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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.