The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.
Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn’t let a thing slip through.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 73, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Dare Not to Act
The Tao is always at ease. But, how does that translate into being at ease in our own lives? Is it something we can only attain after years of hard work, and wise investing? Is there some formula which always guarantees success? Or, does it happen only by chance, or to a lucky few, those on whom fortune smiles kindly. To answer these questions, I turned to Red Pine’s translation of today’s chapter. And, when I got to the commentaries, included with the translation, I ran up against centuries of ancient Chinese mysticism. Will fortune smile on me today? A much better question might be, why do we need to fall back on mystical elements to try and explain the mystery?
“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path’” (Chungyung: 9).
SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”
There it is. What I feared has come upon me. “What happens in the world depends on fortune”? Before I say anything about this one sentence in Su Ch’e’s commentary, I just want to say, that save for that one line, I think Su Ch’e is spot on. Sometimes bad things do happen to people who “deserve” much better. And sometimes fortune does seem to smile on those who we might judge unworthy of their good fortune.
But, is that really what is happening? Is life really a crap shoot?
I am not a religious Taoist. I am a philosophical Taoist. And, by that I mean, I don’t subscribe to luck, or fortune, or praying to my ancestors. I see that as looking outside my own self for answers. And, I don’t see the need. I don’t think that is the heart of Lao Tzu’s teachings.
The heart of Lao Tzu’s teachings is in naming the laws which govern our Universe an impersonal, impartial Tao. The Tao doesn’t take sides. It gives birth to both good and evil. Yet, it isn’t a crap shoot, whether you are going to be visited by good or evil in your life. But, the eternal reality is that we can’t know it. So, why try to explain it? Just be.
I do like what Su Ch’e says, otherwise. “The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?” I would only ask that we not attribute it to fortune. The Tao isn’t capricious. The way things are are simply the way things are.
I don’t know, maybe I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, here. The rest of the commentators explain it much better than I can, anyway.
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanism whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathom. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”
YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the hard and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”
WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”
WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”
LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”
The answer, my friends, is in daring not to act. That is why I dare you not to act. Let the Tao be at ease in your own life. And, you will be at ease in your own life, too.