Chapter Two Commentary


Commentary of Chapter Two:

Chapter two of the Tao Te Ching further points out what is stated in the first chapter which is to say that what appears as opposites in our everyday experiences, are actually a unified whole. Lao Tzu is warning of the danger in separating things as if they existed this way concretely. Rather, what is being pointed out here is that the unity of these so-called opposites is what makes up our world. Ultimately, things do not exist in and of themselves. Everything is interdependent on everything else. Of course, conventional thought has its place. You better have knowledge of the boundaries of your body and an oncoming car that is speeding toward you as you cross the street. However, what this chapter is highlighting is that when we begin to set these momentary occurrences against each other we lose their complementarity. 


One may read this chapter and think that there is a futility in pointing out the absolute nature of reality when the relative nature of everyday experiences is where the rubber meets the road in our attempts to navigate our day-to-day lives. However, Lao Tzu’s intention here is to point out a much deeper truth that resides below the superficial level of these experiences. The intention of the entire enterprise that is the Tao Te Ching is to point out how one can live in accord with the Tao.  Lao Tzu is quick to point out that judging things as good or as bad or beautiful or ugly is only a matter of perception and these perceptions are in the realm of relative experience or the realm of the ten thousand things and although the Tao expresses itself in these things, it is not the Tao itself. 

This chapter takes a stab at the idea of social constructs. What we judge to be right or wrong or what we like or dislike in a given situation has been instilled in us through our social rearing. It is not that what might be conceived as good or bad in a situation is not necessarily true, but instead what this chapter is pointing out is that we need to learn to follow each situation in its moment by moment expression or manifestation. Therefore, this chapter is further instruction on following the Tao; which does by not doing and by doing so, leaves nothing undone. In other words, it cuts through social convention and gets right to the heart of the matter of what is actually occurring in each moment.

In mindfulness practice, this approach is what we call working toward having an accurate appraisal of the situation. In looking at the physiological aspects of the stress reaction cycle, we can see that an inaccurate appraisal of a perceived stressor will elicit the same bodily responses whether the threat is actually true or not i.e., our bodies often do not know the difference between a perceived stressor that may be inaccurately appraised as life threatening, or as an actual threat or a threat which is really quite significant. If the body gets the message that the threat is real and requires a reaction, it will go into an alarm state and send out the same message through the pituitary adrenals whether or not the threat is actually true. The metaphors in this chapter of the Tao Te Ching are abundant, but are simply pointing out that perceived opposites or the setting up of a dichotomous view of reality directly plays on our emotions and feelings and has us moving toward pleasurable stimuli and away from aversive stimuli. It is because of likes and dislikes that the mind becomes tangled in attachments. 


Furthermore, what is being stated in this chapter is that we have to be careful not to measure the natural flow of the world by our limited perceptions and experiences. Rather, we need to be open to the moment- to- moment experiences that are happening in front of us. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say put down your ideas, your opinions, condition, and your situation, then our minds become open and clear. The great Taoist sage said the same thing thousands of years ago. “It is when we give up our personal views that we see things as they truly are.” ~ Chuang Tzu. So, it is our attachments that ultimately cause suffering. When we are attached to our own opinions, dreams, expectations and the need to be right while proving others wrong, then we cause suffering of ourselves and those around us.


Lao Tzu introduces the idea of wu wei, or doing without doing in this chapter. Wu wei does not mean to just do nothing or to remain passive in the events of life. Rather, it means to not over do things or not to do things to an extreme to the point that we push things in the direction of our own agenda to satisfy our ego needs or to protect us from a perceived threat. Wu wei means keeping a clear mind and just doing what needs to be done without forcing it so that we can allow things to unfold naturally in their own time. When we do this, things occur naturally by themselves. When our intentions are clear and are void of a need to drive our own agendas, then we can see clearly in a way that will help this world. Then, seeing what needs to be done to help others will naturally appear.


As we can see, the concept of wu wei is to clearly meet each moment just as it is and respond to it in a way that does not add anything extra. In this way we can become like the Tao which does nothing but leaves nothing undone.


In the practice of Tai Chi, this principle is teaching us to relax and listen to what is happening and then respond without forcing. This is a very difficult but rewarding practice. When I have done push hands with my teacher, I am able to push effectively when my mind is clear and I have trust in the natural flow of the form that I have been taught. The very second that I have an idea of success or failure of a movement, that is when I am defeated. The body becomes tense in a reaction to the perception of the mind. My teacher is sensitive enough to pick up on the slightest amount of anything extra I have added to my movement. When we practice Tai Chi with purity, then we have clear intention and the body follows. When we practice without purity, then our intention has some gaining idea involved and the body does not follow. In this way if we practice with a gaining idea, the natural flow is interrupted and a good Tai Chi partner who is skilled at listening will find your weakness every time. This principle also applies to those that are just beginning to learn Tai Chi. it is because of having no desires, that everything gets accomplished. Learn the form, learn the principles, practice everyday and then eventually you will see that things have been getting accomplished without you getting in your own way. If you judge yourself and set up unreal expectations, it will take you much longer to accomplish anything in the practice of Tai Chi. 

To end this entry of the Tao Te Blog, we should visit chapter 23 which lucidly reinforces this idea.

"...He who follows the Tao
is at one with the Tao.
He is virtuous
Experiences Virtue.
He who loses the way
Feels lost.
When you are at one with the Tao,
The Tao welcomes you.
When you are one with Virtue,
The Virtue is always there.
When you are at one with loss,
The loss is experienced willingly." (Chapter 23. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English Trans).

And , the most poignant point of Chapter 2 is amplified in Chapter 23:

"He who does not trust enough
Will not be trusted."

As is frequently said in the Zen tradition, "You must trust yourself 100%."

See you next time for Chapter Three of the Tao Te Blog. 


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