Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 15 Commentary

This is part of a series examining the Tao Te Ching from an LDS, Christ-centered perspective. I am not a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These are only my opinions. 

Chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching describes the nature of the Tao masters and how they live.

Chapter 15
The Tao masters of antiquity
Subtle wonders through mystery
Depths that cannot be discerned
Because one cannot discern them
Therefore one is forced to describe the appearance
Hesitant, like crossing a wintry river
Cautious, like fearing four neighbors
Solemn, like a guest
Loose, like ice about to melt
Genuine, like plain wood
Open, like a valley
Opaque, like muddy water
Who can be muddled yet desist
In stillness gradually become clear?
Who can be serene yet persist
In motion gradually come alive?
One who holds this Tao does not wish to be overfilled
Because one is not overfilled
Therefore one can preserve and not create anew
One cannot discern them

The chapter in the first stanza is implying that because Tao masters are so deep, their depths cannot even be seen: instead we have to describe how they live as we observe them. This concept aligns with the principle of 1 Samuel 16:7, the idea that man only looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord alone looks at the heart. Since we cannot see the hearts of the Tao masters, we settle by describing their behaviors.

Like crossing a wintry river

This chapter describes those who live the Tao as being hesitant, cautious, solemn, loose, genuine, open, and opaque--their actions are measured and defined by consciousness. They are not spontaneous, despite being genuine; they think ahead cautiously and move hesitantly. Although they are open, they are also opaque. Essentially, while being open and honest, they leave enough of their thoughts to the imagination that they appear opaque. They are polite and appropriate in every circumstance.

Christians are urged to live with a similar level of mindfulness. Matthew 12:36 cautions Christians that "every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment." Christians hoping for salvation would ideally master themselves and their words in the same way as a Tao master: solemn as a guest, genuine as plain wood, cautious like fearing four neighbors. If a single idle word must be answered for at judgment day, it would surely pay to live like a Tao master in this regard!

In stillness gradually become clear

This strange and beautiful couplet addresses the way Tao masters harness the power of yin and yang: using opposites to accomplish their purposes. Muddled yet desisting in stillness, gradually becoming clear; serene yet persisting in motion, gradually coming alive. This is also a discussion of the yin-yang paradox: that through surrender, one may accomplish many things. Sometimes the counterintuitive action can be the true solution.

As an example: we are supposed to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:6), but also feast upon the word (2 Nephi 32:3).

We are supposed to lose our lives to find them (Matthew 10:39).

Christianity is full of "heavenly paradoxes."

One who can preserve

What does it mean to not be overfilled?

The TTC refers again and again to the virtue of emptiness. To avoid being overfilled in the modern world might translate into avoiding an overly busy schedule, for example: avoiding being overly busy would prevent unnecessary loss of energy, and prevent the problems that come with being too busy (haste makes waste, as they say).

Another helpful interpretation of this concept could be viewed through the lens of healthy sexuality and sexual energy, as Progressive Prophetess recently blogged about.

In Psalms 46:10, God counsels His people to be still. In Conference of October 2010, Dieter F. Uchtdorf counseled us to simplify and focus on the things that matter most.


Mastering the Tao involves behaviors that are wise for Christians to emulate also.

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