Posted by: B Gourley | December 3, 2012

20 Tao Te Ching Quotes for Martial Artists

250px-Yin_and_Yang_svgLast week I attended a couple talks by Master Chen (Yun Xiang Tseng) who was trained at the Wudang Mountain Taoist Temple (familiar to many from the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the new [Jackie Chan] Karate Kid.) One of these lectures was entitled Tao Te Ching as a Guide for Living. In anticipation of this event, I reread Lao Tzu’s treatise on the Way and Virtue.

As I read it, I noted which passages resonated. (The next time I read it, it will no doubt be an entirely different slate of quotes.) Master Chen suggested reading it a few times with as little “baggage” as possible before starting to read it from a particular perspective. I may have jumped the gun as I read from the perspective of a martial artist (though it wasn’t my first time reading it — but I’m sure I brought way too much baggage/thought to it the first times.)

The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s philosophy of the Way, is short — just 81 chapters most of which are less than one page long. Any given verse may reveal several different interpretations. It’s a slippery book. This starts with the opening line, which Master Chen called a “booby-trap.” It says, “The Way that can be told of is not the eternal Way.” So –right off the bat– my analysis may result in the reader calling bullsh@#. Nevertheless, I’ll proceed.

1.) Therefore the sage puts himself in the background, but is always to the fore. [from Ch. 7]

In Taoism, to do something helpful for recognition isn’t acting virtuously. In general, we tend to think of one who does a “good” deed as being virtuous, and tend to think that they deserve recognition. Many a building is built by institutions that could put the money to better use just because the philanthropist expects his name carved in limestone. If positive acts get done, dickering over whether it’s virtue or narcissism may seem irrelevant. However, for a warrior, the distinction can matter. He who fights for recognition is a glory-hound, not a warrior. It matters because a glory-hound may be a mercenary and not give sufficient attention to who is being fought and why.

2.) When bronze and jade fill your hall, it can no longer be guarded. [from Ch. 9]

This can be applied several ways. I don’t want to talk about the most literal interpretation (i.e. collecting stuff invites criminals.) The quote is saying that attachment creates vulnerability. It’s not so much the “stuff” that creates the vulnerability as a being attached to it. One shouldn’t ride a gold bar to the bottom of the ocean because one is too stubborn to drop it and swim. Martial artists should look at this in another way. If one collects a vast number of techniques, one begins to lose the value of them. That is, if one studies school after school, one ends up with so much material that it is vulnerable to loss –not from theft but from atrophy. There’s a common saying in the martial arts that goes, “I’m not afraid of the fighter who has practiced 10,000 techniques once, but rather the one who has practiced one technique 10,000 times.”

3.) We turn clay to make a vessel; but it’s the space in which there’s nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends. [from Ch. 11]

It’s a bad habit in one’s training to pay attention only to the “clash.”  By the clash I’m referring to the part of a kata (or randori) in which one comes into physical contact with the opponent. This is the point at which the “damage” is done, but it’s not necessarily the point at which the fight is decided. One can read tales of samurai duels in which two warriors circled around each other without any clash, either because neither side recognized an opening or because both sides recognized that there was one clear winner. There’s a point before the clash in which each side is jockeying for position that should not be neglected. There’s also a post-clash point of concern. Teachers often have to harp on the importance of zanshin, or “the spirit that lingers.” One shouldn’t lapse in attention just because the opponent is down. Furthermore, kata often have spaces within them where there is a strategic lull that is essential. In Gyokko-ryū Koshijutsu (school of jeweled tiger soft-tissue attacking skills) there’s a technique called Koku in which an “empty space” is used to draw the attacker into a vulnerable position.

4.) It was when the six near ones were no longer at peace that there was talk of dutiful sons. [from Ch. 18]

This is a dig at Confucianism. The “six near ones” are the relationships (e.g. father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother) that Confucianism suggested are naturally hierarchical. When people were behaving in accordance with the Way, there was no need for rigid protocols to achieve a polite civil society. If one is showing respect solely as a matter of protocol, one cannot be said to be acting virtuously. In the martial arts, respect is important. The point isn’t that one should abandon polite behavior, but rather that one should do it from a place of mindfulness rather than compulsion. With respect to the student-teacher relationship, one should show respect out of heartfelt appreciation. One shouldn’t engage in respectful behaviors merely out of concern for appearances or just because one is told to. That’s the same as doing virtuous deeds for credit. At best it’s a weak form of virtue, but arguably it’s not virtuous at all.

5.) And if even heaven and earth can’t blow or pour for long, how much less in his utterance should a man? [from Ch. 23]

 This is pretty straight forward, “Shut up!” When I taught, I used to speak way too much trying to explain techniques and provide context. This was one of my biggest faults. However, I must say that I came to this bad habit honestly enough. Many other teachers did the same. Some students probably silently hated this. Others probably enjoyed picking up little tidbits and insights. However, it wasn’t good for any of them. Martial arts students need to develop their own insights by mindfully experiencing the techniques and the training, and not come to think of class as an entertaining spectator event. Training time should be spent training. One of my peers used to say, “less yakkin’ and more smackin’.” That’s good advice for the training hall.

6.) Truly, ‘the greatest carver does the least cutting.’   [from Ch. 28]

The more skilled a martial artist, the less moving they need to do. A skilled warrior’s movements are subtle, direct, and effective. Of course, there’re many reasons for practicing martial arts. If one seeks to entertain, this may not be true. However, this generally applies in jissen budō (martial arts for real combat.) In the era in which close range (e.g. sword and spear) combat dominated, one couldn’t afford to waste effort. Therefore, these martial arts tend to pare away the extraneous.

7.) To conquer others requires strength; to conquer oneself is harder still. [from Ch. 33]

Combat may be the scariest thing a person can experience in life, but even for professional soldiers it usually makes a short portion of one’s life. For most of us, the process of self-development is a life-long task. If one would like to tame the mind and enjoy stillness, one has to wage a long-term battle against the errant mind. I have found that the most difficult aspect of learning budō, by far, has been the mind. For monks and hermits, having the luxury of secluding themselves away, this is challenging enough. However, for one who must live in the world and confront its challenges, this is an even more difficult task. There’s a quote from Plato that is illuminating, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

8.) Best to leave the state’s sharpest weapons where none can see them.  [from Ch. 36]

When I was a graduate student studying International Affairs, and particularly International Security, we often discussed what theorists call the “security dilemma.”  A security dilemma is when a state’s efforts to make itself more secure undermines its security. If a nation builds up its army to protect itself from its enemies, it may look to its neighbors as though it is preparing for an attack. Therefore, the unnerved neighbor may make its own preparations for an attack, or even engage in “preemption.” The same logic can apply to a martial artist. While there can be deterrent value in “looking tough,” one can also make others nervous. This is the dilemma one faces. Lao Tzu seemed to think that it was safer to not appear threatening. (As opposed to Machiavelli who said that while it would be good for a leader to be both loved and feared, if he must choose, it’s safer to be feared. Thus we might expect the Italian to think it better to take the risk of appearing malevolent.)

9.) After morality was lost, then came ritual. Now ritual is the mere husk of loyalty and promise-keeping.  [from Ch. 38]

This is similar to the “six near ones” quote. It’s suggesting that one shouldn’t substitute mindless protocol for behaving wisely. If one lives mindfully and with stillness, one will know how to walk the moral path, one will not need dictates to compel one. Ritual as a shortcut to achieve an ends without remaining engaged is not virtue. This isn’t to say that ritual is inherently bad. Ritual can help train oneself to be mindful. In the martial art I practice, we have a rite for bowing in and out that is based on Shinto traditions. Like saying grace before dinner, this can help one attain a proper mindset for the training to come, but if one just “goes through the motions” it’s a waste.

10.) ‘Enumerate the parts of a carriage and you still have not explained what a carriage is.’  [from Ch. 39]

There’s a misapprehension that Taoism is anti-intellectual, but I think it’s more anti-delusional. That is, it emphasizes the need to not get caught up in thinking one “knows” what one either doesn’t or cannot know. There’re a number of forms that this false-knowing can take. One is thinking that one knows something because one has a name for it and can describe the nomenclature of it.  In the martial arts, one may think one knows a kata (technique or form) because one has its name and order of movement written down in a notebook and has done it during a class or two. This is no more knowing the technique than is be knowing the solar system by the ability to ramble off the names of the planets in order.

11.) Show me a man of violence who came to a good end, and I’ll take him for my teacher. [from Ch. 42]

Here Lao Tzu figures he’s made a safe bet. What does he mean by a “man of violence?” I can’t, of course, speak for this long-dead sage’s thoughts. However, I suspect that he means a person who looks to violence as their go-to” solution to solving problems or obtaining what they want in life. A warrior is capable of violence, has the skill-set to perpetrate violence, but neither seeks or prefers violence. A warrior must be able to fight to defend self and others, but he must also have the stillness of mind to not respond to petty insults or taunts with violence. Consider Tsukahara Bokuden’s ferry ride. The sword-master was on a boat with a young hot-head fighter. When the kid asked Bokuden what style of swordsmanship he followed, the elder swordsman said that he practiced the “victory-without-using-a-sword” school. The ruffian challenged Bokuden to a duel. Bokuden accepted, but suggested that they go to a nearby island because the ferryboat was crowded with innocent passengers who might be injured. When they got to the shore, the young man leapt out, ready for the fight. Bokuden pushed the ferry away from shore and rowed off, leaving the insolent twerp trapped on the island. Despite the “any given Sunday” nature of combat, it’s hard to imagine that Bokuden couldn’t have ended the young man who insulted him swiftly. (Bokuden is after all clearly in the pantheon of great swordsmen.) However, the sword master’s default solution was not violence but strategy.

12.) Be content with what you have and are, and no one can despoil you.  [from Ch. 44]

Taoism shares a number of beliefs in common with Buddhism, particularly Zen (Cha’an) Buddhism. This verse can be considered the positive corollary of the Buddhist tenet that says, “Desire is the root of all suffering.” Essential to attaining an imperturbable state of mind is avoiding latching onto how one would like the world to be. The world is rarely in a state that is optimal for one. When one is in a position of having to deal with adverse situations, one must be able to work with what one has and not have one’s mind stop in response to what one doesn’t have (or isn’t.)

13.) Without looking out his window, he knows all the ways of heaven. [from Ch. 47]

This may sound like a suggestion of omniscient extra-sensory perception. However, it’s just about looking within for answers rather than expecting to find the answers externally. This is a central tenet of Taoism. As Master Chen said, “If things are going down today, you know they will go up in the future.” Nothing lasts in perpetuity. Good flows after bad, cold after hot, and chaos after order. Often scholars attempt to make predictions by extending from recent trends, and often these forecasts fail dramatically. In the martial art I practice, there’s an admonition, ban pen fu gyō, which means to be “unsurprised in the face of 10,000 changes.”

14.) It’s said that he who has a true hold on life, when he walks on land doesn’t meet tigers or wild buffalos; in battle he isn’t touched by weapons of war. [from Ch. 50]

Don’t put too much emphasis on the word “hold” in the first clause but rather the more important word “true.” It’s challenging to translate any work, let alone one as slippery and poetic as the Tao Te Ching. The word “hold” might be interpreted as “grasping,” and this is precisely the opposite of what Lao Tzu was conveying. Individuals who have a balanced view of life and death are the ones who survive, rather than those who too fiercely hang onto life. In training, those who are concerned with getting hit –be it because of fear or because of ego– aren’t served well by those desires. Attachment to what one would like translates into tension and a busy mind, which in turn translate into poor performance. This is hard advice to understand and to put into practice because we are all attached to our lives.

15.) Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.  [from Ch. 56]

This is a great quote. As a sentence, it’s artful, and as a piece of wisdom it’s even more so. It offers a similar message to the aforementioned quote comparing nature’s “blowing and pouring” to that of man.  It’s also reminiscent of the more contemporary saying, “It’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” There’s a bad habit of feeling that one must prove one’s brilliance through what one says. And, people do too often judge people by silver tongues, or lack thereof. Few are wise enough to recognize the brilliance of one who keeps his thoughts to himself.  The ability to endure an uncomfortable silence can be valuable.

16.) In the governance of empire, everything difficult must be dealt with while it’s still easy. [from Ch. 63]

This chapter deals with a subject broader than governance of empire. In general, it says, one must deal with big matters while they’re still easy. For the martial artist, this can be applied to solving conflict before it comes to the clash. Combat is hard, dangerous, scary, and potentially deadly. It’s better if conflict can be handled before it comes to a physical fight. The tricky part is that sometimes this means appearing to be no threat at all, and other times it means showing a capacity to employ overwhelming force. This is where one must be in the moment and cognizant of the particulars of the opponent and the situation. It also means that one must be able to overcome one’s ego if one is to appear to be weak, or overcome fear if one has to bare one’s fangs.

17.) Therefore the sage, in order to be above the people, must speak as though he was below the people. [from Ch. 66]

We don’t necessarily associate leadership with humility, but this is a mistake. If one doesn’t believe it is right to force others to behave in a certain way by a boot on the throat, then being humble is of great value.  As I suggested above, Taoism doesn’t see virtue in acting on mindless protocol. In other words, people should arrive at proper action from within and not from fear of some external entity or from a desire to please some external entity. If one is in a position to teach or lead, how does one help underlings discover right action? It’s done by setting a good example, and showing them in a way that isn’t jarring. Martial arts teachers would do well to rely as much as possible on good example rather than harsh words as they lead their students.

18.) The best fighters do not make displays of wrath.  [from Ch. 68]

To get green troops sufficiently energized to overcome fear, leaders may try to stoke anger or hatred of an opposition. This may be the best that they can do given the troops available, but it doesn’t make for the most competent fighters. Such fighters will still have the fear, but it will be merely layered over by anger. This does not make for the cool and collected fighter that is ideal.

19.) To know when one does not know is best. To think one knows when one does not is a dire disease. [from Ch. 71]

One may remember a similar sentiment in Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates was attributed a similar saying. It behooves a warrior to see the world as it is. One shouldn’t let one’s worldview be skewed either by how one would like the world to be or by reconciling cognitive dissonance by believing falsehoods. (Cognitive dissonance is the inability to reconcile two beliefs. People routinely accept absurd beliefs [e.g. you can’t get pregnant from rape] in order to reconcile beliefs that clearly don’t work together.) If one allows oneself to believe falsehoods, one can be turned to causes that are bad. As we live in an age of rationality, one may think that humanity has given up delusion, but it’s not so –delusion is everywhere though maybe more artful than it was in centuries past.

20.) Much learning means little wisdom.  [from Ch. 81]

Dictionaries often conflate knowledge and wisdom. As a person with two graduate degrees, I can assure the reader that collecting a great deal of knowledge doesn’t inherently result in wisdom (it hasn’t for me, and I can’t say I’ve noticed a disproportionately higher possession of wisdom among those with advanced degrees.) In many cases it just creates more sophisticated delusions (see the preceding section.) One can have an unhealthy attachment to the collection of knowledge, just as one has an unhealthy attachment to material wealth, food, or various vices. If one derives self-confidence from what one knows, one is in the same boat as those who derive empowerment from other external factors –and it’s a boat that takes on water. Intellectual pursuits are valuable. It’s just that if the pursuit of knowledge prevents one from the hard work of looking inward, one cannot expect to achieve sagacity.  Martial artists would do well to spend less time gathering up new techniques and more time on the struggle to be more mindful and capable.


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