Penciling in Life --- Monthly Column by Donald Dean Mace: Thoughts on The Tao

Thoughts on The Tao

Throughout the ages, ancient insight has been passed down both verbally and in writing.  Not all of these documents are literary or spiritual, but the ones that fascinate me are.  In particular, what fascinates me is the perception and understanding that our forebears possessed.  I tend to look beyond the religious—frankly, because I don’t buy into religion, a topic I could go on for hours panning as twaddle and piffle, although I am not an atheist—and deep dive into the material looking for pearls of wisdom.  In western culture, we are most familiar with the books of the Bible as vehicles for the transmission of early knowledge, much of it written down by scribes capturing what had been passed down through generations.  However, the Bible is not the only book that captured age-old—even prehistoric--insight and carried it forward.  Among these other ancient texts is the Chinese manuscript, the Tao Te Ching (ascribed to Lao Zu), the earliest complete discovered copy of which is dated to 600 B.C.E.  And like the Bible, the Tao Te Ching refers to previous generations as its source of information and great understanding.  The Tao Te Ching refers to them as the “Ancients”.

Page after page could be authored about the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and many other ancient texts which are too numerous to list here.  Scholarly views and interpretations, the archeology involved in their discovery, their historical significance, accuracy and spiritual influence already fills volumes.  My intent is not to enter into a discussion about any of these subjects, but to bring to your attention a pair of verses that I find especially thought-provoking, both of which are to be found in the Tao Te Ching, and both of which are strikingly relevant to what we see manifesting in the world today.

The first is this (Tao 26):

“Those who dominate nature

And seek to possess it

Will never succeed,

For nature is a living system, so sacred

That those who use it profanely

Will surely lose it;

And to lose nature

Is to lose ourselves.”

The second is this (46):

“When people do not follow the Tao,

Their horses are harnessed for war,

Their energies are used for destruction,

And many go hungry.

Great trouble comes

From not knowing what is enough,

Great conflict arises from wanting too much.

When we know when enough is enough,

There will always be enough.”

From here forward I’ll refer to the Tao Te Ching simply as “the Tao”, which is how it is commonly referenced.  So now, a few words about Tao.  The Tao can be defined in many ways, as it is a concept as opposed to a thing that can readily be described.  Generally speaking—at least as I interpret it--Tao is “The Way” or “the right way to do things” or, “all that Is, expressing Itself in the world.”  In the Christian world, this notion correlates closely to the concept of “God” or “the Alpha and the Omega (which actually means the beginning and the end)” or, if you like, “a greater intelligence operating by design.”  By my way of thinking, both the Bible and the Tao insinuate that we, the Universe at large and everything that inhabits it is one, and at the same time, one with God and that God is everything.  It’s a big concept, and I think a healthier one than we typically hold.

It should be noted that the Tao has been translated over 250 times into various Western languages.  Originally, of course, the Tao was written in ancient Chinese and there is room for debate about how it translates from Chinese thought into contemporary western thinking; their respective mindsets, world views, their way of processing the world, are all sometimes completely different.  Also, adding to the confusion, the spaces between ancient Chinese and contemporary Chinese thought and written language are no less roomy than that of the spaces between archaic English and the modern form of English we use today.  

Here is a quote from Wikipedia that aptly sums up the conventional debate surrounding the Tao and discusses its viability as an accurately translated document:

“Many translations are written by people with a foundation in Chinese language and philosophy who are trying to render the original meaning of the text as faithfully as possible into English.  Some of the more popular translations are written from a less scholarly perspective, giving an individual author's interpretation. Critics of these versions claim that their translators deviate from the text and are incompatible with the history of Chinese thought.

With that in mind, translations from Chinese into English are all that we have to work with, and some literary license needs to be given to an author to conceptually convey what the author intuits as the intention of the original.  We see the same thing happening between an author and a reader in poetry and other literary forms.  Often, the deeper meaning of something is found imbedded in the text and must be intuited by the reader.  As with the Tao and its translation from Chinese to English, the same can be said of the Bible, which has been translated into numerous languages from its original Hebrew—Some literary license has been taken in that translation too.  Also, as a side note, the Bible also makes note of the things that we see expressed in the Tao, albeit in different language.  Anyone familiar with the Bible can fairly easily see a correlation between what is discussed in the Bible and what is discussed in the Tao Te Ching.

The interpretation of the Tao I used, is the interpretation that is used in Diane Dreher’s, The Tao of Inner Peace, published by The Penguin Group, in 1990.  There are of course other versions, but they are for the most part, similar.  

Up to this point, I am guilty of digression, of providing too much backfill perhaps, but I wanted to get in as much information as possible and to get it in quickly, in order to enhance the level of comprehension for someone completely unfamiliar with the Tao.  That said, what I find fascinating is the depth of insight contained in the two verses I provided, and second, that they come to us from so deep in the past.  In regards to the origins of the wisdom contained in the Tao and other ancient texts, that must remain as something to discuss at another time; suffice it to say that I believe we are a species with amnesia, and that we have made these mistakes before.

The first verse (Tao 26) talks to the danger of abusing nature and of not living in concert with it, with ourselves, and with the natural beauty and the wonders that surround us.  We are of course a product of nature and completely dependent upon it for our survival.  Conceptually, we know that.  Realistically, we forget that.  And no matter how we might try to distance ourselves from it—remove ourselves from its laws and its retributions—we are part and parcel to it; in essence, we are one with Nature, and Nature is everything.  Nature, of course, the nature that directly supports us, operates under the same principle as everything else in the Universe:  Every action creates an opposite and equal reaction.  The question we need to ask ourselves is this: How much can we change nature before nature has changed too much to support us? 

The second verse (Tao 46) talks to greed.  While overtly it talks about war, covertly it’s concerned with greed.  War is a much-misunderstood construct. War is not about killing people; people are collateral damage, as is the destruction of landscapes and structures. War is about politics, resources, economics and shifting borders.  War is about avarice, materialism, acquisition and empire building—It is about gaining power and authority and about expanding a particular culture’s geographical and philosophical persuasion.  It’s about owning it all. We live in a world today where wars rage across the globe.  While they may seem ideological, their core root is resources.  Generally, oil.  But that includes other resources too, like land. We should take a deep look into the causes of these wars, understand them, and more importantly, act politically to end them.  In the age of nuclear weapons, literally, our existence may depend on it.

In summation, ancient insight has been passed down through the ages.  From millennia past, the grand thoughts and teachings of antediluvian scholars has been recorded and sent forward, meant to teach and to guide humanity on a peaceful, positive and blissful path.  In the West, we are most familiar with the books of the Bible, but there are other texts that contain great wisdom as well.  One of those other texts is the Chinese manuscript, the Tao Te Ching. And like the Bible, the Tao refers to previous generations as its source for wisdom and understanding.  I personally believe that we, as a species, have amnesia and have experienced the things that we see manifesting in the world today, before.  And whether it be in regards to the mishandling of our relationship with nature, or in giving in to our baser desires like greed, we should study these documents carefully and thoroughly and heed their warnings. In other words, learn, listen to their wisdom, and act accordingly.


Donald Dean Mace

Donald Dean Mace is an artist, poet, guitarist and freelance writer living and working quietly in Yuma, Arizona.  He has travelled the world extensively (Europe, Africa and Asia) and in the 1980’s and 1990’s lived and worked in Germany for a total of 10 years.  He has retired twice, once from the US Army and once from US federal service, both careers were in law enforcement.  He is currently working on a novel.  He has been published by Ariel Chart, the Yuma Daily Sun, the Arizona Western College Literary Magazine, his poetry was featured in a public service broadcast, and he was a guest on Mark Antony Rossi’s podcast, Strength to be Human.


  1. Learning new things with this column. Your hard work is noted. Sy.

  2. I plan to learn more about Tao. Thanks. Vic Buttrell

  3. Your column brings a real sense of atmosphere to stuffy lyric pimps.

  4. Can't go wrong with zen and amen. I'm a fan now.

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