What We Can Infer From This

“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.

In today’s verse, which is a continuation of the previous one in theme, Lao-tzu talks about those that became one in the past. This is the goal, to become one. It is to practice the Higher Virtue, Lao-tzu was talking about yesterday. And he tells us there is something we can infer from those that became one in the past.

What can we infer?

The first thing we can infer is that being one isn’t something we can maintain by trying to maintain it. They, and we, must move between yin and yang. Yin, you will recall, is what got us to the place of becoming one. Yang was the result. But we can’t just stay yang.

Here, Lao-tzu talks about what is noble being based on the humble, and what is high being founded on the low.

This is where we need to be careful. And the lower virtues we talked about yesterday, particularly ritual, is relevant to our discussion.

As you will recall, ritual is all about keeping up appearances. It is more about virtue-signaling. It speaks of humility and harmony. But, it trades the spirit, for the letter.

This is how kings, and pretty much all of us, try to maintain our nobility, our highness. We refer to ourselves as orphaned, widowed, and destitute. We will say our carriages are no carriages at all. This self-deprecation is about appearances. Instead of the spirit of humility, we try to follow the letter.

But, it doesn’t work. While we try to hide the clink of our jade, we clunk like rocks.

That is what comes of trying to force things.

Being true to our original nature is what got us to oneness, and being true to our original nature is the way to continue to be one. Let yourself move from yin to yang, and from yang back to yin. And so on and so forth. This is the natural way. You don’t dare force it, for you can’t control it.

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.

Thick Over Thin, Fruit Over Flower, 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 finished up last week saying, “Let the world fix itself!” It was an admonition to rulers, and all of us, really, not to intervene, not to interfere, not to use force, not try to control. That gives us a strong indication of what Lao-tzu is explaining in today’s verse regarding virtue. For, in today’s verse, Lao-tzu teaches there is virtue, and then there is Virtue.

As I was reading through today’s verse, I was reminded of what Lao-tzu said previously. “All the world knows good. But if that becomes good, this becomes bad. The coexistence of have and have not … is endless.”

The highest Virtue, with a capital V, is a virtue that is virtuous without being virtuous. If that seems odd, consider all of Lao-tzu’s teachings regarding the practice of wei-wu-wei. Doing without doing. Knowing without knowing. Competing without competing. And he does go on to explain this is exactly what he means by a virtue that isn’t virtuous. It doesn’t involve any effort. Not even the thought of effort. It is a natural virtue, an effortless virtue.

He contrasts that with Lower virtues. Lower virtues take effort. They are virtues that strive to be virtuous. The lower virtues could be further explained as what we perceive as virtue, as contrasted with Higher Virtue which isn’t perceptible.

Here, Lao-tzu talks about three different perspectives on what is virtuous: Kindness. Justice. Ritual.

Each of these “virtues” have their advocates.

I happen to be pretty big on kindness. Often wondering to myself, “Why can’t people just treat people like they want to be treated?”

For many, justice is the be all and end all virtue. This virtue focuses on what is right and what is wrong. And how wrongs can be made right.

Then, there are those for whom ritual is the most important virtue. This virtue is all about the appearance of virtue. It speaks of humility and harmony. Today, I think the name for it is virtue-signaling. It trades the “spirit” for the “letter,” in an effort to keep up appearances.

Of course, what is most common is that we advocate for some combination of these three virtues.

Lao-tzu takes them one by one, however, and seems to suggest a kind of hierarchical order to them, as well. But keep in mind, these virtues, however high they might be, are all much lower than the Higher Virtue Lao-tzu talked about first.

Kindness is perhaps the highest of the lower virtues. It involves effort, but without giving a thought to the effort involved in being kind. Hence, my constant wonder of why it isn’t easier for people to practice.

Justice involves effort, and it is always thinking about the effort it involves. What is right? Once, you start naming what is right, what is wrong surely follows.

And then there is ritual. I am just going to go ahead and say it. Ritual is the ugliest of the lower virtues. Quite frankly, I find it difficult to call it a virtue. That is kind of what I was feeling as I was reading Su Ch’e’s commentary on today’s verse. Should we really be calling “Su ch’e’s sages” sages? They certainly don’t seem to possess any virtue, given Lao-tzu’s definitions in today’s verse. Yes, ritual requires effort. And, when it doesn’t meet with the expected response, “Watch out!”

The lower virtues only appear because the Great Way has been lost. Remember, the highest form of Virtue? The natural kind, the one which doesn’t involve any effort at all, the one that is a virtue without trying to be virtuous? Well, that is only going to be realized as a result of following the Tao.

Kindness appears when Virtue disappears. Justice appears when kindness is lost. Ritual appears when justice is lost. When things have spiraled downward to where all you have left in the way of virtue is ritual, that is the mark of just how far our belief in the Tao has waned. It is the onset of confusion. Ritual thinks it can see into the future by dwelling on what is past. But that is nothing but the flower of the Way. It is the beginning of delusion.

Thus, choose the thick over the thin, the fruit over the flower: Pick this over that.

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 another of my favorites. And, I hope you go back and reread what the various commentators had to say about it. So much wisdom!

Lao-tzu once again holds up the Tao: “Without exerting any effort, there is nothing it doesn’t do.” Yet, our rulers don’t hold this up as Virtue. They want to control things.

Oh, this isn’t just a rant about our rulers. We elected them, ourselves. They came out from us. They are really just like us. We want to be in control, too. In fact, if there is one common thread which will emerge when just about anyone is complaining about their rulers, it will be how much they can’t wait until their “guys” gets elected next go around. All that is wrong with the world can be summed up as the wrong people are in power. And the solution is to get the right people in power.

The world has a problem, and we need to fix it. Lao-tzu may have felt pretty much alone in his day, I know I sometimes feel very much alone, in believing the world can and would fix itself, if it was just left alone.

Instead, we expend so much effort. Trying. Trying. We must intervene. We must interfere. We must exert force. We must be in control.

The notion that people by themselves would change, seems a silly notion. Naive. And, even if it were true, much too slow a process. We need rulers!

Who needs rulers? Lao-tzu had strict guidelines for rulers. He wanted them to be content just being an example of Virtue. Hold up the Tao. Trust the people. Leave them alone. It was a hands-off approach: Let the people change themselves. Let the world fix itself. When desires stir, still those by demonstrating the stilling of your own desires.

Don’t take sides. Don’t limit your options. Keep it simple. Then, they would not desire, and they would know peace, and the world would fix itself.

What? Without any help from me? Without my efforts? Without me making a name for myself? But, what if I don’t much care for this natural order? What if I want to put my own twist on things? Nature could use some help. And I know just how to help it.

Enough. You are exactly the wrong person for the job of ruler. And, who needs a ruler, anyway? Let the world fix itself!

This Is Called Hiding the Light

“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 no 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 no leave the depths. When fish leave the depths, they are caught. When people abandon weaknesss, 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.”

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 weapon.” Which one of them is right? Can they all be right?

Lao-tzu doesn’t really say. Saying instead, “A state’s greatest weapon isn’t meant to be shown.” I think this “hiding the light” is the whole point of what Lao-tzu is saying in today’s verse. And, Wu Ch’eng is quite right to remind us, “hiding the light” in today’s verse is the same as “cloaking the light” in verse 27. There, Lao-tzu was talking about the good and the bad coexisting together; the good, instructing the bad, and the bad, learning from the good. The point of “cloaking the light” being, the need to be “perfectly blind.”

In today’s verse, “hiding the light” demonstrates how shortening and lengthening, weakening and strengthening, toppling and raising, and taking and giving, coexist together. And, for what reason: This is the natural order.

As things currently appear, and they appeared this way in Lao-tzu’s day as well, the strong still rule the day. Hence, our need for “perfect blindness.” The weak can and do conquer the strong, Whether or not it appears that way. How do we do it? Sung Ch’ang-hsing explains, “By letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted, and thus weak.

That is Lao-tzu’s point in teaching those of us who wish to shorten, or weaken, or topple, or take something; to forego that, in favor of the natural order: Let the long be lengthened, let the strong be strengthened, let the high be raised, give first; until it is ripe for the taking. Wait until things reach their limit. Once they reach their limit, they will go the other way.

As Sung Ch’ang-hsing teaches us, “Speak softly and act with care. Don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. Understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”

If the Tao is like water and people like fish, as Chang Tao-ling says, then we need, like fish, to stay in the depths to survive.

Plain Words that Make No Sense

“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 sage, 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 visiotrss, 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.”

In yesterday’s verse Lao-tzu said, “The Tao doesn’t speak when its work succeeds.” In today’s verse he says, “The Tao speaks plain words that make no sense.” So, does the Tao speak, or doesn’t it? The simple answer is that the Tao speaks without speaking. It doesn’t speak to draw attention to itself, with eloquent words; it speaks plain words, quiet and unassuming. It doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t it want it to draw attention to itself? We certainly would, if we had something to show of our work. Something worthy of being praised. But, of course, if it did that, being great, it would be small. And it wouldn’t be the Tao.

Lao-tzu all along, in his Taoteching, has been holding up the Tao, holding up Virtue, because the Tao doesn’t hold itself up. And, he has been very forthcoming all along, as well, about the difficulty with holding up something which can’t be held. You have to “hold without holding,” for the Tao isn’t like any thing else in the world. Fine food and song may be attractive for a time. But eventually the food will run out, the music will draw to a close, and everyone goes on with their lives.

But the Tao is the Source of our lives. When we hold up the Tao and Virtue, we can expect the whole world to benefit from this. The more we hold it up, the more the world will benefit. Until it is “beyond harm, safe and serene and at peace.”

You may say these are grand words, not the plain words Lao-tzu claims the Tao speaks. And, you would be right. But the Tao didn’t speak them. Lao-tzu did, in holding up the Virtue of the Way.

When you look for it, you won’t see it. When you listen for it, you won’t hear it. Ah, but it is always there, wherever you turn, to be used without end.

Shall We Call It Small or Great?

“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 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 may be disconcerting for some. Some may want to be able to pin the Tao down. But, as Lao-tzu continues to teach us, the Tao can’t be pinned down. He says it drifts, going either left or right. Wang Pi adds, it goes up or down, as well. His point being, wherever you turn, the Tao is there to be used. Hsuan-tsung says, “To drift means to be unrestrained.” You can’t restrain it. You can’t control it. You can’t pin it down. And, Chuang-tzu talks of those who follow the drift of the unrestrained Tao in their own lives, “They drift through life like unmoored boats.” We are, all of us, beyond anyone’s control, as well.

Does this scare you?

It used to scare me. I didn’t know if I was really “ready” to a live a life, free of anyone’s control. It is a universal dilemma for young adults everywhere. But, I had a much greater crisis in my life, much further into adulthood. Realizing, even I didn’t have any control.

Now, you may be really scared.

We want to be in control of our own lives. It was the promise made to us when we were still children: Mom and Dad are in charge now. But, once I am an adult, then I will be in charge.

But, there will come a time. For some (I would think, thankfully) it comes sooner. For others of us, perhaps, it takes much longer. Then, we begin to realize the myriad things which are beyond our (and anyone’s) control. Great things. And even small things. To try to control the great things is laughable. But to go on trying to control the small things, resisting, resisting, it just doesn’t make any sense. This should be easy. It is such a small thing, after all. But, still, no. What a waste of effort! Still, we keep trying.

I quit trying. Oh, not without a long struggle. And, I am far from perfect at this. There are still plenty of twists and turns, bumps and ruts, that I seem to navigate past, or through, in a haphazard fashion, hitting most of the bumps, and spending some time in most of the ruts. The Tao has been there wherever I turned. But, I haven’t always used it.

If you were looking for some paragon of virtue, alas, you need to look further.

But, for what it is worth, here is my testament to the Tao: Looking back over the course of my own life, wherever I have acted great, I have achieved only small things; and wherever I have acted small, I have achieved 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.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu compares and contrasts internal cultivation with what I call external exploitation. It is exploitative, because when our focus is on the external, rather then on the internal, and whether or not we consciously intend it to be, what we perceive outside of ourselves, distinguishing ourselves as separate from others, inevitably leads to desires to conquer the other. To be above, not below; to be first, rather than last. Once we have that first distinction, as we were talking about with our last verse (that was posted last Friday), there is no end to the distinctions.

Meanwhile, deep inside us, where the whole universe and all beings dwell within, there are no distinctions. We are all one with the Tao. That is what we need to be cultivating within ourselves.

To know others is only an outward perception. But, if you were truly wise, you would know yourself. To conquer others requires outward force. But to conquer yourself requires inner strength, a resolve that never lets up.

How do we accomplish this?

If we are to accomplish this, there are some things we must begin to understand about Lao-tzu’s teachings. “Elsewhere,” as Wu Ch’eng points out, “Lao-tzu extols simple-mindedness and weakness over wisdom and strength. Why then does he extol wisdom and strength here?” This is supremely important for us to understand. “Wisdom and strength are for dealing with the inside. Simple-mindedness and weakness are for dealing with the outside.”

What Wang P’ang goes on to say is the one lesson I would like everyone on the Earth to understand. “The natural endowment of all beings is complete in itself.” This is similar to what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Declaration of Independence. He said it was self-evident that “all men are created equal.” Of course, Jefferson’s statement wasn’t as inclusive as Lao-tzu or Wang P’ang. All beings is a lot more expansive than all human beings. But, I won’t fault Jefferson too much here, his purpose was directed a little more specifically.

But getting back to what Wang P’ang said, all beings are naturally, equally, and completely endowed, in themselves. “Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it.” It doesn’t depend on anything outside of ourselves. And, only “fools abandon this treasure to chase trash.” Trash, here, would be anything outside of ourselves, which we abandon the treasure inside ourselves, to chase. “Those who know contentment pay the world no heed.”

But, we do pay heed to the world. Don’t we? We are all caught up with perceiving it, with the intent to conquer it. What Mencius says, “The ten thousand things are within us.” Is completely lost on us.

I would like nothing more than to tell you, it is simple to pay the world no heed, to be content with the treasure inside, with which we are all naturally endowed.

But, to say it is simple would be to miss what Lao-tzu is teaching here, in today’s verse.

Simplicity, simple-mindedness, weakness, yes that has its place. But, it is going to take striving hard to tap into your inner strength, a resolve which won’t let up, to get to that place and never lose that place, to be unaffected by the world outside of us, and to endure.

One of those things we let affect us is death. But, Lu Nung-shih tells us, “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.”

And as long as we keep on distinguishing between life and death. Treating death as something to be abhorred, to be postponed, to be hidden, we will continue to be affected by it.

That something real we all have that survives death is worth cultivating in ourselves. For it, in contrast to all the external things clamoring for our attention, 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.

We Should Know Restraint

“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).

You wouldn’t know this, if I didn’t readily admit it, but I have taken several days wrestling with today’s verse. And, the Tao remains unnamed. Oh, we have ascribed a name to it. Tao. But that isn’t its immortal name. That remains unnamed. And, it will always remain unnamed. That can’t change. It never changes.

Call it simple. That just means the natural state. It hasn’t been cut or polished. It will never be cut or polished.

Call it small. It is faint and infinitesimal. Without distinction. If we could see what is small and hold on to it, Ho-shang Kung says, “those who can do this are rare indeed.”

It is small, yes, but it expands. And, when it expands it’s everywhere. It also contracts, until it isn’t as big as the tip of a hair, says Chiao Hung. Hence, even though it is small, it’s beyond anyone’s command.

You can’t command it. Though we try, how we try. But, you can uphold it. I think that is the purpose of Lao-tzu’s words: To uphold the Tao.

It doesn’t need us to uphold it. It will just go on expanding and contracting, being itself. But it would be of benefit to ourselves if we would uphold it.

Can we be simple and small? 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 simplicity.”

As Heaven and Earth join together to bestow sweet dew, without anyone giving the order, it comes down to us all, without distinctions.

Distinctions. That first distinction is what gives us names. This and that. Yes and no. I’m right, so you’re wrong. We really should know restraint.

If we could just know restraint, we could avoid trouble.

Restraint. Jen Fa-jung says, “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.”

Spontaneously. Naturally. Effortlessly. Without anyone commanding that it be so.

To picture the Tao in the world, imagine a stream and the sea. Where the stream meets the sea, it is impossible to distinguish the one from the other. There is no this or that, there is no yes or no, there is no I am right, so you are wrong.

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.”

“Weapons are not auspicious tools.” Lao-tzu repeats it again, probably for the very same reason I repeat things. Because it is important to understand. Just in case “auspicious” is not a familiar word in your vocabulary, I will save you the trouble of having to look it up. If weapons were auspicious tools, then we could expect favorable results for using them. But, weapons are not auspicious tools. In other words, just as Lao-tzu was saying in yesterday’s verse, there will be repercussions. And, those repercussions don’t bode well for us.

He repeats something else, in today’s verse, which he said before (in verse 24). “Some things are simply bad.” Thus, the Taoist shuns them.

From there he goes on to talk about left and right, and it shouldn’t be any surprise to find out these are simply yin and yang.

From ancient times, the left (yin) has stood for weakness, as being inferior. And the right (yang) has stood for strength, as being superior. As Sung Ch’ang-hsing puts it, the right represented the Way of Victory. And the left represented the Way of Humility. But, keep reading… “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 occasions.”

This may be an ancient way of looking at left and right, but with how divided the whole world seems to be, between left and right, it seems to be especially relevant for us today.

In peace, the ruler honors the left. In war, he honors the right. War and peace. Nothing seems to incite my passions more. What? Do you enjoy killing others? But, Lao-tzu admonishes, “Dispassion is the best.”

In our present division, between left and right, passion is what seems to rule the day. But dispassion would be so much better.

We honor the left for happiness. We honor the right for sorrow. The left is where the adjutant stands. The commander stands on the right. Yes, it is an ancient ritual. But rituals have meaning.

After the battle has been won, and our enemies defeated, the dead need to be honored with our tears. With regrets that it ever came to this. Weapons were not auspicious tools. We should have known it wouldn’t bode well. Treat this victory as a wake. And, as yang gives way to yin, may we see more happy occasions.

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 Things 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 kills 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.”

When I first was drawn to the Taoteching, and philosophical Taoism, it was because of verses like this one, and so many others, which expressed such strong libertarian leanings: Don’t intervene, don’t interfere, don’t try to control, don’t initiate force. Such things have repercussions. In this day, we now call the results of our foreign interventions “blowback.” I remember well when Ron Paul spoke after the events of September 11, 2001. He put into words exactly what I had been thinking: This is what happens as a result of our foreign interventions. We had been terrorizing the middle east for decades. It was only a matter of time until the seeds we had planted would be harvested, that we would reap, at least in some measure, exactly what we had sown.

But, as I have continued reading and thinking on these things, I have come to understand that what Lao-tzu was saying about external things, the things that so drew me to philosophical Taoism in the first place, were really secondary to his purpose. He was using these external things, things readily apparent to us, as metaphors for something deeper, an internal reality.

Sung Ch’ang-hsing makes this clear in his commentary. “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 a ruler.”

Did you catch that? The kingdom and ruler (or lord) Lao-tzu keeps invoking isn’t just something external to us. The kingdom represents our body, and the ruler (or lord) our heart. I know I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating: Lao-tzu isn’t speaking to rulers about how to govern their countries, he is speaking to individuals about how to govern their own selves. Sure, it would be nice if rulers would use the Tao to govern. It is the best way to govern a country. But, Lao-tzu was no fool, and realized that wasn’t likely to happen. But, if individuals could take his teachings to heart? That was much more likely to occur.

Keep this in mind while we look again at what Lao-tzu says in today’s verse.

“Where armies camp, brambles grow.” These are the repercussions for using weapons, or force, to win. If we wish to avoid the repercussions, we need to avoid doing the things which result in the repercussions. This is so self-evident, you would think it would have occurred to our rulers.

Oh, they know. They just don’t care. But applying this to ourselves: should we know, understand, and care?

Only the strong will survive. We think like this. We think it is “Darwinian.” And, therefore, it must be so. But, I think it is a misreading of Darwin to say that only the strong will survive. What Darwin really said is those most able to adapt will survive.

Strength seems so important to us. We must display just how strong we are. If not for offensive purposes, at least for defensive purposes. The weak are just going to be preyed upon. Better to be seen as predator, than as prey.

Lao-tzu saw things a bit differently. He took a look at the Way things are and he noticed something, a law, that was always at work in our world. Much like Darwin. Though Lao-tzu’s law wouldn’t agree with Darwin, if you think Darwin proscribed “only the strongest survive.” Lao-tzu saw something quite different. And, something with which Darwin actually would probably have agreed. Virility (strength) always leads to old age, and then a premature death. It wasn’t the strong who survived, it was those who yielded, the weak. The soft overcomes the hard. You can win without using force.

In fact, you better win without using force. Because any gains you make, when you use force, are sure to not last.

Better to win when you have no choice. To be forced to win. To win and then to stop. To know when enough is enough. Not to be proud. Not to be vain. Not to be cruel.

Sure, I can’t read today’s verse without thinking of America’s foreign policy, which hasn’t so much as wavered since well before I was born. But now, I use that as a metaphor for how not to live my own life. And that, my friends, has made all the difference.

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.