A sculpture of a dog made of straw

Tao Te Ching, ch 5: let slip the straw dogs

Published   Updated

Last post, I talked about fulfilling emptiness. This post, I’m going to talk about straw dogs, and why we should treat people the same way.

Heaven and earth do not operate with any sort of benevolence;
they deal with all things as straw dogs.
The sages do not operate with any sort of benevolence;
they deal with the people as straw dogs.

Perhaps the space between heaven and earth could be compared to a bellows?

Emptying the bellows does not exhaust its use;
moving the bellows again will blow forth more air.
But speaking too much can quickly lead to exhaustion;
guard your energy to keep it free for more useful things.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 5 (trans. Legge / Davis )

Addressing the straw dog in the room

… y-yes?

This is a great example of why I read multiple translations. Legge refers to them as “dogs of grass” which is befuddling. LeGuin (and most others) refer to them as “straw dogs” or “strawdogs.” But some, like Mitchell, omit the idea all together. It’s a ~choice~ to be sure, but I think it’s justifiable in a sense. To explain that, I need to tell you what straw dogs are.

Straw dogs are bunches of straw (dried grass), twisted and formed into a dog-shaped figure. Some sources that I’ve seen on Google make it sound like it’s a small, hand-held figure. Others appear to be life-size, or maybe even enormous. Maybe there’s a variety of ways they’ve been made over the centuries, too.

What they are aside, the why is what makes it relevant: they’re made for ceremonies, celebrations, and festivals. The straw dogs are placed on altars and dressed up, and after the ceremony, they are discarded or even scattered to pieces.

But, surely Lao Tzu isn’t saying “make people feel special then thrown them away when you don’t need them”! A popular way to read this line is that the treatment of the straw dog isn’t based on any affection or despise. In other words, the egg shells in the trash can aren’t there because you hate them; they’re there because that’s where they go.

And this is why I can see where Mitchell is coming from: without the cultural knowledge of a straw dog, it’s hard to translate the sentence without digressing into a, well, a commentary like this. Still, I am unsure if Mitchell’s translation adequately captures the meaning with that omission. Turns out translating an old text from a different culture is pretty tough!

A practical guide to people

It’s no secret to say that people enjoy affection and kindness, and dislike anger and sadness. And, we already know that although affection and kindness are nice, they aren’t universally applicable. There are times where it is obviously inappropriate, but it can also be in a nuanced situation where you’re needing to set some important boundaries with a friend. So, how do you decide what to do the next time your friend comes around and starts talking about a traumatic experience of theirs that’s triggering for you?

Well, honestly, it’s hard to say because it depends on the specific context: does the friend need support right now? If so, it might make sense to accept the pain to try and help. The point is that we can’t hypothesize the exact conditions of every possible situation to answer what the correct action is, but what we can do is develop a useful way to think about these situations. So, a tool to use to find the right answer.

And that is to treat people like straw dogs: do not treat people according to your feelings about them, treat them according to what is appropriate in that moment. (Note: you are among the people you need to consider your actions towards!) Don’t lavish someone in praise because you like them, lavish them in praise because they did something praiseworthy. Don’t chase a fascist out of the bar because they make you angry, do it because they pose a material threat to vulnerable groups. And don’t use someone’s honest mistake to justify punishing them because you harbor a grudge.

Truth be told, there’s a decent chance that this won’t fundamentally change the the majority of decisions you make. You’re smart, you think about things beyond feelings. Even when we’re making emotional decisions, we still think about other stuff.

While the decisions you make may be similar, what happens following the decision will be different. For example: dispassionately giving your annoying coworker constructive, thoughtful, and kindly worded feedback; instead of the by-the-book, cold, corporatespeak. I don’t know about you, but those taste different in my mouth.

Of course, some times anger and perhaps even physical interventions are necessary. The Tao Te Ching doesn’t shy away from those, either. But it’s important to make those decisions with a clear mind, instead of in a moment of passion.

Yeah, but what if it was like a bellows?


We’re in that space between heaven and earth. And we see life around us in a perpetual state of simultaneous decay and renewal, and death begets more life. These bellows can just keep on going, possibly forever. Straw dogs or not, there’s an incredible number of people around you; and people constantly change and grow. Those bellows keep on churning.

But also shush

With these commentaries, I’m not taking this advice. Thinking about and talking about the Tao are ultimately distractions from the Tao. There’s really not much to be said, because it’s about a way to live and act. However, talking and thinking about a new idea are integral to the process of understanding it. Even more important to that process is knowing when it’s time to let go of thinking and talking.

Right now, we’re learning and reflecting. Some words and thinking are necessary. But we can’t hold onto them forever.

1 thought on “Tao Te Ching, ch 5: let slip the straw dogs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.