How Can This Be Good?

“In resolving a great 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 virtueless 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 the rely on nonaction 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. The last two lines were a common saying. In the Shuoyuan: 10.25, they conclude an exhortation to keep still. They also appear in slightly different form in the Shuching and in Ch’u Yuan’s Lisao: ‘High Heaven favors no one / but it helps the virtuous.’”

I absolutely love today’s chapter for how well it explains the futility of intervening in disputes. It is the very reason why the notion that the US needs to police the whole world is so utterly insane. It reminds me so of the definition of insanity, which is attributed to Albert Einstein. We keep repeating the same actions expecting a different result. I used to wonder, “How can they not know?” But, after so long, I can no longer justify the insanity with a claim of ignorance. They have to know exactly what they are doing! It isn’t ignorance, it is a lack of virtue.

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

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts.

This Is Something Everyone Knows…

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

(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are no 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.”

This is something everyone knows, but no one is able to put into practice, We all know the properties of water. It is what it is. Nothing in the world is weaker than it. But, against the hard and the strong, nothing outdoes it. Nothing can change it.

We all know it. But, how to put it into practice? That evades us. Why is that? Because, in spite of what we know of water (that being soft, it overcomes the hard; and being weak, it overcomes the strong) we simply aren’t willing to be soft and weak. We want to be hard and strong.

We don’t even want to be perceived as soft and weak. Those who are soft and weak are terrorized by those who are strong and hard, after all.

Those who are soft and weak don’t know their own power, though. They are like water; they just don’t know it, and they don’t know how to use it.

This is what gets us. We think there must be some magic formula to use. But, water is just water. It doesn’t try to be soft and weak, it merely is soft and weak. What a country considers disgrace and misfortune, that is the very thing we should accept and emulate.

But, be careful here, trying to accept and emulate isn’t the same as accepting and emulating. You can expend a whole lot of effort trying to be like water, when what you should do is simply be like water.

Red Pine introduces the following sages 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.

KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of 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.

Unlike the Way of Humankind

“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.” My 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.”

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 thee same Way of 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 dees, 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 notes, “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.”

The difference between the Way of Heaven and the Way of Humankind couldn’t be more stark. What do we get for all our meddling? It isn’t just unintended consequences, though it is that, too. But, what is even worse is that our meddling only compounds the problem we insist we are trying to solve. “Who can take the long and give it to the world? Only those who possess the Way.” So, how do we possess the Way? It isn’t so hard, really. As Lao-tzu has said earlier, “It is easy to understand and easy to put into practice.” But, it does require virtue. Humility.

To practice this virtue, this humility, we need to not depend on what we develop (our machinations and schemes), nor lay claim to what we achieve. Keep it hidden. Like jade, hidden inside ordinary rock. Let things evolve naturally. Yin and yang naturally follow each other. Let them.

They Don’t Understand Virtue

“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 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 is 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 oblivious 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 concludes, “How different this world would be if our leaders spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms.”

They simply don’t understand virtue. Perhaps, as Red Pine suggests, they would come to understand it, if only they spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms. I can testify to the difference it has made in my own life that I spend so much time in my own little garden. What have I learned in my garden? The virtue in being soft and weak instead of being hard and stiff. Nature doesn’t force anything. It always yields. To yield is to live, to force is to die.

Doing Nothing to Live

“The reason people are hungry
is that those above levy so many taxes
this is why they are hungry
the reason people are hard to rule
is that those above are so forceful
this is why they are hard to rule
the reason people think little of death
is that those above think so much of life
this is why they think little of death
meanwhile those who do nothing to live
are more esteemed than those who love life”

(Taoteching, verse 75, translation by Red Pine)

DUKE AI approached YU JUO: “The year is one of famine, and my revenues are wanting. What am I to do?” Yu Juo replied, “Return to the 10 percent rate of taxation.” Duke Ai said, “But I cannot get by on 20 percent. How will I survive on 10 percent?” Yu Juo replied, “When the people don’t want, why should the ruler want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” (Lunyu: 12.9).

WANG PI says, “The people hide and disorder prevails because of those above, not because of those below. The people follow those above.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If those above take too much, those below will be impoverished. If those above use too much force, those below will rebel. This is a matter of course. When people think their own life is more important, and they disregard the lives of others, why should others not treat death lightly? Sages don’t think about life unless they are forced to.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Robbers and thieves arise from hunger and cold. If people are hungry and have no means to live, they have no choice but to steal. When people steal, it’s because those above force them. They force people to turn to stealing and then try to rule with cleverness and laws. But the more laws they make, the more thieves appear. Even the threat of the executioner’s ax doesn’t frighten them. And the reason people aren’t frightened by death is that those above are so concerned with life.”

SU CH’E says, “When those above use force to lead the people, the people respond with force. Thus do complications multiply and the people become hard to rule.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Forceful’ refers to the ruler’s love of might and arms. But once arms prevail, disorder is certain.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The reason people cannot live out their allotted years and are sentenced to death in midlife is that they think so much of life. Meanwhile, those who do nothing to stay alive are able to lengthen their lives” (Huainantzu: 7).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Only those who do nothing to stay alive, who aren’t moved by titles or sinecures, who aren’t affected by wealth or advantages, who refuse to serve the emperor or run errands for lesser lords – they alone are more esteemed than those who love life.”

YEN TSUN says, “The Natural Way always turns things upside down. What has no body lives. What has a body dies. To be alive and to seek advantages is the beginning of death. Not to be alive and to get rid of advantages is the beginning of life. Those who don’t work to live live long.”

WANG TAO says, “The meaning of the last two lines is: If I didn’t have this body of mine, what worries would I have?”

WANG P’ANG says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

Every time I come to today’s verse I find myself thinking to myself, this is just common sense. It is self-evident, really. But, as I am often fond of saying, “Common sense isn’t all that common.” What seems self-evident to me, seems to evade many others. So, in the interest of enlightenment, let’s just take Lao-tzu’s points one by one; for, as Wang P’ang says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

Why are people hungry? It is because those above them levy too many taxes on them. Why are people hard to rule? It is because those above them rely too much on force.
Why do people think so little of death? It is because those above think so much of life.

Lao-tzu is emphatic about this, repeating the reason twice in each case. The people are forced by those above them to act the way they do. They are hungry, so they steal. Those above have robbed them of “legitimate” means for their livelihood. The more force is applied from above, the more the people slip through their fingers. I don’t know whether Duke Ai ended up following Yu Juo’s sage advice. Why are those above so concerned about their own lives when the people below them are suffering? That only increases their suffering. So, the people think less and less of death, because their lives have no meaning beyond toil, and for what? If those above stopped being so concerned with their own lives, they would be more esteemed than those who love their lives.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

DUKE AI (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Lu and interlocutor of Lunyu: 12.9.

YU JUO (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Disciple of Confucius known for his resemblance to the sage as well as for his love of antiquity. After Confucius’ death, many of his disciples wanted to render to Yu Juo the same observances they had conferred on Confucius. But this was opposed by Tseng-tzu.

Punishment Is Not the Answer

“If people no longer fear death
what good is threatening to kill them
if people truly fear death
and some act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else would dare
as long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner’s place
is to cut in the carpenter’s place
those who cut in the carpenter’s place
seldom escape with hands intact”

(Taoteching, verse 74, translation by Red Pine)

YIN WEN says, “Lao-tzu asks, if people are not afraid to die what good is threatening to kill them? If people are not afraid to die, it is because punishments are excessive. When punishments are excessive, people don’t care about life. When they don’t care about life, the ruler’s might means nothing to them. When punishments are moderate, people are afraid to die. They are afraid to die because they enjoy life. When you know they enjoy life, then you can threaten them with death” (Yinwen: 2).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “This implies that punishments cannot be relied upon for governing. If people are not afraid of death, what use is threatening them with execution? And if they are afraid of death, and we catch someone who breaks the law, and we execute them, by killing one person we should be able to govern the rest. But the more people we kill, the more people break the law. Thus, punishment is not the answer.”

MING T’AI-TSU says, “When I first ascended the throne, the people were unruly and officials corrupt. If ten people were executed in the morning, a hundred were breaking the same law by evening. Being ignorant of the Way of the ancient sage kings, I turned to the Taoteching. When I read, ‘If people no longer fear death / what good is threatening to kill them,’ I decided to do away with capital punishment and put criminals to work instead. In the year since then, the burdens of my heart have been lightened. Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Perverse’ means ‘unlawful.’ If those who act perverse and break the law do not meet with misfortune at the hands of Humankind, they will certainly be punished by Heaven.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If rulers teach according to the Tao and people respond with perversion instead, rulers are within their rights to arrest them and kill them. Lao-tzu, however, was concerned that rulers should use the Tao first before turning to punishment.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The meaning of ‘the executioner will exist’ is the same as ‘the Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes’ [verse 73]. The executioner is Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Heaven is the executioner. If the world is at peace and people engage in perversity and rebellion, then surely they have been abandoned by Heaven. If we kill them, it is Heaven who kills them and not us. But if we kill those whom Heaven has not abandoned, we take the executioner’s place. And anyone who takes the executioner’s place puts themselves within reach of his ax.”

THE LUSHIH CHUNCHIU says, “A great carpenter does not cut” (1.4).

MENCIUS says, “The wise are not alone in desiring something greater than life and hating something greater than death. This is true of everyone. But the wise don’t forget it” (Mencius: 6A.10).

Last week, our verses were on what happens when people no longer fear authority; and Lao-tzu put the blame squarely on the shoulders of our rulers when people no longer fear authority. In today’s verse, Rulers are still having difficulty with controlling the people. Why? Because they are still trying to control them. Lao-tzu teaches rulers to stop trying to control, and simply trust the Tao. When people act “perverse,” in other words, when they don’t act according to the way their rulers would have them to, rulers are told to not take the place of the executioner. The executioner, here, is the same as Heaven’s Net in the previous verse. As long as people fear death, that executioner will exist. But, when rulers try to take the executioner’s place, making the lives of the people miserable, the people will welcome, rather than fear, death,

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and author of a book of discourses 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.

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.

To Act or Not to Act

“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
one benefits
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”

(Taoteching, verse 73, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path’” (Chungyung: 9).

SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanism whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathom. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”

YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the hard and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu warned of the dire consequences when rulers interfere with the rule of nature. It means death. He couldn’t have made it anymore plain in today’s verse. “Daring to act means death / daring not to act means life.” Why, then do we dare to act? Why? Because we fail to understand the Way of Heaven. As Lao-tzu says it in today’s verse, “What Heaven dislikes / who knows the reason?” We don’t know. From the greatest of us to the least. But, we certainly believe we can know an injustice when we see one. And, since Heaven seems slow to respond, indeed Heaven may never respond if we don’t do something now, those who dare not to act are derided as heartless. What I wish all people could see is that help we intend only results in harm. Of course, you don’t mean to harm. You only want to help. But, while I do understand that Heaven seems slow sometimes, we all simply need to believe this: The Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes. That was something Martin Luther King Jr. echoed when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Now, some may argue that King dared to act; and we, then, should dare to act, as well. But, what was King acting against, but a system put in place which was antithetical to the rule of nature? Still, I don’t think I need to remind anyone that King’s life was cut short. Why? Because he dared to act. And powerful people didn’t like it.

So it is that Su Ch’e provides some balance, though I do flinch when he ascribes the mystery of the rule of nature to fortune. “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?

It’s a mystery. But, I think Wang an-Shih is right when he says, “Yin and yang take turns.”

The Fault Lies With Our Rulers

“When people no longer fear authority
a greater authority will appear
don’t restrict where people dwell
don’t repress how people live
if they aren’t repressed
they won’t protest
sages therefore know themselves
but don’t reveal themselves
they love themselves
but don’t exalt themselves
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 72, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “The authority we fear is what shortens years and takes lives. The ‘greater authority’ is our greater fear, namely death. When people no longer fear what they ought to fear, they advance their own death until the greater fear finally appears.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When people are simple and their lives are good, they fear authority. But when those above lose the Way and enact all sorts of measures to restrict the livelihood of those below, people respond with deceit and are no longer subdued by authority. When this happens, natural calamities occur and misfortunes arise.”

WANG CHEN says, “When ordinary officials and the common people have no fear, punishment occurs. When ministers and high officials have no fear, banishment occurs. When princes and kings have no fear, warfare occurs.”

WEI YUAN says, “‘Where people dwell’ refers to conditions such as wealth and poverty. ‘How people live’ refers to physical activities, such as toil and rest. When people think that their dwellings or lives are not as good as others’, they feel embarrassed and thus restricted, restricted and thus repressed. And when they feel repressed, they protest against ‘this’ and seek ‘that,’ not knowing that once their desire is fulfilled, what they fear comes close behind.”

WANG PI says, “In tranquility and peace is where we should dwell. Humble and empty is how we should live. But when we forsake tranquility to pursue desires and abandon humility for authority, creatures are disturbed, and people are distressed. When authority cannot restore order, and people cannot endure authority, the link between those above and those below is severed, and natural calamities occur.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “They know what they have and what they don’t have. They don’t display their virtue outside but keep it hidden inside. They love their body and protect their essence and breath. They don’t exalt or glorify themselves before the world. ‘That’ refers to showing and glorifying themselves. ‘This’ refers to knowing and loving themselves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘That’ refers to external things. ‘This’ refers to one’s inner reality.”

And RED PINE adds, “Authority refers to a power outside us. Sages aren’t concerned with acquiring or exercising such a power. The power of sages arises naturally from the cultivation of themselves.”

Red Pine also notes that Lao-tzu begins this verse with two puns. In the first one, the characters for ‘fear’ and ‘authority’ are homophones. In other words, read aloud, it would sound like “When people no longer fear fear / a greater fear will appear. That is clever. And, just as true, by the way. Not fearing fear will result in a greater fear. In the second one, the same character is used for both ‘repress’ and ‘protest.’ In other words, “If people weren’t repressed, they wouldn’t be repressed.” So, they wouldn’t have any reason to protest. For, let’s be clear here, the fault doesn’t lie with the people, when they no longer fear authority. It lies with their rulers. Lao-tzu is admonishing rulers not to restrict or repress the people. There are going to be consequences. And, they will be dire.

Transcendence or Affliction?

“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 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.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Thus do Zen masters ask their students to show them their original face, their face before they were born.”

Say what? Thankfully, the various commentators above, helped me immensely.

To understand, yet act as if you don’t understand versus thinking you understand, when you don’t understand. This is the difference between transcendence and affliction. When you try to force things, affliction is sure to follow. But, to understand affliction, and treat it accordingly, is to be free of affliction.

Easy to Understand, Easy to Practice

“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’m 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 it into practice.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Because sages teach us to be in harmony with the course of our lives, their words are simple, and their deeds are ordinary. Those who look within themselves understand. Those who follow their own nature do what is right. Difficulties arise when we turn away from the trunk and look among the branches.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Tao is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. It is also hard to understand and hard to put into practice. It is easy because there is no Tao to discuss, no knowledge to learn, no effort to make, no deeds to perform. And it is hard because the Tao cannot be discussed, because all words are wrong, because it cannot be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray. Effortless stillness is not necessarily right, and action-less activity is not necessarily wrong. This is why it is hard.”

SU CH’E says, “Words can trap the Tao, and deeds can reveal its signs. But if the Tao could be found in words, we would have only to listen to words. And if it could be seen in deeds, we would only have to examine deeds. But it cannot be found in words or seen in deeds. Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find it.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The ancestor unites the clan. The master governs the state. Softness and humility are the ancestor of all words and the master of all deeds.”

YEN TSUN says, “Wild geese fly for days but don’t know what exists beyond the sky. Officials and scholars work for years, but none of them knows the extent of the Way. It’s beyond the ken and beyond the reach of narrow-minded, one-sided people.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The reason the Tao is esteemed by the world is because it cannot be known or perceived. If it could be known or perceived, why should it be esteemed? Hence, Lao-tzu is esteemed because so few understand him. Thus, sages wear an embarrassed, foolish expression and seldom show anyone their great and noble virtue.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason people don’t understand me is because my virtue is dark and not visible from the outside.”

CONFUCIUS says, “I study what is below and understand what is above. Who knows me? Only Heaven” (Lunyu: 14.37).

WANG PI says, “To wear coarse cloth is to become one with what is ordinary. To keep one’s jade concealed is to treasure the truth. Sages are difficult to know because they do not differ from ordinary people and because they do not reveal their treasure of jade.”

And RED PINE adds, “Words and deeds can be falsified, but not understanding and practice….As with geodes, jade is found inside ordinary looking rocks. Officials once wore it on their hats as an emblem of their status, and alchemists often included it in their elixirs.”

This information about jade being found inside ordinary looking rocks certainly helps me to better understand the metaphor Lao-tzu is using. The treasure is hidden inside. Outside, appearances deceive.