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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!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Translation Differences

Question: Derek, I noticed your translation of the Tao Te Ching has significant differences from other versions. As I study further, I begin to see the underlying truth in your approach, which leads me to suspect that others may be somewhat flawed. Is this a common occurrence? If so, why? Is it because other translators believe differently and let bias get into the work?

Answer: That's certainly possible. We're all human beings, and probably one of the toughest things for any of us is to just be aware that we have blind spots - never mind actually looking into them, and overcoming the "blindness" in one's thinking.

If we survey existing translations, we can see some examples where personal beliefs may have been mixed in with the work:

  1. The translator has studied the concept that everything in the world is ultimately meaningless. This gets weaved into the translation as well as the commentary whenever Lao Tzu talks about emptiness. However, the lack of meaning in everything has never been part of Taoism. It actually comes from the philosophy of nihilism.

  1. The translator believes everyone is already enlightened and everything is already perfect, so there is nothing to do. Therefore, the concept of unattached action, wu wei, becomes distorted as non-action. This misconception may have come from depictions of Asian spirituality in movies; certainly it has embedded itself into the popular consciousness.

  1. The translator may be a staunch supporter of women's rights, and intentionally uses female pronouns "she" and "her" in the translation. This may appeal to some readers, but masks the fact that in the original Chinese, words like "sage" and "ruler" are completely gender-neutral. Forcing a feminist position into the translation is contrived and unnecessary. The Tao Te Ching itself is already the ultimate statement on feminism.

  1. The translator likes the notion of spiritual evolution, and uses it in the translation whenever possible. Thus, the characters for sage, shen ren (literally a divinely wise person), are rendered as "evolved individual" even though the term says nothing about any kind of evolution. It is an addition that is solely based on personal preconception.

Of course, words can never completely describe the Tao, and no translation is perfect. As a native speaker of both Chinese and English, I may be more aware of this than most, since I know not only the overall meaning that can be translated, but also the subtle nuances that cannot. This, however, does not mean we should give up the attempt to translate accurately, and one way to increase accuracy is to eliminate as much personal bias as possible.

Until we are able to get closer to the ideal of accuracy, I still recommend reading multiple translations and let your instincts guide you toward the meaning that resonates with you. Although words are imprecise and imperfect, I believe anyone who spends the time to experience the Tao will be able to sense truth from untruth. Anyone who invests the effort to apply the Tao will be able to reach through the distortions to touch the real essence. In the final analysis, none of the flaws and biases really matter - and that's the beauty of it!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Thank You!
It's official! The Tao of Daily Life has won the Best Books Award in the Spirituality / Alternative Science category from the Coalition of Visionary Resources. This was announced at the awards banquet of the 2008 International New Age Trade Show in Denver, Colorado:

I would like to express my gratitude to both COVR and INAT for this great honor. I would also like to thank Joel Fotino, Brian Tart, Sarah Carder, Sarah Litt and everyone else at Penguin / Tarcher who worked tirelessly to turn this book into reality; and of course I must thank Peter and Sandra Riva, literary agents extraordinaire who believed in the book and worked with me every step of the way; and most of all the readers from every corner of the world who supported the message of the Tao even before this book was published. You have made this possible. Thank you!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Accept Reality or Create Reality?

Question: Derek, you say Tao cultivators accept reality as it is to avoid the pain and trouble of unrealistic expectations... but then in the following paragraph, you say we are ultimately responsible for creating our own reality. So which is it? Acceptance of reality, or creation of reality?

Answer: Great question! Tao cultivators both accept and create reality. This may sound like a paradox, but it really isn't.

Accepting reality in this context does not imply not wanting to change anything. It means, at any given moment, we accept everything exactly as they are.

This may not sound like much, but think about the people who rail against the way things are. They complain bitterly. They wish things can be different. They regret having done something or having neglected to do something. They rage against fate. Thus, they experience bitterness, remorse, resentment and anger. These destructive emotions rob us of the ability to see things clearly, and therefore plan and implement meaningful changes. They are also expenditures of valuable mental energies which can be better directed to more constructive ends.

Therefore, acceptance of reality means you accept that what's done is done as of this point in time. Our good experiences are blessings for which we are grateful. The bad experiences are lesssons we can learn from, so they are also something to appreciate. We recognize that since none of us can travel back in time to change what has already taken place, we may as well make our peace with the universe, and realize that up until this moment, everything has proceeded exactly as it was meant to, and the result is the totality of our present being.

Then, from this mindset of calmness and composure, we can contemplate the next series of questions:

  • How should my reality be from this moment on?
  • What kind of reality in my future would give me the most fulfillment and satisfaction?
  • What exactly do I want my reality to be, if I can create whatever I want?
  • What will I attempt to achieve, if I know I cannot fail?

Once you have developed fairly good ideas about the above, it's time to think about actively participating in the business of living so you can move closer to your vision. It's time to contemplate actions and changes. Cultivators of the authentic Tao realize that existence is all about the constancy of change, so wanting to make changes isn't "going against nature." Changes will occur - that is an ironclad given we have learned from Tao teachings. The only question is, will they be changes coming from us, or from random external factors?

If this leads you to making a mindful decision to take charge of your destiny, then you are ready to consider the most important question of all: What can I do to direct my destiny along the right path?

When you arrive at this point, you have owned up to your ultimate responsibility to create your reality. You have, essentially, set foot on the Tao that stretches ahead of you into eternity.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Book Signing

The next book signing is coming right up. If you are not too far away from North Hollywood, I would love to meet you in person. See you there!

Time: Saturday, July 26, 1:00 - 3:00 p.m.
Place: Many Paths Bookstore in North Hollywood

Book Signing Info

Monday, April 21, 2008


Question : Derek, you have "Those who are good do not debate / Those who debate are not good" in your translation of chapter 81. Are you sure "debate" is the right word? I do not see debate as a bad thing. Historically, rigorous debates have always been the basis of our scientific advances as well as our democracy. Other translations use "argue" instead of "debate." Wouldn't that be more correct?

Answer: The Chinese character in the original text is bian, which has a meaning that is much closer to "debate" than anything else. To those who study the Tao Te Ching from the Chinese cultural perspective, Lao Tzu's position against debates comes as no surprise, because it is consistent with his overall objection against too much reliance on intellectuality. It is also perfectly consistent with traditional Asian cultures that emphasize the importance of harmony.

By comparison, Western cultures have more affinity to conflict. Perhaps this is why the usage of "debate" doesn't seem right to you. Perhaps it is also why some translators use "argue" instead - their thinking may be similar to yours, so they choose to soften Lao Tzu's position against debates, thereby distorting the original meaning.

In theory, debates seem like they can be a very constructive thing. However, when Tao sages observe personal debates in practical, everyday reality, they notice much more harmful effects. Instead of achieving consensus, both sides become ever more entrenched in their beliefs. The participants expend a tremendous amount of effort, but accomplish no particularly useful results.

This is usually how things work because we are human as opposed to perfectly rational beings. In a debate, we tend to become defensive, mocking, and combative. Ego rears its head and clouds our judgement. In order to win, we'll do anything - cut the opponents off in mid-sentence, twist their words, manipulate the facts... anything at all. Thus, far from helping us improve ourselves, debates only seem to bring out the worst in us.

Generally speaking, when people get together in a meeting, their interactions range from discussion to argument. Debate is between the two in this scale, and represents the starting point of the downward spiral. This means things start to go wrong as soon as people transition from discussion to debate. If they fail to do something to reverse course, the debate is likely to degenerate into an all-out argument. At that point, they can forget about making any meaningful progress.

This is a pattern that is persistent and pervasive in any culture. Recognizing this clearly, Tao cultivators always prefer discussions to debates. After all, how good can they be in the skill of living the effortless and joyous life, if they let themselves be dragged into a shouting match?

Let's keep chapter 81 in mind when we talk to others. Be careful of discussions that begin to feel like a debate. The moment we detect this happening, let's stop immediately and review the situation. Will an adversarial exchange really result in anything good for anyone? Is winning the argument worth the sacrifice of harmony? Lao Tzu tells us the answer is a resounding no... and he is absolutely right!

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Question: Hello Derek! I began studying the Tao last year when I received your translation for my birthday. It's like a whole new world opening up, so I want to thank you for that. I have a question for you, and it's about my friends. Recently, whenever I get together with them, I keep finding that my interests, outlook on life, and aspirations are becoming more and more different from theirs. I feel as if I am drifting away from them, or perhaps they are drifting away from me. I have known them for many years and value their friendship, but now I sense some discomfort on their part, as if a wall has gone up between us. What should I do? Is there anything I can do?

Answer: Over the years I have seen many people go through the same thing you are experiencing. At some point, they made a personal decision to uplift themselves, but their friends continue on the same trajectory as before. At first, nothing seems out of place, but as time goes on, these different paths diverge more and more. Former buddies end up with less and less in common, and become more and more distant from one another.

It's important to recognize that they haven't changed. You are the one who has changed. Because of your self-cultivation, you have started to develop spiritually. You are starting to experience soul growth. The friendship can go back to the way it used to be if you go back to the way you used to be, but if you are like the others I have observed, you won't be able to do that. Once a mind has been expanded, it is impossible for it to return to its previous, more limited dimensions.

What is the solution? Is there a solution? I would suggest that the discomfort you sense is something you can address. You will find openness and communication to be the best tools for you in this situation. They probably won't bring up the topic, so you'll have to take the initiative. Find an appropriate opportunity to have a heart-to-heart conversation. If you aren't sure what to say, here are my suggestions:

1) First, bring illumination. Shine a light on the issue. Let them know you are aware of the discomfort. Tell them you are not oblivious to the gap that has been widening. They will probably be relieved. They may say, "Wow, I thought it was me!" or "Thank God someone finally says what we've all been thinking!" or "I thought I was imaging things and, you know, didn't want to make a big deal out of it."

2) Explain your path. They may think you are a little crazy (especially if they know you well), so let them know you haven't actually lost your mind. Assure them it is something you've thought about carefully and deliberately. Explain that it isn't a phase you are going through, and it isn't something that will pass. Talk about the benefits you have experienced, but be careful - you don't want to make this a recruitment drive. Stick to the facts, clarify your position, and don't try to convert anyone.

3) Be clear about the implications of your decision. As a result of your evolving values, priorities and goals, you'll be allocating your time differently in the future. While you have no wish to give up your friends, you may need to make adjustments in your schedule, and not have as much time for them as before, or you may wish to participate in activities that hold little interest for them. Ask for their understanding. If they value you as much as you value them, then there is no question that they will extend their support. Even if they cannot follow you on your journey, even if they do not fully understand your reasons, they can still help you and encourage you.

Your clarity and insights into this matter may make them curious about the Tao. Some of them may want to learn more. If so, gladly share the information you have, but again, be careful not to become overly enthusiastic. Forcing your ideas on anyone would be contrary to the Tao. Your detachment in this case may even pique their interest. They may decide to tag along with you, just to see what it's all about. If so, then your divergent paths will begin to converge back together.

No matter what they decide, one thing is for certain: if you follow the Tao correctly, then as you continue your cultivation, you will encounter more and more kindred spirits. Their connection with you will inspire you to greater heights of personal development. Right now, you may be at a crossroads in your life, but it is not a bad thing at all. It is an opportunity where you have the possibility to bring your friends along, as well as the prospects of making new friends down the road. Both are exciting things to look forward to. Although you may feel a bit troubled at the moment, I can guarantee that years from now you'll look back and realize that this is actually the beginning of something great. Start thinking about how to approach your friends... and good luck!

Friday, April 4, 2008


: Derek, I would like to get your thoughts on goals from the Tao perspective. I've been told that the Tao Te Ching teaches us to let go of goals and allow everything to proceed naturally. My problem is that I have always set and achieved goals all my life, so I'm not sure how to do without them. Can you give me some tips?

Answer: This may surprise you, but you do not need to give up any of your goals. What you've been told may sound like something from the Tao Te Ching, but if you actually study the text, you'll see that Lao Tzu has nothing against goals.

For instance, in chapter 63, Lao Tzu tells us that handling many small and simple tasks will, over time, add up to the completion of a huge, seemingly impossible task. The lesson here is all about achieving goals, not doing without them.

This becomes even clearer in chapter 64, where Lao Tzu talks about the journey of a thousand miles and the tower of nine levels. Reaching the destination of the jouney and completing the construction of the tower are both goals, and the best way to achieving them is a little bit at a time. Tao cultivators who really understand this are powerful individuals indeed, because to them no tasks are too big or too difficult. They have the ability to turn their dreams and grand visions into reality.

This idea that we have to let go of goals probably comes from a misunderstanding. In authentic teachings of the Tao, we learn that if we become too attached to a goal, we can trip over ourselves and sabotage our own progress. Therefore, it would be best for us to let go of any obsessions or expectations about the end result. We should direct our focus and awareness to the process at hand, so we can enjoy the journey in the present moment. This allows the task to proceed naturally to completion.

When we understand this teaching clearly, we can see that goals are very much part of the Tao, so there is no need to let go of them. We can use them skillfully for our benefit. We can also see that the Tao Te Ching is actually a manual for living life -- with clear instructions on how to achieve success. The Chinese have known this for centuries; we in the West are now beginning to figure it out for ourselves.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Emulate the Tao

Question: Derek, Tao Te Ching chapter 4 says that the Tao blunts the sharpness, unravels the knots, dims the glare, and mixes the dust. Does the idea that we should emulate the Tao apply in this case? If so, how?

Answer: Yes, we emulate the Tao. Exactly how we can do that may be a bit puzzling at first, but keep in mind that the macrocosm of the Tao is reflected in individual human beings. The descriptions from chapter 4 refer to the eternal nature of the Tao at the macroscopic level. At the same time, they are also life lessons to us at the personal level.

To blunt the sharpness means being careful in what we say to others. Words can carry a sharp edge, and sometimes we say things that hurt others without meaning to. The wise cultivator of the Tao is someone who uses words in skillful and gentle ways.

Knots represent complexity. To unravel the knots means to reduce complexity. Those in tune with the Tao always seek to simplify life as much as possible. Living this way means freedom from clutter and greater peace of mind.

Glare in this context means mental brilliance. To dim this glare means not display or flaunt one's intelligence. People who understand the Tao tend to be very intelligent, but they are also low-key and do not wish to draw attention to themselves. They are secure in their self-knowledge, and therefore have no need to show off.

Dust is an often-used metaphor for the material world. To mix with dust means to participate fully in the worldly affairs of human society. Real cultivators of the Tao do not run away from civilization in order to live like a hermit in remote wilderness. Instead, they learn from social interactions, and measure their progress by how well they handle everyday life with other human beings.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Free Books for Prisoners

Question: Derek, I understand you donate copies of your Tao Te Ching translation to prisoners, and I have a friend who is currently incarcerated. I believe he can benefit from your writing, but as much as I like your translation, I think he would be more receptive to your stories. Do you have a similar program of donation for your other book, The Tao of Daily Life?

Answer: Yes, I do indeed give away both Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained and The Tao of Daily Life. The terms are exactly the same for both in that there is absolutely no charge - I will pay for the books as well as the shipping costs. If you are interested, you can visit the following links for more information:

Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained - Free Books for Prisoners

The Tao of Daily Life - Free Books for Prisoners

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ancestor Worship

Quesiton: Derek, I have always been under the impression that Chinese people practice ancestor worship, but recently a friend from Asia tells me that "worship" isn't really the right word. Can you explain this to me? Also, what is the relationship, if any, between ancestor worship and the Tao?

Ancestor: Your friend is correct, in that what the Chinese people actually do is express gratitude and commemorate the past in a ritualistic way. The ancestors are not being worshipped in a religious sense, so the term "ancestor worship" can give the wrong impression.

The true essence of the Chinese practice is very much connected to the Tao. Someone who cultivates the Tao appreciates everything that has taken place in order for the present moment to be exactly what it is. This appreciation certainly includes our parents, grandparents, and ancestors, for without them we would not exist.

If you would like to see more discussions on this topic, please take a look at the following:

Drink Water, Think of Source

Friday, January 11, 2008

Common Threads

Question: Derek, I have a question concerning the fundamental unity of all religions. For many years, I have studied both Christianity and Buddhism, and now I am reading your books and studying the Tao. The more I learn about the different spiritual traditions, the more it seems to me that despite their superficial differences, deep down they are very much alike. Do you notice the same thing? If you do, what would you say are the common threads that unite all traditions?

Answer: Yes, I agree. There really does seem to be something deep in the core of humanity that is the same regardless of your background of origin. It's something that resonates with the divine. For the lack of a better description, it seems to be a sense of awe, a sense of overwhelming wonder. Everyone has it, even those who do not consider themselves religious. Even atheist scientists, when they bear witness to the marvelous workings of the universe, can also resonate powerfully with this profound feeling.

I also find common threads in the beauty of music, art, and nature - indeed in every aspect of life. Manifestations of beauty have the power to reach deeply into the heart to touch this common core. Virtuoso performances, lines of poetry, panoramic vistas... these glimpses of sacred beauty move us and inspire us, transcending our differences and bringing us closer.

Among all the common threads that unite all spiritual traditions, the most central is the thread of love. This common thread surpasses all the rest, and unites not only all spiritual traditions, but all human beings. Love is the ultimate golden thread, weaving all of us together in an unbreakable, indestructible bond.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mystical Experiences

Question: Derek, I've been reading up on mystical experiences and find the subject fascinating. Why is it that some people have them while others do not? What can I do to have the experience myself?

Answer: No one can guarantee you mystical experiences, but you can increase the odds in your favor by understanding them better. Mystical experiences start out with the basic recognition that there is more to existence than what we can perceive with our physical senses. This is followed by the understanding that we are all connected to this unseen mystical domain at a fundamental level.

This leads to the question that if we are all fundamentally connected to the mystical, why can we not access that domain as easily as we walk into the next room? The answer is that most of the time we are distracted by the material world. As the Tao Te Ching says, when we are full of desires, we can only see the manifestation. It is only when we free ourselves of these distracting desires that we can see the mystical essence.

Mystical experiences are characterized by a sort of active tranquility, a serene dynamism. If we can quiet the mind completely, to match the natural tranquility of the Tao, we will find that following the connection back to the source becomes not only easy, but also effortless and spontaneous.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Truth Beyond Words

Question: Derek, I'm a newcomer to the Tao, and I've been told that in Taoism there are advanced teachings pointing to the Truth that cannot be spoken. Is this correct? And if so, can you direct me to them?

Answer: Yes, in the Tao we learn that Truth is beyond words. Not only spoken words, but written words as well. This is not something that requires time and effort to discover in the Tao. You literally cannot miss it, because it is clearly spelled out in the first line of the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching.

This central message is further reinforced by the other 80 chapters of the Tao Te Ching, where we learn that the way to fully understand the Truth is not to dwell on the words, but to go beyond them. While discussions and books can be valuable, we still must experience the Tao by living it, feeling it, acting from it and acting upon it. People cannot learn how to swim by talking about swimming; they have to get in the pool and start moving. It is the same with the Tao. We can become one with it if we are willing to jump right in and be fully immersed.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Love and Compassion

Question: Derek, what is the Tao perspective on love and compassion?

Answer: Love and compassion are the very nature of who we are. That is why we feel such happiness and joy when we have love, and why we long for it and look for it everywhere when we don't. It is also why there can be no defense against someone who treats us with kindness and compassion.

It is no accident that love and life are inextricably linked together. Love is the source of life, and life in turn is the source of love. Without love, life becomes meaningless; without life, we lack the means with which to express love to the fullest.

In chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says that reverence for the Tao is due not to command but to nature. It is the same with love and compassion. We need both and cherish both, not because we are under command to do so, but because it is natural to our very being. Love is the Tao of humanity.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Inner Peace

Question: Derek, for the year 2008 my goal is to create an environment where I can enjoy peace of mind. Do you have any suggestions from the Tao perspective as to how I can go about doing that?

Answer: Yes, but the Tao perspective is about inner peace leading to outer peace, not the other way around. We need to let go of the idea that how we feel internally is dependent on the external world, and embrace the concept that ultimately it is the internal landscape that becomes reflected as physical manifestations externally. The illusion is that we are victims of circumstances beyond our control; the reality is that we are powerful creators of our own personal reality.

What this means, specifically, is that if we are unable to accept ourselves in the present moment - if we keep revisiting the past with regret or resentment - then it won't matter how quiet our environment is, or how much we resort of practices like meditation. We may achieve temporary calmness, but lasting peace will still remain elusive, beyond our reach.

The Tao Te Ching says "returning to the root is called tranquility." This is a clear direction to us on finding peace. We need to go back to the basics, to the root of the true self. If we can be at peace within, we will be able to address spiritual turmoil at the root level. Only after that will the path to real peace of mind be revealed to us. Thus, the best recommendation I can give is to turn your attention inward, establish your tranquility within, and then let it radiate outward naturally and effortlessly.