It’s Easy, Until It’s Hard

“It’s easy to rule while it’s peaceful
it’s easy to plan for before it appears
it’s easy to break while it’s fragile
it’s easy to disperse while it’s small
act before anything exists
govern before anyone rebels
a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot
a great tower rises from a basket of dirt
a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet
but to act is to fail
to control is to lose
sages therefore don’t act
thus they don’t fail
they don’t control
thus they don’t lose
when people pursue a task
failure occurs near the end
care at the end as well as the start
means an end to failure
sages thus seek what no one else seeks
they don’t prize hard-to-get goods
they study what no one else studies
they turn to what others pass by
to help all things remain natural
they dare not act”

(Taoteching, verse 64, translation by Red Pine)

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “We should act before anything exists, while things are peaceful and latent. We should govern before anyone rebels, while they are weak and few. But to act before anything exists means to act without acting. To govern before anyone rebels means to govern without governing.”

SU CH’E says, “To act before anything exists comes first. To govern before anyone rebels comes next.”

KUAN-TZU says, “Know where success and failure lie, then act” (Kuantzu: 47).

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “A needle creates a tapestry. A basket of earth makes a wall. Success and failure begin from something small” (Huainantzu: 16).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “From a sprout, the small becomes great. From a basket of earth, the low becomes high. From here, the near becomes far. But trees are cut down, towers are toppled, and journeys end. Everything we do eventually results in failure. Everything we control is eventually lost. But if we act before anything exists, how can we fail? If we govern before anyone rebels, how can we lose?”

WANG P’ANG says, “everything has its course. When the time is right, it arrives. But people are blind to this truth and work to speed things up. They try to help Heaven and end up ruining things just as they near completion.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Others seek the ornamental. Sages seek the simple. Others seek form. Sages seek Virtue. Others study facts and skills. Sages study what is natural. Others learn how to govern the world. Sages learn how to govern themselves and how to uphold the truth of the Way.”

HAN FEI says, “The wise don’t fill their lessons with words or their shelves with books. The world may pass them by, but rulers turn to them when they want to learn what no one else learns.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The sage seeks without seeking and studies without studying. For the truth of all things lies not in acting but in doing what is natural. By not acting, the sage shares in the naturalness of all things.”

It’s easy, until it’s hard. The time to act is before anything exists. What starts out small, will soon grow to be large. What begins as only a few will soon become many. And then, you dare not act.

When you don’t understand this, when you act, you will fail.

This is the difference between acting while it is easy, and acting when it is hard. It is hard to control. And when you try to control, you will lose. That is why sages don’t act. And because they don’t act, they don’t fail. They don’t try to control, so they don’t lose.

When you are pursuing a task, failure doesn’t happen at the beginning, for then it is easy. But later, near the end, that is when failure occurs. Why is this?

Maybe it is because we lose patience with the process. There is a natural course to all things. If we would be careful to follow it, we would succeed. But we get impatient. We start to try to force things to the conclusion we are wanting. That can be like fitting square pegs into round holes. It wasn’t yet ripe, it wasn’t yet ready. But we forced it anyway, and ruined it, so near the end.

That is why it is so important to be careful at the end. Remember how easy it was at the beginning? Why was it so easy? It was so easy because it just came naturally. And we weren’t in such a big hurry. We were content to let nature do its thing. At the end, we need to have that same mind.

Don’t seek what everyone else seeks. Seek what no one else seeks. Don’t prize hard-to-get goods. You are just fomenting discontent in your own life. Don’t study what everyone else is studying. Study what no one else is studying. What others pass by is worth a closer look. Turn to it.

Help all things remain natural, by daring not to act. Daring not to act will keep things as easy at the end as they were at the beginning.

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