On the Contentment of Being Content

“When the Tao is present in the world
courier horses manure fields instead of roads
when the Tao is absent from the world
war horses are raised on the border
no crime is worse than yielding to desire
no wrong is greater than discontent
no curse is crueler than getting what you want
the contentment of being content
is true contentment indeed”

(Taoteching, verse 46, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘When the Tao is present’ means when the world’s rulers possess the Tao. In ordering their countries, they don’t use weapons, and they send courier horses back to do farm work. And in ordering themselves, they redirect their yang essence to fertilize their bodies.”

YEN TSUN says, “The lives of the people depend on their ruler. And the position of the ruler depends on the people. When a ruler possesses the Tao, the people prosper. When a ruler loses the Tao, the people suffer.”

WANG PI says, “When the Tao is present, contentment reigns. People don’t seek external things but cultivate themselves instead. Courier horses are sent home to manure fields. When people don’t control their desires, when they don’t cultivate themselves but seek external things instead, cavalry horses are bred on the borders.”

WU CH’ENG says, “In ancient times, every district of sixty-four neighborhoods was required to provide a horse for the army.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “A ‘border’ refers to the land between two states. When war horses are raised on the border, it means soldiers have not been home for a long time.”

THE YENTIEHLUN SAYS, “It is said that long ago, before the wars with the Northern Hu and the Southern Yueh, taxes were low, and the people were well off. Their clothes were warm, and their larders were stocked. Cattle and horses grazed in herds. Farmers used horses to pull plows and carts. Nobody rode them. During this period, even the swiftest horses were used to manure fields. Later, when armies arose, there were never enough horses for the cavalry, and mares were used as well. Thus, colts were born on the battlefield” (15).

LI HSI-CHAI says, “When the ruler possess the Tao, soldiers become farmers. When the ruler does not possess the Tao, farmers become soldiers. Someone who understands the Tao turns form into emptiness. Someone who does not understand the Tao turns emptiness into form. To yield to desire means to want. Not to know contentment means to grasp. To get what you want means to possess. Want gives birth to grasping, and grasping gives birth to possessing and there is no end to possessing. But once we know that we do not need to grasp anything outside ourselves, we know contentment. And once we know contentment, there is nothing with which we are not content.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “When the mind sees something desirable and wants it, even though it does not accord with reason – there is no worse crime. When want knows no limit, and it brings harm to others, there is no greater wrong. When every desire has to be satisfied, and the mind never stops burning, there is no crueler curse. We all have enough. When we are content with enough, we are content wherever we are.”

LU TUNG-PIN says, “To know contentment means the Tao prevails. Not to know contentment means the Tao fails. What we know comes from our minds, which Lao-tzu represents as a horse. When we know contentment, our horse stays home. When we don’t know contentment, it guards the border. When the Tao prevails, we put the whip away.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “Material contentment is not contentment. Spiritual contentment is true contentment.”

With yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu concluded “Those who know how to be perfectly still are able to govern the world.” Clearly, Lao-tzu is thinking a lot of how it is best to govern. It is something he brings up again and again, throughout his Taoteching. But, I resisted my inclination to go on a rant about how we are governed, preferring instead to apply the lesson to how we govern ourselves. With today’s verse, it is even harder for me not to start ranting. Lao-tzu is clearly talking war and peace, here. And, my followers are already well aware of my passion when it comes to being anti war.

But, before I rant, and hopefully it won’t even come to that, I want to thank one of our commentators today, Lu Tung-pin, who reminds us, Lao-tzu is speaking metaphorically. Horses refer to our minds. “When we know contentment, our horse stays home. When we don’t know contentment, it guards the border. When the Tao prevails, we put the whip away.”

That isn’t to say there isn’t a whole lot that could be said about how we are being governed in our world. US foreign policy is dreadful. I wish all of our rulers would read these words of Lao-tzu, and not just take them to heart, but put them into practice. It is the best way to govern.

But, understanding this is a metaphor for how we govern ourselves, that no crime is worse than yielding to desire, that no wrong is greater than discontent, that no curse is crueler than getting what you want, it is clear we need to master the art of being content being content.

Yen Tsun says “The lives of the people depend on their ruler.” One may wish to argue why the people find the need to be so dependent on a ruler. But, remembering this is a metaphor, let’s get to what the metaphor is really pointing out. Who or what rules you? Forget, for just a moment, those rulers who were elected to govern us, and focus on our one true governor. You might want to grab a mirror, for then you can look right at them.

It is me. It is you. We are the ones who ultimately govern, or rule, over our world. As Robert Heinlein once said, “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” We are, each of us, free moral agents. Maybe it is time we started acting like it.

Wang Pi says, “When the Tao is present, contentment reigns.” Are you still looking in the mirror? Is the Tao present there? For remember, no matter what rulers surround you, you need to have the Tao present within you. If it is, contentment reigns. You won’t seek external things, instead cultivating the Tao within.

The real lesson of today’s verse is we need to learn true contentment. It isn’t something that depends on some external ruler, or external “anything,” like our bank account, or our job, or our family, or our friends, or where we live. We need to stop looking outside of ourselves in an attempt at “the pursuit of happiness”. We need to look within, find we already have everything we need, and go from there, content with being content. That is true contentment indeed.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

YENTIEHLUN (DISCOURSE ON IRON AND SALT). A record of debates on government policies and other problems of the day compiled by Huan K’uan (fl. 73 B.C.).

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