Better Stop While You Can

“Instead of pouring in more
better stop while you can
making it sharper
won’t help it last longer
rooms full of treasure
can never be safe
the vanity of success
invites its own failure
when your work is done retire
this is the Way of Heaven”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 9, translation by Red Pine)

THE HOUHANSHU says, “What Lao-tzu warns against is ‘pouring in more’” (see the Houhanshu’s Lao-tzu biography).

HSUN-TZU says, “In the ancestral hall of Duke Huan, Confucius reports watching an attendant pour water into a container that hung at an angle. As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright. But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position. Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty’” (Hsuntzu: 28).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “This verse is about the basics of cultivation. These are the obstacles when you first enter the gate.”

LIU SHIH-LI says, “Since fullness always leads to emptiness, avoid satisfaction. Since sharpness always leads to dullness, avoid zeal. Since gold and jade always lead to worry, avoid greed. Since wealth and honor encourage excess, avoid pride. Since success and fame bring danger, know when to stop and where lies the mean. You don’t have to live in the mountains and forests or cut yourself off from human affairs to enter the Way. Success and fame, wealth and honor are all encouragements to practice.”

YEN TSUN says, “To succeed without being vain is easy to say but hard to practice. When success is combined with pride, it’s like lighting a torch. The brighter it burns, the quicker it burns out.”

WANG CHEN says, “To retire doesn’t mean to abdicate your position. Rather, when your task is done, treat it as though it were nothing.”

SSU-MA CH’IEN says, “When Confucius asked about the ceremonies of the ancients, Lao-tzu said, ‘I have heard that the clever merchant hides his wealth so his store looks empty and that the superior man acts dumb to avoid calling attention to himself. I advise you to get rid of your excessive pride and ambition. They won’t do you any good. This is all I have to say to you’” (Shihchi: 63).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive wealth and desire wearies and harms the spirit. The rich should help the poor, and the powerful should aid the oppressed. If, instead, they flaunt their riches and power, they are sure to suffer disaster. Once the sun reaches the zenith, it descends. Once the moon becomes full, it wanes. Creatures flourish then wither. Joy turns to sorrow. When your work is done, if you do not step down, you will meet with harm. This is the way of Heaven.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “You need a raft to cross a river. But once across, you can forget the raft. You need to study rules to learn how to do something. But once you know how, you can forget the rules.”

And RED PINE adds, “This recipe for long life has been repeated in every civilized culture, and yet it has forever fallen on deaf ears.”

I am immediately inclined to point out that the word “retire,” here, doesn’t mean what our modern western minds have come to understand the term. It isn’t something you save for over many years. Like Wang Chen points out, “To retire doesn’t mean to abdicate your position. Rather, when your task is done, treat it as though it were nothing.” This is mostly about what kind of attitude to take about work. Like the author of Ecclesiastes (in the Bible) said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes happens to be one of my favorite books in the Bible. As I read it, I saw a man who had gotten to the end of his life, and looking back over it, saw it as an exercise in futility. To try so hard, and for what?

That may seem to be a real “downer.” Overly pessimistic. I just consider it a good dose of realism to balance out idealism. Some yin to go with your yang.

We really do need to know when to stop. When is enough, enough? Do you keep pouring? Sharpening? Rooms full of treasure don’t offer safety and security. What you value, others will want to steal. Success invites failure. That is why pursuing something outside of ourselves is vanity.

You already have everything! And yet, you still aren’t happy. Be content with enough. Don’t keep pouring. Stop, while you still can.

And, of course, there are parallels, here, to American foreign policy.

As I am writing this, Donald Trump is reportedly considering stopping pouring more into Afghanistan. And, no surprise here, he is getting plenty of opposition from the military industrial complex. “We can’t stop pouring!” Oh, I am not holding out a whole lot of hope, when it comes to the mind of Trump. If he pours less here, he will probably only go on to pour more there. Our rulers can’t help themselves. They can’t stop pouring.

Oh well. This is just all the more reason for each one of us, as individuals, to know when to stop. Don’t wait until you are on the cusp of retiring to figure out that it was all an exercise in futility.

This commentary really has been a downer. And, I apologize for that. But, Yen Tsun tells us, “To succeed without being vain is easy to say but hard to practice. When success is combined with pride, it’s like lighting a torch. The brighter it burns, the quicker it burns out.” Consider this your wake-up call. And, maybe, just maybe, we will come to see there is virtue in being dark.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HOUHANSHU (HISTORY OF THE LATTER HAN DYNASTY). Compiled by Fan Yeh (398-445) for the period A.D. 25-220.

HSUN-TZU (FL. 300-240 B.C.). Teacher of Han Fei as well as Li Ssu, the First Emperor’s infamous prime minister. He is considered the third of the great Confucian philosophers, after Confucius and Mencius. However, his rationalism is often at odds with the idealism of his predecessors. His teachings are contained in a book of essays that bears his name.

LIU SHIH-LI (FL. 1200.). Lao-tzu-chieh-chieh.

SSU-MA CH’IEN (145-85 B.C.). Authored with his father, Ssu-ma T’an, the first comprehensive history of China. His biography of Lao-tzu (Shihchi [Records of the Historian]: 63) constitutes the earliest known record of the Taoist patriarch. There are several English translations.

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