“Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can’t be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
(Taoteching, verse 29, translation by Red Pine)
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We can’t control something as insignificant as a mustard seed. How can we control something as big as the world?”
TE-CH’ING says, “Those who would govern the world should trust what is natural. The world cannot be controlled consciously. It is too big a thing. The world can only be governed by the spirit, not by human strength or intelligence.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Spiritual things respond to stillness. They cannot be controlled with force.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The world as a thing is a spiritual thing. Only the spiritual Tao can control a spiritual thing. Spiritual things don’t think or act. Trying to control them with force is not the Way.”
WANG CHEN says, “‘Force’ refers to the mobilization and deployment of troops. But the world’s spirit cannot be controlled with weapons.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sages consider their body as transitory and the world as its temporary lodging. How can they rule what is not theirs and lose the true and everlasting Way?”
SU CH’E says, “The interchange of yin and yang, of high and low, of great and small is the way things are and cannot be avoided. Fools are selfish. They insist on having their own way and meet with disaster. Sages know they cannot oppose things. They agree with whatever they meet. They eliminate extremes and thereby keep the world from harm.”
WU CH’ENG says, “How do those who gain control of the world keep the world from harm? Sages understand that things necessarily move between opposites but that there is a way to adjust this movement. Things that prosper too much must wither and die. By keeping things from prospering too much, they keep them from withering and dying.”
WANG PI says, “Sages penetrate the nature and condition of others. Hence, they respond to them without force and follow them without effort. They eliminate whatever misleads or confuses others so that their minds become clear and each realizes their own nature.”
WANG AN-SHIH says, “Resting where you are eliminates extremes. Treasuring simplicity eliminates extravagance. Being content with less eliminates excess.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Sages get rid of extremes with kindness. They get rid of extravagance with simplicity. They get rid of excess with humility. By means of these three, sages govern the world.”
HSUEH HUI says, “What Lao-tzu means by ‘extremes,’ by ‘extravagance,’ and by ‘excess’ is not what people mean nowadays. Lao-tzu means whatever involves an increase in effort beyond what is easy.”
And, RED PINE adds, “Lao-tzu’s word for the world is tien-hsia (under Heaven) – all that we see when we look down from on high.”
Now, we get to the good stuff. At least, that is what I used to think, when we came to a part in the Taoteching where Lao-tzu is talking about governing. Now, I get to climb on my soap box and rail against the State.
But, while Lao-tzu does, in fact, give me plenty of ammunition against the State, I am finding myself more and more inclined to be less and less polemic. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
So, instead of launching into a polemic against the State, I would like to talk to individuals, about how they govern themselves.
Trying to govern your own world by force, I see this not succeeding. Your own world, your own life, how you interact in the world at large, that is a spiritual thing. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation, he calls it a “sacred” thing. I like that. Sacred. You need to be sacrosanct in how you go about living your own life.
Using force. Trying to control. Interfering with the natural order. Intervening in the affairs of others. All of that is looking outside of ourselves. Focusing on the external, to the detriment of the inner sanctum, your own true self.
Instead, Lao-tzu advises us to recognize how things come and go, naturally. Leading and following, blowing hot and blowing cold, expanding and collapsing. Everything happens in its time. Don’t try to force it. Don’t try to control it.
So, avoid extremes, avoid extravagance, avoid excess. Avoid these things with kindness, with simplicity, with humility. Avoid anything which involves an increase in effort beyond what is easy. Rest. Treasure simplicity. Be content with a simple life.