Something Everyone Knows, But No One Can Practice

“Nothing in the world is weaker than water
but against the hard and the strong
nothing outdoes it
for nothing can change it
the soft overcomes the hard
the weak overcomes the strong
this is something everyone knows
but no one is able to practice
thus do sages declare
who accepts a country’s disgrace
we call the lord of soil and grain
who accepts a country’s misfortune
we call the ruler of all under Heaven
upright words sound upside down”

(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet despite such weakness it can bore through rocks. Rocks, however, cannot wear down water.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “The soft and the weak do not expect to overcome the hard and the strong. They simply do.”

HSI T’UNG says, “You can hit it, but you can’t hurt it. You can stab it, but you can’t wound it. You can hack it, but you can’t cut it. You can light it, but you can’t burn it. Nothing in the world can alter this thing we call water.”

CHU TI-HUANG says, “We can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend, by means of which it overcomes the hardest and strongest things.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spies and traitors, thieves and robbers, people who have no respect for the law, disloyal subjects and unfilial children, these are disgraces. Excessive drought and rain, epidemics and locusts, untimely death, famine and homelessness, ominous plants, and misshapen animals, these are misfortunes.”

PO-TSUNG says, “Rivers and swamps contain mud. Mountains and marshes harbor diseases. The most beautiful gem has a flaw. The ruler of a state suffers disgrace. This is the Way of Heaven” (Tsochuan: Hsuan.15).

SHUN says, “If I commit an offense, it has nothing to do with my people. If my people commit an offense, the offense rests with me” (Shuching: 4C.8).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are not kind, they cannot protect the spirits of the soil and grain” (Mencius: 4A.3).

SU CH’E says, “Upright words agree with the Tao and contradict the world. The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.”

LI JUNG says, “The world sees disgrace and innocence, fortune and misfortune. The follower of the Tao sees them all as empty.”

KAO YEN-TI says, “The last line sums up the meaning of the abstruse phrases that occur throughout the Taoteching, such as ‘to act without acting.’ The words may contradict, but they complement the truth.”

Lao-tzu called it something everyone knows, but no one is able to practice. And I wonder whether it is really a matter of inability, or unwillingness. But before we try to figure that one out, maybe we better make sure we truly understand what the “it” is, that Lao-tzu says everyone knows.

Lao-tzu says, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water, but against the hard and the strong, nothing outdoes it.” Lao-tzu is talking about water, here; but he is talking about it metaphorically. Why is it that the hard and the strong is no match for its weakness?

First, Lao-tzu says it is because nothing can change it. The change Lao-tzu is referring to, here, is its nature. It is the nature of water which nothing can change. Hsuan-tsung says the nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet, despite its weakness, it can bore through rocks. Rocks, on the other hand, can’t wear down water. And Chu Ti-huang allows that we can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend.

But, remember, I said that Lao-tzu only lauds the nature of water metaphorically. What he is really teaching, the “it” that everyone knows, is that when we become like water, as Bruce Lee taught, we can overcome the hard and the strong. When we are taught to be like water, what we are really being taught is to be soft, and by being soft overcome the hard. And to be weak, and by being weak overcome the strong.

This is what Lao-tzu says everyone knows. Being soft, being weak, enables us to overcome, because being like water, our nature is to stay low, to not struggle, to descend, and nothing can overcome that. Especially if “nothing” refers to the strong and hard. The strong and hard can’t (or won’t) compete with that.

And that brings me back to my earlier question. Is Lao-tzu’s assertion that no one is able to practice this really a question of ability, or is it unwillingness. If Lao-tzu was only talking about rocks, then it is obviously a question of ability. Rocks are rocks. They don’t have the capacity to will anything. So unwillingness on the part of rocks seems a silly notion. But, Lao-tzu isn’t teaching rocks a lesson. He is teaching people, who can be as hard in their unwillingness (in other words, obstinate) as rocks. Even the rocks are metaphors!

And now we really need to be honest, and say the “no one” that Lao-tzu refers to here, as opposed to the “everyone” he referred to in the previous line, are uses of hyperbole on Lao-tzu’s part. Everyone vs. no one. Like, always and never. Lao-tzu doesn’t really mean there can never be exceptions to the rule. And sages are one such exception.

They do have both a willingness, and the ability, to practice it. And that means, my good friends, that so can we.

What is it going to take?

To be like water, we have to overcome the hardness of our own hearts, the strength of our own will and desires. And that is going to take, wait for it, humility.

That is what the sages declared. You have to accept your country’s disgrace. You have to accept your country’s misfortune. Lao-tzu was teaching rulers in the art of governing, so he talked about it on a grand scale. On a more personal level, we might say, you have to accept your own disgrace and misfortune. Accepting means acquiescing to nature’s course. Are you willing to go even lower, to be last? Or, do you have to be on top, above, first? Your ability or willingness to humble yourself is the key to overcoming — if you can practice it.

So, can you? Or, should I ask, will you?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHU TI-HUANG (1885-1941). Ch’ing dynasty official and early revolutionary. After fleeing China, he returned to devote himself to Buddhism and philosophy.

PO-TSUNG (FL. 8TH C. B.C.). Minister at the court of Chin. His views are reported in the Tsochuan: Hsuan.15.

SHUN (CA. 2250-2150 B.C.). Early sage ruler noted for his filial piety and noninterference in public affairs.

SHUCHING (BOOK OF DOCUMENTS). Collection of memorials from China’s earliest historical periods: the Hsia, Shang, and Chou dynasties. Reputedly edited by Confucius, there are two versions, one of which contains twenty-eight chapters and which most scholars think is genuine, and one with an additional twenty-two chapters of debatable authenticity. Translated into English by James Legge (1815-1897).

KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of the Hanlin Academy. In addition to providing several unique interpretations of his own, Kao’s commentary cites passages of the Taoteching that appear in other ancient texts. Lao-tzu cheng-yi.

It Isn’t a Call to Action

“The Way of Heaven
is like stringing a bow
pulling down the high
lifting up the low
shortening the long
lengthening the short
the Way of Heaven
takes from the long
and supplements the short
unlike the way of Humankind
which takes from the short
and gives to the long
who can take the long
and give it to the world
only those who possess the Way
thus do sages not depend on what they develop
or claim what they achieve
thus they choose to hide their skill”

(Taoteching, verse 77, translation by Red Pine)

KAO HENG says, “In stringing a bow, we pull the bow down to attach the string to the top. We lift the bow up to attach the string to the bottom. If the string is too long, we make it shorter. If the string is too short, we make it longer. This is exactly the Way of Heaven.” Red Pine’s reading of line two, which agrees with Kao Heng’s, is based on the Shuowen, which says, “Chang means to attach a string to a bow.”

TU ER-WEI says, “Not only the Chinese, but the ancient Greeks and Hindus, the Finns, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho all likened the moon to a bow. Thus the Way of Heaven is like a bow” (Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. 97-98).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way of Heaven is so dark, we need metaphors to understand it. To prepare a bow for use, we string it by pulling down the top and lifting up the bottom. Likewise, the Way of Heaven is to take from the strong and give to the weak.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low. It does nothing and relies instead on the nature of things. Things that are high and long cannot avoid being pulled down and shortened. Things that are low and short cannot avoid being lifted up and lengthened. The full suffer loss. The humble experience gain.”

TE CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven is to give but not to take. The Way of Humankind is to take but not to give.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The way of Heaven is based on the natural order. Hence, it is fair. The way of Humankind is based on desire. Hence, it is not fair. Those who possess the Way follow the same Way as Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Way supply the needs of the ten thousand creatures without saying a word. Only those who possess the Way are capable of this.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Who can imitate the Way of Heaven and make it the Way of Humankind by taking what one has in abundance and giving it to those in need? Only those who possess the Way. The Yiching [41-42] says, ‘to take means to take from the low and give to the high.’ And ‘to give means to take from the high and give to the low.’”

LI JUNG says, “Although sages perform virtuous deeds, they expect no reward and try to keep their virtue hidden.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The skill of the sages is unfathomable and inexhaustible. How could it be revealed?”

And RED PINE clarifies, “When Lao-tzu refers to ‘the Way of Heaven,” he is not simply referring to the sky above but to everything that lives and moves.”

Today’s verse always makes me kind of nervous. “Pulling down the high, lifting up the low…” What makes me nervous is those who think this is some kind of call to action. “Yeah! Take from the one percent. Take from the rich, give it to the poor. We need governments to redistribute the wealth.”

But that isn’t what Lao-tzu is teaching, at all. He says that is the Way of Heaven: Like when you string a bow, the high is pulled down, and the low is lifted up. What is too long is shortened, and what is too short is lengthened. The Way of Humankind is altogether different. And that is why this isn’t a call to action. For Humankind’s actions always, always take from the short and give to the long, always push the low further down, while raising the already high. Humankind isn’t about lifting up the oppressed, they are always about protecting, maintaining, increasing their power over others.

The rhetoric those in power use are always lies and deception. The Way of Heaven is completely natural. It is never forced. So, Lao-tzu asks, “Who can take the long, and give it to the world? Only those who possess the Way.” And those who possess the Way never use force to achieve their ends. “Thus sages don’t depend on what they develop, or claim what they achieve,” Lao-tzu teaches, “They choose to hide their skill.”

What that means is they don’t force anything. They let Heaven (what is natural) do its complete work. What makes a sage a sage is the alacrity with which they get out of the way, and thus follow the Way.

When Their Rightful Place Isn’t Above

“When people are born
they are soft and weak
when they perish
they are hard and stiff
when plants shoot forth
they are supple and tender
when they die
they are withered and dry
thus it is said
the hard and stiff are followers of death
the soft and weak are followers of life
when an army becomes stiff it suffers defeat
when a plant becomes stiff it snaps
the hard and stiff dwell below
the soft and weak dwell above”

(Taoteching, verse 76, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When people are born, they contain breath and spirit. This is why they are soft. When they die, their breath ceases and their spirit disappears. This why they are hard.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Seeing that the living are soft and the dead are hard, we can infer that those whose virtue is hard and those whose actions are forceful die before their time, while those who are soft and weak are able to preserve their lives.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Although the soft and weak aren’t the same as the Tao, they approach its absence of effort. Hence, they aren’t far from the Tao. Although the hard and stiff aren’t outside the Tao, they involve effort. Hence, they lead people away from it.”

LIEH-TZU says, “The world has a path of perennial victory and a path of perennial defeat. The path of perennial victory is weakness. The path of perennial defeat is strength. These two are easy to recognize, but people remain oblivous to them” (Liehtzu:2.17).

LAO-TZU says, “The weak conquer the strong” (Taoteching: 36).

WANG CHEN says, “It isn’t hard for an army to achieve victory. But it is hard to hold on to victory. There is no great army that has not brought on its own defeat through its victories.”

HSI T’UNG says, “When a plant becomes stiff, it loses its flexibility and becomes easy to break.”

WANG P’ANG says, “In terms of yin and yang, yin comes before and yang comes after. In terms of Heaven and earth, Heaven is exalted and Earth is humble. In terms of Virtue, the soft and weak overcome the hard and stiff. But in terms of material things, the hard and stiff control the soft and weak. The people of this world only see things. They don’t understand Virtue.”

SU CH’E says, “As long as it contains empty breath, the body does not suffer from rigidity. As long as they reflect perfect reason, actions are not burdened by severity. According to the unchanging principle of things, the refined rises to the top, while the coarse sinks to the bottom. The refined is soft and weak, while the coarse is hard and stiff.”

LI JUNG says, “The living belong above. The dead belong below.”

And RED PINE adds, “How different this world would be if our leaders spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms.”

“The hard and stiff dwell below. The soft and weak dwell above.” In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu laid the responsibility for all the troubles facing our world, today, at the feet of those above. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu has a further word of warning for those above. When you were born, you were soft and weak, just as when plants shoot forth, they are supple and tender. Note this well. It is the hard and stiff who perish, the withered and dry die.

If those above fail to take these lessons of Lao-tzu to heart, and change their wicked ways, being hard and stiff, they will wither and die. The hard and stiff can’t remain alive. Death is their destiny. They follow death just as surely as a recalcitrant army suffers defeat, and a plant snaps when it becomes stiff. Only the soft and weak will prevail. Those who are supple and tender, they are the living ones, who will ultimately rise to dwell above. It is their rightful place, just as below is the rightful place of the hard and stiff.

This isn’t a threat, veiled or otherwise. I am not advocating violence, merely predicting an outcome based on Nature’s Law. Those of us who oppose you will never have to resort to force to topple you from your lofty position. Heaven will do it for us (you are doing it to yourselves), you only reap what you sow.

It’s Because of Those Above

“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 other, 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.”

With today’s verse, Lao-tzu continues teaching on the art of governing. And I feel like I am picking up on a particular tone from Lao-tzu in this verse. It is a tone I have become quite adept at whenever I am trying to reason with people about what I think should be common sense, but is all too uncommon.

What is the reason people are hungry? What is the reason people are hard to rule? What is the reason people think so little of death? These are questions those who govern us should understand the answers to, but they don’t.

And as Lao-tzu takes these questions, one by one, he makes his point as clear as he possibly can, by repeating it again.

Those above levy so many taxes! Those above are so forceful! Those above think so much of their own lives!

Need I say it again? Taxation is theft. And everywhere we turn, every thing is taxed. Producers are taxed. What they produce is taxed. And consumers get taxed for having the audacity to want to purchase some of what is produced. Everything costs much more than it would if it wasn’t for all this taxation, and what do we get back for all this taxation? Nada. Don’t even start with me about all the wonderful government programs which get funded by that thing you call necessary, taxation. If the government really wanted to do something for the people, they should stop stealing so much of our hard-earned money. Our very livelihood is taxed, and you wonder why people are hungry? Don’t be stupid.

Force and the threat of force, that is how we are governed. Our governments don’t understand elementary laws of physics when it comes to the use of force. Newton’s Third Law of Motion for instance, which states: for every force, there is a reaction force that is equal in size, but opposite in direction. Therefore, whenever one object pushes another object, it gets pushed in the opposite direction equally as hard. That is what makes people hard to rule. When you push, expect to be pushed back. If you don’t want the reaction, then don’t do the action.

For the last couple of verses Lao-tzu has been talking about people not fearing death; so what’s the use in threatening them? And he said, then, it is because those above keep making up new rules and punishments, to the point people no longer care about their life. Now, Lao-tzu says it is because those above love their life too much.

I always enjoy rereading the account of Duke Ai approaching Yu Juo (from the commentary today). Duke Ai was in great distress. It was a time of famine, and his tax revenues were “wanting.” Yu Juo’s response was priceless: Cut the taxes in half! Duke Ai was astounded by this advice. What? Are you mad? I can’t survive on the tax revenue as it is. If I cut it in half, how will I survive? This reminds me of the kind of talk we hear coming out of capitols everywhere, whenever anyone has the temerity to suggest taxes should be cut. How they wail! How will we be able to pay for all this largess? Except they don’t call it largess. They call it necessary expenditures. Don’t believe it. As Yu Juo said to Duke Ai: “When the people don’t want, why should you want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” Tighten your belt Duke Ai. The people you rule have tightened theirs.

Meanwhile, says Lao-tzu, those who do nothing to live (in other words, they don’t steal, they don’t use force, they don’t value their lives to excess, they actually care about the lives of those beneath or around them), are more esteemed than those who love their lives. Yep! And I will go on esteeming them, and not those above.

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.

Do People No Longer Fear Death?

“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).

Our verses this week have been on fear and authority. On Monday, in verse 72, Lao-tzu said, “When people no longer fear authority, a greater authority will appear.” On Tuesday, verse 73, Lao-tzu said it was a matter of life and death. And in today’s verse, he ponders the question “If people no longer fear death, what good is threatening to kill them?” These verses have all been addressed to those who govern us.

If they are governing in such a way, that people no longer fear them, they no longer fear their punishments (death), then threatening them further won’t work. If those who govern us want to be able to succeed in governing us, they want us to truly fear death, and that means they need to be careful in how they govern us. In other words, they should fear us.

If you want people to act in a certain way, trying to compel them to act in that way isn’t the way to accomplish your end. The end never justifies the means. Your means always determines the end.

If you were to govern according to the Tao, the Way of Heaven, you would govern with moderation; and people; because they would then love their lives, would fear death. And fearing death, if some acted perversely, you could catch them and kill them; and no one else would dare to act that way.

But you are not governing according to the Tao, with moderation. So the people no longer fear you, or the death you mete out as punishment for their supposed wrong-doing. I say supposed, here, because you have heaped on so many rules and laws and ordinances (too many to count, and many that, quite frankly, run counter to all common sense), that your killing actually amounts to taking the place of the executioner (Heaven). In other words, you are killing those who Heaven hasn’t already abandoned. And Heaven will ultimately exact its retribution against you.

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 discourse 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. Tao-te-chen-ching yu-chu.

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.

A Matter of Life and Death

“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 mechanisms 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.”

When I share Lao-tzu’s teaching regarding the practice of not-doing, namely “not daring to act” I am often met with a particular response which Lao-tzu addresses in today’s verse.

What Lao-tzu teaches regarding daring to act, is that it means death; while daring not to act means life. It is a matter of life and death. I take it as seriously as Lao-tzu does. But I have friends and family that scoff at this. They echo what Su Ch’e says in his commentary today. “But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die.” And thus, say family and friends, you are wrong when you say “daring to act means death, and daring not to act means life” for it doesn’t always work out that way.

Lao-tzu addresses this when he says, “What Heaven dislikes, who knows the reason? That may not be very satisfying a response. I have been told, for instance, it is a cop-out. But is it?

What if Lao-tzu is offering a general principle, only a general principle. What exactly is wrong with that? Why would you really expect that you could read a little book and find the answer to every circumstance you could possibly encounter, with exactly the correct response in any given situation? Whoever told you life was that simple?

No, life is complicated. But, you can live simply, and greatly increase your satisfaction with it. Does it work every time it is tried? Why, no. There will be exceptions to the rule. As there are to a lot of rules which we never question.

How is this for a rule: I will live my life how I want to live my life, without infringing on your right to live your life the way you want. If you dare not fail to act, if you want that to be your rule for living, go for it. I won’t stop you. But don’t try to convince me that I must act every time you see some need to act. I won’t force you not to act, why try to force me to act?

The truth is none of us is wise enough to know the reason Heaven dislikes what it dislikes. And anyone who thinks they know is fooling themselves.

Having said that, the Way of Heaven (this is a general principle, mind you) is to win without a fight, to answer without a word, to come without a summons, and to plan without a thought. And the Net of Heaven (all-encompassing in a general sense) may have a wide mesh (in other words, some may live that dare to act and some may die who dare not to act) but nothing can escape it (in the long run).

If They Aren’t Repressed, They Won’t Protest

“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. Lao-tzu begins this verse with two puns. The force of the first pun in lines one and two is somewhat weakened in the Wangpi and other standard editions by the use of different homophones for ‘fear’ and ‘authority.’ In his edition of 1587, Chiao Hung noted that in ancient times these characters were interchangeable, and he suggested using one for both words. This is, in fact, what occurs in the second pun in lines five and six, where the same character is used for ‘repress’ and ‘protest.’ The Mawangtui texts, it turns out, agree with Chiao Hung, and I have amended lines one and two accordingly. In lines three and four, I have also turned to the Mawangtui texts for the negative injunction wu (don’t). Other editions have wu (has not) or pu(does not), both of which result in problems regarding the referent and thus in different interpretations of the entire verse.”

Fear and authority are the theme of today’s verse. Is Lao-tzu teaching us to fear authority, lest a greater authority appear? Actually, he is talking to those who govern us (the authorities) and teaching them how they should behave toward those they have authority over. If they didn’t restrict where people dwell, and didn’t repress how people live, in short, if the people weren’t repressed, they wouldn’t protest.

Lao-tzu has, of course, talked about this before; when he said act before anything exists (verse 64) govern before anyone rebels. He was teaching that when we aren’t careful at the end as well as at the start our actions will end in failure. All efforts to control are bound to result in loss.

The sages in today’s verse, as in all the others, understood the profound responsibility inherent in their authority over us. They didn’t put themselves before and above us. They knew themselves too well to do that. They understood the corrupting influence of power, so they didn’t dare reveal themselves to be corruptible. Thus, they loved themselves without exalting themselves.

They picked “this” over “that.” The allure of “that,” external power and control over others, is great. And few are those who can resist it. “This” is the perfect we talked about last week, in verse 68, the virtue of non-aggression. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Choose the perfect, “this,” and people won’t be repressed. They won’t protest, if you don’t restrict where people dwell, and repress how they live. And no greater authority, overthrowing yours, will appear.

To Understand or Not to Understand?

“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 are transcendent. If they don’t understand 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.”

Te-Ch’ing’s commentary is particularly helpful in “understanding” today’s verse. Understanding that understanding is both the door to all mysteries, and the door to all misfortune. To understand you don’t understand is to enter the door to all mysteries. To cling to your own understanding, thinking you already understand, is to encounter increasing obstacles to actual understanding. It is to enter the door to all misfortune.

Our understanding of our understanding can either result in transcendence or affliction. When we think we know, when we don’t know, we suffer affliction. And that affliction doesn’t just afflict the afflicted. When scrolling through any social media platform, the affliction of presumption is rampant, and apparently quite contagious. I doubt I am alone in spending a lot of time just shaking my head at my computer screen. It is maddening, really. And while Lao-tzu lived long before the likes of Facebook and Tumblr, Lao-tzu knew affliction where he saw it, and called it out for what it is. That is why, throughout his Taoteching, he taught the practice of not-knowing (knowing you don’t know) to transcend the affliction.

I want to be more like those sages of whom Lao-tzu was always referring. I want to transcend the madness. To be above and beyond it. A quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, though I don’t think he actually ever said it, comes to my mind here. “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” That has happened far too often to me. I need to rise above this.

And the only way to do this is to know that I don’t know. It is a simple truth. The truth often is. If we aren’t so pig-headed we fail to grasp it. That is what the sages understood. Their practice was treating affliction as affliction. And by treating affliction as affliction they weren’t afflicted. They transcended it. And we can, too.

What You Conceal Has More Value Than What You Reveal

“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 am 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 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.”

In our first verse this week, verse 67, Lao-tzu said, “The world calls me great, great but useless.” In today’s verse, Lao-tzu ties together being esteemed with being misunderstood.

Though Lao-tzu’s words are easy to understand, and easy to practice, no one understands them or puts them into practice. Lao-tzu had esteem issues. Not self-esteem, but world-esteem. The world esteemed him. But that was only because they misunderstood him. Or to put it in a different way, it is only because so few understand him, he is esteemed.

I like what Su Ch’e has to say in his commentary. “Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor, and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find [the Tao].”

But because so few understand this, sages dress in coarse cloth, keeping their jade concealed. What? Did you not think it is better to practice virtue than for others to understand you?

This is something I am beginning to put into practice more of in my own life, particularly on social media, where I am not nearly so eager to jump into the fray trying to outshine others with my own virtue-signaling. Perhaps we could all don coarse cloth more, and show off our jade less. What you conceal has more value than what you reveal.

The Remorseful One Prevails

“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 Pingfa: 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 treasures 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 notes that lines ten and eleven may seem strange when we read them for the first time. I know they always trip me up. I keep thinking “to have no enemy” would be great. It just goes to show how little I know. But, Red Pine says, “The import [of these lines] would seem to be that without an enemy, we would have no recipient of our compassion and thus no reason to practice it.”

I have been thinking a lot about war in the last several days. The US Senate may actually vote as early as this Friday on ending America’s involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen. I am keeping my fingers crossed. Lao-tzu actually had plenty to say about warfare in the Taoteching. In today’s verse, for example he talks about, what in his day was already an ancient saying, about warfare. “Rather than a host, better to be a guest.” While there is some disagreement among our various commentators, I think I am assuming correctly when I agree with Wang Chen that it is the one who mobilizes first who is the host, while it is the one who responds who is the guest. This isn’t the first time Lao-tzu has said, you should only use force when “forced” to.

It is the lesson I wish my own country’s government would take to heart when it comes to warfare. For some years now, at least since the 2001 AUMF (drafted 3 days after 9/11) authorizing then President George W. Bush to fight terrorists wherever he could find them. I only recently came to realize just how narrow that 2001 AUMF actually was.

I say that now, knowing the Congress has spent roughly 17 years ducking their constitutional duty when it comes to war, and president after president (first Bush, then Obama, now Trump) , using that 2001 AUMF to attack sovereign nation after sovereign nation. Can you name all the countries we have bombed since September of 2001? Each one of those countries’ bombings were justified using that 2001 AUMF. Interesting, since it actually was a pretty narrow allowance.

Only those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or those aiding or harboring those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That is why Bush had to lie about Iraq being somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks to justify that war in Iraq. By the time Obama became president all pretense of ever needing to tie a country we wanted to bomb to the 9/11 attacks went out the window. No need to do that anymore. Congress wasn’t about to do their duty and demand that the president cease and desist until Congress gave their approval.

That may all change starting this week. Anti-war progressives who were deafeningly silent for the eight years the Nobel peace-prize winning President Obama was killing innocent men, women, and children, even American citizens without due process, are now beginning to raise a ruckus again. Having Trump doing the bombing doesn’t sit well with them. Good! Welcome back. Better late than never.

I am cautiously hopeful that something good is going to come out of this. This war on Yemen has been horrendous. I have heard some good rhetoric coming out of Washington, at last. But don’t think for a moment, I will be satisfied with only empty rhetoric.

The truth is, just as Lao-tzu taught. Just more of that ancient saying about warfare. “Rather than advance and inch, better to retreat a foot.”

Don’t be the first one to form ranks, to put on armor, to brandish weapons. Be the last. Only do it, because you have no choice. Having to repulse an enemy should repulse you.

Lao-tzu does say something in today’s verse that never fails to throw me, each time I read it. He says, “No fate is worse than to have no enemy.” Every time I read that I think I must be misreading it. Doesn’t he mean “have an enemy”? But Lao-tzu goes on to say, “To have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure.” And I agree with Red Pine that what Lao-tzu is meaning is how having no enemy would mean having no one upon whom we could practice compassion. Like not bombing the living daylights out of their country’s infrastructure.

Anyway, that is about all I wanted to say about today’s verse. Except maybe this. It is the remorseful one who will prevail, in any armed conflict. We have plenty of reason, right now, to feel remorse about what we have done to the people of Yemen. May those who do, prevail.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LIN HSI-YI (FL. 1234-1260). Scholar-official who produced commentaries to a number of classics. His commentary on the Taoteching is noted for its clarity. Lao-tzu k’ou-yi.