As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.
Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.
The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we talked about going with the flow of the Tao as a matter of life and death. If only we will realize this; that is the kind of difference it makes in our lives. Are we going to be a disciple of life or a disciple of death? Are we going to be soft and yielding or stiff and inflexible?
Today, Lao Tzu uses something flexible as a picture of how the Tao acts in our world. Like the bending of a bow. Notice that he doesn’t picture someone bending a bow. Notice, also, how he describes this bending of a bow. The top is bent downward and the bottom is bent up. This is how a bow is designed to operate. As it is bending, the top goes down and the bottom comes up. We are all familiar with how a bow naturally operates. Even if we have never handled one before, we have seen it before, or had it described for us, countless times. We know about the bending of a bow. He uses this illustration to describe how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, to achieve perfect balance.
The Tao acts in the world to adjust excess and deficiency; it takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. This is how the Tao operates in the Universe. It is always bringing about perfect balance. Yin and yang, always in a state of flux, always returning to balance. It is all very impersonal, this universal law. Nowhere does it ask for our help or our opinion. It merely asks us to let it happen, without interfering. Where the Tao sees excess and deficiency, it will adjust it. It always adjusts it. My favorite way of explaining the Tao is to simply say, it is the way things are. This is the way things are. This is how it flows. This is why we need to be soft and yielding, rather than stiff and inflexible, in order to be content in our lives.
If only we would be content with the way things are. Because I gain new followers every day, I want to make clear what I mean when I say, the way things are is the way things are, don’t fight it, don’t resist it, just go with the flow. I certainly don’t mean that I am all for the status quo. The status quo being a system set up by the ruling elite, which works against the flow of the Tao. The status quo is maintained by people who are trying to be in control. Lao Tzu tells us, throughout the Tao Te Ching, that the Universe is forever out of our control. We can’t control it. We can go with the flow of it, and all will go well. Or, we can try to be in control, to use force to protect our power.
That is what the ruling elite have been trying to do for as far back as history records. They are going against the direction of the Tao. Lao Tzu saw it in his own day. And by then it was already an ancient practice. Since Lao Tzu’s day, nothing has changed as far as the motives of the ruling elite are concerned. Chapter after chapter, Lao Tzu devoted to admonishing leaders on how to be great. Follow the Tao. Be like water, humble and yielding. Trust the people, leave them alone. But do they listen? Do they ever listen?
And the consequences of not yielding to the way things are, are devastating. They take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much. Notice how we went from the impersonal Tao, that adjusts excess and deficiency by taking from what is too much and giving to what isn’t enough, to powerful people trying to be in control, and making it personal. What becomes who. And the excess and deficiency only grows greater. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t how the universe operates. This isn’t how the Tao acts in the world. And, this folly can’t be maintained forever. When you are stiff and inflexible, you will be broken. I would go so far as to say that it has already broken.
I said this is a matter of life and death. I didn’t intend that as hyperbole. I really believe it. We, humans, are either going to evolve, or we will become extinct. That is the choice before us. Life or death.
This is where we need to take our cue from the Master. Remember, the Master isn’t some superhuman, an impossible ideal that we couldn’t possibly ever hope to live up to. The Master can be and should be any of us. Any of us willing to evolve. To let the Tao do its thing. Without interfering. Without trying to control. Being flexible and yielding is how we evolve.
The Master can keep on giving because there is no end to her wealth. Don’t limit what Lao Tzu calls wealth to something financial. Wealth, here, is a lot more broad than that. There is no end to what the Master can give. That is why she can keep on giving. When you are going with the flow of the Tao, when you are flexible and yielding, excess and deficiency are always being adjusted. Everything is brought into balance. She acts without expectation. Expectation has to do with desiring a certain outcome. But going with the flow means letting go of all desires. She succeeds without taking credit. Of course she doesn’t take any credit. It had nothing to do with her. It is all about the Tao. That is why she doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. She isn’t. No one is better than anyone else. We are all treated equally by the Tao.
That is the kind of equality that the Tao brings about. But that kind of equality isn’t something that gives anyone power over another. Which is why those who want to have power over others are never in keeping with the Tao.