“Use the Tao to assist your lord
don’t use weapons to rule the land
such things have repercussions
where armies camp
best to win then stop
don’t make use of force
win but don’t be proud
win but don’t be vain
win but don’t be cruel
win when you have no choice
this is to win without force
virility leads to old age
this isn’t the Tao
what isn’t the Tao ends early”
(Taoteching, verse 30, translation by Red Pine)
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “A kingdom’s ruler is like a person’s heart; when the ruler acts properly, the kingdom is at peace. When the heart works properly, the body is healthy. What enables them to work and act properly is the Tao. Hence, use nothing but the Tao to assist the ruler.”
LI HSI-CHAI, quoting Mencius (7B.7), says, “‘If you kill someone’s father, someone will kill your father. If you kills someone’s brother, someone will kill your brother.’ This is how things have repercussions.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “The external use of soldiers and arms returns in the form of vengeful enemies. The internal use of poisonous thoughts come back in the form of evil rebirths.”
WANG AN-SHIH says, “Humankind’s retribution is clear, while Heaven’s retribution is obscure. Where an army spends the night, brambles soon appear. In an army’s wake, bad years follow. This is the retribution of Heaven.”
WANG CHEN, paraphrasing Suntzu Pingfa (2.1), says, “To raise an army of a hundred thousand requires the daily expenditure of a thousand ounces of gold. And an army of a hundred thousand means a million refugees on the road. Also, nothing results in greater droughts, plagues, or famines than the scourge of warfare. A good general wins only when he has no choice, then stops. He dares not take anything by force.”
MENCIUS says, “Those who say they are great tacticians or great warriors are, in fact, great criminals” (Mencius: 7B2-3).
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “To win means to defeat one’s enemies. To win without being arrogant about one’s power, to win without being boastful about one’s ability, to win without being cruel about one’s achievement, this sort of victory only comes from being forced and not from the exercise of force.”
SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Tao prosper and yet seem poor. They become full and yet seem empty. What is not virile does not become old and does not die. The virile die. This is the way things are. Using an army to control the world represents the height of strength. But it only hastens old age and death.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Once plants reach their height of development, they wither. Once people reach their peak, they grow old. Force does not prevail for long. It isn’t the Tao. What is withered and old cannot follow the Tao. And what cannot follow the Tao soon dies.”
WU CH’ENG says, “Those who possess the Way are like children. They come of age without growing old.”
LAO-TZU says, “Tyrants never choose their death” (Taoteching: 42).
And, RED PINE adds, “It isn’t the Tao that ends early, for the Tao has no beginning or end.”
When I first was drawn to the Taoteching, and philosophical Taoism, it was because of verses like this one, and so many others, which expressed such strong libertarian leanings: Don’t intervene, don’t interfere, don’t try to control, don’t initiate force. Such things have repercussions. In this day, we now call the results of our foreign interventions “blowback.” I remember well when Ron Paul spoke after the events of September 11, 2001. He put into words exactly what I had been thinking: This is what happens as a result of our foreign interventions. We had been terrorizing the middle east for decades. It was only a matter of time until the seeds we had planted would be harvested, that we would reap, at least in some measure, exactly what we had sown.
But, as I have continued reading and thinking on these things, I have come to understand that what Lao-tzu was saying about external things, the things that so drew me to philosophical Taoism in the first place, were really secondary to his purpose. He was using these external things, things readily apparent to us, as metaphors for something deeper, an internal reality.
Sung Ch’ang-hsing makes this clear in his commentary. “A kingdom’s ruler is like a person’s heart: when the ruler acts properly, the kingdom is at peace. When the heart works properly, the body is healthy. What enables them to work and act properly is the Tao. Hence, use nothing but the Tao to assist a ruler.”
Did you catch that? The kingdom and ruler (or lord) Lao-tzu keeps invoking isn’t just something external to us. The kingdom represents our body, and the ruler (or lord) our heart. I know I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating: Lao-tzu isn’t speaking to rulers about how to govern their countries, he is speaking to individuals about how to govern their own selves. Sure, it would be nice if rulers would use the Tao to govern. It is the best way to govern a country. But, Lao-tzu was no fool, and realized that wasn’t likely to happen. But, if individuals could take his teachings to heart? That was much more likely to occur.
Keep this in mind while we look again at what Lao-tzu says in today’s verse.
“Where armies camp, brambles grow.” These are the repercussions for using weapons, or force, to win. If we wish to avoid the repercussions, we need to avoid doing the things which result in the repercussions. This is so self-evident, you would think it would have occurred to our rulers.
Oh, they know. They just don’t care. But applying this to ourselves: should we know, understand, and care?
Only the strong will survive. We think like this. We think it is “Darwinian.” And, therefore, it must be so. But, I think it is a misreading of Darwin to say that only the strong will survive. What Darwin really said is those most able to adapt will survive.
Strength seems so important to us. We must display just how strong we are. If not for offensive purposes, at least for defensive purposes. The weak are just going to be preyed upon. Better to be seen as predator, than as prey.
Lao-tzu saw things a bit differently. He took a look at the Way things are and he noticed something, a law, that was always at work in our world. Much like Darwin. Though Lao-tzu’s law wouldn’t agree with Darwin, if you think Darwin proscribed “only the strongest survive.” Lao-tzu saw something quite different. And, something with which Darwin actually would probably have agreed. Virility (strength) always leads to old age, and then a premature death. It wasn’t the strong who survived, it was those who yielded, the weak. The soft overcomes the hard. You can win without using force.
In fact, you better win without using force. Because any gains you make, when you use force, are sure to not last.
Better to win when you have no choice. To be forced to win. To win and then to stop. To know when enough is enough. Not to be proud. Not to be vain. Not to be cruel.
Sure, I can’t read today’s verse without thinking of America’s foreign policy, which hasn’t so much as wavered since well before I was born. But now, I use that as a metaphor for how not to live my own life. And that, my friends, has made all the difference.
Red Pine introduces a sage, in today’s verse, with which we may already be somewhat familiar:
SUN-TZU (FL. 512 B.C.). Master of military tactics and strategy. His Pingfa (Art of War) has been much studied and admired ever since it came to the attention of King Ho Lu of the state of Wu, who subsequently became Sun’s patron.