The Cultivation of Virtue and How You View Others

“What you plant well can’t be uprooted
what you hold well can’t be taken away
your descendants will worship this forever
cultivated in yourself virtue becomes real
cultivated in your family virtue grows
cultivated in your village virtue multiplies
cultivated in your state virtue abounds
cultivated in your world virtue is everywhere
thus view others through yourself
view families through your family
view villages through your village
view states through your state
view other worlds through your world
how do you know what other worlds are like
through this one”

(Taoteching, verse 54, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who plant something well, plant it without planting. Thus, it is never uprooted. Those who hold something well, hold it without holding. Thus, it is never taken away.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “What we plant well is virtue. What we hold well is oneness. When virtue flourishes, distant generations give praise.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “First improve yourself, then reach out to others and to later generations bequeath the noble, pure, and kindly Tao. Thus, blessings reach your descendants, virtue grows, beauty lasts, and worship never ends.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In ancient times, ancestral worship consisted in choosing an auspicious day before the full moon, in fasting, in selecting sacrificial animals, in purifying the ritual vessels, in preparing a feast on the appointed day, in venerating ancestors as if they were present, and in thanking them for their virtuous example. Those who cultivate the way likewise enable later generations to enjoy the fruits of their cultivation.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “We cultivate the Tao in ourselves by cherishing our breath and by nourishing our spirit and thus by prolonging our life. We cultivate the Tao in our family by being loving as a parent, filial as a child, kind as an elder, obedient as the younger, dependable as a husband, and chaste as a wife. We cultivate the Tao in our village by honoring the aged and caring for the young, by teaching the benighted and instructing the perverse. We cultivate the Tao in our state by being honest as an official and loyal as an aide. We cultivate the Tao in the world by letting things change without giving orders. Lao-tzu asks how we know that those who cultivate the Tao prosper and those who ignore the Tao perish. We know by comparing those who don’t cultivate the Tao with those who do.”

YEN TSUN says, “Let your person be the yardstick of other persons. Let your family be the level of other families. Let your village be the square of other villages. Let your state be the plumb line of other states. As for the world, the ruler is its heart, and the world is his body.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. Concern for the state is irrelevant, and concern for the world is cow shit. From this standpoint, the emperor’s work is the sage’s hobby and is not what develops the self or nourishes life” (Chuangtzu: 28.3).

CONFUCIUS says, “The ancients who wished to manifest Virtue in the world first ordered their states. Wishing to order their states, they first harmonized their families. Wishing to harmonize their families, they first cultivated themselves. Wishing to cultivate themselves, they first perfected their minds. Wishing to perfect their minds, they first rectified their thoughts. Wishing to rectify their thoughts, they first deepened their knowledge” (Tahsueh:4).

And RED PINE notes that the last seven lines of today’s verse is similar to that of the line in the poem “Carving an Ax Handle” in the Book of Songs: “In carving an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.”

As I have mentioned previously, I am about two weeks ahead on the writing of my blog posts on these verses. And the reason for this is not just to keep my blogging free of the stress of meeting deadlines. More importantly, I have found that as I come to later verses I end up getting new insight into previous ones, and I have time to go back to revise earlier ones. In fact, I just did that with yesterday’s verse.

Lao-tzu has been talking about virtue for some time. In yesterday’s verse he came down hard on those who lacked virtue, saying their actions amounted to robbery. In today’s verse the subject is again, virtue, specifically the cultivation of virtue. And, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that virtue is defined as how you view others.

What may come as a surprise is what Lao-tzu means by how we view others. Remember, with yesterday’s verse, where Lao-tzu called our lack of virtue robbery? But he never identified the “others” we have robbed. I said, then, it is because we are the ones we have robbed.

To say that how we treat others is the measure of our virtue, would be to think that virtue is some external thing. Wait! Doesn’t how we treat others show either an abundance or a lack of virtue? Isn’t it universally acclaimed that treating others well is deemed virtuous, while no one ever claims treating others poorly is virtuous? When Lao-tzu calls us out for robbery, we know he isn’t commending us for our virtue.

What Lao-tzu wants, though, is for us to cultivate virtue in ourselves, in our families, in our villages, in our states, in our world. It is an internal thing. What you plant well, can’t be uprooted, what you hold well can’t be taken away. But, there is more to it than that. That is only a promise that the virtue we cultivate can’t be uprooted or taken away from us.

How we view others will have an external manifestation, it will be reflected in how we treat others. But, that is an end, not the means. If we view others as the means, if we view others as separate from ourselves, we are going to get it all backwards.

True Virtue, Lao-tzu proclaims, is viewing others through ourselves. You contain the ten thousand things within you. Others aren’t out there. Separate from us. That is an illusion. If you want to cultivate virtue in others, you have to cultivate it in yourself.

View others through yourself. View families through your family. View villages through your village. View states through your state. View other worlds through your world.

Lao-tzu isn’t talking about external other worlds, here. Raising the question of whether life exists on other planets. The other worlds refer to each of us containing our own world within us. How do you know what other worlds are like? Through the world you contain within you.

Chuang-tzu’s commentary makes it so very clear. The reality of the Tao lies in concern for the self. It is an internal thing. Concern for external things is irrelevant. It is cow shit. The emperor’s work (meddling in external affairs) is not what develops the self or nourishes life. Thus, sages don’t occupy themselves with external things. The external is merely a hobby. It is treated as secondary.

The line, which Red Pine recalls, from the poem “Carving an Ax Handle” puts it quite well. “In carving an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.” The pattern is the virtue you cultivate in yourself. It isn’t far off. It is close at hand. It is what is planted well in your own heart.

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