“What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can’t survive out of the depths
a state’s greatest weapon
isn’t meant to be shown”
(Taoteching, verse 36, translation by Red Pine)
TE-CH’ING says, “Once things reach their limit, they go the other way. Hence, lengthening is a portent of shortening. Strengthening is the onset of weakening. Raising is the beginning of toppling. Giving is the start of taking. This is the natural order for Heaven as well as for Humankind. Thus, to hide the light means the weak conquer the strong. Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state. But rulers must no show it to their people. Deep water is the best place for a fish. But once it is exposed to the air, a fish is completely helpless. And once rulers show weakness, they attract enemies and shame.”
LU HUI-CHING says, “To perceive shortening in lengthening, weakening in strengthening, toppling in raising, taking in giving, how could anyone do this if not through the deepest insight? This is the hidden light. Moreover, what causes things to be shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is invisible and weak. While what is shortened or lengthened, weakened or strengthened, toppled or raised, taken or given is visible and strong. Thus, the weak conquer the strong. People should not abandon weakness, just as fish should no leave the depths. When fish leave the depths, they are caught. When people abandon weaknesss, they join the league of the dead.”
WU CH’ENG says, “‘Hiding the light’ is the same as ‘cloaking the light.’” (See verse 27)
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “According to the way of the world, the weak don’t conquer the strong. But Lao-tzu’s point is that the weak can conquer the strong by letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted and thus weak. Those who cultivate the Tao speak softly and act with care. They don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. They understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”
CHANG TAO-LING says, “The Tao is like water. People are like fish.”
CHUANG-TZU says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon but not one that is known to the world” (Chuangtzu: 10.3).
HAN FEI says, “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.”
Te Ch’ing says, “Weakness is the greatest weapon of the state.” Chuang-tzu says, “The sage is the world’s greatest weapon…” And, Han Fei says “Rewards and punishments are the state’s greatest weapon.” Which one of them is right? Can they all be right?
Lao-tzu doesn’t really say. Saying instead, “A state’s greatest weapon isn’t meant to be shown.” I think this “hiding the light” is the whole point of what Lao-tzu is saying in today’s verse. And, Wu Ch’eng is quite right to remind us, “hiding the light” in today’s verse is the same as “cloaking the light” in verse 27. There, Lao-tzu was talking about the good and the bad coexisting together; the good, instructing the bad, and the bad, learning from the good. The point of “cloaking the light” being, the need to be “perfectly blind.”
In today’s verse, “hiding the light” demonstrates how shortening and lengthening, weakening and strengthening, toppling and raising, and taking and giving, coexist together. And, for what reason: This is the natural order.
As things currently appear, and they appeared this way in Lao-tzu’s day as well, the strong still rule the day. Hence, our need for “perfect blindness.” The weak can and do conquer the strong, Whether or not it appears that way. How do we do it? Sung Ch’ang-hsing explains, “By letting the strong do what they want until they become exhausted, and thus weak.
That is Lao-tzu’s point in teaching those of us who wish to shorten, or weaken, or topple, or take something; to forego that, in favor of the natural order: Let the long be lengthened, let the strong be strengthened, let the high be raised, give first; until it is ripe for the taking. Wait until things reach their limit. Once they reach their limit, they will go the other way.
As Sung Ch’ang-hsing teaches us, “Speak softly and act with care. Don’t argue about right or wrong, better or worse. Understand the harmony of Heaven and Earth, the Way of emptiness and stillness, and become adept at using the hidden light.”
If the Tao is like water and people like fish, as Chang Tao-ling says, then we need, like fish, to stay in the depths to survive.