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Verse 5 of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching says: Heaven and earth are impartial; they treat all things as straw dogs. The sage is impartial; treating people as straw dogs.
What are straw dogs? What does this verse mean?
A straw dog was a ceremonial object constructed with great care. It played a short but significant role. Then it was cast aside.
A straw dog is not a real dog. It is representational; it does not bark, wag it's tail or live. Lao Tzu is saying that the universe does not care whether something is real or not, significant or not.
Everything is treated the same.
Those who lack wisdom are
convinced that they are truly awake;
they think they understand what is happening;
they think that the king is really the king,
and the servants are really servants.
The universe treats people like straw dogs. We are born, we grow, we live and then we die. Our lives may be rich and diverse, squalid or tedious. Sooner or later it will come to an end.
'Straw dogs' is a reminder that our life will not last. In the face of death, is there any need for pettiness, argument, callousness and cruelty?
If you accept death, does that change how you live? Nothing that we consider important will last - especially ourselves.
It may seem unfair for people to be born, struggle, grow and live... only to die. But this is the way of things. In the scheme of existence, our birth and our death has no significance.
This cycle of life and death is not the outcome of kindness or malice. It merely reflects the way things are. All that lives must die.
How you treat people
Is the verse suggesting that we treat people callously? Ruthlessly? Some interpretations suggest this.
However, a better approach might be to take the verse literally: we enter into relationships with people, we develop, cultivate and nourish them. And we accept that one day it will end.
Consider: an apathetic person might consider tai chi to be a total waste of time... Why bother learning tai chi? You'll get old anyway. You'll get sick. You'll die.
You could apply this sort of thinking in almost every situation: Why bother to shower? Why fold your clothes? Why should you work? Why learn anything new?
Instead of gaining mastery over your own body, great health and a clear, sharp, calm mind, you could watch the news, talk about politics, form strong opinions and play with technology.
Your body will become increasingly inflexible and your brain will deteriorate.
Many people choose to become 'straw people': no depth, no character, no interests, no insight. All show and nothing inside.
The greater the outward show, the greater the
The reason why you study tai chi is simple: it encourages you to live fully and completely. You embrace and cherish your life; knowing that it may end at any time.
Mortality makes life all the more precious.
Spark of life
In relationships you can aim to do as well as you can for as long as you can. This applies to working in a job, being married or teaching a tai chi class.
You do your best. At some point it will end. But it ends in fullness rather than indifference and apathy.
Once upon a time a worker might have been promised 'a job for life'. This no longer happens. Modern life is uncertain. We have fewer guarantees but more choices.
It is easy to feel adrift and vulnerable.
People cling to things that they cannot possibly hope to exert control over. They want assurances. We receive e-mails from people wanting to know if they will like our tai chi class...
How do we know what they will like? Existence is not tailored to suit the individual. It does not revolve around you. You are simply a straw dog. We all are.
6 April 1998
Last updated 16 June 2023