Tao Te Ching 38: Already good



The highest good is not to seek to do good,

but to allow yourself to become it.

The Sage doesn’t try to be powerful;

thus he is truly powerful.

The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;

thus he never has enough.


The Sage does nothing,

yet he leaves nothing undone.

The ordinary man is always doing things,

yet accomplishes little.


The kind person acts from the heart

and accomplishes a multitude of things.

The righteous person acts out of piety,

yet leaves many things undone.

The moral person will act out of duty,

and when no one responds

will roll up his sleeves and use force.


The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self.

The highest kindness is to give without condition.

The highest justice is to see without preference.


When the Tao is forgotten, there is righteousness.

When righteousness is forgotten, there is morality.

When morality is forgotten, there is law and ritual.

Law and ritual are the husk of true faith,

and the beginning of chaos.


Therefore the Sage follows his own nature

and not the trappings of life.

The Sage concerns himself

with the depths and not the surface,

with the fruit and not the husk.

He dwells in the Tao,

and stays with the true, not the false.


A long and powerful verse, containing more of those wonderful paradoxes of the Tao. The opening lines remind me of a quote I once saw by Eckhart Tolle: “You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge.” 

Similarly, we do not become powerful by chasing after power, but by learning to recognise the power that’s already within us. Those who spend all their energy continually seeking and acquiring rarely, if ever, get enough of what it is they are after. Something I learned in life is that it’s often not until we end the search that we finally find what it is we’ve been looking for (or perhaps realise that we never truly wanted or needed it to begin with).

When Lao Tzu says that the Sage does nothing, he means that the wise come to realise that even though it looks like we’re the ones doing in life, it’s actually life that does all the doing, including us! Our bodies breathe themselves, our food digests itself, our blood is pumped through our bodies in ways that are quite beyond our volition. Our past experiences, conditioning and the environment around us generate our behaviour and actions. How much are we actually doing? When looked at from this perspective, life is really doing us, each and every moment, all the time.

Most of us have been brought up to think of righteousness, morality, law and ritual as being positive things. They are  concepts imposed on us to try and make us “good”. Sadly one of the core premises of western religion is that we’re not inherently good, that we’re all born sinners and that without codes of morality and rules of behaviour we’d somehow all run amok. We have notions of righteousness and morality foisted upon us from a young age, and just in case such indoctrination isn’t enough, laws are laid down to make sure we fully comply.

I’m not suggesting that a lawless society would be advisable at humanity’s current stage of development. Sadly a significant percentage of the population live in complete disconnection from their essential nature and are readily capable of harmfully dysfunctional behaviour.

But if more people lived in alignment with the Tao — that peaceful centre of balance within — laws would be unnecessary and codes of ‘morality’ and ‘righteousness’ would be pointless. Where there is love — real love and not grasping, ego-driven love — there is no need of morals or codes of conduct, because love always does the right thing.

It’s time to challenge the harmful fallacy that our true nature is somehow deficient (that we’re all “born sinners” as certain religions claim) and that we should be afraid of what we truly are and seek to circumvent it at all costs. It’s not our true nature that causes us to act in destructive ways; it’s actually ignorance of our true nature that’s responsible for that.

By following his true nature, the Sage is never led astray. We each have an inbuilt sense of right and wrong and when we’re in tune with that, all need of ritual and externally-imposed concepts of morality ends. The Sage shuns such constructs because he sees reality as it is, free of the filter of conditioning, concepts and erroneous belief systems. Thus “he stays with the true, not the false.”

Related articles:

Living without Rules 1: Are we innately good or bad?

Living without Rules 2: The innate self, the social self & the root of human suffering

Living without Rules 3: Living from the heart


11 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching 38: Already good

  1. Thank you for sharing this great verse and commentary. I’ve always been a fan of finding balance in one’s life.

    1. Hey Cody, you’re welcome, glad you liked it. It’s one that means quite a lot to me and absolutely — balance is the key to everything. Hope you doing well 🙂

  2. Great post Rory and what a great passage 🙂 Especially the last lines regarding rules, laws and rituals. Isn’t it ironic that the most pervasive, modern organised religions really are nothing more than just that: rules and rituals. Basically the basest form of existence, and about as far as one can get from true understanding and experiencing of the more divine and interesting aspects of existence.

    Thanks for sharing, great reminder 🙂


    1. Thanks Rohan! It’s definitely one of the most powerful and thought-provoking verses. Absolutely – most religions (and social institutions, governments, etc) impose rules, rituals and dictates upon us on the premise that we’re somehow deficient, that our essential nature is rotten and that we need ‘saved’ from ourselves. But I really believe the goodness is already there within us, and it naturally shines when we cease obstructing it. It’s a radical, revolutionary concept to many, but it may be one that we need to consider.

      Thanks again for reblogging! 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on rohan7things and commented:
    Hey guys!

    Boy oh boy am I busy these days with playing music, teaching, speaking engagements and everything else life decides to throw my way 🙂 It means it’s very hard to find the time to keep up with all your awesome blogs and it’s even tough to get my own scheduled posts out on time!

    Well today Rory Mackay is going to take my place with an excellent and thought proving post on spirituality and existence.

    I can tell you, life is most definitely “doing me” at the moment lol 😉

    Enjoy, and I’ll be back with a post on Thursday 😉



    1. Hey there, thanks for the comment 🙂 I’m not familiar with Matthew Fox (other than as an actor on LOST!), I’ll have to check it out. Yes, the idea of coming from (and innately being) perfection is key to eastern religion, unlike certain western religions which pedal a lie that I believe has been extremely harmful to the human psyche. Here’s to original grace instead of original sin 😉

  4. just when I think I’m on a good path, or in a good place, I realize all that I do not know still. Currently working on some of this very stuff….finding the good within myself and allowing it to flow FROM me rather than trying to BE good from the outside. Trying to find out how to really love, without judgement. Who knew that was an issue for me?? 😦 Always learning…not always enjoying the ride lol. love and hugs xo

    1. I know how you feel! It’s certainly a ride alright, full of bumps, concussions and a great many lessons. The thing that occurred to me when I read this was to suggest that instead of finding out how to love without judgement, maybe inquiring to see if it’s not true that your nature is already love and that you don’t have to learn to love, but just let your true nature shine? The judgements are what they call vasanas, the grooves in consciousness generated by the causal level (unconscious). Right now Im like Rory the vasana slayer. I’m watching the mind churning out all this crap, judgements, fears, wants, and I’m trying to observe them for what they are and not buy into them as I have done for a lifetime/s! It’s a lot of work, but the result is a more peaceful mind…eventually 😛 You’re doing amazing, just keep hanging in there and focussing ‘beyond the dream’ 😉 Much love x

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