Pick This Over That

When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend upon authority.

Therefore the Master steps back
so that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without teaching,
so that people will have nothing to learn.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 72, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Pick This Over That

Yesterday, I started off a new week by admitting I don’t know. I would go so far as to suggest that when compared to vast oceans of knowledge, my own knowledge is but a thimble full. And, that might be exaggerating things a bit upward. Now, when I consider how little I know, what that produces in me, I think, is a healthy sense of awe. That is, awe, in the classical sense of the word; in other words, fear. This isn’t the kind of fear which Lao Tzu characterized in chapter 13 as a phantom, which only arises because I am thinking of the self as self. And, it isn’t a fear which has me afraid of trusting myself, either.

That might be surprising. After all, if you know you don’t know, how can you trust yourself? You could be wrong, right? But, that would be falling into the trap of thinking of the self as self, again; and, then fear would only be a phantom.

No, my fear isn’t in my own limitations. My awareness of my own limitations keeps me humble. And, being humble, I don’t reach for the great. And thus, I can trust myself to succeed at whatever little thing I set out to do.

How much better that is, than to “turn to religion” which is another way of saying “depend on some outside authority.”

I don’t mean to offend my religious friends and family. I only mean to say our reliance on the State is like a religion. It is faith-based, and given the evidence, without reason.

I am digging myself a hole, and I may never be able to extricate myself. Time to put down the shovel, and take a few steps back, so people won’t be confused.

I need to go back to talking about fear, again. If I am not afraid of myself, what am I afraid of?

What I fear is authority. Particularly the external kind. And, to better explain Lao Tzu’s teaching, I am going to stop teaching, and turn to Red Pine’s translation, with its ensuing commentaries. The thimbles of these sages are much bigger than mine.

“When people no longer fear authority

a greater authority will appear

don’t restrict where people dwell

don’t repress how people live

if they aren’t repressed

they won’t protest

sages therefore know themselves

they love themselves

but don’t exalt themselves

thus they pick this over that”

WU CH’ENG says, “The authority we fear is what shortens years and takes lives. The ‘greater authority’ is our greater fear, namely death. When people no longer fear what they ought to fear, they advance their own death until the greater fear finally appears.”

WANG P’ANG says, “When people are simple and their lives are good, they fear authority. But when those above lose the Way and enact all sorts of measures to restrict the livelihood of those below, people respond with deceit and are no longer subdued by authority. When this happens, natural calamities occur and misfortunes arise.”

WANG CHEN says, “When ordinary officials and the common people have no fear, punishment occurs. When ministers and high officials have no fear, banishment occurs. When princes and kings have no fear, warfare occurs.”

WEI YUAN says, “‘Where people dwell’ refers to conditions such as wealth and poverty. ‘How people live’ refers to physical activities, such as toil and rest. When people think that their dwellings or lives are not as good as others’, they feel embarrassed and thus restricted, restricted and thus repressed. And when they feel repressed, they protest against ‘this’ and seek ‘that,’ not knowing that once their desire is fulfilled, what they fear comes close behind.”

WANG PI says, “In tranquility and peace is where we should dwell. Humble and empty is how we should live. But when we forsake tranquility to pursue desires and abandon humility for authority, creatures are disturbed, and people are distressed. When authority cannot restore order, and people cannot endure authority, the link between those above and those below is severed, and natural calamities occur.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “They know what they have and what they don’t have. They don’t display their virtue outside but keep it hidden inside. They love their body and protect their essence and breath. They don’t exalt or glorify themselves before the world. ‘That’ refers to showing and glorifying themselves. ‘This’ refers to knowing and loving themselves.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “‘That’ refers to external things. ‘This’ refers to one’s inner reality.”

And, finally, RED PINE adds, “Authority refers to a power outside us. Sages aren’t concerned with acquiring or exercising such a power. The power of sages arises naturally from the cultivation of themselves.”

I am not going to pick up that shovel and start digging again. Instead, I am going to leave you alone with that wisdom, in the hope you will pick this over that.

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