Only Fear Going Astray

“Were I sufficiently wise
I would follow the Great Way
and only fear going astray
the Great Way is smooth
but people love byways
their palaces are spotless
but their fields are overgrown
and their granaries are empty
they wear fine clothes
and carry sharp swords
they tire of food and drink
and possess more than they need
this is called robbery
and robbery is not the Way”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 53, translation by Red Pine)

KU HSI-CH’OU says, “The Tao is not hard to know, but it is hard to follow.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu was concerned that rulers of his day did not follow the Great Way. Hence, he hypothesized that if he knew enough to conduct the affairs of a country, he would follow the Great Way and devote himself to implementing the policy of doing nothing.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “The Great Way is like a grand thoroughfare: smooth and easy to travel, perfectly straight and free of detours, and there is nowhere it doesn’t lead. But people are in a hurry. They take shortcuts and get into trouble and become lost and don’t reach their destination. The sage worries only about leading people down such a path.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “A spotless palace refers to the height of superficiality. An overgrown field refers to an uncultivated mind. An empty granary refers to a lack of virtue.”

HAN FEI says, “When the court is in good repair, lawsuits abound. When lawsuits abound, fields become overgrown. When fields become overgrown, granaries become empty. When granaries become empty, the country becomes poor. When the country becomes poor, customs become decadent, and there is no trick people don’t try” (Hanfeitzu: 20).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “When the court ignores the affairs of state to beautify its halls and interrupts farm work to build towers and pavilions, the people’s energy ends up at court, and fields turn to weeds. Once fields turn to weeds, state taxes are no paid and granaries become empty. And once granaries are empty, the country becomes poor, and the people become rebellious. The court dazzles the people with its fine clothes, and threatens the people with its sharp swords, and takes from people more than it needs – this is no different from robbing them.”

LI JUNG says, “A robber is someone who never has enough and who takes more than he needs.”

WANG PI says, “To gain possession of something by means other than the Way is wrong. And wrong means robbery.”

Red Pine adds, in his explanatory notes, “The standard version of line three reads ‘only fear acting.’” That isn’t a bad translation. Lao-tzu certainly has devoted a lot of his Taoteching warning against acting. But, Red Pine notes, Wang Nien-sun sees a problem with that translation in today’s verse, suggesting shih (act) is a mistake for yi (go astray), and Red Pine agrees. I do, too. I think the context of following the Great Way, which is smooth, and contrasting it with people loving byways, makes it clear we don’t fear going astray as we ought. And the result, readily apparent to all, is superficiality, an uncultivated mind, a lack of virtue.

Lao-tzu names it with just one word: robbery. And Red Pine points out that that is a pun: “The words for robbery and Way are both pronounced tao.

Robbery is an apt description of what has taken place as we have loved byways rather than following the Way, though I have another word for it: Decadence.

Let’s look at the downward spiral again. Their palaces are spotless, but their fields are overgrown. Their fields are overgrown, while their granaries are empty. They wear fine clothes and carry sharp swords, yet they tire of food and drink. They possess more than they need. Yes, robbery. Yes, decadence.

If only we were sufficiently wise. If only we feared going astray. Why do we love those byways? Well, Lao-tzu already answered that question. It is because we aren’t sufficiently wise. It is because we don’t fear going astray. The Great Way is smooth. It will get you where you’re going, without any trouble. Wisdom cries out, “Don’t be foolish! Don’t go astray!” But we are fearless with regards to the only thing we should fear, while we instead fear what? Not being superficial enough?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We already possess far more than we need. And it is through what amounts to robbery that we haveobtained it. But, this requires further clarification. Who exactly have we robbed? Lao-tzu doesn’t mention others at all in this verse. Oh, we might read between the lines and assume that Lao-tzu must mean the less fortunate don’t have enough because we aren’t giving enough out of our abundance. We do possess more than we need. Others don’t. So there is that.

But, I don’t think we should be assuming anything, here. We don’t want to be the proverbial ass. I think we are better off not trying to read between the lines. Lao-tzu doesn’t mention others because he is only concerned with ourselves. We have robbed ourselves!

This will be further explained in tomorrow’s verse on the cultivation of virtue within ourselves, our families, our villages, our states, and our world.

For today, let it be sufficient that we realize it is time to go back to following the Great Way. Are we sufficiently wise? And, do we sufficiently fear going astray?

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

KU HSI-CH’OU (FL. 1600-1630). Scholar-official. His is one of several commentaries incorrectly attributed to the T’ang dynasty Taoist, Lu Tung-pin. Tao-te-ching-chieh.

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