Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Chapter 15
Inscrutability

The ancient sages of old
Focused on uncontrived awareness
And realized the union of wisdom and compassion.
Inscrutable, you can only describe their appearance:
Mindful and slow like someone crossing a river in winter,
Meek like one aware of danger on all sides,
Polite and quiet like visiting houseguests,
Ephemeral and yielding like melting ice,
Simple and blank like uncarved blocks of wood,
Empty, receptive and expansive
Like a hollow in a valley,
Mysterious and obscure like turbulent water.

Who can wait and use stillness
To let what is troubled settle and grow clear?
Who can use action
To let what is still become full of life and movement?

Followers of the Way
Don’t look for praise or fulfillment.
Complete without effort,
Not seduced by hope and fear, grasping and fixation,
They are not swayed by a desire for change.

Commentary

“How can a man's life keep its course if will not let it flow?”

Lao Tzu 老子 via Witter Bynner
(Lǎozǐ)
604 BCE -
from Way of Life According to Lao Tzu

Themes: Letting Go

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“Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence.”

Pythagorus
(of Samos)
570 – 495 BCE
"The most influential philosopher of all time"
from Golden Verses of Pythagoras Χρύσεα

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“The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears.”

Epicurus ɛpɪˈkjɔːrəs
341 – 270 BCE
from On Nature

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“The gods are not to be feared; death cannot be felt; the good can be won; all that we dread can be conquered.”

Epicurus ɛpɪˈkjɔːrəs
341 – 270 BCE
from On Nature

Themes: God Fear

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“To live well is to live concealed.”

Ovid oʊvɪd
(Publius Ovidius Naso)
43 BCE – 18 CE
Great poet and major influence on the Renaissance, Humanism, and world literature

from The Tristia

Themes: Inscrutable

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“Although we live today, we can understand the distant past. We can understand without going outside. If we don’t understand, going farther only leads us farther astray.”

Wang Bi 王弼
226 – 534 CE

Themes: Travel

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“By means of tranquility, the murky becomes clear. By means of movement, the still becomes alive. This is the natural Way.”

Wang Bi 王弼
226 – 534 CE

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“Consciousness dissolves itself in vision.”

Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 via Richard Wilhelm
(Lü Tung-Pin)
796 CE -

from Secret of the Golden Flower 太乙金華宗旨; Tàiyǐ Jīnhuá Zōngzhǐ

Themes: Meaningfulness

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“If you separate compassion and wisdom, you will only be running away from life.”

Kanhapa ནག་པོ་པ། via Shan Dao
("The Dark-Skinned One")
9th Century CE
Mahasiddha #17

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“Although the ancient masters lived in the world, no one thought they were special.”

Cao Daochong 道寵
(​Daochong or Ts’ao Tao-Ch’ung)
fl. 960 - 1268

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“We trouble our life by thoughts about death, and our death by thoughts about life.”

Montaigne
1533 – 1592 CE

Themes: Death and Dying

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“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”

William Shakespeare
1564 – 1616 CE
from Romeo and Juliet

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“Never let the extent of your wisdom and skill be known... guesses and doubts arouse more respect than accurate knowledge.”

Balthasar Gracian via Shan Dao, #94
1601 – 1658 CE
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Inscrutable

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“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.”

Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet
1694 – 1778 CE

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“No matter what arises, do not fixate on it! This is the ultimate and essential practice.”

Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol ཞབས་དཀར་ཚོགས་དྲུག་རང་གྲོལ། via Erik Pema Kunsang
1781 – 1851 CE
from Flight of the Garuda

Themes: Moral Freedom

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“If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner...if I let it slip from my tongue, I am its prisoner.”

Arthur Schopenhauer
1788 – 1860 CE

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“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

Abraham Lincoln
1809 – 1865 CE

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“You are chained, entangled in the barbed wire of hope and fear. So give it up!”

Jamgon Kongtrul the Great འཇམ་མགོན་ཀོང་སྤྲུལ་བློ་གྲོས་མཐའ་ཡས། via Judith Hanson
(Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé)
1813 – 1899 CE
from Torch of Certainty

Themes: Golden Chains

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“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.”

Robert Louis Stevenson
1850 – 1894 CE

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“Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.”

G. K. Chesterton
1874 – 1936 CE

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“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

A.A. Milne
(Alan Alexander Milne)
1882 – 1956 CE
from Winnie the Pooh

Themes: Water Patience

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“Two equally steep and bold paths may lead to the same peak. To act as if death did not exist, or to act thinking every minute of death, is perhaps the same thing. — Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), Zorba the Greek #15”

Nikos Kazantzakis
1883 – 1957 CE
from Zorba the Greek

Themes: Death and Dying

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“Uncarved wood… metaphysically means the One, simple and undifferentiated… simplicity, plainness, genuineness in spirit and heart”

Wing-tsit Chan 陳榮捷
1901 – 1994 CE
from Way of Lao Tzu

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“It is best to erase all personal history… How can I know who I am, when I am all this?”

Carlos Castaneda
1925 – 1998 CE
from Journey to Ixtlan

Themes: History

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“The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything.”

Ursula Le Guin
1929 – 2018 CE
from The Lathe of Heaven

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“In the first stanza, we see the followers of the Way… as remote and inaccessible but the second stanza brings them close and alive”

Ursula Le Guin
1929 – 2018 CE

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“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something… We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.”

Pema Chödrön
(Deirdre Blomfield-Brown)
1936 CE –
First American Vajrayana nun

Themes: Hope Fear

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“inscrutability is based on fearlessness. This is unlike the conventional concept of inscrutability, which is deviousness or a blank wall… From this fearlessness, you develop gentleness and sympathy, which allow you to be noncommittal, but with a sense of humor.”

Chögyam Trungpa
1939 – 1987 CE
from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Themes: Inscrutable Fear

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“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”

Aung San Suu Kyi အောင်ဆန်းစုကြည်
1945 CE –

Themes: Fear

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“like salad to a tiger… no longer falling prey to small praises and criticisms.”

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche རྫོང་གསར་ འཇམ་དབྱངས་ མཁྱེན་བརྩེ་ རིན་པོ་ཆེ།
(Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche)
1961 CE –
"Activity" incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
from What Makes You Not a Buddhist

Themes: Moral Freedom

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Comments (2)

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  1. Shan Dao
    This translation is heavily indebted to Chogyam Trungpa. “Journey Without Goal” is from one of his book titles. He would frequently comment that our main problems in life come from not knowing “who and what we are” and those words are used in the beginning of this chapter. He also coined the phrase, “panoramic awareness.”
  2. Shan Dao
    The term “gaining ideas” comes from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) but it was also used by many of the early Chan (禅) masters.