Historical Background

▪ The Taoist texts we have come to know in the translations of the Tao Te Ching were collected during the Warring States period in China, a time of great turmoil and danger for the common man. As such, the philosophy embodied in the legendary texts of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu places great emphasis upon the value of survival and points to the path of least resistance as the surest road to security and peace of mind. It makes a strong case for the wisdom of “lying low,” without aspirations or pretensions, which may bring inner turmoil, discontent, or even physical harm.


▪ Tao means basically “way,” or “course”; the course of nature. Lao-tzu said the way of the functioning of the Tao is tzu-jan, or “so of itself”; that is to say, it is spontaneous. Watch again what is going on. If you approach it with this wise ignorance, you will see that you are witnessing a happening. In other words, in this primal way of looking at things there is no difference between what you do, on the one hand, and what happens to you, on the other. It is all the same process. Just as your thoughts happen, the car happens outside, and so the clouds and the stars

Water and Low Places

▪ So li suggests, then, the order of flow, the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid, because Lao-tzu likens Tao to water: The great Tao flows everywhere, to the left and to the right, It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them. For as he comments elsewhere, water always seeks the lowest level, which men abhor because we are always trying to play games of one-upmanship. But Laotzu explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree, but if they do the tree will collapse. That is the fallacy of American democracy. You, too, might become president, but the result is that no one in their right mind would want to be president. After all, who wants to be put in charge of a runaway truck? Lao-tzu says the basic position is the most powerful, and this we can see at once in judo or in aikido?)In the arts of self-defense, you always get underneath the opponent, so he falls over you if he attacks you

Don’t Force “Passivity”

▪ And I am always being asked when I talk about things, “If people did what you suggest, wouldn’t they become terribly passive?” Well, from a superficial point of view I would suggest that a certain amount of passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture, because we  are always creating trouble by doing good to other people. We wage wars for other people’s benefit and attempt to help those living in “underdeveloped” counties, not realizing that in the process we may destroy their way of life. Economies and cultures that have coexisted in ecological balance for thousands of years have been disrupted all around the world, with often disastrous results. So, a certain amount of doing nothing would allow everything to cool down. And in ceasing to rush around, it will come to light that passivity is the root of action. 

For goodness’ sake, don’t cultivate passivity as a form of progress: that is like playing because having fun is good for your work. So don’t force it, because when you try to force an issue, that just wears you out. When you force a lock, you usually bend the key, so instead, jiggle gently. Anyone who knows how to conduct business always jiggles the key to find the right moment to open the lock, and then it all happens as if it were natural and not forced. Therefore, appreciation of the watercourse will give you the sense that your life is a “flowing.

▪ So, “not forcing” is wu wei. In other words, Ta o accomplishes all Things without forcing them

Therefore, you must realize that the watercourse way is not a way of complete limpness. Water has weight, and its energy is gravity, and therefore it has strength. That is the secret of wu wei. 

Using our full intelligence

waiting before acting

▪ When you really want to find an answer to something, what you need to do is contemplate the problem. Visualize your question as well as you can, and then simply wait. If you don’t, and if instead you try to find the solution through brute mental strength, you may be disappointed, because any solution that comes in that way is likely to be wrong. But’ when you have waited for a while, the solution will come of itself. That is how to use your brain, and it will work for you in the same way that your stomach will digest your food for you without your having to supervise it consciously. Our attempts to supervise everything consciously have all led to consequences that aren’t too good for our stomach, and the reason for that is quite simple. Conscious attention, which employs words, cannot think of very much. We are forced, therefore, to ignore almost everything while we are thinking. We think along a single track, but the world doesn’t proceed along a single track. The world is everything happening altogether everywhere, and you just can’t take all of that into consideration because there isn’t time. However, your brain can take it all into consideration because it is capable of handling innumerable variables at once, even though your conscious attention cannot.

▪ We are much more intelligent than we understand ourselves to be. So, when a neurologist admits that he has only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the nervous system, he is actually saying that his own nervous system is smarter than he is

Lazier and smarter

Following the watercourse way argues always for a high order of intelligence, for it is more intelligent to sail a boat than to row it, even though sailing is a lazier way of doing it.


▪ This brings us to a very fascinating fact that we are unaware of, which is that so-called separate things are not really separate: they are joined by space. We always think of space as separating, but remember that which separates also joins. That is why the word cleave is so interesting. It means both to stick to and to divide

▪ If I visit a waterfall a few seconds later, it is not the same waterfall. It is falling the same way, in the same style, but the water is all new. So, in the same way, when I meet you today, you have the same pattern, even though all your atoms may be new. Therefore, it is the pattern that matters. 

Conditioned to feel separate

▪ But I am inviting you to become immensely aware of the fact that if you are constantly afraid of falling apart, you must therefore have an inevitable sense of being alone, of being a particular, isolated form, unlike any other form on earth. You are just you, and if you concentrate on that, you ought to be able to feel that aloneness without the slightest difficulty. It isn’t as if I’m asking you to feel some kind of unusual transcendental sensation, or something like that. I’m just asking you to feel the very ordinary sensation of you being you, and being alone. Now, focus on that sensation of distinctness. I will even call it a sensation of separateness. We have all been brought up to feel separate. We have been brought up to feel actually disjoined from the external world, although that isn’t our true state at all

▪ The thing to do with any feeling you don’t like is to experience it as deeply as possible, to go into the inmost depths of loneliness, for instance, and indeed even into the inmost depths of selfishness. Now, are you selfish? Lots of people try to pretend they aren’t. But Krishnamurti showed that all the people who seem to be very good and seem to have the highest ideals are really motivated by the same sort of desires as people who rob banks. Only they give their desires a more noble name, so as to better conceal them. 

▪ Lao-tzu takes it up in the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching when he says, “When all the world understands beauty to be beautiful, there is already ugliness. When all the world understands goodness to be good, there is already evil.” Thus, “to be” and “not to be” arise mutually, and so always arrive together. High and low give rise to each other. Long and short are positioned mutually. Lao-tzu then goes through a long list of opposites to show that they invariably create each other. 

▪ The profound meaning underneath this story is that there is no self without the existence of an other. And, to return to my original point, every creature in the world feels it is a self, that is to say, human. And it does so because in this situation the thing it feels as itself, with its separate identity, is supported by the equal and opposite sensation of otherness.

Confusing menu with the food

▪ When you enter into the world of conceptualization, you begin to fall into the fundamental fallacy of civilization, which is to value the world of symbol above the world that the symbol represents. In our culture we have taken this to the wildest extremes, so that legally you don’t exist unless you possess a birth certificate or a passport, 

▪ The described world and the real world are incommensurable, and one must never lose sight of that fact, because you start eating the menu instead of the dinner and swallowing the money instead of the food it can buy. Yet people characteristically do just that. And therefore, the people who have been hypnotized and bewitched by words have to be dehypnotized and brought back to the world in which we live. 

No goal

in meditation ▪ we don’t really understand that we cannot be in a state of what could truly be called meditation, or contemplation, as I prefer, if we are seeking that state for some purpose or profit, or in the expectation that some kind of result or benefit might flow from it. The moment you have those desires or expectations, you are no longer in a state of meditation, you are bothered about concepts instead. Meditation is the one activity, or the one science, as it were, that has no goal in the sense of seeking an objective for the future. 

Purpose in life?

▪ But it bothers us, especially if we are Western industrial people, to encounter a philosophy of no purpose or future objective. When we say of something “It has no future,” that is equivalent to saying it is bad. But the word purpose and the word meaning can be used in different ways. Often when we speak of a meaningless life or a purposeless life, in a negative, derogatory way, we are actually referring to a person who lives life for extremely short-term purposes. In contrast to that, a meaningful life is generally understood to be one devoted to long-term purposes, what we call serious matters. However, the Taoist standpoint is neither of these because a Taoist would probably have thought through the question of meaning very carefully and would have realized that there is something spurious about most of our purposes, whether long-term or short. When you look realistically at the state of human civilization, you see little more than people muddling through a mess. One might well ask, “What, then, are we talking about then when we talk about a meaningful life?”

In a very strict sense, words have meaning, but reality is meaning, and therefore it has none. The word, or the idea—which is a complex of words or other symbols— functions as a pointer to something other than itself. And that “other” is its meaning. So when you ask the question, “What do trees and rivers mean?” the answer is that they don’t, because they are not words and they are not sign

worrying bout the future

▪ The more we learn about the future, so as to be able to control it, the more we worry about it. We lie awake nights thinking, “Did I do the right thing? Did I take everything into consideration? Will it work out?” If you feel poor, for example, and you don’t have enough money, and then if you get enough money so that you don’t have to worry about bills anymore, you will probably start worrying about something else. “Will I get sick? Will I be involved in an accident? Will the police come after me?” You know, it could be anything, but if you are an anxious person you are going to be anxious about something, come what may. 

▪ Because, you see, once you get involved in that game, and start acquiring things, everybody starts trying to pick them away from you: with a little pick here, a little pick there, here a pick, there a pick, everywhere a pick, pick. So, you must watch out for that kind of trap, or else you will have to hire people to help you watch out for it

▪ So, you can go back to the natural life, where even death is no problem, because when you die, you’ll just die. You will just go, and instead of worrying about what it will be like afterward, you just go along. If there is an accident, and you have not made the proper plans, then, whoops, it’s all finished. But you see, it’s better to have one day without anxiety than thousands of days filled with anxiety. 

Play and the wiggly path

▪ If I wanted to go from here to there, the engineer would direct me to take the shortest possible route so as to complete the journey in the shortest possible time. That would be the efficient way to go about it: by z 4 taking a straight route rather than a wiggly one. But one takes a wiggly route not only to better fit one’s path to the contours of the land but also just for the pleasure of winding along and enjoying the ride. Enjoyment of winding and wiggling is really fundamental to life. Life is wiggly, and it isn’t wiggly just because that is the easiest way to be. It is wiggly for the pure love and beauty of wiggling. 

▪ Now, if it is true that the Tao is that from which nothing can deviate, then it is also true that the distinction between the artificial and the natural is an artificial distinction. Therefore it is possible to live a life of business or raising children and still be like Hotei/Pu-tai. It is possible to live a natural life, but to do this requires some unconventional wisdom. Consider that if all objects of art are essentially natural, like bees’ nests, what is it that allows us to say that one work of art is more natural than another? If everything a human does is natural, what allows us to say that one kind of life is more natural than another?

▪ When the birds fly in the sky, why are they flying? When the wind is high, the gulls go way up in the air. Normally, gulls are supposed to be busy fishing and surviving and doing all those really important things. But when the wind is high, they all start floating up into the sky, because they just simply like to float on the wind. It is just something that happens, and when you begin to see the world in that way, then at once you begin to realize that it simply isn’t important whether you succeed or fail. Those are arbitrary standards, imposed on the world in the same way we impose our other patterns and measures on it. There is a lovely Chinese poem that says: In the spring scenery there is nothing superior, nothing inferior; flowering branches grow of themselves, some short, some long; the morning glory blooms for an hour and yet is no different from a giant pine that lives for a thousand years. 

(temporary) No Mind

▪ So the Taoist, in common with the Hindus and the Buddhists, is a great advocate of intellectual silence. Mind you one doesn’t say that the intellect is a bad thing, or that one should be an anti-intellectual. Not at all. Thinking is just as much a part of the process of nature as a web woven by a spider is. The spider weaves the web to make a net for flies, and the mind weaves a net for catching the universe. And that is fine, but there is something more to the universe than the net made for catching it. But in order to find this something else, you must temporarily stop using the net, just as, if you want to hear what other people have to say, you have to stop talkin

▪ So, the Taoists speak constantly of being thoughtless, of having an empty mind, so that one can communicate with the real world without distortion

▪ No name, the nameless, is the origin of heaven and earth.” So one has to get to the nameless state, the nonthinking state, which is called in Chinese wu nien. Wu means “not” and nien means “the heart-mind.” Nien is also translated as “remember.

Music and non-thinking

▪ We can do this very easily while listening to music. When you really listen to music, you don’t talk, you just go with the flow. And that is why listening to music is a form of meditation, especially music that doesn’t make you think. Now, some people can’t go with the flow. Music always stimulates ideas in them, and they will think about this and that, and not listen. But if you really listen to music, the sound of it becomes your whole mind.

▪ You can’t force nonthinking, though. You cannot force thoughts out of your mind. But if you simply listen to them in a new way, as if they were music, you will slowly begin to divest yourself of your interpretative system and its terminology and the value system within which, like a straitjacket, you have been brought up to live, and that will be your entry into the real world, the world of the Tao. 

Relativity of perspective

▪ And actually, our universe may be inside an atom in somebody else’s world, and all our galaxies may be part of the same speck of dust sitting on a giant piano. The relativity of one’s perspective is a fundamental principle that I think everybody must understand in order to know the meaning of the Tao, which is the Chinese sense of the course of nature

▪ Dogs have tried to catch on to human beings in a sort of funny way, but cats look at us and think, “You are out of your mind. You are absolutely crazy. Why do you sit there all day feverishly pecking away at a typewriter when you could be curled up in the sun purring?” From the cat’s point of view, we don’t understand what life is about at all. All cats—and cats in cat company— feel that they are people because they are in the middle of their world. The true definition of a person is a place to look from, that is, the middle position. 

▪ We think a person is cultured if they play the piano or the violin, or read poetry, have a big library or paintings, a fancy house, and so on. We say that this is truly a person of culture. We can see at once that this person is a rather elegant human being, but when you enter the world of fishes, they have exactly the same sort of thing going on. Only, instead of revealing their elegance by collecting books and things like that, they show it in the precise wiggles and very subtle tremors of the tail by which one fish reveals itself to be a very superior fish as compared with others, which makes all the other fish look at these wiggles and say, “Oh my, to be like that. What a genius! To be able to do that so well.”

Wu Wei

Complexity, no good, no bad

▪ This story reflects the sense of a fundamental Taoistic attitude, which is that the whole process of nature is an integrated network of immense complexity. It is impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad because you never know what the ultimate consequences of the misfortune will be, and you never know what the ultimate consequences of good fortune will be. 

▪ there is also a Taoist reluctance to interfere with the processes of nature. What you think may be a good thing to do may be good only in the short run. It may turn out to be disastrous in the long run. Therefore, a Taoist would be inclined not to interfere with the course of events because, on the whole, they are too complex to be dealt with through verbal interpretations

Don’t force it

▪ This, then, is a basic attitude in Taoist philosophy, and it goes by the name of wu wei. Wu means “not,” and wei means “doing,” “interfering,” “business,” “poking into things.” So wu wei means “don’t interfere,” “don’t strive.” Really, the best meaning of wu wei is “don’t force it.” As when, for example, you’re opening a lock and the key doesn’t turn. If you force it you will just bend the key. So what you have to do is jiggle, pull back and forth, and jiggle again, until you find the place where the key turns. That is the meaning of wu wei. It doesn’t mean total passivity. On one hand it means “don’t interfere,” but on the other there is no way of not interfering. Even when you merely look at something, you interfere with it, because your very existence is an interference with the environment, from a certain point of view. So there you are. Everything you do alters the balance. Even if you sit perfectly still, you are still breathing, and that alters the nature of things that are going on around you. You are exuding heat, and that changes something. And when you eat, you really start changing things. So you can’t avoid interfering, and yet the maxim is “don’t interfere.” But what that really means is “don’t force it.” So then, what do you do? Well, you interfere as wisely as possible. 

choiceless decision-making

▪ So then the question arises, is it within the power of the human brain, because of its immense complexity, to comprehend reality unconsciously in a way that surface consciousness cannot? The Taoist would say that it certainly is. If you learn to use your brain by allowing it to go to work on your problems without interference from the surface consciousness, it will deliver you a decision. And this is why, when you get to the real study of Taoist and Zen Buddhist practice, you come to the point where you learn to act without making decisions—or rather, to use a less precise and more exact word, without choosing. 

not rushing

▪ Now, of course, one of the things that you mustn’t do in such a situation is rush, because rushing is also a form of hesitation. When a person rushes to get a train, he starts to fall over his own feet. Rushing really slows him down, because it is like trying to drive at high speed through the water with a blunt-nosed boat. What the Zen student is trying to achieve is a kind of smooth, unhesitating, flowing action in response to the challenge

▪ When the moon rises, the water doesn’t wait to reflect it; it reflects it instantly. So that instant reflection, or that kind of resonance, is what is looked for in Zen in the response of an individual to his environment, and this response is achieved to the degree that the individual knows himself to be one with his environment. His capacity for response increases to the degree that he feels he is simply part of it, and not someone with a barrier around him through which messages must pass. When there’s a barrier, then decisions have to be made up and sent out through it. So then, you could say that a kind of extremely subtle sensory awareness has to be developed between the individual and his environment

trusting our intuition

▪ The suspicion that science has of intuitive judgment has filtered down to the laypeople, and now even they mistrust their own intuition, that is to say, the marvelous analytical powers of their own brains. And so we are always in doubt as to whether we are behaving the right way, doing the right thing, and so on and so forth, and so we lack a certain kind of self-confidence. And as you know, if you lack self-confidence, you will make mistakes simply through sheer fumbling. But if you have self-confidence, you may get away with doing the entirely wrong thing. 

▪ If you let go, however, you will discover that there is no necessity whatsoever for an inspector who watches everything that happens. You are what you experience. Your experience and you are the same. Your thoughts are you, your feelings are you. So there is no necessity whatsoever to try and to stand aside from them and say “You, go away!” In other words, if you can trust yourself to the flow of whatever’s going on, you won’t need to resist it. And you will find that going with the flow works very well, just as your eyes work well when you don’t try to force them to and your clothes are comfortable when you are unaware of them

treating ourselves as a cloud

Now, in Zen practice, you have to regard yourself as a cloud, because, of course, clouds never make mistakes. Have you ever seen a cloud that was misshapen? Have you ever seen a badly designed wave? No. They are always right. They always do the right thing, and as a matter of fact, so do we. We are natural beings, just like clouds and waves; however, we play complicated games that cause us to doubt ourselves. But if you will treat yourself as a cloud for a while, or a wave, you will realize that you can’t make a mistake, whatever you do. Even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, somehow or other it will all come out in the wash. When you realize this, you will develop another kind of confidence, and through that confidence you will be able to trust your own intuition the Universe is unfolding exactly as it should

Controlled Accidents

▪ The breaking and restoration of the tea caddy is what one would call a controlled accident, and all great art is a controlled accident. That is to say, it has in it a component of control, but it also has a component of the accidental and the natural. And it is the getting together of those two that is the marvelous thing about art. 

▪ It is the same in human relationships. Take the relationship of love. I may be in love and my girlfriend may be a flawlessly beautiful and wonderful person, but if I can control her completely or become immersed in her perfection, I might as well fall in love with a mannequin. However, if she has a little mole on her cheek, or some kind of unpredictability of character, then the accidental has been introduced into the domain of the orderly, and I can enjoy her humanity more easily.**