Be Content and Strive Hard to Endure

“Those who know others are perceptive
those who know themselves are wise
those who conquer others are forceful
those who conquer themselves are strong
those who know contentment are wealthy
those who strive hard are resolved
those who don’t lose their place endure
those who aren’t affected by death live long.”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 33, translation by Red Pine)

SU CH’E says, “‘Perception’ means to distinguish. Wisdom means to remove obstructions. As long as our distinguishing mind is present, we can only know others, but not ourselves.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Perception is external knowledge. Wisdom is internal knowledge. Force is external control. Strength is internal control. Perception and force mislead us. Wisdom and strength are true. They are the doors to the Tao.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If someone can conquer others, it is only by using force. If someone can conquer their own desires, no one in the world can compete with them. Hence, we call them strong.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The strength of those who conquer themselves is of ten kinds: the strength of faith, the strength of charity, the strength of morality, the strength of devotion, the strength of meditation, the strength of concentration, the strength of illumination, the strength of wisdom, the strength of the Way, and the strength of Virtue.” (Note the similarity of this list to Buddhism’s paramitas, or perfections).

WU CH’ENG says, “Elsewhere, Lao-tzu extols simple-mindedness and weakness over wisdom and strength. Why then does he extol wisdom and strength here? Wisdom and strength are for dealing with the inside. Simple-mindedness and weakness are for dealing with the outside.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The natural endowment of all beings is complete in itself. Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it. But fools abandon this treasure to chase trash. Those who know contentment pay the world no heed. This is true wealth. Mencius said, ‘The ten thousand things are within us’ (Mencius 7A.4). How could we not be wealthy?

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Although the Great Way might be far off, if we persevere without pause, we advance. We get closer and closer, until suddenly we become one with the Way. Whoever has a goal can do anything. Outside, be content with your lot. Inside, focus on the Way. Those who do this cannot help but live long.”

WANG PI says, “Those who strive with devotion reach their goal. Those who examine themselves and work within their capacity don’t lose their place and are able to endure. Although we die, the Tao that gave us life doesn’t perish. Our body disappears, but the Tao remains. If our body continued to survive, would the Tao not end?”

TE-CH’ING says, “Our ‘place’ is like the position of the North Star. It refers to our nature.”

CONFUCIUS says, “Those who govern with Virtue are like the North Star, which remains in its place, while the myriad stars revolve around it” (Lunyu: 2.1).

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Before we distinguish life and death, they share the same form, the ten thousand things dwell in the same house. Our body is like the shell of a cicada or the skin of a snake: a temporary lodging. The shell crumbles but not the cicada. The skin decays but not the snake. We all have something real that survives death.”

KUMARAJIVA says, “Not to live in living is to endure. Not to die in dying is to live long.”

And RED PINE adds, “Although the ch’iang-hsing (striving hard) of line six seems at odds with Lao-tzu’s dictum of wu-wei “doing nothing/effortlessness,” commentators are agreed that here it refers to inner cultivation and not to the pursuit of worldly goals.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu compares and contrasts internal cultivation with what I call external exploitation. It is exploitative, because when our focus is on the external, rather then on the internal, and whether or not we consciously intend it to be, what we perceive outside of ourselves, distinguishing ourselves as separate from others, inevitably leads to desires to conquer the other. To be above, not below; to be first, rather than last. Once we have that first distinction, as we were talking about with our last verse (that was posted last Friday), there is no end to the distinctions.

Meanwhile, deep inside us, where the whole universe and all beings dwell within, there are no distinctions. We are all one with the Tao. That is what we need to be cultivating within ourselves.

To know others is only an outward perception. But, if you were truly wise, you would know yourself. To conquer others requires outward force. But to conquer yourself requires inner strength, a resolve that never lets up.

How do we accomplish this?

If we are to accomplish this, there are some things we must begin to understand about Lao-tzu’s teachings. “Elsewhere,” as Wu Ch’eng points out, “Lao-tzu extols simple-mindedness and weakness over wisdom and strength. Why then does he extol wisdom and strength here?” This is supremely important for us to understand. “Wisdom and strength are for dealing with the inside. Simple-mindedness and weakness are for dealing with the outside.”

What Wang P’ang goes on to say is the one lesson I would like everyone on the Earth to understand. “The natural endowment of all beings is complete in itself.” This is similar to what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Declaration of Independence. He said it was self-evident that “all men are created equal.” Of course, Jefferson’s statement wasn’t as inclusive as Lao-tzu or Wang P’ang. All beings is a lot more expansive than all human beings. But, I won’t fault Jefferson too much here, his purpose was directed a little more specifically.

But getting back to what Wang P’ang said, all beings are naturally, equally, and completely endowed, in themselves. “Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it.” It doesn’t depend on anything outside of ourselves. And, only “fools abandon this treasure to chase trash.” Trash, here, would be anything outside of ourselves, which we abandon the treasure inside ourselves, to chase. “Those who know contentment pay the world no heed.”

But, we do pay heed to the world. Don’t we? We are all caught up with perceiving it, with the intent to conquer it. What Mencius says, “The ten thousand things are within us.” Is completely lost on us.

I would like nothing more than to tell you, it is simple to pay the world no heed, to be content with the treasure inside, with which we are all naturally endowed.

But, to say it is simple would be to miss what Lao-tzu is teaching here, in today’s verse.

Simplicity, simple-mindedness, weakness, yes that has its place. But, it is going to take striving hard to tap into your inner strength, a resolve which won’t let up, to get to that place and never lose that place, to be unaffected by the world outside of us, and to endure.

One of those things we let affect us is death. But, Lu Nung-shih tells us, “Before we distinguish life and death, they share the same form, the ten thousand things dwell in the same house. Our body is like the shell of a cicada or the skin of a snake; a temporary lodging. The shell crumbles but not the cicada. The skin decays but not the snake. We all have something real that survives death.”

And as long as we keep on distinguishing between life and death. Treating death as something to be abhorred, to be postponed, to be hidden, we will continue to be affected by it.

That something real we all have that survives death is worth cultivating in ourselves. For it, in contrast to all the external things clamoring for our attention, will endure.

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

KUMARAJIVA (344-413). Native of the Silk Road kingdom of Kucha and greatest of all translators of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

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