In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, Lao Tzu began what I could easily call an anti-knowledge rant. I thought his reasoning for it was valid. I just know that it flies in the face of a lot of conventional thinking. Yesterday, he was stressing that understanding was much more important than gaining new knowledge. Today, he continues on from there.
If you are pursuing knowledge, every day you will have to add something to your knowledge. There is no such thing as a complete amount of knowledge. There is always something more to learn. But that isn’t how to practice Taoism.
It is like reaching a fork in the road. If you continue in your pursuit of knowledge, you have to go down one path; and if you want to practice the Tao, you will need to go down a different path. This different path is what interests me. Perhaps for the same reason that I used to like Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
Instead of having to add something every day, in the pursuit of knowledge; I choose this path where every day something is dropped. Will it make all the difference? And what are we dropping along the way?
I like that word “dropping” because it speaks to me of letting go of things. We drop things all the time. Usually, we rush to pick them back up. We never intended to let go of that thing. But this letting go of things is a deliberate act. You drop it, and you continue on your way. Never looking back.
To what end? Well, that would depend on what you are letting go. Lao Tzu is speaking of the practice of the Tao; and what he wants us to drop is our need to force things. The more we drop, the less we need to force. Until, (yes, there is an end) we arrive at non-action.
See? He isn’t just anti-knowledge. He is anti-doing anything at all! But if I leave it at that, I think I am really misrepresenting what Lao Tzu is trying to say.
So, let’s hold up for just a moment and review what exactly Lao Tzu means by non-action. Back in chapter 43, I talked a bit about Wu-wei, the principle of non-action which is fundamental to Taoism. We were talking about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri; with a militarized police feeling compelled to use force to calm protestors and restore order for the State. Lao Tzu is wanting us to let go of our need to use force each and every day; until there is no longer a need to use force.
This is the end we are journeying toward. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. Letting go of our need to interfere, apply force, means letting the Tao do its thing in the Universe, letting things go their own way. This is the path to true mastery in the practice of the Tao.