The Sea Knows Its Place; Why Don’t We?

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 61, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

For those that are interested, today’s chapter is Day Five of Lao Tzu’s manual on the art of governing. He has been instructing would-be leaders in the need to follow the Tao and center their country in the Tao. He has warned us of the perils when the will to power is in charge; and promoted the virtue of self-restraint when governing. In yesterday’s chapter the lessons were learned at a fish fry. Today, he goes back to the source of the fish, the sea.

Water is, by far, Lao Tzu’s favorite metaphor for understanding the Tao. In today’s chapter, he uses it to illustrate a country that has obtained great power. The lesson to be learned from the sea is its humility. All streams run downward to it. Thus, it has, as its place, to be beneath them. The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility. And, just in case you wondered what Lao Tzu means by humility, he tells us. Humility means trusting the Tao. And that means, never needing to be defensive.

This is one lesson that the powers that be never seem to learn. Whether we are talking of a great nation or a great leader, the metaphor is an apt one. The greater your power, the greater is your need to practice humility, to trust the Tao. There is simply no other way to exercise the virtue of self-restraint when governing. The sea knows its place. And we need to know our place, as well.

It is folly that causes great nations to forget their humble beginnings. And it is even greater folly, when they refuse to stay humble. History is replete with examples of great nations that are no more. And each example has the same common theme. They allowed the will to power to be in charge. They didn’t remain humble. Instead, full of pride they brought about their own destruction.

But today’s chapter isn’t about countries, or nations, really. It is about their leaders. Lao Tzu is on the lookout for great leaders. The kind that realize when they have made a mistake. And having realized it, set about to correct it.

These great leaders surround themselves with those that will point out their faults. They consider them, their most benevolent teachers. Leaders, such as these, look on their own shadows as marking the man or woman who is their greatest enemy.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu told would-be leaders to center their country in the Tao. I said then, that the way to center your country in the Tao is to first learn to follow the Tao, and then be content to serve as an example of that to the people you are governing. Today, he tells us what centering our country in the Tao means.

Consider this, the litmus test. A nation that is centered in the Tao nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others. It reminds me of our quest to find evil and do battle with it. We talked about that yesterday. We need leaders that will practice self-restraint. Those that will trust the Tao. Don’t be poking at that fish. Stop meddling in others’ affairs. Take care of your own people. That is what a country centered in the Tao acts like.

Why is this so hard? Why, when the great way is so easy, do we prefer the side paths? Pride is so much more to our liking than humility. The corrupting influence of power is so very tempting. So we meddle where we have no business. And our own people suffer.

It is so very different from the lowly position of the sea. And consider this, the sea will long remain after great civilizations have brought about their own demise. How sad, when those great nations could have been a light to all nations of the world.


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