“What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can’t survive out of the depths
a state’s greatest weapon
isn’t meant to be shown”
(Taoteching, verse 36, translation by Red Pine)
TE-CH’ING says, “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way. Hence, lengthening is a portent of shortening. Strengthening is the onset of weakening. Raising is the beginning of toppling. Giving is the start of taking. This is the natural order for Heaven as well as for Humankind. Thus, to hide the light means the weak conquer the strong. Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. But rulers must not show it to their people. Deep water is the best place for a fish. But once it is exposed to the air, a fish is completely helpless. And once rulers show weakness, they attract enemies and shame.”
LU HUI-CHING says, “To perceive shortening in lengthening, weakening in strengthening, toppling in raising, taking in giving, how could anyone do this if not through the deepest insight? This is the hidden light. Moreover, what causes things to be shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is invisible and weak. While what is shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is visible and strong. Thus, the weak conquer the strong. People should not abandon weakness, just as fish should not leave the depths. When fish leave the depths, they are caught. When people abandon weakness, they join the league of the dead.”
WU CH’ENG says, “‘Hiding the light’ is the same as ‘cloaking the light.’” (See verse 27)
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “According to the way of the world, the weak don’t conquer the strong. But Lao-tzu’s point is that the weak can conquer the strong by letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”
CHANG TAO-LING says, “The Tao is like water. People are like fish.”
CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon but not one that is known to the world” (Chuangtzu: 10.3).
HAN FEI says, “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.”
Among our commentators of today’s verse there is a difference of opinion. Te-ch’ing says “weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. Chuang-tzu says the sage is the world’s greatest weapon. And, Han Fei says rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapons. So, which is it? Or, since it isn’t meant to be shown, does it even matter?
Well, it does matter. It matters a great deal, But, and I am probably showing my own weakness here, I have to admit I have struggled with deciding which of our commentators, if any of them, is correct.
And the winner is…. Te-ch’ing. He said weakness is what Lao-tzu is talking about; and after careful consideration I have to agree. But, how could weakness be a great strength?
Well, I think Te-ch’ing explains it well enough. “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way.” Yang can only last so long before yin has its own turn. And note what Sung Ch’ang-hsing says: “…the weak can conquer the strong by letting the the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”
“Using the hidden light.” Now, that is important. What Lao-tzu calls “hiding the light” in today’s verse, back in verse 27, as Wu Ch’eng reminds us, Lao-tzu called “cloaking the light.” When we talked about it then, I said the practice of cloaking the light results in perfect blindness. Where we aren’t tempted by external things to intervene, interfere, and force things, in an effort to control.
Hiding the light, you don’t try to shorten what first should be lengthened. You don’t try to weaken what you should first strengthen. You don’t try to topple what you should first raise. And you don’t try to take what you should first give.
Is this not weakness overcoming strength? Understanding how yin and yang operate in our world, naturally. For, what is true of Heaven is true for Humankind, as well. Don’t intervene. Don’t interfere. Don’t try to force things. Give up your need to be in control. Nature’s Way, is the best way.
Everything has its limit. And once things reach their limit, they always, without fail, go the other way. Lengthening will give way to shortening. Strengthening will give way to weakening. Raising will give way to toppling. And giving will give way to taking. It is the natural order of things.
Lao-tzu refers to us as fish in today’s verse. And the Tao is water. We will never survive out of those depths.
Hidden. Safe. Serene. Stay there. And live.