“Weapons are not auspicious tools
some things are simply bad
thus the Taoist shuns them
in peace the ruler honors the left
in war he honors the right
weapons are not auspicious tools
he wields them when he has no choice
dispassion is the best
thus he doesn’t praise them
those who praise their use
enjoy killing others
those who enjoy killing others
achieve no worldly rule
thus we honor the left for happiness
we honor the right for sorrow
the left is where the adjutant stands
the commander on the right
which means as at a funeral
when you kill another
honor him with your tears
when the battle is won
treat it as a wake”
(Taoteching, verse 31, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In times of decadence and disorder, we use weapons to defend the people.”
SU CH’E says, “We take up weapons to rescue the distressed and not as a matter of course.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The system of ritual devised by the ancient kings treated the right as superior and the left as inferior. Being superior, the right represented the Way of Victory. Being inferior, the left represented the way of Humility. But victory entails death and destruction. Hence, those on the right were in charge of sad occasions, while those one the left were in charge of happy events.”
JEN FA-JUNG says, “‘Left’ refers to the east and the power of creation, while ‘right’ refers to the west and the power of destruction.”
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “When Tibetans, Huns, or other tribes invade our borders, the ruler has no choice but to respond. But he responds as would to a gnat. He does not act in anger. The greatest victory involves no fighting. Hence, dispassion is the best policy.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sun-tzu discussed in detail the use of strengths and weaknesses and of direction and indirection in warfare. But he did not understand their basis (Sunzu Pingfa: 5-6). Lao-tzu says dispassion is the best policy, because it secures victory without a display. This might seem odd, but dispassion means to rest, and rest is the root of victory. Meanwhile, passion means to act, and action is the basis of defeat.”
KING HSIANG OF LIANG asked Mencius, “How can the kingdom be pacified?” Mencius answered, “The kingdom can be pacified by uniting it.” King Hsiang asked, “But who can unite it?” Mencius answered, “One who does not delight in killing others can unite it” (Mencius: 1A.6).
LI JUNG says, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools. Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received the mourners.”
If Lao-tzu keeps repeating the same thing, it must be something important for us to understand. What he said back in verse 24, he repeats again in today’s verse: Some things are simply bad, thus we would shun them. Today, he repeats another phrase twice, and in the same verse: “Weapons are not auspicious tools.” What that means is it doesn’t bode well for those who use them when not forced to. That is why he goes on to say to only wield them when you have no choice. Weapons are a tool. And, tools have a purpose. But, know that that purpose is violence. As he said in yesterday’s verse, “Such things have repercussions.”
I remember well what Stephen Mitchell’s translation said of these repercussions. Violence always rebounds on one’s self. The counter force which always accompanies the use of force is not something we should ignore. Ignoring laws of physics won’t make them go away.
For those of you who have been following Kyle Anzalone’s daily news roundups and thrice weekly podcasts, Kyle was talking recently about America’s push toward “First Strike” capabilities with our nuclear weapons. Meaning, believing we can defy the laws of physics by dealing such a devastating blow to our enemy, they won’t be able to strike back. This is just the sort of thinking, I think Lao-tzu has in mind with today’s verse. And, as in yesterday’s verse where Lao-tzu laments those who can’t win without being proud, without being vain, without being cruel.
Here is something I think we should all be asking ourselves: Is this winning?
KING HSIANG (FL. 4TH C. B.C.) was the ruler of the small state of Liang (now Kaifeng) and son of King Hui.