On Being One With the Way Things Are

“Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks”

(Taoteching, verse 39, translation by Red Pine)

WANG PI says, “One is the beginning of numbers and the end of things. All things become complete when they become one. But once they become complete, they leave oneness behind and focus on being complete. And by focusing on being complete, they lose their mother. Hence, they crack, they crumble, they dissipate, they dry up, and they fall. As long as they have their mother, they can preserve their form. But their mother has no form.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “It’s because Heaven becomes one that it graces the sky with constellations and light. It’s because Earth becomes one that it remains still and immovable. It’s because spirits become one that they change shape without becoming visible. It’s because valleys become one that they never stop filling up. It’s because kings become one that they pacify the world. But Heaven must move between yin and yang, between night and day. It can’t only be clear and bright. Earth must include high and low, hard and soft, and the five-fold stages of breath. Spirits must have periods of quiescence. They can’t only be active. Valleys must also be empty and dry. They can’t only be full. And kings must humble themselves and never stop seeking worthy people to assist them. They can’t only lord it over others. If they do, they fall from power and lose their thrones.”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, kings used carriages as metaphors for the wealth and size of their kingdoms. To refer to one’s carriages as no carriages was an expression of self-deprecation.”

SU CH’E says, “Oneness dwells in the noble, but it is not noble. Oneness dwells in the humble, but it is not humble. Oneness is not like the luster of jade (so noble it cannot be humble) or the coarseness of rock (so humble it cannot be noble).”

And RED PINE reminds us, “One is the number between zero and two.” This is to remind us we need to move between zero and two, yin and yang, to be one.

Being one with the Way things are. Lao-tzu has talked of this before, specifically in verse 23, where he talked about how being one with the Tao meant being one with both success when we succeed, and failure when we fail. Being one with the Way things are is actually the theme of his whole Taoteching. Being one with the Way things are is both realizing and accepting our connection to the whole universe. And realizing and accepting isn’t a mere passive thing, a simple knowing; it requires active participation from us.

Lao-tzu teaches that there are things we can infer from those that became one in the past. Then he lists those things: Heaven, Earth, spirits, valleys, and kings. But what can we infer from them?

Let’s take them one by one. From Heaven becoming one and clear, we can infer that Heaven would crack if it were always clear. From Earth becoming one and still, we can infer that Earth would crumble if it were always still. From spirits becoming one and active, we can infer that spirits would dissipate if they were always active. From valleys becoming one and full, we can infer that valleys would dry up if they were always full. And, from kings becoming one and ruling the world, we can infer kings would fall if they were always high and noble. That is a whole lot to infer, but what is Lao-tzu actually getting at, here?

Oneness with the Way things are means realizing and accepting the duality which exists in oneness. He is referring to yin and yang. Clearness and murkiness, stillness and activity, fullness and emptiness, these all go together. The high is founded on the low.

Thus it is, says Lao-tzu, that kings refer to themselves as orphaned, widowed, and destitute. But this, Lao-tzu says, isn’t the basis of humility. This is an important point. It is really the whole point of today’s verse. It is where us humans always seem to get it wrong.

Trying to appear humble, instead of realizing and accepting the natural flow of yin and yang. Trying to force things, instead of merely letting it happen. Lao-tzu, still speaking of kings, says they count a carriage as no carriage at all. How ridiculous! Of course it is a carriage. You can say it isn’t, but that is just nonsense. They strive to not clink like jade, and they end up clunking like rocks. In other words, they may have once been one with the Way things are, and they ruled the world; but they didn’t stay one with the Way things are, and they fell. And what a fall!

Red Pine introduces the following sage 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.

Pick This Over That

“Higher Virtue isn’t virtuous
thus it possesses virtue
Lower Virtue isn’t without virtue
thus it possesses no virtue
Higher Virtue involves no effort
or the thought of effort
Higher Kindness involves effort
but not the thought of effort
Higher Justice involves effort
and the thought of effort
Higher Ritual involves effort
and should it meet with no response
then it threatens and compels
virtue appears when the Way is lost
kindness appears when virtue is lost
justice appears when kindness is lost
ritual appears when justice is lost
ritual marks the waning of belief
and the onset of confusion
augury is the flower of the Way
and beginning of delusion
thus the great choose thick over thin
the fruit over the flower
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 38, translation by Red Pine)

HAN FEI says, “Virtue is the Tao at work.”

WANG PI says, “Those who possess Higher Virtue use nothing but the Tao. They possess virtue, but they don’t give it a name.”

YEN TSUN says, “Those who embody the Way are empty and effortless, yet they lead all creatures to the Way. Those who embody virtue are faultless and responsive and ready to do anything. Those who embody kindness show love for all creatures without restriction. Those who embody justice deal with things by matching name with reality. Those who embody ritual are humble and put harmony first. These five are the footprints of the Tao. They are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is not one, much less five.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Kindness is another name for virtue. It differs, though, from virtue because it involves effort. The kindness of sages, however, does not go beyond fulfilling their nature. They aren’t interested in effort. Hence, they don’t think about it.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Higher kindness is kindness without effort to be kind. Kindness is simply a gift. Justice is concerned with the appropriateness of the gift. Ritual is concerned with repayment. When ritual appears, belief disappears and confusion arises.”

SU CH’E says, “These are the means whereby sages help the people to safety. When the people don’t respond, sages threaten and force them. If they still don’t respond, sages turn to law and punishment.”

FAN YING-YUAN says, “‘Augury’ means to see the future. Those in charge of rituals think they can see the future and devise formulas for human action, but they thus cause people to trade the spirit for the letter.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao is like a fruit. Hanging from a tree, it contains the power of life, but its womb is hidden. Once it falls, it puts forth virtue as its root, kindness as its stem, justice as its branches, ritual as its leaves, and knowledge as its flower. All of these come from the Tao. ‘That’ refers to the flower. ‘This’ refers to the fruit. Those who embody the Tao choose the fruit over the flower.”

RED PINE adds, “And yet the plastic flowers of civilization still deck a billion altars.”

We all know them. Heck, we may even be them. People who go out of their way to show just how virtuous they can be. Ah, the virtue-signaling is strong these days. Maybe it was strong in Lao-tzu’s day, too. Hence, we have today’s verse, which shows us a different path to virtue. Will you dare to take the high road? Or, will you remain stuck on the low road?

Higher Virtue, says Lao-tzu, isn’t virtuous. What? What he means is it doesn’t appear to be virtuous. It doesn’t try to be virtuous. It is effortless. In other words, Higher Virtue is simply following the Tao. As Han Fei says, it is the Tao at work. And as Wang Pi says, we practice this virtue by using nothing but the Tao. It is following Nature’s Way. Going with the natural flow. It doesn’t force itself on others. Yen Tsun says those who embody it are empty and effortless. It is being, without having to even think about it.

Lower virtue, on the other hand, isn’t without virtue. And thus, it possess no virtue. All of that virtue-signaling, that appearing to be virtuous, that trying to force itself on others, through acts of kindness, and justice, and the ritual itself, of being virtuous. This kind of virtue requires effort. It is hard work to go against the flow of nature. It really is.

The differences between Higher Virtue and lower virtue couldn’t be more profound. It is like comparing a fruit to a flower, or thick to thin. Just take a look at the lower virtues and I think you will immediately see the difference.

Kindness, at its highest, involves effort. You have to work to be kind. Though you may not give a thought about the effort, you still have to work at being kind.

And Justice; you know, that thing we all demand when we believe we have been wronged, but hope to evade when we have been the one doing the wrong — that requires great effort. It requires so much effort, it requires a great deal of thought, too. Justice is far too important not to require the greatest minds being devoted to it.

And then there is Ritual. The lowest of the virtues, I think. Ritual takes doing for the sake of appearances to its extreme form. Not content with simply appearing virtuous, it insists on being lauded for its virtuosity. And if the people don’t respond, watch out.

Now, I know I am taking a rather dim view of these lower virtues, kindness, justice, and ritual. Our commentators today see the virtue in both kindness and justice; and well, I do too. It isn’t like I want you to be unkind or unjust. And I don’t practice being unkind or unjust, either. But please understand what Lao-tzu is describing for us in today’s verse.

These lower virtues only appear because the great Way has been lost.

First, kindness appears. But when kindness is lost, justice appears. And when justice is lost, ritual appears. It is how things devolve over time as the Tao, and the practice of its Virtue, has been forgotten. It is the waning of belief. And try as we might to fill that void with some kind of substitute, nothing quite works like we want.

Confusion is the order of the day. We are so confused we think we can foretell a bright future. But that is just a flower. Pretty, maybe. But give me the fruit. That alone will sustain me.

Pick thick over thin, the fruit over the flower. Pick this (Higher Virtue) over that (lower virtue.

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

FAN YING-YUAN (FL. 1240-1269). One of the first scholars to examine variations in pronunciation and wording in the Taoteching. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching ku-pen-chi-chu.

Let the World Fix Itself

“The Tao makes no effort at all
yet there is nothing it doesn’t do
if a ruler could uphold it
the people by themselves would change
and changing if their desires stirred
he could make them still
with simplicity that has no name
and stilled by nameless simplicity
they would not desire
and not desiring be at peace
the world would fix itself”

(Taoteching: verse 37, translation by Red Pine)

CHUANG-TZU says, “The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing. This is the Virtue of Heaven. Heaven moves without moving.” (Chuangtzu:12.1).

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao’s lack of effort is ancient and eternal and not simply temporary. Although it makes no effort, it does everything it should do. If rulers could uphold this Tao of effortlessness, without consciously thinking about changing others, others would change by themselves.”

LAO-TZU says, “I make no effort / and the people transform themselves” (Taoteching: 57).

TE-CH’ING says, “If nobles and kings could only uphold the Tao, all creatures would change by themselves without thinking about changing. This is the effect of upholding the Tao. When creatures first change, their desires disappear. But before long, their trust fades and feelings well up and begin to flow until desires reappear. When this occurs, those who are adept at saving others must block the source of desire with nameless simplicity.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Nameless simplicity’ refers to the Tao, which all creatures use to transform themselves and which nobles and kings use to pacify those who engage in cleverness and deceit.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When people first change and begin to cultivate the Tao, they think about reaching a goal. Once this desire arises, it must be stilled with the Tao’s nameless simplicity.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages have no thought of embracing simplicity, nor do they show any sign of doing so. If the thought of becoming simple existed in their hearts, they would miss the mark completely.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Once rulers use nameless simplicity to still the desires of the people, they must then give it up so that the people don’t follow its tracks and once again enter the realm of action. Once our illness is cured, we put away the medicine. Once we are across the river, we leave the boat behind. And once we are free of desire, we must also forget the desire to be free of desire. Serene and at peace, the ruler does nothing, while the world takes care of itself.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Other creatures follow their natures without creating chaos or disaster. They change by themselves without seeking change. People, meanwhile, race through the realm of existence and never know a quiet moment. They abandon their original innocence and don’t practice the true Tao of doing nothing. They don’t care about their lives, until one day they offend and retribution arrives.”

And RED PINE adds, “Name takes sides. Complexity limits options. Hence, those who uphold nameless simplicity don’t take sides and keep their options open.”

Today’s verse is the perfect summation of everything Lao-tzu has to teach about the art of governing. If only those who govern us would follow his sage advice.

I have been laughing out loud a lot for the last few days. Oprah gave a speech at the Golden Globe awards, and liberals shed tears. Lots of tears. Tears of joy. It is the second coming of the Messiah, Obama. Oprah will run for president in 2020. She will fix everything. Everyone will get a new car. It will be glorious. Liberals cry, and I laugh. Laughing beats crying, I think, because I could easily be crying. Just not tears of joy.

I am not meaning to disparage Oprah. I just think it is a hoot that so many want her to run, and that she just might. I actually hope she does. Anything that diminishes the office of presidency, and Oprah running against Trump in 2020 would certainly do that, regardless who the powers that be decide to “elect,” is probably the best I can hope for.

If I wasn’t laughing so hard I would probably get back to this perfect summation of everything Lao-tzu teaches on the art of governing. Pull yourself together, now. Breathe. Lao-tzu has some sage advice. Trump could learn a thing or twenty. And Oprah could, too. I just don’t expect they will. Still, here goes.

Instead of attempting to fix the world, let the world fix itself.

I know. As I have already said, I don’t think Lao-tzu’s sage advice is going to be followed. But still, you can’t fault me for holding up the Tao. It’s just what I do. Now, if only they would.

The Tao, unlike our illustrious leaders, makes no effort at all. Yet, there is nothing it doesn’t do. Why, if a ruler could uphold it, only uphold it, the people by themselves would change.

This so beats what our rulers do. They do and they do and they do. Yet nothing good ever gets accomplished by them. They do for us, and leave us with nothing to do for ourselves. Why, you can get locked up for doing for yourself. This never changes. It never changes, and we never change.

We remain full of desires. And, our rulers, far from stilling our desires, stir them up more. This never changes.

It would take governing with simplicity for that to change. A simplicity that has no name would still our desires; and because of this practice of not desiring, we would be at peace; and the world would fix itself.

But, of course, they don’t want that. World peace? Only beauty queens want that. Hey, maybe we could get a few of them to run for president in 2020, too. I thought 2016 was a circus. 2020 could be so much more entertaining.

Okay, I know I am enjoying this a whole lot more than I should. But, I just have to laugh to avoid crying. Because our rulers will continue to wage war all around the globe. They will continue to try to fix things, while making them all the more worse. But, if I get a new car won’t it be worth it?

Strength In Weakness?

“What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can’t survive out of the depths
a state’s greatest weapon
isn’t meant to be shown”

(Taoteching, verse 36, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way. Hence, lengthening is a portent of shortening. Strengthening is the onset of weakening. Raising is the beginning of toppling. Giving is the start of taking. This is the natural order for Heaven as well as for Humankind. Thus, to hide the light means the weak conquer the strong. Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. But rulers must not show it to their people. Deep water is the best place for a fish. But once it is exposed to the air, a fish is completely helpless. And once rulers show weakness, they attract enemies and shame.”

LU HUI-CHING says, “To perceive shortening in lengthening, weakening in strengthening, toppling in raising, taking in giving, how could anyone do this if not through the deepest insight? This is the hidden light. Moreover, what causes things to be shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is invisible and weak. While what is shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is visible and strong. Thus, the weak conquer the strong. People should not abandon weakness, just as fish should not leave the depths. When fish leave the depths, they are caught. When people abandon weakness, they join the league of the dead.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Hiding the light’ is the same as ‘cloaking the light.’” (See verse 27)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “According to the way of the world, the weak don’t conquer the strong. But Lao-tzu’s point is that the weak can conquer the strong by letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “The Tao is like water. People are like fish.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon but not one that is known to the world” (Chuangtzu: 10.3).

HAN FEI says, “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.”

Among our commentators of today’s verse there is a difference of opinion. Te-ch’ing says “weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. Chuang-tzu says the sage is the world’s greatest weapon. And, Han Fei says rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapons. So, which is it? Or, since it isn’t meant to be shown, does it even matter?

Well, it does matter. It matters a great deal, But, and I am probably showing my own weakness here, I have to admit I have struggled with deciding which of our commentators, if any of them, is correct.

And the winner is…. Te-ch’ing. He said weakness is what Lao-tzu is talking about; and after careful consideration I have to agree. But, how could weakness be a great strength?

Well, I think Te-ch’ing explains it well enough. “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way.” Yang can only last so long before yin has its own turn.  And note what Sung Ch’ang-hsing says: “…the weak can conquer the strong by letting the the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”

“Using the hidden light.” Now, that is important. What Lao-tzu calls “hiding the light” in today’s verse, back in verse 27, as Wu Ch’eng reminds us, Lao-tzu called “cloaking the light.” When we talked about it then, I said the practice of cloaking the light results in perfect blindness. Where we aren’t tempted by external things to intervene, interfere, and force things, in an effort to control.

Hiding the light, you don’t try to shorten what first should be lengthened. You don’t try to weaken what you should first strengthen. You don’t try to topple what you should first raise. And you don’t try to take what you should first give.

Is this not weakness overcoming strength? Understanding how yin and yang operate in our world, naturally. For, what is true of Heaven is true for Humankind, as well. Don’t intervene. Don’t interfere. Don’t try to force things. Give up your need to be in control. Nature’s Way, is the best way.

Everything has its limit. And once things reach their limit, they always, without fail, go the other way. Lengthening will give way to shortening. Strengthening will give way to weakening. Raising will give way to toppling. And giving will give way to taking. It is the natural order of things.

Lao-tzu refers to us as fish in today’s verse. And the Tao is water. We will never survive out of those depths.

Hidden. Safe. Serene. Stay there. And live.

The Only Words the Tao Speaks

“Hold up the Great Image
and the world will come
and be beyond harm
safe and serene and at peace
fine food and song
don’t detain guests long
thus the Tao speaks
plain words that make no sense
we look but don’t see it
we listen but don’t hear it
yet we use it without end”

(Taoteching, verse 35, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG HSUAN-TING says, “Here ‘hold’ means to hold without holding, to hold what cannot be held.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “The Great Image is the Great Way, which gives birth to Heaven and Earth and all creatures. It is called ‘great’ because it encompasses everything.”

LI JUNG says, “The Great image has no form. What has no form is the great and empty Way. To ‘hold’ means to focus or to keep. Those who can keep their body in the realm of Dark Virtue and focus their mind on the gate of Hidden Serenity possess the Way. All things come to them. Clouds appear, and all creatures are refreshed. Rain pours down, and all plants are nourished. And these blessings come from such a subtle thing.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To come to no harm means to be protected. But when people turn to sages, sages use no protection to protect them. If they protected people with protection, protection and harm would both exist. But by protecting people with no protection, people are always protected and kept from harm.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Unharmed, our spirit is safe. Unharmed, our breath is serene. Unharmed, our nature is at peace.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Sages rule the world through selflessness. All things come to them because they are one with all things. And while they forget themselves in others, others forget themselves in them. Thus, all things find their place, and there are none that are not at peace.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “What the Tao says is the opposite of the mundane or the clever. Most people find it completely senseless. But within its senselessness, there is great sense. This is what sages savor. The Tao prefers simplicity of form and a minimum of expression. Hence, it is hard to see and hard to hear and also hard to follow. But those who can follow it and use it enjoy limitless blessings.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “A great person’s words are plain like water. A small person’s words are sweet like wine. The plainness of a great person brings people closer, while the sweetness of a small person drives them apart. Those who come together for no reason, separate for no reason” (Chuangtzu: 20.5).

SU CH’E says, “Banquets and entertainment might detain visitors, but sooner or later the food runs out, the music ends, and visitors leave. If someone entertained the world with the Great Image, no one would know how to love it, much less hate it. Although it has no taste, shape, or sound with which to please people, those who use it can never exhaust it.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone used the Tao to govern the country, the country would be rich, and the people would be prosperous. If someone used it to cultivate themselves, there would be no limit to the length of their life.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Great Image is Te, or Virtue, the manifestation of the Tao.”

If yesterday’s verse was scary, Lao-tzu certainly puts our minds and hearts at ease with today’s verse.

We can be beyond harm: Safe. Serene. And at peace.

What is it going to take? Well, we covered that just a bit in yesterday’s verse. Daring to realize we aren’t as moored as we might think we are. That we are all, unmoored, adrift, unrestrained, free. And yet, the Tao is right there, wherever we turn, to use.

No, though you look for it, you can’t see it. Though you listen for it, you can’t hear it. Still, you can use it without end.

We need to embrace our freedom. No longer trying to be satisfied with fine food and song, which doesn’t endure.

Oh, I know what you are thinking. I used to think the very same thing. These plain words make no sense. But those are the only words the Tao speaks.

Adrift, Unrestrained, Free

“The Tao drifts
it can go left or right
everything lives by its grace
but it doesn’t speak
when its work succeeds
it makes no claim
it has no desires
shall we call it small
everything turns to it
but it wields no control
shall we call it great
it’s because sages never act great
they can thus achieve great things”

(Taoteching, verse 34, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To drift means to be unrestrained. The Tao is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided. As Chuang-tzu says, “The Tao has no borders’ (Chuangtzu: 2.5).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats” (Chuangtzu: 32.1).

WANG PI says, “The Tao drifts everywhere. It can go left or right. It can go up or down. Wherever we turn, it’s there for us to use.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Great Way is a watery expanse that extends to the eight horizons. But when we use it, it’s as close as our left or right hand. There is nothing that doesn’t depend on it for life, and yet it never speaks of its power. There is nothing that doesn’t happen without its help, and yet it never mentions its achievements.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Outside of the Tao there are no things. Outside of things there is no Tao. The Tao gives birth to things, just as wind creates movement or water creates waves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although living things might be infinite in number, the Tao creates them all through the mystery of doing nothing. It doesn’t mind making so many. And it creates them without thinking about its power.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When the Tao becomes small, it doesn’t stop being great. And when it becomes great, it doesn’t stop being small. But all we see are its traces. In reality, it is neither small nor great. It can’t be described. It can only be known.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The Tao produces all things, and all things turn to it. It’s like the sea. All streams empty into it, and yet it doesn’t control them.”

Commenting on lines eight and eleven, WU CH’ENG says, “Even though there are no question indicators, these are questions and not statements, just as in verse 10. If we can call something great, it isn’t the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who are great and think themselves great are small.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Tao hides in what has no name, and sages embody it through what has no name. They don’t consider themselves great, and yet no one is greater, for they can go left or right. Hence, they are neither small nor great. And because they are neither small nor great, they can do great things.”

Today’s verse strikes me as perhaps the scariest of verses within the Taoteching. I hadn’t really thought of it like this before, it is just the way it struck me this time around. Maybe I am empathizing more with the way I perceive others may be thinking. But what is more likely is I am becoming more in tune with how Lao-tzu’s teachings affect me to the very core of my own being.

So, why scary? Well, consider the Tao adrift. It can go left or right, up or down. It can’t be pinned down. It is unrestrained. Totally free. The Tao, as Hsuan-tsung says, is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided; or, as Chuang-tzu has said, “The Tao has no borders.” You can’t control it. You can’t even always predict where it is going. You only know you can expect it to always be returning, and returning you, to the Source.

Okay, maybe that isn’t so scary. But consider this: It isn’t just the Tao which is drifting. We, ourselves, are drifting too. That, I think is scary. Chuang-tzu went on to say, “Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats.”

“Like unmoored boats.” Do we dare? Most won’t. They would rather remain moored. Content to be discontent. Relying on their skill and cleverness to toil and worry, afraid to let go, and more to be let go. Adrift. Unrestrained. Free.

That state of freedom, scary yes, but the Tao is there wherever we turn; whether left or right, up or down, it is there for us to use.

Who is us? Those willing to be free, to be unrestrained, to be adrift. Like the Tao.

Like the Tao, which doesn’t speak or make any claim, though everything lives by its grace, and its work succeeds. Like the Tao, which has no desires and wields no control, though everything turns to it.

Shall we call it small or great? The Tao is neither, and both.

And what of us? Shall we be small or great? Moored, yet striving to be great, we would forever be small. But unmoored, unrestrained, free — though we never act great, we can thus achieve great things.

Be Content and Strive Hard to Endure

“Those who know others are perceptive
those who know themselves are wise
those who conquer others are forceful
those who conquer themselves are strong
those who know contentment are wealthy
those who strive hard are resolved
those who don’t lose their place endure
those who aren’t affected by death live long.”

(Taoteching, verse 33, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “‘Perception’ means to distinguish. Wisdom means to remove obstructions. As long as our distinguishing mind is present, we can only know others, but not ourselves.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Perception is external knowledge. Wisdom is internal knowledge. Force is external control. Strength is internal control. Perception and force mislead us. Wisdom and strength are true. They are the doors to the Tao.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone can conquer others, it is only by using force. If someone can conquer their own desires, no one in the world can compete with them. Hence, we call them strong.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The strength of those who conquer themselves is of ten kinds: the strength of faith, the strength of charity, the strength of morality, the strength of devotion, the strength of meditation, the strength of concentration, the strength of illumination, the strength of wisdom, the strength of the Way, and the strength of Virtue.” (Note the similarity of this list to Buddhism’s paramitas, or perfections).

WU CH’ENG says, “Elsewhere, Lao-tzu extols simple-mindedness and weakness over wisdom and strength. Why then does he extol wisdom and strength here? Wisdom and strength are for dealing with the inside. Simple-mindedness and weakness are for dealing with the outside.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The natural endowment of all beings is complete in itself. Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it. But fools abandon this treasure to chase trash. Those who know contentment pay the world no heed. This is true wealth. Mencius said, ‘The ten thousand things are within us’ (Mencius 7A.4). How could we not be wealthy?

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although the Great Way might be far off, if we persevere without pause, we advance. We get closer and closer, until suddenly we become one with the Way. Whoever has a goal can do anything. Outside, be content with your lot. Inside, focus on the Way. Those who do this cannot help but live long.”

WANG PI says, “Those who strive with devotion reach their goal. Those who examine themselves and work within their capacity don’t lose their place and are able to endure. Although we die, the Tao that gave us life doesn’t perish. Our body disappears, but the Tao remains. If our body continued to survive, would the Tao not end?”

TE-CH’ING says, “Our ‘place’ is like the position of the North Star. It refers to our nature.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Those who govern with Virtue are like the North Star, which remains in its place, while the myriad stars revolve around it” (Lunyu: 2.1).

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Before we distinguish life and death, they share the same form, the ten thousand things dwell in the same house. Our body is like the shell of a cicada or the skin of a snake: a temporary lodging. The shell crumbles but not the cicada. The skin decays but not the snake. We all have something real that survives death.”

KUMARAJIVA says, “Not to live in living is to endure. Not to die in dying is to live long.”

And RED PINE adds, “Although the ch’iang-hsing (striving hard) of line six seems at odds with Lao-tzu’s dictum of wu-wei “doing nothing/effortlessness,” commentators are agreed that here it refers to inner cultivation and not to the pursuit of worldly goals.”

As I have read through today’s verse what has stood out to me is how readily we settle for less than we can be. It isn’t that we are content with being less. It is that we are seemingly content with being discontent.

We think ourselves clever because of our knowledge of others, “Look at how perceptive we are!” Yes, good for us, but true wisdom comes from knowing ourselves.

We especially like being able to conquer others. Exhibiting our force all over the globe. But one thing we never seem to be able to do is conquer our own ambitions, our desires, ourselves. Yet, that is where true strength lies.

If we knew true contentment we would know just how wealthy we are. Not to flaunt it, for true wealth isn’t something which can be flaunted. It isn’t something external. True contentment is focused on our inner selves, and the wealth that lies within.

What this all points to is the need to cultivate ourselves, rather than concentrating outside of ourselves, toward others. Lao-tzu has made such a point of stressing the practice of doing nothing, his teaching to strive hard, in today’s verse, seems almost contradictory.

But it isn’t a contradiction. When it comes to others and things, outside of ourselves, we should have a hands-off, non-intervention, non-interference, don’t force, don’t try to control, do nothing, approach. But when it comes to ourselves you better believe we need to strive hard.

The way of Humankind is stacked against us. Everyone and everything seems to insist on dragging us into the fray of doing something about just about everything going on outside of us. And those who dare to go against that tide? Well, it is going to take a whole lot of resolve.

But, if we don’t lose our place (that is, our nature), and stand firm, we will endure.

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

KUMARAJIVA (344-413). Native of the Silk Road kingdom of Kucha and greatest of all translators of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Those Who Know Restraint Avoid Trouble

“The Tao remains unnamed
simple and though small
no one can command it
if a lord upheld it
the world would be his guest
when Heaven joins with Earth
they bestow sweet dew
no one gives the order
it comes down to all
the first distinction gives us names
once we have a name
we should know restraint
who knows restraint avoids trouble
to picture the Tao in the world
imagine a stream and the sea”

(Taoteching, verse 32, translation by Red Pine)

WANG P’ANG says, “The Tao has no body. How could it have a name?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “We call it ‘simple’ because it hasn’t been cut or polished. We call it ‘small’ because it’s faint and infinitesimal. Those who can see what is small and hold on to it are rare indeed.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “‘Simple means the natural state. When it expands, it’s everywhere. When it contracts, it isn’t as big as the tip of a hair. Hence, even though it’s small, it’s beyond anyone’s command.”

WANG PI says, “If people embrace the simple and work without effort and don’t burden their true nature with material goods or injure their spirit with desires, all things will come to them on their own, and they will discover the Tao by themselves. To discover the Tao, nothing is better than embracing simplicity.”

JEN FA-JUNG say, “In terms of practice, if people can be serene and natural, free themselves from desire, and put their minds at rest, their yin and yang breaths will come together on their own and penetrate every artery and organ. Inside their mouths, the saliva of sweet dew will appear spontaneously and nourish their whole body.”

LU HUI-CHING says, “When a ruler acts, the first thing he does is institute names.”

HSUN-TZU says, “Now that the sages are gone, names and reality have become confused” (Hsuntzu:2).

TE-CH’ING says, “What is simple has no name. Once we make something, we give it a name. But name gives rise to name. Where does it end? Hence, Lao-tzu tells us to stop chasing names.”

LI JUNG says, “The child who depends on its mother suffers no harm. Those who depend on the Tao encounter no trouble.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao has no name, but as Virtue it does. Thus, from nothing we get something. But Virtue is not far from the Tao. If we stop there, we can still go from something back to nothing and return to the Tao. Thus, the Tao is like the sea, and Virtue is like a stream, flowing back into the Tao.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Although Heaven and Earth are high and low, they join together and send down sweet dew. No one makes them do so. And there is no one who does not benefit. Although the Tao separates into things, and each thing has a name, the Tao never abandons anything. Thus, the breath of rivers eventually reaches the sea, and the breath of the sea eventually reaches rivers.”

LAO-TZU says, “The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers / is because it has mastered being lower” (Taoteching: 66).

We finished up last week by talking about the need to practice self-control. In today’s verse Lao-tzu compares the unnamed with the named; and says, once we have a name we should show restraint. Those who know restraint avoid trouble.

But how can we know restraint? Lao-tzu, uses metaphors to describe it, but it really goes back to the unnamed. The Tao, simple and small. The Tao, simple and small, though no one can command it. If we could uphold it, if we could just uphold it, then we would know restraint. We would know restraint before the first distinction gave us names.

So, let’s talk a bit, again, about the Tao. To picture the Tao in the world, says Lao-tzu, imagine a stream and the sea. Things are so ordered that all streams run into the sea. Just as when Heaven is joined with the Earth, we are bestowed with sweet dew. No one gives the order.

No one gives the order. That is essential to understand. It comes down to all, spontaneously, and without force.

To know restraint is to acquiesce to the natural order. The natural order that doesn’t need us to intervene, interfere, to force things, or try to control.

It is simple really. Like the Tao. But it is sure hard to realize when you have so-called leaders talking about who has the bigger button, threatening to annihilate us all.

Dispassion is the Best

“Weapons are not auspicious tools
some things are simply bad
thus the Taoist shuns them
in peace the ruler honors the left
in war he honors the right
weapons are not auspicious tools
he wields them when he has no choice
dispassion is the best
thus he doesn’t praise them
those who praise their use
enjoy killing others
those who enjoy killing others
achieve no worldly rule
thus we honor the left for happiness
we honor the right for sorrow
the left is where the adjutant stands
the commander on the right
which means as at a funeral
when you kill another
honor him with your tears
when the battle is won
treat it as a wake”

(Taoteching, verse 31, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In times of decadence and disorder, we use weapons to defend the people.”

SU CH’E says, “We take up weapons to rescue the distressed and not as a matter of course.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The system of ritual devised by the ancient kings treated the right as superior and the left as inferior. Being superior, the right represented the Way of Victory. Being inferior, the left represented the Way of Humility. But victory entails death and destruction. Hence, those on the right were in charge of sad occasions, while those on the left were in charge of happy events.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “‘Left’ refers to the east and the power of creation, while ‘right’ refers to the west and the power of destruction.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “When Tibetans, Huns, or other tribes invade our borders, the ruler has no choice but to respond. But he responds as he would to a gnat. He does not act in anger. The greatest victory involves no fighting. Hence, dispassion is the best policy.

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sun-tzu discussed in detail the use of strengths and weaknesses and of direction and indirection in warfare. But he did not understand their basis (Suntzu Pingfa: 5-6). Lao-tzu says dispassion is the best policy, because it secures victory without a display. This might seem odd, but dispassion means rest, and rest is the root of victory. Meanwhile, passion means to act, and action is the basis of defeat.”

KING HSIANG OF LIANG asked Mencius, “How can the kingdom be pacified?” Mencius answered, “The kingdom can be pacified by uniting it.” King Hsiang asked, “But who can unite it?” Mencius answered, “One who does not delight in killing others can unite it” (Mencius: 1A.6).

LI JUNG says, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools. Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received the mourners.”

It probably needs saying. While Lao-tzu (in both yesterday’s verse and today’s) has taken aim at the use of weapons, first saying don’t use them to rule the land, and then saying they aren’t auspicious tools (not once, but twice), I think it would be a misunderstanding of Lao-tzu, and I know it is a misunderstanding of me, to think guns should be banned, or there should be some kind of gun-control. Just for the record, I am for self-control, just as I believe Lao-tzu taught.

However, this also needs saying. Whenever Lao-tzu repeats himself, I think it behooves us to perk up our ears and take notice. In today’s verse, he actually repeats himself twice. He tells us weapons are not auspicious tools twice in today’s verse. And he repeats what he said back in verse 24, some things are simply bad and should be shunned. These two things were important enough to Lao-tzu to emphasize, so I think we should consider them carefully.

First off, let’s remember what he was talking about in verse 24, when he said some things are simply bad and should be shunned. What he was talking about is anything that isn’t natural. And, the use of force, while it certainly seems to be the way of Humankind (if human history has anything to teach us) is not the Way of Nature. We talked about that in yesterday’s verse.

Secondly, in today’s verse, when he twice says, “Weapons are not auspicious tools,” he follows up by saying, while the Taoist shuns them, he does wield them when he has no choice. He does wield them, should settle any questions regarding the use of weapons as tools. No, they aren’t auspicious. In other words, their use doesn’t bode well. Yet, use them, some times we must. As I said in my commentary on yesterday’s verse, there are defensive purposes which are legitimate.

The key, I believe, is self-control. Keeping the use of weapons to their legitimate defensive purposes. As Li Jung said in his commentary on today’s verse, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools.” Why disdain them as tools? Because they are tools of fear and violence, because they aren’t auspicious tools. This is why, “Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received mourners.” But, then, why honor them for their virtue? What virtue do these inauspicious tools have? Their virtue is they can bring an end to conflict; and as long as we have practiced self-control in their use, they can save lives.

But the cost is great! That is why self-control is so important. That is why using them for offensive purposes is so dreadful. That is why once a battle is won, it isn’t time for celebration, but mourning.

Somehow we have forgotten that. We glorify war, and pin medals on those who have shed the most blood. We erect statues, and hold parades honoring them. I am told over and over again I must support our troops and honor our veterans. What I can’t understand is why I should support weapons being used for offensive purposes, and honoring those who wield them in that way. I know better. It isn’t auspicious. Some things are simply bad. And I rightly shun them.

What if we wept instead of rejoicing? Who delights in killing others? And why would we want them leading us?

No, weapons don’t need to be banned. But we shouldn’t be proud about our use of them. We should be sad that any conflict came to that. That we couldn’t win without resorting to force.

Lao-tzu, in today’s verse, basically lays the fault for all of this at our passions. We haven’t practiced self-control. Dispassion is the best! That is what he says. And that is what he expects from each one of us. Don’t let your passions rule you. You can do better.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KING HSIANG (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the small state of Liang (now Kaifeng) and son of King Hui.

This is How Thing Have Repercussions

“Use the Tao to assist your lord
don’t use weapons to rule the land
such things have repercussions
where armies camp
brambles grow
best to win then stop
don’t make use of force
win but don’t be proud
win but don’t be vain
win but don’t be cruel
win when you have no choice
this is to win without force
virility leads to old age
this isn’t the Tao
what isn’t the Tao ends early”

(Taoteching, verse 30, translation by Red Pine)

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “A kingdom’s ruler is like a person’s heart; when the ruler acts properly, the kingdom is at peace. When the heart works properly, the body is healthy. What enables them to work and act properly is the Tao. Hence, use nothing but the Tao to assist the ruler.”

LI HSI-CHAI, quoting Mencius (7B.7), says, “‘If you kill someone’s father, someone will kill your father. If you kill someone’s brother, someone will kill your brother.’ This is how things have repercussions.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The external use of soldiers and arms returns in the form of vengeful enemies. The internal use of poisonous thoughts come back in the form of evil rebirths.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Humankind’s retribution is clear, while Heaven’s retribution is obscure. Where an army spends the night, brambles soon appear. In an army’s wake, bad years follow. This is the retribution of Heaven.”

WANG CHEN, paraphrasing Suntzu Pingfa (2.1), says, “To raise an army of a hundred thousand requires the daily expenditure of a thousand ounces of gold. And an army of a hundred thousand means a million refugees on the road. Also, nothing results in greater droughts, plagues, or famines than the scourge of warfare. A good general wins only when he has no choice, then stops. He dares not take anything by force.”

MENCIUS says, “Those who say they are great tacticians or great warriors are, in fact, great criminals” (Mencius: 7B2-3).

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “To win means to defeat one’s enemies. To win without being arrogant about one’s power, to win without being boastful about one’s ability, to win without being cruel about one’s achievement, this sort of victory only comes from being forced and not from the exercise of force.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Tao prosper and yet seem poor. They become full and yet seem empty. What is not virile does not become old and does not die. The virile die. This is the way things are. Using an army to control the world represents the height of strength. But it only hastens old age and death.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Once plants reach their height of development, they wither. Once people reach their peak, they grow old. Force does not prevail for long. It isn’t the Tao. What is withered and old cannot follow the Tao. And what cannot follow the Tao soon dies.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who possess the Way are like children. They come of age without growing old.”

LAO-TZU says, “Tyrants never choose their death” (Taoteching: 42).

And, RED PINE adds, “It isn’t the Tao that ends early, for the Tao has no beginning or end.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu reminds us of something that should be obvious to each one of us; indeed, it is an elementary lesson of physics: Force is met with force. Yet, force is not the natural Way. It most certainly is the way of Humankind. But we have talked already of the myriad ways the way of Humankind is contrary to the Way of nature. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu enjoins us to not use weapons (in other words, force) to rule the land. Instead, use the Tao.

Resorting to the use of force has repercussions. You may appear to win. Humankind’s retribution is clear, as Wang An-shih says in his commentary, while Heaven’s retribution is obscure. Where armies camp brambles grow. Making use of force results in desolation. And not just our enemies’.

But, oh, how we glorify the use of force! Look at our strength, our prowess! Who can stand against us! We are proud. Vain. Cruel. This is not the Tao. And whatever is not the Tao ends early. Our virility will only lead to a premature old age.

I was reading somewhere, in the last few days, of the plans some in the US have been making to celebrate our 250th anniversary as an independent nation. That will be in 2026. I remember, well, when we celebrated our bicentennial, our 200th anniversary, in 1976. But even then, the seeds of our own destruction had already been planted. They were planted in ripe soil. And we have carefully watered and nurtured them, since. Will we, as a nation, make it to our 250th anniversary? It is 2018 now, so just 8 years to go, and I have serious doubts.

To avert our own destruction, some things have got to change. The way we look at things has got to change. The way we do things has got to change. We have got to stop making use of force.

We can win without the use of force. Our weapons could be returned to defensive purposes, rather than offensive ones. We could forego our pride, vanity, and cruelty, replacing them with humility, modesty, and kindness.

The adage the best offense is a good defense is something we haven’t practiced in a good long while. Instead, we have been behaving like the best defense is a good offense. But, if we could reverse our thinking again, if we could go back to our humble beginnings, and win only because we had no choice, then we would win without force, and 2026 could be a great celebration.

Red Pine introduces a sage, in today’s verse, with which we may already be somewhat familiar:

SUN-TZU (FL. 512 B.C.). Master of military tactics and strategy. His Pingfa (Art of War) has been much studied and admired ever since it came to the attention of King Ho Lu of the state of Wu, who subsequently became Sun’s patron.