... that makes sense also."

"So how is it that you have more and they have less?" I asked. "We don't get to decide how much talent we should receive before being born. If we have more of a particular thing, it is only because we were given more of it, whatever it is. Thus, having more is essentially an arbitrary stroke of luck."

"Interesting," he turned the concept over in his mind. "I guess I've never thought of it that way."

"What this means is that when you have more of a good thing and others have less, the Tao perspective is not that you should feel arrogant because you are superior to them, nor frustrated because you are impatient with them. Rather, the idea is to recognize your abundance as the perfect reason to feel grateful. You were never entitled to more, and yet you ended up with more. Is this not the most remarkable good fortune for which we should feel the utmost gratitude?"

My friend sat stunned. "I guess I've never thought of it that way either," he shook his head in amazement. "Wow!"

Once explained, this teaching seems so simple and obvious, and yet we may never realize it on our own without guidance. This is why we see so many people out there feeling negative emotions against others. They suffer from their negativity because they have never learned to always look at it from the perspective of the Tao. That perspective has the power to transform annoyance into appreciation in an instant!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Human Being or Human Doing?


Derek, last week I heard a spiritual guru say: "Remember, you are a human being, not a human doing. This is the highest wisdom of the Tao."

I thought this was good advice, but I did not know it was a Tao expression. I did some research, but was unable to find any references to it in Tao literature. Can you help me get more information?


The expression itself does not come from Tao teachings or Chinese culture. The wordplay on "human being" is specific to the English language. It is one of the many lines in the repertoire of motivational speakers, similar to "Luck means Living Under Correct Knowledge" and "the best way to handle procrastination is to put it off."

The meaning of the expression, of course, is that we are often too stressed out by the many things we think we have to do. We need to take a step back from all the frantic doing and spend a moment just being. We can simply be in many different ways: meditation, prayer, or just a quiet moment alone.

The closest match to this idea in Tao teachings is wu wei, which some have translated as "non-action" but is actually closer to "minimal action" or "unattached action." The concept is not that we should not do anything at all, but that we can often achieve more by doing less when our actions are in alignment with the Tao.

Does this match with wu wei mean that the idea behind "human being, not human doing" is indeed the highest wisdom of the Tao, as the guru claims? No, not quite. It is good advice (as you have noted) that can get people to realize that they are rushing around unnecessarily. As such, it is an excellent tonic for our busy modern lives, but it is only a basic concept from the Tao perspective.

What, then, would be the highest wisdom of the Tao? In order to explore this question, we should realize that either-or choices are often illusory. That is certainly the case here, because it is much more accurate to say you are both a human being and a human doing. You embody not only the states of being but also the dynamics of action. There is no need to deny either.

Consider these two aspects as a manifestation of yin and yang within you. They are complements that support one another. The "being" part of life - relaxing, resting, recuperating - is the yin that recharges your batteries for yang, the "doing" part. Conversely, after an honest day's work, the good job you have done gives you the satisfaction and peace of mind to fully enjoy being together with friends and loved ones. The two give rise to one another and need to be kept in balance.

In this respect, the sages follow nature. They see the patterns of nature where activities such as wind and rain are invariably followed by calmness. They also see that calmness, just like activities, cannot last forever either. The two alternate back and forth. In emulation of this, the sages see both "being" and "doing" in themselves. They are capable of stillness and silence, but just as the ocean cannot always be at peace and the lake cannot always be placid, they are also capable of diligent work and meaningful actions.

Just as the sages emulate nature, we can emulate their wisdom. Next time you hear someone say "human being, not human doing," give yourself a little smile. You understand the basic level of the Tao is that one should slow down and take a pause that refreshes. At the same time, you also understand the higher level where you can embrace being and doing. When it comes to life, both are essential!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Tao Follows Nature

: Derek, what is the real meaning of dao fa zi ran? The translation I have says "the Tao follows itself." Is this correct?

Answer: This is an important phrase that comes from chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching. Let's take a closer look at its four characters.

Dao is the new romanization for the Tao. Fa has multiple definitions, but in this context it means to follow or to model after. Put these two together and we can see that the first half of your translation is correct.

Zi ran means nature or natural. Therefore, dao fa zi ran means "the Tao follows nature." We can express this in different ways and still remain faithful to the original: the Tao follows the laws of nature; the Tao follows that which is natural; the method of the Tao is natural, etc.

Some choose to analyze zi ran as two separate characters. Zi means self and ran means correct, or "just so." This leads them to the explanation that naturalness in the Tao means "of itself so." It also leads to the translation that the Tao follows itself.

Many translators accept this, but is it what the original really says? It turns out that analyzing the characters separately may not be necessary at all. In addition to chapter 25, the Tao Te Ching also uses zi ran in chapters 17, 23, 51, and 64. In each usage, the context is always nature or natural, and never "of itself so." There is no particular reason why chapter 25 should be an exception to the rule.

Simplicity is treasured in the Tao. "The Tao follows nature" is simpler because it requires only the basic definition of zi ran. It is also more meaningful. The phrase tells us that the functioning of the Tao must always be consistent with natural laws and universal principles. Miracles in the Tao are not impossibilities resulting from supernatural intervention. Instead, they are achievements within reach of human beings who understand how to work with nature rather than against it.

The last four lines of chapter 25 are as follows:

Humans follow the laws of Earth
Earth follows the laws of Heaven
Heaven follows the laws of Tao
Tao follows the laws of nature

Once we understand Lao Tzu's message, it should become obvious why "the Tao follows iteself" is only a shadow of the real teaching. When we refrain from making things too complicated, we see a clearer image of the Tao - one that also happens to be more practical and applicable to everyday living!