For my first blog post, post-Taoteching, the subject is Abortion

For my first blog post since discontinuing my daily commentaries on Lao-tzu’s Taoteching I have decided to tackle a very difficult topic to discuss. Abortion. I was inspired to do this because of a dialogue I got involved in on my personal Facebook just last week. Before I get into it, I want to add this caveat: This is a very emotional issue for some. I personally think women confronting an unplanned pregnancy are dealing with a tragic circumstance. And whatever they choose to do about it, it is a heart-wrenching decision that they are having to make.

Now, to begin with, I need to preface with just a little bit about myself. My followers know me as libertariantaoist. And I am a libertarian anarchist, and a philosophical taoist. I want to write this blog from my unique libertariantaoist perspective. However, there are some other things you all need to know about me, as well. I am not a woman. I am a man. Some think that men don’t have any right to speak on this issue, that it is strictly a women’s issue. But it takes two to tango, and being the father of two, now adult children, I think I have as vested an interest in talking about this issue as anyone. My two children, a daughter and a son, they mean everything to me. They were my reason for being for all the years I was raising them. And I did raise them, as a single parent, from their preteen years. I home-schooled them too. But that is enough about me for now, let’s get into the heart of this, shall we?

Abortion. I used to be staunchly pro-life. No abortions, no exceptions. I was involved in my local community, protested outside abortion clinics, hassled state politicians, even traveled to Washington DC, back in January of 1993 for the March for Life on the anniversary of Roe V. Wade. My credentials in the pro-life movement were extensive.

But, unlike some, over time my positions on various things have changed, as my convictions, my belief in the primacy of liberty, have solidified. I don’t have time to go into everything which changed my mind on this issue. I don’t even know if I know them all. But one thing has stuck with me. It was thinking about Patrick Henry saying that he valued liberty over life. That really resonated with me.

Anyway, I began to realize that if we really cared about the life of the unborn, we should be providing more choices to women who found themselves in the tragic circumstances of having an unplanned pregnancy, not fewer. I realized that some of the most vociferous opponents of abortion were also opposed to all forms of birth control. These pro-life people were really anti-choice. And being a libertarian, I couldn’t be anti-choice.

Still, I don’t consider myself pro-abortion. I wouldn’t want abortion to be anyone’s first choice when it comes to family planning. I just can’t reconcile forcing women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term with living in a free society. And I want to live in a free society. And not just free for me, but free for all.

So anyway, for me, the issue is about offering more options to women faced with the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy, not less. What I want more than that abortion is not an option, is that it is not the only option. If women have more choices, ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place, like fuller access to a plethora of birth control options, and making adoption a more viable option. But, of course, I am not suggesting these things should be paid for by taxation. I don’t think the government needs to be involved in this at all. That would kind of defeat the whole, “we don’t need no stinking government” narrative, wouldn’t it?

And, by the way, I also think men should be made to bear more responsibility in this whole thing. Once again, not by force of government. I am thinking of contractual obligations here. It takes two to tango, as I said earlier. Yet the brunt of the responsibility falls on women when it comes to what to do once she gets pregnant. Women need to have recourse to more options, once again, not less. I am already imagining the men’s rights activists raising heck with me. Perhaps I will have to address men’s rights in another blog post. So hold on there guys, I will get to you later.

You probably have already noticed I have only casually mentioned the life of the unborn in all this. And that is the real issue for a lot of you.

In my discussion with one person on Facebook, he wanted to know two things about my views. Is the fetus a human life, and if it isn’t why shouldn’t abortion be plan A, the first choice, for women facing an unplanned, and unwanted, pregnancy? The second question was when does life begin?

My answer to the first question: One of the reasons I don’t want abortion to be anyone’s first option is because abortions aren’t a simple procedure, and sometimes things go wrong. Horribly wrong. That is why we need to be expanding choice, options, rather than restricting them.

My answer to the second question, on when life begins, was and is, I don’t know. I used to believe the whole “Life begins at conception” narrative. And if you insist on believing that, then nothing I will say will probably ever convince you to moderate your views. It is a convenient belief. It saves you a whole lot of trouble. It is very cut and dried. I understand that. That was one reason I used to believe that way.

But then I spent some time thinking, and reasoning, and I came to realize life isn’t as cut and dried as we would like it to be. It simply is more complicated than that. So now, “I don’t know” will have to work, cause honestly, I don’t know. Somehow, I think viability outside the womb has to be a consideration. And medical technology is coming a long way in that regard.

I want to take a time out here, and consider the taoist side of things. I am libertariantaoist, after all. So what do I think is the taoist viewpoint. I don’t purport to know the official Taoist viewpoint. Or even the viewpoint of a majority of Taoists. There is a reason I choose to always list myself as a “small t” taoist. My viewpoints are my own.

As far as Lao-tzu is concerned, I haven’t the foggiest idea what his stance on when life begins would be. Namely, because I have never read anything purported to be written or said by him, which addressed this issue. I know he loved babies. Newborns were one of his favorite go-to metaphors for practicing the Tao. Second only to water. But he said nothing about babies in utero. That may or may not mean that he believed babies aren’t babies until they are born.

And by the way, “Babies aren’t babies until they are born” is just as convenient a belief as “Life begins at conception, period.” It saves one the trouble of having to think about that growing blob inside its mother. Having said that, “Babies aren’t babies until they are born,” may, in fact, be the best legal definition. Consider the natural rights we are all endowed with “by our Creator.”

When are we endowed with these natural rights? Is it at conception, or while we are still in utero? Or, is it at birth? Whenever I have heard any discussion of natural rights, the answer has always been, at birth. I am no legal scholar, but I think trying to extend natural rights to people before they are born presents us with a Pandora’s box full of troubles we will later regret opening.

Just consider the implications of this reality: According to the American Pregnancy Association, studies reveal that anywhere from 10-25% of clinically recognized pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Notice that is just the clinically recognized pregnancies. What are the legal implications of these “deaths.” Did the baby die of natural causes? Or is someone, perhaps the mother, at fault? Did she faithfully do everything necessary (prenatal care) to ensure the life of her unborn child, whose rights are now to be protected by the government? Who gets to decide exactly what these necessary things are? Are we really going to put women through the agony of a court trial to prove their innocence, when they are already suffering enough because of the miscarriage? Talk of a miscarriage of justice!

Why did I ever decide to tackle this difficult issue? I guess the real reason is because when faced with uncertainty over when life actually begins, and comparing that with the certainty of liberty being infringed upon, I know where I must make my stand.

I understand how emotional the arguments can be on this issue. I have witnessed those emotional arguments countless times, even taking part in them. They often devolved into shouting matches. I hoped I could take a step back from all of that, and present a rational argument, not for abortion, but for more choice, and against any restrictions on liberty.

I wish every baby was a wanted baby. I wish every pregnancy was a joyful circumstance for both the mother, and the father, of the child. But that isn’t the case. And wishing won’t make it so.

I don’t want any woman to ever feel like abortion is her only option, but because I can’t reconcile forcing women to carry their pregnancy to term with living in a free society, I can’t be in favor of banning it, either. In a free society, we should be offering women more choices, not fewer. Placing any restrictions, laws crafted by bureaucrats with all sorts of legal hoops a woman has to jump through before she can get an abortion, are an infringement that I can’t justify; simply because, in a free society individuals, not society, get to decide what is best for themselves.

I am probably rambling by now, so I will end it here. What I am hoping with my blog posts, and not just this one, is to elicit thoughtful discussion. Let me know what you think. What giant gaping holes did I leave in my argument? Do you have the definitive answer to when life begins, and I am just too stupid to see it? Any other concerns? If there is enough feedback from my followers, perhaps I could continue this discussion with some dialogue from those who wish to be part of the discussion. If not, I will move on to something else. Thanks for reading through this. I hope it was thought-provoking. Have a great day!

Looks Like This Is the End

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

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 81, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, we come to the end of another cycle through the Taoteching. If I counted correctly, this makes a total of twenty-one times I have gone through these verses, adding my own commentary. It has been great! I have learned so much since I started doing this in 2012. I think my writing has improved quite a bit, too. And I want to thank each one of you who have taken this journey with me. Some of you have been there from the very beginning with me. Again, thank you all so much!

But, as someone has said before, everything which has a beginning, has an end. And, I have decided, this is a good time to call it the end. I am grateful for the discipline it required of me to do these daily blog posts. Sometimes, I will admit to you, I didn’t feel like talking about the particular verse whose time had come for me to talk about. But, like it or not, I trudged onward. And I can’t say I didn’t benefit from doing this.

However, while I could continue to do this for many moons to come, I am feeling a call to devote time I have been spending on tackling these verses fresh each day, to writing on other things. I have wanted to write on a variety of topics over the years, but never quite had the time. Part of that lack of time is due to spending so much of my time just keeping up with these commentaries. There are so many things going on in the world, so many opportunities where a libertariantaoist viewpoint would be nice to share. And while I do put little tidbits of contemporary events in my blog posts, so many times, they just aren’t compatible with the verse for that day. Or even if they are, I am writing these commentaries days, even weeks in advance, and by the time they post, it is old news.

I am constantly being challenged by not having enough hours in each day. I am cursed by needing 8 hours of sleep every night. I hate it. Really. But I can’t function without it. And that means the time I am awake is very precious to me. I can’t read all I want to read. Nor listen to all the podcasts. Nor write.

Being challenged like this, I have to economize. I have to figure out the best uses of my time, so I can spend the little time I have, doing what I truly love. That is the reason I am ending this practice of taking a verse a day of the Taoteching. It doesn’t mean I won’t be blogging any more. You won’t get rid of me that easily. But I don’t expect to be posting daily any longer. What I want to do is spend more of my time reading, and writing. And hopefully, I will have something to say worth saying, one to two times a week. No, that isn’t as often as every day. But, as I have already said, I have been feeling myself in a time crunch.

I won’t leave the Taoteching behind. I still have plenty to learn from Lao-tzu. I haven’t reached “Master” level, yet. But I hope I have learned some lessons which will serve me well as I start writing about different things. I hope I have learned, “True words aren’t beautiful and beautiful words aren’t true.” And, “The good aren’t eloquent and the eloquent aren’t good.” And, “The wise aren’t learned and the learned aren’t wise.” These are good lessons to keep me from wandering too far astray.

But I think some of the most important lessons I have learned, on multiple journeys through the Taoteching, are lessons on how to help without harming, and how to act without struggling. What that means for me, and my future blog posts, is you will continue to get a libertariantaoist perspective in everything I write. I will continue to champion non-aggression and non-intervention.

I was talking to a friend earlier today, and he was concerned about Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un. He doesn’t trust that Trump won’t screw things up. I understand that fear. What I told him is what I want out of our foreign policy. That we would pull our troops off the Korean peninsula and let South and North Korea settle their differences on their own. He said if that would happen, the North would immediately invade the South, with China backing them up. While I don’t know whether or not that would be true, my reply is the same: Why is that our concern? America thinks it needs to have its fingers meddling in everybody’s business as if it were our business. It isn’t. It wasn’t back in the 1950’s when we backed the South against the North in Korea. And it isn’t any of our business today. As far as I am concerned, our foreign policy is giving our enemies exactly what they want. They want us meddling all over the world, because they know it will eventually bankrupt us, and then we won’t be around to meddle anymore.

See, these are the things I would like to be talking about, writing about, and it should be obvious, I can hardly wait to get started. But first I have to finish today’s verse. And you know what? I think I am done.

Imagining It Is Just the Beginning

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

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 80, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless your opinion of John Lennon or his song, “Imagine,” I think the lyrics to that song are very similar to the imagining Lao-tzu invites us all to do in today’s verse. Wait, I think I may be already regretting that analogy. Does it leave some of my readers with a negative image? A positive one? Well, whichever it does, even if that analogy had a neutral effect on you, today’s verse probably got a similar reaction out of you.

I have always thought of today’s verse in positive terms. Maybe it is because it has always reminded me of Tolkien’s Shire, from his Hobbit books. “Imagine a small state with a small population.” Actually, I have no idea how small the population of the Shire was, in Tolkien’s mind. I just know it was filled with small folk.

Yet, I hear the criticism of those who read today’s verse, and complain that Lao-tzu was wanting us all to abandon modernity, to live primitively.

Certainly Lao-tzu taught that living simply was one of the keys to true contentment. But Lao-tzu, just as certainly, wouldn’t be about forcing everyone to live the way he envisioned to be for the best. Actually, I think those who dismiss Lao-tzu’s teachings, over his admittedly Utopian dream, are missing Lao-tzu’s whole point.

It isn’t about where you live, though I will admit, this is exactly the kind of place I’d like to live. And it isn’t even about how you live, though Lao-tzu does go on and on about how the people in this imagined place live – just imagine it. It is about whether or not you are content.

Let there be no arguments about the benefits of labor-saving tools. I happen to enjoy them, too. And would be loath to give them up.

Let there be no arguments about the benefits of traveling, of experiencing new and different cultures. I, too, agree we are enriched by diversity of peoples, places, and things. Sameness can get stale, stagnant. It’s good to shake things up every now and then.

And, please, let there be no arguments about the need for armor and weapons. Lao-tzu has already made clear both his disdain for violence and the tools of violence, weapons, while always acknowledging, we will have to resort to using them, when forced.

Can we please set all the arguments aside for just a moment, and just imagine a state of true contentment. Maybe what you imagine won’t be anything like what Lao-tzu imagines. That’s okay. Just imagine what true contentment would mean for you.

Does it involve being satisfied with the food you have to eat? Being pleased with the clothing you have to wear? Being content with your home? Being happy with your customs?

Can we set aside our petty differences, and just imagine being content with our lives? And then, having imagined it, can we make it a reality by being content with our lives?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

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

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

YICHING CHITZU (APPENDED JUDGMENTS ON THE BOOK OF CHANGES). Attributed to Duke Wen.

How Can This Be Good?

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

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 79, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s verse is another one where I expect there to be some resistance. Why? Because the way of Humankind is so very contrary to the Way of Heaven.

As Sung Ch’ang-hsing notes in his commentary, “the way of Humankind is seeking to make peace with others.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with seeking to make peace with others? Yet, “the Way of Heaven doesn’t seek to make peace; Instead, the Way of Heaven is to let things make peace by themselves.”

Sung Ch’ang-hsing goes on to explain the reason for this. “Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace.”

Also, note what Lao-tzu says about those intent on resolving disputes. When they try to force it, “a dispute is sure to remain.” And, Lao-tzu wonders, “How can this be good?”

As good as seeking to make peace with others sounds, it hardly ever works out as well as we hoped it would. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to make peace with others?

Not at all; but that is where Lao-tzu’s practice of “doing without doing” comes in.

He points out how sages go about things, and how very different it is from the way Humankind does things. Lao-tzu says sages hold the left marker, a reference to the side of the contract which only involves one’s own obligations. It makes no reference to the other party’s responsibilities. Meaning, they don’t make any claim on others.

The need to resolve disputes can be avoided altogether, notes Chiang Hsi-ch’ang, if you don’t make demands of others. But great disputes can’t help but occur, if you are constantly making demands on others.

Lao-tzu finishes up today’s verse by saying, “The Way of Heaven favors no one, but it always helps the good.” I thought that sounded a lot like something Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

That quote wasn’t necessarily original with King. I did a bit of research and found that Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist calling for the abolition of slavery, published a collection of ten sermons in 1853 where he included figurative language about the arc of the moral universe:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; But I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long, Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”

And then there is is this gem from a book called “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish rite of Freemasonry” with a copyright date of 1871 and publication date of 1905. The author was not identified:

“We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary to God’s real law of justice continually endure.”

Lao-tzu in his Taoteching, constantly teaches the very same thing. In verse 73, he wondered, “What Heaven dislikes, who can know the reason?” That was his way of saying, things don’t always seem to work out the way we know they should.

The lesson we should glean from all of this is to do what we know in our own hearts to be right, and don’t worry so much about what others do. It will all work out right in the end — if we will only let it.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

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

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

Something Everyone Knows, But No One Can Practice

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

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lao-tzu called it something everyone knows, but no one is able to practice. And I wonder whether it is really a matter of inability, or unwillingness. But before we try to figure that one out, maybe we better make sure we truly understand what the “it” is, that Lao-tzu says everyone knows.

Lao-tzu says, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water, but against the hard and the strong, nothing outdoes it.” Lao-tzu is talking about water, here; but he is talking about it metaphorically. Why is it that the hard and the strong is no match for its weakness?

First, Lao-tzu says it is because nothing can change it. The change Lao-tzu is referring to, here, is its nature. It is the nature of water which nothing can change. Hsuan-tsung says the nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet, despite its weakness, it can bore through rocks. Rocks, on the other hand, can’t wear down water. And Chu Ti-huang allows that we can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend.

But, remember, I said that Lao-tzu only lauds the nature of water metaphorically. What he is really teaching, the “it” that everyone knows, is that when we become like water, as Bruce Lee taught, we can overcome the hard and the strong. When we are taught to be like water, what we are really being taught is to be soft, and by being soft overcome the hard. And to be weak, and by being weak overcome the strong.

This is what Lao-tzu says everyone knows. Being soft, being weak, enables us to overcome, because being like water, our nature is to stay low, to not struggle, to descend, and nothing can overcome that. Especially if “nothing” refers to the strong and hard. The strong and hard can’t (or won’t) compete with that.

And that brings me back to my earlier question. Is Lao-tzu’s assertion that no one is able to practice this really a question of ability, or is it unwillingness. If Lao-tzu was only talking about rocks, then it is obviously a question of ability. Rocks are rocks. They don’t have the capacity to will anything. So unwillingness on the part of rocks seems a silly notion. But, Lao-tzu isn’t teaching rocks a lesson. He is teaching people, who can be as hard in their unwillingness (in other words, obstinate) as rocks. Even the rocks are metaphors!

And now we really need to be honest, and say the “no one” that Lao-tzu refers to here, as opposed to the “everyone” he referred to in the previous line, are uses of hyperbole on Lao-tzu’s part. Everyone vs. no one. Like, always and never. Lao-tzu doesn’t really mean there can never be exceptions to the rule. And sages are one such exception.

They do have both a willingness, and the ability, to practice it. And that means, my good friends, that so can we.

What is it going to take?

To be like water, we have to overcome the hardness of our own hearts, the strength of our own will and desires. And that is going to take, wait for it, humility.

That is what the sages declared. You have to accept your country’s disgrace. You have to accept your country’s misfortune. Lao-tzu was teaching rulers in the art of governing, so he talked about it on a grand scale. On a more personal level, we might say, you have to accept your own disgrace and misfortune. Accepting means acquiescing to nature’s course. Are you willing to go even lower, to be last? Or, do you have to be on top, above, first? Your ability or willingness to humble yourself is the key to overcoming — if you can practice it.

So, can you? Or, should I ask, will you?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

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

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

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

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

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

It Isn’t a Call to Action

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

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 77, translation by Red Pine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s verse always makes me kind of nervous. “Pulling down the high, lifting up the low…” What makes me nervous is those who think this is some kind of call to action. “Yeah! Take from the one percent. Take from the rich, give it to the poor. We need governments to redistribute the wealth.”

But that isn’t what Lao-tzu is teaching, at all. He says that is the Way of Heaven: Like when you string a bow, the high is pulled down, and the low is lifted up. What is too long is shortened, and what is too short is lengthened. The Way of Humankind is altogether different. And that is why this isn’t a call to action. For Humankind’s actions always, always take from the short and give to the long, always push the low further down, while raising the already high. Humankind isn’t about lifting up the oppressed, they are always about protecting, maintaining, increasing their power over others.

The rhetoric those in power use are always lies and deception. The Way of Heaven is completely natural. It is never forced. So, Lao-tzu asks, “Who can take the long, and give it to the world? Only those who possess the Way.” And those who possess the Way never use force to achieve their ends. “Thus sages don’t depend on what they develop, or claim what they achieve,” Lao-tzu teaches, “They choose to hide their skill.”

What that means is they don’t force anything. They let Heaven (what is natural) do its complete work. What makes a sage a sage is the alacrity with which they get out of the way, and thus follow the Way.

When Their Rightful Place Isn’t Above

“When people are born
they are soft and weak
when they perish
they are hard and stiff
when plants shoot forth
they are supple and tender
when they die
they are withered and dry
thus it is said
the hard and stiff are followers of death
the soft and weak are followers of life
when an army becomes stiff it suffers defeat
when a plant becomes stiff it snaps
the hard and stiff dwell below
the soft and weak dwell above”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 76, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When people are born, they contain breath and spirit. This is why they are soft. When they die, their breath ceases and their spirit disappears. This why they are hard.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Seeing that the living are soft and the dead are hard, we can infer that those whose virtue is hard and those whose actions are forceful die before their time, while those who are soft and weak are able to preserve their lives.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Although the soft and weak aren’t the same as the Tao, they approach its absence of effort. Hence, they aren’t far from the Tao. Although the hard and stiff aren’t outside the Tao, they involve effort. Hence, they lead people away from it.”

LIEH-TZU says, “The world has a path of perennial victory and a path of perennial defeat. The path of perennial victory is weakness. The path of perennial defeat is strength. These two are easy to recognize, but people remain oblivous to them” (Liehtzu:2.17).

LAO-TZU says, “The weak conquer the strong” (Taoteching: 36).

WANG CHEN says, “It isn’t hard for an army to achieve victory. But it is hard to hold on to victory. There is no great army that has not brought on its own defeat through its victories.”

HSI T’UNG says, “When a plant becomes stiff, it loses its flexibility and becomes easy to break.”

WANG P’ANG says, “In terms of yin and yang, yin comes before and yang comes after. In terms of Heaven and earth, Heaven is exalted and Earth is humble. In terms of Virtue, the soft and weak overcome the hard and stiff. But in terms of material things, the hard and stiff control the soft and weak. The people of this world only see things. They don’t understand Virtue.”

SU CH’E says, “As long as it contains empty breath, the body does not suffer from rigidity. As long as they reflect perfect reason, actions are not burdened by severity. According to the unchanging principle of things, the refined rises to the top, while the coarse sinks to the bottom. The refined is soft and weak, while the coarse is hard and stiff.”

LI JUNG says, “The living belong above. The dead belong below.”

And RED PINE adds, “How different this world would be if our leaders spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms.”

“The hard and stiff dwell below. The soft and weak dwell above.” In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu laid the responsibility for all the troubles facing our world, today, at the feet of those above. In today’s verse, Lao-tzu has a further word of warning for those above. When you were born, you were soft and weak, just as when plants shoot forth, they are supple and tender. Note this well. It is the hard and stiff who perish, the withered and dry die.

If those above fail to take these lessons of Lao-tzu to heart, and change their wicked ways, being hard and stiff, they will wither and die. The hard and stiff can’t remain alive. Death is their destiny. They follow death just as surely as a recalcitrant army suffers defeat, and a plant snaps when it becomes stiff. Only the soft and weak will prevail. Those who are supple and tender, they are the living ones, who will ultimately rise to dwell above. It is their rightful place, just as below is the rightful place of the hard and stiff.

This isn’t a threat, veiled or otherwise. I am not advocating violence, merely predicting an outcome based on Nature’s Law. Those of us who oppose you will never have to resort to force to topple you from your lofty position. Heaven will do it for us (you are doing it to yourselves), you only reap what you sow.

It’s Because of Those Above

“The reason people are hungry
is that those above levy so many taxes
this is why they are hungry
the reason people are hard to rule
is that those above are so forceful
this is why they are hard to rule
the reason people think little of death
is that those above think so much of life
this is why they think little of death
meanwhile those who do nothing to live
are more esteemed than those who love life”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 75, translation by Red Pine)

DUKE AI approached YU JUO: “The year is one of famine, and my revenues are wanting. What am I to do?” Yu Juo replied, “Return to the 10 percent rate of taxation.” Duke Ai said, “But I cannot get by on 20 percent. How will I survive on 10 percent?” Yu Juo replied, “When the people don’t want, why should the ruler want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” (Lunyu: 12.9).

WANG PI says, “The people hide and disorder prevails because of those above, not because of those below. The people follow those above.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If those above take too much, those below will be impoverished. If those above use too much force, those below will rebel. This is a matter of course. When people think their own life is more important, and they disregard the lives of other, why should others not treat death lightly? Sages don’t think about life unless they are forced to.”

TE CH’ING says, “Robbers and thieves arise from hunger and cold. If people are hungry and have no means to live, they have no choice but to steal. When people steal, it’s because those above force them. They force people to turn to stealing and then try to rule with cleverness and laws. But the more laws they make, the more thieves appear. Even the threat of the executioner’s ax doesn’t frighten them. And the reason people aren’t frightened by death is that those above are so concerned with life.”

SU CH’E says, “When those above use force to lead the people, the people respond with force. Thus do complications multiply and the people become hard to rule.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Forceful’ refers to the ruler’s love of might and arms. But once arms prevail, disorder is certain.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The reason people cannot live out their allotted years and are sentenced to death in midlife is that they think so much of life. Meanwhile, those who do nothing to stay alive are able to lengthen their lives” (Huainantzu: 7).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Only those who do nothing to stay alive, who aren’t moved by titles or sinecures, who aren’t affected by wealth or advantages, who refuse to serve the emperor or run errands for lesser lords – they alone are more esteemed than those who love life.”

YEN TSUN says, “The Natural Way always turns things upside down. What has no body lives. What has a body dies. To be alive and to seek advantages is the beginning of death. Not to be alive and to get rid of advantages is the beginning of life. Those who don’t work to live live long.”

WANG TAO says, “The meaning of the last two lines is: If I didn’t have this body of mine, what worries would I have?”

WANG P’ANG says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

With today’s verse, Lao-tzu continues teaching on the art of governing. And I feel like I am picking up on a particular tone from Lao-tzu in this verse. It is a tone I have become quite adept at whenever I am trying to reason with people about what I think should be common sense, but is all too uncommon.

What is the reason people are hungry? What is the reason people are hard to rule? What is the reason people think so little of death? These are questions those who govern us should understand the answers to, but they don’t.

And as Lao-tzu takes these questions, one by one, he makes his point as clear as he possibly can, by repeating it again.

Those above levy so many taxes! Those above are so forceful! Those above think so much of their own lives!

Need I say it again? Taxation is theft. And everywhere we turn, every thing is taxed. Producers are taxed. What they produce is taxed. And consumers get taxed for having the audacity to want to purchase some of what is produced. Everything costs much more than it would if it wasn’t for all this taxation, and what do we get back for all this taxation? Nada. Don’t even start with me about all the wonderful government programs which get funded by that thing you call necessary, taxation. If the government really wanted to do something for the people, they should stop stealing so much of our hard-earned money. Our very livelihood is taxed, and you wonder why people are hungry? Don’t be stupid.

Force and the threat of force, that is how we are governed. Our governments don’t understand elementary laws of physics when it comes to the use of force. Newton’s Third Law of Motion for instance, which states: for every force, there is a reaction force that is equal in size, but opposite in direction. Therefore, whenever one object pushes another object, it gets pushed in the opposite direction equally as hard. That is what makes people hard to rule. When you push, expect to be pushed back. If you don’t want the reaction, then don’t do the action.

For the last couple of verses Lao-tzu has been talking about people not fearing death; so what’s the use in threatening them? And he said, then, it is because those above keep making up new rules and punishments, to the point people no longer care about their life. Now, Lao-tzu says it is because those above love their life too much.

I always enjoy rereading the account of Duke Ai approaching Yu Juo (from the commentary today). Duke Ai was in great distress. It was a time of famine, and his tax revenues were “wanting.” Yu Juo’s response was priceless: Cut the taxes in half! Duke Ai was astounded by this advice. What? Are you mad? I can’t survive on the tax revenue as it is. If I cut it in half, how will I survive? This reminds me of the kind of talk we hear coming out of capitols everywhere, whenever anyone has the temerity to suggest taxes should be cut. How they wail! How will we be able to pay for all this largess? Except they don’t call it largess. They call it necessary expenditures. Don’t believe it. As Yu Juo said to Duke Ai: “When the people don’t want, why should you want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” Tighten your belt Duke Ai. The people you rule have tightened theirs.

Meanwhile, says Lao-tzu, those who do nothing to live (in other words, they don’t steal, they don’t use force, they don’t value their lives to excess, they actually care about the lives of those beneath or around them), are more esteemed than those who love their lives. Yep! And I will go on esteeming them, and not those above.

RED PINE introduces the following with today’s verse:

DUKE AI (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Lu and interlocutor of Lunyu 12:9.

YU JUO (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Disciple of Confucius known for his resemblance to the sage as well as for his love of antiquity. After Confucius’ death, many of his disciples wanted to render to Yu Juo the same observances they had conferred on Confucius. But this was opposed by Tseng-tzu.

Do People No Longer Fear Death?

“If people no longer fear death
what good is threatening to kill them
if people truly fear death
and some act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else would dare
as long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner’s place
is to cut in the carpenter’s place
those who cut in the carpenter’s place
seldom escape with hands intact”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 74, translation by Red Pine)

YIN WEN says, “Lao-tzu asks, if people are not afraid to die what good is threatening to kill them? If people are not afraid to die, it is because punishments are excessive. When punishments are excessive, people don’t care about life. When they don’t care about life, the ruler’s might means nothing to them. When punishments are moderate, people are afraid to die. They are afraid to die because they enjoy life. When you know they enjoy life, then you can threaten them with death” (Yinwen: 2).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “This implies that punishments cannot be relied upon for governing. If people are not afraid of death, what use is threatening them with execution? And if they are afraid of death, and we catch someone who breaks the law, and we execute them, by killing one person we should be able to govern the rest. But the more people we kill, the more people break the law. Thus, punishment is not the answer.”

MING T’AI-TSU says, “When I first ascended the throne, the people were unruly and officials corrupt. If ten people were executed in the morning, a hundred were breaking the same law by evening. Being ignorant of the Way of the ancient sage kings, I turned to the Taoteching. When I read, ‘If people no longer fear death / what good is threatening to kill them,’ I decided to do away with capital punishment and put criminals to work instead. In the year since then, the burdens of my heart have been lightened. Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”

WU CH’ENG says, “‘Perverse’ means ‘unlawful.’ If those who act perverse and break the law do not meet with misfortune at the hands of Humankind, they will certainly be punished by Heaven.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If rulers teach according to the Tao and people respond with perversion instead, rulers are within their rights to arrest them and kill them. Lao-tzu, however, was concerned that rulers should use the Tao first before turning to punishment.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The meaning of ‘the executioner will exist’ is the same as ‘the Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes’ (verse 73). The executioner is Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Heaven is the executioner. If the world is at peace and people engage in perversity and rebellion, then surely they have been abandoned by Heaven. If we kill them, it is Heaven who kills them and not us. But if we kill those whom Heaven has not abandoned, we take the executioner’s place. And anyone who takes the executioner’s place puts themselves within reach of his ax.”

THE LUSHIH CHUNCHIU says, “A great carpenter does not cut” (1.4).

MENCIUS says, “The wise are not alone in desiring something greater than life and hating something greater than death. This is true of everyone. But the wise don’t forget it” (Mencius: 6A.10).

Our verses this week have been on fear and authority. On Monday, in verse 72, Lao-tzu said, “When people no longer fear authority, a greater authority will appear.” On Tuesday, verse 73, Lao-tzu said it was a matter of life and death. And in today’s verse, he ponders the question “If people no longer fear death, what good is threatening to kill them?” These verses have all been addressed to those who govern us.

If they are governing in such a way, that people no longer fear them, they no longer fear their punishments (death), then threatening them further won’t work. If those who govern us want to be able to succeed in governing us, they want us to truly fear death, and that means they need to be careful in how they govern us. In other words, they should fear us.

If you want people to act in a certain way, trying to compel them to act in that way isn’t the way to accomplish your end. The end never justifies the means. Your means always determines the end.

If you were to govern according to the Tao, the Way of Heaven, you would govern with moderation; and people; because they would then love their lives, would fear death. And fearing death, if some acted perversely, you could catch them and kill them; and no one else would dare to act that way.

But you are not governing according to the Tao, with moderation. So the people no longer fear you, or the death you mete out as punishment for their supposed wrong-doing. I say supposed, here, because you have heaped on so many rules and laws and ordinances (too many to count, and many that, quite frankly, run counter to all common sense), that your killing actually amounts to taking the place of the executioner (Heaven). In other words, you are killing those who Heaven hasn’t already abandoned. And Heaven will ultimately exact its retribution against you.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and author of a book of discourse that bears his name.

MING T’AI-TSU (1328-1398). Grew up in a family of destitute farmers, became a Buddhist monk, joined the rebellion against the Mongols (who had occupied the throne since 1278), and founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). His commentary, which he wrote without the help of tutors, was completed in 1374. Tao-te-chen-ching yu-chu.

LUSHIH CHUNCHIU (THE SPRING AND AUTUMN ANNALS OF MR. LU). Commissioned by Lu Pei-wei (d. 235 B.C.), this was probably the first Chinese text written with a unified plan. It purported to contain all that anyone needed to know of the world and was Taoist in conception. Not to be confused with The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yen or with The Spring and Autumn Annals written in the state of Lu and attributed to Confucius.

A Matter of Life and Death

“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
one benefits
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 73, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus, it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path” (Chungyung: 9).

SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanisms whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathom. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”

YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the hard and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”

When I share Lao-tzu’s teaching regarding the practice of not-doing, namely “not daring to act” I am often met with a particular response which Lao-tzu addresses in today’s verse.

What Lao-tzu teaches regarding daring to act, is that it means death; while daring not to act means life. It is a matter of life and death. I take it as seriously as Lao-tzu does. But I have friends and family that scoff at this. They echo what Su Ch’e says in his commentary today. “But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die.” And thus, say family and friends, you are wrong when you say “daring to act means death, and daring not to act means life” for it doesn’t always work out that way.

Lao-tzu addresses this when he says, “What Heaven dislikes, who knows the reason? That may not be very satisfying a response. I have been told, for instance, it is a cop-out. But is it?

What if Lao-tzu is offering a general principle, only a general principle. What exactly is wrong with that? Why would you really expect that you could read a little book and find the answer to every circumstance you could possibly encounter, with exactly the correct response in any given situation? Whoever told you life was that simple?

No, life is complicated. But, you can live simply, and greatly increase your satisfaction with it. Does it work every time it is tried? Why, no. There will be exceptions to the rule. As there are to a lot of rules which we never question.

How is this for a rule: I will live my life how I want to live my life, without infringing on your right to live your life the way you want. If you dare not fail to act, if you want that to be your rule for living, go for it. I won’t stop you. But don’t try to convince me that I must act every time you see some need to act. I won’t force you not to act, why try to force me to act?

The truth is none of us is wise enough to know the reason Heaven dislikes what it dislikes. And anyone who thinks they know is fooling themselves.

Having said that, the Way of Heaven (this is a general principle, mind you) is to win without a fight, to answer without a word, to come without a summons, and to plan without a thought. And the Net of Heaven (all-encompassing in a general sense) may have a wide mesh (in other words, some may live that dare to act and some may die who dare not to act) but nothing can escape it (in the long run).