The Art of Living: Ultimate Purpose

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 1–6

Erik Schön
Dec 24, 2020 · 6 min read
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42. Photo: Mark König/Unsplash

What is the meaning of life? Why is this important? How do you live your life to make it more meaningful? The Art of Living provides timeless answers to these eternal questions including new perspectives on the world, people and their behaviours; practical tools for avoiding and handling conflicts, and, actionable advice on how to lead effectively and make a difference. “This is powerful, this is for practical people struggling with business goals, lacking time with family … feeling stressed.” (All parts)

1. Gateway to Mysteries

Move beyond words to describe ultimate purpose;
move beyond fixed labels to describe the world.

Beyond fixed labels: the origin of everything.
With labels: the starting point.

Desire without possessing — to observe the mysteries of the world.
Desire — to observe their boundaries.

With or without labels, they emerge from the same source,
yet are referred to differently.

They are both obscure.
Obscurest of the obscure.
Gateway to mysteries.

We try to be precise in denoting the events that make up our experience, new associations are constantly arising that challenge our terms of reference. Process insists that these events and their meanings for us be ever fluid and changing.

Philosophers will say that humans can never be silent because the mind is made of words. For those half-witted logicians, silence is no more than a word. To overcome language by means of language is obviously impossible. Turning within, you will find only words and images that are part of yourself. But if you turn outside yourself — to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live — you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.

To see the ordinary so intensely
that the ordinary becomes extraordinary, becoming
so focussed, so specific about something,
that it becomes something other than what it ordinarily is …
Staying in optical experiences, forgetting the name of what one sees:
laughing playful eyes; shut up and look;
defamiliarise decontextualise re-contextualise re-form re-model …
reason about what things do; not what things are named …
seeing learning doing doubting
are the meaning of intelligent life.

A tao that could be told might be any one of the prescriptions for living and ruling that were being proposed in the ferment of the Chinese Warring States period (475–221 BC). All of them would have been called a tao, a way, a recipe for life. One such tao, for example, was contained in the little book from that period known as The Art of War, whose ‘author’ Sun Tzu is every bit as lost in the mists of legend as Lao Tzu. The deep tao, the true way [ultimate purpose] and the inexhaustible inner power or strength that flows from the experience of the tao, are the subjects of this whole five thousand word text. But they are beyond telling. Words and names are nothing more than disjointed bits and pieces, they fragment the whole, the one tao [ultimate purpose].

A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible. It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borge’s story: if you see it right, it contains everything.

2. Beyond Labels

What is labeled “beautiful”
may also be labeled “ugly”;
what is labeled “good”
may also be labeled “bad”.

Hidden and visible give rise to each other;
difficult and easy complement each other;
long and short set each other off;
high and low complete each other;
notes and sounds harmonise with each other;
before and after follow one another.
This is how it all works.

Therefore skilled leaders
serve beyond coercion;
teach beyond principles;
create beyond instructions;
live beyond control;
act without assumptions;
accomplish without taking credit.
When credit is given, accomplishment endures.

To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.

To favour one distinction over another — for example the beautiful over the ugly — would make it exclusive and thus impoverishing … These categories are correlative and mutually entailing. Not only do you not get one without the other but, simply put, every constituent is necessary for every other constituent to be what it is. [See also the entry for “Correlative Pair” in Glossary.]

3. Beyond Coercion

Avoid promoting heroes,
and people will stop contending;
avoid treasuring rare objects,
and people will stop stealing;
avoid showing desirable objects,
and people will be satisfied.

Therefore, skilled leaders:
empty hearts and fill bellies;
weaken ambitions and strengthen bones;
share how to be unprincipled in knowing and objectless in desire;
stop those who know too much from going too far;
accomplish without coercion;
so that harmony is maintained.

The people, encouraged to be free from assumptions and inclusive of alternatives, develop a tolerance and accommodation that immunizes them from purveyors of malignant prejudices. It is only empathy and openness that can inspire the community to go beyond the mediocrity of unilaterally legislated values.

4. Ultimate Purpose

Ultimate purpose is:
empty, there is always room for more;
the origin of everything.

Ultimate purpose:
blunts the sharp;
unravels tangles;
harmonises light;
blends with dust.

Ultimate purpose is:
cavernously deep,
persisting forever,
of unknown origin,
from an unknown age.

Dust is a common Taoist metaphor for the noise and fuss of everyday life.

“Goblet” words are words that are renewed with each use because when they are filled up with meaning, they tip themselves out, only to be filled again. Such language is appropriate to the fluidity and irreversibility of experience.

Whereas that which is full is always limited, for one can see where it ends, emptiness is inexhaustible, a bottomless source … Since emptiness is not confrontational, never opposes anything, it can never provoke any resistance, and so it can never be exhausted … Images that represent emptiness, images that express the possibility of things passing through: a valley (section 6), a door (sections 1, 6) and bellows (section 5).

5. Bellows

In a world of conventional rules,
things are straw dogs
and leaders treat people like straw dogs.

The space between sky and ground is like a bellows:
empty without being exhausted,
always producing more.

Move from speech to silence;
safeguard your inner emptiness.

Straw dogs are an image of ruthlessness. They were used as sacrificial offerings in ancient China. During the sacrifice itself they were treated with ceremonial reverence, but once they had been used, they were thrown away and trampled on.

Spontaneous and immediate caring is regarded as an expression of communal morality superior to the artificiality constructed catechism associated with … increasingly institutionalised [religions, parties and organisations].

Bellows are empty but never collapse and when you move them, you always get more to emerge from them (more effect).

6. The Valley Spirit

The valley spirit lives forever.
The mysterious feminine,
the gateway of the mysterious feminine,
the root of the world,
like a soft silken fibre, can be used without end.

An analogy for … fertility.

Through the hollowness of the valley, the “spirit” passes, thanks to the emptiness that always remains to be filled. It is the same with effectiveness; instead of imposing itself fully, thanks to the emptiness that it contains, it can exercise its full effect.

The Art of Living: All Parts

Contents: A very short summary of each part
Introduction: How to make life more meaningful

Glossary: Explanation of key terms
Acknowledgements: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sources: Where to learn more

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

Everything Begins With An Idea

Erik Schön

Written by

Executive and strategist who has successfully developed and deployed strategy for over 20 years in small, medium and large organizations.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

Erik Schön

Written by

Executive and strategist who has successfully developed and deployed strategy for over 20 years in small, medium and large organizations.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

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