Te, or Virtue - an introduction


One of the most common interpretations of Te is to call it virtue. If you do your homework to translate virtue, you’ll find it as a composite of two characters, with the first one, preceding Te, meaning beautiful or nice.     

So Te is virtue. But what’s virtue? The answer, as with many things, is, “it depends.”

In this context, we can generally say that virtue is a characteristic of a person who becomes one with the Way, how do we identify this person? And how do we use words to define The Way?

That’s what this section is about.

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 we get started on Te, a few notes on this significant part of the Tao Te Ching –

If you begin an online search, you’ll find well over 100 English translations and interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. There are undoubtedly other excellent ones that have never been placed online. All were created with varying degrees of skill and purpose, aimed at different audiences. Most of the major public domain versions use their authors’ widely varying editorial judgements in describing Te. More recent versions return to old texts, either adding commentary or letting readers make their own decisions.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, how do we translate the symbol for Te?

Te combines the symbol for a footstep with those indicating heart and straight – or direct. Since it’s used in conjunction with Tao, the way, the footstep is an easy bridge and we can use multiple interpretations of straight/direct to tie following a path to one’s heart.

So here’s our exercise, along with a few starter definitions. We’re going to work with Tao’s verse 38, which contrasts Te with the Confucian rituals of its day. In fact, it could be called the document’s most anti-Confucian verse. The unthinking practice of ancient – but now meaningless – rituals really hasn’t changed much from then to now.

First, I’ve replaced the archaic and academic translations you’ll find in many books with a more contemporary one. Then it’ll be your turn to create your personal Tao, your personal path. Whether it’s from your own knowledge, what you find in this essay, in another translation, or from a thesaurus or dictionary, replace my suggested word with one of your own. Then read the verse again.

Does it make sense to you? Great. Think about the steps you can take to incorporate your Tao into your everyday life. To make your life a reflection of your Tao. And if doesn’t make sense to you? Then work with it some more.

To help you make some sense of the exercise, we’ll first look at the verse’s structure. If you remember Tao’s roots spring from older, oral, traditions, you’ll recognize its point/counterpoint pattern, one that makes it easy to recite, easy to remember. This verse begins by recognizing Te in its highest form, creating a contrast with its next lowest form. As you read or recite the following verse, you’ll see that the “next lowest” is compared to an even lower form of Te, and so on until we reach full Confucian ritual without meaning or love. To qualify different levels of Te, you’ll also see the use and misuse of wu-wei, or non-action.

So…as you replace these words with your own, you’ll see the progression from a state of being for its own sake to a state of doing because you feel that outside forces demand it of you. Your motivation is reflected in your action or non-action.        

Here’s the progression, using words you may find in various translations.

Tao – path

Te – the nature of one who follows the path

Ren – universal humanity, virtue, kind heartedness, benevolence. On a higher level, this can be a form of Te.

  Yi – group righteousness, not universal humanity, but localized or tribal. The organized, structured, approved social constructs that we use to “fit in”

   Li –propriety. Doing something because it’s expected of us, without understanding its reason or meaning. Think of ritual for the sake of ritual, not its original intrinsic meaning. [Like focusing on the finger, rather than the goal it’s pointing to.]

Let’s also look at Tao’s use of “high” and “low”. Are they directions, distinctions or values? Your answer here may affect your choice of substitute word. And what about Te? Here are my suggestions –

Te – virtue, integrity, innocence, power, inner power, moral power, excellence, special, unique, good character.

High Te– organic, self-contained. Virtue or good character that exists for its own sake. Think of the attitude embodied in wu-wei [non-interference]

Low Te – is conscious of the world, which makes it apart from us. Again, using Judeo-Christian imagery, think of Adam and Eve gaining knowledge of good and evil; of feeling shame and separateness from creation.

You may also want to consider the moral attributes of a person travelling their Tao – and how these attributes evolve, based on experience and learning. Or consider Te as mankind’s original unsullied condition, before eviction from the Garden of Eden, if you want to continue with the Judeo-Christian reference.

And a suggestion: since the verse isn’t that long, find your favourite translation and type it out, double-spacing with a large easy-to-read font. Then use search/replace to substitute words. It’s important that you read the results aloud, making selection changes until you’re comfortable with the sound and meaning you’ve discovered. Substitute your own words for benevolence, righteousness and propriety, above. See how these substitutions affect the verse’s meaning. Is it possible to have multiple meanings, depending on the translation you use – or the context you’re applying it to?

This verse is adapted from several of my favourite translations. What they share is structure and emphasis, while varying in their wording. The first two comparisons are between high and low Te. They’re followed by three patterns of behaviour and attitude, declining in their adherence to Tao and Te. And if the listener doesn’t get the point in the first section, it’s followed by a review showing the consequences of leaving Tao and reminding us that we can’t tell a book by its cover. [Therefore…]

While you can use this interpretation as a starting point, it’s important to find a translation – a guide or path – that suits your journey. Hopefully you’ll find a point in your journey where you’ll write your own path, different from mine, different from those of other translators and interpreters.

Those of highest Te aren’t conscious of it. They are virtue.  [They are “in the zone” – in a state of being, rather than a state of consciousness.]

Those of low Te seek virtue’s appearance. They lack true virtue. [They are conscious of their being or condition.]

Those of highest Te practice non-action.

Those of good Te act, even if they don’t need to. [Now we go down a step, from virtue for its own sake to humanity, which entails a self-awareness and identity with others. This has also been called lower virtue or inferior character.]

Those of lesser Te – or highest morality – act, without any ulterior reason.

Those of highest righteousness act, with a reason or action.

Those of good appearance act, and respond with force when no one responds to them.


When we lose Tao, Te follows.

When we lose Te, humanity follows.

When we lose humanity, imposed rules, regulations and law follow.

When we rely on outside forms we become stupid.

 Therefore those of highest Te recognize substance beneath the skin. They reject appearance and accept substance.

 Not happy with your – or my – interpretations for Te? Here are some more thought starters that I’ve seen people use. When you finally find one that you’re comfortable with, use it until you grow out of it. Then start again!

  • Authenticity
  • Character
  • Consistent
  • Energy [“the force”]
  • Gentleness
  • Humanity
  • Inner Peace from self-acceptance
  • Intrinsic excellence
  • Morality
  • Personal Power
  • Personal Vision
  • Reliable
  • Righteousness
  • Tranquility
  • Truth Seeker
  • Virtuosity
  • Virtuousness

And one more thing. As you browse this section, you’ll see quotes used as headlines.  Remember that each of Tao’s verses may cover several topics and that I’ve selected just part of the verse that refers to Te.


Want to learn more about how Te is part of the Tao te Ching? Simply click on one of these boxes, below. You’ll find contemporary reflections on Tao’s verses dealing with the Te. Feel free to read them with – or without – your favourite version of the Tao-Te-Ching. Remember, these are thought-starters, not solutions. Solutions to your issues can only come from you.

Can you become like a new-born infant?

(Verse 10)

Try to remember –

The innocence of infancy, where everything and everyone seemed so simple, so good, so easy. Skills were less important than attitude and anything seemed possible.

Try to remember –

How a small child’s joy can light up a room and bend it to its will.

When you do, you’ve experienced Dark Te. Infants don’t distinguish any difference between themselves and the people and objects in their environment. It’s only when age institutionalizes them to understand boundaries between themselves and others that they become more like the rest of us.

In today’s society, many people react to the term “dark” with fear. But when you see it along your Tao, consider it hidden and internal, just part of your unconscious metabolism. When your heart (which is usually dark or hidden from most people) walks in Tao, your actions can bring joy to others – through example, not commands. This is the basic premise of wu-wei, non-interference: accomplishing all without dominating. Modesty and humility don’t cover your light, they are your light. You illuminate others without blinding them.

Be love.

Love your life.

Love all around you.

Dark Te is contagious.

And a few notes for when you read through Verse 10 yourself –

Depending on the translation, you’ll find Dark Te referred to as hidden, basic, primary, deep, profound, and engraved, among other descriptions. While there may be textual differences between these words, there’s not a lot of substantive difference. Should you decide to perform the exercises the verse lists, think about re-writing them to match your age, experience and environment, it’ll change the exercise from an academic one to a practical one you can hopefully incorporate into your life. You might even want to write or record the exercise to compare with another attempt four or five years from now.


Your greatest virtue comes only from following the Tao.

(Verse 21)

No matter how we define our own Te – as virtue, integrity, original innocence, or whatever – we still need to practice what we preach. Or, if you want to go into motivational workshop mode, talking the talk isn’t enough. Learn to walk the walk.

What’s Te in your life? Where does it fit into your lifestyle? Please be specific. Describe – maybe even write a few sentences about – a person, place or event in the past week that called on your Te in some way.

Happy? Or frustrated with the last exercise? It doesn’t really matter. It’s more important that you started it, that you planted a seed you can nurture in the coming days and years.

Here’s another way of incorporating your own version of Te into your everyday life:

Sit back and relax. Think of a beautiful valley – full of magnificent scenery, noble forests, a majestic river, whatever makes it beautiful for you. In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane calls valleys sanctuaries. Think about that description for a second. Now think of raindrops falling on its slopes, of birds dropping twigs, of pebbles and rocks rolling downhill, of giggling children, stalking hunters, grazing deer and prowling mountain lions. They’re all converging into this valley, coming over its defining peaks or flowing downstream from a place that’s out of your line of vision. The valley’s open to them all, without any discrimination. Nature’s law will sort things out, maybe letting a bird drop a too-heavy seed-bearing twig that decomposes to fertilize its seed on the forest floor; the human leaving a footstep that allows a puddle to form that breeds a mosquito for a fish to eat, another footprint that kills a seedling, allowing an adjoining plant more room to grow. [And yes, that butterfly flapping its wings to create a hurricane half a world away.] The river continues to flow. Some things will stay, some will go downstream. You’ll remember some of this and you’ll forget some. But you’ll always be receiving new information, new people, new experiences in your life. Like the valley, your body, your self, receives and absorbs everything in your environment, from nasty words and germs to entrancing kisses and refreshing breezes. Some will affect you. Some won’t. All without you needing to be conscious of them.

The valley is receptive, open and sometimes even nurturing to new ideas. You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s nice if you respect others’ rights to have them. Oh, and don’t forget that those beautiful pearls we get from oysters started out as invasive irritating bits of grit. It’s the oyster’s response to the grit that gives us the pearl we admire.

Reading through Tao you’ll find frequent complimentary references to valleys and channels as the most fertile places in the landscape because they’re the lowest, collecting all in their environment. Down is simply a direction, not a negative quality. Tao encourages us to be like them – receptive and humble. Be the yin balancing society’s yang.

Live the simple life. Be a model for all.

(Verse 28)

This verse encapsulates nearly everything Tao says to show us how to build and refine our own Te. And how exactly do we do that?

The answer is frustratingly simple: Follow Tao.

OK. Let’s get a bit more down to the muddy, gritty, frustrating earth most of us walk on. Heard about that journey of a thousand steps in Verse 64? Here are a few steps to get you started.

First, recognize that not everyone sees the world through your eyes. This doesn’t make them bad or wrong, just different. Imagine we’re all in the same stadium. Each watching the same game from different seats, on different sides and different levels. Some of us have a great view, others are stuck behind some oversized loudmouths. We’re cheering our local team while wearing their colours. Some of us might even be on the field, players giving our all for our side for the length of the match, models for youngsters with dreams of glory. Later, after you’ve passed through the stadium gates, changed your clothing and rested your voice box, you carry on a very civilized relationship with your “opponent.” It’s sort of like living life in a human body. Once you pass through the pearly gates you discover you have a lot in common with your so-called opponent. You’ve both been involved with the same sport of life, just from different perspectives.

Keeping in mind that we’re all players and fans of some sort, let’s try to bring that pre- and post-game civility to our everyday life. And don’t forget to think of the tributes paid to individual players by fans of all stripes when they’ve reached a milestone or undergone some significant life event. Everyone stands, everyone cheers or observes a moment of tribute that extends far beyond local rivalries.

Some people have a vision that complements yours. Others may be uncomfortably opposite. If that’s the case, accept it as the other side of the same coin. Use “the other” not as an enemy, but as an opportunity to learn. Question the reasons others hold other viewpoints. Can you understand where they’re coming from? Will this knowledge lead you to teaching or tolerance? Disagreement doesn’t need to lead to disrespect.

Oh, and don’t forget to question your own beliefs, too. Are they as valid for today’s life as they were when you formed them? Or are you at a point in your life where you’re looking to make a change – perhaps to change teams or sports?

Don’t focus on what you want to eliminate from your life. That gives it power. Replace what’s not right for you any more with what fits you now – and is right for your future. Focus on who you are, what you’ll do, and who you’ll be, all without the part of you you’re shedding. You may be familiar with Paul’s phrase in 1 Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” Put away what’s obsolete for you. But don’t throw it away. You might need it again someday. Or someone else, searching through the secondhand shop of ideas, may find your old ones fit them perfectly right now. Be it a habit or clothes, what you no longer need may be perfect for another. And remember that not everyone travels the same path as you do. Your brilliant new discoveries maybe ideas that others have already used on their journey.

All this is nice for me to say. Why don’t you take a break right here to re-read the last few paragraphs and answer their questions using real life situations and people you encounter in your family, job, social circles, and god forbid: religion and politics.

Ok, done with your break now? Enjoyed that cup of caffeine or glass of alcohol along with it? Maybe even come to a new understanding of other people or events in your life?  Good. And if you haven’t, you’ve just planted some seeds that may sprout in your consciousness in the days and weeks to come.

Here’s the next step. It doesn’t involve doing anything, just being receptive.

One of Tao’s consistent themes encourages those on its path to see themselves as receptors. No matter which translation you use, you’ll see repeating references to channels, ravines, valleys, watersheds and other physical forms that are open to receive all without judgement. They collect everything without effort and without judgement. Those entering these valleys have their being and perhaps their journeys modified. But the valley is still the valley, only slightly changed by its visitors. Can you become a valley for others to experience? Just remember not to become a box canyon, blocking others’ flow and filling up with garbage.

What happened the last time something new came into your life? Did you react with fear? Or did you respond with curiosity? Can you embrace what’s new the way a river valley absorbs all that flows down its slopes and passing through it, without judgement? Letting each go where they may, recognizing that they’re all on their own paths, following their own Tao?

Most of us tend to admire people who respect us and receptive to us, even if they may disagree with us. Can you become a model for others by simply using these two traits: respect and receptivity? When you have a fullness of life that doesn’t require bothering other people, but simply respecting them, a few might follow your example. And a few more might follow theirs. Your way might not be their way and theirs is probably not yours. One size rarely fits all, but most patterns can be adjusted and re-sized to fit others who happen to like that style. And if their style isn’t yours, don’t wear it.

Some of the steps we’ve talked about here may be easy for you. Others might require a bit – or a lot – more work. Don’t worry. Learning to follow Tao is like riding a bicycle: first you have to think, then you have to do, then you’re just a bicycle rider – being, not doing.

And when you follow Tao, your Te increases. At some point along the way your conscious, mechanical contrived doing becomes unconscious Dark Te. You’re no longer a teacher, but a model.

The highest good doesn’t come from seeking it, but by becoming it.

(Verse 38)

And how do we become the good that people want to be? Well in this case, go back to the section’s introduction and re-read it. Then do all of its exercises over again, with different examples.


Because I used this verse as the basis for the section’s introduction.

Tao hides in invisibility, yet only Tao completes all things.

(Verse 41)

Next time you’re in a car, take a look at the notice on your rear-view mirror: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” And, if you’ve a good memory for movie trivia, you might even recall that rear-mirror view of a dinosaur’s tonsils in “Jurassic Park.”

Things – and people – aren’t always what they appear to be. How many people recognized that a mild-mannered newspaper reporter was really Superman? Or that the great and powerful Wizard of Oz was really just a down-on-his-luck travelling salesman?

For better or worse we live in a world that places a premium on style over substance. “Clothes make the man” is a truer axiom than we’d like to believe. Like a child attracted to a shiny toy, many adults are attracted to other age-appropriate [or inappropriate] bling or activities. Take a second now to think of some examples –

  • – In today’s society.
  • – Among your friends.
  • – And here’s the most important example, yourself.

Don’t worry or beat yourself up too much if you’re not perfect. None of us are. It’s normal. It’s the tuition we pay for living in the world. But…is the world your path? Or does your path just happen to run through the world? Whether you’re Dorothy sticking to her yellow brick road or an airline pilot on a glide path to a safe landing, we each have our own way, our own Tao, for our time here on earth.

A number of religions – those practices that many use as guideposts along their way – proclaim that wealth is a sign that their version of god looks favourably on you. I’ve found that quite a few people who share this view ignore its complement – that this wealth carries an obligation to help those less fortunate. You can simply look at the Tao’s statements on complementarity; or Christ’s on the best way to get to heaven in Luke 18:22 (“Sell all you have and give to the poor.”) Remember that many of those who work to accumulate wealth stand out for their avarice as well as for their perceived good. And also remember that you can’t take it with you. Do we own – or simply use – the physical assets that we surround ourselves with? Ownership creates a responsibility for protecting our stuff, caring for it, defending it from those who may want it – all at a great expense. And what, exactly, is your long term ROI on this great expense?

Below are some examples inspired by some of Tao’s examples of Te. How many others can you develop?

In your personal life

Civic life

Professional/job life

Tao’s valleys are empty and receptive, waiting to be filled. Some translations use the word hollow. Empty buildings, plates and cups are just like Tao’s valleys. Their value lies in their availability. Are you empty and prepared to be filled with value? Have you left room in your life for nourishment? Or have you so filled up your life with junk that there’s no room for anything of value that might come your way. Sports fans might remember basketball coach Jimmy Valvano, who trained his teams – no matter what their skill level – to always “be in a position to win.” One of those overmatched teams won a national championship.

Pervasive Te seems deficient. We rarely pay much attention to the environment surrounding us. It’s wallpaper of our lives, always there, always in the background. We rarely notice how it enables us on our path. A river’s flood plain seems empty to the ignorant. So they build their cities there and invest more and more financial and emotional capital after every flood. When we realize that the flood plain’s emptiness is there for the river’s fullness, we plan appropriately, either leaving it alone or restricting our usage to that which will suffer minimum damage when the flood plain fulfills its function.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. In the ideal world we work together in a harmonious balance. In the less-than-ideal world we can at least respect others’ abilities and be honest about our own limitations. Many people appear to be deficient only when compared with others’ wealth, which is transient. The mass of humanity doesn’t have it – and really doesn’t need it.

Established Te seems weak.

Again, we can be blind to our surroundings, just taking for granted the appearance of all that allows our lifestyle. You may have heard the expression about a new broom sweeping clean, but the old broom knows the corners best. Established Te is an old broom. Like many of us, it’s been young once, with all the strength and vigor of youth. Now, like the bamboo and willows, it has roots that let it survive the winds that topple others who make a show of appearing strong.


The good I declare good. The bad I also declare good.

(Verse 49)

We’re all creatures sharing this earth. And it’s human nature to act in our own self-interest. But it’s how we define ourselves that drives this behaviour. Does our self-interest end with our body, that individual hunk of flesh, bone and brain that’s out for its own comfort and preservation? Or does it extend to a larger self, be it a family, a team, a tribe or a species? Or perhaps to the exterior system that supports it?

People can be tall or short, skinny or fat, near-sighted or far-sighted. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, experience and ignorance. We don’t expect the exploring infant to know why it should keep its fingers from fans and fires. Or the stranger from distant lands to know our customs. Do we curse and punish people for their ignorance – or create teaching moments? Do we teach with a talk or a stick? Lead by example or a loud voice? Show and tell or coerce and punish?

Are people bad – or do they just have different priorities and codes? Do you know their point-of-view? Many times it’s more than just nice to know. It’s need to know.

Keep your own integrity – and let them keep theirs.

How would you like to be treated? When you’re in a position where you’re unsure of yourself, or about to make a significant error, or in a situation where you’re way over your head?

Oh, and don’t forget that “idiot” on the road in front of you. Are they creeping along below the speed limit because they see something ahead that you’re blind to? Or are they speeding to get their passenger to the hospital? When you don’t know the reason for someone’s actions, think about cutting them some slack. And, even if you’re fully aware of why a person is doing something you don’t care for, why get excited when it’s beyond your control. Just use them as a teaching moment, for yourself or for others.

Don’t agree with me? How about a teacher who wandered through the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago. You can read some of his comments on how to deal with enemies in Mathew 5:43-48 or Luke 6:27-36.  Abraham Lincoln reminded us to treat others with “malice toward none and charity for all.” (2nd Inaugural Address). More recently, you might want to take a look at the aftermath of World Wars I and II. The punitive Versailles Treaty of 1919 laid the groundwork for World War II. The 1948 Marshall Plan aimed at recovery and laid the groundwork for restoring the European economy.

In a world where you can be anything, be kind  (Attributed to the Dalai Lama)

The Tao births and nurses all. But does not own them.

(Verse 51)

Believe in the essential goodness of people? Then you probably let them do what comes naturally without fearing disaster. If this isn’t our belief system and we create rules to control people, those who don’t need rules will follow them and many of those who don’t like them will ignore or break them. The golden mean that people, organizations and governments aspire to is to make things easy and efficient for honest people and difficult for hardened criminals and fraudsters. [(’m guessing that in most cases this is easier said than done.)

When we look at Tao as a direction with guideposts rather than a paved highway with signposts, we trust people to find their personal path. Tao is the good Te-filled parent, providing sustenance while giving freedom. And what makes that good parent we should emulate? One whose virtue – their Te – is just a natural part of their personality. OK, for most of us this is the ideal, not the real. We express our love in different ways and, because we’re human, occasionally make decisions that we later realize may not have been optimal. Note that while I’m using the term parent, these notes could just as easily apply to anyone in an authority position, be they a leader, supervisor, mentor or holding some similar role. As the oft-ignored business axiom goes, “Get good people. Then get out of their way.”

In the ideal world, the best parent practices wu-wei, giving their child room to grow while making sure that it’s a relatively safe, not claustrophobically sheltering, environment. In this context, it’s called Dark Te or hidden virtue, because it’s just part of their nature. It’s who they are.

Look at a child learning to walk or to ride a bike. At first, the good parent is there to help and guide. But if a parent never lets the child walk or ride on their own, their muscles and balance will never develop. The over-active parent creates a weak and dependent child (Consider, if you will, the damage these helicopter parents do their college-attending kids. Will these children ever learn to fly on their own?) This doesn’t mean that we ignore the child (or employee or anyone else in our temporary charge), it simply means that we allow them freedom to grow, which usually means making a mistake or three.

The Taoist, full of Te, knows the balance between neglect and smothering. It’s the Goldilocks approach, not too much of one or the other, but just the right amount at the right times. Tao calls it wu-wei or non-interference. Plant a seed and nourish it. But if it’s to grow & bear fruit, it needs to learn how to survive in the elements. (Did you know that the best wines come from poor soils, where the plant needs to work to grow?)

Our charges, be they children, employees or subjects, need to learn life by themselves, through experience, not talk. Would Dorothy have ever discovered that there’s no place like home if she hadn’t followed the yellow brick road? And if you’re not familiar with Rumpsringa, the Amish tradition of teenagers leaving their community to experience the outside world, now might be a good time to leave this page and spend a few minutes searching the web. The vast majority of these teens, after experiencing the outside world, return to their family roots and traditions.

So what’s a loving parent to do?

Consider the lesson of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The young man’s father never stopped loving him and welcomed him home with loving arms and generosity. Jesus compared the father to his heavenly father, in contrast to the vengeful brother, who represented the hidebound Pharisees of the day.

Not into Christian imagery? You may want to study Mahayana Buddhism. While there are obvious cultural differences and approaches between Lotus Sutra and the Gospel of Luke, the core message is the same, the loving father welcomed his son home.

Not into religion at all? An Italian named Carlo Collodi published a book in 1883 containing some characters you may have heard of – Pinocchio and his father, Geppetto. While Disney changed some of its details, the core message remains the same.

Remember that this is one of Tao’s many verses that contrast ritual-encrusted Confucianism with Tao’s organic Shamanist roots. No matter where your personal Tao takes you, you might want to consider this verse from both perspectives: law-and-order and laissez-faire. Can you open your mind to appreciate another side’s point-of-view? Is there such a thing as a middle-of-the-road approach that incorporates the best of both worlds? Can you see yourself occupying these different roles at different times of your life: prodigal Pinocchio, his loving father, and that rules-and-regulations brother?


Abundance and growth come from firm foundations.

(Verse 54)

Sometimes we don’t need an interpreter. This is one of those verses that stands on its own, no matter which term you use to define Te.

If you want to generate more virtue, start with yourself. Then move out in your life: to your family, community, country and the world, until you’ve encompassed everyone and everything. Sort of like planting a small seed that grows to feed many. Or the pebble in the pond that generates rings that reach to shore.

How do we do this? By observing – and then using what we learn to become an example for others. Sounds simple. But in today’s world of complexity and clutter, can we follow the KISS formula [Keep it simple, s…]? The answer, of course, is yes. Start with yourself, in the now. Deal with larger organisms later. What should you start with? That’s your call, but you can most likely follow the example of someone or something you admire.

Be patient. The world isn’t waiting for you to save it. Most likely, neither is your country or your community. But if you can make changes in your life that affect your attitude, your health or your being for the better, they may affect your family.

So…pick one practice that you want to add or subtract from your life. Take a look at how others – people you admire – are handling it. Then day-by-day, week-by-week for however long it takes, make this change part of your metabolism.

When that’s done, start with another.

OK, now it’s time to stop reading and talk to yourself. Remember that definition of Te you found that you liked in the introduction to this section? How can you increase it in your personal life? Try not to focus on what to eliminate, since that only gives strength to the habit. Focus on what will replace what you’re leaving behind. Fill your life with so much good that there’s no room for what doesn’t work for you.


He who is filled with Te has a child’s purity.

(Verse 55)

Verse 55 builds on Verse 54, giving us a starting point for self-transformation – or is it really self-regeneration?

If you’re going to find or build your personal Te, it’s best to start with your true self – not the institutionalized, scar-strengthened, armour-plated shell that most of us have grown to protect ourselves in today’s world, but the primal innocence we lost along the way.

As you read through this verse it’s easy to see reasons for building our armour – it’s filled with lots of creatures able [and sometimes willing] to do us harm. But when you study it a bit more deeply you may see it as returning to Tao’s shamanic roots, into a Garden of Eden where all creatures lived together in harmony.

If we can find our way back there we can discover some of that open-mindedness we may have abandoned. There’s so much in nature that we ignore because we focus just on our own kind. . So much in other people we’re blind to because we focus on ourselves. Most of us live in a society that values ego-driven activity. To return to Eden’s harmony we need to recall – and use – the principle of wu-wei.

What are the toxic parts of your life – the stinging insects, wild beasts and birds of prey we find in the verse? How can you neutralize them? Do you fill your life with so many “good” things that there’s no room for them? Do you find a way to eliminate these toxic people and things from your environment? You know the verse and the process: Make a list of the naughty and nice. Check it twice. Then act on it. Create step-by-step plans, with the baby steps first. After all, if you’re looking to change your life, it’s nice to have some early successes for encouragement.

Changing the natural is against the Tao.

Isn’t our objective to live in the Tao, full of Te?

“And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  (Joni Mitchell)

Teaching people or serving heaven, there is nothing better than moderation.

(Verse 59)

Once upon a time…

There was a troublesome little girl named Goldilocks who broke into a house owned by some bears. She ate their porridge and broke their chairs before going upstairs to mess up their beds. We can give the bears credit for exercising moderation by allowing her to escape and not eating her in place of the porridge before using her bones to repair the chair.

And what do we remember most about her? That she tested and tried things until she found the one that was just right – not too hot or cold, not too big or small, not too hard of soft.

For our purposes today, we’ll focus on just one of the morals of the story: the value of moderation.

When was the last time you had a bowl of soup that started out w-a-a-y too hot. And then, after you let it cool, you found that it was really too cold to taste good. Have you ever looked forward to that bowl of ice cream or ice-cold drink on a hot day, only to get hit with brain freeze?

Not into food comparisons? Then think of work. Or play. Or anything else that we know can be carried to extremes (like driving too fast – or too slowly – on a motorway.)

And don’t forget that all work and no play make Jack/Jane pretty dull. The best employers know that rested and refreshed employees do better work. The best teachers recognize the enthusiasm and joy that comes from students released from their word and paper-filled classrooms.

Balancing life can sometimes be difficult. (Think of standing in the middle of a seesaw occupied by a pair of over-enthusiastic children.)

But balance can help you stay in your Tao. As a ruler, a mentor, an example to others, you can become the deep roots, the balancing or reference point for others. There’s no need to tell others how to live, but if you maintain moderation in your own life, they’ll see the benefits.

Show others, don’t tell them.


Ruling a big country is like frying small fish. Too much poking spoils the meal.

(Verse 60)

Verse 60 continues Verse 59’s advice, talking about balance. If you have just the right touch you won’t over-do things. And what’s the right touch? Living in accordance with wu-wei. You pay attention to conditions and let environment do the work. The cook isn’t responsible for the fish, but for the flame and pan that will actually do the cooking, along with adding whatever spices will flavour the fish. When they’ve done their job all the cook needs to do is to remove the ready-to-eat fish that the heat and assorted spices have prepared.

“Too much poking” is also a sideswipe at the rules-and-regulations Confucianism of that day – and this day – as well. Many times people are oblivious to practices until they’re forbidden. Then curiosity arises. You may be familiar with the Carl Sandburg verse adapted for the long-running play, The Fantasticks: “Why did the kids pour jam on the cat…put beans in their ears? … They did it because we said no.”

If you don’t forbid something, many people will never even be aware of it. (Until now, have you ever considered pouring jam on a cat or putting beans in your ears?)

“Cooking is like love.”  (Harriet Van Horne)

Non-competition is harmony…and power.

(Verse 68)

In a verse that talks of generals, warriors and leaders, is there a message for the rest of us? Think for a moment. How do you calm a crying child – with shouts and threats, or calm diversion? Whether it’s children under your authority or work and social equals, you’ll find that the old Disney lyrics usually work pretty well: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

OK, sometimes you just have to put out the fire. But once you’ve gained short-term peace, what’s the easiest way to prevent future fires? Do you work with others by creating fear of punishment or seeding enthusiastic compliance? If you want to spend your entire life dealing with problems, maybe the punishment option could work. But as soon as you (a) take a break or (b) others figure out ways around you, you’ve failed.

If you’ve found that physical force or verbal violence gets results, ask yourself if it’s the result you really need. You might affect others’ behaviour, but have you really changed their motivation? An apple’s flesh can be bruised and beaten, but it protects the core. The core is the future. No matter how much you bite or bruise an apple, its flesh still protects its seeds. In fact, when you bruise it, you begin breaking down the flesh, so it becomes fertilizer for the seeds of more apples more quickly.  In the words of Irish patriot Terence MacSwiney, “It is not those who inflict the most but those who suffer the most who prevail.”

Want to kick back, relax and perhaps move on to something else? Plant seeds with education and encouragement. Plant them in yourself before even thinking of planting them in others. Be their model, not their nagging taskmaster.

Throughout Tao you’ll see references to Dark Te – Te that’s more than just your behaviour, It’s part of your core metabolism. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re using yoga, meditation, or something else – there are hundreds of disciplines – one or a blend of several – will be right for you. Work from the inside out, not the outside in.


The Tao doesn’t take sides.

(Verse 79)

Ever disagree with someone? And still disagreed with them even after the two of you have made what passes for peace?

Inertia is one of the basic laws of physics – and it applies to humans as well as other creatures and objects. While we’d love to say that it’s knowledge, experience, devotion and other virtues that keep us on our paths, in many cases it’s just inertia. And don’t forget that your path may be different from another’s. (If two people agree on something, is one of them redundant?)

OK, that’s the easy part. Recognize that behaviour may not always reflect attitude. We can affect one, but not the other. Deal with it.

But what about that voice inside your head? Are your heart and mind one – or are you always wanting to be somewhere else doing something else with somebody else. Any place but here and now. Are you trying to go to two places and be two different people at the same time? Sounds exhausting. And it is. You don’t wear clothes in the shower. Or a winter coat in the summer. Or sandals in the winter. So why wear all these superfluous clothes/thoughts in your head wherever you go?

So what’s a Taoist to do?

Follow your own Tao, building your Te using the principles of wu-wei. Yes, that’s easier said than done. And if you’re concerned about three Chinese words in the same sentence it might mean that you’ve come upon this section at random. Not a problem, since there’s no need to read Tao te Ching or many other works in sequence.

In the context of this particular verse, simply remember to be true to your core values – and to respect others in theirs. We don’t have to agree with others to get along with them.

Find a way to focus, let the non-essentials fall away. It may mean sitting down and making a formal list of priorities. Then you can set deadlines and tactics for sanely eliminating those practices and people that don’t suit you anymore. Let your “essentials” fill the time and mental attention you used to devote to what you’ve left behind.

Then, when you’ve completed your list. Start the process over again.

Your goal?

Just be.

Oh, and one more thing, since friends reading this verse asked if Abraham Lincoln was a Taoist because he’s reputed to have said “My concern is not whether the Lord is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

Of course I can’t answer the question. But I can point out that Lincoln, like many other people and sources (including the Tao te Ching), have statements attributed to them that they never said.

One version of this pronouncement was attributed to him by a clergyman in a funeral eulogy. Another version, with different wording and context, appeared in a book written by Lincoln’s portrait painter a year after Lincoln’s death. There’s no record of Lincoln saying it in public.

So, did he really say it? Does it really matter?

What’s more important? The messenger or the message?