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)
Today, we, once again, return to the importance of doing nothing. It is a central tenet of philosophical Taoism, and probably, the most misunderstood. The practice of doing nothing doesn’t mean nothing gets done. In fact, all things get done. Remember what Lao Tzu has said before about this. “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done.” The key to understanding this is that “through it”. Lao Tzu has said before that the Tao gives birth to infinite worlds, yet it doesn’t create them. It acts without acting. It does without doing. This is effortless action. It simply goes with the flow.
Our problem with all our doing is we try too hard. But, we need to be soft, not hard.
I gave our powerful men and women a hard time yesterday. But, actually I went soft on them. Today, Lao Tzu contrasts them, with those who are wise and virtuous, masters at centering themselves in the Tao.
The truly powerful don’t try to be powerful. Those who keep reaching for power, never have enough. Stephen Mitchell’s translation calls that being ordinary. We don’t want to be merely ordinary, do we? Always reaching for more and more power, and never having enough? It takes an extraordinary person to realize the power inherent in the practice of doing without doing, or doing nothing.
If you are wise and virtuous you will do nothing; yet, you will leave nothing undone. I know just how impossible this seems to those who are merely ordinary. I, too, have been merely ordinary. Always doing things; yet, leaving many more not done. How are things going to get done, if I do nothing? The desire to do something compels us to do something. And, there is always more to be done. But, when you go with the flow of the Tao, rather than trying to rush ahead of it, or swim against that current, all things are done effortlessly. I do wish I could explain it better, I just think it is something you have to experience for yourself. Then, you will understand. It takes practice to let things happen. But, trying to practice it, doesn’t work, either. I know, I tried that, too. It takes humility. And humility isn’t something you can force on yourself, either. But, when you are humble, you won’t try to force issues, you won’t try to control things. When you don’t think more highly of yourself than you should, you won’t be so keen to intervene and interfere.
What worked for me was checking my motives at the door. What is it that compels you to intervene, to interfere, to try to control, to want to force issues? Once I started identifying my desires as the root of my problem, I found it a whole lot easier to let go of those desires.
Lao Tzu lists some motives, some desires, which cause us to want to do something.
Kindness is a motive, a desire. What, you thought these desires were going to be evil? No, these desires come dressed in the best of intentions. The kind person does something, because they are kind. Yet, something remains undone.
Was it because they weren’t kind enough? What if I told you that you can’t be kind enough to overcome this problem of desire? Desire clouds your inner vision. You can’t perceive the Tao, or its movement, its flow.
Justice is also a motive, a desire. And, who isn’t crying out for justice? Seems to me like everywhere I turn, someone is being wronged, and now demanding justice. So, the just person comes along, answering the call for justice, and because they are just they do something. Yet, many more things are left undone. There will always be plenty more to do, when you let desires, motives, move you to act.
Does it seem like Lao Tzu is telling us to not be kind and just? Good. I don’t think you are too far from the mark. Why? Because being kind, or being just, is a pretty poor substitute for going with the flow of the Tao. Just how poor is revealed by the last motive, or desire.
That would be morality. Morality, as we have talked about before, is a system set up because we have forgotten about the Tao. It is a crutch we need to throw away. Come to think of it, he actually said the same about kindness and justice. But, why? Why? Because when the moral person does something, and no one responds, they will roll up their sleeves and use force. That is how ugly it gets, and fast.
The Tao has been lost or forgotten. And a downward spiral into chaos is the result. First, there is goodness. We still have this innate idea, call it a memory of what we once had, and we know what goodness is. But, when goodness is lost, as it will be, being only the residual leftovers of the forgotten Tao, morality steps up. We may no longer know, innately, what it means to be good. But there is always some outside authority to force us. Morality, too, after a time is lost. And then all we have left is ritual. Why do we do the things we do? Nobody remembers. It is just the way we have always done them. But why do we still do them? It is nothing but a husk. Nothing close to true faith. The beginning of chaos.
Friends, it is time to throw away the husk. It was only fit for the dung pile, after all. It is time to remember the Tao. This is why wise and virtuous persons concern themselves with the depths, and not the surface, with the fruit, and not the flower. They let go of all illusions, and dwell in reality. They have no will of their own.