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)
Like the Bending of a Bow
Though I used yesterday’s chapter to reevaluate how I am doing on the practice of being in harmony with the Tao (Have I become a disciple of death?), both yesterday’s and today’s chapter are really a continuation of what Lao Tzu was talking about in chapter 75, about the need for leaders who will trust us, and leave us alone. After, yesterday, contrasting the soft and supple with the hard and stiff, the yielding with the inflexible, today, Lao Tzu gives us the ultimate metaphor for how the Tao acts in our world. To be in harmony with the Tao, the very picture of flexibility, we are going to have to be soft and supple. This is something our leaders, and would-be leaders, seemingly, cannot be.
As we read through today’s chapter, remember Lao Tzu’s warning from yesterday’s chapter, “The hard and stiff will be broken. Only the soft and supple will prevail.”
Picture a bow, a mighty bow. Maybe it stretches from one end of the universe to the other. As it acts in our world, the Tao is like the bending of that bow.
We are, hopefully, all familiar with the operation of a bow. It obeys the simplest, most elementary, laws of physics. The top is bent downward; and the bottom is bent up. This, Lao Tzu tells us, is how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency in our universe, in our world. This is how it maintains perfect balance; taking from what is too much, and giving to what isn’t enough.
When you pictured that bow bending, did you also picture someone bending it? Perhaps, you did. After all, we don’t see bows bending freely, without someone actually bending them. Or do we? Perhaps there is a reason Lao Tzu mentioned plants being tender and pliant, in yesterday’s chapter. In nature, we see trees bending, with the wind, all of the time. Wind, an invisible force, which doesn’t require any of our assistance.
I say all of that to encourage you to get that image of a mighty hunter bending that bow, out of your mind. With the bending of the bow, Lao Tzu is referring to, the bow is also acted upon by an invisible force which doesn’t require any of our assistance.
All we need to be is flexible. We need to be soft and supple, yielding, as the top bends down and the bottom bends up.
But, what if the top doesn’t want to bend downward? What if the top were inflexible? What if those at the top tried to be in control, and used force to protect their power?
This is a picture of the way things are in our world, out of harmony with the Tao. The powers that be are going against the direction of the Tao. They take from those who don’t have enough, and give to those who have far too much. Before anyone starts thinking this is about class envy or class warfare, I refer you back to my commentary on chapter 75.
The ruling elite, the parasites, the leeches, want us pointing fingers at each other. But, it isn’t the vast majority of us, who are the producers of wealth, going against the direction of the Tao. The people trying to protect their power are the ones who are stiff and inflexible. They are the ones not going with the flow of the Tao. They are taking from our wealth, though we don’t have enough, and keeping it all for themselves.
If we are flexible, if we are soft and supple, yielding, there will be no end to our wealth. And, we can keep on giving and giving; not to the parasites, but to those who are disadvantaged, and less fortunate than ourselves. Excess and deficiency are adjusted. Perfect balance will be maintained. When we are flexible, we can act without expectation, succeed without taking credit, and never think we are better than anyone else.
Now, I ask you, isn’t that how you want to be?