“Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard”
(Taoteching, verse 63, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “When we act without acting, we don’t exhaust ourselves. When we work without working, we don’t trouble others. When we understand without understanding, we don’t waste anything.”
WANG TAO says, “What people do involves action. What sages do accords with the Tao of non-action. ‘Work’ refers to the conditions of action. ‘Understanding’ refers to meaning of action.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”
CHIAO HUNG says, “Action involves form and thus includes great and small. It is also tied to number and thus includes many and few. This is where wrongs come from. Only the Tao is beyond form and beyond number. Thus, sages treat everything the same: great and small, many and few. Why should they respond to them with anger?”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If we repay wrongs with kindness, we put an end to revenge. If we repay wrongs with wrongs, revenge never ends.”
HAN FEI says, “In terms of form, the great necessarily starts from the small. In terms of duration, the many necessarily starts from the few. Wise rulers detect small schemes and thus avoid great plots. They enact minor punishments and thus avoid major rebellions.”
DUKE WEN OF CHIN told Kuo Yen, “In the beginning, I found it easy to rule the kingdom. Now I find it hard.” Kuo Yen replied, “If you consider something easy, it is bound to become hard. If you consider something hard, it is bound to become easy” (Kuoyu: Chin.4).
WANG CHEN says, “If rulers disdain something as easy, misfortune and trouble are sure to arise from it. If they do not pay attention to small matters, eventually they will overwhelm even the greatest virtue. Thus, sages guard against the insignificant lest it amount to something great. If they wait until something is great before they act, their action will come too late.”
TE-CH’ING says, “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.”
To act without acting is to act according to our nature: What is inside of each of us. To work without working is to work effortlessly, because of our understanding that what appears on the outside to be easy, becomes hard; what appears small will become great, and to plan accordingly. To understand without understanding is to understand without trying to understand. In other words, it isn’t an understanding that is dependent on outward accumulation of knowledge, but an inward, intuitive, and spontaneous, understanding.
So, today’s verse is really about the difference between the inward and the outward. Outwardly, things may appear great or small, many or few, but what is outside of us isdeceptive. So, we tend to get it wrong. When we think things are easy, they become hard. And when we think things are small, they become great. Sages, therefore, think of the easy as hard, and the small as great.
When we are wronged, whether we perceive it as a great or small wrong, and whether done by many or few, we need to repay each wrong with the virtue that we have cultivated inside ourselves.
Plan for the hard while it is still easy. Deal with the great while it is still small. Even the greatest task begins easy, even the greatest goal begins small. This is the way of the sage. They never reach for the great, and never try to act great. And, it is in this way they are able to achieve great things. Thinking everything hard, they find nothing hard.
In today’s verse, Red Pine introduces the following:
DUKE WEN OF CHIN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Chin and hegemon of the central states.
KUO YEN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Chief minister of the state of Chin during the reign of Duke Wen.