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Newsletter - April 2023

The Master Serves As An Example

“Thus the Master is content to serve as an example and not to impose her will.” (Lao Tzu)


To serve as an example you have to “be” what you believe in. This is an inside job. It’s much easier to look at the world outside and try and impose our will on it by saying and doing things to bend it to our desires. Regardless of whether we succeed, the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 58) reminds us that this is not the Master’s way.


Why does Lao Tzu contrast serving as an example with imposing your will? He makes it very clear they are not the same thing. But does it really have to be one or the other? Can you perhaps do one of them sometimes, and the other at other times? Perhaps you could even do both at the same time by being a really good example of someone who knows how to impose their will. Very witty. But seriously, what’s going on here? This newsletter explores what makes serving as an example and imposing your will so very different from each other.


At first glance, we likely don’t think that imposing our will is something we do a lot. After all, we’re just living our ordinary everyday lives, saying things, doing things, succeeding at some things, not succeeding so well at others. We may well not see any of it as an attempt to “impose our will,” as it were. But here’s an interesting question. Where are we coming from when we act? I think, when we look closely at this question, there are only two answers.


The first place we can come from is our selves. In other words, we have an idea as to how we would like the world to be. Often this concerns some aspect or part of the world that is directly affecting us. If the world is not measuring up to whatever our idea might be then we perceive a gap. As soon as we perceive such a gap, we typically desire to close it. And how do we do that? By trying to rearrange the world to bring about the particular result we have in mind. That’s what imposing our will looks like.


So what’s wrong with that? Well, there’s nothing “wrong” with that. Perhaps we could be more neutral and simply say such an action “is what it is.” However, such actions also often bring predictable consequences—and some of these consequences may not be what we had in mind at all. The Tao Te Ching gives some examples. “Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner” (chapter 9). A clenched heart and being a prisoner are unlikely to be what we had in mind when we started on the chase. And at the root of every chase is desire. Fulfilling our desires is often all that we care about. What’s more, it’s a never-ending chase.


The second place we can come from is the Tao. This is what Lao Tzu’s Master does. His actions do not start with desire. He’s not chasing anything. Desire is always the work of the mind, and he recognizes this. “The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her her radiance” (chapter 21). What does the Master care about? “He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things” (chapter 64). 


I think the idea is simple. When our mind is full, there’s no room for the Tao. When we’re at one with the Tao, there’s no room for desire. So here’s Lao Tzu’s challenge for us. “Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?” (chapter 10). It’s only when we step back that we can be at one with the Tao. When we do that, we become like the Master “He doesn’t think about his actions; they flow from the core of his being” (chapter 50). And what’s at the core of his being? The Tao. That’s what gives him his radiance.


So what happened there? Did the Master tell us we were “wrong”? No. Did he issue commandments and give us instructions to follow? No. It was much more subtle. One consequence of radiance is that we notice it. We can’t help wondering what’s going on. That’s why we notice the Master and become curious. “The Master, by residing in the Tao, sets an example for all beings. Because he doesn’t display himself, people can see his light” (chapter 22). The reason we can see his light is because he has got himself out of the way.


It's interesting that an example makes no difference to us unless we notice and follow it. As the saying goes “Leadership is example.” It is not about the leader imposing their will. The Master doesn’t tell us anything, or even suggest we copy what he does. “Teaching without words, performing without actions: that is the Master’s way” (chapter 43). It’s up to us to notice and respond. And so we’re back to our opening quote. “Thus the Master is content to serve as an example and not to impose her will” (chapter 58). The key word is “serve.” When we impose our will, the only person we’re serving is ourselves.


At the start of this newsletter, I asked the question: Does it really have to be one or the other? I think the answer is yes. It certainly can’t be both at the same time. Can it sometimes be one and sometimes be the other? I think the answer is also yes. Why? Because we don’t always come from the same place when we act; and we’re often not even aware of it.


Speaking for myself, I think what happens is that sometimes I’m seeking to impose my will, and at other times I am, in effect, following the Master’s example by letting go of where I’m coming from and hopefully responding with compassion to what’s happening in the world around me and contributing where I can. Do I always succeed? No, I certainly don’t. Do I stand a better chance if I’m aware of the choice I’m making as to where I’m coming from? Yes, I think I do.


For me, the Master’s example works because it makes me aware I always have a choice. Imposing my will or following the Master’s example. Centered in my self or centered in the Tao. I think it really does have to be one or the other. Does that make it easy? No, it unfortunately it doesn’t. But at least it is simple.


The good news is that examples have the potential to bring out the best in us, as it were. The best is already there. The Master “…simply reminds people of who they have always been” (chapter 64). When we follow an example, nothing is being imposed on us—we are simply choosing to respond by following.


What do you think? Can you think of situations where you have recognized an example when you saw it? And when you saw it, how did you respond?

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:


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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book, or as a paperback or hardcover from your nearest independent book store, or from, or from

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