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)
The last two chapters couldn’t have seemed to be more dissimilar from each other. As you will remember, I said of the chapter two days ago, it is my all-time favorite, with its telling would-be leaders, if you want to act for the people’s benefit, trust them; and leave them alone. It is a message Lao Tzu has repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching; but, it seemed out of place, sandwiched between two chapters, the first of which talked about realizing all things change and stop trying to control the future, and yesterday’s chapter talking about the importance of being soft and supple, flexible, in order to prevail in life. But, never doubt Lao Tzu’s method. He always manages to tie it all together; and today’s chapter, one I will insist is arguably the single most important chapter in all the Tao Te Ching, is where he shows they all fit together.
Why do I think it is the most important? It is because, here, Lao Tzu, in no uncertain terms, makes clear how the Tao acts in our world, in our universe.
He begins with a metaphor, a bow. How does the Tao act in our world, it is like the bending of a bow. That flexibility, Lao Tzu was talking about yesterday, is a characteristic of the Tao. Everyone can picture it easily. The top is bent downward; the bottom is bent up. You can’t have one without the other. The top bends down and the bottom bends up.
This is how Lao Tzu illustrates the way the Tao acts in our world, how it adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. Picture it, as you picture that bow. It takes from WHAT is too much and gives to WHAT isn’t enough.
I hope you noticed I highlighted the what’s in that sentence. It is so very important. It is impersonal. It isn’t about who, it is about what. Where there is excess, that is, too much, the Tao takes. And, then simultaneously gives that to what isn’t enough, where there is deficiency.
Yes, that is describing redistribution. And I already know there are going to be people who have a problem with redistribution; but, bear with me on this. Give Lao Tzu a chance. Keep in mind, this redistribution is not something which is forced. And don’t make this personal; it isn’t. The Tao is only doing what the Tao does. This is the way things are. We are talking natural laws at work. And, if I wanted to take the time, I could probably come up with many examples of this very balancing in nature. I recommend using your own imagination.
Just this first stanza of the chapter would have been awesome, even if Lao Tzu had chosen to stop right there. But, of course, he couldn’t. Because there are always going to be those who are stiff and inflexible, who won’t accept that all things change, who want to try to control the future. So, we have the second stanza.
Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. What is the direction of the Tao? Taking from what is too much and giving to what isn’t enough. But when the will to power is in charge, well, the direction of the Tao just won’t do.
This opposition to the way things are in our Universe, is manifest in two different ways; but, the results are the same. In both cases, they make it personal, where it was impersonal, the what’s become who’s. They take from those WHO don’t have enough and give to those WHO have far too much.
Remember, the Tao didn’t make it personal. The Tao isn’t the one deciding that anyone has far too much. As we have talked about in earlier chapters, the Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. It is the bad man’s refuge and the good man’s treasure. All the Tao does is adjust excess and deficiency to achieve balance. And it does this without making it personal.
But, when the will to power is in charge, it gets very personal. The Tao’s actions are seen as a threat to their power. I said the opposition to the Tao is manifest in two different ways, but, keep in mind, in both cases, the whole point is to protect their power. The first way would be from those who try to forcibly bend the bow in opposition to the Tao’s bending of the bow. They will try to bend the top of the bow upward and the bottom downward. We all know the word which is used to describe these people. They are evil. I won’t argue that point with you. Although, I think Lao Tzu might have a problem with that designation. Still, one thing is clear, their goal is to maintain the status quo, so there will always be excess and deficiency.
But that is only one way the powers-that-be go against the direction of the Tao. There is another one, and while we might not call it evil, it is just as insidious, because of all its subtlety. There will be those who will pay lip service to adjusting excess and deficiency. Their problem with the Tao is that it doesn’t work fast enough. They only want to help. Redistribution must be mandated. It must be forced. And, it will get personal. None dare call these “angels” evil, for they have only the best of intentions, just ask them and they will tell you. It should be unnecessary for me to say, but I am compelled to say it anyway, the Tao doesn’t need your help. Going with the flow is not trying to make it flow faster. The worst evil is perpetrated by those who do it for our benefit.
There are too many hands on that bow. And all of them pulling in opposite directions. But interestingly enough, in that first stanza, Lao Tzu never mentioned any hand pulling on that bow. If there is a hand, it is invisible. And don’t try to tell me you are only jumping in to thwart those who are going against the direction of the Tao. Stop it! It doesn’t need your help, no matter how good your intentions.
So, what can we do? How I wish you would be content with doing nothing. But, here, Lao Tzu does come to our aid, with the example of the Master. She just keeps on giving, because there is no end to her wealth. Keep on giving! That is one thing you can do. You want to help? Where you see someone in need, give out of your own abundance. Voluntarily! Don’t petition the government to take care of it. You be the good person. “But the need is too great for me to do it all by myself. That is why we need to force people to do the right thing.” Have you not been paying attention? There is no end to the wealth of the ones who give.
Be like the Master! Give and give and give and give. Act without expecting anything. Succeed without taking any credit. And, don’t think you are better than anyone else.