“Were I sufficiently wise
I would follow the Great Way
and only fear going astray
the Great Way is smooth
but people love the byways
their palaces are spotless
but their fields are overgrown
and their granaries are empty
they wear fine clothes
and carry sharp swords
they tire of food and drink
and possess more than they need
this is called robbery
and robbery is not the way”
(Taoteching, verse 53, translation by Red Pine)
KU HSI-CH’OU says, “The Tao is not hard to know, but it is hard to follow.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu was concerned that rulers of his day did not follow the great Way. Hence, he hypothesized that if he knew enough to conduct the affairs of a country, he would follow the great Way and devote himself to implementing the policy of doing nothing.”
LU HSI-SHENG says, “The Great Way is like a grand thoroughfare: smooth and easy to travel, perfectly straight and free of detours, and there is nowhere it doesn’t lead. But people are in a hurry. They take shortcuts and get into trouble and become lost and don’t reach their destination. The sage worries only about leading people down such a path.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “A spotless palace refers to the height of superficiality. An overgrown field refers to an uncultivated mind. An empty granary refers to a lack of virtue.”
HAN FEI says, “When the court is in good repair, lawsuits abound. When lawsuits abound, fields become overgrown. When fields become overgrown, granaries become empty. When granaries become empty, the country becomes poor. When the country becomes poor, customs become decadent, and there is no trick people don’t try”(Hanfeitzu: 20).
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “When the court ignores the affairs of state to beautify its halls and interrupts farm work to build towers and pavilions, the people’s energy ends up at court, and fields turn to weeds. Once fields turn to weeds, state taxes are not paid and granaries become empty. And once granaries are empty, the country becomes poor, and the people become rebellious. The court dazzles the people with its fine clothes, and threatens the people with its sharp swords, and takes from people more than it needs – this is no different from robbing them.”
LI JUNG says, “A robber is someone who never has enough and who takes more than he needs.”
WANG PI says, “To gain possession of something by means other than the Way is wrong. And wrong means robbery.”
And RED PINE notes that the standard version of line three of today’s verse, which has shih (act), so it reads: “only fear acting,” is a mistake for yi (go astray); so, he translates it: “only fear going astray.” He was influenced by Wang Nien-sun in choosing this rendering. Wang Nien-sun (1744-1832), was a distinguished philologist whose analysis of grammatical particles used in ancient texts is unrivaled. His approach is also unique in not taking characters at their face value but in viewing them as possible homophones.
I am happy to defer to Wang Nien-sun and Red Pine in changing “act” to “go astray.” While “fearing acting” is certainly in line with Lao-tzu’s teaching of “doing nothing,” today’s verse has Lao-tzu talking about the Way as a path which should be preferred to “going astray” on the byways. Going astray leads to robbery, which Red Pine also notes is a pun. Way (Tao) and robbery (tao) are both pronounced the same. People prefer other paths, other ways. And, if we are wise we will not stray from the great and smooth Way.
Red Pine introduces the following sage today:
KU HSI-CH’OU (FL. 1600-1630). Scholar-official. His is one of several commentaries incorrectly attributed to the T’ang dynasty Taoist, Lu Tung-pin.