Ching: How to
Deal With Suffering
by Jos Slabbert
Suffering is an
inescapable part of life.
Most religions are
preoccupied with suffering, and offer ways
to deal with it.
In Buddhism, suffering is
seen as intrinsic to the endless cycle of
birth, life and death. Most Buddhist schools
offer ways to escape this endless cycle of
Taoism, too, as will be
discussed in this essay, has its own unique
way of dealing with suffering.
The inescapable and the
Even in paradise
will turn the emotions clouding his mind
into the reality of suffering.
The Taoist sage
has a mind
empty as the blue sky.
and faces the inescapable
(The Way is Tao, 21)
Suffering has many forms.
When I think about the suffering I have
experienced, and when I observe the
suffering around me, I cannot else but come
to the conclusion that it can be divided
into the inescapable and the avoidable.
The inescapable forms of
suffering include the obvious: being born,
aging, and bodily decay. In medicine, we
have been desperately fighting to avoid and
postpone the inevitable, but in the end we
all have to suffer the pain of aging and
Of course, one should
adopt a lifestyle minimizing suffering
caused by disease, but even then the
deterioration of old age ultimately brings
disease, suffering and death.
Suffering through old age
and death are part of the natural way of
Tao, and should be accepted as such. It is
part of wisdom to accept these
inevitabilities with equanimity.
also includes the results of your previous
actions that will still influence your life
in negative ways. Again, like with suffering
coming from old age, you just have to accept
these effects when they come, and deal with
them in the best way possible.
includes certain mental traumas as well,
like experiencing the deaths of beloved ones
and separation. It also includes some of the
suffering others inflict upon you.
encompasses everything that is linked to
impermanence, which is extensive. Its common
denominator is the pain of decay and
create their own agonies
when they allow
their desire, greed and hatred
to turn the fiction in their minds
into the reality of suffering.
(The Tao is Tao, 79)
includes physical, psychological and
spiritual forms of suffering that can be
avoided, eliminated or at least reduced.
These forms of suffering
would also include our inability to deal
with unavoidable forms of suffering. For
example, the way we handle our own illnesses
can either alleviate or increase our
Most forms of our
suffering are the results of inventions of
our own minds, and our inability to deal
with our thoughts and emotions.
The greatest tragedy is
to suffer unnecessarily, as so many people
do. You have probably seen it or experienced
it, havenít you? People who have everything
- wealth, health and good friends - and they
nevertheless turn what should be paradise
into their own personal hell.
There is a restlessness
in people that comes from neglecting the
spirit, and which can only be satisfied in
the sphere of the spirit. As long as this
aspect of the human being is neglected, the
human will never come to peace, and will
suffer in many ways. No amount of material
wealth, success and status will satisfy this
need. In fact, material wealth and success
often prevent the development of the spirit.
It is only when the needs
of the spirit are satisfied that most of the
unnecessary forms of suffering will cease.
The Nature of suffering
Suffering is an
all-encompassing phenomenon, and it includes
forms of suffering the sufferer is not even
All forms of attachment
incorporate suffering. These forms include
attachment to the senses, and emotional
attachment, which would inevitably lead to
The impermanence of
things is the main reason even "positive"
forms of attachment ultimately lead to
Suffering cannot be
totally eliminated in this life and this
world. Even the enlightened suffer in this
world. Sometimes their suffering is caused
by their compassion and wisdom.
Schools dedicated to the
Bodhisattva tradition argue that suffering
cannot end for anyone as long as a single
creature on earth is still suffering. It is
very true, isnít it? How can anyone filled
with compassion be totally happy as long as
there is still suffering around one?
Causes of suffering
Attachment and the ego
are closely linked, and they are the main
causes of suffering, for they encourage
perpetual action to satisfy their unsatiable
needs. The ego not only causes harm on a
personal level, but it is a source of
destruction and hatred on a wide scale. As
long as people are run by their egos, there
is no chance for rest and peace.
Attachment, the ego and
greed are intertwined. Greed causes
tremendous suffering not only to persons in
service of their own greed, but also to
those in the service of the greed of others.
Attachment, the ego,
greed and their natural ally, hatred,
perpetuate suffering and destruction not
only on a personal, but also on a vast
The main problems of
suffering lie in the sphere of the spirit,
and they are problems of the mind. They are
elusive problems difficult to solve.
Their solutions often lie
outside the reach of political programs.
Many of the problems plaguing the world fall
in the realm of the spirit, and they cannot
be solved by political programs only. In
fact, political interference sometimes seems
to aggravate some of these problems, which
does not mean that one should not take
political action to combat problems like
greed or hatred. Political programs,
however, tend to tackle the symptoms more
than the causes.
As long as the human
being has not solved the problem of greed in
his heart, and as long as he is serving his
own ego, any political system, no matter how
noble, will be corrupted by the very people
who should implement and protect it.
The Tao Te Ching
Taoism seems to ignore
aspects of suffering as it focuses on the
positive aspects of life. In the Tao Te
Ching, the word "suffering" does not
appear once. So, does this mean that it does
not deal with this central issue? Of course
not. Taoism deals extensively with
suffering, but it focuses more on the cures
than the problems, and it does so in a
It is almost as if the
author of the Tao te Ching knew that
to take suffering too seriously will only
entrap one even more deeply in suffering. A
light, delicate touch is needed. It is the
way of acceptance and detachment.
What follows is an effort
to describe some of the aspects of suffering
dealt with directly or implicitly in the
Tao Te Ching.
This essay does not cover
all aspects dealt with in the Tao Te
Ching, and full justice will never be
done to this wonderful masterpiece.
The essay focuses on the
practical aspects and solutions proposed or
implied in the Tao Te Ching.
Forms of suffering and
Desire and ignorance
desire, you realize the mystery. Caught
in desire, you see only the
Desire and ignorance are
closely linked. When you are too attached,
you focus on form, and cannot penetrate the
surface of things. You become superficial,
and fail to understand the essence of life.
Desire turns you blind to the essence. This
is the worst form of suffering, for you will
go through life chasing illusions, instead
of finding peace. You will, for example, try
to become wealthy to find fulfilment, not
realizing that material possession has
little to do with fulfilment. You will adorn
yourself with the gloss of success in the
hope that the gloss will, somehow, establish
the essence, and your disillusionment will
be terrible when you discover that your
success does not give life true meaning.
This text also offers the
solution. You must become "free from
desire". Then you will "realize the
Easier said than done,
you could respond, and you would be right.
In a world focused on the illusionary and
the superficial, our suffering seems to be
preprogrammed, and escaping it would entail
an act of tremendous spiritual liberation
from the shackles of materialism and greed,
which are seen as positive attributes by our
Does "free from desire"
also imply that intimate relationships only
bring sorrow? Should we all become monks or
nuns living in abstinence?
There are no rules in
Taoism. There are simply ways to minimize
suffering and to live in harmony with the
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 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
In a love relationship,
obviously, physical desire will be part of
the equation, and it should be allowed to go
its natural course. 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 should be a
function of harmony. If it is based mainly
on the ego, it becomes divisive.
Desire 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.
Suffering is part of
The Taoist sage will not
deliberately choose the way of suffering to
enrich himself - he loves life too much for
that. Neither will he shun joy to avoid
suffering - he loves life too much for that.
One should live a
natural, spontaneous life of compassion,
unintimidated by the specter of suffering.
The sage is free, for he
is not intimidated by suffering.
He knows it is the way of
It is possible. Many
people before us have shown us the way.
When people see some
things as beautiful, other things become
ugly. When people see some things as
good,other things become bad.
We easily become victims
of our own discriminatory faculties, which
are closely linked to desire. We desire
because we discriminate in terms of what we
observe to be quality and beauty, or
desirable and undesirable.
We are then easily driven
by our own ideas of what should be rejected,
and what is desirable and should be
obtained. It turns life into a quest for
material gain, and our relationships become
a selective process often driven by lust and
a desire for status.
But is this a form of
suffering? Many would argue it is not. It is
in fact the spice of life, they would claim.
It gives life meaning, they would insist.
They would argue that there must be a reason
why consumerism has become such an obsession
in the modern world.
Do not be fooled by this.
This preoccupation with possession,
manipulation and exploitation is a symptom
of spiritual confusion, in fact an acute
form of suffering. Like hungry ghosts,
people are trying to satisfy the insatiable.
They are driven by their greed, and can
never be satisfied, and they never find
rest. They are like creatures trying to
quench their thirst with salt water. The
more they drink, the thirstier they become.
Their suffering is acute, no matter how
happy they pretend to be.
There is a solution to
Cease being run by your
discriminatory faculties. Only then will the
essential tolerance on a spiritual level be
Quite simply accept life
as it is. Be like a child. The world is the
way you see it. If you see it as full of
innocence and beauty, it will be full of
innocence and beauty. It does not mean that
you deny the presence of ugliness and evil
in the world. No, you just refuse to focus
mainly on the gloomy side and do not give it
a chance to change your perspectives and
darken your own spirit.
You do not have to search
for meaning. Just get rid of your negative
thoughts. The meaning of life is life
itself. Live it. In this way, you will fill
the world with beauty and meaning. It is
more powerful than any political program.
Greed and Crime
If you overvalue
possessions, people begin to steal.
Crime is the source of
much suffering. It is the most visible
manifestation of greed, and symptomatic of a
society focused on material gain.
No police force or
economic system is going to stop the crimes
of theft, corruption and its violent
adherents, for the problem lies in the
confused minds of people, and the solution
is a spiritual one.
Only when society ceases
to run on greed will crime itself start to
disappear. Any other "solutions" are simply
tampering with the symptoms.
In a society not running
on greed, there will be no poverty
co-existing next to callous affluence. If
status is not linked to possession,
possession will not lure people into crime
and exploitation. Even though many forms of
exploitation are not illegal in many
countries, exploiting people is nevertheless
destructive, and it will produce more crime.
The poor created by the greedy will return
to haunt the greedy. The material affluence
flaunted so openly by the wealthy will turn
their own homes unsafe. Exploitation and
injustice will keep our streets dangerous -
no matter how moralistic we are and how
little tolerance we show to crime, and how
many police are patrolling our streets - as
long as we allow greed to run our lives.
The only true solution is
a society without greed: one of justice and
Is this solution an
impossible utopian dream? No more than
assuming you could change peopleís behavior
without changing their hearts. Or that you
could get rid of crime without getting rid
of its real causes.
The sooner we accept the
realm of the spirit as part of reality,
the sooner real solutions will become
The Master leads by
emptying people's minds and filling
their cores, by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve. He helps
people lose everything they know,
everything they desire, and creates
confusion in those who think that they
Being overambitious is an
acute form of suffering. It tends to leave
no space for spiritual development, for its
sole intent is to serve an insatiable ego.
It is only when you
become less ambitious that your "core" is
filled; that you acquire true substance
which is of a spiritual nature.
It creates the kind of
constructive confusion in you that is a
prerequisite to spiritual development. It is
only when your certainty based on illusion
is taken away from you, when you have
stepped over the precipice to realize that
there is no foothold beneath you, that you
are able to truly develop.
Spiritual development is
not made for those who cling to security.
Nor is it for people who cling to the
illusionary security provided by their
possessions. It has an exacting price. You
lose much of what you desire and know. You
often quite simply have to start all over
again as your old values are replaced by an
emptiness which offers no support in the
banal world of competition.
You need courage to face
a world of no illusion, but it is the only
way to eliminate unnecessary suffering.
and everything will fall into place.
Part of our suffering is
our belief that we will reach our destiny
only through action. What a harmful
superstition this has turned out to be. Its
destructive path can be traced through the
mayhem caused by "men of action" in the
course of history.
Action is often driven by
the ego. It is often part of
self-glorification. It not only causes
personal suffering, but suffering on a vast
The text is clear about
what you should do: "Practice non-doing."
Let go of your false self. Find peace in
your emptiness, and you will come to a state
of mind where this suffering has ceased to
exist. You will not suffer, nor will you
spread suffering. You will be without
agendas, and you will have the peace of mind
of someone filled with wisdom and
compassion. Your silence will become a
blessing, and your non-action a way of
leading people to 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.
If anything, this is the
age of immodesty, of people blatantly
flaunting their talents and successes.
Politicians and even
spiritual leaders often lead in this display
by nauseating example.
There is little space for
the humble and the modest, who unconsciously
carry the true seeds of spiritual greatness
It is our inability to
recognize "supreme goodness" which accounts
for much of our suffering. The leaders we
elect are often a reflection of our
And yet the power that
emanates from humility is immense. It is
part of the supreme good "which nourishes
all things". And it does so without trying,
"content to be with the low places that
The Master doesn't
take sides; she welcomes both saints and
Being prejudiced is a
form of suffering. Not only do those injured
by prejudice suffer, but those filled with
Prejudice is the basis of
hatred and destructive actions. It is a
source of unfairness and denial of dignity.
It causes lack of mercy, and mercy is the
essence of civilized society.
If you are prejudiced
against "sinners", "sinners" have no second
chance, and reconciliation becomes close to
To be able to welcome
"both saints and sinners" is only possible
if you can forgive and forget. This ability
nurtures an environment of tolerance, mercy
and compassion, where people can live
without fear, and where true healing and
real closure can take place.
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
Attachment is often being
part of the rat race, which is a form of
acute suffering and stagnation. The first
two lines are clear. It is only by staying
behind, by giving up your ambitions and
abandoning the rat race, that you will truly
Detachment is the key.
You only become one with things if you are
detached from them. It is true, isnít it? If
you are, for example, emotionally too
attached to your children, you often lack
the wisdom to be truly compassionate to them
in a constructive way. It is only when you
put your emotions aside, when you are
detached, that you can truly understand
others, that you become "one with them", and
will have the courage to help them.
The last two lines of the
verse describe the essence of detachment.
You must let go of yourself. You must
sacrifice your ego and you own ambitions,
and you must abandon your selfish agendas.
Only then will you be at one with your own
emptiness and will you find fulfilment. It
sounds like a sacrifice, doesnít it? The
price is worth it, though, for this form of
sacrifice conquers suffering.
Chase after money and
security and your heart will never
What a painful, suffering
state it must be, this state of a "clenched
heart". How lonely you must be, and without
real consolation. It is ironic. Obsession
with security and money does not weaken, but
it increases your feelings of emotional
insecurity and isolation. Your ego stands
between you and everything your spirit longs
It is only when you give
up your materialism and obsession with
security that your heart will unclench, and
real life will begin.
This poet would be seen
as some radical by mainstream society today.
The last thing our capitalist, materialist,
consumerist society would want to hear is
that materialism is in fact a form of
suffering and that our economic systems have
not liberated us, but turned us into
captives. That is why this society will
continue suffering, and they will continue
blaming everything else but their greed for
it. That is why our "progress" is a movement
towards despair, and not towards spiritual
peace and fulfilment. What the poet is
saying in simple clarity is that economy
based on greed and not compassion leads to
despair and suffering.
Prisoner of opinion
people's approvaland you will be their
Many people are trapped
by other peopleís opinions. It is probably
one of the worst forms of mental suffering.
Being trapped in this way prevents any form
of spiritual liberation.
There is only one way out
of captivity. You must abandon your ego
mercilessly, no matter what pain it entails.
For it is not really you that are trapped.
It is your ego. If you let go of it, you
will find that you are as free as the
emptiness in you.
Success going to your
work, then step back. The only path to
Not bathing in your
accomplishments is another form of very
sensible detachment. Basking in your glory
leads to the enlargement of your ego, and
easily leads to stagnation both in
creativity and spiritual growth.
Stepping back is a way of
disallowing the ego to take over. Victories
and successes are dangerous, for they
inflate the ego and turn what should have
been development into regression. Stepping
back is an acknowledgment of your emptiness,
and it is the source of power for your next
task. It is an elegant way to avoid
Murky inner vision
Can you cleanse your
inner visionuntil you see nothing but
Having no true insight is
an acute form of suffering. This is often
the result of emotional turmoil disabling
you to see clearly. Your inner vision must
be one of detachment from emotions and
thoughts, which are part of your volatility.
It is only when you are serenely empty in
your detachment that your inner vision
becomes clear, and it is only when your
inner vision is clear that you will see
reality in undistorted clarity. This is true
enlightenment, for you will see "nothing but
Lack of perspective
Can you step back
from you own mind and thus understand
Being enmeshed in you own
problems, unable to gain perspective,
prolongs and increases suffering, for it
traps you in a cage, which is you own mind,
from where there seems no escape.
Only when you can step
back from your mind will you be able to gain
understanding and be able to take the right
steps to liberate yourself. You cannot
escape this trap unless you demolish your
ego, which has convinced you that your false
self is the center of the universe. Only
when you have freed yourself from the
control of your thoughts, will you come into
that "unthinking" state of mind where you
will clearly understand.
Too high expectations
acting with no
expectations, ... this is the supreme
Taking life too seriously
is the symptom of a lack of perspective.
Expecting too much from life is a certain
sign that your ego is in control. Living
with too high expectations inevitably causes
stress and anxiety, and often
disillusionment is the outcome.
expectations is a supreme virtue, for it
carries with it the power of modesty and
humility. It is to realize that one is not
more important than any other creature. It
is the wisdom to know
The Tao favors no-one,
not even those close to it.
expectations equips you with the ability to
take the worst setbacks in your stride. In
fact, setbacks only become setbacks when you
have expectations. Without expectations,
there are no setbacks. Only opportunities.
Having no expectations nurtures gratitude
and optimism. It is the essence of
equanimity, which is detachment from
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?
Many people live in fear.
Not only fear, but angst. If fear is the
fear of something specific, angst is the
fear of something overwhelmingly vague and
indefinable. It is the feeling of dread and
foreboding so many people walk around with
daily. Living in fear or angst is a terrible
form of suffering, the source of many mental
and physical illnesses.
This text is unequivocal
in its analysis. Fear, it says, comes from
thinking too much of the self. It is the
flip side of hope, which is also part of
It is only when you
realize that the false self, which you fear
for, does not exist, that you can be
liberated from this fear and hope. To be
without hope does not mean to be hopeless,
but it means not to be trapped by the hope
that comes from too high expectations.
It is only when you have
exposed the false self for what it is - an
illusion created by yourself - that you will
become truly free from fear. Your fear, this
text clearly shows, is self-inflicted, and
your liberation from it is an act of
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
Impatience can lead to
real suffering. Often we only increase our
suffering through our impatience. We stir up
mud instead of allowing it to settle.
Often, action is the
result of impatience. This has led to
incredible suffering on a personal as well
as a social scale.
The wise man knows how to
remain "unmoving" until the "right action
arises by itself". Patience is a liberating
virtue only possible with very little ego
and no set agenda, for patience allows one
to remove turmoil and suffering without
causing unnecessary pain in the process.
doesn't seek fulfillment. Not seeking,
not expecting, she is present, and can
welcome all things.
Even what seem to be the
most virtuous impulses can lead to disaster.
Actively seeking fulfilment is often the
formula for frustration, and leads to the
opposite of peace and fulfilment.
It is clear. It is when
you do not seek any advantages for yourself,
not even spiritual ones, that you are able
to move forward spiritually. It is when you
act with no expectation of success or
spiritual gain that you can truly gain.
It is when you are
detached from spiritual ambition, when you
are free from the demands of the ego, that
you can be fully present in the here and
now. It is then that you are truly alive and
in harmony with the Tao, and can "welcome
all things" as you live a life of wisdom and
"Virtue" as suffering
When the great Tao is
forgotten, goodness and piety appear.
When the body's intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins. When the country
falls into chaos, patriotism is born.
What is remarkable about
this poem is its claim that positive
attributes, like goodness, piety,
cleverness, knowledge, filial piety and
patriotism, can in fact be nothing else but
our efforts to deal with our separation from
the true source. As such, they may be
symptoms of suffering.
When people do not live
in harmony with the Tao, they often
demonstratively show goodness and piety,
which have deteriorated to a facade devoid
of substance. In fact, this is corruptive,
for it turns what should be true
manifestations of the spirit into vain show.
We have often seen this, havenít we? People,
who live lives of vanity and greed, showing
off their charity and religiosity to the
world. Their corruptive influence as role
models cannot be underestimated.
In the third line of this
poem, the poet speaks of the "bodyís
intelligence" as opposed to "cleverness and
knowledge", which are negative in this
context. The "bodyís intelligence" is the
intuitive, natural intelligence - the gut
feeling of what is right - of someone living
in harmony with Tao. When one loses contact
with Tao, true intelligence, which is wisdom
and compassion, declines, and cleverness
takes over. Cleverness and knowledge without
compassion are products of disharmony with
the Tao; they are vain efforts to gloss over
lack of wisdom. Unlike wisdom, they cause
suffering and do not find solutions to
suffering. They are superficial show, often
totally in service of the ego, and as such
they are corruptive and harmful.
"Filial piety", according
to the poet, is often a cover up for lack of
peace at home. Like in all previous cases,
form is a facade camouflaging the lack of
true substance, which should be peace which
comes from compassion and harmony.
incredibly abused word, has too often been
the main sentiment in countries which have
fallen into spiritual chaos. The chaos the
poet is referring to here is a confusion of
the spirit, where people live in a
sociocentric society, dedicated to their own
collective greed. In such a country,
patriotism becomes a fuzzy but emotive word
to spurn people on to immerse themselves
even more in their own egotism and
suffering. This word often justifies cruelty
and war. It can easily become an effective
propagandistic control of peopleís minds.
Where there is fervent patriotism, there
truly is chaos.
Stop thinking, and
end your problems.What difference
between yes and no?What difference
between success and failure?Must you
value what others value,avoid what
others avoid?How ridiculous!
The poetís advice here
must be quite shocking to most people who
have been taught that the solution to our
problems should be solved by thinking about
them. The poet advises us in this poem to
Of course, he is not
telling us to live like idiots and to
abandon the rational in a rational world.
That would be disastrous, for in a rational
world we have no choice but to use our
reason to survive. No, the poet is advising
us to stop brooding over problems that
cannot be solved by thinking.
There are forms of
suffering that cannot be solved by thinking
about them. They can only be solved by some
form of action, or even non-action. These
problems fall in the spiritual sphere. The
poet makes clear what he means. Many mental
problems are problems related to our
dependency on othersí opinions, and our
dedication to our own egos. We tend to give
our own status, as well as success and
failure, too much weight. We are led by
othersí values and prejudices. These are all
symptoms of being run by our own egos and
our corresponding fear of societyís opinion.
We have lost contact with our own selves. We
are blown about like leaves in the wind.
Isnít this a terrible, ridiculous form of
No amount of thinking can
relieve you of this suffering. You will have
to turn towards your true self again, and
find harmony with the Tao. It is a personal,
spiritual act of liberation.
Dealing with loss
completely, then keep quiet. Be like the
forces of nature: when it blows, there
is only wind; when it rains, there is
only rain; when the clouds pass, the sun
shines through. If you open yourself to
the Tao, you are at one with the Tao and
you can embody it completely. If you
open yourself to insight, you are at one
with insight and you can use it
completely. If you open yourself to
loss, you are at one with loss and you
can accept it completely. Open yourself
to the Tao, then trust your natural
responses; and everything will fall into
The word "open" is
repeated often in this poem. Most people
think the only way to handle suffering is to
withdraw and to close yourself. The poet is
clearly saying in this poem that the
opposite is true:
If you open yourself
to loss, you are at one with loss and
you can accept it completely.
This openness, a
willingness and courage to face reality, is
the only way to deal with suffering,
particularly inescapable suffering. But the
openness the poet is describing is more than
just facing reality. It is facing reality in
total harmony with the Tao:
If you open yourself
to the Tao, you are at one with the Tao
and you can embody it completely.
It is only when you
"embody" the Tao that you can face suffering
with true equanimity. You will then have the
openness that insight into your own nature
and the natural way of Tao brings you. The
right approach to suffering is only possible
when you have reduced your ego to a minimum.
The less ego you have, the less you suffer.
Facing death with unresolved agendas is a
terrible form of suffering. You will have to
let go of selfish interests and futile aims
to concentrate on dealing with the moment.
It is the acceptance of
the inevitable that makes suffering
On his death bed,
his family mourning,
he is serene,
for he knows
is an illusion:
there is no beginning and no end.
There is only the endless
flow of Tao.
The man of Tao has no
for he walks with Tao.
(The Tao is Tao, 154)
A good traveler has
no fixed plans and is not intent upon
Plans, aims, objectives
and agendas have become the routes of
suffering for so many people, and not only
the ambitious. Agendas often take
spontaneity and joy out of life. In the
process, many people have become bad
travelers, concentrating only on their
objectives, and arriving at their
destinations only to find that even their
destinations are not really worth the
Having no fixed plans?
This does not sound like survival in a
modern technological environment, does it? I
mean, who but the extremely fortunate have
the luxury of not having agendas running
their lives? In most cases, one could
justifiably point out, agendas are forced on
you by your professional and familial
obligations. You do not really have a
choice, do you?
How could one then become
a good traveler through life in this modern
world? I think the key lies in the second
line of the quotation. One should not be
"intent upon arriving". You should adopt an
attitude of detachment. The moment your aims
become egocentric, your suffering increases.
The less your own ego is involved, the less
seriously you will take life, and the more
you will enjoy the journey. It is easier
said than done, though, particularly when
the job you are doing seems to be devoid of
meaning, and the activities on your agenda
tedious. They might even go against what you
It is clear. To become a
good traveler in the modern world often
entails more than just a change of attitude.
It could also mean changing your life style,
even your profession. It could mean taking
risks in the process. But liberation has
always been a risky undertaking, hasnít it?
People are willing to take risks for the
most mundane things like profit and
possession. Why not take a few risks when
your spiritual progress is at stake? Truly
good travelers often leave the beaten track
and become masters of their own far more
Tampering with the world
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.
If anything, the
Twentieth Century will be called the century
of social engineering. Simplistic
ideologies, like fascism, were used to try
to change the world, with terrible
consequences inducing suffering on a scale
never seen before in the history of the
human being. A savage economic system based
on greed - capitalism - has ravaged the
Yet, the human being has
not learnt from this. Still, politicians
show their ignorance by tampering with the
sacred. It is the age of management, that
euphemistic word for manipulating society.
It is still happening. What else are many
political programs but tampering with the
sacred and ruining it in the process? It is
the source of endless suffering.
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.
Understanding that the
universe is out of control is the key to
wisdom and patience. No amount of tampering
with the universe will change this. In fact,
the more we tamper with it, the more damage
we will do.
Does this mean that
suffering is a natural state of affairs in
this world? Yes, it probably does.
Does it mean that one
should resign oneself to the fate of things,
and let events run their course? Isnít the
poet here guilty of a terrible form of
uncompassionate withdrawal disguised as
No, for the emphasis is
... trying to
dominate events goes against the current
of the Tao.
The poet is warning
against the kind of approach which worsens
rather than alleviates the situation. It can
take the form of impetuous, forceful action
against the natural run of events.
Violence, even well
intentioned, always rebounds upon
It can take the form of
the impatient forcing of issues when
patience is needed to allow matters to be
settled without undue interference.
Whoever relies on the
Tao in governing men doesn't try to
The word "dominate"
clearly shows an ego at work, and not the
kind of wisdom and compassion essential to
the true solutions of problems. A person run
by his ego would not act as depicted in the
first lines of this poem:
The Master does his
job and then stops.
No, he will force issues,
act impetuously, impatiently or even
violently, and in this way he will increase
instead of alleviate suffering.
Weapons are the tools
of violence; all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent
man will avoid them except in the direst
necessity and, if compelled, will use
them only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value. If the peace
has been shattered, how can he be
content? His enemies are not demons, but
human beings like himself. He doesn't
wish them personal harm. Nor does he
rejoice in victory. How could he rejoice
in victory and delight in the slaughter
of men? He enters a battle gravely, with
sorrow and with great compassion, as if
he were attending a funeral.
This poem is addressing
what is still the scourge of the world. The
poet could not have expressed himself in
Weapons are the tools
of violence; all decent men detest them.
If it is true what the
poet is saying, then there must be a lot of
indecent men around. Just look at the
weapons cult in many societies, where
weapons are admired and seen as the natural
adornment of "real males". Some people even
see the possession of weapons as part of the
"inalienable" and "democratic" rights that
go with personal freedom.
And yet the poet is not
proposing that weapons should not be used at
all. Their use, however, should be extremely
Weapons are the tools
of fear; a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity and, if
compelled, will use them only with the
It is very clear, isnít
it? Weapons should only be used when
survival is at stake, and even then they
must be used "with the utmost of
To the true sage in
harmony with the Tao, victory in warfare is
something bitter, for it involves "the
slaughter of men". There is no place for
victory parades and rejoicing after the
battle. Only sorrow.
He enters a battle
gravely, with sorrow and with great
compassion, as if he were attending a
You could argue that this
poem does not offer us much consolation. In
fact, the poet seems to admit that warfare
is sometimes necessary.
Yet, if everyone should
have the attitude towards inflicting
suffering depicted in this poem, war would
hardly ever, if at all, take place. It would
be too unpopular.
Peace is his highest
value. If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
Clinging to life
If you realize that
all things change, there is nothing you
will try to hold on to. If you aren't
afraid of dying, there is nothing you
can't achieve. Trying to control the
future is like trying to take the master
carpenter's place. When you handle the
master carpenter's tools, chances are
that you'll cut your hand.
Clinging to life is
indeed a form of suffering common to most
people. It is a form of fear: the fear of
dying. As the poet clearly says in this
poem, it is the most difficult fear to
overcome. Once you have managed to conquer
this fear, "there is nothing you canít
Being ruled by this fear
shifts your focus from the present to the
future, which you will then try to control,
but the only thing that will happen, the
poet emphasizes, is that you will harm
In fact, what becomes
clear is that it is essential that you
accept "that all things change." Once you
have accepted this on a spiritual level,
"there is nothing you will try to hold on
to". Only when you do not cling to life,
will you be able to live a life free from
fear, and will you have the courage to
accept all stages of life, and will you be
able to face life and death with equanimity.
Men are born soft and
supple; dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant; dead,
they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever
is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of
death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a
disciple of life. The hard and stiff
will be broken. The soft and supple will
(Tao Te Ching, 76)
Inflexibility is, indeed,
an acute form of suffering. The poet is
referring to our inability to adapt and to
accept the natural development of things.
He could not be clearer
in his expression. Inflexibility makes you
"a disciple of death". This expression sends
cold shivers down my spine. It must be a
terrible form of suffering to live in the
service of death.
The very next lines bring
Whoever is soft and
yielding is a disciple of life.
The word "yielding" is
significant. It indicates action or
non-action without ego. It does not mean
"soft" as a symptom of weakness, but as a
manifestation of strength. Only the truly
strong can be "soft and yielding", for their
strength comes from emptiness. The last line
of the poem suggests that these qualitites
The soft and supple
This approach to life is
superior to any other approach in terms of
Control through force
As it acts in the
world, the Tao is like the bending of a
bow. The top is bent downward; the
bottom is bent up. It adjusts excess and
deficiency so that there is perfect
balance. It takes from what is too much
and give to what isn't enough. Those who
try to control, who use force to protect
their power, go against the direction of
the Tao. They take from those who don't
have enough and give to those who have
far too much. The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation, succeeds
without taking credit, and doesn't think
that she is better than anyone else.
(Tao Te Ching, 77)
The poet is referring to
suffering inflicted on people by people
hungry for power. The poet is very clear
about what he feels about it:
Those who try to
control, who use force to protect their
power, go against the direction of the
People who live in
harmony with the Tao will never try to
control other people; nor will they use
force to establish and maintain their power.
I find it quite amazing
that this poem was written two and a half
thousand years ago. What the poet is saying
is acutely relevant today.
The exploitive nature of
this kind of ruler is clear:
They take from those
who don't have enough and give to those
who have far too much.
On a global scale, this
is exactly what is happening today. For
example, people in power are taking the raw
materials from the Third World at
exploitative prices, and the real profits
are made by those of the First World "who
have far too much". The rich become richer,
and the poor become poorer.
What is terrible is that
most people of the First World think it is
their God-given and inalienable right to
live in luxury, and they refuse to see the
link between their affluent lifestyles and
the abject poverty in other parts of the
world. They simply lack the masterís
humility, who "doesnít think she is
better/than anyone else".
Only when we come into
harmony with the Tao, will balance and
justice be possible:
It adjusts excess and
deficiency so that there is perfect
balance. It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn't enough.
Alas, this "perfect
balance" is very from being realized, for we
live in a world where greed seems to be out
of control as suffering increases.
The gentle solution
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water. Yet
for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it. The soft
overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes
the rigid. Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
Therefore the Master remains serene in
the midst of sorrow. Evil cannot enter
his heart. Because he has given up
helping, he is people's greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
(Tao Te Ching, 78)
The poet clearly shows
that only the gentle and soft can overcome
suffering. Someone with these qualities is
able to remain "serene in the midst of
A person in harmony with
the Tao is immune against evil, for "evil
cannot enter his heart."
The next lines explain
the source of this power:
Because he has given
up helping, he is people's greatest
The Taoist sage lives
beyond ambition; there is not a taint of ego
in him. When he helps, it is with the
dispassion of someone who is not interested
in self-improvement. The Taoist sage does
not help because he needs to, but because
others need it. He helps with the gentle
detachment of someone who has conquered his
ego. Because of his selflessness, he is "the
peopleís greatest help".
detached approach is the most effective way
to deal with suffering. It is the way of the
Failure is an
opportunity. If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.
(Tao Te Ching, 79)
Failure is mostly
painful. Peopleís fear of this form of
suffering often prevents them from becoming
creative, for every venture carries with it
the risk of failure. This fear will keep
people imprisoned in what they consider to
be their own comfort zones, but which are
often nothing else but zones of stagnation.
This is particularly dangerous on a
The poet is clear about
how to handle failure. You must accept full
responsibility for it. If you try to blame
others, your suffering will continue and
Most people will accept
the poetís advice when it comes to accepting
responsibilities in life. A surprising
number of people do not realize that this
also applies to their spiritual lives. If
you stagnate spiritually, do not blame
anyone else but yourself. Do not blame
karma, or the devil, or your parents, or
your church. You alone are responsible for
your own spiritual development. If you do
not accept responsibility, your stagnation
will continue, and your suffering will only
Compassion: the true
The Master has no
possessions. The more he does for
others, the happier he is. The more he
gives to others, the wealthier he is.
(Tao Te Ching, 81)
This verse is
breathtakingly simple and true. Compassion
banishes suffering. It is compassion that
has no interest in possessions.
Happiness and wealth have
a profound spiritual meaning in this
passage. It is the wealth of a spirit intent
upon eliminating suffering and spreading
joy, and which has become immune to its own
The ultimate solution
Empty your mind of
all thoughts. Let your heart be at
peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but
contemplate their return. 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.
Being able to "deal with
whatever life brings you", even to be ready
"when death comes", is certainly the
ultimate state of mind. It is the supreme
ability to deal with any form of suffering.
According to this text, a
few preconditions must be met to acquire
this state of mind.
Even though you are
part of life, watching the "turmoil of
beings", this turmoil must never become
part of you. The only way this is
possible is to live a life of compassion
aimed at relieving sentient beings from
their turmoil. Control of your emotions
is only possible when you live a life of
You can only serve if
you have returned to the source and
found peace of mind. You must have
conquered your ego and found you true
self. Only in emptiness will you find
the equanimity which is a prerequisite
to serenity. If you do not, you will be
part of suffering as you "stumble in
confusion and sorrow".
The results of finding
this serenity are tremendous. It is a truly
liberating experience. Accepting your own
emptiness, and realizing that you are in
total unity with all other sentient beings,
you will acquire the qualities of a truly
You will be "amused",
for you will see life from a detached
vantage point giving you the insight and
lightness not to take yourself and life
too seriously. Your humor will often be
a liberating force to you and those
around you. It is so true, isnít it?
There is nothing like a good laugh to
get rid of silliness and aggression. Not
taking yourself too seriously often
lightens the load that suffering brings.
Laughing at yourself promotes the kind
of humility essential to spiritual
Isnít this a breathtaking
description of someone who has conquered
suffering? Even though unavoidable forms of
suffering will also visit those living in
harmony with Tao, they will be liberated
from them, for they will be able to deal
with "whatever life brings", and they will
be able to face what sentient beings often
fear most: death itself.
© Jos Slabbert 2001
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