“A great state is a watershed
the confluence of the world
the female of the world
the female uses stillness to overcome the male
in order to be still
she needs to be lower
the great state that lowers itself before the small state
governs the small state
the small state that lowers itself before the great state
is governed by the great state
some lower themselves to govern
some lower themselves to be governed
the great state’s one desire
is to unite and lead others
the small state’s one desire
is to join and serve others
for both to fulfill their desires
whichever is greater needs to be lower”
(Taoteching, verse 61, translation by Red Pine)
LAO-TZU says, “The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers / is because it has mastered being lower”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To lead a great state, we should be like the sea. We should be at the bottom of a watershed and not fight even the smallest current. A great state is the meeting place of the high and the low. The female refers to everything yin, everything that is weak, humble, yielding – what doesn’t lead.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The female is the mother. All creatures revere their mother. The sage recognizes the male but upholds the female. Hence, all creatures turn to the sage.”
SU CH’E says, “The world turns to a great state just as rivers flow downstream. If a great state can lower itself, small states will attach themselves to it. If a small state can lower itself, a great state will take it under its care. A great state lowers itself to govern others. A small state lowers itself to be governed by others.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The female doesn’t make the first move. It is always the male who makes the first move. But to act means to lose the advantage. To wait means to be lower. The great state that doesn’t presume on its superiority gains the voluntary support of the small state. The small state that is content with its inferiority enjoys the generosity of the great state. The small state doesn’t have to worry about being lower, but the great state does. Hence, the great state needs to be lower.”
WAG AN-SHIH says, “To serve someone greater is easy. To serve someone smaller is hard. Because it is hard, Lao-tzu says, ‘whichever is greater needs to be lower.’”
MENCIUS says, “Only a virtuous ruler is able to serve a smaller state. Only a wise ruler is able to serve a greater state” (Mencius: 1B.3).
WANG PI says, “By cultivating humility, each gets what it wants. When the small state cultivates humility, it preserves itself, but that is all. It can’t make the world turn to it. The world turns to the great state that cultivates humility. Thus, each gets what it wants. But it is the great state that needs to be more humble.”
How low can I go? That should be the question of every leader of every state, great and small. That should be their guiding credo, their one desire. Not to see how great I can expand my state, but to master being lower.
I happen to live in a no longer great state, the United States. I know it isn’t great anymore, because the current President, when he was campaigning for president, said he wanted to make it great again.
How did we lose our greatness? Maybe there was some watershed moment, or perhaps, several watershed moments. I am understanding “watershed” here as a turning point. Or perhaps it was because we stopped being the confluence of the world. “Confluence” being a meeting point. Both of these words, watershed and confluence, have to do with where streams flow. And, we know, streams flow downhill, seeking out the lowest place. How low can I go? I think that is what a babbling brook must be saying in its own language. And a stream, and a river… Maybe it is because we weren’t female enough. Yin. Instead of using stillness to overcome the male, yang, we were overcome by yang. We needed to be still; and in order to be still, we needed to be lower.
Great states and small states, both should want to lower themselves. The great, because they want to unite and lead. And the small because they want to join and serve. But, there is only one way for both to fulfill their desires, and that is for the greater to be lower.
Lao-tzu says a great state is a watershed, and that means a great state is what smaller states will turn to. Why would they do that? Will they do that out of fear and loathing? Will they do that because they are being attacked and persecuted by the greater state? Are great states really being followed by smaller states, if the smaller states are only going along because they are being forced? Do threats work? Do embargoes? How about wars? Telling others to either love us or fear us, is that the way to be great?
I think we all know the answer to my list of rhetorical questions. And yet, our rulers don’t seem to have a clue.