“The Tao drifts
it can go left or right
everything lives by its grace
but it doesn’t speak
when its work succeeds
it makes no claim
it has no desires
shall we call it small
everything turns to it
but it wields no control
shall we call it great
it’s because sages never act great
they can thus achieve great things”
(Taoteching, verse 34, translation by Red Pine)
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To drift means to be unrestrained. The Tao is neither yin nor yang, weak nor strong. Unrestrained, it can respond to all things and in any direction. It isn’t one-sided. As Chuang-tzu says, ‘the Tao has no borders’ (Chuangtzu: 2.5).
CHUANG-TZU says, “”Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry. Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats” (Chuangtzu: 32.1).
WANG PI says, “The Tao drifts everywhere. It can go left or right. It can go up or down. Wherever we turn, it’s there for us to use.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Great Way is a watery expanse that extends to the eight horizons. But when we use it, it’s as close as our left or right hand. There is nothing that doesn’t depend on it for life, and yet it never speaks of its power. There is nothing that doesn’t happen without its help, and yet it never mentions its achievements.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Outside of the Tao there are no things. Outside of things there is no Tao. The Tao gives birth to things, just as wind creates movement or water creates waves.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although living things might be infinite in number, the Tao creates them all through the mystery of doing nothing. It doesn’t mind making so many. And it creates them without thinking about its power.”
WANG P’ANG says, “When the Tao becomes small, it doesn’t stop being great. And when it becomes great, it doesn’t stop being small. But all we see are its traces. In reality, it is neither small nor great. It can’t be described. It can only be known.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The Tao produces all things, and all things turn to it. It’s like the sea. All streams empty into it, and yet it doesn’t control them.”
Commenting on lines eight and eleven, WU CH’ENG SAYS, “Even though there are no question indicators, these are questions and not statements, just as in verse 10. If we can call something great, it isn’t the Tao.”
SU CH’E says, “Those who are great and think themselves great are small.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Tao hides in what has no name, and sages embody it through what has no name. They don’t consider themselves great, and yet no one is greater, for they can go left or right. Hence, they are neither small nor great. And because they are neither small nor great, they can do great things.”
Just two verses ago, Lao-tzu talked about our need for self restraint, in today’s verse he talks about the Tao drifting. And, one of our commentators informs us “To drift means to be unrestrained.” So, what gives?
It reminds me of a conversation I had, with my father, many years ago. I was home on one of my breaks from college and I was sharing some of my “newfangled” ideas regarding libertarianism. You know, things like “Drugs and prostitution should be decriminalized.” It was a bit too much to take for my conservative father, who informed me, “The reason we have laws restraining us is because people won’t restrain themselves.” Ah, the classical conservative argument.
This could easily move over into the realm of “What comes first, the chicken or the egg,” because I have long wondered how anyone can be expected to practice self-restraint without first having all outward restraints removed, while my father feared the consequences of testing out my theories.
And, I am afraid I spent more than my allotted time just trying to convince my father I wasn’t wanting these prohibitions removed just so I could freely imbibe in drugs and prostitution.
The point is, I get it. And, Lao-tzu got it. External restraints are bad. Internal restraints are good. And, if we are going to be a “leaf on the wind,” (my apologies to my fellow “Firefly” fans, I know it is still too soon) we best practice internal restraint. Then, we will know what it is to be unrestrained. Those who are unrestrained become restrained. Those who are restrained become unrestrained.