To Act or Not to Act

“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
one benefits
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 73, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path’” (Chungyung: 9).

SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanism whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathom. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”

YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the hard and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”

In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu warned of the dire consequences when rulers interfere with the rule of nature. It means death. He couldn’t have made it anymore plain in today’s verse. “Daring to act means death / daring not to act means life.” Why, then do we dare to act? Why? Because we fail to understand the Way of Heaven. As Lao-tzu says it in today’s verse, “What Heaven dislikes / who knows the reason?” We don’t know. From the greatest of us to the least. But, we certainly believe we can know an injustice when we see one. And, since Heaven seems slow to respond, indeed Heaven may never respond if we don’t do something now, those who dare not to act are derided as heartless. What I wish all people could see is that help we intend only results in harm. Of course, you don’t mean to harm. You only want to help. But, while I do understand that Heaven seems slow sometimes, we all simply need to believe this: The Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes. That was something Martin Luther King Jr. echoed when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Now, some may argue that King dared to act; and we, then, should dare to act, as well. But, what was King acting against, but a system put in place which was antithetical to the rule of nature? Still, I don’t think I need to remind anyone that King’s life was cut short. Why? Because he dared to act. And powerful people didn’t like it.

So it is that Su Ch’e provides some balance, though I do flinch when he ascribes the mystery of the rule of nature to fortune. “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?

It’s a mystery. But, I think Wang an-Shih is right when he says, “Yin and yang take turns.”

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