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Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Easy Way to Understand Wu Wei

Question: Derek, I am having trouble with the concept of wu wei. My friend says it means doing nothing and going with the flow. But my question is, what if the flow won't take me where I want to go? What if my life is headed for disaster? Should I do nothing and let myself move toward destruction? That makes no sense at all!

Answer: Wu wei is often misinterpreted. The easiest way to understand it is to think of surfing. You'll see that wu wei makes a lot of sense - even if you don't know how to surf!

Imagine what you would do if you were surfing. You wouldn't want to fight the wave - that would be foolish and futile. This may be the part where people get the idea that wu wei means going with the flow. They may not understand the other equally important part, that you also wouldn't want to stand motionless and let the wave wipe you out. That wouldn't be smart either.

What you really want to do is ride the wave. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of your body and the surfboard. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To the crowd at the beach, your movements seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.

It is the same with life. You don't want to waste your energy in a useless struggle against the way things already are. At the same time, you also don't want to be a couch potato. People who are apathetic and indifferent won't stay on the surfboard for long.

Ride the wave of life. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of yourself. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To other people, your actions and progress in life seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.

The art of surfing is no different from the Tao of living. This is the true meaning of wu wei.

Note: Ancient Chinese sages did not know anything about surfing, but they understood wu wei perfectly, as Chuang Tzu demonstrated in his story, The Waterfall.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of The Tao of Daily Life

The first in-depth review of The Tao of Daily Life is now online. You can find it at the following location:

Many thanks to Michelle for this great review!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Tao and God 2

Question: Derek, I find your previous blog entry on chapter 4 interesting. When you say the Tao comes before God, and that this idea applies to any concept of God, I get the impression that the Tao is the creator of God, just as God is the creator of the universe. Is this what you mean?

Answer: Not exactly. Oftentimes people think of the Tao as a deity, but that's like assigning "God status" to electricity, gravity, or the Theory of Relativity. The Tao cannot be rigidly defined in that manner. It may be more useful, in the context of this discussion, to think of the Tao as "the way things are." Imagine the following conversation where a young child poses questions to his father, who is religious:

Boy: "Dad, where does that car come from?"

Father: "It comes from the car factory."

Boy: "Where does the factory come from?"

Father: "People built the factory years ago."

Boy: "Where do people come from?"

Father: "Well, God made us in His image."

Boy: "Where does God come from?"

Father: "God has no beginning."

Boy: "Why not?"

Father: "That's just the way God is, son."

The usage of "way" above maps perfectly to Lao Tzu's usage of "Tao" in the last line of chapter 4. Once we understand this, we'll be able to see that ultimately, it is not God at the very beginning of everything. Rather, it is the Tao of God.

This understanding can also take us another step further and enable us to see that Lao Tzu's principle applies just as easily if the father were an atheist. If his explanation involves the Big Bang cosmological model instead of God, we would still ultimately end up with the Tao.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Tao and God

Question: Derek, a while back there was an online discussion about your treatment of chapter 4. Someone asked about your use of "God" in your translation, because the concept of God seemed a bit odd in the context of the Tao. I thought this was a valid question, but the people offering answers could only guess at the reason for your usage. Can you give us your perspective on this issue?

Answer: There may be some confusion because we tend to use the word "God" in a Judeo-Christian sense, but this is not the only possible meaning of the word. Throughout history, the concept of a supreme deity appeared independently all over the world, so let us not be hasty in our assumptions.

In chapter 4, the original term was di, as in tian di, the Heavenly Emperor. The concept of this deity in Chinese culture predates Lao Tzu by thousands of years. The idea was that just as the earthly Emperor ruled the mortal realm, the Heavenly Emperor ruled the cosmos. Of all the gods from Chinese folklore and mythology, the Heavenly Emperor occupied the foremost position.

With this understanding, we can see the meaning of chapter 4 much more clearly. When Lao Tzu says the image of the Tao must precede God, he is making the point that even the foremost deity of the cosmos must follow certain principles. Creation and evolution make sense. They exhibit an underlying order we can observe. They are comprehensible, at least to some extent, to the human intellect. The fact that this comprehension is possible at all means the Tao must be present. Therefore, Lao Tzu is pointing out the inescapable truth is that the image of the Tao (whatever principles underlie the working of the divine) must already be in place in order to allow for the presence of God.

An interesting aside is that although Lao Tzu was referring to the Heavenly Emperor, his point is equally applicable to any concept of the supreme deity from any culture.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Book Availability

Question: Derek, I'm trying to buy your book, Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, but it seems to be sold out everywhere I look. Can you tell us what's going on? When will it be available?

Answer: The latest information I have from the publisher is that we have indeed gone through the first print run. Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained went into reprint several weeks ago, and the publisher has just received the new printing. They will be shipping out all the back orders this week. East coast warehouses and major outlets such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble should also receive books this week; West coast warehouses are expected to receive their shipment next week.

If you have not yet received your order of Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, I want to assure you that it is on its way to you. Thank you for your patience.

To the readers who already have their books: Thank you for your support! Thank you for your word-of-mouth campaign making all this possible. It is a great honor for me to have this connection with you, through the Internet and the medium of words!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Reading Both Books

Recently, several people came up with the same question about the two books. After answering each person individually (on BlogSpot, through e-mail and in person), I thought I should also post my response as a blog entry for greater visibility. There may be others out there who are wondering the same thing.

Question: Derek, I have both of your books, and I am trying to decide which one to read first. Would I get more out of the stories if I read the Tao Te Ching first? Or, would I find the Tao Te Ching easier to understand if I read the stories first? What is your recommendation?

Answer: I would suggest that you make use of both books at the same time, but in different ways. Start by reading the stories from The Tao of Daily Life, and use the translation as a reference. The dharma talk following each story often quotes lines from the Tao Te Ching to make a point. When you come across such a quote, you can refer to that specific chapter in Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained for a more in-depth look at the original text. This is a way to study the Tao that many people seem to enjoy, so I hope it works well for you too. Have fun!

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Question: Derek, I thought I was quite knowledgeable about Zen and Tao stories, but your new book contains quite a few stories I haven't come across before. Can you tell me where you get these stories?

Answer: They all come from the storytelling tradition of Chinese culture. Some of the stories are recorded in ancient texts and some are not, but all are told by teachers and storytellers from one generation to the next. There are literally thousands of such stories, but only some of them - a small fraction - have crossed the cultural divide. When such stories come into the West, they are often distorted in the retelling; sometimes they are altered on purpose in order to appeal to the Western audience. You may have already come across such stories in web sites and forwarded e-mails.

My primary purpose in writing The Tao of Daily Life is to bring across more of these ancient stories, especially the ones that are practically unknown in the West. For the stories that have already crossed over, I go back to the original source in order to create the most accurate version of the classic, with no distortions or alterations. The dharma talks that follow the stories are also written to be as authentic as possible. I want the reader of this book to experience the stories and teachings in exactly the same way that a Chinese person would - feeling the same sense of joy and inspiration, because the Tao transcends the division between East and West. Indeed, the Tao speaks to the core that is common to all humanity, for within the it we are all united in oneness... regardless of cultural background!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Taoism and Confucianism

The Emperors of ancient China did not always follow Confucianism as their ruling philosophy. Initially, it was Taoism they turned to. Unfortunately, they were badly misled by "masters" who themselves did not understand the Tao. Several Emperors died from drinking "elixir of immortality" made with mercury. One Emperor spent his days doing nothing productive and justified it with Tao-sounding excuses, while his government fell apart and the people suffered. These negative experiences eventually forced a switch to Confucianism.

In mainland China, there is a TV show that highlights this turning point in Chinese history. It has become one of the more popular historical dramas there, but it is virtually unknown over here.

In general, Westerners who understand only the surface level of the Tao often cast Taoism and Confucianism as diametrically opposed competitors. Because most people in the West don't know much about Confucianism, it is quite easy to turn it into a convenient villain. This idea is reinforced by the good-versus-evil notion where Taoism represents the people who wish for freedom, while Confucianism represents the ruling elite and their oppressive rigidity. Thus, Taoism gets set up on a pedestal while Confucianism is looked down upon.

This bears no resemblance to how the Asians themselves approach the two traditions. In actuality, real Chinese people living in Asian tend to revere both Laozi and Confucius equally. They follow teachings from Taoism as well as Confucianism and see no conflict between the two.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Be Water

Bruce Lee often emphasized the importance of adapting to one's environment. He pointed out how water would become the cup when poured into a cup; it would become the bottle when poured into a bottle. "Be water, my friend" is one of his most famous quotes. It is a teaching straight from the Tao, which formed the basis of Lee's core beliefs.

This quote has also given rise to some questions, such as: "Derek, don't you think Bruce Lee's actions were inconsistent with his words? Water conforms to its environment, so if we are to be like water, then we should also conform to our environment. Back in Bruce Lee's days it was difficult for an Asian actor in America to find work, but through his persistent efforts he created a niche for himself and changed American cinema forever. Far from conforming to his environment, he had a big impact on it. How can you reconcile that with the Tao?"

This apparent paradox is what can pop up when we touch only the surface of a very deep spiritual philosophy. To find the answer, we need only to observe nature. Look at any river and notice how water has cut its own channel into solid ground. Look at any canyon and notice how water has carved out incredible structures out of mountains. It becomes obvious, then, that while water does indeed conform to its environment, that certainly isn't the only thing it does. Over time, the never-ending persistence of water creates astounding impacts on its environment. Isn't it interesting how water can do this, despite being the softest thing there is?

If we are to emulate water, we would embody not only its flexibility and adaptability, but also its transformational power. Bruce Lee worked within the movie industry in Hong Kong and Hollywood to make his mark upon the world. Applying his example to ourselves means we would also fit seamlessly into our chosen line of work, and then excel from within. We may not necessarily change the entire world, but it is an absolute certainty that we will be able to change our own personal world. We will then understand this Tao teaching in a whole new light....

Be water, my friend.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Think Small

I admire Dr. Wayne Dyer. He has been studying the Tao for years, and now, with his new book and speaking engagements, he is sharing his discoveries with the world. I can think of no one else as capable and influential as he is when it comes to explaining the stunning beauty and practical power of the Tao.

One of the ideas he expresses with great clarity is "think small, achieve great things." Chapters 63 and 64 of the Tao Te Ching speak of this with clear, concise, graceful yet down-to-earth poetry. Rome was never built in a day; a truly great thing is the gradual accumulation of tiny increments. Dr. Dyer uses his own abstinence from alcohol to illustrate this point. He hasn't had a drink for twenty years which, by any standard, is a remarkable record. He was able to achieve this by focusing on only one day at a time, or even just on the present moment, one moment at a time. On any one day, he has no idea if perhaps the next day he will take his first drink in years; what he does know, with complete certainty, is that it won't be that particular day. It's the journey of ten thousand miles - the way to walk the great journey is by continuously putting one foot in front of the other, focusing only on one step at any given time.

Like many other ideas from the Tao, "think small" is the essence of powerful simplicity. It is so simple that we may be tempted to dismiss it with a shrug and "oh, I already know that." This attitude can cause us to miss its tremendous life-changing power. The one can really apply this idea to life, the one who can discipline himself to do a small amount of work toward a worthwhile goal every day - that is the person who shall enjoy great success. This simple idea has, in fact, transformed Jerry Seinfeld from a novice stand-up comic to arguably the biggest, most popular comedian ever.

Tremendous success by practicing "think small" is guaranteed. Not guaranteed by Lao Tzu, not guaranteed by the Tao Te Ching, but guaranteed by the very principles that underlie human existence - the Tao itself!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Powerful Way to Cultivate

People may not be aware that in an authentic tradition of the Tao, there is a strong recommendation to cultivate the Tao as a couple. Tao cultivation isn't just for a man or a woman. It is for both - preferably as a unit.

A wonderful thing happens when the male and female energies cultivate together. The natural interplay of the two will form a dynamic, synergistic effect that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This synergy can be directed to propel both along the path, to support and inspire one another. Both will be able to progress rapidly in refining spirituality, understanding the self, and developing wisdom.

If there is someone in your life who can be your travel companion in this manner, then you already have this precious gift - truly something to cherish, something to rejoice.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Little Sage

My friend Devin came to the weekly gathering a few weeks ago, and brought along his seven-year-old daughter Shea, who as always was delightful and incredibly well-behaved. We had lunch together and chatted about the Tao being no more or less than a label, like God. Shea asked: "What is the difference between Tao and God?"

I said the Tao was not regarded as a personified entity; her dad explained that it was more like an energy. I nodded and added: "Think of it as the energy behind everything."

"That's how I think of God," Shea offered confidently. "God is energy, not a person who punishes."

I told her, very truthfully, that I wished I had her brains when I was her age. :)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Context-Neutral Complements: Taking Common Platitudes to the Next Level

When working toward your goal with diligence and discipline, you may encounter naysayers who express skepticism: "Aren't you being selfish when you work toward personal gain? How can that be the Tao?"

And heaven forbid you should aim for success in the material world. Because then the reaction may be: "Why are you being so materialistic? You should be more spiritual."

Notice the implied judgement, and the embedded idea that one is superior to the other - being selfless is good while being selfish is bad; being spiritual is good while being materialistic is bad. This is something we've all heard many times. Pretty much any church in the country will preach "don't be selfish, be selfless" and "don't be materialistic, be more spiritual."

The deeper reality is that the former isn't necessarily good and the latter isn't necessarily bad. Like many platitudes, these assertions are only the first step to wisdom, not the last word.
Here's how the teachings from the Tao can take us higher:

1) We have all seen and experienced that when we are good to others, we receive goodness in return. This is so often true that we can easily identify it as a pattern of existence - an aspect of the Tao.

2) This truth operates under Principle One, which is all about oneness. Because of the deep connection between ourselves and others, when we give goodness to others, we are essentially and indirectly giving the same goodness to ourselves. Another observation we can make is that oftentimes the back-and-forth process imparts synergistic energy so the goodness that travels from one person to another becomes magnified and amplified.

3) This oneness is not a one-way street. It works in both directions. Thus, a goodness you give to yourself, when done in the Tao-minded fashion, becomes a goodness for others. We see this happen all the time - when you love and accept yourself, then you are able to love and accept others; when you respect yourself, then you gain the ability to give others the gift of genuine respect.

Therefore, "being selfish" by itself is neither positive or negative. It can be one or the other. Although the phrase has a negative connotation, it is entirely possible for a Tao cultivator to work for his own benefit in a way that is perfectly congruent with the Tao. This self-oriented benefit ends up being beneficial to others.

For instance, the Tao cultivator may work diligently to master a new subject. It seems as if he is pursuing learning for himself, and therefore selfish in a sense. But, when he has gained an understanding, he shares it with others. The benefit therefore passes on to many more people. Suddenly it's not just one person understanding it, it's ten people. The goodness has been magnified. And the person who teaches it ends up understanding it even better - the goodness has been amplified.

What about money? What about material pursuits? Trinkets? It is absolutely the same. The Tao cultivator may choose to pursue wealth in order to utilize that wealth for greater benefit of many more people around him.

There are quite a few people who consider themselves spiritual and look down on monetary pursuits. This attitude itself is a manifestation of arrogance. Right off the bat it is incongruent with the Tao. Real understanding of this teaching points to the fact that pursuing money, although often seen in a negative light, is itself completely context neutral, and can be either positive or negative depending on the person. The true Tao cultivator is someone who understands how to follow a seemingly "selfish" agenda in a Tao-oriented way, that ends up being more beneficial for everyone than if he were to take on a vow of poverty.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Language / Cultural Barrier

Here's one way to understand why most translations of the Tao Te Ching have so many distortions. It's one manifestation of a particular aspect of human nature.

Let's suppose you move to China and immerse yourself in the language and the culture. You assimilate completely and function in that society like any other Chinese person. You still retain your mastery of English, so it is natural and easy for you to turn your hand to translation.

Soon you realize that Chinese people regard the West through an aura of mystery. The language and cultural barrier means they sometimes misunderstand English words and Western thinking. You do the best you can to set the record straight whenever it is appropriate for you to do so.

One day you hear a Chinese motivational speaker give a speech. To make his point he uses the English word "steadfast" as a business principle. He tells the audience that the word is composed of "stead" and "fast", therefore being steadfast in business means you have to be resolute and steady in keeping to your mission statement, while also maintaining your ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions.

The audience loves it. They soak it right up. After the speech, they chat excitedly among themselves about this great insight from Western traditions, embedded in the very language itself.

You are not as excited, because you know that the "fast" in "steadfast" does not mean quickness. It means being still or unmoving, as in "fastener" or "hold fast." "Stead" of course has the context of "steady," "homestead," etc. So, combining the two together for emphasis, "steadfast" is ONLY about being firm and unwavering. It is not about some ancient teaching of a paradoxical wisdom. It's just a simple word with a fairly simple meaning.

You raise this issue and tell your Chinese friends that the speaker is seeing more than is actually there, or just plain making stuff up, but they don't want to let go of this exciting insight, so they resist. "Do you deny that 'fast' can also mean quickness? No? Alright, there you go. You have just answered your own question."

Overcome with frustration, you throw yourself off a cliff.

Okay, just kidding about that last part. But you see how the process works. It's a rather human trait, so we all make a mountain out of a mole hill sometimes. This is what causes many Westerners to believe that the Chinese word for "crisis" means "danger" and "opportunity" - it's the exact same type of misunderstanding.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

How Many Mystics Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

The following are the witty, hilarious responses from the members of the Tea House online community:

  • One. However many it takes to change the light bulb, all are one.

  • No particular number – one to change the bulb and the rest will simply experience the moment.

  • None, they don’t need light bulbs. They are already enlightened.

And the following are answers by group orientation:

  • New Ager: None, because the light bulb is perfect as it is and doesn’t need to be changed.

  • Philosopher: What does the light bulb represent? What do you mean by mystics? Change? Define change.

  • Buddhist: There is no mystic. There is no light bulb. It's all illusory - just a dream that we wake up from when we become enlightened.

  • Christian: Only one, but it won't matter. That mystic is sinning against God by practicing mysticism and nothing will save him from God's wrath and retribution.

  • Confucianist: One. The changer shall treat the light bulb respectfully as it is removed. The old bulb shall be praised for being of service in the past, and the new bulb shall be equally praised for taking up the responsibility. Only then will the house owner, the old bulb, and the new bulb live in harmony and mutual respect.

  • Tao cultivator: It is the emptiness of a socket without a bulb that makes it useful as a receptacle.

The above is from my recollection, which may be spotty. For the original posts and proper credit attribution, please use the following link:

Tea House 2.0

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Taoist Position

I am often asked what the Taoist position is on a particular issue, and my answer is always that such a thing does not really exist. The practice of Tao cultivation isn't like the typical form of organized religion, where there is a readily identifiable central authority. There is, for instance, no equivalent to the Pope or the Ten Commandments in Tao cultivation, and therefore no pronouncements of "official" positions on anything. Instead, it is up to us to think for ourselves. This freedom to claim absolute mastery of one's own mind can be exhiliarating, but to some it can also be very scary.

This paradigm is perfectly in accordance with the Tao because the Tao is the way of nature, and nature has given each one of us a brain with which to observe, reason, and conclude. There is nothing more natural for us to make use of this capability - all of it, the rational as well as the intuitive. It can only be unnatural if we give up this birthright and rely on someone else do the thinking for us.

This is not to say followers of mainsteam religions are unthinking drones, of course - only that an authentic practice of the Tao will emphasize a cultivator's sovereignty and responsibility over his or her own thoughts. All the chapters in the Tao Te Ching that talk about rulers underscore this very point.

This is why there can be as many Taoist positions on a controversial subject as there are Tao cultivators in the world. So when I'm asked about the Taoist position - the definitive perspective of the Tao - the best I can offer is one Taoist position - the definitive opinion of me, myself and I.