“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”
(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.