Daodejing Chapter 41 breakdown: the dim light of the Dao

Richard Brown
3 min readJan 18, 2024

Chapter 41 of the Daodejing makes no effort to sugarcoat the challenges of embracing the Dao even in the face of indifference and mocking laughter from most of the members of the educated elite (士/shì). It is precisely because it takes years of arduous self-cultivation to unravel the mysteries of the Dao that the pursuit of it is worthwhile. If grasping its principles and practices was simply a matter of scanning the text, the Dao would have no value at all.

Section 1
When the highest
Hear of the Dao,
They practice it diligently.
When the average
Hear of the Dao,
They get it one moment,
And miss it the next.
When the lowest
Hear of the Dao,
They laugh at it out loud.
Without that laughter,
It would not be the Dao.

In the opening section, the text notes that only the “highest” or wisest individuals are willing to fully embrace the Dao. Although the “average” ones in the middle are interested in learning about the Dao, they are unwilling to dedicate themselves to studying and practicing its teachings.

As for the “lowest” or most foolish, they go as far as to laugh out loud at any mention of the Dao because they consider its teachings way below their intellectual levels. They are much more interested in more exotic and sophisticated ideas and regard the Dao as far too simplistic for them to waste their precious time on. Or perhaps they secretly feel intimidated by it.

Section 2
An old saying goes:
The light of the Dao
Seems dim.
Advancing in the Dao
Seems like retreating.
The smooth path
Of the Dao
Seems rutted.
The highest power
Seems like a valley.
The purest white
Seems tarnished.
Abundant power
Seems insufficient.
Robust power
Seems fragile.
Pristine power
Seems soiled.
The great square
Has no corners.
The great vessel
Is unfinished.
Great music
Is faint.
The great image
Has no form.
The Dao is hidden
And nameless.
The Dao alone
Gives and completes.

The second half of the chapter makes no attempt to downplay the challenges that seekers of the Dao will encounter during their journey of self-cultivation.

The Dao is not the shining beacon of wisdom that most people would expect to see, but a dark and bumpy path that constantly makes you wonder whether you are moving in the right direction. Its power does not take you to the top of the mountain but to the bottom of the valley. It is so plain and unremarkable and so inadequate and fragile that only the smartest people can begin to see and grasp it.

The passage goes on to highlight the boundless but imperceptible nature of the Dao. “The great square has no corners” because it stretches to infinity. “The great vessel is unfinished” because it is so vast and versatile. “Great music is faint” because it is so exquisite that our ears and brains are incapable of processing it. And “the great image has no form” because our eyes and minds are unable to see it.

Because the Dao works in subtle and often unseen ways, it can be very easy to underestimate or even scoff at the gentle guiding influence it has on shaping the world. The first step to embracing it is to shed your preconceptions and open your heart-and-mind.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.