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Part 38 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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The man of superior character is not (conscious of his) character. Hence he has character.

The man of inferior character (is intent on) not losing character. Hence he is devoid of character.

The man of superior character never acts, nor ever (does so) with an ulterior motive.

The man of inferior character acts, and (does so) with an ulterior motive.

The man of superior kindness acts, but (does so) without an ulterior motive.

The man of superior justice acts, and (does so) with an ulterior motive.

(But when) the man of superior acts and finds no response, he rolls up his sleeves to force it on others.


After Tao is lost, then (arises the doctrine of) humanity.

After humanity is lost, then (arises the doctrine of) justice.

After justice is lost, then (arises the doctrine of) li.

Now li is the thinning out of loyalty and honesty of heart, and the beginning of chaos.

The prophets are the flowering of Tao and the origin of folly.

Therefore the noble man dwells in the heavy (base), and not in the thinning (end).

He dwells in the fruit, and not in the flowering (expression).

Therefore he rejects the one and accepts the other.

(Tao Teh King 38)

The man of superior character is not (conscious of his) character. Hence he has character.

To be in touch with our true Self, our true nature which is the same as that of the Tao, is to be “of superior character.” In Sanskrit there is an important adjective, Sahaja, which means that which is natural, innate, spontaneous and inborn. This and this alone is the Tao. And because it is absolutely natural and spontaneous, those who possess it never think of it and never identify with it because it is not external to them. For example, if you told fish about water they would doubt you. “What and where is this water?” they would object. “We have never seen it!” Why? Because it is the medium in which they exist. Therefore to them it is unperceivable.

So the illumined man does not think of himself as enlightened, but only as I Am.

The man of inferior character (is intent on) not losing character. Hence he is devoid of character.

One of the most pathetic things I ever saw was Alan Watts on television rubbing an ink slab while he gazed into the camera, trying to project the impression that he was enlightened in the midst of his activity. A bishop-friend of mine once remarked about a major Christian denomination: “They are terrified of making a mistake because they are infallible!” As the Upanishad says: “He who says ‘I know,’ does not know.”

I have observed a lot of people pretending to be enlightened masters. Often it is quite funny, especially when they are Indian “gurus.” But J. M. Barrie in the fourteenth chapter of Peter Pan depicts such people in the character of Captain Hook who is obsessed with “good form.”

“Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze; but as those who read between the lines must already have guessed, he had been at a famous public school; and its traditions still clung to him like garments, with which indeed they are largely concerned. Thus it was offensive to him even now to board a ship in the same dress in which he grappled her, and he still adhered in his walk to the school’s distinguished slouch. But above all he retained the passion for good form.

“Good form! However much he may have degenerated, he still knew that this is all that really matters.

“From far within him he heard a creaking as of rusty portals, and through them came a stern tap-tap-tap, like hammering in the night when one cannot sleep. ‘Have you been good form to-day?’ was their eternal question.

“‘Fame, fame, that glittering bauble, it is mine,’ he cried.

“‘Is it quite good form to be distinguished at anything?’ the tap-tap from his school replied.…

“Most disquieting reflection of all, was it not bad form to think about good form?

“His vitals were tortured by this problem. It was a claw within him sharper than the iron one; and as it tore him, the perspiration dripped down his tallow countenance and streaked his doublet. Ofttimes he drew his sleeve across his face, but there was no damming that trickle.

“Ah, envy not Hook.

“…If Smee was lovable, what was it that made him so? A terrible answer suddenly presented itself–‘Good form!’

“Had the bo’sun good form without knowing it, which is the best form of all?

“He remembered that you have to prove you don’t know you have it before you are eligible for Pop [an elite social club at Eton].

“With a cry of rage he raised his iron hand over Smee’s head; but he did not tear. What arrested him was this reflection:

“‘To claw a man because he is good form, what would that be?’

“‘Bad form!’

“The unhappy Hook was as impotent as he was damp, and he fell forward like a cut flower.”

This is just what Lao Tzu is talking about.

The man of superior character never acts, nor ever (does so) with an ulterior motive.

Every action of the superior person is an expression of cosmic order (ritam), of the truth of his true Self. He does what he does because it is the right and true thing. To do otherwise would be to violate his fundamental nature, and he has passed beyond that possibility. Saint John the Apostle affirms this when he says: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (I John 3:9). The “seed” of the divine Self which has been fully awakened and developed in him makes wrong action impossible. Established completely in the I Am consciousness he has no other motive than To Be.

The man of inferior character acts, and (does so) with an ulterior motive.

Being in the grip of ego and self-centeredness, the inferior person never acts outside that context. Therefore everything appearing noble, right, or good he might do is just the opposite because it springs from a wrong perspective and motivation. Just as the superior person cannot do wrong, the inferior person cannot do right. Everything he does is for “Me,” an expression of pure narcissism.

The man of superior kindness acts, but (does so) without an ulterior motive.

I knew a man who lived extremely frugally and gave everything he had to others. Though of a very wealthy background he lived in a virtual shack. He was renowned for his good deeds. But he was really a dead soul who had been told that was the way to act, so he did: to an extreme degree. But I never saw any real compassion or even simple kindness in him. He was a good-deeds robot and nothing more. On the other hand, I knew a man that lived just as frugally and intent on helping others, and since he was acting from a genuine, deep impulse of goodness and loving-kindness, he was a person of true and great virtue. This is important to understand, for today a great deal of very unworthy people are trying to hide their true character under a veneer of “caring” social action. The worse they are, the more “good” they do. It is the moral equivalent of charity done to get a tax break. Most things that glitter are not gold.

The man of ‘superior justice’ acts, and (does so) with an ulterior motive.

Mabry: “A politician acts, but he has ulterior motives.” Chan: “The man of superior righteousness takes action, and has an ulterior motive to do so.” The people who have straightened themselves out simply live straight. but those who intend to straighten others out always have some motive in doing so, and it always leads back to them, not others. They always seek their own benefit, using others to attain it.

(But when) the man of superior li acts and finds no response, he rolls up his sleeves to force it on others.

Blackney: “High etiquette, when acted out without response from others, constrains a man to bare his arms and make them do their duty!” Wu: “High ceremony fusses but finds no response; Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.” Byrn: “The ‘moral’ person will act out of duty, and when no one will respond will roll up his sleeves and uses force.” Chan: “The man of superior propriety takes action, and when people do not respond to it, he will stretch his arms and force it on them.” Legge: “(Those who) possessed the highest (sense of) propriety were (always seeking) to show it, and when men did not respond to it, they bared the arm and marched up to them.” Feng and English: “When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds, he rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.” Mabry: “When a legalist acts and get no response, he rolls up his sleeve and uses force.”

“Li” is a difficult word. As we have seen from these translations, it can mean etiquette, social norms, external propriety, discipline, and even legalism. All these are externals, and that is why they provoke external coercion and social bullying masquerading as justice and morality. The “just” man of the previous verse gets people to do what he wants by persuasion or even by fooling them into thinking that what he wants will benefit them. But the man of Li tries to coerce them even with brute force.

Lao Tzu is assuring us that anything which results in forcing others is worthless and even destructive. Why? Because it causes us to totally lose contact with the Tao, which is antithetical to manipulation or force. The sole purpose of the Tao is to liberate from within us the characteristics of the Tao that are our true nature. This can only come about spontaneously, inevitably.

In Section Eighteen, “The Decline of Tao,” it says: “When the Great Tao ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness came into vogue. (Then) appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy. When harmony no longer prevailed throughout the six kinships, filial sons found their manifestation; when the states and clans fell into disorder, loyal ministers appeared.” Now Lao Tzu is going to give us another list of what arises when the Tao declines.

After Tao is lost, then (arises the doctrine of) humanity.

Wu: “Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.” Chan: “Therefore when Tao is lost, only then does the doctrine of virtue arise.” Most translators prefer “virtue” to “humanity” in this verse. The idea is that when the Tao is lost, so also does spontaneous behavior in keeping with the Tao. Therefore an artificial code is substituted for it: external social and private “virtue,” a code based on what others think it is, rather than an internal arising within the individual. This artificial (and therefore false) virtue must be learned, even imposed. Thus society ceases to be truly ordered, but rather regimented and rule-bound, essentially hypocritical and inwardly disordered. So outward rectitude prevails and secret vice pervades, leading to ultimate collapse of both society and the individual. The Soviet Union was a perfect example of this, as are all socialistic societies, for however they may begin, they end in totalitarian dictatorship. Fortunately in time they collapse, but the recovery from such evil is slow and hard.

After humanity is lost, then (arises the doctrine of) justice.

Wu: “Failing Virtue, man resorts to ‘humanity.’” Chan: “When virtue is lost, only then does the doctrine of ‘humanity’ arise.” I have written about this a few times in other places. In the present day, moral corruption and inveterate selfishness are especially being covered up by “social action” and “good deeds.” Certainly very good and worthy people do these things, but innocently, not with the ulterior motives of the inwardly self-serving.

Of course, “human rights” cover a multitude of social and political aberrations, often ploys to erode real human rights. Almost nothing that glitters is gold in this area.

After justice is lost, then (arises the doctrine of) li.

Wu: “Failing humanity, man resorts to morality. Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.” Chan: “When humanity is lost, only then does the doctrine of righteousness arise. When righteousness is lost, only then does the doctrine of propriety arise.” When natural inner goodness is lacking, then thoroughly external “goodness” begins to prevail in people’s lives. This is, as Lao Tzu has just pointed out, evidence that not only is real goodness absent, very real wrongdoing and evil is rife in the unseen, hidden aspects of life. This has characterized many eras of social life in both East and West. China, the homeland of Lao Tzu, especially embodied this. Like any good writer, Lao Tzu was writing about what he knew from firsthand experience.

Religion is one of the main offenders in this. Presently, nearly all religion is externalized to the maximum degree in East and West. So also is yoga in the West, which has been almost totally reduced to nothing more than physical culture and emotional hype in the form of “chanting.”

Now li is the thinning out of loyalty and honesty of heart, and the beginning of chaos.

Wu: “Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty; It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.” Legge: “Now propriety is the attenuated form of leal-heartedness and good faith, and is also the commencement of disorder.” (“Leal” means faithful, true, loyal, honest and genuine.) Chan: “Now, propriety is a superficial expression of loyalty and faithfulness, and the beginning of disorder.” These translations themselves leave little need for comment, except that these things are the symptoms of a downward slide that will almost never be arrested or reversed until there is total collapse. Rather than looking at others, we need to look at our own hearts and lives and see if we, too, are on the slide.

The prophets are the flowering of Tao and the origin of folly.

By “prophets” Lao Tzu does not mean true seers of the future and the inner side of things, but rather “oracles” of society who are followed unquestioningly and unthinkingly. This has been a phenomenon throughout history, so much so that history seems little more than a string of fools and follies. No wonder that Napoleon defined history as “a lie agreed upon.” The truth is too unfaceable.

“Leaders” need followers, and intelligent and self-sufficient people never run in a herd. Therefore any mass movement is almost sure to be a mindless rushing to an unknown result that turns out to be the opposite of what was claimed or promised. Self-destruction is the keynote. It is true that history repeats itself because no one learns from it, but it also repeats itself because it is made up of the same unaware mobs that made history. For this reason Taoism is the most individualistic of the world’s religions.

Therefore the noble man dwells in the heavy (base), and not in the thinning (end). He dwells in the fruit, and not in the flowering (expression). Therefore he rejects the one and accepts the other.

Wu: “Therefore, the full-grown man set his heart upon the substance rather than the husk; Upon the fruit rather than the flower. Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.” It is a tragic fact that people often accept a symbol for a reality, a symptom for a cause, and only the wise seem able to discern the difference. Therefore Lao Tzu tells us that the mature spiritual person continually discriminates between the two and always takes the real thing.

In philosophy, religion and even yoga many people take the claims and ignore the contradictory actualities. They obsess on the teacher, the teaching and even the practice, and pay no attention to the results (or, rather, the lack of results). Many good people are trapped in the refusal to take a good look and come to the right conclusion.

But the wise do look and see. They consider only the results and not the claims. Further, they examine and see whether what seems real and a sign of progress will really end in the Goal or not. Experiences mean nothing if consciousness is not expanded and liberated. Some yogas give a continual “high” or exotic experiences and nothing else. At the end of the ride the yogi finds himself right where he started. It was entertaining, but useless. I have known sincerely dedicated people who took decades to figure out that it was only a light-and-sound show with no substance.

Those who insistently cling to the inner, continually examining the nature of their practice, will attain; the dreamers and hopers will not. It is crucial to realize that only our inner state is an indicator of the value or valuelessness of a belief or practice. “He whose happiness is within, whose delight is within, whose illumination is within: that yogi, identical in being with Brahman, attains Brahmanirvana” (Bhagavad Gita 5:24). “The yogi is superior to ascetics (tapaswins), and considered superior to jnanis and superior to those engaged in Vedic rituals (karmakanda). Therefore be a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: Unity Through Complements

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Introduction to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Chapters of The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Preface to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

  1. On the Absolute Tao
  2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
  3. Action Without Deeds
  4. The Character of Tao
  5. Nature
  6. The Spirit of the Valley
  7. Living for Others
  8. Water
  9. The Danger of Overweening Success
  10. Embracing the One
  11. The Utility of Not-Being
  12. The Senses
  13. Praise and Blame
  14. Prehistoric Origins
  15. The Wise Ones of Old
  16. Knowing the Eternal Law
  17. Rulers
  18. The Decline of Tao
  19. Realize the Simple Self
  20. The World and I
  21. Manifestations of Tao
  22. Futility of Contention
  23. Identification with Tao
  24. The Dregs and Tumors of Virtue
  25. The Four Eternal Models
  26. Heaviness and Lightness
  27. On Stealing the Light
  28. Keeping to the Female
  29. Warning Against Interference
  30. Warning Against the Use of Force
  31. Weapons of Evil
  32. Tao is Like the Sea
  33. Knowing Oneself
  34. The Great Tao Flows Everywhere
  35. The Peace of Tao
  36. The Rhythm of Life
  37. World Peace
  38. Degeneration
  39. Unity Through Complements
  40. The Principle of Reversion
  41. Qualities of the Taoist
  42. The Violent Man
  43. The Softest Substance
  44. Be Content
  45. Calm Quietude
  46. Racing Horses
  47. Pursuit of Knowledge
  48. Conquering the World by Inaction
  49. The People’s Hearts
  50. The Preserving of Life
  51. The Mystic Virtue
  52. Stealing the Absolute
  53. Brigandage
  54. The Individual and the State
  55. The Character of the Child
  56. Beyond Honor and Disgrace
  57. The Art of Government
  58. Unobtrusive Government
  59. Be Sparing
  60. Governing a Big Country
  61. Big and Small Countries
  62. The Good Man’s Treasure
  63. Difficult and Easy
  64. Beginning and End
  65. The Grand Harmony
  66. The Lords of the Ravines
  67. The Three Treasures
  68. The Virtue of Not-Contending
  69. Camouflage
  70. They Know Me Not
  71. Sick-Mindedness
  72. On Punishment (1)
  73. On Punishment (2)
  74. On Punishment (3)
  75. On Punishment (4)
  76. Hard and Soft
  77. Bending the Bow
  78. Nothing Weaker than Water
  79. Peace Settlements
  80. The Small Utopia
  81. The Way of Heaven

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