How Can This Be Good?

“In resolving a dispute
a dispute is sure to remain
how can this be good
sages therefore hold the left marker
and make no claim on others
thus the virtuous oversee markers
the virtue-less oversee taxes
the Way of Heaven favors no one
but it always helps the good”

(Taoteching, verse 79, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “In Lao-tzu’s day, whenever the feudal rulers had a dispute, the most powerful lord convened a meeting to resolve it. But the resolution of a great dispute invariably involved a payment. And if the payment was not forthcoming, the dispute continued.”

WANG PI says, “If we don’t arrange a contract clearly and a dispute results, even using virtuous means to settle it won’t restore the injury. Thus, a dispute will remain.”

SU CH’E says, “If we content ourselves with trimming the branches and don’t pull out the roots, things might look fine on the outside, but not on the inside. Disputes come from delusions, and delusions are the product of our nature. Those who understand their nature encounter no delusions, much less disputes.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Murderers are killed, and criminals are punished according to their crime. But those who inflict such punishments offend their own human feelings and involve innocent people as well. If even one person sighs, we offend the Heart of Heaven. How can resolving disputes be considered good?”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If someone lets go of both sides but still clings to the middle, how can he be completely good?”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, contracts were divided in two. In the state of Ch’u, the creditor kept the left half, and Lao-tzu was from Ch’u. In the central plains, this was reversed, and the creditor kept the right half.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Seeking to make peace with others is the Way of Humankind. Not seeking to make peace but letting things make peace by themselves is the Way of Heaven. Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace. Sages therefore hold the left marker because they rely on non-action and the subtlety of letting things be.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “If one does not make demands of others, disputes cannot arise. If one constantly takes from others, great disputes cannot help but occur.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Those concerned with taxes cannot avoid making claims on others and thus cannot prevent disputes. This is why they lack virtue.”

MENCIUS says, “The rulers of the Hsia dynasty exacted a tribute [kung] on every five acres of land. The rulers of the Shang exacted a share [chu] on every seven acres. The rulers of the Chou exacted a tax [ch’e] on every ten acres. In reality, what was paid was a tithe of 10 percent” (Mencius: 3A.3; see also Lunyu: 12.9).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Those who are good cultivate themselves. They don’t concern themselves with others. Once you concern yourself with others, you have disputes. The good make demands of themselves. They don’t make demands of others. The Way of Humankind is selfish. The Way of Heaven is unselfish. It isn’t concerned with others. But it is always one with those who are good.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Way of Heaven always helps the good because the good expect nothing. Hence, they are easily helped.”

Today’s verse has Lao-tzu talking about contractual obligations and conflict resolution. And, he uses it to illustrate the futility of intervention.

I recently took part in one of those silly quizzes on Facebook that is supposed to tell you something about yourself by simply answering a few simple questions. I don’t know why I ever do these, the answers they give you to choose between are never quite how I feel about a given topic. I think this particular quiz was supposed to tell me just how conservative or liberal I am. I went ahead and took the quiz, hoping I would break it, since I just knew I didn’t fit anywhere within the conservative/liberal, left/right spectrum. I had no such luck. In spite of my answers, the quiz identified me as “strongly conservative”; which is probably what my more liberal friends think of me, but would completely surprise my more conservative friends.

I specifically remember one of the questions particularly annoyed me. It was something along the lines of asking me to choose between a foreign policy that intervenes militarily and one that emphasizes diplomacy. Why did this annoy me? Because not intervening was not an option. We just have to intervene. The only allowable debate is whether the intervention is going to be a military intervention or a diplomatic intervention.

But Lao-tzu correctly points out the folly, the futility, of intervening — even to resolve a dispute diplomatically. How can this be good? A dispute is sure to remain. He then explains how contracts were arranged in ancient times. They were divided into a left and right side. On one side was one party’s obligations, and on the other side was the other party’s obligations. Lao-tzu, in effect, said sages uphold their end of the bargain without making any claim on the other party. This is true virtue. Fulfilling your own obligations, while making no demands on others.

But just try to be a third party who steps in and tries to resolve any conflict between two parties? Meddling, meddling, meddling. Why must we meddle? Where Lao-tzu says the virtuous oversee markers, I take that to mean, they observe boundaries. They don’t cross over to meddle. Where he says the virtue-less oversee taxes, I take that to mean they don’t respect boundaries, being more concerned with making sure they get what they want, which means force will be employed.

But, as Lao-tzu insists, the Way of Heaven favors no one. That is why meddling is a fool’s errand. He also insists the Way of Heaven always helps the good. Meaning, let Heaven sort it all out. Stay out of it. Leave it alone.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts. His presentation of differences between the Mawangtui and other editions appears in Ta-lu tsa-chih vols. 54-59 (April 1977-October 1979). His study of Tunhuang copies of the Taoteching is also excellent: Lao-tzu lun-chi.

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG (PUBL. 1937). Lao-tzu chiao-chieh.

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 respet 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.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu returns to his favorite metaphor for the Tao, water, to show how nature teaches us “the soft overcomes the hard” and “the weak overcomes the strong.” Lao-tzu says “this is something everyone knows.” But this “knowledge” doesn’t result in actual understanding, for it is still something “no one is able to practice.”

As Ts’ao Tao-chung says in his commentary, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.” What do we really value?

And, as Chuang-tzu teaches, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace.”

This is what all sages declare: If you want to be first, you must first, put yourself last. To be on top, place yourself beneath.

For an aspiring “ruler” this means accepting their own country’s disgrace and misfortune. But, as Su Ch’e points out, “The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.” What Lao-tzu teaches is quite the opposite. He suggests, what is truly shameful, and a great calamity, is not suffering disgrace and misfortune.

What Lao-tzu teaches seems paradoxical, upside down. But, how different things would be if, instead of considering it upside down, we realized this is the Way all of nature behaves; and, Humankind, can and should behave this way, too.

What if we valued weakness over strength, the soft over the hard? Then, we would have no difficulty putting “what everyone knows” into practice.

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.

High and Low, Long and Short, Give and Take: The Natural Way

“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.”

While today’s verse is one of my favorite ones, I worry that what Lao-tzu talks about in today’s verse will readily be dismissed by a lot of my followers. Because it sounds like socialism, and socialism is bad. Right?

Don’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion, however. What Lao-tzu is really doing in today’s verse is contrasting the Natural Way with forcing things.

The Way of Heaven (that is, the Natural Way) is like stringing a bow. A bow, here, is a handy metaphor (we can immediately picture one). When you are stringing a bow, you pull down the high and lift up the low, you shorten the long, and lengthen the short. This is how you string a bow, naturally.

Lao-tzu likens it to the Tao bringing the high down, and lifting the low up. It takes from the long (Too much here). It supplements the short (Too little there).

This taking and giving needs some explanation, though. Because it does sound like socialism. And socialism is bad, when it is forced. But stay with Lao-tzu here. For Lao-tzu isn’t talking about the way of Humankind, the forced way, here. He is talking about the Natural Way.

The Natural Way isn’t forced. Therefore, its taking isn’t forced. And, for that matter, neither is its giving. It is a most natural give and take, which keeps the whole universe in perfect balance and harmony. Note what Lu Hui-ch’ing says in his commentary, today. “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low.” (There is no intention, or desire, involved) “It does nothing” (acts without desire) “and relies instead on the nature of things.”

Yes, Humankind tends to force things. We are imaginative and innovative. We perceive a problem, and immediately want to “do something” about it. But, because we are motivated by desires, we don’t always manage to control our own selves. Even the desire to “do good” is problematic for us. (Wait, I could say that better.) Especially the desire to “do good” is problematic for us.

That is why Lao-tzu asks the question, “Who can take from the long and give it to the world?” And then he answers his question, “Only those who possess the Way.”

The problem with Humankind is that our giving and taking always devolves into force. We end up taking from that which is short (what already has too little), and giving to that which is already too long.

The sage’s skill at “stringing a bow” comes from possessing the Way. They don’t depend on what they develop, or claim what they achieve. In other words, they act without desire. That, I think, is what Lao-tzu means by “they choose to hide their skill.”

Acting without desire, my friends, is what it is going to take for us to have something to give to the world.

In Praise of the Soft and Weak

“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.”

Lao-tzu has been talking about those who no longer fear death as those made hard and stiff by those above them. They have become followers of death. In today’s verse, he contrasts this with followers of life, those who are soft and weak.

Just in case you weren’t understanding Lao-tzu in the previous verses, he wasn’t praising those who no longer fear death. He was merely explaining how they got that way. But, being a follower of life would be so much better. That is why he gives those who rule over us so much grief over their mismanagement of the people they have been charged with governing. The living are supposed to be soft and weak, not hard and stiff. The hard and stiff will be broken, they will incur defeat. And Lao-tzu wants so much better for us.

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 I 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 live life”

(Taoteching, verse 75, translation by Red Pine)

DUKE AI approached YU JUO: “The year is one of famine, and my revenue 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 live of other, why should other 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 clevernes and laws. But the more laws they make, the more thieve 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 year 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 errand 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 ha 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.”

Today’s is another of my favorites, for its libertarian theme. It puts the responsibility squarely on those above when it comes to the reason people are hungry, the reason people are hard to rule, and the reason people think little of death.

I actually think this verse is one we have every reason to expect anyone who wants to rule to have to prove they understand, before they ever are entrusted with ruling people.

What is the lesson they (and all the rest of us) should understand?

There are too many taxes, too many regulations, that is why people are hungry, the reason people are hard to rule. It would be easy, if those above thought less of themselves. If living, for them, wasn’t always about accumulating more, more. More wealth, more power. When they don’t get what they want, as if they don’t already have too much already, they just apply even more force, paying little heed to the people below them. The lives of the people don’t matter. It is, therefore, no wonder that people think so little of death. When their lives are made unnecessarily hard, why fear death?

We are constantly being told we should live to work for them. Oh, they don’t come right out and say that. That would require honesty on their part. What they tell us instead is just the opposite, “Don’t live to work, work to live.” This is genius! They try to shame us for not wanting to work (for them) by trying to convince us we don’t deserve to live if we don’t work (for them). This is a real measure of just how much contempt they feel for the people they rule. But, it works, somewhat. They even have a good number of people convinced they should join in with the shaming. “Why should my taxes go to support people who won’t work?” Do they really think taxes are being used for the common welfare of the people? The only people benefiting from taxes is those above. It is only enriching them. It is the same with the endless parade of regulations they mire us with. Only those above benefit from all these regulations.

But what if we didn’t choose to play their little game any longer? What if we didn’t live to work or work to live? What if we did nothing to live? Lao-tzu said, those who make this their practice are more esteemed. And, Yen Tsun, nailed it in his commentary on today’s verse. “Those who don’t work to live live long.”

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 hi 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 that 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 the, 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).

Yesterday, Lao-tzu said it was a matter of life and death. Today he wonders whether or not the people even fear death. For if people no longer fear death, what good is it to threaten them with punishment? If we honestly expect people to dare not to act, they are going to have to believe in, and fear the consequences.

The executioner, in this verse, is the Net of Heaven of the previous one, as Lu Hui-ch’ing points out in his commentary, today. What Lao-tzu is teaching here concerns those who rule over the people.

Let’s say, for just a moment, that those who rule over us actually have our best interests in mind (I know this is a stretch, but work with me, here). The temptation, if this were so, would be for our rulers to try to force us to do right; first threatening, and then carrying out punishments. It just plays into their need to try to control.

But Lao-tzu makes it clear that that kind of reactionary policy is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. They shouldn’t dare act in this way. All they accomplish is making people fear death even less.

Leave it to Heaven’s net to sort it all out. Don’t oppress people. Leave them alone. Left to their own devices, they will regain their love of life, and fear death once again. If your policies result in them hating life, they won’t fear death, and your punishments won’t matter anyway. They will only compound the problem.

And anyway, by killing in the executioner’s place, you are only setting your own selves up for failure. It is like cutting in the master carpenter’s place. Those who cut in the master carpenter’s place seldom escape with their hands intact.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and authro 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. Waht 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 fathm. 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 ahrd 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.”

Today’s verse is a continuation of the theme Lao-tzu has been talking about since verse 70. And he states it again in lines six and seven of today’s verse: “What heaven dislikes / who knows the reason?” The Tao isn’t something we can understand. Best then, to just go with the flow. That was putting it rather mildly. Actually, as Lao-tzu says in today’s verse, it is a matter of life and death.

Because we don’t know what we think we know, we dare to act when we shouldn’t dare to act, and this is something Lao-tzu has been talking about for even longer. Back in verse 64, Lao-tzu said, “To act is to fail / to control is to lose / sages therefore don’t act / thus they don’t fail / they don’t control / thus they don’t lose.”

We think it is going to be easy. That is why we act, we intervene, we interfere, we try to control. And we force things, when what we thought would be easy, turns out to be hard. Instead of going with the flow and bringing ease to our life, we suffer hardship, hastening our own death.

The choice is so clear! Yet, we don’t see it. Being blinded by ambition, caught in desires, we don’t see until it’s too late. That is why Lao-tzu said, in verse 64, the time to act is before anything exists. After that, don’t dare to act!

The affliction goes from the top down to the masses of people. And it is easy to think the solution is to get the right people at the top. But, Lao-tzu warns us, again and again, this isn’t the Way. The solution comes from below not above, from behind not in front. How does the sea master a hundred rivers? By being lower than them.

We can’t know the Way of Heaven! All we can do is go with its flow. It wins without a fight, it answers without speaking a word. It comes without being summoned. It plans without a thought. The Net of Heaven is all-embracing. Yet, its mesh is so wide, we dare to think we can escape.

But there is no escape!

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

“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 non 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.”

Red Pine and his collection of commentators do such a fine job of expounding on today’s verse that I hardly have any need to add any of my own commentary.

I will note, however, that the affliction Lao-tzu was talking about in yesterday’s verse is the affliction Lao-tzu reveals in today’s verse. I happen to be writing this commentary on the eve of Halloween, and think that the admonition to “be afraid, be very afraid” is quite appropriate. It is because we don’t know what we think we know that these troubles come upon us. I also want to echo what some of the commentators have said, this lack of fear afflicts both great and small. Picking “this” over “that” could save us all a world of hurt.

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.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu said it is easy to understand, but no one understands. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu teaches the importance of understanding that no one understands.

Is this a play on words? “To understand yet not understand…not to understand yet understand….” I think I understand what Lao-tzu is meaning, here, though I might be getting myself into trouble thinking I understand.

Is our understanding going to be the source of our transcendence, or will it be the source of affliction? And, since sages aren’t afflicted, does that mean, we, too, can transcend affliction with our understanding?

Let’s see…

First of all, I think Lao-tzu is talking about two different kinds of understanding, here. The first kind, the one that results in transcendence, is an intuitive, a spontaneous, understanding. The other kind, the one that results in affliction, is based on external observation. The first kind is rooted in humility. It knows that it doesn’t know, that the Tao can’t be known. The other kind presumes it knows what can’t be known. This is what results in affliction. We are in need of being healed of all knowing.

The reason sages aren’t afflicted is because they understand the affliction of thinking we know for what it is, an affliction. They avoid getting sick in the first place, and so, have no need for medicine.

I think this verse could just as easily have been translated, “To understand that you don’t understand is transcendence. Not to understand, but to think you do is affliction. Sages avoid affliction by recognizing the affliction as an affliction. The reason there aren’t more sages in the world is because most people can’t be content with not-knowing.

Esteemed But Not Understood

“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 selfdom 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.”

Today’s verse tantalizes those who only look on the outside. “My words are easy to understand / and easy to practice” But because they only look on the outside, and never see their dark virtue (jade) on the inside, “no one understands them / or puts them into practice.” It is easy; yet it is difficult.

Words come from somewhere. Lao-tzu calls it an ancestor. Deeds have a master. What Lao-tzu is saying, here, is you have to see beyond words and deeds, which are just outward signs, to their origins. You have to delve deeper, and look behind them, to understand them and put them into practice.

Lao-tzu then personifies his teachings, saying “it’s me who isn’t understood.” He has done this before (see verse 67). “Because so few understand me / thus am I esteemed.” In verse 67 he says, “The world calls me great / great but useless.” The import of this, says Lao-tzu, is that if the world found him useful, they wouldn’t recognize his greatness.

On the outside, sages wear coarse cloth, their jade is concealed behind that coarse cloth.

It would be easy, here, to complain that if only sages didn’t conceal their jade, they would be easily understood. But that is to misunderstand the jade metaphor. Jade, like geodes, is found inside ordinary looking rocks. For the purpose of the metaphor, it has to be concealed, under what looks ordinary on the outside, for it to be jade.

In other words, it isn’t up to the sage to reveal their jade. It is up to the few who understand, to look on the inside to see the hidden jade.

Lao-tzu will have more to teach us on understanding with tomorrow’s verse. See you then!