Doing Nothing to Live

“The reason people are hungry
is that those above levy so many taxes
this is why they are hungry
the reason people are hard to rule
is that those above are so forceful
this is why they are hard to rule
the reason people think little of death
is that those above think so much of life
this is why they think little of death
meanwhile those who do nothing to live
are more esteemed than those who love life”

(Taoteching, verse 75, translation by Red Pine)

DUKE AI approached YU JUO: “The year is one of famine, and my revenues are wanting. What am I to do?” Yu Juo replied, “Return to the 10 percent rate of taxation.” Duke Ai said, “But I cannot get by on 20 percent. How will I survive on 10 percent?” Yu Juo replied, “When the people don’t want, why should the ruler want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” (Lunyu: 12.9).

WANG PI says, “The people hide and disorder prevails because of those above, not because of those below. The people follow those above.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If those above take too much, those below will be impoverished. If those above use too much force, those below will rebel. This is a matter of course. When people think their own life is more important, and they disregard the lives of others, why should others not treat death lightly? Sages don’t think about life unless they are forced to.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Robbers and thieves arise from hunger and cold. If people are hungry and have no means to live, they have no choice but to steal. When people steal, it’s because those above force them. They force people to turn to stealing and then try to rule with cleverness and laws. But the more laws they make, the more thieves appear. Even the threat of the executioner’s ax doesn’t frighten them. And the reason people aren’t frightened by death is that those above are so concerned with life.”

SU CH’E says, “When those above use force to lead the people, the people respond with force. Thus do complications multiply and the people become hard to rule.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Forceful’ refers to the ruler’s love of might and arms. But once arms prevail, disorder is certain.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The reason people cannot live out their allotted years and are sentenced to death in midlife is that they think so much of life. Meanwhile, those who do nothing to stay alive are able to lengthen their lives” (Huainantzu: 7).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Only those who do nothing to stay alive, who aren’t moved by titles or sinecures, who aren’t affected by wealth or advantages, who refuse to serve the emperor or run errands for lesser lords – they alone are more esteemed than those who love life.”

YEN TSUN says, “The Natural Way always turns things upside down. What has no body lives. What has a body dies. To be alive and to seek advantages is the beginning of death. Not to be alive and to get rid of advantages is the beginning of life. Those who don’t work to live live long.”

WANG TAO says, “The meaning of the last two lines is: If I didn’t have this body of mine, what worries would I have?”

WANG P’ANG says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

Every time I come to today’s verse I find myself thinking to myself, this is just common sense. It is self-evident, really. But, as I am often fond of saying, “Common sense isn’t all that common.” What seems self-evident to me, seems to evade many others. So, in the interest of enlightenment, let’s just take Lao-tzu’s points one by one; for, as Wang P’ang says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

Why are people hungry? It is because those above them levy too many taxes on them. Why are people hard to rule? It is because those above them rely too much on force.
Why do people think so little of death? It is because those above think so much of life.

Lao-tzu is emphatic about this, repeating the reason twice in each case. The people are forced by those above them to act the way they do. They are hungry, so they steal. Those above have robbed them of “legitimate” means for their livelihood. The more force is applied from above, the more the people slip through their fingers. I don’t know whether Duke Ai ended up following Yu Juo’s sage advice. Why are those above so concerned about their own lives when the people below them are suffering? That only increases their suffering. So, the people think less and less of death, because their lives have no meaning beyond toil, and for what? If those above stopped being so concerned with their own lives, they would be more esteemed than those who love their lives.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

DUKE AI (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Lu and interlocutor of Lunyu: 12.9.

YU JUO (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Disciple of Confucius known for his resemblance to the sage as well as for his love of antiquity. After Confucius’ death, many of his disciples wanted to render to Yu Juo the same observances they had conferred on Confucius. But this was opposed by Tseng-tzu.

Punishment Is Not the Answer

“If people no longer fear death
what good is threatening to kill them
if people truly fear death
and some act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else would dare
as long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner’s place
is to cut in the carpenter’s place
those who cut in the carpenter’s place
seldom escape with hands intact”

(Taoteching, verse 74, translation by Red Pine)

YIN WEN says, “Lao-tzu asks, if people are not afraid to die what good is threatening to kill them? If people are not afraid to die, it is because punishments are excessive. When punishments are excessive, people don’t care about life. When they don’t care about life, the ruler’s might means nothing to them. When punishments are moderate, people are afraid to die. They are afraid to die because they enjoy life. When you know they enjoy life, then you can threaten them with death” (Yinwen: 2).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “This implies that punishments cannot be relied upon for governing. If people are not afraid of death, what use is threatening them with execution? And if they are afraid of death, and we catch someone who breaks the law, and we execute them, by killing one person we should be able to govern the rest. But the more people we kill, the more people break the law. Thus, punishment is not the answer.”

MING T’AI-TSU says, “When I first ascended the throne, the people were unruly and officials corrupt. If ten people were executed in the morning, a hundred were breaking the same law by evening. Being ignorant of the Way of the ancient sage kings, I turned to the Taoteching. When I read, ‘If people no longer fear death / what good is threatening to kill them,’ I decided to do away with capital punishment and put criminals to work instead. In the year since then, the burdens of my heart have been lightened. Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Perverse’ means ‘unlawful.’ If those who act perverse and break the law do not meet with misfortune at the hands of Humankind, they will certainly be punished by Heaven.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If rulers teach according to the Tao and people respond with perversion instead, rulers are within their rights to arrest them and kill them. Lao-tzu, however, was concerned that rulers should use the Tao first before turning to punishment.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The meaning of ‘the executioner will exist’ is the same as ‘the Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes’ [verse 73]. The executioner is Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Heaven is the executioner. If the world is at peace and people engage in perversity and rebellion, then surely they have been abandoned by Heaven. If we kill them, it is Heaven who kills them and not us. But if we kill those whom Heaven has not abandoned, we take the executioner’s place. And anyone who takes the executioner’s place puts themselves within reach of his ax.”

THE LUSHIH CHUNCHIU says, “A great carpenter does not cut” (1.4).

MENCIUS says, “The wise are not alone in desiring something greater than life and hating something greater than death. This is true of everyone. But the wise don’t forget it” (Mencius: 6A.10).

Last week, our verses were on what happens when people no longer fear authority; and Lao-tzu put the blame squarely on the shoulders of our rulers when people no longer fear authority. In today’s verse, Rulers are still having difficulty with controlling the people. Why? Because they are still trying to control them. Lao-tzu teaches rulers to stop trying to control, and simply trust the Tao. When people act “perverse,” in other words, when they don’t act according to the way their rulers would have them to, rulers are told to not take the place of the executioner. The executioner, here, is the same as Heaven’s Net in the previous verse. As long as people fear death, that executioner will exist. But, when rulers try to take the executioner’s place, making the lives of the people miserable, the people will welcome, rather than fear, death,

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and author of a book of discourses that bears his name.

MING T’AI-TSU (1328-1398). Grew up in a family of destitute farmers, became a Buddhist monk, joined the rebellion against the Mongols (who had occupied the throne since 1278), and founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). His commentary, which he wrote without the help of tutors, was completed in 1374.

LUSHIH CHUNCHIU (THE SPRING AND AUTUMN ANNALS OF MR. LU). Commissioned by Lu Pei-wei (d. 235 B.C.), this was probably the first Chinese text written with a unified plan. It purported to contain all that anyone needed to know of the world and was Taoist in conception. Not to be confused with The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yen or with The Spring and Autumn Annals written in the state of Lu and attributed to Confucius.

To Act or Not to Act

“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
one benefits
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”

(Taoteching, verse 73, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path’” (Chungyung: 9).

SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanism whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathom. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”

YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the hard and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu warned of the dire consequences when rulers interfere with the rule of nature. It means death. He couldn’t have made it anymore plain in today’s verse. “Daring to act means death / daring not to act means life.” Why, then do we dare to act? Why? Because we fail to understand the Way of Heaven. As Lao-tzu says it in today’s verse, “What Heaven dislikes / who knows the reason?” We don’t know. From the greatest of us to the least. But, we certainly believe we can know an injustice when we see one. And, since Heaven seems slow to respond, indeed Heaven may never respond if we don’t do something now, those who dare not to act are derided as heartless. What I wish all people could see is that help we intend only results in harm. Of course, you don’t mean to harm. You only want to help. But, while I do understand that Heaven seems slow sometimes, we all simply need to believe this: The Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes. That was something Martin Luther King Jr. echoed when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Now, some may argue that King dared to act; and we, then, should dare to act, as well. But, what was King acting against, but a system put in place which was antithetical to the rule of nature? Still, I don’t think I need to remind anyone that King’s life was cut short. Why? Because he dared to act. And powerful people didn’t like it.

So it is that Su Ch’e provides some balance, though I do flinch when he ascribes the mystery of the rule of nature to fortune. “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?

It’s a mystery. But, I think Wang an-Shih is right when he says, “Yin and yang take turns.”

The Fault Lies With Our Rulers

“When people no longer fear authority
a greater authority will appear
don’t restrict where people dwell
don’t repress how people live
if they aren’t repressed
they won’t protest
sages therefore know themselves
but don’t reveal themselves
they love themselves
but don’t exalt themselves
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 72, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “The authority we fear is what shortens years and takes lives. The ‘greater authority’ is our greater fear, namely death. When people no longer fear what they ought to fear, they advance their own death until the greater fear finally appears.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When people are simple and their lives are good, they fear authority. But when those above lose the Way and enact all sorts of measures to restrict the livelihood of those below, people respond with deceit and are no longer subdued by authority. When this happens, natural calamities occur and misfortunes arise.”

WANG CHEN says, “When ordinary officials and the common people have no fear, punishment occurs. When ministers and high officials have no fear, banishment occurs. When princes and kings have no fear, warfare occurs.”

WEI YUAN says, “‘Where people dwell’ refers to conditions such as wealth and poverty. ‘How people live’ refers to physical activities, such as toil and rest. When people think that their dwellings or lives are not as good as others’, they feel embarrassed and thus restricted, restricted and thus repressed. And when they feel repressed, they protest against ‘this’ and seek ‘that,’ not knowing that once their desire is fulfilled, what they fear comes close behind.”

WANG PI says, “In tranquility and peace is where we should dwell. Humble and empty is how we should live. But when we forsake tranquility to pursue desires and abandon humility for authority, creatures are disturbed, and people are distressed. When authority cannot restore order, and people cannot endure authority, the link between those above and those below is severed, and natural calamities occur.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “They know what they have and what they don’t have. They don’t display their virtue outside but keep it hidden inside. They love their body and protect their essence and breath. They don’t exalt or glorify themselves before the world. ‘That’ refers to showing and glorifying themselves. ‘This’ refers to knowing and loving themselves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘That’ refers to external things. ‘This’ refers to one’s inner reality.”

And RED PINE adds, “Authority refers to a power outside us. Sages aren’t concerned with acquiring or exercising such a power. The power of sages arises naturally from the cultivation of themselves.”

Red Pine also notes that Lao-tzu begins this verse with two puns. In the first one, the characters for ‘fear’ and ‘authority’ are homophones. In other words, read aloud, it would sound like “When people no longer fear fear / a greater fear will appear. That is clever. And, just as true, by the way. Not fearing fear will result in a greater fear. In the second one, the same character is used for both ‘repress’ and ‘protest.’ In other words, “If people weren’t repressed, they wouldn’t be repressed.” So, they wouldn’t have any reason to protest. For, let’s be clear here, the fault doesn’t lie with the people, when they no longer fear authority. It lies with their rulers. Lao-tzu is admonishing rulers not to restrict or repress the people. There are going to be consequences. And, they will be dire.

Transcendence or Affliction?

“To understand yet not understand
is transcendence
not to understand yet understand
is affliction
the reason sages aren’t afflicted
is because they treat affliction as affliction
hence they aren’t afflicted”

(Taoteching, verse 71, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “Shall I teach you about understanding? To treat understanding as understanding and to treat not-understanding as not-understanding, this is understanding” (Lunyu: 2.17).

TE-CH’ING says, “The ancients said that the word understanding was the door to all mysteries as well as the door to all misfortune. If you realize that you don’t understand, you eliminate false understanding. This is the door to all mysteries. If you cling to understanding while trying to discover what you don’t understand, you increase the obstacles to understanding. This is the door to all misfortune.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who understand yet seem not to understand are the wisest of people. They protect their understanding with stupidity. Those who don’t understand yet think they understand are, in fact, the stupidest of people. They think blind eyes see and deaf ears hear. This is what is meant by ‘affliction.’”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If people understand, but out of humility they say they don’t, then reality is superior to name. Hence, we call it transcendence. If people don’t understand but say they do, then name surpasses reality. Hence, we call this affliction. Those who are able to understand that affliction is affliction are never afflicted.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao is not something that can be reached through reasoning. Hence, it cannot be understood. Those who do not yet understand do not understand that there is no entrance. And if they do understand, and then they think about their understanding, they become afflicted by understanding.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Anything that is understood is a delusion. Anything that is a delusion is an affliction. Understanding is not the affliction. It is the understanding of understanding that becomes the affliction. To understand what is the affliction is to cure the illness without medicine.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Understanding depends on things. Hence, it involves fabrication. Not understanding returns to the origin. Hence, it approaches the truth. Those who can understand that not understanding approaches the truth and that understanding involves fabrication and vainly increase their understanding, they use the affliction as the medicine. Only by understanding that understanding is affliction can one be free of affliction. This is why sages are not afflicted.

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To understand the Tao yet to say that we don’t is the transcendence of virtue. Not to understand the Tao and to say that we do is the affliction of virtue. Lesser people don’t understand the meaning of the Tao and vainly act according to their forced understanding and thereby harm their spirit and shorten their years. Sages don’t suffer the affliction of forced understanding because they are pained by the affliction of others.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Thus do Zen masters ask their students to show them their original face, their face before they were born.”

Say what? Thankfully, the various commentators above, helped me immensely.

To understand, yet act as if you don’t understand versus thinking you understand, when you don’t understand. This is the difference between transcendence and affliction. When you try to force things, affliction is sure to follow. But, to understand affliction, and treat it accordingly, is to be free of affliction.

Easy to Understand, Easy to Practice

“My words are easy to understand
and easy to practice
but no one understands them
or puts them into practice
words have an ancestor
deeds have a master
the reason I’m not understood
it’s me who isn’t understood
but because so few understand me
thus am I esteemed
sages therefore wear coarse cloth
and keep their jade concealed”

(Taoteching, verse 70, translation by Red Pine)

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Nothing is simpler or easier than the Tao. But because it’s so simple, it can’t be explained by reasoning. Hence, no one can understand it. And because it’s so near, it can’t be reached by stages. Hence, no one can put it into practice.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Because sages teach us to be in harmony with the course of our lives, their words are simple, and their deeds are ordinary. Those who look within themselves understand. Those who follow their own nature do what is right. Difficulties arise when we turn away from the trunk and look among the branches.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Tao is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. It is also hard to understand and hard to put into practice. It is easy because there is no Tao to discuss, no knowledge to learn, no effort to make, no deeds to perform. And it is hard because the Tao cannot be discussed, because all words are wrong, because it cannot be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray. Effortless stillness is not necessarily right, and action-less activity is not necessarily wrong. This is why it is hard.”

SU CH’E says, “Words can trap the Tao, and deeds can reveal its signs. But if the Tao could be found in words, we would have only to listen to words. And if it could be seen in deeds, we would only have to examine deeds. But it cannot be found in words or seen in deeds. Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find it.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The ancestor unites the clan. The master governs the state. Softness and humility are the ancestor of all words and the master of all deeds.”

YEN TSUN says, “Wild geese fly for days but don’t know what exists beyond the sky. Officials and scholars work for years, but none of them knows the extent of the Way. It’s beyond the ken and beyond the reach of narrow-minded, one-sided people.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The reason the Tao is esteemed by the world is because it cannot be known or perceived. If it could be known or perceived, why should it be esteemed? Hence, Lao-tzu is esteemed because so few understand him. Thus, sages wear an embarrassed, foolish expression and seldom show anyone their great and noble virtue.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason people don’t understand me is because my virtue is dark and not visible from the outside.”

CONFUCIUS says, “I study what is below and understand what is above. Who knows me? Only Heaven” (Lunyu: 14.37).

WANG PI says, “To wear coarse cloth is to become one with what is ordinary. To keep one’s jade concealed is to treasure the truth. Sages are difficult to know because they do not differ from ordinary people and because they do not reveal their treasure of jade.”

And RED PINE adds, “Words and deeds can be falsified, but not understanding and practice….As with geodes, jade is found inside ordinary looking rocks. Officials once wore it on their hats as an emblem of their status, and alchemists often included it in their elixirs.”

This information about jade being found inside ordinary looking rocks certainly helps me to better understand the metaphor Lao-tzu is using. The treasure is hidden inside. Outside, appearances deceive.

To Have No Enemy?

“In warfare there is a saying
rather than a host
better to be a guest
rather than advance an inch
better to retreat a foot
this means to form no ranks
to put on no armor
to brandish no weapons
to repulse no enemy
no fate is worse than to have no enemy
to have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure
thus when opponents are evenly matched
the remorseful one prevails”

(Taoteching, verse 69, translation by Red Pine)

WANG CHEN says, “In warfare, we say the one who mobilizes first is the host and the one who responds is the guest. Sages only go to war when they have no choice. Hence, they are the guest.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “This was a saying of ancient military strategists.” If so, they remain unnamed. Sun-tzu, meanwhile, calls the invading force the k’o (guest) (Suntzu Pingfu: 2.20).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “According to the Tao of warfare, we should avoid being the first to mobilize troops, and we should go to war only after receiving Heaven’s blessing.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The host resists, and the guest agrees. The host toils, and the guest relaxes. One advances with pride, while the other retreats in humility. One advances with action, while the other retreats in quiet. Those who meet resistance with agreement, toil with relaxation, pride with humility, and action with stillness have no enemy. Wherever they go, they conquer.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In warfare, sages leave no tracks. They advance by retreating.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who go to war form themselves into ranks, equip themselves with weapons, and advance against the enemy. But when sages go to war, they act as if there were no ranks, there were no armor, there were no weapons, and as if there were no enemies.”

SUN-TZU says, “Generals who advance with no thought of fame, who retreat with no fear of punishment, who think only of protecting their country and helping their king are the treasure of the realm” (Suntzu Pingfa: 10.24).

SU CH’E says, “Sages regard compassion as their treasure. To treat killing lightly would be to lose the reason for compassion.”

TE CH’ING says, “When opponents are evenly matched and neither is superior, the winner is hard to determine. But whichever one is remorseful and compassionate will win. For the Way of Heaven is to love life and to help those who are compassionate to overcome their enemies.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are remorseful sympathize with their opponents. They try not to gain an advantage but to avoid injury. Hence, they always win.”

WANG P’ANG says, “To be remorseful is to be compassionate. Those who are compassionate are able to be courageous. Thus, they triumph.”

LIN HSI-YI says, “Those who attack with drums and cheer the advent of war are not remorseful. They are remorseful who do not consider warfare a pleasure but an occasion for mourning. In this verse, warfare is only a metaphor for the Tao.”

LAO-TZU says, “When you kill another / honor him with your tears / when the battle is won / treat it as a wake” (Taoteching: 31).

And RED PINE explains the troubling lines 10 and 11 “no fate is worse than to have no enemy / to have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure” by saying, “The import…would seem to be that without an enemy, we would have no recipient of our compassion and thus no reason to practice it.”

I was surprised and troubled upon reading lines 10 and 11 of Red Pine’s translation of today’s verse for the first time. And, even subsequent times. I am much more familiar with the standard editions of this verse (treat enemies lightly); as it is used in both Stephen Mitchell’s and Robert Brookes’ translations. But, I think my own prejudices, in favor of not wanting any enemies, made me think Lao-tzu would agree with me that having an enemy is the greatest of misfortunes. Red Pine’s translation may grow on me, in time. I admit to still experiencing a bit of a shock every time I read through the verse, though. Perhaps, it is a good dose of reality for me. Having no enemy might seem preferable, but the importance of practicing compassion should not be underestimated. If we had no enemy, who would there be upon whom to practice compassion? And, that is definitely the meaning of the last line of the verse. “Remorseful” means the one showing compassion.

The Virtue of Nonaggression

“In ancient times
the perfect officer wasn’t armed
the perfect warrior wasn’t angry
the perfect victor wasn’t hostile
the perfect commander acted humble
this is the virtue of nonaggression
this is using the strength of others
this is uniting with Heaven
which was the ancient end”

(Taoteching, verse 68, translation by Red Pine)

CHIAO HUNG says, “In ancient times, officers went into battle in chariots. They were dressed in mail, and there were three to a vehicle: one on the left armed with a bow, one on the right armed with a spear, and one in the middle in charge of the reins, the flag, and the drum. Below and arrayed around every chariot were seventy-two foot soldiers.”

SUN-TZU says, “A ruler must not mobilize his armies in anger. A general must not engage the enemy in wrath. Anger can turn to joy, and wrath can turn to gladness. But once a state is destroyed, it cannot be restored. And once a person is dead, he cannot be reborn” (Suntzu Pingfa: 12.18-21). Sun-tzu also says, “To win every battle is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence is to conquer without fighting” (3.2).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who honor the Way and Virtue are not fond of weapons. They keep hatred from their hearts. They eliminate disaster before it arises. They are angered by nothing. They use kindness among neighbors and virtue among strangers. They conquer their enemies without fighting and command through humility.”

LIEH-TZU says, “Those who govern others with worthiness never win them over. Those who serve others with worthiness never fail to gain their support.” (Liehtzu: 6.3).

WANG CHEN says, “You must first win others’ hearts before you can command them.”

KUMARAJIVA says,, “Empty your body and mind. No one can fight against nothing.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Even though our wisdom and power might surpass that of others, we should act as if we possessed neither. By making ourselves lower than others, we can use their wisdom and power as our own. Thus, we can win without taking up arms, without getting angry, and without making enemies. By using the virtue of nonaggression and the power of others, we are like Heaven, which overcomes without fighting and which reaches its goal without moving.”

TZU-SSU says, “Wide and deep, they are able to support others. High and bright, they are able to protect others. Those who are wide and deep unite with earth. Those who are high and bright unite with Heaven.” (Chungyung: 26.4-5).

TE-CH’ING says, “Heaven is yang and Earth is yin. But if Heaven and Earth remain stationary, everything stops, and nothing comes into existence. Only when yang descends and yin rises does everything flourish. Thus, Heaven’s position is to be above, but its function is to descend. When sages are above the people, and their hearts are below, we call this uniting with Heaven. This was the polestar of ancient rulers.”

Armed, angry and hostile, I can’t think of a more perfect portent of disaster to follow.

And, it is also an apt description of the police state many of us believe we are living in today. When I read Lao-tzu’s description of ancient times, of the perfect officer not being armed, well, it immediately evoked comparison with our own police officers, armed with the latest military-grade weaponry. When I see repeated instances of officers pulling people over for routine traffic violations, and within seconds discharging their weapon in, what at least appeared to be, a total disregard for the innocents within the same vehicle, it has me pining for those ancient times, where they acted humble, where the virtue of nonaggression was practiced.

Okay, I must admit, I have some serious doubts that this “ancient time” of which Lao-tzu refers isn’t mythological. It didn’t take place, actually; but it sure made for great story-telling. And, we should, in spite of its lack of authenticity, aspire to it. Then again, there had to be something to venerate, to initiate the veneration of their ancestors. That would be using the strength of others, wouldn’t it?

Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:

TZU-SSU (D. 483 B.C.). Grandson of Confucius and author of the Chungyung.

Great But Useless

“The world calls me great
great but useless
it’s because I am great I am useless
if I were of use
I would have remained small
but I possess three treasures
I treasure and uphold
first is compassion
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel
because I’m compassionate
I can be valiant
because I’m austere
I can be extravagant
because I’m reluctant to excel
I can be chief of all tools
if I renounced compassion for valor
austerity for extravagance
humility for superiority
I would die
but compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack
what Heaven creates
let compassion protect”

(Taoteching, verse 67, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu says the world calls his virtue ‘great.’ But if his virtue were great in name alone, it would bring him harm. Hence, he acts foolish and useless. He doesn’t distinguish or differentiate. Nor does he demean others or glorify himself.”

WANG PI says, “To be useful is to lose the means to be great.”

SU CH’E says, “The world honors daring, exalts ostentation, and emphasizes progress. What the sage treasures is patience, frugality, and humility, all of which the world considers useless.”

TE-CH’ING says, “‘Compassion’ means to embrace all creatures without reservation. ‘Austerity’ means not to exhaust what one already has. ‘Reluctance to excel’ means to drift through the world without opposing others.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Through compassion, we learn to be soft. When we are soft, we can overcome the hardest thing in the world. Thus, we can be valiant. Through austerity, we learn when to stop. When we know when to stop, we are always content. Thus, we can be extravagant. Through reluctance to excel, we are surpassed by no one. Thus, we can be chief of all tools. Valor, extravagance, and excellence are what everyone worries about. And because they worry, they are always on the verge of death.”

LIU SHIH-P’EI says, “To be chief of all tools means to be the chief official.” (For “chief of all tools,” see verse 28.)

CONFUCIUS says, “The gentleman is not a tool” (Lunyu: 2.12).

WU CH’ENG says, “Compassion is the chief of the three treasures. The last section only mentions compassion because it includes the other two. All people love a compassionate person as they do their own parents. How could anyone oppose their parents? Hence, those who attack or defend with compassion meet no opposition.”

MENCIUS says, “Those who are kind have no enemy under Heaven” (Mencius: 7B.3).

And RED PINE concludes, “To be a tool means to be limited. To have no limits means to be chief of all tools. Among compassion, austerity, and reluctance to excel, only compassion has no limits.”

What does it mean to be compassionate? It is greatness, but a greatness that is tied to uselessness. I will explain that a little further in just a bit, but first…

I apologize that I am writing this about two and a half weeks before it will post, because what I have to say about current affairs may no longer be in the news by the time this posts. As I am writing this, the whole nation is in an uproar because those mean, compassion-less Republicans are trying to gut Medicaid as they attempt to undo Obamacare.

I got notification today, on Facebook, of a link that two of my friends posted decrying this great injustice. One was by a “progressive” friend who posted it without comment. Apparently, she thought the article said everything that needed to be said. The other friend was Will Porter, one of my “libertarian” friends. I have posted articles by Will on Tumblr before. Will, had plenty to say. And, while I won’t quote him, he was spot on. Suffice it to say, my progressive friends think that the expansion of medicaid equals compassion. And anyone who disagrees with them? Well, they lack compassion. George W. Bush (remember him?) labeled himself a “compassionate” conservative, while expanding medicare to include prescription drug coverage. Get that? He wasn’t your ordinary everyday garden-variety of conservative, for he was compassionate.

So, you see, this does have a bit to do with our verse today. What does it mean to be compassionate? Is it what you do for others? Is it doing something? I immediately thought of a quote from, I believe Harry Browne, which I will paraphrase with apologies if Harry Browne’s quote is nothing like what I am saying. “The government likes to break your legs and then offer you ‘free’ crutches, and they call that compassion.”

Folks, that isn’t compassion. And, it certainly doesn’t jive with Lao-tzu’s definition of compassion, either. Lao-tzu’s compassion values uselessness over usefulness. And, he calls it great. To be useful is to be small. Compassion, the great kind, is tied to austerity and reluctance to excel. It is patient and humble. It doesn’t strive to be valiant, to do something great.

My “progressive” friends will no doubt balk at this. How could I be so heartless!?! But, it is because I really do care (that is some of what Will Porter said in response to the article) that I don’t dare act. It means the difference between being merely a “tool” and being the “chief of all tools.” That is something I want to master.

Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:

LIU SHIH-P’EI (1884-1940). Adds to the work of Wang Nien-sun and others in locating ancient usages of the Taoteching.

Because They Don’t Struggle

“The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers
is because it has mastered being lower
thus it can govern a hundred rivers
hence if sages would be above the people
they should speak as if they were below them
if they would be in front
they should act as if they were behind them
thus when sages are above
the people aren’t burdened
when they are in front
the people aren’t obstructed
the world never wearies
of pushing sages forward
and because they don’t struggle
no one can struggle against them”

(Taoteching, verse 66, translation by Red Pine)

YEN TSUN says, “Rivers don’t flow toward the sea because of its reputation or its power but because it does nothing and seeks nothing.”

TE-CH’ING says, “All rivers flow toward the sea, regardless of whether they are muddy or clear. And the sea is able to contain them all because it is adept at staying below them. This is a metaphor for sages, to which the world turns because they are selfless.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “When sages possess the kingdom, they speak of themselves as ‘orphaned, widowed, and impoverished’ or inheritor of the country’s shame and misfortune.” Thus, in their speech, they place themselves below others. They do not act unless they are forced. They do not respond unless they are pushed. They do not rise unless they have no choice. Thus, in their actions, they place themselves behind others.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages rule over the people, they don’t oppress those below with their position. Thus, the people uphold them and don’t think of them as a burden. When sages stand before them, they don’t blind them with their glory. Thus, the people love them as parents and harbor no resentment. Sages are kind and loving and treat the people as if they were their children. Thus, the whole world wants them for their leaders. The people never grow tired of them because sages don’t struggle against them. Everyone struggles against something. But no one struggles against those who don’t struggle against anything.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages don’t try to be above or in front of others. But when they find themselves below or behind others, the Tao can’t help but lift them up and push them forward.”

YANG HSIUNG says, “Those who hold themselves back are advanced by others. Those who lower themselves are lifted up by others” (Fayen: 7).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The people aren’t burdened when sages are above them, because the people aren’t aware they have a ruler. And the people aren’t obstructed when sages are before them, because sages aren’t aware the people are their charges.”

WANG CHEN says, “Through humility sages gain the approval of the people. Once they gain their approval, they gain their tireless support. And once they gain their tireless support, struggling over rank naturally comes to an end.”

Stop struggling! Struggling, here, means the effort exerted by those who strive to place themselves above and before others. And, as long as you struggle, there will always be someone struggling against you. That’s just how things work. On the other hand, if you don’t struggle, no one can struggle against you. Lao-tzu, of course, turns to the metaphor of water, again to illustrate the point. I have always focused on the sea as an example of humility. But, as I was reading through the verse, today, I also realized the same humility being exemplified by the rivers. The sea doesn’t struggle, and neither do the rivers. They, too, are seeking that lower place. And, that is what makes the sea what it is, the place to which all the rivers flow.

Red Pine introduces the following sage in today’s verse:

YANG HSIUNG (53 B.C.-A.D. 18). Gifted philosopher and writer of courtly odes. Known for his view that man is neither good nor bad by nature but wholly subject to his environment. A number of his odes are preserved in the literary anthology known as the Wenhsuan. The Fayen contains his philosophical maxims.