How We Can Avoid Disaster

“Favor and disgrace come with a warning
honor and disaster come with a body
why do favor and disgrace come with a warning
favor turns into disfavor
gaining it comes with a warning
losing it comes with a warning
thus do favor and disgrace come with a warning
and why do honor and disaster come with a body
the reason we have disaster
is because we have a body
if we didn’t have a body
we wouldn’t have disaster
thus those who honor their body more than the world
can be entrusted with the world
those who cherish their body more than the world
can be encharged with the world”

(Taoteching, verse 13, translation by Red Pine)

WANG CHEN says, “People who are favored are honored. And because they are honored, they act proud. And because they act proud, they are hated. And because they are hated, they are disgraced. Hence, sages consider success as well as failure to be a warning.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages worried about favor as much as disgrace, because they knew that favor is followd by disgrace. Other people think favor means to ascend and disgrace means to descend. But favor cannot be separated from disgrace. Disgrace results from favor.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who gain favor or honor should worry about being to high, as if they were at the edge of a precipice. They should not flaunt their status or wealth. And those who lose favor and live in disgrace should worry more about disaster.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Why does favor become disgrace and honor become disaster? Favor and honor are external things. They don’t belong to us. When we try to possess them, they turn into disgrace and disaster.”

SSU-MA KUANG says, “Normally a body means disaster. But if we honor and cherish it and follow the natural order in our dealings with others, and we don’t indulge our desires, we can avoid disaster.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “We all possess something good and noble that don’t have to seek outside ourselves, something that the glory of power or position cannot compare with. People need only start with this and cultivate this without letting up. The ancients said, ‘Two or three years of hardship, ten thousand years of bliss.’”

WANG P’ANG says, “It isn’t a matter of having no body but of guarding the source of life. Only those who refuse to trade themselves for something external are fit to receive the kingdom.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are affected by favor and disgrace or honor and disaster are not fit to receive the kingdom.”

TSENG-TZU says, “The superior person can be entrusted with an orphan or encharged with a state and be unmoved by a crisis” (Lunyu: 8.6).

I will admit to being a bit taken aback; indeed, I had to reread it again a couple more times, because I thought I was misreading it, when I got to those last four lines of today’s verse. Honor their body more than the world? Cherish their body more than the world? I was remembering Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of this verse, and it was very different. Red Pine explains that some versions indeed interpret the text “more than the world” as “as the world.” That certainly explains Stephen Mitchell’s take, but which one is more correct?

Red Pine notes that these same four lines are found in Chuangtzu: 11.2, where they are used to praise the ruler whose self-cultivation doesn’t leave him time to meddle in the lives of his subjects. And, they also appear in Huainantzu: 12, where they are used to praise the ruler who values the lives of his people more than the territory in which they live.

As some of the sages said in their commentaries, today, the injunction is to value the inner life over the external. Cultivate your own body. The world can take care of itself, without our meddling, if we will concentrate on taking care of our own selves.

Red Pine introduces the following additional sages, today:

SSU-MA KUANG (1019-1086). One of the most famous writers and political figures of the Sung dynasty and adversary of Wang An-shih. His multivolume history of China remains one of the most thorough treatments of China’s past up through the T’ang dynasty. His commentary interprets Lao-tzu’s text using Confucian terminology and neo-Confucian concepts.

TSENG-TZU (B. 505 B.C.). Disciple of Confucius and author of the Hsiaoching (Book of Piety). His views are also quoted at length in the Lunyu and the Tahsueh.

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