“Ruling a great state
is like cooking a small fish
when you govern the world with the Tao
spirits display no powers
not that they have no powers
their powers don’t harm the people
not that their powers can’t harm
the sage keeps them from harming
and neither harms the other
for both rely on Virtue”
(Taoteching, verse 60, translation by Red Pine)
In a poem bemoaning the absence of virtuous rulers, the SHIHCHING SAYS, “Who can cook fish / I’ll wash out the pot” (Kuei: 4).
LI HSI-CHAI says, “For the sage, ruling a state is a minor affair, like cooking a small fish.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If you cook a small fish, don’t remove its entrails, don’t scrape off its scales, and don’t stir it. If you do, it will turn to mush. Likewise, too much government makes those below rebel. And too much cultivation makes one’s vitality wither.”
HAN FEI says, “In cooking a small fish, too much turning ruins it. In governing a great state, too much reform embitters the people. Thus, a ruler who possesses the Way values inaction over reform.”
TE CH’ING says, “A cruel government brings calamity down on the people. The people, however, think their suffering is the work of ghosts and spirits and turn to sacrifice and worship to improve their lot, when actually their misfortune is caused by their rulers.”
THE TSOCHUAN says, “If the state is meant ot flourish, listen to the people. If the state is meant to perish, listen to the spirits” (Chuang: 32).
WANG CHEN says, “The government that takes peace as its basis doesn’t lose the Way. When the government doesn’t lose the Way, yin and yang are in harmony. When yin and yang are in harmony, wind and rain arrive on time. When wind and rain arrive on time, the spirit world is at peace. When the spirit world is at peace, the legion of demons can’t perform their sorcery.”
WANG PI says, “Spirits don’t injure what is natural. What is natural gives spirits no opening. When spirits have no opening, spirits cannot act like spirits.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Spirits dwell in the yin, and people dwell in the yang. When both accept their lot, neither injures the other.”
SU CH’E says, “The inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are. Outside, nothing troubles them. Inside, nothing frightens them. Even spirits have no means of using their powers. It isn’t that spirits have no powers. The have powers, but they don’t use them to harm people. The reason people and spirits don’t harm each other is because they look up to the sage. And the sage never harms anyone.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The reason spirits don’t harm the people is not because they can’t but because the sage is able to harmonize the energy of the people so that they don’t injure the energy of the spirit world. The reason neither injures the other is due to the sage’s virtue. Hence, both worlds rely on the virtue of the sage.”
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Neither’ here refers to spirits and the sage.”
LI JUNG says, “Spirits and sages help people without harming each other. One is hidden, the other manifest. But both rely on virtue.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spirits are spirits because they respond but can’t be seen. Sages are sages because they govern but don’t act. The virtue of sages and the virtue of spirits is the same.”
I entitled my commentary on today’s verse “Who Can Cook Fish?” both to bemoan the absence of virtuous rulers (as the Shihching, in a poem, does) and to bemoan that we have a long history of being a superstitious people.
Lao-tzu goes out of his way, it seems to me, acknowledging the people’s concerns with spirits, while teaching how to avoid any harm from them. Oh the concessions he makes! “I’m not saying they have no powers… I am not saying their powers can’t do harm….”
The problem, as Te Ch’ing points out, is that the people have it all wrong in blaming their suffering on spirits. It is their cruel government which brings calamity down on the people. Ho-shang Kung explains it so well: “If you cook a small fish, don’t remove its entrails, don’t scrape off its scales, and don’t stir it. If you do, it will turn to mush. Likewise, too much government makes those below rebel. And too much cultivation makes one’s vitality wither.”
Wait! Hasn’t Lao-tzu been teaching about the need for cultivation? What’s this about too much cultivation? But, of course, Lao-tzu also teaches about the need to know when enough is enough, and when to stop. Too much cultivation can likewise be referring to interfering in the people’s lives, rather than leaving them alone. As Han Fei says, “A ruler who possesses the Way values inaction over reform.” Reform is simply a synonym for action.
Wang Chen explains how we are governed has an effect, positive or negative, on the course of otherwise natural events (which people attributed to spirits) like wind and rain.
Su Ch’e says, when a sage is content with inaction, the people will be content with the way they are. When nothing outside troubles them, nothing inside frightens them. But, even he concedes it isn’t that “spirits” have no powers, just that they won’t use their powers to harm people. And it is all thanks to the sage.
Well, I just guess whatever you think might work to convince would-be leaders to choose a course of inaction is okay with me. If people want to be superstitious, let them. Leave them alone. Govern correctly, and you will keep the bogey man away.
Rely on Virtue. That is what the sage does. And if there are spirits needing to be kept appeased, well, they rely on Virtue, too.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
SHIHCHING (BOOK OF SONGS). Collection of some 300 poems from China’s earliest historical period, between the twelfth and seventh centuries B.C. Arranged by style and region, it was reportedly compiled by Confucius from a larger corpus of over 3,000 poems. It remained an essential part of traditional education until the twentieth century. There are half a dozen English translations.
TSOCHUAN (ANNALS OF TSO). First comprehensive account of the major political events of the Spring and Autumn Periods (722-481 B.C.). It was compiled during the fourth century B.C. by Tso ch’iu-ming about whom we know nothing else.