The following poem is from the ancient book known as the Tao Te Ching (pronounced “Dow Duh Ching”), written by the mysterious figure Lao Tzu, over 2500 years ago. It is one of two foundational Daoist texts — the Zhuangzi being the other — and is regarded by some as one of the deepest, most wisdom-rich works ever written.
It’s easy to assume it’s an easy read — because of its short length — but even today, the true meaning, the underlying message of each poem, is heavily debated. Because it is a book of poetry, the verses can be difficult to understand and comprehend; some pages are axiomatic, some leave you deeply puzzled. Stick with the tough ones long enough though, and you’ll start to make connections and aha moments will arise. Some verses you may not fully understand for many years, perhaps never, and this is testament to a book which, even though written in the 6th Century BC, still survives today; and it survives for no other reason than it’s level of mystery, profundity and most importantly, seemingly perpetual relevance. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite poems.
Like most of the beautiful poems in this little book, this one can be interpreted in many ways. This is a very important point; each person who reads the Tao De Ching will get something different from each poem. Furthermore, as you go through different stages in your life, the poems will take on new meanings; that is, the message you get from them will be different from before.
The great thing about this poem is that it gives you a visual on what someone following Tao would look like. The reference to the “ancients who followed the Tao” and the latter description of them, despite it’s ambivalence, gives you a clear-er sense of what Tao is; and more importantly, it gives you a sense of how to incorporate it into your own life. The general message of this poem seems to be that those who follow Tao have no excess; they don’t need it. Not that they don’t need it, but if they have or need it, they are not following Tao.
Because they have no excess — which in today’s world, you could see as desires for luxury, money, fame and power — they have no problem fitting in, adapting and thriving in any environment. And not only that, because they are lacking in excess, they are ready, more ready than anyone to adapt; like Leopards resting peacefully in the African sun and then, the moment a Gazelle walks on the scene, suddenly switching into predatory mode — and moments later, making a kill.
Unlike non-followers of Tao — who rush around, worry, and are never able to deal with volatility — they fight, pounce and act only when necessary. This poem speaks of followers of Tao as practitioners of simplicity, profundity and capacity.
The ancients who followed Tao:
Dark, wondrous, profound, penetrating.
Deep beyond knowing.
Because they cannot be known,
They can only be described.
Like crossing a winter stream.
Like respecting one’s neighbours.
Like a guest.
Like ice about to melt.
Like uncarved wood.
Like a valley.
Like muddy water.
Calm the muddy water,
It becomes clear.
Move the inert,
It comes to life.
Those who sustain Tao
Do not wish to be full.
Because they do not wish to be full
They can fade away
Without further effort.