Who Understands the Difference?

“The ancient masters of the Way
tried not to enlighten
but to keep people in the dark
what makes people hard to rule
is their knowledge
who rules the realm with knowledge
is the terror of the realm
who rules without knowledge
is the paragon of the realm
who understands the difference
is one who finds the key
knowing how to find the key
is what we call Dark Virtue
Dark Virtue goes deep
goes far
goes the other way
until it reaches perfect harmony”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 65, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “To make the people more natural, the ancient sages did not try to make the people more knowledgeable but to make them less knowledgeable. This radical doctrine was later misused by the First Emperor of the Ch’in dynasty, who burned all the books [in 213 B.C.] to make the people ignorant.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When the knowledge of bows and arrows arose, the birds above were troubled. When the knowledge of hooks and nets proliferated, the fish below were disturbed. When the knowledge of snares and traps spread, the creatures of the wild were bewildered. When the knowledge of argument and disputation multiplied, the people were confused. Thus are the world’s troubles due to the love of knowledge” (Chuangtzu: 10.4).

WANG PI says, “When you rouse the people with sophistry, treacherous thoughts arise. When you counter their deceptions with more sophistry, the people see through your tricks and avoid them. Thus, they become secretive and devious.”

LIU CHUNG-P’ING says, “Those who rule without knowledge turn to Heaven. Those who rule with knowledge turn to Humankind. Those who turn to Heaven are in harmony. Those who are in harmony do only what requires no effort. Their government is lenient. Those who turn to Humankind force things. Those who force things become lost in the Great Inquisition. Hence, their people are dishonest.” Liu’s terminology here is indebted to Chuangtzu: 19.2 and Mencius: 4B.26.

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Difference’ refers to ‘with knowledge’ and ‘without knowledge.’ Once you know that knowledge spreads evil and lack of knowledge spreads virtue, you understand the key to cultivating the self and governing the realm. Once you understand the key, you share the same virtue as Heaven. And Heaven is dark. Those who possess dark Virtue are so deep they can’t be fathomed, so distant they can’t be reached, and always do the opposite of others. They give to others, while others think only of themselves.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Because it is so deep, you can’t hear it or see it. Because it is so distant, you can’t talk about it or reach it. Dark Virtue differs from everything else. But it agrees with the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “What the sage values is virtue. What others value is knowledge. Virtue and knowledge are opposites. Knowledge is seldom harmonious, while virtue is always harmonious.”

LIN HSI-YI says, “‘Perfect harmony’ means whatever is natural.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu continues contrasting the easy with the hard. Yesterday, he told us what is easy; but he warned us then, what is easy in the beginning, will soon become hard. Sure enough, Lao-tzu talks about the hard in today’s verse.

What makes things so very hard? Our cleverness. We think we know. That is why Lao-tzu points out the ancient masters of the Way not trying to enlighten, but rather to keep people in the dark.

Obviously a teaching like this can “easily” be misused. And Wu ch’eng points out one example of this very thing: Burning books to make people ignorant.

But is this what Lao-tzu is advocating? Is this what the ancient masters practiced? Obviously not! But, is it really surprising how “easy” it is for the powers that be to not understand the difference?

First of all, it isn’t just the people’s knowledge (cleverness) which makes them hard to rule. It is also the knowledge of the rulers, as well. Those who rule with knowledge, says Lao-tzu, are a terror of the realm. But, if they would rule without knowledge, they would be a paragon of the realm. And just for those who wonder, “paragon” denotes excellence, perfection.

The choice before us is between knowledge and without knowledge. And, oh, what a difference it makes. Do you understand the difference?

Knowledge says, “I know what is best for you. I, alone, have all the answers. And, if you don’t agree with me, I will force you.” That is what the First Emperor of the Ch’in dynasty said. “I will make the people ignorant.”

Chuang-tzu says all the world’s troubles are due to the love of knowledge. And, Wang Pi talks of how the repercussions are multiplied.

Without knowledge is a course with a completely different trajectory. Where knowledge spreads evil, lack of knowledge spreads virtue (see Ho-shang Kung). It is a Dark Virtue that goes deep, that goes far, that goes completely the other way, until it reaches perfect harmony.

Now, I want you to go back to look at the verse once again. See where Lao-tzu said the ancient Masters wanted to keep people in the dark? Then, later in the verse he is talking about Dark Virtue. Now doesn’t that shed some “light” on what keeping people in the dark actually means?

Ruling with Dark Virtue sure beats burning books for keeping people in the dark. And that is the key for understanding today’s verse.

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