Tao Te Ching: Qualities of Compassion

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.
(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67)


This essay is an effort to discuss some of the qualities of compassion which are described in Tao Te Ching. It would be almost impossible to cover every aspect of compassion in the text, and to do this great masterpiece full justice.

Goddess of Mercy is The Goddess of Compassion. She advised us to live with compassion. Accept the sufferings and also live with the sufferings. Feel the tragedies of mankind, give joyousness whenever required. Show mercy, in return we shall receive mercy. To show mercy is to have compassion and live in peace and live and let live.

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Even though this essay is a verbal effort, acquiring compassion should not be seen as an intellectual exercise.

The true meaning of compassion will only become clear if one lives a life of compassion. There is no other way.


When people see some things as beautiful,
Other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
Other things become bad.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2)

This text is talking about the basic attitude one should have when approaching life. It should be one of non-discrimination.

It has to do with the fact that as long as one lives in a dualistic world only - a world of subject and object, where everything is measured and assessed - one will be run by all kinds of norms and regulations. One will never acquire the freedom essential to a life lived in compassion, where one acts according to the real needs of oneself and other beings, irrespective of who they are and what they look like, or what rules run their and your lives.

One could argue that non-discriminatory thinking is not possible in a world expecting dualistic thinking. To a certain extent this is true. The ability to define and discriminate is essential to survival on a physical and intellectual level, but this ability becomes a handicap the moment we enter the spiritual world. You could say that the standards and laws governing existence change as you move into the spiritual world, the way they change as you move from the macro-world into the subatomic world of quantum mechanics.

Unless you are willing to adopt new ways of dealing with reality, you will not be able to understand the subatomic world, and the same is true when you move into a spiritual world. In the spiritual world, "thinking", as we know it in the "rational" world, is replaced by a different kind of "movement of the mind", a form of experience. The experiential here, however, is of a spiritual nature. With the previous sentence, I have just arrived at the limit of what I can describe with language, for exactly what is meant by "spiritual" cannot be described precisely in language. If it could be described, it would not be spiritual.

The beauty of this passage from Tao Te Ching is that it clearly shows what goes wrong if you insist on thinking dualistically on a spiritual level. The moment you distinguish between beautiful and ugly, you become prejudiced, and this inevitably influences your attitude and your actions.

Let me give you an example. If you really believe that being thin is beautiful, you will find obese people ugly. Research has shown that obese people are confronted by a lot of prejudice. They are prejudged by people as being anything from self-indulgent and greedy to selfish and plain stupid. The high instance of eating disorders among younger women and the billions earned from pushing dietary drugs testify to this.

In fact, seeing the world in terms of beautiful and ugly is exploited to manipulate people. The industry will make you believe that only the latest fashion is beautiful, in this way manipulating you into buying. It is a source of fear as well.

Beauty the source of fear? Of course it is. In a world where only the youthful are accepted as beautiful, and old age is rejected as ugly, particularly women, but increasingly also males, live in perpetual fear of rejection. The "beauty industry" is an industry based on the fear of becoming ugly - it is indeed a hideous industry.

Now what is the solution? Simple. Live a life of the spirit. Where there is no discrimination. Where the "beautiful" and "ugly" are neither beautiful nor ugly, but sentient beings filled with emptiness. Where the superficial does not count. Only then will true compassion be possible, for compassion is not real if it is only reserved for what is considered to be "beautiful". If it does, it becomes ugly.

Not being possessive

Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn't possess, acts but doesn't expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2)

Greed has become a basic impulse in our society. It has become essential to our economy. In the First World, most people are long past the point where they buy the basics. Our economic growth depends to a large extent on the purchase of luxuries by people who own more than they need, but who are lured into becoming victims of their own greed. Greed has become a positive quality in economic terms. The economy has become so fragile that if people should become just a little less greedy, the stock markets will crash and whole economies will come down. We live in a sad world where greed has become an economic necessity.

The price we have to pay for this greed is tremendous, for greed brings out the worst in people. Have a look around you and see for yourself.

Our greed includes not only materialism, but our idealism as well. Our ideals have become ego-centric and destructive - just another form of greed. The world of ideas and concepts - of information - has become an economy in itself. Information is nothing else but part of the rat race for power and prestige.

This passage from Tao te Ching offers a solution. One should not be possessive. Again, it deals with a basic attitude. Being possessive is a symptom of greed. You see this greed even with so-called "spiritual" people, who would jealously compete for influence and power.

This text links a non-possessive attitude of liberality, openness and altruism to many positive things. Only then will one be able to serve without expectation. Reward will not be the basic motive. Nor fame.

Neither will one use one's success to inflate the ego:

When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.


The Master doesn't take sides;
She welcomes both saints and sinners.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5)

This passage takes the idea of non-discrimination a step further. It deals with tolerance. What it is in fact saying is that one should not judge people according to their spiritual development, nor according to the rights or wrongs they have done.

You have probably read those headlines which emphasize that so many "innocent" people have died in some terrible war somewhere.

Is it worse when "innocent" rather than "guilty" people die? Or to go one step further: Is death for the less innocent more justifiable? Are the lives of the innocent worth more than the lives of the guilty? To take it another step further: Is there such a thing as a justifiable death for the guilty?

If your answer is yes to the last question, you may probably agree with millions of people arguing for the death penalty, or who even propose televised executions. Many movies also work on this ingredient of vengeance against the guilty. They would manipulate audiences into actually enjoying it when guilty villains get their "just punishment" in the form of being murdered by a "righteous hero".

Does our enjoyment of the deaths of the guilty bring out the worst or the best in us? Are people, who vie to eye-witness murderers being executed, part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The cry for no tolerance easily becomes a cry for no mercy. Make no mistake: it is essential to maintain law and order. Real peace is not possible without it. But neither is peace possible without mercy, which is the basic ingredient of forgiveness and compassion, the true basis of a civilized society. We may take sides against crime, but we should be careful that we do not take sides against the "sinners".

In our effort to establish law and order, we could easily become as cruel and inhuman as the criminal, and in the process destroy the very basis of civilization, which is compassion and wisdom.

Infinitely available

The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you talk of it, the less you understand. Hold on to the center.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5)

You get people who are stingy about "spiritual" things. They would never smile, for example. Is smiling spiritual? Oh, yes, it can be! Zen purportedly started with a smile at the sight of a beautiful flower. It is almost as if these stingy people believe they only have a limited number of smiles available, and as if they are afraid they may "use them all up" before they come to the end of their miserable lives. What they forget is that you cannot save spiritual favors the way you save money! Compassion is often an impulsive act at the spur of a moment. You cannot save compassion for later.

I love people who smile at me for no reason other than that they feel like smiling at me. With no strings attached. Not the false smile of the salesman out to stimulate your buying impulse. Nor the smile as a public relations exercise, calculated to increase influence. Nor the seductive smile. No, smiles without agendas.

Compassion is not like some material possession, which loses value when you use it. It is not something you can hoard in a bank where it will run interest for you. The more compassion you give without strings attached, the more it grows. It is like a bottomless well filled with fresh water. There is no end to it. In fact, the image of the well is not accurate enough, for compassion grows as you "use" it. It has the tendency to deflate the ego and allow more space for other sentient beings in your mind. The mind filled with compassion is limitless in space. Our minds become like the open, cloudless sky.

There is a warning in the passage:

the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

It is clear enough, isn't it? The author is not saying we should not talk about it.

What he is saying is that talking about it too much without living it will only serve to increase our confusion. We can learn about compassion only by applying it as well.


The Tao is infinite, eternal. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Why is it infinite? It has no desires for itself; thus it is present for all beings. The Master stays behind; that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things; that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 7)

The quality of detachment is given an important place in Taoism as well as in Buddhism.

This idea of detachment being linked to compassion is foreign to many people in modern times, where compassion is linked to attachment and emotions. This is exactly where ideas of love so prevalent in our society are wrong.

Compassion, real compassion, is not an emotion: it is a commitment. You will keep this commitment in spite of your emotions. It is not dependent on something so fickle as emotions.

Let me give you an example. I love my wife very much. I want to become old with her. That means that when I am lucky, I am going to see her youthful features turn ancient, and she is going to experience me as a tottering old man. Emotions, sex, ideals of physical beauty and health - all these things may not be part of our commitment, or else our relationship is doomed. We are thankful to have these brief privileges while they last. But they will disappear, like everything else. It is the way of the Tao. The funny thing is, though, that all those youthful emotions classified as "romantic" are replaced by something infinitely more beautiful. It is steadfast as the Tao. I would not exchange this for my earlier feelings, as beautiful as they have been.

Of course you would say, "But you are terribly attached to your wife, and you are not talking about detachment here, are you?" You've got me there. But then, this poem does not mean that we should not be attached to each other. Of course we should, but the attachment should be one of detachment from those aspects that pass by. Our attachment should be based on the knowledge that we are all transient and empty. In the end, even our relationships will perish. Having said all this, I know that there is no way past suffering in this life. It is part and parcel of samsara, this cycle of birth, life and death. There is no way of escaping it. One could easily come to the conclusion that one could escape misery only by living in a cold kind of compassion without any form of attachment. Lucky are those people who can. They are true Buddhas. As for me, I prefer to suffer, for a life without the love I have experienced is quite simply intolerable.

Then what can someone like me do? The only way is to reduce suffering by reducing my own ego. The more selfless my love is, the better able I would be to master the inevitable.

There are no rules in Taoism. There are simply ways to minimize suffering and to live in harmony with the Tao.

In relationships, it is all about how much the own ego is involved. The more ego one has, the more one tends to inflict suffering on oneself and others; the less ego is involved, the more harmonious relationships become. It is, of course, impossible in this life to avoid all forms of desire. The very fact that we are alive is a manifestation of desire!

Relationships should be unfettered by rules. Provided your ego is not in charge, relationships should be spontaneous, stimulating and full of fun, and they should be supportive and compassionate. Friendships without personal agendas are probably the most fruitful and joyful.

In a love relationship, obviously, physical desire will be a natural part of the equation. Again, a selfish focus on the self to the exclusion of the needs of the partner could of course have devastating results on a relationship. Sex, also, should be a function of harmony. If it is based on the ego, it becomes divisive.

What Buddhism emphasizes is that desire inevitably brings suffering. It does not mean that it is wrong. The dimension of "sin" is not part of this.

The desire which is part of relationships is quite simply unavoidable in this life - and the suffering that is part of it. One should know this. When you fall in love, you have made a choice. The choice will give your life additional meaning if you tackle it wisely, but even if it should be a perfect relationship full of joy and fulfilment, and even if very little ego is involved, it will still inevitably bring the sorrow associated with impermanence: the suffering of parting at death, or of seeing the partner ill and suffering. Attachment brings sorrow. There is no escape from this. One should not be cowed by this into a sterile life.

One should live a natural, spontaneous life of compassion, unintimidated by the specter of suffering. Suffering is part of life. The Taoist sage will deliberately choose the way of suffering if it is necessary and unavoidable.

One should curb one's ego, but be free.

It is the way of the Tao.


The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8)

I do not know how many times I have read and quoted this text, because it expresses almost perfectly what I feel about humility. It is so clear, isn't it? Humility is not something negative, but it is a source of tremendous power.

It is an amazing text, for it is one of those texts that seem to change with your own development. Every time I read it, it seems to acquire new meaning.

The first thing that strikes me when I read it now is that the "supreme good ... nourishes ...all things". It does not discriminate.

The second thing is that it does so "without trying". It is effortless, for it is part of its nature. It is very true, isn't it? When you first try to be "better", it can easily feel a bit contrived. It should not upset you too much. If you have lived an egocentric life for a long time, being compassionate will not come "naturally" to you at first. What this actually means is that your emotions will clash with or object to what you are doing at first. Do not let that worry you too much. Compassion is first and foremost a commitment, isn't it? Your emotions and the "natural" part will follow sooner or later, often later if you have been a hardened egotist. If you are willing to suffer in the process, you will have an even better chance. Remember: Being truly compassionate starves the ego, and the ego gives you hell in the process.

The third line of this passage explains a tremendous quality of compassion:

It is content with the low places that people disdain.

Now, again, being in "low places" is painful to someone who has been craving for attention and recognition. It is torture to someone dependent on status. If you are truly compassionate, you will be willing to lose status for the sake of serving others. You will get into a position or situations "people disdain". It would be something your family might beg you not to mention when friends come for dinner. It would not be anything that could put people in awe of your qualities or commitment. It would be something they could find nauseating. They might not even want to know you because of this. You might even lose your chances of promotion because of it.

Can you think of anything like this? I can. Helping and nursing people with full blown AIDS falls in this category where I live. Almost nobody wants to be associated with victims of AIDS in many parts of Africa.

The amazing quality of true compassion lies in the third word of the line: "content". Not only is the truly compassionate person willing to do something other people disdain, but she is "content" to do so. Contentment is a strong word. That is what so many materialists or idealists search for in vain, for the more you have, the less contented you seem to be as an egoist. True compassion allows you to live with contentment as a social outcast.

The implications of this passage are tremendous. This contentment would only be possible if you have rid yourself of your ego and have become independent of the opinion of society.

Non-materialist and independent

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 9)

Two great handicaps on your way to becoming compassionate are firstly to be materialist, to "chase after money and security", and secondly "to care about other people's approval".

I find the translation "your heart will never unclench" powerful. That is exactly what happens to people focused on money. Their hearts are clenched up. They cannot open their hearts to anyone. What a painful condition it must be.

It is interesting that "security" is mentioned, because that is a big factor in our modern society, where the contract between generations often has ceased existing, and old people are left to fend for themselves. This unfortunate state has induced people to become stingier as they grow older. Here in Africa, there is a saying that it is easier to share your poverty than your wealth. This sharing of even poverty has become obsolete in our modern society, for there is very little social cohesion left. Greed and egotism are ruling, and there is little space for compassion on a social scale.

Only when society could embrace compassion would the kind of solidarity ensuring true social cohesion be possible.

Compassionate leadership

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will? Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? Can you step back from you own mind and thus understand all things?

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 10)

The question asked in the first two lines is profound.

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?

If you can answer in the affirmative, you will have learned how to love others selflessly. It implies a totally different concept of leadership. Mostly, leadership is seen as a way of manipulating people into doing what you want them to do. Good leaders are often sly leaders who will impose their will on people without the people noticing it. People might even believe that they have made the decisions themselves. The leadership described in this passage is one of loving the people that you lead. It is compassionate leadership where your own will does not count.

The second question makes it even clearer what is meant by compassionate leadership.

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course?

Compassion here is a form of non-action. You will simply let matters take their course. Not any matters. The "most vital matters". Isn't this really expecting too much? Isn't this in many ways the opposite of leadership? There seems to be a real contradiction in the question. Do you actually "deal with ... matters" when you let them "take their course"? The author clearly thinks so. What he means becomes clearer when you understand what he means with "their course". Sometimes, matters take what can be described as their natural course, and it is then better not to oppose them. The compassionate leader is someone who will not allow his own ego to intervene when matters take their determined course. He will not interfere just to pacify his ego, or when his own interests are in jeopardy, when interference may worsen matters.

The third question deals with the kind of perspective essential to compassionate leadership, but "compassion" here has a profound spiritual meaning.

Can you step back from you own mindand thus understand all things?

To "step back from your own mind" is the ultimate step in intelligence, but it is an intelligence where you have stopped the ordinary process of thinking as you move onto a new level of intelligence. This form of intelligence has been given names such as intuition or empathy. It is a kind of "spiritual intelligence", where your understanding is based on total identification with what used to be an object to you, but has now turned into a part of you. This is when you reach a state of unity where you see the flower, and the flower sees you; where you become one with the universe around you, and therefore truly understand.

All of these three questions emphasize the same supreme virtue: the ability "to step back from your own mind". This kind of compassion is only possible when you have conquered you own ego and have eliminated you own desires to a point where you dwell in emptiness and become part of a non-dualistic world where subject and object have ceased to exist. A state of total identification.

When I strike you,
your blood will certainly flow from my veins.
When you are starving,
your bloated belly is gnawing into my flesh.
The laughter in your eyes
lights up mine.
I can see my face in yours.
Can you see yours in mine?

(The Tao is Tao, 97)

Dwelling in emptiness

We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11)

This poem emphasizes that it is emptiness, and not shape and form, which is the true "essence".

What has this got to do with compassion? Everything. Compassion itself is centered in emptiness. It is only when you have rid yourself of your ego, and have accepted your own emptiness, that you are able to identify yourself totally with everything around you, and only then can you be truly compassionate.

The courage
to show compassion
comes from
the acceptance of

(The Tao is Tao, 15)

Freedom from desire

Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 12)

When there is no desire, all things are at peace.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37)

Reducing your desires will not be easily accepted in our society, which is fueled by desire. People are made to believe that they will reach contentment and peace by fulfilling their desires, and not by eliminating them, as these passages claim.

The warning in the first passage is alarming.

Desires wither the heart.

Desire actually destroys compassion. Again, this will sound weird to a society that sees love as a form of desire which has to be gratified. True compassion, however, is at its most effective when desire does not play a role.

It is easy to understand why. Desire has to do with the effort to gratify the self. It is in fact nothing but an impulse to feed the own ego. Psychologists will tell you that love is also serving yourself. There is, of course, nothing wrong with serving yourself also. It is a question of degree and emphasis. If you serve yourself more than you serve others, or if your main aim is to serve yourself, you have a problem, for then your desire will rule your actions. The focus on the self will inevitably pervert your compassion and inflate your own ego.

"But wait," you might object, "there is nothing wrong with the desire to serve others, is there?"

You would have a point, for desire gives impetus to your actions.

But even then, desire has the ability to pervert, for it will sooner or later turn your virtue into vanity.

Desire is the fuel of the ego.
You will never find your true self
as long as this fire burns in you.
Even the desire to be virtuous
will corrupt you in the end.
True goodness comes from emptiness,
where thinking has stopped and
the fire has been extinguished.

(The Tao is Tao, 74)

Inner vision and openness

The Master observes the world but trusts his inner vision. He allows things to come and go. His heart is open as the sky.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 12)

You must observe the world and stay in touch with it. It is useless fleeing into emptiness. There is no escape from reality. When you turn your effort to find your true self into an escapist venture, you will have turned your back on compassion and wisdom. You will be very foolish indeed.

But you should not let "external reality" dictate to you what you should feel, think, say and do. You should rely on your "inner vision", and act according to your own "spiritual" perspective of the world. Your true self should be in charge of your reality.

Only then will you be detached and will your heart "be open as the sky". Only then is true compassion possible.


Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don't see the self as self, what do we have to fear? See the world as your self. Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as your self; then you can care for all things.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13)

Fear diminishes your ability to be compassionate. That is clear enough, isn't it? The author is not talking here of a mother's fear for the safety of her children when they have to go to school in a dangerous neighborhood. He is talking about fear linked to your self.

Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self.

He links fear and hope. How can hope and fear be linked? Hope is a form of ambition. When you have hope, you carry in you the vision of improvement, and you also live with the fear of failure. Vice versa: fear can also cause hope in you. Fear and hope are inextricably linked.

The author claims that both fear and hope are "phantoms" based on egotism. The moment we realize that the kind of false self we visualize does not exist, we will lose our fear, and hope will become unnecessary.

To overcome our fear, we need faith.

Have faith in the way things are.

Isn't the author being very naive here? Is it possible in our modern world to "have faith in the way things are"? Just think of the more than a billion people living in abject poverty. Look at the pictures of death and carnage hitting our TV screens every day. War crimes. Child slavery. Famine. Suffering on a vast scale. How can we have faith in samsara, this eternal cycle of suffering?

This is really expecting too much, isn't it? Isn't "faith" here just a way of closing your eyes to "objective reality" out there?

Obviously not, for in the very next lines, Lao Tzu appeals to us:

Love the world as your self; then you can care for all things.

Faith gives compassion the essential endurance and courage.

What he is saying here is not that you should love the world as you love yourself. No, he goes an important and profound step further. He exhorts us to love the world as part of our selves. There is no subject and no object in this love. We are the world, and the world is us. It is total identification. Only then will you be able to "care for all things". Compassion becomes totally inclusive.

I see my reflection
every particle of dust.
Even the mountain has my face.
The bird ruffles my feathers
and the spider spins my web.
Who can sense the loneliness of a parrot in a cage?
Who can feel the slow passion of a snail?
Only the true sage in total harmony with the Tao.

(The Tao is Tao, 96)

Faith acquires a new dimension in this total identification. Being an indivisible part of the world and its suffering, you are part of all things, and all things are part of you. There is no escape, and there is no fear. Religion is not your effort to extricate your ego-soul from the mess, leaving everything else behind to rot in hell. Religion has not turned you into a member of an exclusive club of "saved souls" barricading themselves against the "heathen" until such time as those outside your exclusive circle will get their "just punishment" and be thrown into agony. The faith spoken about here is not just faith in your own or your like-minded friends' "salvation". It is the all-encompassing faith that, ultimately, even the blades of grass you trample on will become enlightened.

Compassion based on total identification is total commitment to the whole of creation, of which you are an indivisible part. Faith has become an integral part of an all-enveloping, all-encompassing compassion. You know this is the way of the Tao, and you have faith in it.


Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15)

Patience, as an integral part of compassion, is based on a true understanding of non-action. It is the ability to give things a chance to settle. You have probably experienced the situation where it is better to wait until the "mud settles", and things become clear again. Often, when you act in impatience, you make matters only worse than before. In fact, you then stir up things that should have been left untouched.

The third and fourth lines go one step further. They refer to a basic attitude or approach to problem solving. It is to remain "unmoving", that is totally passive, until "the right action rises by itself". Often, particularly when you work with people, this approach is very effective. Often it is preferable to wait until problems, particularly between people, solve themselves. Interference could only jeopardize processes of reconciliation or finding agreement. You need real patience here.

Patience often means that you should ignore your own ambitions and goals. You lose patience if your own expectations are not met. Ideally, you should not have any expectations where patience is needed. If you have you own goals, if you are "seeking", you will also have difficulty remaining patient and "not moving". It is only when you have neutralized your own ego that you will be truly "present" and be able "to welcome all things". Selfless involvement creates the kind of equanimity needed to solve difficult problems.

Provide space for the development of others, and by so doing so, you will find peace and a different kind of fulfillment. Spiritual development is often paradoxical, isn't it? By not serving your own ends to find fulfillment, you will find a fulfillment that is superior to the ones serving your own ends.

Careful and alert

They were careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15)

It is a mistake to think that intuitive action and spontaneity, qualities cherished in Zen and Taoism, are synonymous with carelessness and naivety. Anyone tackling society without the necessary care is bound to make vital mistakes.

What Lao Tzu is emphasizing here is that the way of compassion is a slippery one. Often you have to be alert "as a warrior in enemy territory." So, is there an element of fear in compassion? Yes, certainly: the fear of failing to be compassionate where it is needed; the fear that the ego might intervene at inopportune moments. Alertness and care are qualities essential to sensitivity and empathy.


Courteous as a guest.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15)

Spontaneity and an unconventional approach do not mean a loss of courtesy. Even in your own "territory", in your own home, or where you are the host, you should be as courteous as a guest. What does it imply? It is easy enough. Show respect. Do not be possessive even with regards to your own property, particularly what you consider to be your "spiritual property". Be grateful and thankful.

Courtesy is a way of respecting the dignity of another person. It may appear superficial, but it is part of the basis of compassion.

Adaptable and open-minded

Fluid as melting ice. Shapable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15)

Adaptability and open-mindedness are essential to compassion. It is the willingness to have real dialogues, to adapt where necessary, to change when essential. It is the opposite of the rigidity of people who cling to laws, dogmas and rules.

You can only help people to change and improve if you are willing to do so yourself. You are only truly receptive if you are open to suggestions of change. It implies not clinging to your comfort zones. You have probably experienced it yourself. People who are unwilling to leave their comfort zones often act selfishly, abandoning compassion when things become uncomfortable.

The passage above does not mean that you are weak. Many people mistakenly see the willingness to compromise as a weakness. It could be, of course, if it means abandoning compassion because of your dependency on the opinion of others.

It is important that you are "fluid", "shapable" and "receptive" not because you are dependent on the opinions of others. You should adapt to the demands of compassion. Your adaptability should be based on your independence and your strength.

No hidden agendas

Clear as a glass of water.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15)

No hidden agendas should taint your relationship with people. This is easier said than done. Many people have professions where they are forced to be friendly to procure contracts, or to satisfy the customer and activate sales.

Very few people have the luxury of never having to be mercenary or utilitarian in their relationships. What should be avoided is to hide your agendas. Be clear about why you are having a conversation with your customer or a friend. Avoid "sly" tactics. Be open and honest, and never forget you are dealing with a human being, and not just an object or source of income.

Be clear as a glass of water.

Returning to the source

Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the source is serenity. If you don't realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king. Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16)

You cannot really be of optimal service to people unless you also improve yourself. Of course, when you are compassionate, you develop inevitably. But that is not enough. You also have to work on yourself. If you do not, your compassion can easily become misguided, even destructive.

With development, I don't only mean developing your natural talents with which you serve people. Of course that is also essential. What I mean is true spiritual development. Getting rid of the ego is a priority. Coming into contact with the emptiness in you, which links you to all things. Detachment from your thoughts and emotions. Accepting your transience. Training your mind through meditation. Only then will you be able to move in harmony with the Tao, and will your compassion and wisdom grow naturally, and will you become "disinterested, amused."

With disinterest comes a sense of humor. People take life too seriously when they are too involved and preoccupied with serving their own interests. They then take themselves too seriously. Do not fall into this trap. With the right perspective, you become aware of the sometimes comical futility of activities, goals and possessions which people find so serious. You will sometimes find this preoccupation with futility amusing. The irony of a life dedicated to futile endeavors will become clear to you. Vanity and pomposity have their comical side, too. Being amused with yourself when you are being silly is often the best way of getting over your own silliness. Just be careful that you do not laugh at others because you feel superior.

Particularly when you are stuck in your own stubbornness, or when you are suffering, humor can be of great help. If you can laugh at your own ego, you will surely conquer it.

Humor used with compassion is the most pleasant way to help others overcome their difficulties.

Investing trust

If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17)

Most people adopt the basic approach of trusting others only after their trustworthiness has been proven. They distrust first, and give trust only when it has been earned.

What people tend to forget is that if you do not trust others unconditionally, those other people often pay you back by not behaving in a trustworthy manner. They do not really betray you, because you have been too stingy to give them anything to betray.

The compassionate approach is one of trust. You invest trust first not because you are naive, but because you know it is the most effective way to bring out the best in people. By trusting them, you make them trustworthy.

Real compassion goes even further than investing trust first. Even if a person has betrayed your trust, you will still invest even more trust in him.

You might object that it is naive. Maybe it is, but compassion is always willing to forgive and to try again.

No fixed plans

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is. Thus the Master is available to all people and doesn't reject anyone.He is ready to use all situations and doesn't waste anything. This is called embodying the light.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 27)

People with too much on their agendas have no time to be compassionate. It is ironic, isn't it? People make plans to reach aims, but in the process of reaching their aims, they miss out on the things that really matter.

If you have too many plans, you become inflexible. There is no time for intuitive action and spontaneous reaction to situations. Your mind becomes closed to new ideas. You become unavailable to people, and you reject those people not useful to you. You start exploiting your relationships according to your own personal goals and needs. All of these measures exclude the possibility to behave compassionately.

The truly compassionate person will change his priorities in an instant when there is need to. He is available to all people in need. He will use all situations to further compassionate causes.

His own personal goals and aims will become of secondary importance whenever compassion deems it necessary.


Do you want to improve the world? I don't think it can be done. The world is sacred. It can't be improved. If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it. There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger. The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29)

Often people see compassion as being active, as benevolent interference and manipulation. These people would then easily start running other people's lives to the point where their interference becomes destructive. Often their active interference is nothing else but egotism in clever disguise.

The idea that compassion means going out there and changing the world can also be harmful at times. This text clearly tells us to leave the world alone. Its warning is ominous:

If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.

Do not misinterpret this text as an appeal to withdraw from the world. It is not. It is in fact a wise indication of how to deal with the world in the most effective manner.

What is needed most is patience, which is only possible without a personal agenda. It is the wisdom to know that there is a time for everything:

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.

The wise person knows this and recognizes the relevant stage. It is no use trying to go against the "natural" flow of things. You have to learn to recognize and accept stages as they come:

The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them.

This approach of "non-action" goes against the grain of modern society, where planning, management, manipulation and engineering are seen as the way to deal with the world. The modern mind would see this text as a formula for the loss of control and for disaster.

Yet it is not. You might not be in control, but this is not synonymous with disaster. In fact, being patient is the best solution in the long run.

She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle.

The basic attitude proposed in this text is one of profound respect for the world, and of faith.

The world is sacred. It can't be improved.

Lao Tzu argues for working in harmony with nature rather than against it. He clearly believes this approach will provide the world with better solutions than the often short-sighted, short-termed ones we have tried in the past, and which have caused more damage than good.

True compassion has everything to do with patience, respect for and faith in nature and the Tao.

Non-violent and non-coercive

Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men doesn't try to force issues or defeat enemies by force of arms. For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself. The Master does his job and then stops. He understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao. Because he believes in himself, he doesn't try to convince others. Because he is content with himself, he doesn't need others' approval. Because he accepts himself, the whole world accepts him.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 30)

Compassion avoids violence and coercion as far as possible. Again, patience is the greatest virtue; to wait for things to develop and not to force issues.

The ability to do so this is based on profound wisdom:

He understands that the universeis forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.

The natural state of the world is that it is out of control! It is a breathtaking statement, isn't it? By trying to dominate in order to control, you will never reach equilibrium permanently, for such balance does not exist. Trying to arrest development is going against the very nature of things.

What becomes clear is that this kind of patience based on wisdom is only possible when one has eliminated one's own ego:

Because he believes in himself, he doesn't try to convince others. Because he is content with himself, he doesn't need others' approval. Because he accepts himself, the whole world accepts him.

He is not interested in what others think of him and not dependent on opinion. He is truly free to be patient and non-active when compassion requires him to.

Knowing and mastering yourself

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33)

Self-knowledge and self-control are the keys to wisdom and power. Wisdom, however, has nothing to do with the ability to manipulate others, and the power spoken of here is not the power to control others. It is the power not to use conventional power, even if you are in full possession of it. It is the ability not to master others, even if you have the strength to. It is to live a life of compassion.

True compassion is the way to true power, which is only possible when you know yourself and have conquered yourself.


If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich. If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33)

Modesty, when "you realize that you have enough", is the natural quality of someone who has conquered her ego. Greed is the result of serving your own ego, and it will disappear when you have stopped serving only yourself. In the light of compassion, the ego withers and greed disappears.

When you reside in emptiness, you accept your own insignificance and transience, and you are able to live a life of compassion, where you "will endure forever".


She perceives the universal harmony, even amid great pain, because she has found peace in her heart.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 35)

In this day and age, optimists are often seen as naive dreamers out of touch with reality. They see

... the universal harmony, even amid great pain.

Do you believe in "universal harmony"? Do you believe that the way of the Tao is essentially good, and that in all this suffering there is "universal harmony"?

If you don't, do you think that compassion is futile? Many people give up on compassion because they feel, that no matter what they do, suffering in the world is on such a vast scale that their help is inconsequential and of no real value. They are certain the world is inexorably heading for annihilation, and that no amount of compassion will help.

Then there are those who, in spite of their despair, believe that their own compassion can make a difference.

They do not give up, for they know it is the way of the Tao.

The peace in their hearts tells them so.

Understanding the whole

The Master views the parts with compassion, because he understands the whole. His constant practice is humility. He doesn't glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as stone.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 39)

Wisdom, i.e. true understanding of the whole, is essential to compassion. It is only when you have a picture of the whole that you can understand the individual.

It is clear, isn't it? It is easy to condemn a person if you do not understand the circumstances which led to the person's acting in an "unforgivable" way. The moment you get a more comprehensive perspective, and you understand the background and circumstances, you can forgive, or at least act in a constructive way. Even the most despicable criminal becomes human if you can place him or her in a broader framework.

What the passage clearly shows is that humility is a natural product of true understanding. The moment you understand the whole, you realize that you are not better than a person who has fallen by the wayside. Looking down on others is a sign of ignorance. You might even come to the conclusion that you might have acted worse if you had been in the same circumstances as that person.

I live in Africa, where many people are so poor that they are sometimes forced to steal to stay alive. I have often seen people in a country of chronic unemployment who would rather beg than steal. It is easy to look down on the beggar for begging, but wouldn't you have done worse in the same circumstances? I have seen infinitely poor people smile at me without a sign of hatred, even though I represent everything they will never have. Would I smile at them and be without hatred if I were barefooted and in their ragged clothes?

When I see this nobility in suffering, I feel humbled, and the last thing I would like to do is "glitter like a jewel", i.e. shine in my affluence. The true sage is truly like a "rugged stone": his compassion forbids him to be anything else.

Teaching without words

The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. That which has no substance enters where there is no space. This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master's way.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 43)

"Teaching without words" is superior to any other form of teaching. It is a form of non-action linked to being gentle and patient.

True compassion, ideally, is to "perform without action". You help others without taking things into your own hands.

I can think of many examples. Just two days ago, I had a mother and her rebellious nineteen year old daughter coming to me. They were at loggerheads, and the mother was desperate.

"You must convince her!" she appealed to me in the presence of her daughter, with her daughter scowling at her in discontent.

I have a very good relationship with the daughter, who is a student of mine, and I knew that the last thing she would want was to be told what she had to decide about her future.

My answer to the mother was clear. "I cannot tell your daughter what to do. She has to decide for herself."

"But we cannot allow her to make the wrong decisions!" the mother appealed to me.

"She won't," I told the mother.

The next day the daughter came to me and made her decision. It was the decision her mother had proposed the day before. But the daughter made it because she knew I did not mind what her decision was, as long as she believed it was right.

The gentle approach is superior to any other approach.

The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

It is essential to compassion. But it does mean that you have to get rid of your own agenda first. In this case, the mother, whom I know very well, was very worried about what the community would say if her daughter should make a "less respectable" decision about her future. I am not saying that she did not care for her daughter, but there was just too much of her own ego involved for her to be patient. Her daughter sensed her mother's insincerity, and would therefore not listen to her.

The gentle approach is an approach without ego. It is an approach without some hidden agenda. It comes easier if you are less attached. To me as a more detached educator, it was easier to help the daughter than it was for the very attached mother.

The kind of selflessness required is almost like being without "substance". It is to stand before people in emptiness, with only your true self guiding you. If you approach people in your emptiness, you are best able to help them.

That which has no substance enters where there is no space.

Do not despair if you seem to be far removed from perfection. Just embrace compassion. It is the only way.

The Master allows things to happen. She shapes events as they come. She steps out of the way and lets the Tao speak for itself.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 45)


For governing a country well there is nothing better than moderation. The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas. Tolerant like the sky, all-pervading like sunlight, firm like a mountain, supple like a tree in the wind, he has no destination in view and makes use of anything life happens to bring his way. Nothing is impossible for him. Because he has let go, he can care for the people's welfare as a mother cares for her child.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 59)

Moderation is the product of modesty and humility. It gives you tremendous freedom, for it is a desireless state of incredible flexibility. It gives you the tolerance to be compassionate with no strings attached. It gives you the strength to be "all-pervading", i.e. to be able to truly understand other people's problems from their points of view. It does not mean that you will compromise on your own beliefs, for you will be "firm" and provide someone with reliable support based on your honest assessment of the situation. At the same time you will be "supple" enough to ignore those views not applicable to the situation or of real help to a person. You will help without any personal aims at stake, and because of this selfless and open-mined approach, you are able to deal constructively with anything life brings your way.

This text emphasizes that it is particularly because the sage "has let go" that he can truly "care for the people's welfare". He has become as selfless as a mother for her child.

Simplicity, patience, compassion

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67)

Simplicity and patience go hand in hand with compassion. These three qualities are inseparable.

Simplicity is a wonderful description of the style of the Taoist sage. He is not bound by any rules, authority or his own ego. He simply does what is necessary because it is necessary. He is uncomplicated and direct. He is sincere and honest. There are no hidden agendas clouding his mind. His insight is acute and incisive. His actions are pure and direct. They come straight from his true self.

His patience is the patience of someone without agendas and without an ego to obey. He has no ambitions driving him to action. He has the wisdom of someone who understands the whole, and who is not personally involved. He is part of the natural flow of things, and he has the detachment to wait until the time is right.

His compassion is all-encompassing, and includes himself. He can therefore bring true peace, reconciling all beings in the world.

Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.