The Virtue in Being Heartless

“Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
sages are heartless too
they treat people like straw dogs
between Heaven and Earth
how like a bellows
empty but inexhaustible
each stroke produces more
talking only wastes it
better to protect what’s inside”

(Taoteching, verse 5, translation by Red Pine)

HU SHIH says, “Lao-tzu’s statement that Heaven and Earth are heartless undercuts the ancient belief that Heaven and Humankind were of the same lineage and thereby created the basis for natural philosophy” (Chung-kuo-che-hsueh-shih ta-kang. p. 56).

SU CH’E says, “Heaven and Earth aren’t partial. They don’t kill living things out of cruelty or give birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them. This is how sages treat the people.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “When we make straw dogs or clay dragons, we paint them yellow and blue, decorate them with brocade, and tie red ribbons around them. The shaman puts on his black robe, and the lord puts on his ceremonial hat to usher them in and to see them off. But once they’ve been used, they’re nothing but clay and straw.” A similar description appears in Chuangtzu: 14.4.

WU CH’ENG says, “Straw dogs were used in praying for rain, and these particular bellows were used in metallurgy.”

WANG P’ANG says, A bellows is empty so that it can respond. Something moves, and it responds. It responds but retains nothing. Like Heaven and Earth in regard to the ten thousand things or sages in regard to the people, it responds with what fits. It isn’t tied to the present or attached to the past.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao has no substance or dimension, yet it works the breath of emptiness between Heaven and Earth and gives birth to the ten thousand things.”

WANG TAO says, “The Tao cannot be talked about, yet we dismiss it as heartless. It cannot be named, yet we liken it to a bellows. Those who understand get the meaning and forget the words. Those who don’t understand fail to see the truth and chatter away in vain.”

HSIN TU-TZU says, “When the main path has many side trails, sheep lose their way. When learning leads in many directions, students waste their lives in study” (Liehtzu: 8.25).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Whenever the mouth opens and the tongue moves, disaster is close behind. Better to guard your inner virtue, nurture your vital essence, protect your spirit, treasure your breath, and avoid talking too much.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “If our mouth doesn’t talk too much, our spirit stays in our heart. If our ears don’t hear too much, our essence stays in our genitals. In the course of time, essence becomes breath, breath becomes spirit, and spirit returns to emptiness.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Cultivating the heartless center between Heaven and earth, sages delight in the endless creation of something out of nothing without becoming attached to anything. The Chinese phrase pu-jen (no heart) not only means ‘unkind’ but also refers to any fruit that has no seed or kernel in its center. The straw dogs used in ceremonies in ancient China were much like Christmas trees in the West – used for a day, a week, a month, but not for long.”

Is there virtue in being heartless? It would seem so. The Tao’s emptiness isn’t partial. It can be used by all, equally. But, what is that about treating creatures like straw dogs? Well, if you read the various commentators, you have some idea what a straw dog is. It sounds harsh. Like the Tao doesn’t care about us. Like sages don’t care. Are we really no more than straw dogs to them?

Forget the words, just understand the meaning (Wang Tao, above). Yes, we dismiss it as heartless. It is empty inside, just like a bellows. Talking about it won’t help you. Getting all bent out of shape because you aren’t something special won’t help. Just let that emptiness do its work in you.

No one is treated favorably. At the same time, no one is treated badly. Impartiality. True impartiality. Don’t let it scare you! It is exactly what we need in the world today.

If you are still getting hung up on being treated as straw dogs, go back and read through the various commentaries again, particularly Su Ch’e’s, Wang P’ang’s, Wang Tao’s, Hsin Tu-tzu’s, and Ho-shang Kung’s. It isn’t out of cruelty or kindness. It isn’t about love or hate. It is simply accepting that the way things are is the way things are. What! You would prefer partiality? But that wouldn’t be the Tao.

Empty but inexhaustible. You can use it again and again. Or, you can go on chattering away about how unfair life is. But I have to tell you. If you choose that course, it will all be in vain.

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

HU SHIH (1891-1962). Student of John Dewey and leader of China’s New Culture Movement that helped establish vernacular Chinese as a legitimate form of literary expression. Chung-kuo che-hsueh-shih ta-kang.

HUAI-NAN-TZU (D. 122 B.C.). A.K.A. LIU AN. He was the grandson of Liu Pang, the first Han emperor. He was a devoted Taoist, although his search for the elixir of immortality was prematurely interrupted when he was accused of plotting to seize the throne and was forced to commit suicide. The book named after him is a collection of treatises on mostly Taoist themes written by a group of scholars at his court.

WANG TAO (1476-1532). Incorporates Confucian interpretations in his commentary. Lao-tzu-yi.

HSIN TU-TZU Interlocutor in Liehtzu: 8.25).

The Meaning of Emptiness

“The Tao is so empty
those who use it
never become full again
and so deep
as if it were the ancestor of us all
it dulls our edges
unties our tangles
softens our light
and merges our dust
it’s so clear
as if it were present
I wonder whose child it is
it seems it was here before Ti”

(Taoteching, verse 4, translation by Red Pine)

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao possesses form and function. Its form is the original breath that doesn’t move. Its function is the empty breath that alternates between Heaven and Earth.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Empty’ means ‘empty like a bowl.’ The Tao is essentially empty, and people who use it should be empty, too. To be full is contrary to the Tao. ‘Deep’ means ‘what cannot be measured.’ ‘Ancestor’ means ‘one who unites a lineage,’ just as the Tao unites all things. ‘As if’ suggests a reluctance to compare.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The ancient masters of the Way had no ambition. Hence, they dulled their edges and did not insist on anything. They had no fear. Hence, they untied every tangle and avoided nothing. They did not care about beauty. Hence, they softened their light and forgot about themselves. They did not hate ugliness. Hence, they merged with the dust and did not abandon others.”

WEI YUAN says, “By taking advantage of edges, we create conflicts with others. By shining bright lights, we illuminate their dust. Grinding down edges makes conflicts disappear. Dimming the light merges the dust with dust and with darkness.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “A person who can adjust their light to that of the crowd and merge with the dust of the world is like a magic mushroom among ordinary plants. You can’t see it, but it makes everything smell better.”

HSI T’UNG says, “The Tao is invisible. Hence, Lao-tzu calls it ‘clear.’”

THE SHUOWEN says, “Chan [clear] means ‘unseen.’”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “‘Clear’ describes what is deep, what seems to be present and yet not present, what seems to be not-present and yet not not-present.”

LIU CHING says, “If it’s empty, it’s deep. If it’s deep, it’s clear. The Tao comes from nothing. Hence, the Tao is the child of nothing.”

LI YUEH says, “Ti is the Lord of Creation. All of creation comes after Ti, except the Tao, which comes before it. But the nature of the Tao is to yield. Hence, Lao-tzu does not insist it came before. Thus, he says, ‘it seems.’”

JEN CHI-YU says, “In ancient times no one denied the existence of Ti, and no one called his supremacy into doubt. Lao-tzu, however, says the Tao is ‘the ancestor of us all,’ which presumably included Ti as well” (Lao-tzu che-hsueh t’ao-lun-chi, p. 34).

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu said the sage empties the mind. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu explains what emptiness means.

First of all, as Wu Ch’eng says in his commentary, “‘Empty’ means ‘empty like a bowl.’ The Tao is essentially empty, and people who use it should be empty, too. To be full is contrary to the Tao.”

Empty like a bowl” means an emptiness that can be used. What can you use an empty bowl for? Pretty much anything. Emptying our minds, then, makes our minds useful. They really aren’t of much use to us when they are full of clutter, now, are they?

Now, try to imagine this: A mind so empty it can never become full again. What a glorious state “emptiness” is! This sort of emptiness is so deep, here Wu Ch’eng (once again) has something to say, “‘Deep’ means ‘what cannot be measured.’” In other words, this is an infinite emptiness.

The Tao’s emptiness dulls our edges, meaning (as Li Hsi-chai says in his commentary) it takes away all of our ambition. Dulling our edges means not insisting on anything.

It unties our tangles. This means having no fear. Untying every tangle means avoiding nothing (Once again, see Li Hsi-chai, above).

It softens our light. Here, Li Hsi-chai says those who follow the Tao don’t care about beauty. I am rather certain this refers to the subjective beauty, Lao-tzu talked about in verse two. Softening our light means forgetting about ourselves.

And while they didn’t care about beauty, they didn’t hate ugliness (once again, see Li Hsi-chai, above). It merges our dust so that we don’t abandon others.

This prescription, which is something Lao-tzu introduced in yesterday’s verse, is contrary to the Way of Humankind.

The Way of Humankind takes advantage of edges, as Wei Yuan says in his commentary, to create conflicts with others. It shines bright lights to illuminate their dust. But the emptiness of the Tao, by grinding down our edges, makes conflicts disappear. It dims the light and merges our dust with the darkness of understanding (see verse one).

Finally, the Tao’s emptiness is so clear. Here, Lu Nung-shih explains, “‘Clear’ describes what is deep, what seems present and yet not present, what seems to be not-present and yet not not-present.”

What’s that again? This just highlights what an enigma the Tao is. Lao-tzu marvels at it, as we all should. And he is careful with his words. “As if it were present.” And, “As if it were the ancestor of us all.” Does it even precede God? “It seems” so.

Red Pine introduces the following sages today:

HSI T’UNG (1876-1936). Official and classical scholar known for his commentaries on the philosophical texts of the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.). Lao-tzu chi-chieh.

LI YUEH (FL. 683). Military official, accomplished poet, calligrapher, and painter of the plum tree. He viewed the Confucian classics as no more than leaves and branches and the Taoteching as the root. Tao-te-chen-ching hsin-chu.

JEN CHI-YU (B. 1916). Professor of religion and philosophy at Beijing University. His many publications include an English translation of the Taoteching. Lao-tzu che-hsueh t’ao-lun-chi.

Our Problem Is Knowing and Wanting

“Bestowing no honors
keeps people from fighting
prizing no treasures
keeps people from stealing
displaying no attractions
keeps people from making trouble
thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones
by keeping the people from knowing or wanting
and those who know from daring to act
the sage governs them all”

(Taoteching, verse 3, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “Bestowing honors embarrasses those who don’t receive them to the point where they fight for them. Prizing treasures pains those who don’t possess them to the point where they steal them. Displaying attractions distresses those who don’t enjoy them to the point where they cause trouble. If people aren’t shown these things, they won’t know what to want and will cease wanting.”

WANG CHEN says, “Sages empty the mind of reasoning and delusion, they fill the stomach with loyalty and honesty, they weaken the will with humility and compliance, and they strengthen the bones with what people already have within themselves.”

WANG PI says, “Bones don’t know how to make trouble. It’s the will that creates disorder. When the mind is empty, the will is weak.”

WANG P’ANG says, “An empty mind means no distinctions. A full stomach means no desires. A weak will means no external plans. Strong bones mean standing on one’s own and remaining unmoved by outside forces. By bestowing no honors, sages keep people from knowing. Prizing no treasures, they keep people from wanting.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The mind knows and chooses, while the stomach doesn’t know but simply contains. The will wants and moves, while bones don’t want but simply stand there. Sages empty what knows and fill what doesn’t know. They weaken what wants and strengthen what doesn’t want.”

YEN TSUN says, “They empty their mind and calm their breath. They concentrate their essence and strengthen their spirit.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Sages purify their ears and eyes, put an end to dissipation and selfishness, embrace the one, and empty their mind. An empty mind forms the basis for transmuting cinnabar by enabling us to use our yang breath to transform our yin essence. A full stomach represents our final form, in which our yang breath gradually and completely replaces our yin essence.”

WEI YUAN says, “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.”

LIU CHING says, “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

I think this is a good time to point out a distinction Lao-tzu will be making throughout the Taoteching. The difference between “the Way of Heaven” (the Tao, the Way of Nature) and the “Way of Humankind.” Humankind are different from all other beings in the Universe. Humankind, unlike all other beings in the Universe (as far as we know), have the capacity to act contrary to the Way of Nature. This makes us unique. But, it also causes us certain problems.

Lao-tzu identifies a two-fold problem with humankind; knowing and wanting.

What is the problem with knowing? Notice, first of all, the problem isn’t with knowledge, per se. It is with knowing, or more precisely, thinking we know, or presuming.

And what is the problem with wanting? The problem is we aren’t satisfied with what we already have. We aren’t content. We want more. But the more we get, the more we want.

This two-fold problem, knowing and wanting, is the big problem Lao-tzu addresses with the Taoteching. And, today’s verse is his introduction to the two-fold solution to the problem.

The problem is subjectivity. As he talked about in yesterday’s verse. But how do we avoid subjectivity?

If you don’t bestow any honors, people won’t fight for them. If you don’t prize treasures, people won’t steal. If you don’t display attractions, people won’t make trouble.

This is how sages rule, or govern.

They empty the mind, but fill the stomach. They weaken the will, but strengthen the bones. In other words, they don’t fill the minds of the people with things to know and want.

Filled stomachs know no want. We all know what this is like. That feeling of satisfaction you have after you have just eaten a good meal. You are full. And you don’t want another bite.

This is the way to govern. Not just others, but yourself. If you know you don’t know, and are content so you don’t want, you won’t dare to act.

Daring to act is the consequence of knowing and wanting. As Wei Yuan says in his commentary on today’s verse: “The reason the world is in disorder is because of action. Action comes from desire. And desire comes from knowledge. Sages don’t talk about things that can be known or display things that can be desired. This is how they bring order to the world.”

It is important to point out that this rule of sages is not something which is forced on people. Force may be the Way of Humankind, but it isn’t the Way of Nature. Thus, it isn’t the Way of sages. As Liu Ching says in his commentary on today’s verse: “This verse describes how sages cultivate themselves in order to transform others.”

Sages are content to be an example for people. They are an example; and, they never force people to follow their example. Yet, because it is the Way of Nature, and the Way of Nature always prevails, the people naturally follow.

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

WANG CHEN (FL. 809). T’ang dynasty general and student of the Taoteching. His commentary, which he personally presented to Emperor Hsiuan Tsung, remains unique for its display of pacifist sympathies by a military official. Tao-te-ching lun-ping yao-yi-shu.

WANG P’ANG (1044-1076). Brilliant scholar, writer, and son of Wang An-shih. His commentary, written in 1070, was “lost” until Yen Ling-feng reedited it from various sources. Lao-tzu-chu.

LU NUNG-SHIH ((1042-1102). High official and scholar known for knowledge of ritual. His commentary makes extensive use of quotes from the Liehtzu and Chuangtzu. Lao-tzu-chu.

YEN TSUN (FL. 53-24 B.C.). Urban recluse of Chengtu. He supported himself as a fortune-teller and spent his remaining time reading and pondering the Taoteching. The lengthy commentaries that he produced are sometimes quite profound but more often obscure, and those that survive are incomplete. He divides the text into seventy-two verse. Tao-te-ching chih-kuei.

HUANG YUAN-CHI (FL. 1820-1874). Taoist master famous for his sermons and oral expositions of Taoist texts. His commentary, which he dictated to a disciple, focuses on internal yoga as well as on points in common between the teachings of Lao-tzu and Confucius. Tao-te-ching ching-yi.

WEI YUAN (1794-1856). Classicist, historian, geographer, and admired administrator. While his own views are insightful, his commentary consists largely in selections from Chiao Hung’s earlier edition. Lao-tzu pen-yi.

LIU CHING (FL. 1074). Recognized for his literary talent by Wang An-shih, he was given several minor posts but failed to advance due to his fondness for argument. Lao-tzu-chu.

This and That, and the Natural Order

“All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don’t look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don’t claim them
they are never without them”

(Taoteching, verse 2, translation by Red Pine)

LU HSI-SHENG says, “What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence, sages transform their feelings and return to their nature and thus become one again.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The existence of things, the difficulty of affairs, the size of forms, the magnitude of power, the pitch and clarity of sound, the sequence of position, all involve contrasting pairs. When one is present, both are present. When one is absent, both are absent.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “These six pairs all depend on time and occasion. None of them is eternal. Sages, however, act according to the Immortal Tao. Hence, they act without effort. And because they teach according to the Immortal Name, they teach without words. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad don’t enter their minds.”

WANG WU-CHIU says, “Sages are not interested in deeds or words. They simply follow the natural pattern of things. Things rise, develop, and reach perfection. This is their order.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Sages create but do not possess what they create. They act but do not depend on what they do. They succeed but do not claim success. These all result from selflessness. Because sages are selfless, they do not lose themselves. Because they do not lose themselves, they do not lose others.

SU CH’E says, “Losing something is the result of possessing something. How can people lose what they don’t possess?”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Lao-tzu’s 5,000 word text clarifies what is mysterious as well as what is obvious. It can be used to attain the Tao, to order a country, or to cultivate the body.”

HO-SHANG KUNG titles this verse: “Cultivating the Body.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue.”

Today’s verse may just be the most important verse in the whole Taoteching, if you want to properly understand philosophical Taoism. At least, I think so. It is misunderstood by a great many, I used to fall in this camp. The problem with it is that we failed to understand what Lao-tzu taught us in the first verse.

Remember, in verse one, Lao-tzu introduced the Immortal Way and the Immortal Name, contrasting them with a way that becomes a way and a name that becomes a name. This really is vital to understand, or the rest of the book is going to largely be misunderstood, beginning with today’s verse.

So. we really have to understand what Lao-tzu is teaching. The way that becomes a way, the name that becomes a name – these are not the Immortal Way and Immortal Name.

That brings us to verse two, now. Where I, and a whole lot of other people have mistakenly believed that Lao-tzu is teaching there is no such thing as beauty or goodness.

But that conclusion flies in the face of what Lao-tzu taught us in verse one. There is such a thing as the Immortal Way. There is such a thing as the Immortal Name. Thus, there is such a thing as an objective, and eternal, beauty and goodness.

And, Lao-tzu begins today’s verse by saying all the world knows it. “All the world knows beauty…. All the world knows good….” The world knows it, because it is the eternal reality. And, Lao-tzu will be teaching, again and again, about this objective, eternal reality, throughout the Taoteching.

I understand that now. And I hope I cleared that up with my followers, as well.

But, there is a beauty and goodness that we, indeed, should be skeptical about. That is the subjective, and temporal. Once again, Lao-tzu teaches, “If that becomes beautiful, this becomes ugly…. If that becomes good, this becomes bad.” What Lao-tzu is talking about is what becomes beautiful, what becomes good. And we aren’t going to forget what Lao-tzu taught about the way that becomes a way, and the name that becomes a name: They aren’t the Immortal….

This, also, is something we simply must understand. This duality that exists. The yin-yang duality.

Have and have not, hard and easy, long and short, high and low, note and noise, first and last. You can’t have one without the other. They create each other, they produce each other, they shape each other, they complete each other, they accompany each other, they follow each other. This is the natural order. This is the Way things are.

Sages understand this. That is why they are careful about performing deeds and naming things. In light of the Way things are, the natural order, what is called for is effortless action and wordless lessons. Every effort, and every word spoken, take us farther away from the Way.

Things arise, they develop, they reach perfection. That is simply the natural order, the Way of things.

What is that to us? Let it be. Leave it alone. Don’t interfere with it. Don’t intervene. Don’t try to control. Don’t try to force things.

But somehow we feel we have some kind of vested interest in things. That has become beautiful to us, that has become good. And, “this” has become ugly and bad. But what is that? And, what is this?

That is something external to us. Something temporal. This is something internal, what you already have, with which you ought to be content. But because your focus has turned outward, looking after that that arises, depending on that, claiming that, you lose the most important thing of all. And for what? Those temporal things won’t last. They can’t last.

Oh, but if instead, you don’t look after all the things that arise, nor depend on them, nor claim them; you will never be without them, and you won’t lose the most important things of all.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LU HSI-SHENG (FL. 890). High official and scholar known for his wide learning. His commentary reflects the view that Lao-tzu and Confucius were the spiritual heirs of Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.), with Lao-tzu emphasizing the yin and Confucius the yang aspects of the Way of Heaven. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.

FU HSI (CA. 3500 B.C.). Sage ruler of ancient times and the reputed inventor of the system of hexagrams on which the Yiching is based.

WU CH’ENG (1249-1333). One of the great prose writers of the Yuan dynasty, surpassed only by his student Yu Chi (1272-1348). His commentary shows exceptional originality and provides unique background information. It is also noted for its division of the text into sixty-eight verses. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

LU HUI-CH’ING (1031-1111). Gifted writer selected by Wang An-shih to help draft his reform proposals. His commentary, presented to the emperor in 1078, is quoted at length by Chiao Hung. Tao-te-chen-ching-chuan.

WANG WU-CHIU (FL. 1056). Scholar-official. He gave up a promising official career in order to devote himself to studying and teaching. Lao-tzu-yi.

WANG AN-SHIH (1021-1086). One of China’s most famous prime ministers. His attempt to intorduce sweeping reforms directed against merchants and landowners galvanized Chines intellectuals into a debate that continues to this day. He was also one of China’s great poets and prose writers. His commentary has been reedited from scattered sources by Yen Ling-feng. Lao-tzu-chu.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING (FL. 1700). Taoist master and seventh patriarch of the Dragon Gate sect of the Golden Lotus lineage. His commentary on the Taoteching was a favorite of Emperor K’ang-hsi (r. 1662-1722). Tao-te-ching chiang-yi.

The Door to All Beginnings

“The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings”

(Taoteching, verse 1, translation by Red Pine)

TU ER-WEI says, “Tao originally meant ‘moon.’ The Yiching [see hexagrams 42 and 52] stresses the bright moon, while Lao-tzu stresses the dark moon” (Lao-tzu-te yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. ii-iii).

CONFUCIUS says, “The Tao is what we can never leave. What we can leave isn’t the Tao” (Chungyung: 1).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “What we call a way is a moral or political code, while the Immortal Way takes care of the spirit without effort and brings peace to the world without struggle. It conceals its light and hides its tracks and can’t be called a way. As for the Immortal Name, it’s like a pearl inside an oyster, a piece of jade inside a rock: shiny on the inside, dull on the outside.”

CH’ENG CHU says, “Sages don’t reveal the Way because they keep it secret, but because it can’t be revealed. Thus their words are like footsteps that leave no tracks.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things change but not the Tao. The Tao is immortal. It arrives without moving and comes without being called.”

SU CH’E says, “The ways of kindness and justice change but not the way of the Tao. No-name is its body. Name is its function. Sages embody the Tao and use it in the world. But while entering the myriad states of being, they remain in non-being.”

WANG PI says, “From the infinitesimal all things develop. From nothing all things are born. When we are free of desire, we can see the infinitesimal where things begin. When we are subject to desire, we can see where things end. ‘Two’ refers to ‘maiden’ and ‘mother.’”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘Two’ refers to ‘innocence’ and ‘passion,’ or in other words, stillness and movement. Stillness corresponds to nonexistence. Movement corresponds to existence. Provisionally different, they are ultimately the same. Both meet in darkness.”

THE SHUOWEN says, “Hsuan [dark] means ‘black with a dot of red in it.’” This is how the darker half of the yin-yang symbol was traditionally represented. In Shensi province, where the Taoteching was first written, doors were, until recently, painted black with a thin line of red trim. And every road begins with a door.

TE-CH’ING says, “Lao-tzu’s philosophy is all here. The remaining five thousand words only expand on this first verse.”

And RED PINE adds, “During Lao-tzu’s day, philosophers were concerned with the correspondence, or lack of it, between name and reality. The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?”

We are back around to verse one of the Taoteching, where our journey begins anew. Whether this is your first time on this journey with me, or the umpteenth, or somewhere in between, welcome.

If you are anything like I was, when I first came to experience the Taoteching, you may think this journey we are on is about learning something, or becoming something, new. Lao-tzu wishes to nip that notion right in the bud, right from the start. It isn’t about learning (accumulating knowledge), it is about understanding; and it isn’t about becoming, it is about discovering what you have always been.

We tend to worry ourselves over endings. What will become of me? Whereas all Lao-tzu is concerned with is beginnings. Where should we begin?

But that is simple, really. We begin at the beginning. We begin with the Tao (Way). The Immortal Tao (Way) that has no beginning or end. The Immortal Tao (Way) that is our beginning and our end.

It doesn’t become, it just is. It never changes. This is the eternal reality the Taoteching is all about.

But how do we explain it with words? As Red Pine notes, “The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?

Well, Lao-tzu gives it a go, distinguishing between name and no-name, mother and maiden, passion and innocence.

In passion (that is, caught-in-desire), we see the end (the manifestations). It is only in innocence we see the beginning (what brings about the manifestations).

Beginning and end? These are just two different names for one and the same. The one we call dark. Why? Because we can’t see it. It is dark beyond dark.

But, it is also the door to all beginnings. And, as we will discover on our journey through the Taoteching, our beginning and our end are the same.

The journey begins as we peer through the door to all beginnings. Right now, there is nothing much that we can see beyond the darkness. But, just give it time. Let your eyes get adjusted to the dark. Each day we will see through the darkness more clearly. We will begin to understand our beginning, and we will keep coming back to our beginning, until we end where we began.

Who was Lao-tzu? There is a lot of disagreement over this question. Lao-tzu means “Old Master.” He was a legendary figure in history, and the reputed author of the Taoteching. Some place him as early as the 6th century B.C.E., others as late as the 4th century B.C.E.. I happen to like reading the many legends associated with him. Much mystery surrounds him.

Who is Red Pine? Red Pine is the pen-name Bill Porter, an American author (born October 3, 1943), uses as a translator of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including the translation of the Taoteching I am presently using for our journey.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

TU ER-WEI (1913-1987). Scholar of Chinese religion and comparative mythology and proponent of the view that Taoism had its origin in the worship of the moon. Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao. He was a major influence for Red Pine in his translation of the Taoteching.

YICHING (BOOK OF CHANGES). Ancient manual of divination based on a system of hexagrams invented by Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.). with judgments attributed to Duke Wen and the Duke of Chou (c. 1200-1100 B.C.), and commentaries added some 600 years later, reportedly by Confucius.

CONFUCIUS (551-479 B.C.). Who hasn’t heard of Confucius? He was China’s most revered teacher of doctrines emphasizing the harmony of human relations. His teachings, along with those of certain disciples, were compiled into the Lunyu (Analects), the Chung-yung (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Tahsueh (Great Learning) and until recently formed the basis of moral education in China.

CHUNGYUNG (DOCTRINE OF THE MEAN). Attributed to Tzussu, the grandson of Confucius. It forms part of a larger work known as the Lichi, or Book of Rites.

HO-SHANG KUNG (D. CA. 159 B.C.). Taoist master who lived in a hut beside the Yellow River – hence his name which means Master Riverside. His commentary emphasizes Taoist yoga and was reportedly composed at the request of Emperor Wen (r. 179-156 B.C.). It ranks next to Wang Pi’s in popularity. Some scholars think it was compiled as late as the third or fourth century A.D. by members of the Taoist lineage that included Ko Hung (283-343). There is at least one English translation: Edward Erkes, Artibus Asiae (Switzerland), 1950. Lao-tzu-chu.

CH’ENG CHU (1078-1144). Scholar-official and fearless critic of government policies. Lao-tzu-lun.

LI HSI-CHAI (FL. 1167). Taoist master, practitioner of Taoist yoga, and noted Yiching scholar. His commentary extends Lao-tzu’s teachings to the state as well as the individual. Tao-te-chen-ching yi-chieh.

SU CH’E (1039-1112). He, his father, and his brother are counted among the eight great prose writers of the T’ang and Sung dynasties. Although his commentary reflects his own neo-Confucian sympathies, it is also treasured by Buddhists and Taoists. Tao-te-chen-ching-chu.

WANG PI (226-249). Famous for the quickness of his mind as well as the breadth of his learning. He grew up with one of the best private libraries of his time. Although he died of a sudden illness at the age of twenty-four, he was among the first to discuss Taoism as metaphysics rather than religion. As a result, his commentary has been preferred over that of Ho-shang Kung by Confucian scholars. At least two English translations exist: Paul Lin, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1977; Ariane Rump, University of Hawaii Press, 1979. Lao-tzu-chu.

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG (FL. SUNG DYNASTY: 960-1278). Taoist nun about whom I have found no other information. Lao-tzu-chu.

SHUOWEN Greatest of China’s early etymological dictionaries. It was compiled and first published by Hsu Shen in A.D. 121 and revised and updated with new materials in the T’ang, Sung, and Ch’ing dynasties.

TE-CH’ING (1546-1623). One of the greatest Buddhist writers of the Ming dynasty and responsible for revitalizing the practice of Zen in China. His commentaries on Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are among the best ever written and are used by Taoists as well as Buddhists. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching-chieh.

A Few Final Thoughts

“True words aren’t beautiful
beautiful words aren’t true
the good aren’t eloquent
the eloquent aren’t good
the wise aren’t learned
the learned aren’t wise
sages accumulate nothing
but the more they do for others
the greater their existence
the more they give to others
the greater their abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the Sage
is to act without struggling”

(Taoteching, verse 81, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “There’s a word for everything. Words that are harmful we say aren’t true” (Chingfa: 2).

TE-CH’ING says, “At the beginning of this book, Lao-tzu says the Tao can’t be put into words. But are its 5,000-odd characters not words? Lao-tzu waits until the last verse to explain this. He tells us that though the Tao itself includes no words, by means of words it can be revealed – but only by words that come from the heart.”

SU CH’E says, “What is true is real but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t beautiful. What is beautiful is pleasing to look at but nothing more. Hence, it isn’t true. Those who focus on goodness don’t try to be eloquent. And those who focus on eloquence aren’t good. Those who have one thing that links everything together have no need of learning. Those who keep learning don’t understand the Tao. The sage holds on to the one and accumulates nothing.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “True words are simple and not beautiful. The good cultivate the Tao, not the arts. The wise know the Tao, not information. Sages accumulate virtue, not wealth. They give their wealth to the poor and use their virtue to teach the unwise. And like the sun or moon, they never stop shining.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When Lao Tan and Yin Hsi heard of people who considered accumulation as deficiency, they were delighted” (Chuangtzu: 33.5). Lao Tan was Lao-tzu’s name, and Yin Hsi was the man to whom he transmitted the Taoteching.

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “People only worry that their own existence and abudnance are insufficient. They don’t realize that helping and giving to others doe them no harm but benefits themselves instead.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The wealth that comes from giving generously is inexhaustible. The power that arises from not accumulating is boundless.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Help is the opposite of harm. Wherever there is help, there must be harm. But when Heaven helps, it doesn’t harm, because it helps without helping. Action is the start of struggle. Wherever there is action, there must be struggle. But when sages act, they don’t struggle, because they act without acting.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “The previous 5,000 words all explain ‘the Tao of not accumulating,’ what Buddhists call ‘non-attachment.’ Those who empty their mind on the last two lines will grasp most of Lao-tzu’s text.”

WANG CHEN says, “The last line summarizes the entire 5,000 words of the previous eighty verses. It doesn’t focus on action or inaction but simply on action that doesn’t involve struggle.”

And RED PINE concludes, “At the beginning and at the end of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu reminds us not to become attached to the words. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea.”

Well, we have come to the end of another cycle through the Taoteching. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu has a few final thoughts to pass along to us. Really, it is just a summary of his teachings to us.

Don’t be deceived by the beautiful and eloquent. External things aren’t always a reflection of internal reality. Sometimes they are the exact opposite. Also, wisdom and learning, while not necessarily mutually exclusive, don’t necessarily coincide, either. One comes from looking on the inside, the other is based on the external.

True wealth doesn’t come from accumulating things. Sages, for instance, accumulate nothing. They understand that the more they do for others, the greater their existence will be. The more they give to others, the greater their abundance.

The Way of Heaven, the Tao we have been talking about for eighty-one verses now, helps without harming. And the Way of Sages, this is those who practice the Way of Heaven, is to act without struggling.

I think that is a fitting ending to Lao-tzu’s great work. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. You can be content.

It has often been noted that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And, while we haven’t always traveled in a straight line in our journey through the Taoteching, I can tell you that the shortest path to true contentment is to stop struggling.

Words, words, words… So many words. And Red Pine reminds us to not become attached to the words. Let the words go. Have a cup of tea. I am going to pour myself one right now. I will be back again, tomorrow, to begin this journey (again) with you, beginning with verse one. See you then!

Where Is This Place?

“Imagine a small state with a small population
let there be labor-saving tools
that aren’t used
let people consider death
and no move far
let there be boats and carts
but no reason to ride them
let there be armor and weapons
but no reason to employ them
let people return to the use of knots
and be satisfied with their food
and pleased with their clothing
and content with their homes
and happy with their customs
let there be another state so near
people hear its dogs and chickens
but live out their lives without making a visit”

(Taoteching, verse 80, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “A great state is yang. A small state is yin.”

SU CH’E says, “Lao-tzu lived during the decline of the Chou, when artifice flourished and customs suffered, and he wished to restore its virtue through doing nothing. Hence, at the end of his book he wishes he had a small state to try this on. But he never got his wish.”

YAO NAI says, “In ancient times, states were many and small. In later times, they were few and great. But even if a great state wanted to return to the ancient ways, how could it?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages govern great states, they think of them as small states and are frugal in the use of resources. When the people are many, sages think of them as few and are careful not to exhaust them.”

HU SHIH says, “With the advance of civilization, the power of technology is used to replace human labor. A cart can carry thousands of pounds, and a boat can carry hundreds of passengers. This is the meaning of “labor-saving tools’” (Chung-kuo che-hsueh-shih ta-kang. p. 64).

WANG AN-SHIH says, “When the people are content with their lot, they don’t concern themselves with moving far away or with going to war.”

THE YICHING CHITZU says, “The earlier rulers used knots in their government. Later sages introduced the use of writing” (B.2).

WU CH’ENG says, “People who are satisfied with their food and pleased with their clothes cherish their lives and don’t tempt death. People who are content with their homes and happy with their customs don’t move far away. They grow old and die where they were born.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “They are satisfied with their food because they taste the Tao. They are pleased with their clothing because they are adorned with virtue. They are content with their homes because they are content wherever they are. And they are happy with their customs because they soften the glare of the world.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who do their own farming and weaving don’t lack food or clothes. They have nothing to give and seek nothing. Why should they visit others?”

In this penultimate verse of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu invites us to imagine a small state with a small population. It took quite a bit of imagination to conjure up such an image, even in Lao-tzu’s day. By then, as Yao Nai notes in his commentary, states were no longer “many and small” they were now “few and great.” Power does tend to consolidate, just as it tends to corrupt.

Lao-tzu envisioned a place where people were content; so content, they never would want to leave their homes. Lao-tzu saw his own lack of contentment, in how his own state was governed, and he was itching to leave. But, where could he go? Where is this place, with a small state and a small population? And, if this place exists, point me in the right direction, I find myself itching to leave for it, as well.

If it exists, it sounds like “paradise” to me. It actually has always reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, filled with hobbits just minding their own business. It was a strange hobbit, indeed, who ever traveled far, seeking adventure. Why would any sane hobbit ever want to do that? You might miss “second breakfast.” And quite a few other meals. Food is definitely something with which we ought to be satisfied.

Can you imagine it? It may seem strange, even foreign to us, in this day and age. Being satisfied with our own food. Being pleased with our own clothing. Being content with our own home. Being happy with our own customs. Never wanting more…

I can already hear the objections to this idyllic picture. “What is wrong with wanting to travel? What is wrong with enjoying other people’s cultures?

Why, nothing. Nothing at all. But is it possible, even a little bit, that the reason we all have that itch is because we aren’t truly content. And, maybe, just maybe, we might be surprised with how happy we could be, if we could find true contentment no farther away than our own backyard gardens?

I certainly don’t think Lao-tzu’s intention is to diss traveling, or enjoying other cultures. After all, he was getting ready to “get the hell out of Dodge,” himself. What he is bemoaning is the way we are being governed. It produces discontentment in our lives. Great states with large populations, how could people be expected to be content with that?

The reality for most of us, me included, is that exit is not a very viable option. We are going to have to make do pretty much where we are. But, there is something for those of us that have to stay, here in today’s verse, as well.

At least, I found it here. So here is what I am doing. Understanding that there isn’t much that I can do about how I am being governed, externally. I decided that there was a heck of a lot that I could do about how I am being governed, internally.

I have ordered, and continue to order my life in such a way that I am as little affected by the external government as I can possibly be. I have established my own Shire in my own home, my own backyard. I have trained myself to be content with less. I have food enough, clothing enough, home enough, and customs enough. And I am happy with less. Less, I have found through experience, is truly more!

I hope this has been helpful for all of you. And good luck with your own personal Shire.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HUANG-TI (27TH C. B.C.). Known as the Yellow Emperor, he was the leader of the confederation of tribes that established their hegemony along the Yellow River. Thus, he was considered the patriarch of Chinese civilization. When excavators opened the Mawangtui tombs, they also found four previously unknown texts attributed to him: Chingfa, Shihtaching, Cheng, and Taoyuan.

YAO NAI (1732-1815). One of the most famous literary figures of the Ch’ing dynasty and advocate of writing in the style of ancient prose. His anthology of ancient literary models, Kuwentzu Leitsuan, has had a great influence on writers and remains in use. Lao-tzu chang-chu.


How Can This Be Good?

“In resolving a dispute
a dispute is sure to remain
how can this be good
sages therefore hold the left marker
and make no claim on others
thus the virtuous oversee markers
the virtue-less oversee taxes
the Way of Heaven favors no one
but it always helps the good”

(Taoteching, verse 79, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “In Lao-tzu’s day, whenever the feudal rulers had a dispute, the most powerful lord convened a meeting to resolve it. But the resolution of a great dispute invariably involved a payment. And if the payment was not forthcoming, the dispute continued.”

WANG PI says, “If we don’t arrange a contract clearly and a dispute results, even using virtuous means to settle it won’t restore the injury. Thus, a dispute will remain.”

SU CH’E says, “If we content ourselves with trimming the branches and don’t pull out the roots, things might look fine on the outside, but not on the inside. Disputes come from delusions, and delusions are the product of our nature. Those who understand their nature encounter no delusions, much less disputes.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Murderers are killed, and criminals are punished according to their crime. But those who inflict such punishments offend their own human feelings and involve innocent people as well. If even one person sighs, we offend the Heart of Heaven. How can resolving disputes be considered good?”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If someone lets go of both sides but still clings to the middle, how can he be completely good?”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, contracts were divided in two. In the state of Ch’u, the creditor kept the left half, and Lao-tzu was from Ch’u. In the central plains, this was reversed, and the creditor kept the right half.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Seeking to make peace with others is the Way of Humankind. Not seeking to make peace but letting things make peace by themselves is the Way of Heaven. Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace. Sages therefore hold the left marker because they rely on non-action and the subtlety of letting things be.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “If one does not make demands of others, disputes cannot arise. If one constantly takes from others, great disputes cannot help but occur.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Those concerned with taxes cannot avoid making claims on others and thus cannot prevent disputes. This is why they lack virtue.”

MENCIUS says, “The rulers of the Hsia dynasty exacted a tribute [kung] on every five acres of land. The rulers of the Shang exacted a share [chu] on every seven acres. The rulers of the Chou exacted a tax [ch’e] on every ten acres. In reality, what was paid was a tithe of 10 percent” (Mencius: 3A.3; see also Lunyu: 12.9).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Those who are good cultivate themselves. They don’t concern themselves with others. Once you concern yourself with others, you have disputes. The good make demands of themselves. They don’t make demands of others. The Way of Humankind is selfish. The Way of Heaven is unselfish. It isn’t concerned with others. But it is always one with those who are good.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Way of Heaven always helps the good because the good expect nothing. Hence, they are easily helped.”

Today’s verse has Lao-tzu talking about contractual obligations and conflict resolution. And, he uses it to illustrate the futility of intervention.

I recently took part in one of those silly quizzes on Facebook that is supposed to tell you something about yourself by simply answering a few simple questions. I don’t know why I ever do these, the answers they give you to choose between are never quite how I feel about a given topic. I think this particular quiz was supposed to tell me just how conservative or liberal I am. I went ahead and took the quiz, hoping I would break it, since I just knew I didn’t fit anywhere within the conservative/liberal, left/right spectrum. I had no such luck. In spite of my answers, the quiz identified me as “strongly conservative”; which is probably what my more liberal friends think of me, but would completely surprise my more conservative friends.

I specifically remember one of the questions particularly annoyed me. It was something along the lines of asking me to choose between a foreign policy that intervenes militarily and one that emphasizes diplomacy. Why did this annoy me? Because not intervening was not an option. We just have to intervene. The only allowable debate is whether the intervention is going to be a military intervention or a diplomatic intervention.

But Lao-tzu correctly points out the folly, the futility, of intervening — even to resolve a dispute diplomatically. How can this be good? A dispute is sure to remain. He then explains how contracts were arranged in ancient times. They were divided into a left and right side. On one side was one party’s obligations, and on the other side was the other party’s obligations. Lao-tzu, in effect, said sages uphold their end of the bargain without making any claim on the other party. This is true virtue. Fulfilling your own obligations, while making no demands on others.

But just try to be a third party who steps in and tries to resolve any conflict between two parties? Meddling, meddling, meddling. Why must we meddle? Where Lao-tzu says the virtuous oversee markers, I take that to mean, they observe boundaries. They don’t cross over to meddle. Where he says the virtue-less oversee taxes, I take that to mean they don’t respect boundaries, being more concerned with making sure they get what they want, which means force will be employed.

But, as Lao-tzu insists, the Way of Heaven favors no one. That is why meddling is a fool’s errand. He also insists the Way of Heaven always helps the good. Meaning, let Heaven sort it all out. Stay out of it. Leave it alone.

Red Pine introduces the following 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.

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG (PUBL. 1937). Lao-tzu chiao-chieh.

Something Everyone Knows, But No One Can Practice

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

(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are not kind, they cannot protect the spirits of the soil and grain” (Mencius: 4A.3).

SU CH’E says, “Upright words agree with the Tao and contradict the world. The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.”

LI JUNG says, “The world sees disgrace and innocence, fortune and misfortune. The follower of the Tao sees them all as empty.”

KAO YEN-TI says, “The last line sums up the meaning of the abstruse phrases that occur throughout the Taoteching, such as ‘to act without acting.’ The words may contradict, but they complement the truth.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu returns to his favorite metaphor for the Tao, water, to show how nature teaches us “the soft overcomes the hard” and “the weak overcomes the strong.” Lao-tzu says “this is something everyone knows.” But this “knowledge” doesn’t result in actual understanding, for it is still something “no one is able to practice.”

As Ts’ao Tao-chung says in his commentary, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.” What do we really value?

And, as Chuang-tzu teaches, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace.”

This is what all sages declare: If you want to be first, you must first, put yourself last. To be on top, place yourself beneath.

For an aspiring “ruler” this means accepting their own country’s disgrace and misfortune. But, as Su Ch’e points out, “The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.” What Lao-tzu teaches is quite the opposite. He suggests, what is truly shameful, and a great calamity, is not suffering disgrace and misfortune.

What Lao-tzu teaches seems paradoxical, upside down. But, how different things would be if, instead of considering it upside down, we realized this is the Way all of nature behaves; and, Humankind, can and should behave this way, too.

What if we valued weakness over strength, the soft over the hard? Then, we would have no difficulty putting “what everyone knows” into practice.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHU TI-HUANG (1885-1941). Ch’ing dynasty official and early revolutionary. After fleeing China, he returned to devote himself to Buddhism and philosophy.

PO-TSUNG (FL. 8TH C. B.C.). Minister at the court of Chin. His views are reported in the Tsochuan: Hsuan.15.

SHUN (CA. 2250-2150 B.C.). Early sage ruler noted for his filial piety and noninterference in public affairs.

SHUCHING (BOOK OF DOCUMENTS). Collection of memorials from China’s earliest historical periods: the Hsia, Shang, and Chou dynasties. Reputedly edited by Confucius, there are two versions, one of which contains twenty-eight chapters and which most scholars think is genuine, and one with an additional twenty-two chapters of debatable authenticity. Translated into English by James Legge (1815-1897).

KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of the Hanlin Academy. In addition to providing several unique interpretations of his own, Kao’s commentary cites passages of the Taoteching that appear in other ancient texts. Lao-tzu cheng-yi.

High and Low, Long and Short, Give and Take: The Natural Way

“The Way of Heaven
is like stringing a bow
pulling down the high
lifting up the low
shortening the long
lengthening the short
the Way of Heaven
takes from the long
and supplements the short
unlike the way of Humankind
which takes from the short
and gives to the long
who can take the long
and give it to the world
only those who possess the Way
thus do sages not depend on what they develop
or claim what they achieve
thus they choose to hide their skill”

(Taoteching, verse 77, translation by Red Pine)

KAO HENG says, “In stringing a bow, we pull the bow down to attach the string to the top. We lift the bow up to attach the string to the bottom. If the string is too long, we make it shorter. If the string is too short, we make it longer. This is exactly the Way of Heaven.” Red Pine’s reading of line two, which agrees with Kao Heng’s, is based on the Shuowen, which says, “Chang means to attach a string to a bow.”

TU ER-WEI says, “Not only the Chinese, but the ancient Greeks and Hindus, the Finns, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho all likened the moon to a bow. Thus the Way of Heaven is like a bow” (Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. 97-98).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way of Heaven is so dark, we need metaphors to understand it. To prepare a bow for use, we string it by pulling down the top and lifting up the bottom. Likewise, the Way of Heaven is to take from the strong and give to the weak.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low. It does nothing and relies instead on the nature of things. Things that are high and long cannot avoid being pulled down and shortened. Things that are low and short cannot avoid being lifted up and lengthened. The full suffer loss. The humble experience gain.”

TE CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven is to give but not to take. The Way of Humankind is to take but not to give.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The way of Heaven is based on the natural order. Hence, it is fair. The way of Humankind is based on desire. Hence, it is not fair. Those who possess the Way follow the same Way as Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Way supply the needs of the ten thousand creatures without saying a word. Only those who possess the Way are capable of this.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Who can imitate the Way of Heaven and make it the Way of Humankind by taking what one has in abundance and giving it to those in need? Only those who possess the Way. The Yiching [41-42] says, ‘to take means to take from the low and give to the high.’ And ‘to give means to take from the high and give to the low.’”

LI JUNG says, “Although sages perform virtuous deeds, they expect no reward and try to keep their virtue hidden.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The skill of the sages is unfathomable and inexhaustible. How could it be revealed?”

And RED PINE clarifies, “When Lao-tzu refers to ‘the Way of Heaven,” he is not simply referring to the sky above but to everything that lives and moves.”

While today’s verse is one of my favorite ones, I worry that what Lao-tzu talks about in today’s verse will readily be dismissed by a lot of my followers. Because it sounds like socialism, and socialism is bad. Right?

Don’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion, however. What Lao-tzu is really doing in today’s verse is contrasting the Natural Way with forcing things.

The Way of Heaven (that is, the Natural Way) is like stringing a bow. A bow, here, is a handy metaphor (we can immediately picture one). When you are stringing a bow, you pull down the high and lift up the low, you shorten the long, and lengthen the short. This is how you string a bow, naturally.

Lao-tzu likens it to the Tao bringing the high down, and lifting the low up. It takes from the long (Too much here). It supplements the short (Too little there).

This taking and giving needs some explanation, though. Because it does sound like socialism. And socialism is bad, when it is forced. But stay with Lao-tzu here. For Lao-tzu isn’t talking about the way of Humankind, the forced way, here. He is talking about the Natural Way.

The Natural Way isn’t forced. Therefore, its taking isn’t forced. And, for that matter, neither is its giving. It is a most natural give and take, which keeps the whole universe in perfect balance and harmony. Note what Lu Hui-ch’ing says in his commentary, today. “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low.” (There is no intention, or desire, involved) “It does nothing” (acts without desire) “and relies instead on the nature of things.”

Yes, Humankind tends to force things. We are imaginative and innovative. We perceive a problem, and immediately want to “do something” about it. But, because we are motivated by desires, we don’t always manage to control our own selves. Even the desire to “do good” is problematic for us. (Wait, I could say that better.) Especially the desire to “do good” is problematic for us.

That is why Lao-tzu asks the question, “Who can take from the long and give it to the world?” And then he answers his question, “Only those who possess the Way.”

The problem with Humankind is that our giving and taking always devolves into force. We end up taking from that which is short (what already has too little), and giving to that which is already too long.

The sage’s skill at “stringing a bow” comes from possessing the Way. They don’t depend on what they develop, or claim what they achieve. In other words, they act without desire. That, I think, is what Lao-tzu means by “they choose to hide their skill.”

Acting without desire, my friends, is what it is going to take for us to have something to give to the world.