Tao Te Ching Verse 2

The essence of Verse 2 of the Tao is duality; the world of opposites. The physical world depends upon duality for meaning. It is essential for the functioning of day to day life. The key is understanding when duality is serving a purpose and when it is creating disharmony.

This translation is by John McDonald

Verse 2

When people see things as beautiful,
Ugliness is created
When people see things as good,
evil is created.

Being and non-being produce each other
Difficult and easy complement each other
Long and short define each other
high and low oppose each other
before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
can act without doing anything
and teach without saying a word
Things come her way and she does not stop them
things leave and she lets them go
she has without possessing
and acts without any expectations.
When her work is done, she takes no credit.
That is why it will last forever.

The first four lines show how duality is used to create disharmony – when people see things as good, evil is created.

The following four lines show that opposites have a practical use and cause no offence – difficult and easy complement each other.

Yet everything is subjective.

Dark clouds and the prospect of rain bring joy to those who live in countries where the crops fail due to lack of water; heavy downpours to put out devastating forest fires are considered a blessing. Those affected by frequent floods, however, cry out in despair when they see bruised skies overhead, knowing their homes may be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

We determine what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ through our own experiences.

So the first four lines suggest that, by labelling things, we create definitions which we believe to be true: he is beautiful/she is ugly. But who is deciding this? Who determines what is good and what is bad?

The paragraph below offers some understanding:

The prickled stem leads up to the flower of the rose. No person is simply good or bad. Both extremes are inside of us, and in a multitude of nuances. Any personality is a mystery beyond explanation. We can only observe the actions by which that personality expresses itself.   If we allow morals to influence our judgments, we are unable to be objective. Then there is a risk that the punishment of a deed is far worse than the deed itself.  So, the sage refrains from judging. He is very hesitant to interfere, or to insist that his opinion should be respected. He is reluctant to lead, and refuses to be followed. He is an example without pointing it out. - taoistic.com.

The solution to the issues of duality can be found in the last stanza. The paragraph below – by the Understanding Tao blog – also provides insight:

By acting only when action is natural and unforced, and requesting no praise for their action, the taoist avoids having been, better or worse, or right or wrong.  The action was taken when the time for action arrived.  Then the action was forgotten.  In this way one may move with the Tao without creating duality.

The Tao is asking us to accept what happens, act appropriately for the situation and then let it go. Holding on to a situation and labelling it as good or bad serves no purpose and can colour our future behaviour.

We all have our likes and dislikes; our opinions on every subject. Are we right? We believe so but then we are only making those judgements through the filter of our own experiences. This is all too evident in politics. But if you take a step back it is easier to see that all arguments have elements of right and wrong.

My understanding of the message in Verse 2 of the Tao is to refrain from judgement; refrain from casting an opinion. Give without expectation of anything in return. Act as you see fit for any given situation and then let it go. Teach by example rather than with words.

Many are able to see this truth and have already taken steps towards making the world a better place. Few would consider a person with a facial disfigurement as ugly. There is compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves when they do unacceptable things out of desperation.

Yet we still find ourselves criticising and gossiping about friends, family and those in the public eye. It gives us pleasure to tell others of someone else’s inadequacies because it makes us feel better than them. It strengthens our sense of self and boosts our ego.

If we don’t like the clothes someone is wearing or their political stance the Tao is asking us to accept that it is just our opinion and let it go. Be truthful if asked but do not be tempted to gossip or put down others for our own satisfaction. It serves no purpose.

Start with the little things.