“Those who seek learning gain every day
those who seek the Way lose every day
they lose and they lose
until they find nothing to do
nothing to do means nothing not done
those who rule the world aren’t busy
those who are busy
can’t rule the world”
(Taoteching, verse 48, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Learning’ refers to knowledge of administration and rhetoric, ritual and music.”
CONFUCIUS asked Tzu-kung. “Do you think I learn in order to increase my knowledge?” Tzu-kung answered, “Well, don’t you?” Confucius replied, “No. I seek the one thing that ties everything together” (Lunyu: 15.2).
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who seek the Tao don’t use their ears or eyes. They look within, not without. They obey their natures, not their desires. The don’t value knowledge. They consider gaining as losing and losing as gaining.”
YEN TSUN says, “Get rid of knowledge. The knowledge of no knowledge is the ancestor of all knowledge and the teacher of Heaven and Earth.”
WANG PI says, “Those who seek learning seek to improve their ability or to increase their mastery, while those who seek the Tao seek to return to emptiness and nothingness. When something is done, something is left out. When nothing is done, nothing is not done.”
HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Those who are wise cultivate the inner root and do not make a display of the outer twigs. They protect their spirit and eliminate cleverness. They do nothing, which means they don’t act until others act. And yet there is nothing that isn’t done, which means they rely on the actions of others” (Huainantzu: 1).
TE-CH’ING says, “Those who seek the Tao begin by using wisdom to eliminate desires. Thus, they lose. Once their desires are gone, they eliminate wisdom. Thus, they lose again. And they go on like this until the mind and the world are both forgotten, until selfish desires are completely eliminated, until they reach the state of doing nothing. And while they do nothing, the people transform themselves. Thus, by doing nothing, the sage can do great things. Hence, those who would rule the world should know the value of not being busy.”
KUMARAJIVA says, “Those who lose eliminate everything coarse until they forget about the bad. Then they eliminate everything fine until they forget about the good. The bad is what they dislike. The good is what they like. First, they eliminate dislikes. Then, they eliminate likes. Once they forget their likes and dislikes and cut themselves off from desire, their virtue becomes one with the Tao, and they reach the state of doing nothing. And while they do nothing, they let others do what they want. Hence, there is nothing that isn’t done.”
SU CH’E says, “Everyone wants to rule the world. But when people see others doing something to possess it, they cringe. And when the people see the sage doing nothing, they rejoice. Those who are wise do not seek to rule the world. The world comes to them.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, When someone uses laws to restrict the world, might to compel it, knowledge to silence it, and majesty to impress it, there are always those who don’t follow. When someone rules by means of the Tao, the world follows without thinking. ‘The world’ refers to the ten thousand things.”
WEN-TZU says, “In ancient times, those who were good rulers imitated the sea. The sea becomes great by doing nothing. Doing nothing, it governs hundreds of rivers and streams. Thus, it rules by not being busy” (Wentzu: 8).
We finished up last week with Lao-tzu saying “The farther people go, the less they know.” Yet, as he acknowledges in today’s verse, there is something to be gained every day by seeking learning. I certainly hope no one has ever gotten the idea that Lao-tzu, or philosophical Taoism, is anti-knowledge or anti-learning. I happen to work in the field of private education. And one thing I expect each of the children I work with each day, is that they will gain from the experience.
So what does he mean in contrasting gaining and losing, in today’s verse? What can we gain from losing, and lose in gaining?
Well, all along in his Taoteching he has been promoting cultivating the Tao in your own self. And that requires something very different from the lessons I give the children I teach. For them, I am providing something externally, that they don’t already have internally. Lao-tzu is teaching about something we already have internally, we just need to learn how to cultivate it. And seeking for knowledge externally, isn’t the Way.
What is the way? Instead of gaining, go for losing. What have you got to lose? Quite a bit, actually. But far from this losing resulting in loss for you, it will result in gain. This is the Way of the Tao. It always uses the complements of yin and yang to accomplish everything, while doing nothing.
I particularly like what Te-ch’ing and Kumarajiva have to say about all that we have to lose, and how to go about losing it.
Te-ch’ing says, those who seek the Tao begin by using wisdom to lose desires. Then, once they have lost their desires, they let loose of their wisdom. Thus they lose and lose again. The idea is to forget about both your mind and the world. And, all selfish desires being eliminated, you will find nothing left to do. As Lao-tzu puts it, “Nothing to do means nothing not done.” This is the practice of wei-wu-wei. This doing not doing means letting things be. Desires make us want to intervene and interfere, to force things in an attempt to control them. This is why it is so important to get rid of our desires. But, as Te-ching makes clear, even after we think we have eliminated all of our desires, if we think we can rely on our wisdom, we will still find something to do.
Kumarajiva says quite the same thing, just in a different way. First, we lose everything coarse, until we can forget about the bad. Then, we lose everything fine, until we can forget about the good. This is so important, because just about anyone who is out there doing something, thinks they are doing something good. So, it isn’t enough just to forget about the bad, what you dislike. You must go on to forget about the good, what you do like. This is the only way to cut yourself off from desire. Then, your virtue becomes one with the Tao, and you reach the state of doing nothing. I like what he adds at the end: While you do nothing, let others do what they want. Don’t try to prevent them! While you do nothing, there is nothing that isn’t done.
Do you want to rule your world? We are not talking about the external world, here. We are talking about the internal one. Can you master yourself? The key, says Lao-tzu, is don’t be busy.
It isn’t in doing, doing, doing, but in finding nothing to do. What have you got to lose, when you can gain the whole world?