"Without desire there is stillness."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 37
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The Way is ever without action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If princes and kings can abide by this,
All things will form themselves.
If they form themselves and desires arise,
I subdue them with nameless simplicity.
Nameless simplicity will indeed free them from desires.
Without desire there is stillness,
And the world settles by itself.
Tao Te Ching is traditionally divided into two parts. One
is called Tao, the Way, simply because its first chapter
begins with that word, and the other is called Te, virtue,
because that's the word its first chapter begins with. This, the
37th chapter of the book, is the last of the first part.
In the two manuscripts found in Mawangdui, dating
to around the year 200 BC, the two parts have the
opposite order. There, the whole book ends with this chapter –
quite suitably with the words about the stillness in which
the world settles by itself.
In spite of the Mawangdui manuscripts, I present
the book in its traditionally established order. Otherwise
it would get complicated for the reader to compare
different versions of the text. Also, it's the path taken by most
experts on this classic.
Myself, I find that the first chapter defining Tao, and
the last one stating the purpose of the noble man's Tao,
make perfect sense as the beginning and the end of the book.
So, in spite of the Mawangdui manuscripts, I am inclined
to trust the traditional order of the chapters more.
As for the word `simplicity' used in this chapter, its
pictogram is the one for the uncarved wood, which is an
image of utter simplicity that Lao Tzu favors in the book. He
has used it several times before this chapter.
This image presents simplicity as a rough and
unrefined state of affairs, a natural form before altered by cultural
or other ambitions. Things as they are before human
When Lao Tzu also calls it nameless, he hints on its
close relation to Tao, the Way, since namelessness is one of
its traits. This was pointed out already in the first
chapter, which states that the way that can be walked is not the
real Way, and the name that can be named is not the real
name of it.
The uncarved wood lacking a name is similar to Tao,
in the sense of being beyond description. The simplicity
that can free all things of desire is not just any simplicity, but
that of Tao, the simple truth behind all.
Tao needs not act, since its law decides how
everything else has to act. If rulers abide, they follow the same law
instead of fighting it. Then things will happen by
themselves and the turn of events will be natural, according to the
terms of the universe. Things move on as they should.
The word desire is used in 15 of the 81 chapters of the
Tao Te Ching
(chapters 1, 3, 15, 19, 29, 34, 36, 37, 39, 46, 57, 61,
64, 66, 77). The Chinese word, yu
, isn't directed just at
sexual desires, but at any kinds of longings, wants, lusts,
Lao Tzu doesn't really ban it, but he is clear about
the benefit of being free of it. Desire is part of the human
character, and therefore hard to avoid. There is no point in
trying to suppress it completely, but those who follow Tao
will find a way to make it dissolve.
In the sage, it no longer decides what action to take.
Desire is what risks interfering with the natural
process, this chapter tells us. Greed is a kind of desire. So is
hunger for power, and that for making a mark in history.
When people interfere with the natural chain of events, they
want to change them into more personally profitable
outcomes. That disturbs the order of all. It has no chance of
succeeding, but it can cause a lot of damage before failing.
Personal desire is as easy to understand as it is likely
to appear, especially with people who have the power to
make them imagine that they can fulfill it. We all want to make
the most of our lives. If that means countering the natural
cause of things, then we will make a lot of noise, cause a lot
of trouble, but at the end we will find that we
accomplished nothing durable.
We do better to accept things as they are, and find
our place inside these patterns. There is a good place to be
found for everyone, without upsetting the harmony. Actually,
only by joining with the harmony are we ever likely to find
© Stefan Stenudd.
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