They Dare Not Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s verse continues where we left off yesterday with the interplay of yin and yang, easy and hard. Remember, Lao-tzu’s counsel, “Think everything hard,” as he talks about when things are easy.

Probably the easiest thing for anyone to do is misunderstand Lao-tzu’s teachings regarding acting without acting. In today’s verse, he says, “Act before anything exists,” but he goes on to say, “To act is to fail,” and finally, about sages, “They dare not act.” So, should we act, or not?

That is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves every time we are tempted to act. Too often we already have made up our minds to act. Not acting isn’t even a consideration. And that is why we fail. What we need to master is acting without acting.

The lesson Lao-tzu teaches today about acting is that timing is everything. You want to act before anything exists. It has to be before. After is too late. He says, “Govern before anyone rebels.” This is when it is easy to rule, while it is peaceful. If your actions have brought on rebellion, further acting is only going to aggravate the situation more. Make your plans before it (i.e. a rebellion) appears. What you should be concerned with is two-fold, both how easy it is to break what is fragile (i.e. the peace), and how easy it is to disperse a rebellion while it is small. Your actions can be such that you can avoid rebellion and maintain peaceful rule. But, and this is a huge but, it depends on you acting without acting. If you fail here, if you act by acting, if you try to control, you will fail, and you will lose.

Lao-tzu offers three metaphors today to teach this lesson. The first being how a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot. The second being how a great tower rises from a basket of dirt. And the third being how a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet.

He uses these as an admonition not to act. Too often we misread this as encouragement to act. That is completely taking them out of their context. To act is to fail. That giant tree, that huge tower, don’t bode well for you. Better it would be to not have them reach those heights. And that thousand-mile journey? A thousand-mile journey may not seem like much in our day and age. But in Lao-tzu’s day, that meant a whole lot of wandering, and all of it, far off course. It begins at the ground beneath your feet. The steps you choose to take matter. Where will they lead you? They might lead you a thousand miles off course. That is the admonition.

That is why sages don’t act. They don’t dare to. And because they don’t act, they don’t fail. They don’t control, so they don’t lose.

Here it is, our lesson for the day in a nutshell: When people pursue a task, failure occurs near the end. If we only put as much care at the end, as we did at the start, we would see an end to failure. What does care at the end mean, then?

Understand what Lao-tzu means by the end, here. He is referring to our purpose, our goal. This task we are pursuing, what is our end? What is our goal, our purpose? What are we seeking? That is where we fail. We seek what everyone else seeks. But, sages seek what no one else seeks. They don’t prize hard-to-get goods. They study what no one else studies. They turn to what others pass by.

Are you understanding what Lao-tzu is saying about our ends? Why they are doomed to failure? How sages avoid failure is by acting without acting, by only helping all things remain natural. In all other things they dare not act.

Think Everything Hard and Nothing Will Be Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s verse is full of great lessons that we would all do well to heed.

Acting without acting, working without working, understanding without understanding, these are all admonitions to practice the art of not-doing, effortless action, only doing what is natural, so you don’t exhaust yourself, or trouble others, or waste anything.

Whether they be great or small, many or few, repay each wrong with virtue. There is that “golden rule” which is so important to follow. Whether they be great or small, many or few – these distinctions can get us into trouble in a hurry. Plan for the hard while it’s easy. Deal with the great while it’s small. These aphorisms are too easily passed over as elementary lessons. I can already hear someone out there saying, “I know, I know.” I used to have that kind of attitude, as well. It got me into plenty of trouble. All of my own making.

The truth is the world’s hardest task does begin easy. The world’s greatest goal begins small. And we are too quick to dismiss it because it is easy, it is small. And soon we are overcome by the enormity of the problem we now have before us.

So, would-be sages, what should we do?

Sages never act great. And thus they achieve great goals.

“I know, I know.” Yes, and do you also know that they who quickly agree can seldom be trusted?

For the truth of the matter is, when you think things are easy, you will soon find them hard.

The sage therefore thinks everything hard, and finds nothing hard.

Think everything hard, and find nothing hard is a great summary of all of Lao-tzu’s teachings. If you think everything hard, you will be less inclined to want to interfere, to intervene, to want to do something. When you let nature take its course, when you let things be, when you convince yourself it would just be too hard to meddle, and you only do what is natural, and not try to force things in an effort to control them, how easy it will be to be content with your life.

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

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

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

How Can We Abandon People Who Are Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We finished up last week with a verse where Lao-tzu compared a great state to a watershed, to the confluence of the world. Yes, he was talking about the need for humility. But more importantly, he was talking about how closely we proximate ourselves to the Tao, that great body of water.

In today’s verse he begins by calling the Tao creation’s sanctuary. It isn’t surprising, to me, then, that all of creation had their origins in water.

Water is a sanctuary for us. We don’t want to be too far from it. There is a reason most of the world’s population dwells close to a great body of water. Even those of us who live farther inland have springs, lakes, and rivers we have close to our dwellings.

And the Tao is like this. Thus, it is treasured by the good, and it keeps the bad alive. Now, some of us might be questioning why we would want to keep the bad alive. So, in today’s verse, Lao-tzu poses a rhetorical question designed to get us to question exactly why we wouldn’t want to keep the bad alive: How can we abandon people who are bad?

How can we abandon people who are bad? What does it cost us? Lao-tzu teaches, “Beautiful words might be the price. Noble deeds might be the gift.” Thus, there is both a price, and a gift, in not abandoning people who are bad.

Is it too high a price? But what of the gift? Those who seek obtain, and those who err escape. Thus, the world esteems this Tao.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

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

If You Want to Be Great…

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

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

LAO-TZU says, “The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers / is because it has mastered being lower” (Taoteching: 66).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again we have managed to come to the end of another week with, yet another, great verse to finish up our theme for the week.

I hope my readers never grow weary of the same refrain from Lao-tzu. If you want to be great, practice humility. This is true, we know, when it comes to individuals. But, Lao-tzu insists, what is true for individuals is true for states as well.

Well before Donald Trump was campaigning to “Make America Great, Again!” we were going through these verses where Lao-tzu taught, to whoever would listen, the means to greatness. Lao-tzu understood, as many of us understand, it isn’t the end which justifies the means, but the means which determine the end.

If a great state wants to be “great, again” it had better understand this. And to help in our understanding, perhaps it would be good to go over some vocabulary words.

The first being, watershed. When Lao-tzu says, “A great state is a watershed,” what does he mean? Thankfully, Lao-tzu has been using water for a metaphor of the Tao all along. Water is very important here. A watershed is a region or area bounded peripherally by a divide and draining ultimately to a particular watercourse or body of water (thank you, Merriam-Webster). The watercourse Lao-tzu had in mind is the Way of Nature. And the body of water is the Tao.

Notice, the great state isn’t likened to the body of water, or even the watercourse. A great state only borders it, peripherally. With that said, the position of the great state has to be lower than all others.

Secondly, confluence. Confluence, also, has water connotations. It is where streams come together. A meeting point. “A great state is…the confluence of the world” because it is only when the great state humbles itself to a point where others will come to it, meet with it, that it can be great.

It should be noted, here, that intransigence concerning this is not conducive to ever being great.

Thirdly, female. Do I really need to define female? Why, yes, I think I do. Female, for Lao-tzu, refers to anything yin, as opposed to the male yang. “A great state is…the female of the world” means a great state will always be more yin than yang. The female uses stillness to overcome the male.

In order to be still, she needs to be lower. This is how she overcomes the male. Oh, the male, yang, may boast of his strength. But the female, yin, will always prevail, through her stillness, through her humility.

And anyone who denies this, hasn’t been paying much attention to the way things are.

It is especially important for those inclined to be mostly yang, that they be mostly yin. That is, if they want to overcome, if they want to be great.

“She needs to be lower.” While I am certain there will be plenty of those out there who will complain that this is just Lao-tzu promoting the subjugation of women, it is clear they don’t understand Lao-tzu, at all. That Lao-tzu recognized the primacy of the female, of the yin, throughout his teachings.

And a great state, he refers to as “she.” She has to be lower. Why is this so important? Smaller states know their place. It is greater ones that need reminding. They need to understand they are a watershed. They are the confluence of the world. They are the ones who have to be “female.”

Smaller states lower themselves quite naturally. They seek to join and serve others. But, greater states don’t understand how vitally important it is for them to lower themselves, if they want to unite and lead others. If both are to fulfill their desires, the greater needs to be lower.

This will ever be my answer to anyone who wishes to be great, to anyone who wants America to be great, again. It is Lao-tzu’s teaching on the vital importance of humility. The greater ones have the greater responsibility. If they don’t get it right, we are all doomed.

Too Much Government Makes Those Below Rebel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Lao-tzu’s day and for a long time after Lao-tzu’s day, the people were very superstitious. The people blamed spirits on just about any bad thing that happened to them. And, they sought to appease these spirits through sacrifices and worship, to avoid trouble, and otherwise improve their lot in life. But, Te Ch’ing, in his commentary on today’s verse, points out an important truth, which is true in all ages: It is cruel government which bring down calamity on the people. If you are suffering some misfortune, it may just be caused by your rulers.

Now, I believe, we live in a less superstitious age. Yet, we still don’t dare blame our calamities, our misfortunes, on those who govern us. Or if we do, we believe that we can appease these spirits with the next election.

Yet, Lao-tzu had it right when he said, “Ruling a great state is like cooking a small fish.” Stephen Mitchell, in his translation, adds “you spoil it with too much poking.”

And that is what gets those so-called spirits so pissed off! When a sage governs, they keep spirits from harming the people, and the people from harming spirits. These “spirits” are just another name for “bad shit happens when you don’t follow the natural order.” “Spirits” don’t respond when the sage, governing, doesn’t act [contrary to nature].

And because the inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are, the virtue of the people is the same as the virtue of the sage. They both rely on the same Virtue. And those pesky spirits are ever kept at bay.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

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

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

The Way of a Long and Lasting Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way of a long and lasting life. What is it? Well, Lao-tzu teaches, “In governing people and caring for Heaven, nothing surpasses economy.” Be economical in everything you do. Don’t do things to excess. Practice moderation in all things.

Economy means planning ahead. It means taking the time to consider the consequences, both those you may intend and those you don’t. What is going to happen if I do such and such? Not just what I want to happen, but what might happen, as a consequence. Maybe I would be better off to wait and see how things play out. Maybe intervening isn’t such a good policy after all.

This planning ahead, Lao-tzu teaches, means accumulating virtue. Why is this the Way to accumulate Virtue? For the very reason that the principle of non-action, of not-doing, not interfering, not intervening, not using force in an effort to control, is virtuous. Virtue is going with the natural flow, letting things run their course. Things arise, they come; and things go. Let them. Let them be. This is Virtue. And by practicing this virtue, you accumulate more virtue.

Accumulating virtue means overcoming all. But, how is is that we overcome anything when we don’t seek to overcome, if we just let things be? Ah, my friends, it is through this not trying to overcome, that we do in fact overcome. Those who try to overcome, fail. Time, and time again, they fail. Even when they succeed, their success soon turns to failure. This is simply the Way things are. But when you don’t try to succeed, you never fail.

Overcoming all means knowing no limit. How can this be? Because those who practice this virtue of economy, of moderation in all things, transcend the boundaries of life and death. And having transcended these boundaries, you know no limits.

Knowing no limit means guarding the realm. And guarding the realm brings us back to the art of governing Lao-tzu has been talking about for several verses, now. It is what he was talking about as he opened today’s verse saying, “In governing people…nothing surpasses economy.” If you want to govern your realm (in other words, your body) effectively, nothing surpasses this practice of moderation.

And you will live long, having deep roots and a solid trunk. How else does one expect to live long and prosper?

Nothing Is Direct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu contrasted directness with deception. In today’s verse, he teaches that nothing is direct: directness becomes deception. This is why the art of governing requires non-action.

Where the government stands aloof, the people open up. (If only….)

But where the government steps in, the people slip away. This is a truism. It has always been true. It will always be true. Yet, they keep stepping in; apparently thinking that doing the same thing, and doubling down with their efforts, will somehow produce different results.

What they don’t understand is that happiness rests in misery, and misery hides in happiness. And who knows where these end? You can’t force people to be happy. You only make them miserable. But if, when they were miserable, you took a step back, and stood aloof, happiness would soon result.

Talk all you want about your good intentions, and I will tell you good becomes evil. Nothing is direct. Directness becomes deception. Always. It is just the way things are.

Then you will tell me, “Ah, but the people have been lost for a long, long time.” I won’t disagree with you on your diagnosis. But your prescription is all wrong. You want to intervene, to step in.

Non-action is the better way. Be an edge that doesn’t cut, a point that doesn’t pierce, a line that doesn’t extend, a light that doesn’t blind.

“You just want me to do nothing.”

Naturally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a thread which runs its way throughout the Taoteching; and that thread is most visible in the verses we will be looking at this week. This thread is the art of governing, following the principle of non-action. It is a principle Lao-tzu teaches in the hope that not only our rulers, but everyone, would use it to rule their world.

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu begins by first contrasting governing a country using directness with using deception to fight a war. Most of us are aware, by now, that we are always in a state of war when it comes to our being governed. Our rulers don’t use directness to govern us, they use deception. Why? It is obvious they consider us, at the very least, potential enemies. Of course, those of us who oppose the State’s monopoly on the use of violence and force are enemies. We will always be at enmity with those who set themselves up as above and before us. And, they will always be at enmity with us.

But Lao-tzu teaches a better way to combat their deception. This better way is the principle of non-action. Non-participation.

But how will we ever “rule the world” by doing that?

The better question might be how do we really expect to rule our world without doing it. Do prohibitions work? No, the greater the prohibitions, the poorer the people. Do sharp tools work? No, the sharper the tools, the more chaotic the realm. Do clever schemes work? No, the cleverer the schemes, the more common the bizarre. How about having better possessions? No, the better the possessions, the more numerous the thieves.

All these actions fail in their mission. We should know, by now, they don’t work. But, how do we know the principle of non-action works? This is the lesson Lao-tzu (the sage) declares:

When I make no effort, the people transform themselves. When I stay still, the people correct themselves. When I do no work, the people enrich themselves. When I want nothing, the people simplify themselves.

When Lao-tzu says this is how to rule the world, he isn’t talking about ruling by force. He is talking about ruling by letting things happen naturally. Ruling by force doesn’t bring order, it brings chaos. It doesn’t produce wealth, it produces poverty.

Left alone, people will sort themselves out. That may not be something our so-called rulers will ever be interested in implementing. But we need not wait around for them to change their ways. Rule your own world following this principle of non-action. As I said earlier, this non-action means non-participation. You can stop participating in the present bankrupt system. Govern yourself according to this Way, and the world will follow along.

This is Called the Dark Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our verses this week, we have been talking a lot about the need for balance, for the practice of doing nothing. And today’s verse is a nice culmination, a nice verse for us to end the week on.

What does Lao-tzu mean by balance? And what does doing nothing have to do with it?

Well, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know. That is somewhat similar to saying, If I told you, I would have to kill you.

No, seriously, how do we put this balance, this doing nothing into practice?

Seal the opening. Close the gate. That really does mean exactly what it sounds like it means. It means stop talking. And stop going out doing things. Dull the edge. Untie the tangle. We really need to stop, and take all the time it will take to get all the tangles unraveled. Because all our prior interventions have made a fine mess of things. Soften the light. Join the dust. Dust, to me, symbolizes disuse. Dust settles on things that aren’t being regularly employed.

This is what Lao-tzu calls Dark Union, this joining with the dust. Being still. Refraining from action. Letting the dust settle. Being one with the dust.

When everywhere around you, you are hearing a call to action, Lao-tzu is calling you to inaction.

Why? Because anything that can be embraced, can be abandoned. And anything that can be helped, can be harmed. And anything that can be exalted, can be debased. Our interventions have unintended consequences. We want to help, and we end up harming.

But, inaction, the practice of doing nothing, brings about a whole different balance. What can’t be embraced, can’t be abandoned. What can’t be helped, can’t be harmed. What can’t be exalted, can’t be debased.

This is what “the world” would exalt, if we only put it into practice in our lives.

Those Who Possess Virtue in Abundance Know How to Be Balanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, the wonders of a newborn child! In my commentary on yesterday’s verse we were talking about cultivating virtue in ourselves, first. Today’s verse is the realization of that practice. Those who possess virtue in abundance resemble a newborn child: wasps don’t sting them, beasts don’t claw them, birds of prey don’t carry them off.

Lao-tzu demonstrates, in the verse today, just how enamored with newborns he was. They were a metaphor for an abundance of virtue. And, just in case we need reminding, newborns don’t “do” much of anything. Their virtue isn’t something they do, it is simply what they are.

Lao-tzu juxtaposes the newborn with those who become old. The differences between them couldn’t be more explicit. The newborn is balanced. While the old have grown out of balance. They have lengthened their life, and tempted luck, through force. This is the exact opposite of the newborn, who does nothing. But, once things mature, they become old. This isn’t the Way, says Lao-tzu, and what isn’t the Way ends early.

Most of us, are somewhere in between newborn and old and if we don’t want to end early, we should practice the virtue of the newborn, rather than the force of the old.

Be perfectly balanced. Like the newborn. For if we know how to be balanced, we will endure. And knowing how to endure is wisdom.

Not the wisdom which comes from a lifetime of regrets, but the wisdom that comes from being perfectly balanced.

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

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