The Virtue in Being Heartless

“Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
sages are heartless too
they treat people like straw dogs
between Heaven and Earth
how like a bellows
empty but inexhaustible
each stroke produces more
talking only wastes it
better to protect what’s inside”

(Taoteching, verse 5, translation by Red Pine)

HU SHIH says, “Lao-tzu’s statement that Heaven and Earth are heartless undercuts the ancient belief that Heaven and Humankind were of the same lineage and thereby created the basis for natural philosophy” (Chung-kuo-che-hsueh-shih ta-kang. p. 56).

SU CH’E says, “Heaven and Earth aren’t partial. They don’t kill living things out of cruelty or give birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them. This is how sages treat the people.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “When we make straw dogs or clay dragons, we paint them yellow and blue, decorate them with brocade, and tie red ribbons around them. The shaman puts on his black robe, and the lord puts on his ceremonial hat to usher them in and to see them off. But once they’ve been used, they’re nothing but clay and straw.” A similar description appears in Chuangtzu: 14.4.

WU CH’ENG says, “Straw dogs were used in praying for rain, and these particular bellows were used in metallurgy.”

WANG P’ANG says, A bellows is empty so that it can respond. Something moves, and it responds. It responds but retains nothing. Like Heaven and Earth in regard to the ten thousand things or sages in regard to the people, it responds with what fits. It isn’t tied to the present or attached to the past.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The Tao has no substance or dimension, yet it works the breath of emptiness between Heaven and Earth and gives birth to the ten thousand things.”

WANG TAO says, “The Tao cannot be talked about, yet we dismiss it as heartless. It cannot be named, yet we liken it to a bellows. Those who understand get the meaning and forget the words. Those who don’t understand fail to see the truth and chatter away in vain.”

HSIN TU-TZU says, “When the main path has many side trails, sheep lose their way. When learning leads in many directions, students waste their lives in study” (Liehtzu: 8.25).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Whenever the mouth opens and the tongue moves, disaster is close behind. Better to guard your inner virtue, nurture your vital essence, protect your spirit, treasure your breath, and avoid talking too much.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “If our mouth doesn’t talk too much, our spirit stays in our heart. If our ears don’t hear too much, our essence stays in our genitals. In the course of time, essence becomes breath, breath becomes spirit, and spirit returns to emptiness.”

And, RED PINE adds, “Cultivating the heartless center between Heaven and earth, sages delight in the endless creation of something out of nothing without becoming attached to anything. The Chinese phrase pu-jen (no heart) not only means ‘unkind’ but also refers to any fruit that has no seed or kernel in its center. The straw dogs used in ceremonies in ancient China were much like Christmas trees in the West – used for a day, a week, a month, but not for long.”

Today’s verse is a hard one. Why? Because, we all claim to like impartiality. It is held up as a virtue. But, do we really want to be judged impartially? That depends. When we are standing before a judge, we hope to be able to make our case, and the judge to look upon us favorably, even if the facts in the case stand against us. Often, what we really want is partiality. The impartial, the truly impartial, will be viewed as heartless. The impartial will be thought of as unkind, even cruel. But, what they really are is unmoved. You shouldn’t ascribe motive, here. Heaven and Earth simply don’t care.

The sage therefore, doesn’t care, either. Heartless! If it was seen as virtue, it would be said of them, “They treat everyone the same.” Complete impartiality. Unmoved. Uncaring. They won’t intervene. They won’t interfere. They won’t try to force things. They won’t try to control.

This, my friends, is the only equality we should be interested in. Equality under the Law of Nature. But, I don’t want to be treated like a straw dog! Or, like a Christmas tree (as Red Pine compares it to). I want to matter!

Well, of course you do. And, you do matter. Everything and everyone does have a purpose. And that matters. But, what no one and no thing can ever hope to claim is that they matter more.

So like a bellows is nature. Empty but inexhaustible. Each stroke produces more. But talking only wastes it. Better to protect what’s on the inside.

Fulfill your purpose. Do your work and then step back. Don’t whine! Nature responds, and the sage responds. Just not in the way we might like, showing partiality. No, nature and the sage both respond impartially, like a bellows, with only what fits. There is a purpose, it just seems to be purposeless. It seems to be purposeless because nature and the sage act purposelessly. Without struggling. Without effort.

Trying to act purposelessly isn’t the answer, obviously. That requires effort. But how to be, without trying?

I once had the honor of knowing a young man who epitomized this practice. It is not at all a wonder to me that Lao-tzu often refers to children, to show this practice of purposelessness. For this young man was just a boy. He was my son’s best friend at the time. And, I got to observe this boy quite closely. For a couple of years he spent a lot of time in my home.

What I observed was someone for whom everything seemed to just happen naturally. He exuded a natural confidence. He was athletic, and involved in a variety of sports related activities. But, I wouldn’t characterize his involvement as competing. He was just playing. And, he seemed to love it, without caring. When he was running, his speed was deceptive, for he ran effortlessly. He certainly didn’t seem to be trying. And someone, observing only casually, might have been tempted to urge him to try harder. I hope that never happened for him. It might have killed that spirit. Like, I am sure, that spirit has been killed in many children. For, without trying, he succeeded. Over and over again. And, I honestly don’t think he would have succeeded any better by “trying” harder.

Now, I wouldn’t characterize this boy’s life as easy. His parents were divorced, so he lived half the time with his mom and half the time with his dad. And, neither of his parents were well off. He didn’t have a lot of what the world considers blessings. He just seemed to live his life as unaffected, as unmoved, by any of that, as anyone I have ever known.

He moved away years ago. And, I don’t know what has become of him. I only know what he was in those few years I observed him.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

HU SHIH (1891-1962). Student of John Dewey and leader of China’s New Culture Movement that helped establish vernacular Chinese as a legitimate form of literary expression. Chung-kuo che-hsueh-shih ta-kang.

HUAI-NAN-TZU (D. 122 B.C.). A.K.A. LIU AN. He was the grandson of Liu Pang, the first Han emperor. He was a devoted Taoist, although his search for the elixir of immortality was prematurely interrupted when he was accused of plotting to seize the throne and was forced to commit suicide. The book named after him is a collection of treatises on mostly Taoist themes written by a group of scholars at his court.

WANG TAO (1476-1532). Incorporates Confucian interpretations in his commentary. Lao-tzu-yi.

HSIN TU-TZU Interlocutor in Liehtzu: 8.25).

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