Tao Te Ching Chapter2

by Jin, 08-14-08 // 14 comments

天 下 皆 知 美 之 為 美 ,斯 惡 已 ; 皆 知 善 之 為 善 ,斯 不 善 已 。
故 有 無 相 生 ,難 易 相 成 ,長 短 相 形 ,高 下 相 盈 ,音 聲 相 和 ,前 後 相 隨 。
是 以 聖 人 處 無 為 之 事 ,行 不 言 之 教 。
萬 物 作 而 弗 始 ,生 而 弗 有 , 為 而 弗 恃 ,功 成 而 不 居 。
夫 唯 弗 居 ,是 以 不 去 。

If we adore beauty alone and ignore the ugliness, then beauty isn’t true.
If we’re fixated on kindness only and forget the unkind, then kindness is superficial.
That’s why the truth comes from balancing the opposing forces such as full vs. void; long vs. short; high vs. low; voice vs. melody; front vs. back.
One’s actions and words must be based on natural selflessness(Wu Wei).
Just like how the universe operates: it creates without possessing, nourishes without wanting, succeeds without boasting.
When one follows the selfless way of Tao, he/she will be as eternal.


My wife and I love steak. There’s nothing better than a hefty piece of ribeye t-bone thick cut steak fresh off the grill, still sizzling with its meaty melody, smoldering with the aroma that massages every nerve from the nostril all the way to the back of the head. I prefer mine rare and seasoned with nothing but Mccormick. When I put a slice in the mouth, it’s like a piece of heaven just melted on my tongue. It’s that good. Before we had kids, we had a lot of steak, almost all the time, perhaps too much. Life sure changes fast. Three kids and a D.C. mortgage later, we find ourselves hardly spending any money on ourselves. Steak is expensive. But after a while, I started to miss steak. Not for its taste, but as a reminder of the quality time my wife and I spent when it was just the two of us. We decided to grill steak once a month to treat ourselves. That way, we’re not putting much of a dent on saving, and we get to indulge a bit. Life has been good since.

Chapter two of Tao Te Ching introduces two key Taoism concepts: Balance and Wu Wei.

Balance

Balance is achieved when the equilibrium is reached between two opposing aspects. But how do we find balance if we don’t have an equal amount of awareness and understanding of the two aspects? Lao Zi uses simple analogies to illustrate the point that knowledge and wisdom lie in the contrast. Knowing the contrast, one can find balance. As kids, we were taught simple concepts Lao Zi mentioned. High vs. low and long vs. short are ideas even a three year old can grasp. But what about the other things in life that are not as obvious?

A father who focuses too much effort and time on his career, hoping to earn more money to buy his kids nice things may miss out what’s truly important: time spent with his kids. Conversely, a man who does the opposite may not secure a job that can offer his family a comfortable living.

As we grow older and journey further in the paths of life, we encounter more situations that call for a balance. Sometimes the forces, or aspects in these situations may not be as clearcut as black and white. At home, I face frugality vs. self-indulgence; time with kids or the wife or quiet time to myself; family vs. a night out with friends. At work doing web design, I have to balance between function vs. form; artistry vs. content; my assertion vs. client’s inputs. These are just a few examples.

If we’re too focused on one side, we’d only be seeing the grand scheme of things through a tiny window. There’s a Chinese saying: “A frog that lives in the bottom of the well thinks the sky is round.” Understanding the opposites allows us to think objectively, otherwise it’s very easy to slip into a state of dichotomy and extremism.

Wu Wei

Many English translations I’ve read have 無 為 Wu Wei as “non-action.” Wu means “none” or “void,” and Wei means “action.” Even though “non-action” is a correct literal translation, I feel it doesn’t do the word justice.

So what is Wu Wei? Well obviously it’s not just sitting there doing nothing. Wu Wei is when you do something good and kind, you do it so naturally that you don’t realize what you just did. You don’t do a good deed for the sake of doing a good deed or hoping to be praised; doing so makes it superficial therefore not good. This is a simple concept to grasp, but extremely hard to live by. Motivated actions lead to expectations. When those expectations are not met, that’s when you cause stress upon yourself. In my younger years, much of my anxiety was self-imposed. When I helped people I’d expect gratefulness or payback in return. Looking back, if I practiced Wu Wei I would have saved myself a lot of grief. Of course, it’s easier said than done. I think we all have the instinct of wanting to be praised or acknowledged. It’s something I’m still working on.

14 comments

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Bryan Chain 08-14-08

Nice article. I think balance is something almost everyone understands, and recognize, yet not many can live by, myself included.

Wu Wei is a concept I am not familiar with but I do enjoy your interpretation of it, and I feel it fits well within the words this chapter portrays.

Void Action makes sense to imply that it is an action you would perform, such as a good deed, without feeling like you did something. Indeed. As if you lived a life according to this, you would simply be a good person, and doing good things would go completely unnoticed by you in your day-to-day.

Doing something nice, or working extra hard, simply to earn praise is definitely the wrong reason.

Actions speak louder than words. Some of the most accomplished athletes, writers, gamers, etc, are the ones who simply act, via void action, because that is how they live, not because they expect a pat on the back.

Anna 08-15-08

It seems that if most of the population would just follow the edicts of chapter 2, the world would be a much better place to live in.

Anna 09-17-08

I crave steak.

om 10-22-08

se vegetariano, eso es wuwei!!!

Jin 10-22-08

@om, I don’t speak Spanish… but i’m guessing you don’t like steak :)

Teck Hua 10-29-08

It’s commendable of you to translate ancient texts written in terse classical Chinese into plain English. I’m in no position to critique your works but I felt you had pretty much captured the essences of this Chinese classic. Your lucid interpretations & correlations probably had help (Western) readers to grasp unfamiliar Oriental concepts. I like the part where you share your own anecdotes.

So when’s the next installment coming out?

Jin 10-29-08

Thank you Teck. I have chapter3 written a while back. Still making some revisions and will publish it soon. TTC is harder to interpret than I expected :)

Anna 10-29-08

Seriously, Jin. Some of us are keeping up with your blog primarily for the Tao translations. Don’t leave us hanging!

Mary 10-08-09

Any chance you are continuing? Your translations are beautiful

Mary 10-08-09

I have read a couple translations, I am living toward Tao

I also think Lao Zi was a wise woman, not man. Who else would say things like this? Or give up on a ruler and leave the castle in the dark, with a humble beast of burden to move on in life giving up on the dream of counseling someone who needs it?

Jin 10-08-09

Mary, thank you for the kinds words. I will continue it. I just don’t know when. The more I feel I’m getting closer to true understanding of Lao Zi’s teaching, the more I feel I shouldn’t talk about it.

After all, Tao is lived, not studied. :)

Samuel 12-21-09

Jin, that sounds like a reason never to have published in the first place (:

Echoing Mary’s comment, I hope you find reason to continue.

Samuel 12-21-09

(I mean never to have published the original, not your posts on the first two chapters.)

Anon 01-30-13

Hi Jin, any luck on next chapters. Chapter 1 and 2 are quite inspiring.