In nineteen ninety eight I was, once again in a Veteran’s Administration rehab program, this time in Vancouver, WA., just across the mighty Columbia River from Portland OR. The actual rehab classes lasted twenty eight days, but since I was homeless at the time, I applied for the VA’s Domicile Program. This program was designed to give those coming out of rehab a place to live for a period of six months. This “extra time,” allows one fresh out of rehab a chance to concentrate solely on recovery, without all the headaches of a normal, working class struggle. No “rat race,” to contend with. The physical dependence is gone, serious withdrawal dangers are gone. But the mind, oh, that is a different matter entirely. The mind is still left with the obsession.


Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), that a full blown addiction to alcohol, street drugs etc, is a very difficult thing to get a handle on. Sad to say, many people never do manage to get it under control and this usually ends up in some sort of tragedy and spiritual death. The “extra time,” I was so fortunate to get was very, very helpful in my recovery. I think that is one very big reason that my fifth attempt at a peaceful existence was successful. No more emotional roller coaster rides. Ups and downs, yes, but we all go through those don’t we. My ups were not exaggerated ups, and my downs were not exaggerated downs, any longer. But I knew I had a long way to go and still had to face life outside of the protective chrysalis of the VA.


Naturally, I was pretty involved with AA and the 12 step program, but I was having difficulty with the “higher power,” aspect of the program. I found it difficult to sincerely believe in God, as organized religion defined God. I was still living at the “dorm,” when my birthday came around. My daughter, who lived in Portland would visit me regularly. We had a lot of lost time to make up for and we really got to know each other for the first time. On one such visit, on my birthday, she gave me a copy of the Tao Te Ching as a present. She didn’t know anything about the Tao when she bought the book, she just knew I had a strong interest in Eastern religions and thought. She couldn’t possibly have known just what an enormous gift that was at the time and neither did I.


The book was the translation by Gia Fu Feng and contains beautiful black and white nature photos by Jane English. I was pleased with this gift and was eager to dive in get acquainted with the Tao Te Ching. Wow, it was so mysterious to me at first. I had very little understanding of what these eighty one ideograms meant and how they could apply to my life. I knew though, that I had found that elusive “higher power,” that so many in AA have difficulty with. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I knew the Tao was it. The feeling, and realization was instinctual.


So now I will try my best to introduce you to this wonderful, awe inspiring guide to life. I’ve been struggling with where to begin, and I guess the best place for that is the beginning. I will start with the first ideogram and try to explain what it means to me. Well, here we go;



The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.


I’ll try to do this stanza by stanza;

1st stanza;

“The Tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

To me this sets up the mystery. The Tao is everything in the universe and cannot be named. A name cannot be applied to the eternal.

2nd stanza;

“The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.”

Mankind, for eons, has been trying to give a name to the eternally real. The universe and all that is contained within it. How does it truly work and is there a “contoller,” and is this controller a supreme being or more of a “force.”?  There are names, such as God, Mohammed, Yahwe…etc, but none of these names actually describe the vastness and complexity of the universe or where the universe originally came from. So yes, I agree that the “eternally real,” is unnameable. Naming applies to particular  things/objects. The universe is far too vast to be named accurately.

3rd stanza;

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.”

When a person ceases to desire, they are better able to quiet their minds and think more easily of the “mystery,” that is life. When we are caught up in desire, we are only thinking of the self and the mystery gets no attention.

4th stanza;

“Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source,

this source is called darkness.”

To me, this seems sort of like a Zen trick, yet the mystery and the manifestations do arise from the same source. So what does the darkness represent? I think there in lies the mystery. I sometimes think, that there is supposed to be a certain level of mystery.


5th stanza;

“Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.”

I think this means that when one begins to realize the futility of naming the mystery and manifestions, we are much more open to begin some sort of understanding, like going through a gate to enter a city. To me this means that trying to name who (a supreme being) or what (the universe) doesn’t really matter. That we would be much happier and find more peace when we stop trying to describe God or even begin to fathom a purpose. Can you imagine what a much more peaceful world this would be? Free of this burden we are able to actually live life while not trying to answer questions that have no answer.

This is the big difference between Eastern thought and Western thought. Western thought sees a difference between the object being observed, and the observer, while Eastern thought sees the object and the observer as one. This, of course, is antithetical to the scientific method and Eastern thought is more intuition and spiritual. A blending of the two schools of thought would be  ideal.


After receiving this wonderful gift, I first read it through, like one would read a collection of poetry. My interest had been greatly aroused and I was definitely looking for the benefit that the Tao Te Ching surely held for me. The more I read, the greater my interest became. Reading this book like a collection of poems was just too much for a single sitting and I was not getting into what each ideogram meant to me. I then started reading one ideogram a day, and tried to determine what each one meant and how I could apply it to my life. Each day I would read a new one and contemplate it’s meaning. The 1st, then the 2nd then the 3rd and on and on till I had done so with all 81 ideograms. I began to get the meaning of each one, or what they meant to me, but the Tao is very mysterious and I was only able to gather glimpses of meanings.


I finally realized that the Tao Te Ching wasn’t to be read like any other book I had read. I think the key to understanding and benefitting from the Tao is to use it as a guide, which I am sure this what Lao Tzu had in mind when he created it. Repeated readings of each  individual ideogram brought more and more understanding. I was starting to change how I viewed the world, both from an inner perspective and an outer perspective, while not being totally aware of such changes. Daily readings of the Tao were, for me, essential. It’s been a little over twelve years now and I still read it and see how it relates to my life now. I no longer read it every day and haven’t done so in a long time yet when I start to feel like I’m starting to swim upstream and waste valuable energy, both psychological and spiritual, I start reading again and I really do relocate the tranquility that was so new to me when I first received this wonderful gift.


The Tao is a wonderful guide to living, for anybody; individuals, parents, even leaders of nations down to leaders of cities, states and small towns. There is no threat of hell or promise of heaven. The Tao does not command, it only suggests. There is really no liturgy or dogma to contend with or believe in. All there is is the vast wisdom contained in the 81 ideograms.


Since there are so many ideograms and such vast wisdom that pertains to all aspects of life, I can’t begin to encompass all of it in just one article. For those who are interested or just a little curious, the Tao Te Ching can be found on the net. There are several good translations out there. I found a good video on youtube that brings you the Tao, “in a nutshell,” but it does not cover all 81 “poems.” The video may offer more insight than I can relate here, so watch it and enjoy and please leave comments regarding your thoughts and feelings on the Tao Te Ching.









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I see that those who respond to your writing call you KT. I hope I may as well.

Your commentary on how Tao Te Ching helped you overcome difficulties is a testimony to your great inner strength. I admire your choice in using the gift of Tao to find your way back. It is a wonderful book and I read it for my love of its words, my love of Chinese art and philosophy, and as a guide to a greater knowledge of our universal connecions. We are all made of the same substance of the universe and this the ancient Chinese understood, taught and lived.

KT, I had the good fortune to live and work in Asia for 6 years. Part of that time was in the PHilippines and the remainder in Malaysia. I travelled extensively and spent many hours in the museums that housed some of the greatest art ever created…fragile carvings in ivory and jade, centuries old. The genius of the art is indescribable but its beauty was born in a culture that does not teach personal recognition. Art is classified by dynasty, not by artist… so different from western cultures that not only demand personal recognize but reward individaul accomplishment – that sense of self so important to us.

KT, I have an ivory ball, about the size of a tennis ball, carved from a single piece, the outside artfully detailed. Within are 10 individually carved layers, each moving freely. When lined correctly at several opening points, you can see in the center a perfectly shaped miniscule elephant. just amazing.

I have several Tao books. About 4 years ago I purchased a Barnes & Noble publication of Tao Te Ching, with 77 verses in English translation and corresonding Chinese character at their side. My favorite is number 16, The Tranquillity of the Mind.

Allow the heart to empty itself of all turmoil
Retrieve the utter tranquillity of mind
from which you issued.

To know tranquillity is to embrace all
To embrace all is to be just
Justice is the foundation for wholeness
Wholeness is the Great Integrity
The Great Integrity is the Infinite fulfilling itself.

Thank you for this KT. :


KT – just one, very funny, note about what we try NOT to be. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the debate between Kelly and Woody on “Cheers” over their “mixed marriage” – she’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (liberal) and he’s Lutheran Missouri Synod (conservative) and this is the GREATEST send up of text proofing and rule-bound covenant EVER:**


**Not to mention a great send-up on two perfectly dim people being THAT well informed about anything!


A very thoughtful and wonderfully written piece, Killgore!

It becomes difficult in life at times to step back from the concrete concerns and immediacies of the day and truly consider the mysteries of existence.

It is like living in the middle of somewhere incredible but being oblivious to it because of a smaller, mundane task that one is solely focused on.

When you consider all that causes most of the misery in the world, much of it can be seen as related to such a narrow, tunnelvisioned focus on one or more aspects of the physical world. For many, it is as if there is only the Earth in the universe and for that matter, just their locale/religion/politics/personal wealth/gratification that matters.

And in the real scope of infinite time and space, the cutting of taxes on the wealthy or the insistence that others have the same religious beliefs seem so tiny and petty.

That is not to say that our lives have little import because of that, just the opposite. Something that is rare is more precious and if we were to view our lives and each other around the planet as such, there would be far less misery and hatred and far more empathy and collaboration.

The physical world is kind of like tv. You can become so caught up in it that you become oblivious to your true surroundings and what’s happening around you, focused instead on the immediate drama your eyes are locked on.

Once one gets a wider perspective, they can enjoy “watching tv” as part of the experience of life but also recognize it is a very limited representation of existence and there is far more to consider and imagine that what one can see or touch.


I stumbled across the Tao Te Ching a couple of months ago, during an impromptu visit to a book market. The book itself only cost a few euro, so I decided to buy it, partially so I could figure out how to pronounce the title. 🙄

As I read the book, a lot of the ideas seemed familiar to me. I think, largely due to my cursory understanding of ancient Hellenistic philosophies – Roman History is kinda my thing at the moment – and my love of Japanese anime. An odd combination. However, a great many of the ideas were entirely new to me. Some were entirely welcome, others not so.

I may not have been affected by its ideas as you were, KT, but, even so, the Tao Te Ching was a fantastic read.


Thank you for this exquisite nourishment.


‘He by whom it (Brahman) is not thought, by him it is thought; he by whom it is thought, knows it not. It is not understood by those who understand it, it is understood by those who do not understand it.

Kena Upanishad

I always found that the Tao, Hindu Upanishads, and a few Buddhist Pali texts must have hit upon the same thing practically.

Of course, with the Tao, it seems to have been relatively independent, or at least expressed in a totally fresh, original – yet primeval; authentically regional – yet universal way.


KT, I’m so glad you went ahead with your article on the Tao. The way you’ve tied it in with major life changes and with your relationship with your own daughter really brings it to life for all of us.

I couldn’t help but think of Juan de la Cruz when I was reading these ideograms. Especially their emphasis on darkness. This is a bit long, but here’s some of Juan de la Cruz’s “I Entered, I Knew Not Where.”

I entered, I knew not where

(Entreme, donde no supe,)

and remained without knowing

(y quedeme no sabiendo,)

there transcending all knowledge.

(toda sciencia trascendiendo.)

I was so amazed, absorbed

(Estaba tan embebido)

and raised out of myself

(tan absorto y ajenado)

that I was stripped of all

(que se quedo mi sentido)

intelligence and feeling.

(de todo sentir privado,)

while my spirit was gifted

(y el espiritu dotado)

with unknown understanding,

(de un entender no entendido,)

there transcending all knowledge.

(toda sciencia trascendiendo.)

The higher up you rise,

(Cuanto mas alto se sube)

the less you understand,

(tanto menos se entendia,)

for the darkening cloud

(que es la tenebrosa nube)

illuminates the night.

(que a la noche esclarecia.)

The emphasis on darkness really unites the two, I think. It’s funny — the more science explores the whole concept of dark energy/dark matter, the more these mystical writings make sense.


KT – that’s amazing! What a gift your daughter gave you, and what a gift for you to have the openness to begin the quest. And you write this beautifully!

Christianity USED to be like that. In the first 800 or so years, there were multiple paths of Christianity, one of which crytalized as the Church, but others were far more in tune with Tao principles of always questioning, always searching, knowing you will never find the “Truth”. It was meant to bring paradise on earth, NOT focus on narrow rules and rites that were to transport you to the afterlife. Far more in harmony with Tao, and pantheism, and all manner of spirituality rather than institutionalized hierarchies of obedience.

We lost a lot of that, and contemporary inquries are reincorporating that wisdom of being open, finding god (small g intentional) within, rebuilding harmony with all people and nature. That’s why there is the fury among the rule givers and demanders of obedience toward those who belive truth is a process, never a destination. Why theocrats cannot abide those who are not.

You open up the mysteries, the questions, the complexities that now science is finally also admitting exist. Positing there are 10 dimensions, how can we be so object/subject defined? How can we ignore the spiritual when we cannot even prove what science knows to be true? How can order and chaos co-exist in the universe at exactly the same time and place? Tao and Buddhism and Hinduism and early Jewish and Muslim and Christian minds actually ALL asked these questions openly, together and differently, until the lure of hierarchy, control, and power over-ruled too much of the Abrahamic faiths, especially Christianity.

Several churches I know are turning to the Tao to have people approach the complexities of Jesus’ teachings – his positing of unanswerable questions – that may well have been so influenced by the Tao. But 1200 years ago, we turned away from the fluidity of that mystery and quest to impose definite answers, absolutes, certainty, and that was a huge loss for us while it was a huge win for those in power.

The reason Christians in hierarchy sent out missionaries and brutalized non-christians was not because they feared non-Christians were wrong but because they feared they were right. That these others were closer to god/God/truth than any western prince of the Church could be with the trappings of bricks and mortar, rules and rites, was a scary thing for it made such a lie of those structures and imposed order.

Thank you for sharing this with all of us. It reminds us to breathe and to turn within, not always questing without. Lovely to read, and wonderful to read it from you.



Very admirable effort…which follows from your very admirable struggle to put your life into order.

The authority carried by this short lesson in the Tao is the authentic experience you share with us at the start.

The Higher Power issue is very complex….too many of the Anonymous programs ask that you surrender to a child’s understanding of the divine, the eternal, the all present…..which thinkers like yourself find hobbling.

SO you went looking for the divine and found it in the Tao.

Incredible really.

I have read your analysis/translation/interpretation/application of the 1st Ideogram. Beautiful and Moving.

I also walked through the video.

I need to spend time with both and will. When I have absorbed your teaching (first hand via your writing) and your video reference (shared wisdom).

I will share with you what arises within me. I knew you would be good at this.


The Higher Power can be anything at all – even just your group. Any 12-step requiring you to surrender to a Western Male Anthropomorphic God is violating its OWN best principles. Get another group!


KT, I knew that you would be a good writer and I am so happy you did it! It appears that you come away with a spirituality of your own when you interpret the passages with your feelings and needs at the time of each read. You may discover something new with each of your personal situations in time. I have had others tell me that they had problems with AA for the same reasons you stated. I am glad that your daughter gave you something to help you through that time and something you can have to fall back on now when you need too. That has to be a comfort. I enjoyed listening to the link you gave. Thank you for sharing this with us.


I need to reread it sometime. Unlike other religions, instead of offering you answers, it gives you questions to ponder and arrive at your own epiphany about, like the Zen kōans you referred to, but a lot less pretentious, I think. They aren’t so much consternating riddles, I mean, as just profound to ponder in their simple elegance.

Second, I know exactly where you were. I actually went through treatment at that same VA in the early 2000s (leased out for civilian use). My band practiced at a friend’s home a couple blocks away.


Gosh KT you write really well. I cannot pretend to understand the Tao but I can say you have piqued my interest in reading more. I have not read anything like this since I read Sidhartha. So I think I will have a go at it, who would not want the peace it can afford if you embrace it?

Very well done.