It’s Easy, Until It’s Hard

“It’s easy to rule while it’s peaceful
it’s easy to plan for before it appears
it’s easy to break while it’s fragile
it’s easy to disperse while it’s small
act before anything exists
govern before anyone rebels
a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot
a great tower rises from a basket of dirt
a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet
but to act is to fail
to control is to lose
sages therefore don’t act
thus they don’t fail
they don’t control
thus they don’t lose
when people pursue a task
failure occurs near the end
care at the end as well as the start
means an end to failure
sages thus seek what no one else seeks
they don’t prize hard-to-get goods
they study what no one else studies
they turn to what others pass by
to help all things remain natural
they dare not act”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 64, translation by Red Pine)

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “We should act before anything exists, while things are peaceful and latent. We should govern before anyone rebels, while they are weak and few. But to act before anything exists means to act without acting. To govern before anyone rebels means to govern without governing.”

SU CH’E says, “To act before anything exists comes first. To govern before anyone rebels comes next.”

KUAN-TZU says, “Know where success and failure lie, then act” (Kuantzu: 47).

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “A needle creates a tapestry. A basket of earth makes a wall. Success and failure begin from something small” (Huainantzu: 16).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “From a sprout, the small becomes great. From a basket of earth, the low becomes high. From here, the near becomes far. But trees are cut down, towers are toppled, and journeys end. Everything we do eventually results in failure. Everything we control is eventually lost. But if we act before anything exists, how can we fail? If we govern before anyone rebels, how can we lose?”

WANG P’ANG says, “everything has its course. When the time is right, it arrives. But people are blind to this truth and work to speed things up. They try to help Heaven and end up ruining things just as they near completion.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Others seek the ornamental. Sages seek the simple. Others seek form. Sages seek Virtue. Others study facts and skills. Sages study what is natural. Others learn how to govern the world. Sages learn how to govern themselves and how to uphold the truth of the Way.”

HAN FEI says, “The wise don’t fill their lessons with words or their shelves with books. The world may pass them by, but rulers turn to them when they want to learn what no one else learns.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The sage seeks without seeking and studies without studying. For the truth of all things lies not in acting but in doing what is natural. By not acting, the sage shares in the naturalness of all things.”

It’s easy, until it’s hard. The time to act is before anything exists. What starts out small, will soon grow to be large. What begins as only a few will soon become many. And then, you dare not act.

When you don’t understand this, when you act, you will fail.

This is the difference between acting while it is easy, and acting when it is hard. It is hard to control. And when you try to control, you will lose. That is why sages don’t act. And because they don’t act, they don’t fail. They don’t try to control, so they don’t lose.

When you are pursuing a task, failure doesn’t happen at the beginning, for then it is easy. But later, near the end, that is when failure occurs. Why is this?

Maybe it is because we lose patience with the process. There is a natural course to all things. If we would be careful to follow it, we would succeed. But we get impatient. We start to try to force things to the conclusion we are wanting. That can be like fitting square pegs into round holes. It wasn’t yet ripe, it wasn’t yet ready. But we forced it anyway, and ruined it, so near the end.

That is why it is so important to be careful at the end. Remember how easy it was at the beginning? Why was it so easy? It was so easy because it just came naturally. And we weren’t in such a big hurry. We were content to let nature do its thing. At the end, we need to have that same mind.

Don’t seek what everyone else seeks. Seek what no one else seeks. Don’t prize hard-to-get goods. You are just fomenting discontent in your own life. Don’t study what everyone else is studying. Study what no one else is studying. What others pass by is worth a closer look. Turn to it.

Help all things remain natural, by daring not to act. Daring not to act will keep things as easy at the end as they were at the beginning.

Think Everything Hard, and Find Nothing Hard

“Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 63, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When we act without acting, we don’t exhaust ourselves. When we work without working, we don’t trouble others. When we understand without understanding, we don’t waste anything.”

WANG TAO says, “What people do involves action. What sages do accords with the Tao of non-action. ‘Work’ refers to the conditions of action. ‘Understanding’ refers to meaning of action.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Action involves form and thus includes great and small. It is also tied to number and thus includes many and few. This is where wrongs come from. Only the Tao is beyond form and beyond number. Thus, sages treat everything the same: great and small, many and few. Why should they respond to them with anger?”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If we repay wrongs with kindness, we put an end to revenge. If we repay wrongs with wrongs, revenge never ends.”

HAN FEI says, “In terms of form, the great necessarily starts from the small. In terms of duration, the many necessarily starts from the few. Wise rulers detect small schemes and thus avoid great plots. They enact minor punishments and thus avoid major rebellions.”

DUKE WEN OF CHIN told Kuo Yen, “In the beginning, I found it easy to rule the kingdom. Now I find it hard.” Kuo Yen replied, “If you consider something easy, it is bound to become hard. If you consider something hard, it is bound to become easy” (Kuoyu: Chin.4).

WANG CHEN says, “If rulers disdain something as easy, misfortune and trouble are sure to arise from it. If they do not pay attention to small matters, eventually they will overwhelm even the greatest virtue. Thus, sages guard against the insignificant lest it amount to something great. If they wait until something is great before they act, their action will come too late.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.”

To act without acting is to act according to our nature: What is inside of each of us. To work without working is to work effortlessly, because of our understanding that what appears on the outside to be easy, becomes hard; what appears small will become great, and to plan accordingly. To understand without understanding is to understand without trying to understand. In other words, it isn’t an understanding that is dependent on outward accumulation of knowledge, but an inward, intuitive, and spontaneous, understanding.

So, today’s verse is really about the difference between the inward and the outward. Outwardly, things may appear great or small, many or few, but what is outside of us isdeceptive. So, we tend to get it wrong. When we think things are easy, they become hard. And when we think things are small, they become great. Sages, therefore, think of the easy as hard, and the small as great.

When we are wronged, whether we perceive it as a great or small wrong, and whether done by many or few, we need to repay each wrong with the virtue that we have cultivated inside ourselves.

Plan for the hard while it is still easy. Deal with the great while it is still small. Even the greatest task begins easy, even the greatest goal begins small. This is the way of the sage. They never reach for the great, and never try to act great. And, it is in this way they are able to achieve great things. Thinking everything hard, they find nothing hard.

In today’s verse, Red Pine introduces the following:

DUKE WEN OF CHIN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Chin and hegemon of the central states.

KUO YEN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Chief minister of the state of Chin during the reign of Duke Wen.

Who Seeks Obtains, Who Errs Escapes

“The Tao is creation’s sanctuary
treasured by the good
it keeps the bad alive
beautiful words might be the price
noble deeds might be the gift
how can we abandon
people who are bad
thus when emperors are enthroned
or ministers installed
though there be great disks of jade
followed by teams of horses
they don’t rival one who sits
and offers up this Way
the ancients thus esteemed it
for did they not proclaim
who seeks thereby obtains
who errs thereby escapes
thus the world esteems it”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 62, translation by Red Pine)

THE HSISHENGCHING says, “The Tao is the sanctuary of the deepest depth and the source of empty nothingness.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Sanctuary’ means the most honored place. The layout of ancestral shrines includes an outer hall and an inner chamber. The southwest corner of the inner chamber is called ‘the sanctuary,’ and the sanctuary is where the gods dwell.”

SU CH’E says, “All we see of things is their exterior, their entrance hall. The Tao is their sanctuary. We all have one, but we don’t see it. The wise alone are able to find it. Hence, Lao-tzu says the good treasure it, but the foolish don’t find it. Then again, who doesn’t the Tao protect? Hence, he says it protects the bad. The Tao doesn’t abandon people. People abandon the Tao.”

WANG PI says, “Beautiful words can excel the products of the marketplace. Noble deeds can elicit a response a thousand miles away.”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is in us all. Though good and bad might differ, our nature is the same. How, then, can we abandon anyone?”

LAO-TZU says, “Sages are good at saving others / therefore they abandon no one / nor anything of use / this is called cloaking the light / thus the good instruct the bad / the bad learn from the good” (Taoteching: 27).

WANG P’ANG says, “Jade disks and fine horses are used to attract talented people to the government. But a government that finds talented people yet does not implement the Tao is not followed by its subjects.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “In ancient times, the less valuable presents came first. Hence, jade disks preceded horses.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Better than disks of jade followed by teams of horses would be one good word or or one good deed to keep people from losing sight of the good.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “If words and deeds can be offered to others, how much more the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “There is nothing that is not the Tao. When good people seek it, they are able to find it. When bad people seek it, they are able to avoid punishment.”

In my commentary on yesterday’s verse, I pondered the question of why we aren’t great anymore. I think today’s verse offers a little more insight into the reason. Lao-tzu asks, “How can we abandon the bad?” I think that was our watershed moment: Abandoning the bad. With only 5% of the world’s population we incarcerate 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. How could we do this? I think this is exactly what has certain high profile people kneeling rather than standing for the national anthem. A great injustice is being perpetrated, how can we stand for it? Now, I know what some people will say: Those people the police have brutalized weren’t exactly stellar citizens. Some of them did bad things. Some of them were bad. If they had just been good, if they had just followed orders, if only, if only… But, I hear Lao-tzu saying, “How can we abandon people who are bad?

If we were treating the Tao as our sanctuary, the good, treasuring it, would seek and obtain; and the bad, who erred, would escape alive.

Lao-tzu asks, “How can we abandon people who are bad?” I think it is obvious: It is because we have abandoned the Tao.

We have forgotten, but Te-ch’ing reminds us: “The Tao is in us all.” The Tao is all of creation’s sanctuary. It hasn’t abandoned us. It never would. “Good and bad might differ,” as Te-ch’ing says, but “our nature is the same.” That is what we need to remember.

Su Ch’e explains it so well. “All we see of things is their exterior.” That is how we justify abandoning the bad. But, we all have an inner sanctuary, the Tao, which nobody sees. If we would be wise, rather than foolish, we could find this inner sanctuary in even the bad. And, how could we abandon anyone, then?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HSISHENGCHING (BOOK OF THE WESTERN ASCENSION). Taoist work apparently composed during the first centuries of the Christian era. It is one of several texts that recount Lao-tzu’s reappearance in India following his transmission of the Taoteching to Yin Hsi.

To Be Great, Master Being Lower

“A great state is a watershed
the confluence of the world
the female of the world
the female uses stillness to overcome the male
in order to be still
she needs to be lower
the great state that lowers itself before the small state
governs the small state
the small state that lowers itself before the great state
is governed by the great state
some lower themselves to govern
some lower themselves to be governed
the great state’s one desire
is to unite and lead others
the small state’s one desire
is to join and serve others
for both to fulfill their desires
whichever is greater needs to be lower”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 61, translation by Red Pine)

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

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To lead a great state, we should be like the sea. We should be at the bottom of a watershed and not fight even the smallest current. A great state is the meeting place of the high and the low. The female refers to everything yin, everything that is weak, humble, yielding – what doesn’t lead.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The female is the mother. All creatures revere their mother. The sage recognizes the male but upholds the female. Hence, all creatures turn to the sage.”

SU CH’E says, “The world turns to a great state just as rivers flow downstream. If a great state can lower itself, small states will attach themselves to it. If a small state can lower itself, a great state will take it under its care. A great state lowers itself to govern others. A small state lowers itself to be governed by others.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The female doesn’t make the first move. It is always the male who makes the first move. But to act means to lose the advantage. To wait means to be lower. The great state that doesn’t presume on its superiority gains the voluntary support of the small state. The small state that is content with its inferiority enjoys the generosity of the great state. The small state doesn’t have to worry about being lower, but the great state does. Hence, the great state needs to be lower.”

WAG AN-SHIH says, “To serve someone greater is easy. To serve someone smaller is hard. Because it is hard, Lao-tzu says, ‘whichever is greater needs to be lower.’”

MENCIUS says, “Only a virtuous ruler is able to serve a smaller state. Only a wise ruler is able to serve a greater state” (Mencius: 1B.3).

WANG PI says, “By cultivating humility, each gets what it wants. When the small state cultivates humility, it preserves itself, but that is all. It can’t make the world turn to it. The world turns to the great state that cultivates humility. Thus, each gets what it wants. But it is the great state that needs to be more humble.”

How low can I go? That should be the question of every leader of every state, great and small. That should be their guiding credo, their one desire. Not to see how great I can expand my state, but to master being lower.

I happen to live in a no longer great state, the United States. I know it isn’t great anymore, because the current President, when he was campaigning for president, said he wanted to make it great again.

How did we lose our greatness? Maybe there was some watershed moment, or perhaps, several watershed moments. I am understanding “watershed” here as a turning point. Or perhaps it was because we stopped being the confluence of the world. “Confluence” being a meeting point. Both of these words, watershed and confluence, have to do with where streams flow. And, we know, streams flow downhill, seeking out the lowest place. How low can I go? I think that is what a babbling brook must be saying in its own language. And a stream, and a river… Maybe it is because we weren’t female enough. Yin. Instead of using stillness to overcome the male, yang, we were overcome by yang. We needed to be still; and in order to be still, we needed to be lower.

Great states and small states, both should want to lower themselves. The great, because they want to unite and lead. And the small because they want to join and serve. But, there is only one way for both to fulfill their desires, and that is for the greater to be lower.

Lao-tzu says a great state is a watershed, and that means a great state is what smaller states will turn to. Why would they do that? Will they do that out of fear and loathing? Will they do that because they are being attacked and persecuted by the greater state? Are great states really being followed by smaller states, if the smaller states are only going along because they are being forced? Do threats work? Do embargoes? How about wars? Telling others to either love us or fear us, is that the way to be great?

I think we all know the answer to my list of rhetorical questions. And yet, our rulers don’t seem to have a clue.

Who Can Cook Fish?

“Ruling a great state
is like cooking a small fish
when you govern the world with the Tao
spirits display no powers
not that they have no powers
their powers don’t harm the people
not that their powers can’t harm
the sage keeps them from harming
and neither harms the other
for both rely on Virtue”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 60, translation by Red Pine)

In a poem bemoaning the absence of virtuous rulers, the SHIHCHING SAYS, “Who can cook fish / I’ll wash out the pot” (Kuei: 4).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “For the sage, ruling a state is a minor affair, like cooking a small fish.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If you cook a small fish, don’t remove its entrails, don’t scrape off its scales, and don’t stir it. If you do, it will turn to mush. Likewise, too much government makes those below rebel. And too much cultivation makes one’s vitality wither.”

HAN FEI says, “In cooking a small fish, too much turning ruins it. In governing a great state, too much reform embitters the people. Thus, a ruler who possesses the Way values inaction over reform.”

TE CH’ING says, “A cruel government brings calamity down on the people. The people, however, think their suffering is the work of ghosts and spirits and turn to sacrifice and worship to improve their lot, when actually their misfortune is caused by their rulers.”

THE TSOCHUAN says, “If the state is meant ot flourish, listen to the people. If the state is meant to perish, listen to the spirits” (Chuang: 32).

WANG CHEN says, “The government that takes peace as its basis doesn’t lose the Way. When the government doesn’t lose the Way, yin and yang are in harmony. When yin and yang are in harmony, wind and rain arrive on time. When wind and rain arrive on time, the spirit world is at peace. When the spirit world is at peace, the legion of demons can’t perform their sorcery.”

WANG PI says, “Spirits don’t injure what is natural. What is natural gives spirits no opening. When spirits have no opening, spirits cannot act like spirits.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Spirits dwell in the yin, and people dwell in the yang. When both accept their lot, neither injures the other.”

SU CH’E says, “The inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are. Outside, nothing troubles them. Inside, nothing frightens them. Even spirits have no means of using their powers. It isn’t that spirits have no powers. The have powers, but they don’t use them to harm people. The reason people and spirits don’t harm each other is because they look up to the sage. And the sage never harms anyone.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The reason spirits don’t harm the people is not because they can’t but because the sage is able to harmonize the energy of the people so that they don’t injure the energy of the spirit world. The reason neither injures the other is due to the sage’s virtue. Hence, both worlds rely on the virtue of the sage.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Neither’ here refers to spirits and the sage.”

LI JUNG says, “Spirits and sages help people without harming each other. One is hidden, the other manifest. But both rely on virtue.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spirits are spirits because they respond but can’t be seen. Sages are sages because they govern but don’t act. The virtue of sages and the virtue of spirits is the same.”

I entitled my commentary on today’s verse “Who Can Cook Fish?” both to bemoan the absence of virtuous rulers (as the Shihching, in a poem, does) and to bemoan that we have a long history of being a superstitious people.

Lao-tzu goes out of his way, it seems to me, acknowledging the people’s concerns with spirits, while teaching how to avoid any harm from them. Oh the concessions he makes! “I’m not saying they have no powers… I am not saying their powers can’t do harm….”

The problem, as Te Ch’ing points out, is that the people have it all wrong in blaming their suffering on spirits. It is their cruel government which brings calamity down on the people. Ho-shang Kung explains it so well: “If you cook a small fish, don’t remove its entrails, don’t scrape off its scales, and don’t stir it. If you do, it will turn to mush. Likewise, too much government makes those below rebel. And too much cultivation makes one’s vitality wither.”

Wait! Hasn’t Lao-tzu been teaching about the need for cultivation? What’s this about too much cultivation? But, of course, Lao-tzu also teaches about the need to know when enough is enough, and when to stop. Too much cultivation can likewise be referring to interfering in the people’s lives, rather than leaving them alone. As Han Fei says, “A ruler who possesses the Way values inaction over reform.” Reform is simply a synonym for action.

Wang Chen explains how we are governed has an effect, positive or negative, on the course of otherwise natural events (which people attributed to spirits) like wind and rain.

Su Ch’e says, when a sage is content with inaction, the people will be content with the way they are. When nothing outside troubles them, nothing inside frightens them. But, even he concedes it isn’t that “spirits” have no powers, just that they won’t use their powers to harm people. And it is all thanks to the sage.

Well, I just guess whatever you think might work to convince would-be leaders to choose a course of inaction is okay with me. If people want to be superstitious, let them. Leave them alone. Govern correctly, and you will keep the bogey man away.

Rely on Virtue. That is what the sage does. And if there are spirits needing to be kept appeased, well, they rely on Virtue, too.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

SHIHCHING (BOOK OF SONGS). Collection of some 300 poems from China’s earliest historical period, between the twelfth and seventh centuries B.C. Arranged by style and region, it was reportedly compiled by Confucius from a larger corpus of over 3,000 poems. It remained an essential part of traditional education until the twentieth century. There are half a dozen English translations.

TSOCHUAN (ANNALS OF TSO). First comprehensive account of the major political events of the Spring and Autumn Periods (722-481 B.C.). It was compiled during the fourth century B.C. by Tso ch’iu-ming about whom we know nothing else.

The Way of a Long and Lasting Life

“In governing people and caring for Heaven
nothing surpasses economy
economy means planning ahead
planning ahead means accumulating virtue
accumulating virtue means overcoming all
overcoming all means knowing no limit
knowing no limit means guarding the realm
and guarding the realm’s mother means living long
which means deep roots and a solid trunk
the Way of a long and lasting life”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 59, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Outside, we govern others. Inside, we care for Heaven. In both, nothing surpasses economy. Those who are economical are economical in everything. They are watchful within and on guard without. Only if we are still, does virtue have a place to collect.”

MENCIUS says, “The way we care for Heaven is by guarding our mind and nourishing our nature” (Mencius: 7A.1).

WANG TAO says, “‘Caring for Heaven’ means preserving what one receives from Heaven. It means cultivating oneself.”

Linking this with the previous verse, SU CH’E says, “Economy is the reason the edges of sages don’t cut, their points don’t pierce, their lines don’t extend, and their lights don’t blind. Economy means possessing without using.”

WANG PI says, “Economy means farming. Farmers cultivate their fields by weeding out different species and concentrating on one. They don’t worry about pulling out the withered and diseased. They pull out the causes of withering and disease. Above, they accept the will of Heaven. Below, they nourish others.”

HAN FEI says, “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts. Those who know how to care for Heaven clear their opening. When their thoughts are calm, old virtue remains within. When their openings are clear, new breath enters from without.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Someone whose virtue knows no limits can guard the gods of the realm and bring happiness to the people.”

THE LICHI says, “Those who guard the realm are ever careful” (27).

LI JUNG says, “When rulers maintain the Tao, their countries are at peace. When they fail to maintain the Tao, their countries are in chaos. Their countries are the offspring. The Tao is their mother.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The realm here is a metaphor for the body. Breath is the body’s mother. Breath that has no limit can preserve the body. Those who fill themselves with breath can conquer the world and remain unharmed. Breath rises from below as if from the roots of a tree. By nourishing the roots, the roots grow deep. Breath flourishes above just as the trunk of a tree does. By nourishing the trunk, the trunk becomes firm. Thus, the tree doesn’t wither.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature. What nothing can fathom is deep. Only life can match this. What nothing can topple is firm. Only nature can match this.”

What Red Pine translates as “economy” both Stephen Mitchell and Robert Brookes (who both have translations I have used in the past) translate as “moderation.” But economy is at least as good a word to use, as long as we understand what Lao-tzu means by the word. And for that, I think we have to read through basically the whole verse to get a grasp on the word. Then, I appreciated the various commentators for shedding further light on it.

Economy can’t be surpassed as the Way of a long and lasting life. First, Lao-tzu says it means planning ahead. But then he goes on to explain what he means by planning ahead. It is accumulating virtue. And by accumulating virtue he means overcoming all. And by overcoming all he means knowing no limit. And by knowing no limit he means guarding the realm (which Wu Ch’eng explains is a metaphor for the body). Here, Lao-tzu talks about guarding the realm’s mother (which is the Tao) as meaning living long. And that means deep roots and a solid trunk. Deep roots and a solid trunk refers to both the seen and the unseen, as Lu Nung-shih says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature.”

It took going through the entire verse to really understand what he means by economy. It means the cultivation of virtue. Which happens through living modestly. Think economy verse luxury cars. Live simply. Don’t seek happiness in outward things. Cultivate it deep within you.

And, when you are governing others, be a pattern (pattern just happens to be another way the word economy could be translated) for the others you are governing. Content yourself with being a pattern for them. Don’t try to force happiness upon them. As we talked about in the previous verse, you will only cultivate misery.

Accept that the way things are is the way things are. Or, as Wang Pi puts it, “Accept the will of Heaven.” Nourish others by being a pattern of how to follow the Way.

Han Fei puts it so well. “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts.”

That, my friends, is the virtue of economy in a nutshell. It is the Way of a long and lasting life. And, it promises to be a good one.

Nothing Is Direct

“Where the government stands aloof
the people open up
where the government steps in
the people slip away
happiness rests in misery
misery hides in happiness
who knows where these end
for nothing is direct
directness becomes deception
and good becomes evil
the people have been lost
for a long long time
thus the sage is an edge that doesn’t cut
a point that doesn’t pierce
a line that doesn’t extend
a light that doesn’t blind”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 58, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To stand aloof is to be relaxed and unconcerned. To open up is to be simple and honest. The ruler who governs without effort lets things take care of themselves.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are good at governing use neither laws nor measures. Thus, the people find nothing to attack.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When the government makes no demands, the people respond with openness instead of cleverness. When the government makes demands, the people use every means to escape. The government that stands aloof leaves power with the people. The government that steps in takes their power away. As one gains, the other loses. As one meets with happiness, the other encounters misery.”

WANG P’ANG says, “All creatures share the same breath. But the movement of this breath comes and goes. It ends only to begin again. Hence, happiness and misery alternate like the seasons. But only sages realize this. Hence, in everything they do, they aim for the middle and avoid the extremes, unlike the government that insists on directness and goodness and forbids deception and evil, unlike the government that wants the world to be happy and yet remains unaware that happiness alternates with misery.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Only those who are free of directness can transcend the appearance of good and evil and eliminate happiness and misery. For they alone know where they end. Meanwhile, those who cannot reach the state where they aren’t direct, who remain in the realm of good and evil, suffer happiness and misery as if they were on a wheel that carries them farther astray.”

TE-CH’ING says, “The world withers, and the Tao fades. People are not the way they once were. They don’t know directness from deception or good from evil. Even sages cannot instruct them. Hence, to transform them, sages enter their world of confusion. They join the dust of others and soften their own light. And they leave no trace.”

WU CH’ENG says, “A sage’s non-action is non-action that is not non-action. Edges always cut. But the edge that is not an edge does not cut. Points always pierce. But the point that is not a point does not pierce. Lines always extend. But the line that is not a line does not extend. Lights always blind. But the light that is not a light does not blind. All of these are examples of non-action.”

RED PINE notes that Wu Ch’eng combines this verse with the previous verse. He also notes that line fourteen also appears in the Lichi: “The gentleman compares his virtue to that of jade: pointed but not piercing.” And, line fifteen recalls verse 45: “perfectly straight it seems crooked.”

Wu Ch’eng combines today’s verse with our previous one, which I posted this past Friday. In that verse, Lao-tzu first talked about directness and deception, “Use directness to govern a country / and use deception to fight a war.” I said, then, it seems like our rulers have this backwards. They use directness to fight a war, and deception to rule us.

In today’s verse Lao-tzu explains why this is, “for nothing is direct / directness becomes deception.” This is why Lao-tzu says to use non-action to rule the world. But, what exactly is non-action? Lao-tzu explains this in today’s verse

It is standing aloof, rather than stepping in. As Hsuan-tsung says, “The ruler who governs without effort lets things take care of themselves.”

We simply must free ourselves of directness in order to transcend the appearance of good and evil and eliminate happiness and misery, as Lu Nung-shih says. Otherwise, happiness and misery alternate like the seasons, as Wang P’ang says. Thus, sages know to avoid extremes, unlike the government that insists on directness, which becomes deception.

Lao-tzu doesn’t just say that directness becomes deception, he goes on to say “good becomes evil / the people have been lost / for a long long time.” What can be done about this?

Well, we already know directness doesn’t work. That was sort of the point of our previous verse. Yet, we keep doing the same things, expecting different results.

Instead, we should be like the sage Lao-tzu talks about in the last four lines of today’s verse: Be an “edge that doesn’t cut / a point that doesn’t pierce / a line that doesn’t extend / a light that doesn’t blind.” Wu-ch’eng says, “All of these are examples of non-action.” And, “A sage’s non-action is non-action that is not non-action.”

Say what? Don’t be alarmed. Lao-tzu uses language like this throughout the Taoteching. The point Wu-ch’eng, and Lao-tzu, is making is to avoid extremes, aim for the middle. Edges always cut. Points always pierce. Lines always extend. Lights always blind. Thus, you want to be the edge that is not an edge, the point that is not a point, the line which is not a line, the light which is not a light.

Trying not to act, or to act without effort, requires effort. You defeat your own purpose. That is why Lao-tzu says, just stand aloof. Let things take care of themselves. They don’t need your intervention. And when you step in, people will just slip away, anyway. Since the people have been lost for a long long time, already, you surely don’t want them slipping even farther astray.

Directness won’t work. Because nothing is direct. Directness becomes deception. And deception doesn’t work, either. Good becomes evil, and evil becomes good. Happiness and misery alternate like the seasons. Don’t resist it. Just let it be.

When It’s a Choice Between Action and Non-Action

“Use directness to govern a country
and use deception to fight a war
but use non-action to rule the world
how do we know this works
the greater the prohibitions
the poorer the people
the sharper their tools
the more chaotic the realm
the cleverer their schemes
the more common the bizarre
the better their possessions
the more numerous the thieves
thus does the sage declare
I make no effort
and the people transform themselves
I stay still
and the people correct themselves
I do no work
and the people enrich themselves
I want nothing
and the people simplify themselves”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 57, translation by Red Pine)

SUN-TZU “In waging war, one attacks with directness, one wins with deception” (Suntzu Pingfa: 5.5).

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Directness can be used in governing, but nowhere else. Deception can be used in warfare, but that is all. Only those who practice non-action are fit to rule the world.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages were kind to strangers and gentle to friends. They didn’t think about warfare. Only when they ahd no choice did they fight. And when they did, they used deception. But deception can’be used to rule the world. The world is a mercurial thing. To conquer it is to lose it. Those who embody the Tao do nothing. They don’t rule the world, and yet the world comes to them.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “How do we know we can rule the world by means of non-action? Because we know we cannot rule the world by means of action.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Prohibitions, tools, schemes, possessions, all of these involve action and cannot be used to rule the world.”

WANG PI says, “Prohibitions are intended to put an end to poverty, and yet the people become poorer. Tools are intended to strengthen the country, and yet the country becomes weaker and more chaotic. This is due to cultivating the branches instead of the roots.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Prohibitions interfere with the people’s livelihood. Thus, poverty increases. Sharp tools mean sharp minds. And sharp minds mean chaos and confusion. Once minds become refined, customs become depraved, and the monstrous becomes commonplace.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In cultivating the Tao, sages accept the will of Heaven. They don’t change things, and the people transform themselves. They prefer not to talk or teach, and the people correct themselves. They don’t force others to work, and the people become rich at their occupations. They don’t use ornaments or luxuries, and the people emulate their simple ways.”

CONFUCIUS says, “The virtue of the ruler is like wind. The virtue of the people is like grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends” (Lunyu: 12.19).

And RED PINE adds, “My mother used to say, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’”

The verses that have been giving me so much trouble these last few days have all been leading up to today’s verse, and the many more which will follow beginning next week. I love these verses where Lao-tzu talks about the art of governing, because it was these verses, so libertarian, that I found so attractive about philosophical Taoism.

In reading through today’s verse, I couldn’t help myself, I began comparing and contrasting Lao-tzu’s teachings on the art of governing with how we are being governed, today.

Those first two lines, for just one example. It would seem our rulers, today, have those turned around. They use directness in fighting a war, and deception to govern us. It is almost (but that couldn’t be, could it?) like our rulers are treating their own people as enemies.

And to think, we even have the great Sun-tzu, who knew a thing or two about the art of war, as one of our commentators for today’s verse.

No one considers that when it’s a choice between action and non-action, the right course is not to act. Oh no! We dare not do nothing!

We must intervene. We must interfere. We must try to control. We must use force. People need greater and greater prohibitions. The police must be given sharper tools. Why, the only reason we haven’t seen the results we were hoping for is because our schemes weren’t clever enough. But, if we can just lull the people into complacency… I know, let’s give them access to lots of stuff they don’t really need. Let’s convince them they need the latest gizmos and gadgets. That their happiness depends on things. Yeah! That will do the trick…

Friends, we already know this doesn’t work. People have only become poorer. The realm has become more chaotic. The bizarre is more common. Thieves want your things.

Even if the motivation for action was a pure one (and I am not willing to concede that), action has been proven to not result in the desired effect.

Can we please give non-action a chance to prove itself?

Imagine, just imagine, what it might be like….

I am imagining a leader ( a sage) who makes no effort. And the people transform themselves. This leader stays still. And the people correct themselves. This leader does no work. And the people enrich themselves. This leader wants nothing. And the people simplify themselves.

I am not naive enough to really believe we are going to have a leader like this come along any time soon.

But, I am not just going to throw up my hands and declare the situation in my world hopeless, either.

Instead, I am going to rule my own world through non-action. And, I don’t think anyone is going to confuse me with Alexander the Great. For, I am not bent on conquering anything outside of myself. I just know non-action works. How do I know? Easy. Because the folly of action has been made so clear.

What Does It Mean to Be Balanced?

“Those who know don’t talk
those who talk don’t know
seal the opening
close the gate
dull the edge
untie the tangle
soften the light
and join the dust
this is called the Dark Union
it can’t be embraced
it can’t be abandoned
it can’t be helped
it can’t be harmed
it can’t be exalted
it can’t be debased
thus does the world exalt it”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 56, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “”Those who know, value deeds not words. A team of horses can’t overtake the tongue. More talk means more problems.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who grasp the truth forget about words. Those who don’t practice what they talk about are no different from those who don’t know.”

SU CH’E says, “The Tao isn’t talk, but it doesn’t exclude talk. Those who know don’t necessarily talk. Those who talk don’t necessarily know.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We seal the opening and close the gate to nourish the breath. We dull the edge and untie the tangle to still the spirit. We soften the light and join the dust to adapt to the times and get along with the world.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “By sealing the opening, we guard the exit. By closing the gate, we bar the entrance. By dulling the edge, we adjust the inside. By untying the tangle, we straighten the outside. By softening the light, we focus on ourselves. By joining the dust, we adapt to others. What is devoid of exit and entrance, inside and outside, self and other, we call the Dark Union.”

WANG TAO says, “The Dark Union unites all things but leaves no visible trace.”

WANG PI says, “If something can be embraced, it can be abandoned. If something can be helped, it can be harmed. If something can be exalted, it can be debased.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Those who know transcend the mundane and the superficial, hence they cannot be embraced. Their utter honesty enables others to see. Hence, they cannot be abandoned. They are content and free of desires. Hence, they cannot be helped. They dwell beyond life and death. Hence, they cannot be harmed. They view high position as so much dust. Hence, they cannot be exalted. Beneath their rags they harbor jade. Hence, they cannot be debased. Those who know walk in the world, yet their minds transcend the material realm. Hence, they are exalted by the world.”

WEI YUAN says, “Those who seal the opening and close the gate neither love nor hate. Hence, they don’t embrace or abandon anything. Those who dull the edge and untie the tangle don’t seek help. Thus, they suffer no harm. Those who soften the light and join the dust don’t exalt themselves. Thus, they aren’t debased by others. Forgetting self and other, they experience Dark Union with the Tao. Those who have not yet experienced this Dark Union unite with ‘this’ and separate from ‘that.’ To unite means to embrace, to help, and to exalt. To separate means to abandon, to harm, and to debase. Those who experience Dark Union unite with nothing. From what, then, could they separate?”

And RED PINE adds, “Knowing comes before talking. And the Dark Union comes before knowing. It’s called the Dark Union because it precedes the division into subject and object.”

I said yesterday that these verses are something of a challenge for me to add any commentary. To talk about them, or not to talk about them? And, what does he mean by balanced?

I have said it before, and it bears repeating: You can’t force this virtue. But we try, how we try. I just know that if I can get this perfect balance between yin and yang, all will be right in my world.

But, in yesterday’s verse he uses the metaphor of a newborn child, who can’t do a thing to be virtuous, to exemplify those with an abundance of virtue. And, in today’s verse, he makes it even plainer (if I am understanding him at all).

Perfect balance is the result of what he calls the Dark Union. Dark means it is hidden, unseen. As Wang Tao says, “The Dark Union unites all things but leaves no visible trace.”

And, then the rest of the commentators, today, beginning with Wang Pi, explain the problem with our trying to be balanced, and how to transcend the problem.

Wang Pi says anything that can be embraced, can be abandoned. Anything that can be helped, can be harmed. And anything that can be exalted, can be debased.

But the Dark Union transcends this, since it can’t be embraced or abandoned, it can’t be helped or harmed, and it can’t be exalted or debased.

Te-ch’ing says that those who know transcend the mundane and the superficial. Though they walk in the world, and interact with the world, their minds transcend the material realm.

Wei Yuan says, and this is important, that they neither love nor hate, they neither help nor harm, and because they don’t exalt themselves, they can’t be debased by others.

Red Pine says this Dark Union precedes the division into subject and object. There is the difficulty. We can’t very well go back to being newborns again.

As Wei Yuan continues, forget self and other, and you will experience Dark Union with the Tao. As long as we divide things into “this” and “that” we will want to unite with “this” and try to separate ourselves from “that.” But unite means to embrace, help, and exalt; and separate means to abandon, harm, and debase. To experience Dark Union is to unite with nothing, and therefore separate from nothing.

So, what does it mean to be balanced? Instead of thinking of it as just the right amounts of yin and yang, think about it as neither yin nor yang.

Those Who Possess Virtue in Abundance Know How to Be Balanced

“He who possess virtue in abundance
resembles a newborn child
wasps don’t sting him
beasts don’t claw him
birds of prey don’t carry him off
his bones are weak and his tendons soft
yet his grip is firm
he hasn’t known the union of sexes
yet his penis is stiff
so full of essence is he
he cries all day
yet never gets hoarse
his breath is so perfectly balanced
knowing how to be balanced we endure
knowing how to endure we become wise
while those who lengthen their life tempt luck
and those who force their breath become strong
but once things mature they become old
this isn’t the Way what isn’t the Way ends early”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 55, translation by Red Pine)

WANG P’ANG says, “The nature of Virtue is lasting abundance. But its abundance fades with the onset of thoughts and desires.”

SU CH’E says, “Once we have a mind, we have a body. And once we have a body, we have enemies. If we did not have a mind, we would not have enemies and could not be harmed. The reason a newborn child isn’t harmed is because it has no mind.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “A newborn child doesn’t harm anyone, and no one harms it. In an age of perfect peace, Humankind knows neither noble nor base. Even wild beasts do people no harm.”

TE CH’ING says, “Those who cultivate the Tao should first focus their mind. When their mind doesn’t stray, they become calm. When their mind becomes calm, their breath becomes balance. When their breath becomes balance, their essence becomes stable, their spirit becomes serene, and their true nature is restored. Once we know how to breathe, we know how to endure. And once we know how to endure, we know our true nature. If we don’t know our true nature but only know how to nourish our body and lengthen our life, we end up harming our body and destroying our life. A restless mind disturbs the breath. When our breath is disturbed, our essence weakens. And when our essence weakens, our body withers.”

HSUN-TZU says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know how to nurture life and how to endure” (Hsuntzu: 17).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The basis of life rests on this breath. If people can nourish the pure and balanced breath within themselves for fifteen minutes, they will discover the principle of Heaven and Earth’s immortality. If they can do this for half an hour, they will enter the gate of eternity. But if they try to extend their life or force their breath, they will create the womb of their own destruction.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Life cannot be extended. But people keep trying and thus incur misfortune.”

MOU-TZU says, “Those who attain the Way don’t become active and don’t become strong. They don’t become strong and don’t become old. They don’t become old and don’t become ill. They don’t become ill and don’t decay. Thus, Lao-tzu calls the body a disaster” (Moutzu: 32).

In today’s verse, and tomorrow’s, Lao-tzu describes those who have an abundance of virtue. And, I am just going to say, right from the get-go, these are difficult verses for me to add my own commentary. In tomorrow’s verse, Lao-tzu basically instructs me to quit talking. “Those who know, don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.” Well, I know I don’t know, so I shouldn’t dare talk. But, here I go, anyway…

What of those who possess this virtue, Lao-tzu has been talking about, in abundance?

They resemble a newborn child. This is a metaphor, and Lao-tzu seems to be intimately acquainted with newborn children.

They harm no one and no thing. And nothing can harm them.

They are weak and soft. Yet, they possess a hidden strength.

They know nothing of what begets life, yet they are full of the essence of life.

They can cry all day without ever getting hoarse. This, Lao-tzu says, shows the perfect balance of their yin and yang breath. Hsun-tzu says, “Everything must breathe to live. When we know how to breathe, we know to nurture life and how to endure.”

Knowing how to be balanced we endure. Knowing how to endure we become wise. But you can’t force it. As Wang An-shih says, “Life cannot be extended. But people keep trying and thus incur misfortune.” Try to force things, and your supposed strength will mature until you become old.

And what becomes old, dies. It ends early. That isn’t the Way, says Lao-tzu.

Now, with tomorrow’s verse we will hopefully get a better understanding of what it means to be balanced.

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

MOU-TZU (FL. 3RD C.) High official and author of the Lihuolun, the earliest known work that addresses the conflicts arising from Buddhist practice and Chinese tradition.