Who Knows Contentment, and Who Knows Restraint?

“Which is more vital
fame or health
which is more precious
health or wealth
which is more harmful
loss or gain
the deeper the love
the higher the cost
the bigger the treasure
the greater the loss
who knows contentment
thus suffers no shame
and who knows restraint
encounters no trouble
while enjoying a long life”

(Taoteching, verse 44, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG MAO-TS’AI says, “What the world calls fame is something external. And yet people abandon their bodies to fight for it. What the world calls wealth is unpredictable. And yet people sacrifice their bodies to possess it. How can they know what is vital or precious? Even if they succeed, it’s at the cost of their health.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Which is more harmful: to gain wealth and fame and lose one’s health or to gain one’s health and lose wealth and fame?”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Heroes seek fame and merchants seek wealth, even to the point of giving up their lives. The first love fame because they want to glorify themselves. But the more they love fame, the more they lose what they would really glorify. Hence, the cost is high. The second amass wealth because they want to enrich themselves. But the more wealth they amass, the more they harm what they would truly enrich. Hence, the loss is great. Meanwhile, those who cultivate Virtue know the most vital thing is within themselves. Thus, they seek no fame and suffer no disgrace. They know the most precious things is within themselves. Thus, they seek no wealth and encounter no trouble. Hence, they live long.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If we love something, the more we love it, the more it costs us. If we treasure something, the more we treasure it, the more it exhausts us. A little of either results in shame. A lot results in ruin. And regret comes too late. People who are wise are not like this. They know that they have everything they need within themselves. Hence, they do not seek anything outside themselves. Thus, those who would shame them find nothing to shame. They know their own limit, and their limit is the Tao. Hence, they don’t act unless it is according to the Tao. Thus, those who would trouble them find nothing to trouble. Hence, they survive, and surviving, live long.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive sensual desire exhausts our spirit. Excessive material desire brings us misfortune. The living keep their treasures in storerooms. The dead keep their treasures in graves. The living worry about thieves. The dead worry about grave robbers. Those who know contentment find happiness and wealth within themselves and don’t exhaust their spirit. If they should govern a country, they don’t trouble their people. Thus, they are able to live long.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Long ago Chih Po-ch’iao attacked and defeated Fan Chung-hsing. He also attacked the leaders of the states of Han and Wei and occupied parts of their territories. Still, he felt this wasn’t enough, so he raised another army and attacked the state of Yueh. But Han and Wei counterattacked, and Chih’s army was defeated near Chinyang, and he was killed east of Kaoliang. His skull became a drinking bowl, his kingdom was divided among the victors, and he was ridiculed by the world. This is what happens when you don’t know when to stop.”

We have it precisely backwards, you know. Oh, it is easy to say we know health is more vital, more precious, than fame and wealth. But, as we also know, actions speak louder than words. And our actions do speak loudly, and unequivocally. We make ourselves sick chasing fame and wealth, external things. When, instead, we should be considering the most vital and precious thing is that very internal thing, we prove by our actions, we despise.

What is our problem? Lao-tzu has the answer for us, in today’s verse, if we will only learn it. Our problem is we don’t really know which is more harmful, loss or gain. That is what trips us up. To understate things quite a bit.

If only we understood. If only we realized. The deeper the love, the higher the cost. The bigger the treasure, the greater the loss. Chasing after fame and wealth, is that gain? At the loss of something as vital, as precious, as our very lives?

If only we understood. If only we realized. Those who know contentment, in other words, those content with what they already have, who don’t go chasing anything external, suffer no shame. Those who know contentment, know restraint. And those who know restraint encounter no trouble. That, my friends, is living. It is a long life of enjoyment. And it sure beats merely existing.

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

HUANG MAO-TS’AI (FL. 1174-1190). Scholar and military official. Lao-tzu-chieh.

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multi-volume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts. Tao-te-chen-ching-lun.

How Weakness Overcomes Strength

“The weakest thing in the world
overcomes the strongest thing in the world
what doesn’t exist finds room where there’s none
thus we know help comes with no effort
wordless instruction
effortless help
few in the world can match this”

(Taoteching, verse 43, translation by Red Pine)

LAO-TZU says, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water / but against the hard and the strong / nothing outdoes it” (Taoteching: 78).

WANG TAO says, “Eight feet of water can float a thousand-ton ship. Six feet of leather can control a thousand-mile horse. Thus does the weak excel the strong. Sunlight has no substance, yet it can fill a dark room. Thus, what doesn’t exist enters what has no cracks.”

Concerning the first two lines, HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The light of the sun shines across the Four Seas but cannot penetrate a closed door or a covered window. While the light of the spirit reaches everywhere and nourishes everything.” Concerning the second couplet, he says, “Illumination once asked Nonexistence if it actually existed or not. Nonexistence made no response. Unable to perceive any sign of its existence, Illumination sighed and said, ‘I, too, do not exist, but I cannot equal the nonexistence of Nonexistence’” (Huainantzu: 12).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Things are not actually things. What we call ‘strong’ is a fiction. Once it reaches its limit, it returns to nothing. Thus, the weakest thing in the world is able to overcome the strongest thing in the world. Or do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?”

WANG PI says, “There is nothing breath cannot enter and nothing water cannot penetrate. What does not exist cannot be exhausted. And what is perfectly weak cannot be broken. From this we can infer the benefit of no effort.”

SU CH’E says, “If we control the strong with the strong, one will break, or the other will shatter. But if we control the strong with the weak, the weak will not be exhausted, and the strong will not be damaged. Water is like this. If we use existence to enter existence, neither is able to withstand the other. But if we use nonexistence to enter existence, the former will not strain itself, while the latter will remain unaware. Spirits are like this.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘What doesn’t exist’ refers to the Tao. The Tao has no form or substance. Hence, it can come and go, even where there is not any space. It can fill the spirit and help all creatures. We don’t see it do anything, and yet the ten thousand things are transformed and completed. Thus, we realize the benefit to Humankind of no effort. Imitating the Tao, we don’t speak. We follow it with our bodies. Imitating the Tao, we don’t act. We care for ourselves, and our spirits prosper. We care for our country, and the people flourish. And we do these things without effort or trouble. But few can match the Tao in caring for things by doing nothing. Lao-tzu’s final ‘in the world’ refers to rulers.”

YEN TSUN says, “Action is the beginning of chaos. Stillness is the origin of order. Speech is the door of misfortune. Silence is the gate of blessing.”

TE CH’ING says, “Words mean traces. Traces mean knowledge. Knowledge means presumption. Presumption means involvement. And involvement means failure.”

One day CONFUCIUS said, “I would rather not speak.” Tzu-kung asked, “If you do not speak, what will we have to record?” Confucius replied, “Does Heaven speak? The seasons travel their course, and creatures all flourish. What does Heaven say?” (Lunyu: 17.19).

Weakness. I remember back in verse 36 where Lao-tzu talked about a state’s greatest weapon. One of our commentators for that verse, Te-ch’ing, said weakness is the state’s greatest weapon. Other commentators seemed to be in disagreement. After some waffling (I admit it, I don’t like the State), I ended up agreeing with Te-ch’ing. And after reading through today’s verse, I am glad I did.

But how is it that weakness overcomes strength? Lao-tzu answers that question with the next couplet in today’s verse. What doesn’t exist (weakness) finds room where there is none. Thus, we know help comes without any effort.

I know this is difficult to understand. We have been led to believe in a false reality. A reality where strength triumphs over weakness. Beholding this false reality, seeing things only superficially, Lao-tzu’s teachings seem like nonsense. You have to look beyond the external false reality, to the inner truth.

Wordless instruction. It seems nonsensical. How can we instruct others without using words? What is Lao-tzu getting at? Instead of telling others how to live, show them, through your example.

Effortless help. Once again, it seems nonsensical. How can we be of any help if we don’t put forth some effort to help? But, the reality is that help that requires effort is going against the natural order. Effort resists the flow of the Tao.

These two things, wordless instruction and effortless help would take care of every so-called problem in the world that is crying out for us to do something. But, few in the world can match this.

This Becomes My Teacher

“The Tao gives birth to one
one gives birth to two
two gives birth to three
three gives birth to ten thousand things
then thousand things with yin at their backs
yang in their embrace
and breath between for harmony
what the world hates
to be orphaned widowed or destitute
kings use for their titles
thus some gain by losing
others lose by gaining
what others teach
I teach too
tyrants never choose their death
this becomes my teacher”

(Taoteching, verse 42, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Tao gives birth to the beginning. One gives birth to yin and yang. Yin and yang give birth to the breath between them, the mixture of clear and turbid. These three breaths divide themselves into Heaven, Earth, and Humankind and together give birth to the ten thousand things. These elemental breaths are what keep the ten thousand things relaxed and balanced. The organs in our chest, the marrow in our bones, the hollow spaces inside plants all allow these breaths passage and make long life possible.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The yang we embrace is one. The yin we turn away from is two. Where yin and yang meet and merge is three.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Dark and unfathomable is yin. Bright and perceptible is yang. As soon as we are born, we all turn our back on the dark and unfathomable yin and turn toward the bright and perceptible yang. Fortunately, we keep ourselves in harmony with the breath between them.”

THE YUNCHI CHICHIEN says, “When breath is pure, it becomes Heaven. When it becomes turgid, it becomes Earth. And the mixture of the breath between them becomes Humankind.”

TE-CH’ING says, “To call oneself ‘orphaned,’ widowed,’ or ‘destitute’ is to use a title of self-effacement. Rulers who are not self-effacing are not looked up to by the world. Thus, by losing, they gain. Rulers who are only aware of themselves might possess the world, but the world rebels against them. Thus, by gaining, they lose. We all share this Tao, but we don’t know it except through instruction. What others teach, Lao-tzu also teaches. But Lao-tzu surpasses others in teaching us to reduce our desires and to be humble, to practice the virtue of harmony, and to let this be our teacher.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who love victory make enemies. The ancients taught this, and so does Lao-tzu. But Lao-tzu goes further and calls this his own ‘teacher.’”

KAO HENG says, “According to the Shuoyuan (10.25), ‘Tyrants never choose their death’ was an ancient saying, which Confucius attributed to the Chinjenming. This is what Lao-tzu refers to when he says ‘what others teach.’”

WANG P’ANG says, “Whatever contains the truth can be our teacher. Although tyrants kill others and are the most hated of creatures, we can learn the principle of creation and destruction from them.”

It was already an ancient saying when Lao-tzu taught it, “Tyrants never choose their death,” but he went further: He said, “This becomes my teacher.” So, what does he mean?

Tyrants take intervention, interference, the use of force, and trying to control to their logical extreme. In other words, they are the embodiment of everything Lao-tzu stands against. They are opposed to the Tao, and they can’t last long.

Understanding this, taking this as our teacher, we learn patience. We can endure more than we realize. They may rule for a time, but their time will come to an end. This is good news, my friends.

And we could sure use some good news. There are a lot of tyrants out there. But their time will soon come to an end.

Just watch as the natural order develops. The Tao gives birth to one. The one gives birth to two. The two gives birth to three. The three gives birth to ten thousand things. See how fast things escalate. How fast they change. Ten thousand things with their backs to yin, while embracing yang. Why have they turned their backs on yin? Why are they embracing yang? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? How can we have harmony with their backs to yin and they embrace yang?

Hush. Be still. Don’t worry. This too will change. Breathe. Just breathe. Be one with the breath between yin and yang. There is harmony.

What the world hates (to be orphaned, widowed, or destitute) kings use for their titles. They use terms of self-deprecation because people wouldn’t tolerate them otherwise. But, as we talked about in my commentary on verse 39, where Lao-tzu originally referred to kings taking these as their titles, it is all a charade. Speaking self-deprecating words isn’t the basis of humility. What is needed isn’t the name, but the reality, where some gain by losing what others lose by gaining. Name and reality might be at odds now, but that won’t last, either. Tyrants never choose their death.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YUNCHI CHICHIEN An anthology of Taoist writings edited by Chang Chun-fang (fl. 1017-1021). One of the most influential such compilations, it is also called the Shorter Taoist Canon.

KAO HENG (1900-?). Classical scholar and advocate of using grammatical analysis to elucidate textual difficulties in the Taoteching. Many of his insights have been borne out by the texts discovered at Mawangtui. Lao-tzu cheng-ku.

Not What We Expected, Name and Reality Are Often at Odds

“When superior people hear of the Way
they follow it with devotion
when average people hear of the Way
they wonder if it exists
when inferior people hear of the Way
they laugh out loud
if they didn’t laugh
it wouldn’t be the Way
hence these sayings arose
the brightest path seems dark
the path leading forward seems backward
the smoothest path seems rough
the highest virtue low
the whitest white pitch-black
the greatest virtue wanting
the staunchest virtue timid
the truest truth uncertain
the perfect square without corners
the perfect tool without uses
the perfect sound hushed
the perfect image without form
for the Tao is hidden and nameless
but because it’s the Tao
it knows how to start and how to finish”

(Taoteching, verse 41, translation by Red Pine)

CONFUCIUS says, “To hear of the Tao in the morning is to die content by nightfall” (Lunyu: 4.8).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When great people hear of the Tao, even if others laugh at them, they can’t keep them from practicing it. When average people hear of the Tao, even if they don’t disbelieve it, they can’t free themselves of doubts. When inferior people hear of the Tao, even the ancient sages can’t keep them from laughing. Everyone in the world thinks existence is real. Who wouldn’t shake their head and laugh if they were told that existence wasn’t real and that non-existence was?”

TE-CH’ING says, “The Tao is not what people expect. Hence, the ancients created these twelve sayings, which Lao-tzu quotes to make clear that the Tao has two sides.”

SU CH’E says, “These twelve sayings refer to the Tao as it appears to us. Wherever we look, we see its examples. The Tao as a whole, however, is hidden in namelessness.”

LI JUNG says, “The true Tao is neither fast nor slow, clear nor obscure. It has no appearance, no sound, no form, and no name. But although it has no name, it can take any name.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Name and reality are often at odds. The reality of the Tao remains hidden in no name.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Tools are limited to the realm of form. The Tao is beyond the realm of form.”

YEN TSUN says, “The quail runs and flies all day but never far from an overgrown field. The swan flies a thousand miles but never far from a pond. The phoenix, meanwhile, soars into the empyrean vault and thinks it too confining. Where dragons dwell, small fish swim past. Where great birds and beasts live, dogs and chickens don’t go.”

THE CHANKUOTSE says, “Those who know how to start don’t always know how to finish” (31).

Every time I get back around to this verse I always begin by saying how I wish I was a superior person. To hear of the Way and merely follow it with devotion. Alas, I find myself only average. When I first heard of the Tao, I wondered if it really exists. I was full of doubts. That, I think is the way most of us are. Hence, average. Oh, I have had my inferior moments, too. When I laughed out loud as I was reading. I guess that was to be expected, since it is the Tao. But what really strikes me about today’s verse is that there is nothing that can be done about it.

We talked about this in my commentary on yesterday’s verse. I am just along for the ride. Even when I wasn’t following the Tao with devotion, when my head was full of doubts, even when I laughed out loud; all of those times, I was still just along for the ride. People full of doubts and even laughing about it can’t keep people from following it with devotion. And people who are superior can’t make those who laugh stop their laughing. And all of us average people, full of doubts and wonder, can’t free ourselves of those doubts.

You read that right. You can’t free yourself. The brightest path will seem dark. The path leading forward will seem backward. The smoothest path will seem rough. The highest virtue will seem low. The whitest white will appear pitch-black. The greatest virtue will seem wanting. The staunchest virtue will appear timid. The truest truth will appear uncertain. The perfect square will appear without corners. The perfect tool without uses. The perfect sound hushed. The perfect image without form.

The Tao is hidden and nameless. And you can’t free yourself from doubts. Those who laugh will laugh. And those who follow it with devotion will continue to follow it with devotion.

Don’t worry about those doubts. Let me say that once again. Don’t worry about those doubts. You can’t free yourself from those doubts. So stop worrying.

That is liberating. It really is. If you will let it be. At least it was for me. What happens is those doubts go away on their own. Things reach their limit, then they have to go the other way. That is just the Way things are. And the Way things are is the Way things are whether we believe it or not. Our doubts don’t matter. Our laughter doesn’t matter. Even our devotion doesn’t matter.

The Tao is hidden and nameless; but, because it is the Tao, it knows how to start and how to finish. That is good news, my friends. Because quite honestly, we don’t always know how to start or to finish. Don’t worry, though. The Tao has this.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHANKUOTZE: A collection of narratives, some historical, some fictional, based on the events of the Warring States Period (403-222 B.C.). Compiled by Liu Hsiang (ca 79-6 B.C.). and reedited by later scholars.

The Contrary Way

“The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the things of this world come from something
something comes from nothing”

(Taoteching, verse 40, translation by Red Pine)

LIU CH’EN-WENG says, “Once things reach their limit, they have to go back the other way.”

WEI YUAN says, “The Tao moves contrary to how most people look at things.”

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN says, “To go back the other way means to return to the root. Those who cultivate the Tao ignore the twigs and seek the root. This is the movement of the Tao: to return to where the mind is still and empty and actions soft and weak. The Tao, however, does not actually come or go. It never leaves. Hence, it cannot return. Only what has form returns. ‘Something’ refers to breath. Before things have form they have breath. Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things are born from breath. Hence, they all come from something. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. Breath comes from the Tao. Hence, it comes from nothing. This is the movement of the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The reason the Tao works through weakness is because it is empty. We see it in Heaven blowing through the great void. We see it in Earth sinking into the deepest depths.”

TE-CH’ING says, “People only know the work of working. They don’t know that the work of not working is the greatest work of all. They only know that everything comes from something. They don’t know that something comes from nothing. If they knew that something came from nothing, they would no longer enslave themselves to things. They would turn, instead, to the Tao and concentrate on their spirit.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The ten thousand things all come from Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth have position and form. Hence, we say things come from something. The light and spirit of Heaven and Earth, the flight of insects, the movement of worms, these all come from the Tao. The Tao has no form. Hence, we say things come from nothing. This means the root comes before the flower, weakness comes before strength, humility comes before conceit.”

LI JUNG says, “‘Something’ refers to Heaven and Earth. Through the protection of Heaven and the support of Earth, all things come into being. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. The Tao is formless and empty, and yet it gives birth to Heaven and Earth. Thus, it is said, ‘Emptiness is the root of Heaven and Earth. Nothingness is the source of all things.’ Those who lose the Tao don’t realize where things come from.”

SU CH’E says, “As for ‘the things of this world,’ I have heard of a mother giving birth to a child. But I have never heard of a child giving birth to its mother.”

WANG PI says, “Everything in the world comes from being, and being comes from non-being. If you would reach perfect being, you have to go back to non-being.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Those who cultivate the Way should act with humility and harmony. The slightest carelessness, any action at all, can destroy everything. Those who cultivate Virtue look to themselves for the truth, not to the words of others. For those who understand that what moves them is also the source of their lives, the pill of immortality is not somewhere outside.”

And RED PINE adds, “The moon can’t keep up with the sun, but as it gets farther and farther behind, the darkness of nothing gives rise to the light of something.”

We have come to the shortest verse in the Taoteching; now, if only my commentary on it could be just as brief. I can’t make that happen, though. For one thing, Lao-tzu packs so much into those four lines.

The Tao moves the other way: Contrary to how most people look at things.

The Tao works through weakness: While we obsess over strength.

The things of this world come from something: Yes, that hardly needs to even be said, but wait just a moment, there. Lao-tzu has something to add.

Something comes from nothing: And that, my friends, is the most important thing to understand. And I mean really understand. Mere mental assent isn’t sufficient. As I said in my commentary on yesterday’s verse, your understanding of this can’t be a passive understanding. No, what is required is an active understanding. An understanding that actually makes a difference in how we live our lives.

But, having said that, I need to offer something of a caviat to that word, active. For the active Lao-tzu is talking about here doesn’t require any activity from us, at all. While we, almost incessantly want to do something, what we really must do is nothing. We need to be actively engaged in doing nothing. Don’t worry, something will come from that nothing. And that something is what all the things in the world come from. But we have to be willing to let the Tao do its work through weakness, and not be surprised when the Tao moves the other way, a way contrary to how most people look at things.

I think this analogy may help in your understanding: I am just along for the ride. I don’t have to try to move the other way with the Tao. I don’t have to try to be weak. I don’t have to try to get something out of nothing. And I certainly don’t have to try to do nothing. Trying to do nothing is actually doing something, by the way. No, I just realize and accept that I am one with the Tao, and I am along for the ride of my life. The Tao doesn’t always take me in the direction I think I want to go. More often than not, it goes the other way. But, you know what? When it gets me where it is going, it is always on time, and good. Just think of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, and the Sun in its orbit around our galaxy. Here we are, just along for the ride. And it’s all good. I don’t have anything to do to make the Earth speed along on its path, and yet it manages to get along without any intervention or interference from me. Imagine that! Once you realize how little you control, how little you need to control, you stop forcing things.

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

LIU CH’EN-WENG (1232-1297). Poet and essayist. He held several official posts but spent most of his life in obscurity, if not seclusion. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching p’ing-tien.

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN Quoted by Chiao Hung.

On Being One With the Way Things Are

“Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks”

(Taoteching, verse 39, translation by Red Pine)

WANG PI says, “One is the beginning of numbers and the end of things. All things become complete when they become one. But once they become complete, they leave oneness behind and focus on being complete. And by focusing on being complete, they lose their mother. Hence, they crack, they crumble, they dissipate, they dry up, and they fall. As long as they have their mother, they can preserve their form. But their mother has no form.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “It’s because Heaven becomes one that it graces the sky with constellations and light. It’s because Earth becomes one that it remains still and immovable. It’s because spirits become one that they change shape without becoming visible. It’s because valleys become one that they never stop filling up. It’s because kings become one that they pacify the world. But Heaven must move between yin and yang, between night and day. It can’t only be clear and bright. Earth must include high and low, hard and soft, and the five-fold stages of breath. Spirits must have periods of quiescence. They can’t only be active. Valleys must also be empty and dry. They can’t only be full. And kings must humble themselves and never stop seeking worthy people to assist them. They can’t only lord it over others. If they do, they fall from power and lose their thrones.”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, kings used carriages as metaphors for the wealth and size of their kingdoms. To refer to one’s carriages as no carriages was an expression of self-deprecation.”

SU CH’E says, “Oneness dwells in the noble, but it is not noble. Oneness dwells in the humble, but it is not humble. Oneness is not like the luster of jade (so noble it cannot be humble) or the coarseness of rock (so humble it cannot be noble).”

And RED PINE reminds us, “One is the number between zero and two.” This is to remind us we need to move between zero and two, yin and yang, to be one.

Being one with the Way things are. Lao-tzu has talked of this before, specifically in verse 23, where he talked about how being one with the Tao meant being one with both success when we succeed, and failure when we fail. Being one with the Way things are is actually the theme of his whole Taoteching. Being one with the Way things are is both realizing and accepting our connection to the whole universe. And realizing and accepting isn’t a mere passive thing, a simple knowing; it requires active participation from us.

Lao-tzu teaches that there are things we can infer from those that became one in the past. Then he lists those things: Heaven, Earth, spirits, valleys, and kings. But what can we infer from them?

Let’s take them one by one. From Heaven becoming one and clear, we can infer that Heaven would crack if it were always clear. From Earth becoming one and still, we can infer that Earth would crumble if it were always still. From spirits becoming one and active, we can infer that spirits would dissipate if they were always active. From valleys becoming one and full, we can infer that valleys would dry up if they were always full. And, from kings becoming one and ruling the world, we can infer kings would fall if they were always high and noble. That is a whole lot to infer, but what is Lao-tzu actually getting at, here?

Oneness with the Way things are means realizing and accepting the duality which exists in oneness. He is referring to yin and yang. Clearness and murkiness, stillness and activity, fullness and emptiness, these all go together. The high is founded on the low.

Thus it is, says Lao-tzu, that kings refer to themselves as orphaned, widowed, and destitute. But this, Lao-tzu says, isn’t the basis of humility. This is an important point. It is really the whole point of today’s verse. It is where us humans always seem to get it wrong.

Trying to appear humble, instead of realizing and accepting the natural flow of yin and yang. Trying to force things, instead of merely letting it happen. Lao-tzu, still speaking of kings, says they count a carriage as no carriage at all. How ridiculous! Of course it is a carriage. You can say it isn’t, but that is just nonsense. They strive to not clink like jade, and they end up clunking like rocks. In other words, they may have once been one with the Way things are, and they ruled the world; but they didn’t stay one with the Way things are, and they fell. And what a fall!

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

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts. His presentation of differences between the Mawangtui and other editions appears in Ta-lu tsa-chih vols. 54-59 (April 1977-October 1979). His study of Tunhuang copies of the Taoteching is also excellent: Lao-tzu lun-chi.

Pick This Over That

“Higher Virtue isn’t virtuous
thus it possesses virtue
Lower Virtue isn’t without virtue
thus it possesses no virtue
Higher Virtue involves no effort
or the thought of effort
Higher Kindness involves effort
but not the thought of effort
Higher Justice involves effort
and the thought of effort
Higher Ritual involves effort
and should it meet with no response
then it threatens and compels
virtue appears when the Way is lost
kindness appears when virtue is lost
justice appears when kindness is lost
ritual appears when justice is lost
ritual marks the waning of belief
and the onset of confusion
augury is the flower of the Way
and beginning of delusion
thus the great choose thick over thin
the fruit over the flower
thus they pick this over that”

(Taoteching, verse 38, translation by Red Pine)

HAN FEI says, “Virtue is the Tao at work.”

WANG PI says, “Those who possess Higher Virtue use nothing but the Tao. They possess virtue, but they don’t give it a name.”

YEN TSUN says, “Those who embody the Way are empty and effortless, yet they lead all creatures to the Way. Those who embody virtue are faultless and responsive and ready to do anything. Those who embody kindness show love for all creatures without restriction. Those who embody justice deal with things by matching name with reality. Those who embody ritual are humble and put harmony first. These five are the footprints of the Tao. They are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is not one, much less five.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Kindness is another name for virtue. It differs, though, from virtue because it involves effort. The kindness of sages, however, does not go beyond fulfilling their nature. They aren’t interested in effort. Hence, they don’t think about it.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Higher kindness is kindness without effort to be kind. Kindness is simply a gift. Justice is concerned with the appropriateness of the gift. Ritual is concerned with repayment. When ritual appears, belief disappears and confusion arises.”

SU CH’E says, “These are the means whereby sages help the people to safety. When the people don’t respond, sages threaten and force them. If they still don’t respond, sages turn to law and punishment.”

FAN YING-YUAN says, “‘Augury’ means to see the future. Those in charge of rituals think they can see the future and devise formulas for human action, but they thus cause people to trade the spirit for the letter.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao is like a fruit. Hanging from a tree, it contains the power of life, but its womb is hidden. Once it falls, it puts forth virtue as its root, kindness as its stem, justice as its branches, ritual as its leaves, and knowledge as its flower. All of these come from the Tao. ‘That’ refers to the flower. ‘This’ refers to the fruit. Those who embody the Tao choose the fruit over the flower.”

RED PINE adds, “And yet the plastic flowers of civilization still deck a billion altars.”

We all know them. Heck, we may even be them. People who go out of their way to show just how virtuous they can be. Ah, the virtue-signaling is strong these days. Maybe it was strong in Lao-tzu’s day, too. Hence, we have today’s verse, which shows us a different path to virtue. Will you dare to take the high road? Or, will you remain stuck on the low road?

Higher Virtue, says Lao-tzu, isn’t virtuous. What? What he means is it doesn’t appear to be virtuous. It doesn’t try to be virtuous. It is effortless. In other words, Higher Virtue is simply following the Tao. As Han Fei says, it is the Tao at work. And as Wang Pi says, we practice this virtue by using nothing but the Tao. It is following Nature’s Way. Going with the natural flow. It doesn’t force itself on others. Yen Tsun says those who embody it are empty and effortless. It is being, without having to even think about it.

Lower virtue, on the other hand, isn’t without virtue. And thus, it possess no virtue. All of that virtue-signaling, that appearing to be virtuous, that trying to force itself on others, through acts of kindness, and justice, and the ritual itself, of being virtuous. This kind of virtue requires effort. It is hard work to go against the flow of nature. It really is.

The differences between Higher Virtue and lower virtue couldn’t be more profound. It is like comparing a fruit to a flower, or thick to thin. Just take a look at the lower virtues and I think you will immediately see the difference.

Kindness, at its highest, involves effort. You have to work to be kind. Though you may not give a thought about the effort, you still have to work at being kind.

And Justice; you know, that thing we all demand when we believe we have been wronged, but hope to evade when we have been the one doing the wrong — that requires great effort. It requires so much effort, it requires a great deal of thought, too. Justice is far too important not to require the greatest minds being devoted to it.

And then there is Ritual. The lowest of the virtues, I think. Ritual takes doing for the sake of appearances to its extreme form. Not content with simply appearing virtuous, it insists on being lauded for its virtuosity. And if the people don’t respond, watch out.

Now, I know I am taking a rather dim view of these lower virtues, kindness, justice, and ritual. Our commentators today see the virtue in both kindness and justice; and well, I do too. It isn’t like I want you to be unkind or unjust. And I don’t practice being unkind or unjust, either. But please understand what Lao-tzu is describing for us in today’s verse.

These lower virtues only appear because the great Way has been lost.

First, kindness appears. But when kindness is lost, justice appears. And when justice is lost, ritual appears. It is how things devolve over time as the Tao, and the practice of its Virtue, has been forgotten. It is the waning of belief. And try as we might to fill that void with some kind of substitute, nothing quite works like we want.

Confusion is the order of the day. We are so confused we think we can foretell a bright future. But that is just a flower. Pretty, maybe. But give me the fruit. That alone will sustain me.

Pick thick over thin, the fruit over the flower. Pick this (Higher Virtue) over that (lower virtue.

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

FAN YING-YUAN (FL. 1240-1269). One of the first scholars to examine variations in pronunciation and wording in the Taoteching. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching ku-pen-chi-chu.

Let the World Fix Itself

“The Tao makes no effort at all
yet there is nothing it doesn’t do
if a ruler could uphold it
the people by themselves would change
and changing if their desires stirred
he could make them still
with simplicity that has no name
and stilled by nameless simplicity
they would not desire
and not desiring be at peace
the world would fix itself”

(Taoteching: verse 37, translation by Red Pine)

CHUANG-TZU says, “The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing. This is the Virtue of Heaven. Heaven moves without moving.” (Chuangtzu:12.1).

WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao’s lack of effort is ancient and eternal and not simply temporary. Although it makes no effort, it does everything it should do. If rulers could uphold this Tao of effortlessness, without consciously thinking about changing others, others would change by themselves.”

LAO-TZU says, “I make no effort / and the people transform themselves” (Taoteching: 57).

TE-CH’ING says, “If nobles and kings could only uphold the Tao, all creatures would change by themselves without thinking about changing. This is the effect of upholding the Tao. When creatures first change, their desires disappear. But before long, their trust fades and feelings well up and begin to flow until desires reappear. When this occurs, those who are adept at saving others must block the source of desire with nameless simplicity.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Nameless simplicity’ refers to the Tao, which all creatures use to transform themselves and which nobles and kings use to pacify those who engage in cleverness and deceit.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “When people first change and begin to cultivate the Tao, they think about reaching a goal. Once this desire arises, it must be stilled with the Tao’s nameless simplicity.”

SU CH’E says, “Sages have no thought of embracing simplicity, nor do they show any sign of doing so. If the thought of becoming simple existed in their hearts, they would miss the mark completely.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Once rulers use nameless simplicity to still the desires of the people, they must then give it up so that the people don’t follow its tracks and once again enter the realm of action. Once our illness is cured, we put away the medicine. Once we are across the river, we leave the boat behind. And once we are free of desire, we must also forget the desire to be free of desire. Serene and at peace, the ruler does nothing, while the world takes care of itself.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Other creatures follow their natures without creating chaos or disaster. They change by themselves without seeking change. People, meanwhile, race through the realm of existence and never know a quiet moment. They abandon their original innocence and don’t practice the true Tao of doing nothing. They don’t care about their lives, until one day they offend and retribution arrives.”

And RED PINE adds, “Name takes sides. Complexity limits options. Hence, those who uphold nameless simplicity don’t take sides and keep their options open.”

Today’s verse is the perfect summation of everything Lao-tzu has to teach about the art of governing. If only those who govern us would follow his sage advice.

I have been laughing out loud a lot for the last few days. Oprah gave a speech at the Golden Globe awards, and liberals shed tears. Lots of tears. Tears of joy. It is the second coming of the Messiah, Obama. Oprah will run for president in 2020. She will fix everything. Everyone will get a new car. It will be glorious. Liberals cry, and I laugh. Laughing beats crying, I think, because I could easily be crying. Just not tears of joy.

I am not meaning to disparage Oprah. I just think it is a hoot that so many want her to run, and that she just might. I actually hope she does. Anything that diminishes the office of presidency, and Oprah running against Trump in 2020 would certainly do that, regardless who the powers that be decide to “elect,” is probably the best I can hope for.

If I wasn’t laughing so hard I would probably get back to this perfect summation of everything Lao-tzu teaches on the art of governing. Pull yourself together, now. Breathe. Lao-tzu has some sage advice. Trump could learn a thing or twenty. And Oprah could, too. I just don’t expect they will. Still, here goes.

Instead of attempting to fix the world, let the world fix itself.

I know. As I have already said, I don’t think Lao-tzu’s sage advice is going to be followed. But still, you can’t fault me for holding up the Tao. It’s just what I do. Now, if only they would.

The Tao, unlike our illustrious leaders, makes no effort at all. Yet, there is nothing it doesn’t do. Why, if a ruler could uphold it, only uphold it, the people by themselves would change.

This so beats what our rulers do. They do and they do and they do. Yet nothing good ever gets accomplished by them. They do for us, and leave us with nothing to do for ourselves. Why, you can get locked up for doing for yourself. This never changes. It never changes, and we never change.

We remain full of desires. And, our rulers, far from stilling our desires, stir them up more. This never changes.

It would take governing with simplicity for that to change. A simplicity that has no name would still our desires; and because of this practice of not desiring, we would be at peace; and the world would fix itself.

But, of course, they don’t want that. World peace? Only beauty queens want that. Hey, maybe we could get a few of them to run for president in 2020, too. I thought 2016 was a circus. 2020 could be so much more entertaining.

Okay, I know I am enjoying this a whole lot more than I should. But, I just have to laugh to avoid crying. Because our rulers will continue to wage war all around the globe. They will continue to try to fix things, while making them all the more worse. But, if I get a new car won’t it be worth it?

Strength In Weakness?

“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.

The Only Words the Tao Speaks

“Hold up the Great Image
and the world will come
and be beyond harm
safe and serene and at peace
fine food and song
don’t detain guests long
thus the Tao speaks
plain words that make no sense
we look but don’t see it
we listen but don’t hear it
yet we use it without end”

(Taoteching, verse 35, translation by Red Pine)

CH’ENG HSUAN-TING says, “Here ‘hold’ means to hold without holding, to hold what cannot be held.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “The Great Image is the Great Way, which gives birth to Heaven and Earth and all creatures. It is called ‘great’ because it encompasses everything.”

LI JUNG says, “The Great image has no form. What has no form is the great and empty Way. To ‘hold’ means to focus or to keep. Those who can keep their body in the realm of Dark Virtue and focus their mind on the gate of Hidden Serenity possess the Way. All things come to them. Clouds appear, and all creatures are refreshed. Rain pours down, and all plants are nourished. And these blessings come from such a subtle thing.”

WU CH’ENG says, “To come to no harm means to be protected. But when people turn to sages, sages use no protection to protect them. If they protected people with protection, protection and harm would both exist. But by protecting people with no protection, people are always protected and kept from harm.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Unharmed, our spirit is safe. Unharmed, our breath is serene. Unharmed, our nature is at peace.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Sages rule the world through selflessness. All things come to them because they are one with all things. And while they forget themselves in others, others forget themselves in them. Thus, all things find their place, and there are none that are not at peace.”

CHANG TAO-LING says, “What the Tao says is the opposite of the mundane or the clever. Most people find it completely senseless. But within its senselessness, there is great sense. This is what sages savor. The Tao prefers simplicity of form and a minimum of expression. Hence, it is hard to see and hard to hear and also hard to follow. But those who can follow it and use it enjoy limitless blessings.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “A great person’s words are plain like water. A small person’s words are sweet like wine. The plainness of a great person brings people closer, while the sweetness of a small person drives them apart. Those who come together for no reason, separate for no reason” (Chuangtzu: 20.5).

SU CH’E says, “Banquets and entertainment might detain visitors, but sooner or later the food runs out, the music ends, and visitors leave. If someone entertained the world with the Great Image, no one would know how to love it, much less hate it. Although it has no taste, shape, or sound with which to please people, those who use it can never exhaust it.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone used the Tao to govern the country, the country would be rich, and the people would be prosperous. If someone used it to cultivate themselves, there would be no limit to the length of their life.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Great Image is Te, or Virtue, the manifestation of the Tao.”

If yesterday’s verse was scary, Lao-tzu certainly puts our minds and hearts at ease with today’s verse.

We can be beyond harm: Safe. Serene. And at peace.

What is it going to take? Well, we covered that just a bit in yesterday’s verse. Daring to realize we aren’t as moored as we might think we are. That we are all, unmoored, adrift, unrestrained, free. And yet, the Tao is right there, wherever we turn, to use.

No, though you look for it, you can’t see it. Though you listen for it, you can’t hear it. Still, you can use it without end.

We need to embrace our freedom. No longer trying to be satisfied with fine food and song, which doesn’t endure.

Oh, I know what you are thinking. I used to think the very same thing. These plain words make no sense. But those are the only words the Tao speaks.