Dao De Jing 38


A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.

A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.

When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
Knowledge of the future is only a flowery trapping of Tao.
It is the beginning of folly.

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real and not what is on the surface,
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept the one and reject the other.

(translation Feng-English)


Commentary by Ho Shang Kung

Ch. 38 Discussion on Te.

Superior Te is without Te. Therefore it possesses Te.

By superior Te the princes of highest antiquity are meant. Their Te was great and nameless. Therefore it is called superior Te. They are called without Te, as they did not use Te to instruct the people. They were conservative and natural and nourished the life of the people. Their Te was invisible. Therefore they are called without Te. It is said their Te became one with heaven and earth, became one with the currents of the atmosphere. Thereby the people attained perfection.

Inferior Te does not lose Te. Therefore it is not Te.

By inferior Te the princes are meant who have got names and designations. Their Te was not equal to the superior Te. Therefore it is called inferior Te. Who does not lose Te, his Te can be seen, his merit can be exalted. By having a name it reaches his personality. Therefore it is not Te.

Superior Te is without action, and thereby nothing is done.
This means: Take Tao for your model and be peaceful and quiet. Have nothing to do. This is called nameless action.

Inferior Te acts and has thereby action.

This means the business of ordering and governing. It means that one thereby creates a name for oneself.

Superior humanity acts, and nothing is thereby done.

By superior humanity a prince following humanity is meant. There is nothing superior to his humanity. Therefore it is called superior humanity. Who acts according to it, acts according to humanity and benignity. His merit is accomplished, his doings are established, and he does not strive for action.

Superior justice acts and thereby has action.

Justice is applied for making decisions. By doing so one cares for oneself. By killing men one establishes authority. One taxes the subjects in order to make presents to oneself.

Superior ceremonial acts, and nobody corresponds to it.

By this a prince of high-standing ceremonial is meant. There is nothing more elated than his ceremonial. Therefore it is called superior ceremonial. This means: To act according to the ceremonial and thus to give regulations is the ritual of hypocrisy. When the flower is displayed, the fruit perishes. Outwardness and hypocrisy are thereby multiplied. Activity detaches itself from Tao and is not able to correspond to it.

Thereupon it stretches out its arms and forces them.

This means: Who talks much cannot correspond to it. The prince and his subjects contend with each other. Therefore it stretches out its arms and draws them towards each other.

Therefore: If one loses Tao, then Te follows.

This means: If Tao decays, then Te originates.

If one loses Te, then humanity originates.

This means: If Te decays, then humanity and love become visible

If one loses humanity, then justice originates.

This means: If humanity decays, then one distinguishes the light of justice.

If one loses humanity, then the ceremonial originates.
This means: If justice decays, then one exhibits the ceremonial according to the
presents, so as to walk about with jade and silk.

Now the ceremonial is the diminution of faith and sincerity

This means: The ceremonial neglects the fundamentals and cultivates superficiality. Therefore faith and sincerity decay from day to day

and the head of confusion.

The ceremonious man slights reality and esteems outwardness. Therefore justice and uprightness daily diminish, and vileness and confusion daily start up.

Foreknowledge is the flower of Tao

If one knows nothing, then one talks. Knowledge creates foreknowledge. Such a man loses the reality of Tao and obtains its flower.

and the beginning of stupidity.

This means: A man who possesses foreknowledge leads to the beginning of stupidity and obscuration.

Therefore a great man dwells within its fullness.

A great man is a prince who possesses Tao and Te. Who dwells in fullness allows the body to dwell in simplicity.

He does not dwell in its scantiness.
Who does not remain with his body and resists Tao, is troubled within the world.

He dwells within its fruit.
He dwells in faith and sincerity.

He does not dwell within its flower.
He lays no stress on words.

Therefore he avoids that and seizes this.
He avoids yonder outwardness and seizes this reality


Commentary by O Society August 25, 2019

Here we have one of the chapters traditionally viewed as being “anti-Confucian.” One way to look at it is for Laozi, we cannot speak of Dao, only of its manifestations.

So literally:

When Dao 道 is lost, there is De 德
When De 德 is lost, there is Ren 仁
When Ren 仁 is lost, there is Yi 義
When Yi 義 is lost, there is Li 禮

Our context here is these manifestations are Confucian ethical virtues.

Ren 仁 (benevolence), Yi 義(righteousness), Li (ritual) are sort of descending.

We can look at Ren as being kindness or benevolence or compassion towards living things.

Yi is righteousness in the sense of a moral attitude or disposition to have Ren.

Li is a ritual or symbolic understanding as in convention or norms.

I do not know for certain what the author of this passage means to say about Confucius by this digression; however, we can say to “have Dao” or be “of Dao” is to have a Way which is not fixed or concrete in this sense we can say, this X is it.

So if Confucius were to say “Dao is this X,” then he is mistaken.

In any case someone of Dao (a Daoist) will have compassion, which is to say they have this virtue of being compassionate Ren 仁. But if you ask this person why they are compassionate, why they feel this way or do this thing, they cannot say. It is just the way to be. It is a spontaneous autopoiesis thing that just “goes by itself.”

This is Ziran 自然.

This is different from intentionally having a moral attitude taught to one as “being right.” It is also different from “going through the motions.”

So if Confucius were to say, “Dao is do X,” then he is mistaken.

A Daoist does not typically say “Dao is do this.” Instead, Wuwei 無為 is literally acting without acting. As in acting without coercion or telling someone what to do. Without my interference, it “goes by itself.”


So… maybe an example.

Let’s say I smile. I can do this on purpose.

Maybe I smiled a “fake” smile and kissed a baby because I am a politician out campaigning. We can say I did this with Li 禮 (ritual). So this is just what politicians do. The Queen waves at her subjects. The president shakes hands. The leader smiles at his people to fulfill what is expected of him in a social situation. This is a norm or convention. It has no meaning other than “going through the motions.”

Now, maybe I am a little bit better than the average politician. Maybe I don’t just want to “go through the motions,” I know I should do this thing because it is “right.” I know smiling is the “right thing to do” at the campaign rally because “smiling is good.” Now I have Yi 義 because I am a righteous politician. But it is not spontaneous smiling, I have to keep telling myself to do it. Remind myself it is doing the right thing.

Perhaps I am even a good politician. Maybe I am a kind person. Maybe because I am kind I smile and shake hands and kiss babies at the rally because I feel genuine kindness or compassion towards my people. My voters bring this out or something. But here we have genuine kindness, not just ritual I’ve been taught or doing the right thing because it is right. Now I have Ren 仁.

Do you see?

The manifestation is smiling. The best thing that could happen is smile just goes by itself. Smile happened. Not that I intentionally did anything or rehearsed or was taught to smile or someone told me to smile more at the rally.

This is genuine authentic smile. It is not the same as mere ritual in which human beings expect to smile and say “How are you?” then “I am fine.”

In any case, each step is further and further away from the Way. Doing the right thing or what is expected is not Dao 道.

Though the people may be stupid or confused and mistake the empty ritual smile of the hollow politician for the authentic man. We might see the politician who loses even the “fake smile” ritual and he instead uses force. No longer pretending to be anyone’s friend, he simply uses violence to back up his orders. This could be the “next step” after losing Li 禮 (ritual). Using force contradicts Wuwei 無為.

.The authentic man smiles from the inside because he loves all living things for all living things are manifestations of Dao. He would smile at the birds even if there are no humans around to see him do it. De 德 is this power of virtue one can feel or sense radiating or emanating from the authentic man.

In The Shadows Of The Sun

Confucius was seeing the sights at Lu-liang, where the water falls from a height of thirty fathoms and races and boils along for forty li, so swift that no fish or other water creature can swim in it. He saw a man dive into the water and, supposing that the man was in some kind of trouble and intended to end his life, he ordered his disciples to line up on the bank and pull the man out.

But after the man had gone a couple of hundred paces, he came out of the water and began strolling along the base of the embankment, his hair streaming down, singing a song. Confucius ran after him and said, “At first I thought you were a ghost, but now I see you’re a man. May I ask if you have some special way of staying afloat in the water?”

“I have no way. I began with what I was used to, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate. I go under with the swirls and come out with the eddies, following along the way the water goes and never thinking about myself. That’s how I can stay afloat.”

Confucius said, “What do you mean by saying that you began with what you were used to, grew up with your nature, and let things come to completion with fate?”

“I was born on the dry land and felt safe on the dry land – that was what I was used to. I grew up with the water and felt safe in the water – that was my nature. I don’t know why I do what I do – that’s fate.”

~ Chuang Tzu 19 Mastering Life (translation Watson)

“I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness (義) and benevolence (仁), which are, as it were, his stem and leaves (末). Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks (儒、墨). I want the flower and fruit (實) of a man; that some fragrance (馨) be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness (德) must not be a partial and transitory act (為), but a constant superfluity (厚), which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious (無心,不知).”

~ Henry Thoreau


3 thoughts on “Dao De Jing 38

  1. Daoist and Buddhist religious texts often have commentary made by priests and monks to help elucidate the often esoteric levels of meaning.

    In America, we tend to pretend these texts mean whatever we want them to mean. So there are 1,001 “translations” each more New Age than the next.

    However, in China or India or Tibet where the texts come from there are traditional commentaries to help us understand.

    We don’t just “make it up” and sign ~ Laozi the way people do on Facebook memes. That way lies delusional hubris and is a source of many self-inflicted misunderstandings.


  2. So one question which comes to mind is why put naked females as an illustration for this chapter? I don’t know, just seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Now one thing to remember is when we speak about Daoism, there is this feminine presence here. It isn’t just “all about men.” We look at the world today and see lots of war and force being used and an authoritarianism going on. People coin terms such as “toxic masculinity” to describe what we see.

    So we aren’t really going to the land of magical identity politics where boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails and girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. This is fantasy land. I’m not sure Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton are nice people. If they were, they wouldn’t have gotten to the top of the food chain in British and American politics. Teresa May isn’t a solution, she’s a problem.

    What we are doing is saying this reliance on force and testosterone and authoritarianism, “Do it because I said so and I am the pater familias” is a bunch of bullshit. We do not believe in this.

    Instead, we are looking for something authentic. Real kindness and compassion. Real love of living beings in our hearts. Not “because Daddy told me to.”


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