Lessons Best Learned in Your Garden

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 76, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Lessons Best Learned in Your Garden

Last week, Lao Tzu taught on the differences in the choices we make. Some lead to life, and others lead to death. We should fear death, and choose life. But, we often don’t. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues this theme with lessons we could learn while spending time in our gardens. It is early spring in the northern hemisphere; so, I just happen to have gardening on my mind. Every year I ponder the question, when will the last frost arrive, so I can begin planting tomato and pepper plants? In his commentary on today’s chapter, Red Pine ponders the question, “How different would this world be if our leaders spent as much time in their gardens as they do in their war rooms?” Without any effort, I can easily let my imagination run wild with that. Why, the world would be transformed, all by itself. It would become a paradise. But, before I get all carried away, let’s look at Red Pine’s translation, and its ensuing commentaries. This is going to be good.

“When people are born

they are soft and weak

when they perish

they are hard and stiff

when plants shoot forth

they are supple and tender

when they die

they are withered and dry

thus it is said

the hard and stiff are followers of death

the soft and weak are followers of life

when an army becomes stiff it suffers defeat

when a plant becomes stiff it snaps

the hard and stiff dwell below

the soft and weak dwell above”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When people are born, they contain breath and spirit. This is why they are soft. When they die, their breath ceases and their spirit disappears. This is why they are hard.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Seeing that the living are soft and the dead are hard, we can infer that those whose virtue is hard and those whose actions are forceful die before their time, while those who are soft and weak are able to preserve their lives.”

LI HSI’CHAI says, “Although the soft and weak aren’t the same as the Tao, they approach its absence of effort. Hence, they aren’t far from the Tao. Although the hard and stiff aren’t outside the Tao, they involve effort. Hence, they lead people away from it.”

LIEH-TZU says, “The world has a path of perennial victory and a path of perennial defeat. The path of perennial victory is weakness. The path of perennial defeat is strength. These two are easy to recognize, but people remain oblivious to them” (Liehtzu: 2.17).

LAO-TZU says, “The weak conquer the strong” (Taoteching: 36).

WANG CHEN says, “It isn’t hard for an army to achieve victory. But it is hard to hold on to victory. There is no great army that has not brought on its own defeat through its victories.”

HSI T’UNG says, “When a plant becomes stiff, it loses its flexibility and becomes easy to break.”

WANG P’ANG says, “In terms of yin and yang, yin comes before and yang comes after. In terms of Heaven and Earth, Heaven is exalted and Earth is humble. In terms of Virtue, the soft and weak overcome the hard and stiff. But in terms of material things, the hard and stiff control the soft and weak. The people of this world only see things. They don’t understand Virtue.”

SU CH’E says, “As long as it contains empty breath, the body does not suffer from rigidity. As long as they reflect perfect reason, actions are not burdened by severity. According to the unchanging principle of things, the refined rises to the top, while the coarse sinks to the bottom. The refined is soft and weak, while the coarse is hard and stiff.”

LI JUNG says, “The living belong above. The dead belong below.”

My friends, Lao Tzu is setting before us a choice between life and death. Choose life! And, happy gardening!

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