The Contrary Way

“The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the things of this world come from something
something comes from nothing”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 40, translation by Red Pine)

LIU CH’EN-WENG says, “Once things reach their limit, they have to go back the other way.”

WEI YUAN says, “The Tao moves contrary to how most people look at things.”

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN says, “To go back the other way means to return to the root. Those who cultivate the Tao ignore the twigs and seek the root. This is the movement of the Tao: to return to where the mind is still and empty and actions soft and weak. The Tao, however, does not actually come or go. It never leaves. Hence, it cannot return. Only what has form returns. ‘Something’ refers to breath. Before things have form they have breath. Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things are born from breath. Hence, they all come from something. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. Breath comes from the Tao. Hence, it comes from nothing. This is the movement of the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The reason the Tao works through weakness is because it is empty. We see it in Heaven blowing through the great void. We see it in Earth sinking into the deepest depths.”

TE-CH’ING says, “People only know the work of working. They don’t know that the work of not working is the greatest work of all. They only know that everything comes from something. They don’t know that something comes from nothing. If they knew that something came from nothing, they would no longer enslave themselves to things. They would turn, instead, to the Tao and concentrate on their spirit.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The ten thousand things all come from Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth have position and form. Hence, we say things come from something. The light and spirit of Heaven and Earth, the flight of insects, the movement of worms, these all come from the Tao. The Tao has no form. Hence, we say things come from nothing. This means the root comes before the flower, weakness comes before strength, humility comes before conceit.”

LI JUNG says, “‘Something’ refers to Heaven and Earth. Through the protection of Heaven and the support of Earth, all things come into being. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. The Tao is formless and empty, and yet it gives birth to Heaven and Earth. Thus, it is said, ‘Emptiness is the root of Heaven and Earth. Nothingness is the source of all things.’ Those who lose the Tao don’t realize where things come from.”

SU CH’E says, “As for ‘the things of this world,’ I have heard of a mother giving birth to a child. But I have never heard of a child giving birth to its mother.”

WANG PI says, “Everything in the world comes from being, and being comes from non-being. If you would reach perfect being, you have to go back to non-being.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Those who cultivate the Way should act with humility and harmony. The slightest carelessness, any action at all, can destroy everything. Those who cultivate Virtue look to themselves for the truth, not to the words of others. For those who understand that what moves them is also the source of their lives, the pill of immortality is not somewhere outside.”

And RED PINE adds, “The moon can’t keep up with the sun, but as it gets farther and farther behind, the darkness of nothing gives rise to the light of something.”

Nestled in the middle of the Taoteching is this shortest verse, just four lines long. Some commentators read it as a continuation of verse 39, which preceded it. Others combine it with verse 41, which we will get to tomorrow. Yet, I am content with it being smack dab in between these two. And, I think it is one of the most important verses in the Taoteching. The commentators, today, seem to agree with me. Just look at the number of words they have devoted to this shortest verse.

I entitled my commentary on today’s verse, The Contrary Way, and I almost didn’t. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that being contrary, for the sake of being contrary, is the Way of the Tao. But, the Tao does act contrary to the way most people expect. It moves contrary. It moves the other way. Not the way we think it would. I expected it to move left, it moved right. Or, I expected it to move right, and it moved left. Yeah, contrary.

It can confound even the wisest. But, Lao-tzu does tell us the Tao gives us a few clues, as to which way it will go, lest we begin to think it is just being contrary for the sake of being contrary, and it doesn’t really wish for us to follow it.

He tells us the Tao works through weakness, rather than strength. That is a huge clue! It is soft, rather than hard. It yields, rather than bulldozing its way through. Picture water, the softest thing in the world. It will act like water, seeking the lowest place.

And, if we are going to follow it, if we hope to keep up with it, we need to keep these clues in mind. We need to be like water, too.

Oh, before I forget, here is another huge clue revealed in today’s verse. While everything in the world comes from something (and we all know this), what we fail to realize is something comes from nothing.

Maybe, just maybe, the difficulty we have been having with following it, with keeping up with the Tao, is simply a matter of trying to hard. Something comes from nothing means the practice of wei-wu-wei, doing without doing. If we are going to follow the Tao it requires effortless action. That is the nothing that something comes from.

If that only whet your appetite, but you require something more, come back tomorrow. There, Lao-tzu will give us twelve more clues showing “the other way” the Tao moves.

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

LIU CH’EN-WENG (1232-1297). Poet and essayist. He held several official posts but spent most of his life in obscurity, if not seclusion. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching p’ing-tien.

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN Quoted by Chiao Hung.

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