A Path and a Practice

A Path and a Practice

The Tao Te Ching as a practical spiritual path

by William Martin

The Tao Te Ching is one of the most loved and widely translated books in human history. It is wisdom literature at its finest. But it is much more than a collection of Chinese poetry. I have found it to be a “Tao” – a “Path” – that has opened for me the experience of life in all of its beauty and all of its pain. It has also given me a practice – a way of living in freedom and joy. I am deeply grateful for its gifts to me, and it is in a spirit of gratitude that I offer some hints that may make your own exploration of The Tao Te Ching more helpful.


Talking about a path is not walking that Path.

The author of The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, was neither a priest nor a follower of any religious belief system. Living in China in about 600 BCE, he was a patient observer of the flow of life. He watched the wind move the clouds across the sky and the rain soak the earth. He watched rivers flow through wide valleys and tumble down mountain canyons. He watched the Crane stand patiently by the lakeside, waiting on one leg until the water cleared to reveal a fish. He saw the wonder of all things rising and falling, coming and going, living and dying. He understood that this wonder cannot be captured by words. It can be thought about yet never fathomed. It can only be experienced.


“The present moment is all we have, so we are not constantly seeking a faster way to do things or a better place to be.”

Every step along this Path is taken in the present moment. There is no place to go, except here. There is no one to be, except who you are right now. This present moment living is an essential feature of this Path.

It is also the most difficult feature to practice. As soon as we actually turn to the present moment, a thought arises that directs our attention toward some future event or to something we should have done in the past. It is almost as if the present moment is actually too frightening to really experience.

We may notice a voice which tells us that, “If you live in the present moment, you will stop all forward progress. You will cease improving yourself and just drift through life.” This voice is a lie. Only the present moment is real and only here can true change occur. Only here can true life be found. Only here do all the ups and downs of life become part of a flowing whole. Only here is sorrow healed and joy experienced.


“This Path is our true home because it is home to all things in Heaven and on Earth.”

Lao Tzu’s approach is distrustful of formal religions and does not talk about belief systems. His path asks nothing from those who follow it except that they pay attention. It does not present rules or doctrines to which one must assent. It presents only observations of the way the Tao seems to work in everyday life and encouragement to follow the same pattern in our lives.

This path, then, is available to persons of any religious system or of no religious system. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Atheists are all equally welcome. There are no “People of the Tao” who are set apart from any other people. Everything and everyone in the Cosmos is an expression of the Tao. Every one emerges from the Tao and everyone is ever contained within the Tao.


“It is the single small step that begins the journey of a thousand miles.”

No matter how vast the chasm between where we are and where we sense we are headed appears, the only action we can ever take is right here, right now ? a simple step. No matter how complicated the consequences of that step seem to be, we will never really know until we take the step; and then the next one, and then the next one after that. Perhaps turning to a good translation of the Tao Te Ching will be your next step. Perhaps you will put the magazine down and go out to dinner. Any step taken with awareness and openness is the right step. We just keep stepping along on our thousand-mile journey. Enjoy it.

William Martin is the author of several best-selling books on Zen and Taoist thought, including the best-selling, Parent’s Tao Te Ching, recommended by Oprah as she wrote, “I give all my friends with children The Parent’s Tao Te Ching as a reminder of what matters when raising little ones.” His newest book has just been released by Marlowe and Company and is titled, A Path and a Practice, Using Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an Awakened Spiritual Life. It is available at bookstores now. He and his wife, Nancy, are the Teaching Guides at the Still Point Center for Zen/Taoist Meditation in Chico, CA. He can be reached through the website, www.thestillpoint.com or at (530)321-5392