The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 38, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking about how our desires are a problem for us. I recently watched the movie “The Giver” based on the book of the same name, by Lois Lowry. I had read the book some years ago when my own children were in middle school, and loved it. And I enjoyed the movie, too. And it got me thinking about how the community of sameness dealt with the problem of our desires. I am assuming that a lot of you read the book back when you were in middle school. But I apologize if I am spoiling it for those who somehow never read the book, and haven’t seen the movie, either. I do encourage you to do both of those things. If you haven’t yet, and spoilers are something that bother you, I apologize, because today’s chapter is full of spoilers.
In the community of sameness, set in some distant future, the elders have designed a community where there are no desires. It ends up being a bland, black and white world. There is no color. No variation in the climate or the terrain. There are no differences, only sameness. Everybody basically looks the same. Everybody basically acts the same. Sameness is celebrated, and anything that sets any one individual apart from the rest of the community, is not allowed. The elders in the community, understand that the only way to eliminate any possibility of all the negative desires is to eliminate any possibility that there be positive desires. There is no suffering, but there is also no joy. There is no hatred. But there is also no love. Freedom, choice, are no more. Because people free to make their own choices, often choose badly.
This community intrigues me because this is what powerful men and women might like to do in order to rid the world of pain and suffering. It is enticing. A community set up on the best of intentions. It is a utopia. At least to those who don’t know any better. If you have never experienced anything else, what’s not to like? There is no war. There is no poverty. There is no hunger. And, what’s more, all memories of what life used to be like, with its wars and poverty and hunger have been erased. That, along with any memories of what it is to experience joy, and love. So, no one, in fact knows what they are missing out on. Is this what Lao Tzu has been getting at, with all his talk about powerful men and women being centered in the Tao, and the world becoming a paradise?
The story would be pretty boring, if not for one very important addition to the community. There is one individual in the community that is burdened with all the memories. That individual is the receiver of memories. This person, alone, bears the burden of all the horrors of their previous experiences; but also, all the joy and the love. The question is, why should this burden be only on one? Besides the obvious sparing of everyone else, this person counsels the elders, so they will never repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.
The problem arises when the current receiver of memories, having advanced to a ripe, old age must now transfer those collective memories to a new, younger receiver of memories. The old receiver now becomes the giver. What happens when the new, younger receiver gets a taste of not only all the bad, but all the good? Suddenly, becoming aware for the first time, that there is something before and beyond the illusion that has been put in place of reality, how will he or she respond? I have spoiled the book and the movie enough. So, I won’t answer that question and spoil it further, for those that ignored my spoiler alert.
The answer to the question on whether this is what Lao Tzu was getting at when he talked about powerful men and women being centered in the Tao, and the world being transformed into a paradise, is no, absolutely not. He isn’t envisioning a utopia where there are no desires. It isn’t all desires that must be eliminated, it is the desire to interfere with the Tao, that we have to be on guard against.
That is the desire that we want none of, in order to know peace. If powerful men and women didn’t have that desire, then the world would be transformed. But, alas, just like the rest of us, they do have that desire. The community of sameness isn’t a utopia because it is centered in the Tao. The Tao embraces our differences; good and bad arise from the same source. And that source is neither good, nor bad.
I said all that, to say this. If we want to be truly powerful, we won’t try to be powerful. Trying to be powerful, the will to power, is the desire to interfere with the Tao. The Master, one who is centered in the Tao, doesn’t try to be powerful because he doesn’t desire to interfere with the Tao. Unfortunately, all our powerful men and women are nothing but ordinary men and women, those who keep reaching for power and never have enough. Their desire to interfere is unquenchable. Oh, they have good intentions, just like the elders in the community of sameness had good intentions. But the will to power will always be their undoing.
The will to power will always drive ordinary men and women to do something. Something must be done. And they, because they aspire to be more and more powerful, are just the ones to be doing it. They are always doing things. See just how committed to it they are? Yet, many more things are left to be done. That is okay, they will say, just give us more time, and more power.
Meanwhile, the Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. How very different! That is the example we should be following. But ordinary men and women, always desiring more and more power, will never stoop to the Master’s level.
There are many more ordinary men and women, than there are masters. Many of them are kind and just and moral. These aren’t necessarily bad people. Remember, they may have the best of intentions. But the results are always the same. It doesn’t matter how kind or just or moral you are. If the will to power is what drives you, you will never be satisfied.
No matter how much they do, something will always remain undone. Sometimes many things. The will to power is insidious. When people don’t respond, like the people in power want them to, they will roll up their sleeves and begin to use force.
People sometimes make bad choices. Well, something must be done about that. We need to force people to do the right things.
There is a downward spiral that takes place in our world when the Tao is lost, when people aren’t centered in the Tao. At first, we try to substitute goodness, in place of the lost Tao. Do good, because it is the kind thing to do, or it is the just thing to do. But what happens when people, who aren’t centered in the Tao, continue to make bad choices. When goodness is lost, we substitute morality. We will force people to do good, because it is the moral thing, the right thing to do. But what happens when morality is lost? Perhaps you see a world full of immorality, but immorality isn’t the absence of morality. Amoral is probably a better description. That is when the will to power will substitute ritual. Don’t do good because it is good to do good. Don’t do good because it is kind or just to do good. And don’t do good out of some sense of duty. That has all been lost. Now all we have is ritual. Do good, because that is just the way we do things. But that is just the husk of true faith. The Tao has been lost, and all we have left is the husk. People will still sometimes make bad choices. Their connection with the Tao has been lost. Goodness, kindness, justice, morality, none of these motivate them. And ritual is an empty shell. There is nothing there to motivate people to do good. That, Lao Tzu says, is the beginning of chaos.
An empty shell is all that remains. That is what happens when we leave reality behind and dwell in the illusion. The illusion that people can do good out of goodness, or because of kindness, or out of a sense of justice, or because it is the right thing to do. Goodness, kindness, justice, morality – these are all just illusions. Why must it take things devolving until only the empty shell of ritual remains for people to see the illusion for what it is?
Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface, with the fruit and not the flower. And we are going to have to follow his example. Too long have we been concerned with the surface and the flower, while failing to perceive the depths and the fruit. If we are going to dwell in reality, we must let all illusions go. And that means the will to power must be let go, as well. The Master has no will of his own. He knew, all along, what that will would do to him.