When It’s a Choice Between Action and Non-Action

“Use directness to govern a country
and use deception to fight a war
but use non-action to rule the world
how do we know this works
the greater the prohibitions
the poorer the people
the sharper their tools
the more chaotic the realm
the cleverer their schemes
the more common the bizarre
the better their possessions
the more numerous the thieves
thus does the sage declare
I make no effort
and the people transform themselves
I stay still
and the people correct themselves
I do no work
and the people enrich themselves
I want nothing
and the people simplify themselves”

(Taoteching, verse 57, translation by Red Pine)

SUN-TZU “In waging war, one attacks with directness, one wins with deception” (Suntzu Pingfa: 5.5).

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Directness can be used in governing, but nowhere else. Deception can be used in warfare, but that is all. Only those who practice non-action are fit to rule the world.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages were kind to strangers and gentle to friends. They didn’t think about warfare. Only when they ahd no choice did they fight. And when they did, they used deception. But deception can’be used to rule the world. The world is a mercurial thing. To conquer it is to lose it. Those who embody the Tao do nothing. They don’t rule the world, and yet the world comes to them.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “How do we know we can rule the world by means of non-action? Because we know we cannot rule the world by means of action.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Prohibitions, tools, schemes, possessions, all of these involve action and cannot be used to rule the world.”

WANG PI says, “Prohibitions are intended to put an end to poverty, and yet the people become poorer. Tools are intended to strengthen the country, and yet the country becomes weaker and more chaotic. This is due to cultivating the branches instead of the roots.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Prohibitions interfere with the people’s livelihood. Thus, poverty increases. Sharp tools mean sharp minds. And sharp minds mean chaos and confusion. Once minds become refined, customs become depraved, and the monstrous becomes commonplace.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In cultivating the Tao, sages accept the will of Heaven. They don’t change things, and the people transform themselves. They prefer not to talk or teach, and the people correct themselves. They don’t force others to work, and the people become rich at their occupations. They don’t use ornaments or luxuries, and the people emulate their simple ways.”

CONFUCIUS says, “The virtue of the ruler is like wind. The virtue of the people is like grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends” (Lunyu: 12.19).

And RED PINE adds, “My mother used to say, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’”

The verses that have been giving me so much trouble these last few days have all been leading up to today’s verse, and the many more which will follow beginning next week. I love these verses where Lao-tzu talks about the art of governing, because it was these verses, so libertarian, that I found so attractive about philosophical Taoism.

In reading through today’s verse, I couldn’t help myself, I began comparing and contrasting Lao-tzu’s teachings on the art of governing with how we are being governed, today.

Those first two lines, for just one example. It would seem our rulers, today, have those turned around. They use directness in fighting a war, and deception to govern us. It is almost (but that couldn’t be, could it?) like our rulers are treating their own people as enemies.

And to think, we even have the great Sun-tzu, who knew a thing or two about the art of war, as one of our commentators for today’s verse.

No one considers that when it’s a choice between action and non-action, the right course is not to act. Oh no! We dare not do nothing!

We must intervene. We must interfere. We must try to control. We must use force. People need greater and greater prohibitions. The police must be given sharper tools. Why, the only reason we haven’t seen the results we were hoping for is because our schemes weren’t clever enough. But, if we can just lull the people into complacency… I know, let’s give them access to lots of stuff they don’t really need. Let’s convince them they need the latest gizmos and gadgets. That their happiness depends on things. Yeah! That will do the trick…

Friends, we already know this doesn’t work. People have only become poorer. The realm has become more chaotic. The bizarre is more common. Thieves want your things.

Even if the motivation for action was a pure one (and I am not willing to concede that), action has been proven to not result in the desired effect.

Can we please give non-action a chance to prove itself?

Imagine, just imagine, what it might be like….

I am imagining a leader ( a sage) who makes no effort. And the people transform themselves. This leader stays still. And the people correct themselves. This leader does no work. And the people enrich themselves. This leader wants nothing. And the people simplify themselves.

I am not naive enough to really believe we are going to have a leader like this come along any time soon.

But, I am not just going to throw up my hands and declare the situation in my world hopeless, either.

Instead, I am going to rule my own world through non-action. And, I don’t think anyone is going to confuse me with Alexander the Great. For, I am not bent on conquering anything outside of myself. I just know non-action works. How do I know? Easy. Because the folly of action has been made so clear.

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