“Perfectly complete it seems deficient
yet it never wear out
perfectly full it seems empty
yet it never runs dry
perfectly straight it seems crooked
perfectly clever it seems clumsy
perfectly abundant it seems impoverished
active it overcomes cold
still it overcomes heat
those who know how to be perfectly still
are able to govern the world”
(Taoteching, verse 45, translation by Red Pine)
WU CH’ENG says, “To treat the complete as complete, the full as full, the straight as straight, and the clever as clever is mundane. To treat what seems deficient as complete, what seems empty as full, what seems crooked as straight, and what seems clumsy as clever, this is transcendent. This is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book: opposites complement each other.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “What is most complete cannot be seen in its entirety, hence it seems deficient. What is fullest cannot be seen in its totality, hence it seems empty. What is straightest cannot be seen in its perfection, hence it seems clumsy.”
SU CH’E says, “The world considers what is not deficient as complete, hence complete includes worn out. It considers what is not empty as full, hence full includes exhausted. The wise, however, do not mind if what is most complete is deficient or what is fullest is empty. For what is most complete never wears out, and what is fullest never runs dry.”
HAN FEI says, “Ordinary people employ their spirit in activity. But activity means extravagance, and extravagance means wastefulness. Those who are wise employ their spirit in stillness. Stillness means moderation, and moderation means frugality.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We keep warm in winter by moving around. But sooner or later, we stop moving and become cold again. We keep cool in summer by sitting still. But sooner or later, we stop sitting still and become hot again. This is not the way of long life. This is how what is complete becomes deficient, what is full becomes empty, what is straight becomes crooked, and what is clever becomes clumsy. Those who seek balance should look for it in perfect stillness. Perfect stillness is the essence of the Tao. Those who achieve such balance are free from hot and cold.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Activity overcomes cold but cannot overcome heat. Stillness overcomes heat but cannot overcome cold. Perfect stillness or effortlessness doesn’t try to overcome anything, yet nothing in the world can overcome it. Thus is it said that perfect stillness can govern the world.”
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).
It seems deficient. It seems empty. It seems crooked. It seems clumsy. It seems impoverished. And, no doubt, some may dismiss all of Lao-tzu’s teachings because they seem mundane. But, that is to look only at the surface of things, at the fiction of existence. And, if you can see beyond this, transcending the mundane, until you find what is perfectly real, you will never confuse them with the mundane, again.
Thank you Wu Ch’eng for making it so plain in your commentary on today’s verse. This is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book: opposites complement each other. That is complement with an e, not compliment with an i.
Oh, I had my own difficulty with understanding, as I was reading along, what constitutes perfection. Though it seems deficient, it never wears out. Though it seems empty, it never runs dry. Though it seems crooked, it is perfectly straight. Though it seems clumsy, it is perfectly clever. Though it seems impoverished, it is perfectly abundant. What does this mean? What does this mean?
But, as always, Lao-tzu explains himself quite well, if only I am paying attention. He explains: When it is active, it overcomes cold. When it is still, it overcomes heat. Yes, but that is rather mundane. We already know this. Don’t interrupt. Be still. Just wait for it.
Those who know how to be perfectly still are able to govern their world.
There it is! The answer that transcends the mundane. True perfection is opposites complementing each other. Perfect completeness, perfect fullness, perfect straightness, perfect cleverness, perfect abundance, perfect stillness. These all involve a balancing with their opposites. To be complete, or perfect, they must have their complement. Yin and yang need each other
So it seems deficient, it won’t wear out. So it seems empty, it won’t run dry. In contrasting straight with crooked, clever with clumsy, abundant with impoverished, we aren’t seeing the “complete” picture. Don’t just see the mundane. Look beyond that. Transcend it!
Perfect stillness doesn’t just overcome cold, it also overcomes heat. It works perfectly with both yin and yang. It is in perfect balance, and the result is harmony.
We can apply this to how we wish our world was governed. But, because I believe in self-government, I know that means me. The onus is on us. And, Lao-tzu makes it quite plain. To be able to govern the world, we need to be perfectly still. We need to be willing to let both yin and yang have their turns. Without trying to force things, without trying to control. Don’t intervene. Don’t interfere. Be perfectly still.