True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.
True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 45, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Transcending the Mundane
At least one positive thing has come from my forced weakness, my bout with the flu. And, that has been coming to an even greater appreciation for Red Pine’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Thanks, once again, westdesertsage for recommending it to me. Red Pine’s translation is excellent, but more importantly to me, presently, has been the wisdom of the sages collected and included with each chapter. My affliction hasn’t just weakened me physically, I needed their help collecting my own thoughts, as well, for the last several days.
So, once again, I turn to Red Pine’s translation of today’s chapter.
“Perfectly complete it seems deficient
yet it never wears out
perfectly full it seems empty
yet it never runs dry
perfectly straight it seems crooked
perfectly clever it seems clumsy
perfectly abundant it seems impoverished
active it overcomes cold
still it overcomes heat
those who know how to be perfectly still
are able to govern the world”
WU CH’ENG says, “To treat the complete as complete, the full as full, the straight as straight, and the clever as clever is mundane. To treat what seems deficient as complete, what seems empty as full, what seems crooked as straight, and what seems clumsy as clever, this is transcendent. This is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book; opposites complement each other.”
Thank you, Wu Ch’eng, wherever you are. You gave me the inspiration for the title for my “commentary” today. It reminds me of something Lao Tzu said in another place (and I am paraphrasing), “True goodness isn’t being good just to the good, but to the not so good, also. True trust isn’t trusting just the trustworthy, but those who can’t be trusted, as well.” The point is, it takes a special virtue to treat the deficient, the empty, the crooked, and the clumsy, as perfectly complete, full, straight, and clever. It truly is a virtue that transcends the mundane.
LI NUNG-SHIH says, “What is most complete cannot be seen in its entirety, hence it seems deficient. What is fullest cannot be seen in its totality, hence it seems empty. What is straightest cannot be seen in its perfection, hence it seems crooked. What is cleverest cannot be seen in its brilliance, hence it seems clumsy.”
Which is why, of course, it is best to stop and take a step back from time to time, to look at things from different perspectives. Are we really seeing the whole picture? I have learned to always err on the side of caution, here. The answer to the question, “Are we really seeing the whole picture,” then, is “No, probably not.”
SU CH’E says, “The world considers what is not deficient as complete, hence complete includes worn out. It considers what is not empty as full, hence full includes exhausted. The wise, however, do not mind if what is most complete is deficient or what is fullest is empty. For what is most complete never wears out, and what is fullest never runs dry.”
We keep coming back to this same theme. The way “the mass of men” may judge a thing, does not make it so. As Thoreau so aptly pointed out, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Is that really how we want to lead our lives?
HAN FEI says, “Ordinary people employ their spirit in activity. But activity means extravagance, and extravagance means wastefulness. Those who are wise employ their spirit in stillness. Stillness means moderation, and moderation mean frugality.”
Now, we are really starting to get somewhere; toward that perfect stillness Red Pine refers to in today’s chapter.
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We keep warm in winter by moving around. But sooner or later, we stop moving and become cold again. We keep cool in summer by sitting still. But sooner or later, we stop sitting still and become hot again. This is not the way of long life. This is how what is complete becomes deficient, what is full becomes empty, what is straight becomes crooked, and what is clever becomes clumsy. Those who seek balance should look for it in perfect stillness. Perfect stillness is the essence of the Tao. Those who achieve such balance are free from hot and cold.”
I just knew that Goldilocks was on to something in the cottage of the three bears. Perfect stillness, neither hot nor cold; it’s just right.
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Activity overcomes cold but cannot overcome heat. Stillness overcomes heat but cannot overcome cold. Perfect stillness or effortlessness doesn’t try to overcome anything, yet nothing in the world can overcome it. Thus is it said that perfect stillness can govern the world.”
Bingo! Don’t try to overcome anything, and nothing will be able to overcome you. I would only add, the reason it is said that perfect stillness can govern the world is because perfect stillness, in reality, does govern the world.
I could stop right there. But, Red Pine adds one more sage’s wise words. Perhaps you have heard of him.
CONFUCIUS says, “Those who govern with virtue are like the North Star, which remains in its place, while the myriad stars revolve around it.”
Props to Confucius. He got it. If we want to govern well, we need to know our place, and remain in it.