The Virtue in Being Heartless

“Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
sages are heartless too
they treat people like straw dogs
between Heaven and Earth
how like a bellows
empty but inexhaustible
each stroke produces more
talking only wastes it
better to protect what’s inside”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 5, translation by Red Pine)

HU SHIH says, “Lao-tzu’s statement that Heaven and Earth are heartless undercuts the ancient belief that Heaven and Humankind were of the same lineage and thereby created the basis for natural philosophy.”

SU CH’E says, “Heaven and Earth aren’t partial. They don’t kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them. This is how sages treat the people.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “When we make straw dogs or clay dragons, we paint them yellow and blue, decorate them with brocade, and tie red ribbons around them. The shaman puts on his black robe, and the lord puts on his ceremonial hat to usher them in and to see them off. But once they’ve been used, they’re nothing but clay and straw.” A similar description appears in Chuangtzu: 14.4.

WU CH’ENG says, “Straw dogs were used in praying for rain, and these particular bellows were used in metallurgy.”

WANG P’ANG says, “A bellows is empty so that it can respond. Something moves, and it responds. It responds but retains nothing. Like Heaven and Earth in regard to the ten thousand things or sages in regard to the people, it responds with what fits. It isn’t tied to the present or attached to the past.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao has no substance or dimension, yet it works the breath of emptiness between Heaven and Earth and gives birth to the ten thousand things.”

WANG TAO says, “The Tao cannot be talked about, yet we dismiss it as heartless. It cannot be named, yet we liken it to a bellows. Those who understand get the meaning and forget the words. Those who don’t understand fail to see the truth and chatter away in vain.”

HSIN TU-TZU says, “When the main path has many side trails, sheep lose their way. When learning leads in many directions, students waste their lives in study” (Lietzu: 8.25).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Whenever the mouth opens and the tongue moves, disaster is close behind. Better to guard your inner virtue, nurture your vital essence, protect your spirit, treasure your breath, and avoid talking too much.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “If our mouth doesn’t talk too much, our spirit stays in our heart. If our ears don’t hear too much, our essence stays in our genitals. In the course of time, essence becomes breath, breath becomes spirit, and spirit returns to emptiness.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Cultivating the heartless center between Heaven and Earth, sages delight in the endless creation of something out of nothing without becoming attached to anything. The Chinese phrase pu-jen (no heart) not only means ‘unkind’ but also refers to any fruit that has no seed or kernel in its center. The straw dogs used in ceremonies in ancient China were much like Christmas trees in the West – used for a day, a week, a month, but not for long.”

Today’s verse is brutal, calling the Tao heartless, and treating our fellow human beings as straw dogs. But, if you want to understand, you will, forgetting about the words. If you practice impartiality perfectly, you will be called “heartless.” People won’t understand you. They won’t understand why you won’t intervene, why you won’t do something, about their particular problem. But, like a straw dog, or a Christmas tree, you know whatever has them all worked up will only be for a time; and then, it will return to nothing. To neither love, nor hate, to be perfectly impartial – I am a long way from this. But, I can see the virtue in it. Like a bellows, it is empty. It breathes in, and breathes out. That is all it does.

Red Pine introduces these additional sages today:

HU SHIH (1891-1962). Student of John Dewey and leader of China’s New Culture movement that helped establish vernacular Chinese as a legitimate form of literary expression.

HUAI-NAN-TZU (D. 122 B.C.), A.K.A. LIU AN. He was the grandson of Liu Pang, the first Han emperor. He was a devoted Taoist, although his search for the elixir of immortality was prematurely interrupted when he was accused of plotting to seize the throne and was forced to commit suicide. The book named after him is a collection of treatises on mostly Taoist themes written by a group of scholars at his court.

WANG TAO (1476-1532). Incorporates Confucian interpretations in his commentary.

HSIN TU-TZU – Interlocutor in Liehtzu: 8.25.

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