love of life

To look for life
is to find death.
The thirteen organs of our living
are the thirteen organs of our dying.
Why are the organs of our life
where death enters us?
Because we hold too hard to living.

So I’ve heard
if you live in the right way,
when you cross the country
you needn’t fear to meet a mad bull or tiger;
when you’re in battle
you needn’t fear the weapons.
The bull would find nowhere to jab its horns,
the tiger nowhere to stick its claws,
the sword nowhere for its point to go.
Why? Because there’s nowhere in you
for death to enter.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Last night we began the new season of Chef’s Table, which begins with the monk Jeong Kwan, which is fascinating for a lot of reasons, but especially within the context of the show. Chef’s Table is centered around the greatest chefs in the world and the story of their careers. Often these have a sort of rags to riches feel, where a young child becomes inspired by food, seeks skill in the big cities, only to discover a beauty and culinary transcendence in their native cultural cuisine, which leads to world renown.

But Jeong Kwan has no career. She has no restaurant. She’s simply a Buddhist monk at a temple in South Korea. She lives simply, cooks simply, and has simple beliefs about food and life.

It was beautiful. My favorite episode of the series, which is saying something since I really really love this show. But the pure joy you see in Jeong Kwan is impossible to ignore. Even if you weren’t having world renown chefs and critics talk about her food being on par with any world class chef on the planet, it would still be inspiring.

Something I don’t think I’ve ever talked with anyone about is that I often have the desire to become a monk. Less so these days, now that I’m married and have a different sort of life. But before I met Chelsea, I really never thought I’d get married, and there was so much of life that I found…distasteful.

The life of a monk held a certain appeal. Sometimes a very strong appeal. And, oddly, I imagined doing it in the same way Jeong Kwan did–to just disappear one day and go to a temple.

And, who knows, maybe some day I’ll come back to that, when this path I’ve taken in life winds down.

I find it a strange desire, since I’m not a Buddhist or anything even similar. As I’ve said, I’m not even a Taoist, despite these daily meditations on the Tao.

I think it’s the simplicity of that life. The beauty in simplicity. The stillness. The quietness.

It’s something I’m always trying to discover through my own art, and always failing, I fear. But I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of stillness and silence. I think because my life is so loud. Because life itself is so loud. But even my own life. Right now, I’m listening to music. I’m almost always listening to something. I spend very little of my life in silence, and I think it’s because I’m afraid of silence, as much as I desire it.

It’s a strange thing to talk about.

This poem, today, makes me think of Jeong Kwan. Especially the second stanza, because I can imagine her facing down armies or beasts and coming away unharmed, still smiling.

Her philosophy of cooking is her philosophy of life. It’s Buddhism, obviously, and there’s a certain appeal to Buddhism. It’s not for me, for a variety of reasons, but I do like it in practice, through I often find it philosophically unpleasant. Or, I should even qualify the appeal of its practice, since Buddhism is very different in different places, and it’s sometimes quite bloody and vicious.

Anyrate, Jeong Kwan talks about food and life and the body almost as if they’re one thing. And I love that. I love the transience of life that it represents. I love how life and death are wild and unknowable but never unexpected. There’s a beauty there, in not clinging to life, but in accepting it. Accepting it along with death, as natural processes, no different than farming or eating.

And ultimately, this poem is about the transience of life. How clinging to life will bring misery upon us. Rather, we should enjoy life for what it is. We should absolutely revel in the sunlight and the moonlight, sing and dance for the beauty of existence. But we should accept that we will grow old. We will die. And there’s a beauty there, in acceptance.

trust and power

The wise have no mind of their own,
finding it in the minds
of ordinary people.

They’re good to good people
and they’re good to bad people.
Power is goodness.
They trust people of good faith
and they trust people of bad faith.
Power is trust.

They mingle their life with the world,
they mix their mind up with the world.
Ordinary people look after them.
Wise souls are children.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The next to last line is usually read as saying that ordinary people watch and listen to wise people. But Lao Tzu has already told us that most of us wander on and off the Way and don’t know a sage from a sandpile. And surely the quiet Taoist is not a media pundit.

Similarly, the last line is taken to mean that the wise treat ordinary people like children. This is patronizing, and makes hash out of the first verse. I read it to mean that the truly wise are looked after (or looked upon) like children because they’re trusting, unprejudiced, and don’t hold themselves above or apart from ordinary life.

Simple, quiet, still, but always things get done. A teacher, a leader who does not act, but people follow.

Taoism is tricky, and Lao Tzu often looks at it from the outside, the way many of his contemporaries must have looked at him and his followers. And he’s okay with treating himself ridiculously, with mocking Taoist practices and ideas.

But the core that we see from Taoism is a kind of serene belief in the goodness of people. That doing things well, that being kind, that behaving in a prosocial manner will create a sort of rippling effect of change.

Be the change you wish to see in the world and all that. Taoism takes that as a truism, and then acts upon it. In this way, Taoists seem naive, utopic, idealistic: childish. But it’s in remaining open and empathetic as a child that you create a more promising world. A kinder world.

Power is goodness.

Power is trust.

These sentences and ideas are simple, but their ramifications are complex and complicated, because we’ve been trained for thousands of years that Might is Right. Taoism sees that idea as the refuge of cowards, of simpletons. And while killing those who oppose you may be effective, it will not create a more stable or comforting world. And those who must use violence to prove that they are correct will never find your subservience to be enough. It will always lead to more violence, to greater cruelty.

The difficult thing is finding a way to act against violence while refusing violence.

The Tao is that other way. And it’s why all hope is not lost.

Since Trump became president, much of the US has become a chaotic and unpleasant mindscape. But, at the same time, we’re seeing active participation in the political process on a scope not seen in decades. It is not violence that will combat totalitarianism, but organization and action.

Part of me thinks the best thing the media could do is to ignore Trump. No longer discuss his tweets and no longer bother to interview him.

With most would-be dictators, this would be a disaster. But with Trump, I think it would drive him insane until he’s begging for someone to just watch him. To just look at him, to just listen.

What I mean to say is that we are seeing the world respond to a violent ideology, and it’s through increased compassion and generosity. And that’s a beautiful thing.


Studying and learning daily you grow larger.
Following the Way daily you shrink.
You get smaller and smaller.
So you arrive at not doing.
You do nothing and nothing’s not done.

To run things,
don’t fuss with them.
Nobody who fusses
is fit to run things.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

It seems as if Lao Tzu is advocating for ignorance here, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a difficulty of the simplicity of the language.

We grow larger as we learn because the world broadens for us. Once you begin learning, there are so many things to learn!

The distinction, I think–or at least this is how I read it–is that much of what we learn is fruitless for us. Or rather, much of what we learn is ideology. We learn patriotism, capitalism, and how to fit into the gears of the machine that is the capitalist world.

And so much of what we learn can be seen as a learning how to dehumanize us.

It’s something I’ve always struggled with when it comes to most philosophy. For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have argued for the necessity of war and slavery and abuse. They’ve made arguments that brush off the extreme human cost of civilization’s policies. And yet, any child understands what cruelty is, and why it’s better to be kind than to be cruel.

And so we teach ourselves to be cruel.

The Tao offers a different way.

And though I don’t know if this is what Lao Tzu means in this poem, it makes sense to me in this manner.

The goal is not to become ignorant. It’s to understand what teachings matter, which ones are valuable.

looking far

You don’t have to go out the door
to know what goes on in the world.
You don’t have to look out the window
to see the way of heaven.
The farther you go,
the less you know.

So the wise soul
doesn’t go, but knows;
doesn’t look, but sees;
doesn’t do, but gets it done.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

We have a tendency to mythologize travel and experiences gained doing so. But Lao Tzu makes a case against the necessity of traveling the world in order to understand it.

It’s worth noting, here, the differences between the current world and the ancient one. Travel now is much easier, which may actually do less for opening our eyes to the world than it would have even a few decades ago.

I disagree, here, with Lao Tzu. I think travel is absolutely essential to understanding who we are. I don’t mean that in a personal sense, but in the sense of our species. I think our humanness depends on our ability to understand the world beyond our culutres, and even beyond our experiences.

Lao Tzu makes the latter point. That to know a people is to know all people. I think that makes sense, in a general way. The act of travel changes nothing. And if you’re uncurious at home, you’ll likely remain so abroad. If you think travel will teach you more about yourself, you’re sure to be disappointed as well.

Trading skies won’t change who you are. It’ll just make you aware of yourself in a new context.

Sometimes that’s important, but I don’t really think it is.

It’s silly for me to sit here and advocate for not traveling, since I’ve spent so many years traveling and enjoying it. But traveling taught me nothing about myself that I couldn’t have learned from staying home. It did, however, teach me about nationalism, about patriotism, about jingoism. Those are lessons worth learning, and I think stepping outside of your home country tells you far more about your country than anything else.

I was thinking about patriotism just this morning, and what a silly, violent notion it is.

But, yes, so I think travel is essential to one type of learning. But it is less likely to change your personality or who you are as a human. Those lessons can come right in your own town.

I also think it’s true that the farther you go, the less you know. Or rather, you become aware of how ignorant you are of so many things. The world opens up but not necessarily to you. You look at new cultures and find resistance because they are not yours. They did not shape you.

How you react to that is interesting.

But sometimes the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. And endless chasm of knowing and unknowing.

So travel. Travel wide and far. But also look inward, to yourself. Come to know who you are.

Knowledge is a form of resistance, and the Tao Te Ching is, I think, fundamentally a text of resistance. Of change. Of creating new ways.

And the first step is often understanding who you are. You cannot change the world if you don’t first change yourself.

wanting less

When the world’s on the Way,
they use horses to haul manure.
When the world gets off the Way,
they breed warhorses on the common.

The greatest evil: wanting more.
The worst luck: discontent.
Greed’s the curse of life.

To know enough’s enough
is enough to know.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

I love that last stanza. Its simplicity and brevity and veracity.

This is similar to the previous couple poems, where contentment is seen as a higher value. Power and wealth are not necessarily bad or improper, but the desire for power and wealth is an inherently destructive force in your life and the lives of those around you.

When we stop following the Tao, we seek violence and wealth, and we will find ourselves forever unsatisfied. Nothing will calm the greed that poisons us. The want within us. The absence eating away at us.

And so know when you have what you need, and let that be enough for you.

This can apply to all things in life, from the trivial to the profound: know what you need and be satisfied with receiving that.

This will lead to contentment, and contentment is peace, happiness.

Let it enfold you.

real power

What’s perfectly whole seems flawed,
but you can use it forever.
What’s perfectly full seems empty,
but you can’t use it up.

True straightness looks crooked.
Great skill looks clumsy.
Real eloquence seems to stammer.

To be comfortable in the cold, keep moving;
to be comfortable in the heat, hold still;
to be comfortable in the world, stay calm and clear.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

More balance and harmony of disparate images and ideas, and then it ends in clear and simple statements that are hard to argue with. Movement will keep you warm in the cold, stillness will keep you cool in the heat, and calmness and clarity will make life more pleasant in the world.

I think this is what draws me continually back to the Tao and this text. The simplicity. The stillness. The calmness. And the clarity.

I know some will read this and find it opaque, but, as I’ve said many times, it all fits so easily into me. These words, the simple language used. Perhaps it’s because life is sometimes so complicated that I want to reduce it down to its fundamental parts. Perhaps it’s a sort of utopic idealisation.

But I think it’s something more. Something even simpler. It’s a comfort to simplify and clarify your life and intentions. Things become muddled and complicated because we lack clarity, vision, sincerity, and calmness. The world is such an anxious realm. Overflowing with anxiety and nervousness. It’s easy to get sucked in and believe that the neurosis of modern life is a necessity rather than a symptom of the disease created by humanity’s disharmony with the earth.

And so I often want to get back to this simplicity, this clarity, this sincerity, this humor, and find the Way through the anxiety and restlessness that is a plague incubated and spread by us.

Be calm. Be still. Find clarity.

Consider this for today.

fame and fortune

Which is nearer,
name or self?
Which is dearer,
self or worth?
Which gives more pain,
loss or gain?

All you grasp will be thrown away.
All you hoard will be utterly lost.

Contentment keeps disgrace away.
Restraint keeps you out of danger
so you can go on for a long, long time.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

These are not such strange questions or ideas. They exist in just about every ideology. These are questions about what we value in life and what we wish to have. Do we want a long life of contentment, or do we want a life of acquisition?

The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but it seems that they often are.

And so it’s not strange that the Tao Te Ching would ask these questions or even make a value judgment against personal fortune. It’s a commonly held belief across cultures, I think, that those with great monetary wealth are often lacking in some other way. Typically, we’d say this is a spiritual lack, but I tend to shy away from such statements. And so I think that contentment is perhaps the better word here.

Because that’s often at the heart of these poems: the search for contentment. To be content with being an outsider, an idiosyncratic thinker. We lead and teach through demonstration. We shun or at least do not strive for wealth or fame or recognition. Rather, the Tao asks us to find peace, harmony with ourselves. Often the way to get there is by stepping into the rhythm of the world, following the Way, listening to the Tao that is all things.

Wealth is what you make it, and it needn’t be money. But if all you seek is recognition, wealth, power, you will find it fleeting, never satiating, and absent once our lives extinguish.