As it acts in the world,
the Tao is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.
Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.
The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she
is better than anyone else.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today we have another one of my favorite chapters from the Tao Te Ching. I could write pages on it; but hopefully, I won’t. Here are some things I want you to keep in mind as you think on today’s chapter.
First off, the Tao is the name Lao Tzu gives to the eternal reality behind all the workings of the Universe. Lao Tzu spends 81 chapters telling about it. Six days from now I will be back to chapter one, and we will read, once again, Lao Tzu’s warnings about naming and telling. I will go into more detail then, about those warnings. Today, I think it will suffice for us to keep in mind that the eternal reality is always a mystery. We can see its manifestations. And those manifestations help us to understand it better. But what we are speaking of, is always shrouded in darkness. Lao Tzu calls it darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding.
The purpose of my blog posts each day is to peer into that darkness and invite you to peer into it, as well. What do we see? Not with our eyes. They aren’t going to be very helpful to us. We are talking about darkness here. That is the mystery. What I really accomplish with my blog posts, at least I hope I am accomplishing it, is to show how the Tao manifests itself in our world. Its manifestations are plain to see. If only we will look.
And, in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu shows us how the Tao acts in the world. Well, not quite. He is limited to talking about what it is like. Lao Tzu likes using everyday things for us to picture in our minds. That is how he explains things. Today, we picture the bending of a bow. Lao Tzu says that is like how the Tao operates in our world. Hopefully, you have that mental image of a bending bow in your mind. Its top is bent down and its bottom is bent up.
This is like how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, so that there is perfect balance. The Tao manifests itself this way in the world. Always working to achieve balance. When things are out of balance, Lao Tzu identifies a twin problem, and the Tao addresses them both at once. When things are out of balance there is both a problem of excess and a problem of deficiency. The Tao could not address the one, without addressing the other. Otherwise, there couldn’t be balance. Excess is too much. Deficiency is not enough. The Tao takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough.
This may seem so simple a concept you wonder why we are going on and on about it. But I would counter, if this is such a simple concept, why are things so out of balance? Oh, and one more thing, I am going to spend time today talking about those who have too much and those who have not enough. I want to go ahead and deal with the first objection that I can imagine is going to be raised, before I progress further. That objection is, who gets to decide what is too much and what is not enough. That is a fair objection. And one that I share. So, I want to say right now that this isn’t up for a vote. I loathe democracies. Majority rule is tyranny of minorities, with the individual being the smallest minority of them all. No one gets to decide that any person has too much. Not by getting a majority to go along with you. And not by establishing yourself as a dictator. What we are talking about today, in dealing with the problem of excess and deficiency, is not something that any human is supposed to be dealing with. That is really Lao Tzu’s point. The Tao deals with it. When humans put themselves in the place of the Tao, chaos ensues. More on that as we proceed.
The Tao is the eternal reality behind all the workings of the Universe. Yes, I am repeating myself, but this is important. We have to keep reminding ourselves of this reality. The Tao is the natural Law, the natural order which emerges out of chaos. Left to its own devices, the Tao will achieve order and balance, naturally. I, personally, identify this natural law, or order and balance emerging out of chaos, as free market anarchism. That is my label. Lao Tzu doesn’t use it. But I will; because I want to be clear that when I talk about free market anarchism, I am thinking of that bending of the bow, that Lao Tzu has us picture. I am not going to force you to accept my label. I only apply it so that you can better understand where I am coming from. I am a free market anarchist because I believe being at one with the Tao, instead of being at odds with it, is the way to maintain a certain equilibrium in my life that I call happiness. Leaving it to the Tao, simply makes me happy.
But often, there are those who aren’t quite satisfied with leaving it to the Tao. Objections to leaving it to the Tao come from two diametrically opposed groups of people. Both those who have not enough and those who have too much. Lao Tzu is going to strike at the root of the objection, but first I want to identify the two branches. That will help us to understand why it is that free market anarchism can be such a hard sale to the masses of people.
For those that have not enough, the objection to leaving it to the Tao is that the pace of nature is just too damn slow. And that is how the Tao manifests itself in the world, through nature. I can understand this objection, on both an intellectual and an emotional level. When I don’t have enough for something I want right now, it is hard to accept that the thing that I want will have to wait; or that, perhaps, I will just have to do without. Postponing fulfilling desires is not pleasant. It requires discipline. And who likes discipline?
Even the most disciplined can be moved to welcome any promise that we can have what we desire sooner, rather than later. This attitude will play right into the hands of the other group that objects to leaving it to the Tao; so I am going to leave the motives of those who don’t have enough right here for now, as we consider the motives (the objection) of those who have too much.
For those who have too much, that would be those at the top of the bow, they don’t like this taking from them, and giving it to someone else; not one little bit. Their motivation, like those on the bottom of the bow, is purely selfish. I am not knocking selfishness here. It is human nature to be selfish. You might as well accept right now that humans are going to act according to their nature. They always do. They always act in a way that they believe will benefit themselves. Yes, I understand that we don’t always have perfect knowledge of what will best benefit us, and sometimes what we do causes ourselves great harm. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is in our nature to act in such a way that we believe we are going to receive benefit. This is, by the way how I interpret Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness. I understand why denying (or sacrificing) our humanity to serve others (altruism) is despicable… But that is a whole other topic better saved for another day.
Still, selfishness is a very natural trait for us humans. And, it is a powerful motivator; both for those who have too much and not enough. But that isn’t the root of the problem. So, Lao Tzu isn’t going to strike down selfishness. Yay! If he did that we would have to deny our humanity, and I am not about to advocate that. No, Lao Tzu understands human nature very well. And the Tao knows how to work with our human nature. Selfishness is what motivates us. But once again, that isn’t the root of the problem.
The root is power.
We are all selfish. That is a given. It is like saying water is wet. But it doesn’t matter that we are selfish, if we don’t have power.
The problem that Lao Tzu is addressing today is when those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. Remember, the Tao is always working to achieve balance and cause order to emerge from chaos. In order to achieve balance the Tao takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. But the powers that be, we have already established, don’t want that. They will take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much.
Power is the problem. That is the root that we must strike. Here are some thoughts on that. First, that power is all an illusion. That doesn’t stop it from being effective, if enough people fall for the illusion. But it is something to keep in mind. It is all an illusion. The eternal reality is something far greater. But, in order for that illusory power to even exist it needs people to believe it exists.
When we are talking about those that have too much vs. those who don’t have enough, the latter group far outnumbers the former. If the latter group understands the motivation of the former group is protecting their supposed power, then they won’t knowingly go along with the ruse. That is why those with too much, feign altruism. They can’t have all those people actually believing that their intentions are anything but altruistic. They will make grandiose promises about taking from those that have too much and giving it to those who don’t have enough. But they always take away from those who don’t have enough and give to those who already have plenty. We have been playing this game for a very long time now. And sadly, a whole lot of people continue to fall for the ruse. The powers that be are very good at masking their true intentions. They even have most of the world convinced that a free market, unregulated by the powers that be, would do the very opposite of what Lao Tzu has told us the Tao does, left to its own devices.
Some people think they understand this, but they don’t understand the real root of the problem. They just think that the wrong people are in power. If the people who don’t have enough were only in power, then things would change. This is what motivates people to go to the polls and vote every new election. If we can just get the right people in power, things will finally change. You guys did register to vote yesterday?
No, Lao Tzu says that supposed power is the root of the problem; and that is what we have to strike. The Tao, left alone and not interfered with, will achieve balance and order. It is our incessant desire to interfere that is causing the imbalance. We never feel we have enough.
How very different is the Master. She is one with the Tao. And being in perfect harmony with it, is our example of how balance and order is achieved. She can keep giving and giving and giving. There is no end to her wealth. She acts without expectation. Succeeds without taking credit. And perhaps most amazing of them all, she doesn’t think she is better than anyone else.
Looks like my initial warning about being able to write page after page has proven true. Sorry.