"The most abundant seems empty."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 45
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The most complete seems lacking.
Yet in use it is not exhausted.
The most abundant seems empty.
Yet in use it is not drained.
The most straight seems curved.
The most able seems clumsy.
The most eloquent seems to stutter.
Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
Peace and quiet govern the world.
Things aren't what they seem. We should not trust our
perception, because it's rooted in our own mind's
preconceptions. We often only see what we want to see, or what
we expect to see. That may make life seem more agreeable to
us, but it certainly flaws our judgment. Therefore, our
actions easily go astray.
What is complete is whole, whereas we have a
tendency to break things apart in order to find a quantity that
overwhelms us. The whole is just one. We want many, and
we don't see how anything less can be sufficient. But
when parts are separated from the whole, they stop to
function and deteriorate. Only the complexity of the whole is
enough for all and forever.
Vast abundance is not perceivable, so we experience it
as diluted and desolate. What is everywhere is invisible to
us, like the air around us. Our perception is focused on
anomalies, on things that deviate from the mean.
That might be practical for our survival, but it also
confuses our understanding of the world. We tend to make
exceptions the rule, and miss the fundamental order of things.
The Fragile Environment
Also, sadly, we underestimate the importance of the
fundamental components of our world. It took us far too long
to realize our dependence on the environment we live in,
because we have taken it for granted.
Lao Tzu's philosophy is firmly environmentalist,
although his text precedes the invention of the word
with more than two thousand years. He urges mankind to
avoid interfering with the natural processes, or we do harm
That's because we don't observe their importance,
since we can't see their greatness. We cease to be aware of
what we take for granted.
So, we have thoughtlessly polluted the very air that
we breathe, because we can't see it. We also poison the
water that we drink and the soil on which we grow what we
eat. We treat our whole world as if it's dispensable.
Only now, on the verge collapse, have we been forced
to realize the delicacy and importance of balance.
As for human perfection, we find it so rarely that we
don't know what to make of it.
Those who really choose their words with care
seem hesitant, even unsure. Something very similar is seen
with those who really master some craft. They go about it with
a calm that can be mistaken for incompetence, but the
result is flawless and it's accomplished with amazing swiftness.
Refined movements look slow, because we
perceive them clearly. The one who seems to move the slowest in
a race is often the winner of it. When the foremost
athletes excel in their sports, it looks so easy that we imagine we
can do the same. That's the sign of perfection.
When Lao Tzu points out that movement overcomes
cold and stillness overcomes heat, he points out the
importance of balance. We know it to be quite true. Movement raises
the temperature, and stillness decreases it. When we are cold
we should get going and when we are hot we should
That is also true for situations where the temperature
is symbolic. In a heated argument, silence is called for.
When relations get chilled and indifference grows, we
should spring into action.
The world benefits the most from peace and quiet,
a state of balance and harmony. We can contribute to this
if we remain sensitive to what is needed, and what is not.
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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