Terebess Asia Online (TAO)


The Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tzu

Translated by Jim Clatfelder

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Introduction to the Headless Tao

I discovered the Tao Te Ching in the mid-60s. It was the first book of its kind to come my way. Everything about it was right. It valued the simple and the spontaneous. It valued wholeness over opposition and contention. And it valued the mystery within and everywhere. In the mid-70s I discovered another book, On Having No Head by Douglas Harding. This book showed me that where others see my head, I see nothing, the nothing that is the source and destiny of all things. In other words, it showed me the Tao. In 1999 I learned that the Chinese ideograph for Tao is composed of two graphs, one that means go and one that means head. Of course! The Tao is the gone head, gone because it never was here. I can see the Tao right here and now! It’s the bare awareness or presence that I truly am. This called for some exposition, hence my interpretation of Lao Tzu’s classic. The original is terse, and it’s largely in verse. So I set out to make my version similar. It’s the same length as the original, and it’s in rhyme. And it shows the Tao, shows how to see it. Lao Tzu asks that we see the Tao. All else follows from that. Lao Tzu also says that most will reject the Tao, even laugh at it. Are you daring enough to look instead of laugh?


Words and names are not the way
They can't define the absolute
It's better that you look within
Hold your tongue and just be mute

Look within and look out too
You will not find a separation
Out there you see appearance
Within you see origination

Look within with wonder
At emptiness and bliss
For wonder names totality
Where nothing is amiss

The space within is always there
If you can moderate desire
A place of utter emptiness
And possibility entire


Where beautiful and ugly
Do not stand in opposition
Where life and death or yes and no
Do not make a contradiction

Can you see the vacant place
Where good and bad and sad and merry
Disappear forevermore?
Where nothing ever is contrary

So stay within the emptiness
Unless you rise you never fall
Accepting that which comes your way
You are forever all in all


If you love accumulation
Gain and increase every day
Thieves and robbers will be waiting
Just to take it all away

Best to be so empty-headed
That it seems you've lost it all
You will know you're on the way
Though others say you're at a stall


This nothingness is like a well
Always giving, never taking
And all claims to origin
Neither wanting or forsaking

You know it's ever present
You find it where you have no face
It is a wondrous blessing
Original amazing grace


This emptiness is truly void
And infinitely capacious
It holds whatever comes its way
Eternally tenacious

Can you take whatever comes?
Though judgment calls it bad and good
Seeing is acceptance
And nothing to be understood


Complete and full awareness
Is like an open valley
Of endless generation
That doesn't reach finale

It is a simple presence
It's a nothing you can see
You'll find it right at center
Wherever you may be


This presence is unlimited
Because it wasn't ever born
And it will not be perishing
Will never give you cause to mourn

It truly wants for nothing
It has no wishes of its own
It is the one and only
Eternally alone

It holds itself in vacancy
With no desire to advance
Remaining in simplicity
It merely witnesses the dance

The seer will remain behind
And never yearns for leaving home
Just living in the here and now
Prefers to stay unknown


The seer flows like water
Lying low along the way
Nourishing whatever comes
To be held on display

The seer keeps to simple ways
And therefore is content
When joy or sorrow manifests
To give complete assent

If you can clearly be yourself
And never rise to interfere
Everyone will cherish you
And always hold you dear


Don't fill a bowl
Till it's more than full
Or sharpen a blade
Till it must go dull

Don't pile up treasure
That comes at great cost
Approval and riches
Are easily lost

Can you only do
What's really needed
Then stop and withdraw
When your task is completed?


Can you see as a child sees
And keep the simple vision?
See the inner oneness
With absolute precision

Hold all things in your embrace
The entire world is in your care
Let things be just as they are
Extend acceptance everywhere

Let go all need to comprehend
The truth is here where all behold
Their infinite capacity
To welcome and enfold


The empty hub at center
Allows a wheel to roll
The vacancy within defines
The function of a bowl

The openness within a house
Provides location to reside
The open space that is my heart
Is where ten thousand things abide


Too much sound can make you deaf
Too many colors leave you blind
Can you let desire die down
And not leave emptiness behind?

Wanting things can drive you mad
And acquisition makes you poor
See that you are everything
And leave off wanting more


Fame and shame are equal
And so are gain and loss
It isn't very difficult
To get this point across

Having fame you know that you
Are terrified to lose it
Making gain you always fear
That others will abuse it

Can you see that you're not like
Your image or reflection?
Just see you are totality
By looking in your own direction

The one who is not limited
Accepts whatever comes or goes
And cares for everything around
On opening and close


When you look, it isn't there
Listen and you cannot hear it
It seems to be beyond your reach
Because you are so near it

This single source of everything
Appears to be an empty image
Though it cannot be understood
You can see its naked visage

Follow it to nothingness
Approach it where you have no face
From nowhere to infinity
This vacant image leaves no trace

From never to eternity
This naked face is what you are
An empty, vacant, open door
Forevermore ajar


Those of old who knew the way
To origin and source within
Have seen the place where wholeness
And infinity begin

Alert as one on a frozen stream
Or one who watches for the foe
Deferential as a guest
And generous as melting snow

Plain as an uncarved block of wood
Expansive as a vale
Transparent just like water
Whose clarity will never fail

Can you keep yourself so still
That muddy water clears?
And wait until right action
Spontaneously appears?


See that you are emptiness
Always quiet and at peace
You're in the place where all begins
The space where all things cease

All things arise and have their day
And then go back to the single source
Returning to serenity
With no regret and no remorse

When you see the source within
You only give assent
You see you're everlasting
And eternally omnificent


It's best if you are barely known
The lesser state is being praised
Worse is being hated
Just stay empty and amazed

Only do what must be done
And see you are the one alone
When you finish all will say
We did this on our own


Goodness and compliance
Came when people lost the way
Spontaneity declined
Hypocrisy was here to stay


Banish learned discourse
And everyone will be content
Eliminate propriety
Increase astonishment

Stay away from fraud and swindle
Everyone is bound to gain
You really have it all you know
There is no basis to complain

Can you see your empty core?
It isn't missing, gone or hidden
Just let go of neediness
And it will come unbidden


You need not give a yes or no
Such distinctions matter little
Keep your vision open
And be at center noncommittal

See that it's ridiculous
To seek success and fear to fail
To ever want what others want
To think you always must prevail

Other people look so bright
I am dark and void and null
Others are so very sharp
While I alone am dull

Others are so purposeful
Only I don't understand
Aimless, drifting, weak and dumb
Uninteresting and bland

I see I'm different from the rest
For I take in what's plainly shown
And I take my sustenance
Only from the great unknown


Seeming utter emptiness
Quite impossible to trace
Yet it contains all images
Within its wide embrace

Appearing total darkness
Yet you see that it is right
To stay with its obscurity
The only origin of light

This ever present openness
At center and within
Can be seen just anytime
So look and look again


Overcome by giving up
See that you are really nil
Look into your emptiness
If you want to have your fill

Be satisfied with little
Just content with what you need
If you are always wanting more
You surely are consumed by greed

Abide in your simplicity
Though you are not on display
See all things are shining bright
In marvelous array

If you do not boast or brag
Everyone will hold you high
If you do not argue
You will prevail thereby

Only see you are complete
And all things have come to you
Overcome by giving up
All except your inner view


Say your piece and then be still
Like nature in a storm
That rains and blows and ceases
And sees the sun reborn

Open to the inward view
You are at one with all existence
There's nothing blocking up the way
Or putting up resistance

If you're at home with nothingness
And simply trust what comes about
You'll find that all is in its place
Without a question or a doubt


Who stands on tiptoe topples
Who runs ahead soon looses speed
Who goes on show is hidden
Who pushes far gives up the lead

Don't depart from what is given
The ever present here and now
Don't overreach and don't oppose
Invite, admire and allow


Before creation did occur
This blessed emptiness was here
Alone forever and at peace
The source of all that does appear

Eternally unchanging
Forever lacking limit
This void is all potential
The everlasting ultimate

It flows through all existence
And then returns to source
It's ever at your center
Your only true recourse

For here begins the universe
The earth and humankind
Following this greatest way
You can never be defined


The naked center doesn't change
Its quietude is absolute
Yet from it spring all things that move
This bare awareness is the root

Can you go about all day
And never leave your true abode
No matter how enticing are
The splendors of the road?

Don't think that you can run around
And act a perfect fool
Just see that you are at the eye
Of nature's whirlpool


Can you walk and leave no tracks?
Make no errors when you talk?
Count without a tally?
Secure a door without a lock?

You can abandon no one
There's nothing you can leave behind
In you there are no limits
You are forever unconfined

What happens is spontaneous
Good and bad are just the same
In origin identical
Beyond both praise and blame


Know the strong but keep the weak
The whole wide world is born in you
You'll see just what a child sees
A vast and comprehensive view

Know the light but keep the dark
And watch ten thousand things emerge
In you they have their residence
Where space and time converge

Know the high but keep the low
Humility will honor you
Attend to your vacuity
There's nothing else to do

Be like an uncarved block of wood
Don't squander your potential
Or overlook your vacant core
Nothing else is so essential


Do you want to change the world?
You cannot possibly succeed
The given cannot be improved
On this the seers are agreed

At times you find you're out in front
At other times you fall behind

Sometimes you're all commotion
But afterwards you must unwind

When all around is turmoil
Just stay with the serene
You are the quiet center
Of the ever changing scene

Can you see things as they are
And let them be all on their own?
Remain in pure awareness
You never need to stray from home


There is an ancient way to lead
That just allows and does not force
For what goes out will come around
And violence will lead to wars

The one who sees completes a task
And stops when it is done
Seeing all is on its own
And not controlled by anyone

The seer sees that all is well
And does not need to please
Just gives acceptance everywhere
Puts everyone at ease


Weapons lead to violence
Which everyone despises
Avoid them altogether
Allow no compromises

If use of weapons has to be
When enemies just leave no choice
Use them but reluctantly
In victory do not rejoice

Ascendancy brings sorrow
And triumph doesn't carry pleasure
It severs you from wholeness
And robs you of your real treasure

Victory is like a funeral
Where loss of life must make you sad
For putting other people down
Never ought to make you glad


Awareness is not limited
It's like an uncarved block of wood
With infinite potential
Beyond all usefulness for good

If leaders could stay centered
In awareness pure and plain
This world would be as nourishing
As nature's gentle rain

Everyone would be at peace
And always living in the whole
Opposition and division
Could never take their toll


It may be said that you are wise
To see yourself as others do
But you are wiser still to see
From your own central point of view

Then you see you have it all
The riches that are always here
Belong to you completely
Because your vision is so clear


The empty center's everywhere
It flows both left and right
It brings to pass ten thousand things
And yet it never leaves your sight

It welcomes everything around
On nothing does it make a claim
It's in the heart of each and all
This ultimate without a name

Some can see that it is great
And some will say that it's obscure
It is your real identity
Simplicity that will endure


Totality will be with you
If you can see the simple presence
Although there's danger all around
You give complete acceptance

Good music, food and company
Are welcome when you're traveling
The inner truth seems tasteless
Yet it produces everything

You look and you see nothing
You listen and hear silence
Its use is inexhaustible
It's ever worthy of reliance


You cannot be diminished
Unless you've been inflated
You cannot be defeated
Unless you've been elated

You cannot be belittled
Unless you've been esteemed
Unless you're wholly missing
You cannot be redeemed

The soft and slow can overcome
The rigid and the hard and fast
Just see your inner emptiness
For nothing else is made to last


Only see you're doing nothing
Yet not a thing is left undone
For all things happen on their own
In you who are the all in one

If leaders could be centered
All ten thousand things would thrive
By seeing what is natural
All creation comes alive

Everyone would be content
With living simply every day
Desires would be moderate
And peace would be the only way


You needn't search for power
You already have it all
To seek outside your empty core
Is looking for a fall

The seer doesn't do a thing
But sees that all is finished
Foolish people run about
And leave totality diminished

Goodness must be doing
And justice never is complete
Propriety can't satisfy
Obedience is forced defeat

When totality is lost
Goodness comes to take its place
Followed by propriety
Bewilderment and end of grace

The seer sees periphery
But also sees the open core
And thus the seer sees the whole
And dwells therein forevermore


If you stay with clear awareness
The sky is open, pure and spacious
The earth is firm and friendly too
Activity is efficacious

But depart from clarity
The purest sky is torn apart
The earth is so divided
Felicity must flee your heart

The seer knows humility
Doesn't argue or cajole
Doesn't discard anything
Or mutilate the whole

The seer doesn't show at all
Doesn't sparkle like a jewel
The seer's vast immensity
Is truly less than minuscule


All is born of emptiness
Manifests and has its day
Then yields and surrenders
Returns and dies away


When seers see their nothingness
They never let it out of sight
But others see it now and then
And miss out on its true delight

Still others only laugh it off
And look at it with ridicule
It wouldn't be the real truth
If it weren't laughed at by the fool

The brightest way seems darkness
Just going on seems like retreat
The simple way seems difficult
Capacity seems like defeat

Clarity can seem obscure
And love seem not to care
Totality seems not enough
And truth can seem to err

Awareness doesn't have a name
To all appearances is null
Yet it produces everything
And so this empty place is full


Awareness comes from nothingness
So all can see it's plainly one
Contains all opposition
Ten thousand things are now begun

All these things embrace the void
And face the manifest
Achieving thus true harmony
They find existence truly blessed

No one wants to be considered
Empty and alone
Yet that's exactly what the seers
Say they have been shown

And violence is not the way
I give you this instruction
Those who live by violence
Will bring about their own destruction


Overcome by yielding
The weak can overcome the strong
For only absence can provide
The place where everything belongs

And thus it is that I can see
The worthiness of not contending
Yet few will ever comprehend
The potency of bending


Which of these means more to you
Integrity or reputation?
Are gain and loss not equally
Responsible for limitation?

Everything that you possess
Is surely transitory
Just be pleased with emptiness
And witness inner bliss and glory

You know that your are always safe
If only you can be contented
With awareness as capacity
And with all that is presented


Wholeness seems like imperfection
Yet its usefulness is sure
Fullness seems quite empty
But it is certain to endure

True straightness can seem twisted
True wisdom does not seem to know
Great eloquence seems halting
Great darkness seems to be aglow

Can you see that emptiness
Contains all oppositions?
Like hot and cold and fast and slow?
All differences and all conditions?


When the absolute is cherished
Horses graze on the open green
When the absolute is lost
Only steeds of war are seen

No calamity exceeds desire
And always wanting more
Can you not see you have enough
And live in plenitude galore?


No need to go outside a door
To see totality
Or look out of a window
For seeing what will always be

Going out you go astray
At home and center all is one
The seer doesn't have to do
To see that everything is done


In going after learning
Something's added every day
For resting in the ultimate
Everything must drop away

Day by day do less and less
Until nothingness is seen
All occurs quite on its own
A doer need not intervene

Allow all things to run their course
If you want to be proficient
Make a fuss and bother
And existence will be insufficient


The seer doesn't own a thought
For thoughts do not reside within
Thoughts concern ten thousand things
And that's the way it's always been

The seer doesn't rush to judge
And treats all people well
Considers no one bad or good
Attracts but never does repel

The seer trusts things as they are
And takes all people at their word
Giving trust to everyone
Knows faithfulness will be returned

The seer turns your view around
So you can never be beguiled
And gives you back all that you lost
The vision of a little child


Between the time when they are born
And the time that they will die
Three in ten will follow life
Three others only will deny

Three others are so casual
They live as though they're passing through
But one remains who clearly sees
There's not a single thing to do

Can you be like the one who sees
The world emerging on its own?
What's needed for each moment
Arises from the great unknown

This one doesn't have a fear
Of weaponry or wild beast
These enemies can't harm the one
Whose separate self is long deceased


Everything arises
From this total emptiness
Is nourished and completed
And finds creation blessed

All things arise from nothingness
Are cared for by existence
Which freely gives what is required
For bountiful subsistence

Existence does not make a claim
On what it has created
It nourishes and serves and leads
Is honored and appreciated


All things emerge from nullity
The only derivation
Of everything that manifests
The source of all creation

Stay in touch with origin
There's nothing that you need deny
Seeing your totality
You will not fear to die

Do not be in haste to speak
And always guard the senses
You will find your heart at peace
And in the place where all commences

See the subtle and the clear
It is the empty source of light
There is no danger in this place
That is forever in plain sight


This way is wide and easy
Yet people love to stray
They love to take the sidetracks
And wander from the way

When the few are rich and wealthy
Living way above their needs
The granaries are empty
And the fields are full of weeds

When rulers spend on weapons
And implements of war
It's a never ending circle
Of ever wanting more

When the rich have all abundance
What remains must surely dwindle
Having more than you can use
Is thievery and fraud and swindle


Hold fast to this awareness
Seeing that it is your root
It will not ever slip away
This ever present absolute

It cannot be uprooted
It's always held in veneration
Discovered very close at hand
In every generation

Allow its presence in your life
Awareness real and profound
Allow it in the family
Its blessings will abound

And if you care to share it
With neighbor and with friend
Its potency will multiply
With benefits that never end

You ask me how I know it's true
It isn't something I mistook
Well nothing is more obvious
The only thing I do is look


One who sees full emptiness
Is like a child just born
With muscles weak and bones so soft
Yet with a grip that's strong

The newborn hasn't been fulfilled
Its nature is pure vacancy
Nullity and nothingness
And potent spontaneity

It can scream and cry all day
And yet it never does get hoarse
It only does what naturally
Emerges from the inner source

To see this inner nature
Is seeing in a way that's bold
Into the only place there is
That cannot possibly grow old


Those who know don't like to say
Those who say don't know
Close the mouth and guard the senses
You'll see more than what's on show

Untie tangles, dim the glare
Dull the sharp and join the dust
Abide in primal unity
And then do what you must

You cannot hold it or let go
It can't be blamed or praised
In all-embracing oneness
Be astonished and amazed


To truly lead with fairness
You must put aside control
Abandon imposition
Make spontaneity your goal

The more you try to run their lives
With rules and prohibition
The poorer people's lives become
The more they live in opposition

The more you deal with others
With cunning and with guile
The more that other people say
Our lives are not worthwhile

The more you hoard your treasures
The more you're giving hope to thieves
The more you sharpen weapons
The more the country grieves

Do nothing and see all is done
And everyone is true
Drop the rules and people owe
Prosperity to you

Just let go of all desire
And people will return
To natural and simple ways
To life without concern


Let your lead be gentle
And people will be satisfied
Let it be severe and harsh
And be rejected and defied

Happiness may reign today
But who knows what tomorrow holds?
Sadness too will have its time
As all ten thousand things unfold

The seer's sight is sharp and pointed
But it does not cut or pierce
The seer sees and shows the truth
This gentle way is never fierce


To serve and care for others
With restraint and moderation
Stay centered in the here and now
And free of limitation

If you keep returning
To this your central root
You will possess forever
Awareness undilute


It's best to lead a large domain
As you would cook a little fish
Don't poke and prod or you are bound
To spoil the country and the dish

Just stay open and aware
And evil cannot get a hold
Cannot find a home in you
Even evil's not that bold

At center you harm no one
And no one's able to harm you
This kind of reciprocity
Creates the world anew


A great domain is like the sea
Whose power comes from lying low
And due to this humility
Its greatness has to grow

A small domain can lie low too
Acknowledging its low location
Surrender and humility
Give rise to exaltation

If you lie low you too arise
To uppermost position
For everyone's attracted to
One who doesn't fear submission


I'm at the center and the source
Of all ten thousand things
Where I receive the benefits
That pure awareness brings

These benefits belong to all
To good and bad the same
For nature gives you what you need
With no regard for praise or blame

Words and deeds of excellence
May bring you honor and acclaim
But nature values each alike
And is indifferent to fame

When new leaders are installed
Don't send gifts or lofty praise
Stay centered in the unity
Provided by the inward gaze

Why should you esteem the void?
It does away with imperfection
Those who seek are bound to find
It disappears on close inspection


Begin with the easy
And do without doing
There isn't a thing
That you should be pursuing

Begin with the simple
There's no need attacking
Your greatness will lie
In all that you're lacking

Tackle problems when they're small
And still subject to solution
The largest problem is resolved
By simple deeds of diminution

Can you center every day
And see all the seers see
Empty here and brimming there
A marvelous asymmetry?


To keep the peace is easy
Begin before a problem stirs
Handle things before they happen
And trouble before it occurs

Be calm and conquer worries
Before they can proceed
The very largest tree begins
As just a tiny seed

It takes a single step to start
A journey of a thousand miles
And just one brick to start to build
The grandest domiciles

Let things happen as they will
You do not need to interfere
See that you do nothing
That causes discord to appear


Those of old who found the way
Could see their inner core
They saw that it was hidden
And didn't bring it to the fore

When people think they know the truth
They want all others to concur
But they are happy and content
When they remain unsure

Don't try to lead with cleverness
Prefer instead simplicity
It's obvious that truth must lie
In nothingness and clarity


The sea is large and mighty
Because it lies below
The streams and rivers of the world
Thus capturing their flow

If you want to have your fill
Then you must see that you are hollow
If you want to lead the way
Then you must be prepared to follow

When you lead you are above
But no one feels put down
And when you must be out in front
Know that no one's losing ground

When you see that you're not built
For facing up or confrontation
No one can contend with you
Who are the ultimate negation


On seeing inner nothingness
You see it's great beyond compare
Though many find it curious
That you would even care

I have three treasures that I keep
The first is friendliness
The second is to stay behind
The third is wanting less

For if you're friendly and you care
You can dare to do what's needed
And if you always stay behind
The lead will surely be conceded

And if you're satisfied with less
You have everything to give
Keep these treasures in your heart
Then you will truly live


Violence is not the way
The greatest warriors know
That treachery and anger
Will not defeat the foe

You only win if you don't strive
And gain if you do not oppose
This is the certain victory
Simplicity bestows


In conflict just be cautious
And always on your guard
Rather than advance an inch
Instead retreat a yard

In this way you go along
And make your gain without advancing
You deal with the rival
As your position is enhancing

Remember that it's possible
Your rival just may yield
So don't advance on such a foe
Let differences be healed


Embarrassingly obvious
And always near at hand
It is this nothingness you see
But never understand

Though truth within is ageless
Very few will ever see
My face is what I give to you
The jewel within is me


You cannot understand the truth
Claim to know and show you're ill
Just see that you are missing
That truth is bare and nil

Unknowing is the final cure
When knowledge takes its heavy toll
Pure presence is totality
And absence makes you whole


When the sense of wonder goes
Disaster is not far behind
Don't intrude in people's lives
And they won't think you are unkind

The seer sees both this and that
But doesn't ask for praise
Finding this immensity
With just a simple inward gaze


The way is very easy
Its purposes prevail
When all is done in silence
Intention cannot fail

Its net is vast and over all
With meshes large and wide
Yet it loses nothing
Holds everything inside


You truly are what isn't born
You need not be afraid to die
Just live your life and know that you
Will never lose the inner eye

You can't control what is to be
In using tools you don't command
Unlike the master carpenter
You're bound to cut your hand


The people starve when taxes take
The bulk of what they earn
When leaders interfere too much
They get rebellion in return

The people do not fear to die
If leaders rob them of their lives
But taking no more than you need
You see that everybody thrives


We're soft and supple when we're born
Hard and rigid when we die
Living plants are pliable
Deadwood is brittle and dry

This way life befriends the weak
But death draws near the strong
The hard and stiff are bound to break
The supple bends and goes along


Nature's way of doing
Is like the bending of a bow
For pulling on a bow you see
The low go high and the high go low

Nature takes from those who have
And gives to those who lack
When nature takes from human beings
They fight to get it back

But if you see you have it all
You're not afraid to give away
Expecting nothing in return
It all comes back with no delay


Water is so very soft
It overcomes because it yields
By wearing down the hardest rock
It shows what power weakness wields

The weak can overcome the strong
The soft can overcome the hard
Everybody knows it's true
So hold the low in high regard

The seer sees serenity
Where others see affliction
The seer sees the inner truth
Where others only see a fiction


There's little good in making peace
If resentment lingers
You'll never see an end to blame
If everyone is pointing fingers

It's better to be pointing
At the peaceful and creative place
Where you see naught but emptiness
And others say they see your face


If a land is small and the people few
And the rulers recognize what's needed
The simple ways of courtesy
Are happily and gladly heeded

For people need so little
To live their lives aright
Are food and home and clothing
Not enough for pure delight?

Though nearby lands are close enough
To hear their roosters crow
The people will be so content
That not a one will want to go


Truth need not be eloquent
And eloquence may not be true
There is no need to argue
When truth is shining through

Those who see may not be learned
The learned may not see
To see you merely need to look
In pure simplicity

The seer doesn't have to hoard
And does not fear to lose
The more you give, the more you have
So why should you refuse?

Why not give it all away?
For emptiness brings benefit
And as the seers always say
The more you give, the more you get