The Way Things Are

by the Rev. J. Mark Worth



  1. From Tao te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell, HarperPerennial, 1991:
    Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men doesn’t try to force issues. For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even when well-intentioned, Always rebounds on itself.
    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 need others’ approval. Because he accepts himself, the whole world accepts him.
  2. From Dr. Wayne Dyer, Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, Hay House, Carlsbad CA, 2007:
    Force creates a counterforce, and this exchange goes on and on until an all-out war is in progress. … Lao-tzu is encouraging you to find an alternative to force in settling disputes. If you can find no other option, then you are encouraged to abandon any reference to yourself as winning or conquering. … Unfortunately, whenever force is used, resentment and ultimately revenge become the means for responding. … When you resort to force, then disputes with your spouse, your children, your business partners, and even your neighbors will continue to intensify. That’s because the Great Way of the Tao is that of cooperation, not competition.


This is a sermon for Chinese New Year, and I’m a bit early, because Chinese New Year isn’t until January 28. But we have other things scheduled at the end of the month, so I’m going to get a bit ahead of myself by looking at at least one aspect of Chinese culture and philosophy today.

Our topic is Daoism. First, a word about spelling. I spell Dao (Tao) with a “D” rather than a “T.” Of course Chinese characters don’t look anything like our alphabet. Theirs is really a system of picture writing, and you have to know about 20,000 characters to be considered literate. We used to translate Mandarin and Cantonese with the Wade-Giles System. For instance, under the old system we said “Peking,” but today we call the same city “Beijing.” In Pinyin, Taoism becomes Daoism, the Tao becomes the Dao, and the name of the ancient philosopher, Lao-tzu, is now Laozi.

All Daoism begins with the little book, the Dao de Jing (Tao te Ching in Wade-Giles). The title can be translated as “The Book of the Way and How It Manifests in the World,” or simply, “The Book of the Way.” It describes the Daoist understanding of the way things are, and how we can best live in harmony with the way things are. The book is attributed to Laozi, who according to tradition lived in the 6th century Before the Common Era (B.C.E.), making him a contemporary of Kong Fuzi, better known in the West as Confucius.

Some historians believe Laozi is the synthesis of multiple figures, or that he is entirely mythical. His name, Laozi, means “Old Master,” and he was also called “Old Boy.” He was given that name because of the legendary nature of his birth. We might say it was a virgin birth of sorts, at least a miraculous one, because his mother was made pregnant by a shooting star, and she was pregnant with him for 62 years. Because of that long pregnancy, Laozi already had white hair and a long gray beard when he was born, and long earlobes – a sign of wisdom – and immediately began teaching philosophy. So, when he was born, he was already an “Old Boy.”

He was the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou. This allowed him broad access to the works of The Yellow Emperor and other Chinese classics of the time. He never opened a formal school, and yet he attracted a large number of students and disciples.

When he was 160 years old he became weary of life in the great imperial city, and set out for the frontier to become a hermit. At Hangu Pass, as he was leaving the kingdom, he was recognized by a guard who asked him to not leave until he produced a record of his wisdom. So Laozi wrote the little book, the Dao de Jing, gave it to the guard, and went on his way, never to be heard from again.

The Way of the Universe ~

The Dao de Jing is considered to be one of the great works of Chinese philosophy. In it, Laozi explains his ideas by using paradox, analogy, repetition, symmetry, rhythm, and rhyme. The book emphasizes the Dao, the way and power of the universe, as the source and ideal of all existence. The Dao is invisibly within everything; it is the realm where everything originates. It is the Way and Power of the Universe; the Dao is also the doorway to understanding:
The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao;
The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

We cannot tell the Dao, we cannot pin it down with a simple definition, for to name it is to lose it – just as sophisticated Jews, Muslims, and Christians would say that God is really beyond any definition, beyond the limits of human language. The Medieval Christian mystic Miester Eckhart wrote, “God is a being beyond being, and a nothingness beyond being. God is nothing; no thing. God is nothingness. And yet God is something.” And in the Twentieth Century theologian Paul Tillich said that God is not a being, but is Being-itself.

We are taught to put labels on things, yet water is not the word “water,” nor is it “agua.” And God is not the word “God.” So it is with the Dao. The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.

According to the Dao de Jing, humans have no special place in the Dao. We are simply one of many things. This contrasts with Christianity which says we have a definite place in God’s plan.

The Dao itself is indifferent to our existence. People have desires, and we also have free will, which means some of us live in harmony with the Dao, and others live in a way that upsets the balance of the Dao. The Dao de Jing may be regarded as a little instruction manual that tells us that we will be happier if we return to a natural state, in harmony or in balance with the Dao.

Wu wei, “the Pooh Way” ~

To be in harmony with the Dao is to return to a more natural way of being. There is a term, wu wei, which is literally “non-action,” or “action without doing, causing, or making.” Wu wei involves knowing when not to act. Several years back Benjamin Hoff wrote a book called, The Tao of Pooh, a book that explains Daoism with examples from Winnie the Pooh. The Tao of Pooh calls Wu wei “the Pooh way.” Hoff writes, “While Eeyore frets, and Piglet hesitates, and Rabbit calculates, and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is. And that’s a clue to the secret wisdom of the Taoists.”

One day Kong Fuzi – Confucius – was at the Gorge of Lu, where a great waterfall plunges for thousands of feet, and the spray is visible for miles. In the great waters churning below the falls an old man was being tossed about in the turbulent waters. Kong Fuzi called his disciples to come quickly to see if they could rescue the old man, but before they could get to him they saw that he had climbed up out of the water was walking along, singing to himself.

Kong Fuzi hurried to the man and said, “You must be a ghost! No man could survive in those waters. What secret power do you have?” The man – who was Laozi – said, “It’s nothing special. I began to lean when I was very young, and grew up practicing it. I go down with the water and come up with the water. I don’t fight the water. I follow it, and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power. That’s all.”

Laozi was applying wu wei, to do without doing. It means working with the natural order of things, and operating on the principle of minimal effort. A river doesn’t fight the rocks in its path, but flows around and over them. An elm tree, standing stiff, may be blown down in a storm, while the grasses that bend with the wind can stand back up when the wind stops blowing.

Like Laozi at the Gorge of Lu, or a cork floating on water, wu wei does not expend energy. The harder you hit a floating cork, the more it bounces back. Without expending any energy of its own, that cork could wear you out. Wu wei overcomes force by neutralizing its power, rather than adding to the conflict. In the West we say, “fight fire with fire,” but wu wei would rather fight fire with water.

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.

Some Daoist Principles ~

In China there are Daoist temples and rituals. In popular Daoism, the gods of ancient Chinese mythology are revered. Yet in the view of some scholars, Daoism has never fit the mold of a unified religion. Many people prefer to study or follow Daoist philosophy apart from the religious trappings of popular Daoism.

Would you like to live like a Daoist master? Here are some Daoist principles to keep in mind: Wealth does not enrich the spirit. Glorification of wealth, power, and beauty lead to crime, envy, and shame. Self-interest and self-importance are vain and self-destructive, but the one who has simple needs will find them fulfilled.

The truly wise make little of their own wisdom – for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know.

It is wise to repay kindness with kindness, and to repay evil with kindness. Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated. Victory stems from devastation, so it is to be mourned.

The use of force stems from stupidity. Force leads to counter-force. The harder you try, the more resistance you will create. But the more you act in harmony with the universe, the more you will achieve, and with less effort.

The so-called “feminine” qualities of flexibility and suppleness are superior to the so-called “masculine” qualities of strength and rigidity.

If you can live by these principles, you will be well on your way toward being a Daoist master.

How the Master leads ~

After a depressing political year, a campaign season full of bragging and insulting, of accusations, bigotry, homophobia, islamophobia, and misogyny, maybe you are wondering how Daoism might relate to the new realities of the coming presidential administration. Here are a few thoughts. Daoism says that leaders should be humble, and not put on a big display of grandeur. If a ruler tries to force things, the ruler will create a counter-force.

When governing the people, the best ruler is one who has such a light touch that the people hardly notice he exists. The second-best ruler is one who is loved. The next is one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If the ruler doesn’t trust the people, he will make them into people who are untrustworthy (Dao de Jing saying #17).

How do we deal with a ruler who is feared or despised? We need to be like the cork on the water, that doesn’t fight the superior power of the river, but flows with it over and around the rocks, and bounces back up every time it is pushed under. The Dao de Jing says, “Empty your mind of all thoughts; let your heart be at peace. Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return. … immersed in the wonder of the Dao, you can deal with whatever life brings you.”

“The soft overcomes the hard, the gentle overcomes the rigid… 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. This is a true paradox.” (saying #78)

In other words, be soft like water. Water appears to be something you could easily overpower. However, it’s so flexible that when you push it away, it flows right back again, finding its own level. Whatever barricades you put up, with the passage of time, drip drip drip, one way or another, water always returns. When you stay soft and surpass the hard, you too will be indestructible.

The stereotypes of rigid, dominant, and hard aren’t the attributes of strength after all. Give up interfering; but like water, flow everywhere there’s an opening. Try patience rather than trying to rigidly control. Trust your innately gentle yet persistent self; soften your hard edges by being more tolerant of differing opinions. Interfere less, and substitute listening for directing and telling. And in that way the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak overcomes the strong. By not forcing, by not dominating, the Master leads.