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"Who can wait in stillness while the mud settles?"

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 15

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


15

Ancient masters of excellence had a subtle essence,

And a depth too profound to comprehend.

Because they were impossible to comprehend,

I will try to describe them by their appearance.


Cautious, like crossing a river in the winter.

Wary, as if surrounded by strangers.

Dignified, like a guest.

Yielding, like ice about to melt.

Simple, like uncarved wood.

Open, like a valley.

Obscure, like muddy waters.


Who can wait in stillness while the mud settles?

Who can rest until the moment of action?


He who holds on to the Way seeks no excess.

Since he lacks excess,

He can grow old in no need to be renewed.



Ancient Excellence

In the Eastern tradition as well as many other cultures around the world, the past has been regarded as superior to the present. The ancestors were supposed to be wiser and nobler, their society more advanced, and their lives richer in every way.

       Our present Western style society is practically unique in having the reversed perspective, which probably started with the scientific revolution in the 17th century. Through history, the most common sentiment has been that the past was superior, the more distant the better, and the future had little more to offer than decay.

       Lao Tzu also supported this view, as can be seen in this chapter. He believed that ancient man was closer to Tao, the Way, and therefore lived a wiser, more harmonious life. As people gradually deviated from Tao, their lives became more chaotic and burdened. He wanted his readers to return to Tao, thereby recreating the blessed world of old.

       His perspective was no mystery, considering that the most precious and impressive things around him were preserved from past times. So were the palaces and most glorious works of art, so was agriculture and other skills to make life pleasant, and so were the books written with the most profound wisdom and poetic refinement.

       Anyone in the days of Lao Tzu would marvel at the heritage from past centuries, and see few equally great contributions by his own generation. It made sense to regard the past as the golden era.


Imitate the Past

Still, Lao Tzu's intent is not to glorify the past, but to teach the present. He wants his readers to learn from the example of the ancient sages. We may not comprehend their wisdom fully, but when copying their behavior we learn by doing. Behaving wisely promotes wisdom.

       Aristotle would have called it mimesis, imitation. The ancient Greeks were aware of human learning largely being done by imitation. Children imitate their parents. This is how most of the human knowledge and experience is passed on.

       So, what is the behavior of the ancient sages that we should copy? In this and other chapters, Lao Tzu makes it clear: The role model is practically the reverse of splendid royalty. Instead of luxury and elevation, the sage should seek a humble place, simplicity, and calm.

       The sage should rather wait than spring into action, not to make shortsighted mistakes. He should be modest, not to provoke envy. He should be thoughtful and cautious even about things that others regard as insignificant. The stronger his power, the softer his use of it.

       This way, the sage is close to the nature of Tao, thereby understanding its workings. It's the Way of living close to nature, or more precisely: close to the natural.

       These days, we seem to seek the very opposite. We long for fame and glory, but forget that the more this is bestowed on us, the less the chances are that we can prove worthy of it. Others will not praise us in their hearts, but say: "That could just as well be me."

       A society that glorifies some of its citizens promotes envy, competition, and calamity – unfortunately also stupidity. If we make superficial things our quests, we only find what we searched for, which is superficiality. To reach the profound, we must do away with distractions of that kind. Otherwise the mud never settles, and we never see clearly.

       The ancient masters, according to Lao Tzu, knew to renounce nonsense, until only the essence remained. Nowadays, we are probably farther from that than ever before. In that sense, Lao Tzu might be right about the golden era of mankind being in the distant past.

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





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