Tao Te Ching Chapter 20

If you do not attend your real life in work and mind you will not be rooted.

You will spin like leaves in a chaos of wind churning above the root.

When business and busyness satisfy,
the people happily busy themselves with seeking and grabbing
only what they see.

They become tourists seeking to be thrilled and sated.
They reach for bright, swirling, illusory leaves in an exciting, rootless kingdom.

I do not chase the leaves, I do not desire them.
I behold the leaves like a newborn who has not yet been taught
the way to see the illusory leaves.
I don’t have to chase anything or go anywhere.
I seem to be lazy.

The people have gathered piles of leaves
and desire to possess more than enough.
It seems I have fallen behind.

I do not understand the value of the leaves.
My mind cannot grasp or retain this idea.
I remain a fool about leaves.

People see bright light in the piles of their leaves.
By their lights I am dark and dim and leafless.

People of the world are sharp and alert and vigilant.
They guard their own leaves and plunder the piles of others,
their engagements are full of strife,
and noisy.
Most people have a purpose.

I, alone,
withdrawn and quiet,
drifting like the ocean,
blowing free like a breeze with no place to go,
playful and unrefined,
I am different from most people.

Form neither contains or sustains me.

I am.

This is it for me for awhile, but I will comment in the usual vein before coming to that. It all ties in together, as does everything.

Here in Chapter 20 the sage observes that people, caught up in the mutual hallucination of what they see together, tend to see things from that viewpoint and behold very little of what is true and real. They see, and don’t know.

When they don’t know, people leap manically about, gathering leaves above the unknown root, unaware that the four seasons have cycled through eons and epochs, unaware that the serious and sophisticated enterprise of busyness is nothing more than a distraction dreamed up in the momentary darkness of a blink.

When we know, we become fools at seeing. We no longer understand or grasp or retain the gradient of values created in the mutual hallucination of temporal and mundane existence.

At some time we have all had the desire to see things as they are, rather than what they become when individuals and groups and cultures and societies and religions interpret them from their relative perspectives.

The desire passes and we return to the perspective seen locally. After all, we are immersed in it. We are born into it, raised in it, taught it. We learn to embrace it and incorporate that perspective into our thinking and our actions.

We learn to learn certain things in certain ways; we learn to see things with those ways; we move along defined paths into certain actions and devotions and thoughts; our knowledge of what is good and what is not good is defined and is automatically rewarded or punished by the sophisticated constructs which have been created by local perspective.

The desire to know things as they are returns because the relative perspective of local interpretation sooner or later proves to be dissatisfying.

We become uncomfortable in the skin we have been given, and worse – we discover we have become uncomfortable in our own skin. The first does not fit. The second is not affirmed or validated by what we have learned. So a choice appears. Unlearn, and then learn what is real and true and of substance and become comfortable in who and what you are, really, or  – wear the skin you’ve been provided with.

Good luck.


I’m going to take a break for awhile from my commentary on the Tao Te Ching. There is a benefit in words, a benefit in quietude.

For me there has always been a season of words followed by a season of quiet, and I seem to be approaching that passage. The reflective moments of autumn often mark this passage, and here it is again. Lenore and I live in the mountains, close to the rhythms of the seasons. They are powerful, and we move with them.

I will be quiet for awhile. I have the idea in my head that I want to go out into the woods and sing the song of my life without words. It’s a song which only belongs in the ear of the universe. I want to sing of Lenore. I want to sing of the wu-wei thunderbolt that welded us together and forged one true human being in a miraculous moment. I want that one true human being to sing about the fires walked through and survived, the losses and lostness, the gains and what was found. I want to sing joys and sorrows and let their tears stream down my face and leave me as still and empty as when I first came to be in this life.

I want, as the sage says in Chapter 20, to withdraw and be quiet, and drift like the ocean, and be free like a breeze with no place to go. I want to play there, be natural there. I want to be different from most people. I do not want the forms of the people to contain or sustain me. I want to be filled with my source and know that I Am.

It’s not an approach, it’s a return, and it’s calling me. It’s called before. It’s always called me. I have a record of its call in my archives in a piece written many, many years ago in a time when I was lost, and seeking:

             Old bones rattled in his gut, old scars ached in his heart. In the woods autumn gnats and miniscule milkweed tufts carved energetic treble-clefs above the forest floor, floated errant and aimless down a trailing breeze. The seasons had circled. Death littered the forest floor, thin light and weak breezes mixed listlessly upon the hillside. Once again he had become the time-shocked sleepwalker shuffling through rattling leaves in a crumpled-russet fall.

             Music hung in the edge of his consciousness, unwinding out of him into the high heaven, faint and faraway. Skying electric guitar, cosmic and ancient. An autumnal chorale of fatal, fading Lorelei called to him from just beyond the edges of pale sunshine and chill nights. It was time to go. Time to chase those crying voices sinking down the horizon.

             The prospect of open ground and fierce movement rose with taut wings in the space between his gut and heart, filled him with memories of old celebrations of fire and blood and freedom. He felt the hot exultation of speed waiting for him out on the unbroken, endless blacktop. It would carry him to austere reigns of stern, snow-burned mountain ranges and the dry, vast mystery of the high desert plateau beyond. There he would seek again a contemplative calm and a timeless, certain perspective of where he had been, where he was, where he was going.

The year before I met Lenore I wrote the following vignette, and it seems appropriate to share it here now. It reflects the sentiments of Chapter 20 well, where the sage talks about the ways of “the people”.

Its epilogue is the song I will sing in the woods as the one true human being embodied in Bob and Lenore, we two who are gathered together as one.

 Running On Empty

The days passed one after the other, each the same as the one before. He would leave the mountains and go into town and wander the streets looking into other eyes with his silent question, wondering how deep the soul might be buried in this one, or in what manner it might be chained to a weight within the heart.

Once in awhile their eyes threw a certain light and he would study that person and wonder; how alive are you, what is your weight and how have you borne it?

In town they moved dully, they moved manically, always under the brunt of a nameless attack, always on the verge of a final capitulation. In his own time he had resisted and been defeated, had fallen sullenly and then attempted to take their ways as his own, had savagely sacrificed himself in pursuit of a place among them.

Always the desperate days of enforced busyness had ended and he went back to his own way, a way apart, back into a nameless, unknown seeking for a place he had rarely seen, a place where shadows faded in the burgeoning light of each successive passage.

Now the aching harmonies that sounded in him were those of endless blacktop, a melodic mystery unfolding, unwinding in a high heaven far above him, a yearning for another beside him, an adoring heart, a deeply grown-in lover. These things were not in the streets of town.

They rang in the pale tenors of a high midnight moon over lonely hillsides, in the empty vastness of desert canyon lands and the flat floors of endless highways in the empty spaces between the western cities.

A shared love, a shared adoration, two who were one, each selfless and happily sacrificed to each, running down the road together in a cloud of brimming music.

That was the dream, and the emptiness.


And now it is the reality, and the fullness. Off I go, to sing.

One Response to Tao Te Ching Chapter 20

  1. Louis W. says:

    I hope that when you do start to feel wordy again you will write a little something to share your unique world view with those of us still wondering if there is a path. (I’m not sure there is anywhere to go, so looking for a path seems superfluous).

    Here is some unsolicited advice for singing without words: Get your self a didgeridoo. I just bought one and it is great fun (and it goes well with my Native American flutes).

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