When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.
There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.
Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 46, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The Contentment of Being Content
It was never my intention to make my illness an object lesson. But, an object lesson it became for me, none the less. My strength had to wane, like our Moon, until it became empty, New. Then, and only then, did my strength begin to wax, again. I am not yet reached “Full Moon” strength. But, with each passing day, I wax stronger. Thank you all for your thoughts and well wishes. I am typing this up still well in advance of its Monday morning post; by then, I plan to be back to my normal chipper self. Until then, I am still quite happy to keep returning to Red Pine’s translation, with its collection of wise commentaries from sages from the last 2,000 years, for the continued assistance.
“When the Tao is present in the world
courier horses manure fields instead of roads
when the Tao is absent from the world
war horses are raised on the border
no crime is worse than yielding to desire
no wrong is greater than discontent
no curse is crueler than getting what you want
the contentment of being content
is true contentment indeed”
Once again, I don’t want to take anything away from Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation, with its “factories making trucks and tractors” versus “warheads stockpiled outside the cities,” and its call to whoever can see through that “greatest of illusions,” fear. We will always, always, be safe, if we don’t succumb to the propaganda of fear; of which, we are constantly fed heaping portions.
But, I have long known Lao Tzu knew nothing of factories, trucks, tractors, and warheads. He did however know of horses. And he knew that whether they were bred for farm work or war, was a matter of whether the Tao was present or absent in our world. I also think Red Pine’s use of the word “border,” especially appropriate for our day.
Now, let’s check out those sages’ wisdom:
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘When the Tao is present’ means when the world’s rulers possess the Tao. In ordering their countries, they don’t use weapons, and they send courier horses back to do farm work. And in ordering themselves, they redirect their yang essence to fertilize their bodies.
YEN TSUN says, “The lives of the people depend on their ruler. And the position of the ruler depends on the people. When a ruler possesses the Tao, the people prosper. When a ruler loses the Tao, the people suffer.”
A theme which runs throughout the Tao Te Ching is Lao Tzu’s insistence that rulers are a given. I just don’t think he could imagine a world without rulers. But, he talked plenty on how these “necessary” rulers could be good, or even great, to the benefit of the people. And, he certainly tied the people’s suffering to poor governing.
WANG PI says, “When the Tao is present, contentment reigns. People don’t seek external things but cultivate themselves instead. Courier horses are sent home to manure fields. When people don’t control their desires, when they don’t cultivate themselves but seek external things instead, cavalry horses are bred on the borders.”
WU CH’ENG says, “In ancient times, every district of sixty-four neighborhoods was required to provide a horse for the army.”
CHIAO HUNG says, “A ‘border’ refers to the land between two states. When war horses are raised on the border, it means soldiers have not been home for a long time.”
I got a chuckle out of Chiao Hung feeling it necessary to explain what a border is. How quaint! But, what really struck me about the last three sages’ commentary is the similarities to today. Those of us who are non-interventionists recognize our present ruler’s focus is still on external things, when he talks of strengthening our borders to protect us from imaginary external threats. A policy that truly sought to put
America first would not be called isolationist. If we cultivated our own selves, instead of meddling in others’ affairs, we wouldn’t need to worry about our borders, and our “horses” could be put to work cultivating our own farm land.
THE YENTIEHLUN says, “It is said that long ago, before the wars with the Northern Hu and the Southern Yueh, taxes were low, and the people were well off. Their clothes were warm and their larders were stocked. Cattle and horses grazed in herds. Farmers used horses to pull plows and carts. Nobody rode them. During this period, even the swiftest horses were used to manure fields. Later, when armies arose, there were never enough horses for the cavalry, and mares were used as well. Thus, colts were born on the battlefield” (15).
We are all familiar with Randolph Bourne’s “War is the health of the State.” Its equivalent is this. “War is the impoverishment of the people.” I know this won’t be very PC to say, but I see a parallel, here, between armies having to resort to using mares, and women being used in combat. And, the high pregnancy rate among the enlisted, makes me ponder the question, “How many colts will be born on the battlefield?”
This is just a test. If I don’t get any hate for that last comparison, I will know who isn’t bothering to read my commentaries.
LI HSI-CHAI says, “When the ruler possesses the Tao, soldiers become farmers. When the ruler does not possess the Tao, farmers become soldiers. Someone who understands the Tao turns form into emptiness. Someone who does not understand the Tao turns emptiness into form. To yield to desire means to want. Not to know contentment means to grasp. To get what you want means to possess. Want gives birth to grasping, and grasping gives birth to possessing, and there is no end to possessing. But once we know that we do not need to grasp anything outside ourselves, we know contentment. And once we know contentment, there is nothing with which we are not content.”
LU HSI-SHENG says, “When the mind sees something desirable and wants it, even though it does not accord with reason – there is no worse crime. When want knows no limit, and it brings harm to others, there is no greater wrong. When every desire has to be satisfied, and the mind never stops burning, there is no crueler curse. We all have enough. When we are content with enough, we are content wherever we are.”
These two sure know how to pack a punch with their words of wisdom. But, for today, Lu Hsi-Sheng wins the prize. Look at just these four words “We all have enough.” All that remains is for us to be content with enough. This is the contentment of being content, and it is true contentment, indeed.
LU TUNG-PIN says, “To know contentment means the Tao prevails. Not to know contentment means the Tao fails. What we know comes from our minds, which Lao-tzu represents as a horse. When we know contentment, our horse stays home. When we don’t know contentment, it guards the border. When the Tao prevails, we put the whip away.”
See? I don’t think I am too far off with comparing horses with people. Lets keep our horses home, and put the whip away. (Unless that is your thing, and, then, only with consent).
Here is one final one. Then, I’ll stop before I get further behind.
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Material contentment is not contentment. Spiritual contentment is true contentment.”
Can this be settled, once, and for all time? Contentment isn’t about what material things you can accumulate, from the outside. It is about finding the treasure, you already have, on the inside.