If Only I Had Valued Emptiness or, I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

If Only I Had Valued Emptiness or, I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

I have really struggled with coming up with my commentary for today’s chapter. At first, I thought it was because I have cycled through these chapters something close to 18 times previously, and I am feeling kind of in a funk wondering, what more can I say about this? That was before my son and I went out to eat at a local Mexican restaurant, and I had way too much to eat, apparently not knowing when to stop to avoid the danger which would ensue. That danger being, that hours later, I am still feeling bloated. What was I thinking? Lao Tzu teaches so plainly on the virtue of emptiness. And, here I am standing at my computer typing, while being quite full.

Having complained enough about my present difficulties, I do want to say I am quite indebted to both Robert Brookes, for his excellent interpretation of today’s chapter, and the commentaries included with Red Pine’s translation.

Robert Brookes has a bit of a different take on today’s chapter, from that of Stephen Mitchell. Let’s take a look at his interpretation:

“The world calls my teaching great, and like nothing else.

Because it is great it seems useless.

If it seemed useful, how long ago would it have disappeared!

I have three treasures, guard and preserve them:

The first is compassion.

The second is moderation.

The third is humility.

The compassionate have the power to be brave,

the frugal can afford to be generous.

One who does not dare to be first can therefore succeed and endure.

If you renounce compassion but try to be brave;

if you forsake frugality but try to be generous;

if you discard humility but try to lead –

things are sure to end in failure.

Mercy in battle brings victory.

Compassion in defense brings invulnerability.

As this is in accord with nature, nature is the protector.”

Perhaps you can identify with the actual “funk” I find myself in. Have you ever thought to yourself, “These people wouldn’t understand greatness, if it hit them over the head with a two by four”?

No, I am not advocating committing an act of violence. Whenever these thoughts start swirling around in your head, I recommend taking a step back. And, taking a deep breath. Or ten.

Still, can we all agree that the world can’t have a proper appreciation for Lao Tzu’s teachings? They think it’s great, but useless. The problem according to Su Ch’e, “The world honors daring, exalts ostentation, and emphasizes progress.” Let that sink in.

To the world, that is what it means to be great. But, Lao Tzu’s “greatness” is nothing like this. Once again, let me quote Su Ch’e. “What the sage treasures is patience, frugality, and humility, all of which the world considers useless.”

Three teachings. Three treasures. Stephen Mitchell’s says they are simplicity, patience, and compassion. Robert Brookes’ calls them compassion, moderation, and humility. And Red Pine’s says they are compassion, austerity, and reluctance to excel. Different ways of saying the same thing.

As Robert Brookes says, if we practiced being compassionate, we would have the power to be brave. If we practiced being frugal, we could afford to be generous. If we practiced humility, not daring to be before or above others, everything we did would succeed and endure. But, because we renounce compassion, while trying to be brave; because we forsake frugality, while trying to be generous; because we discard humility, while trying to lead – all of these things are sure to end in failure.

What motivates me to put down that two by four, before busting someone up the side of their head, is knowing mercy is what will bring me victory; for, compassion makes me invulnerable. As I act in accord with nature, nature is in accord with me.

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