Esteemed But Not Understood

“My words are easy to understand
and easy to practice
but no one understands them
or puts them into practice
words have an ancestor
deeds have a master
the reason I am not understood
it’s me who isn’t understood
but because so few understand me
thus am I esteemed
sages therefore wear coarse cloth
and keep their jade concealed”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 70, translation by Red Pine)

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Nothing is simpler or easier than the Tao. But because it’s so simple, it can’t be explained by reasoning. Hence, no one can understand it. And because it’s so near, it can’t be reached by stages. Hence, no one can put into practice.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Because sages teach us to be in harmony with the course of our lives, their words are simple, and their deeds are ordinary. Those who look within themselves understand. Those who follow their own nature do what is right. Difficulties arise when we turn away from the trunk and look among the branches.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Tao is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. It is also hard to understand and hard to put into practice. It is easy because there is no Tao to discuss, no knowledge to learn, no effort to make, no deeds to perform. And it is hard because the Tao cannot be discussed, because all words are wrong, because it cannot be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray. Effortless stillness is not necessarily right, and action-less activity is not necessarily wrong. This is why it is hard.”

SU CH’E says, “Words can trap the Tao, and deeds can reveal its signs. But if the Tao could be found in words, we would have only to listen to words. And if it could be seen in deeds, we would only have to examine deeds. But it cannot be found in words or seen in deeds. Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find it.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The ancestor unites the clan. The master governs the state. Softness and humility are the ancestor of all words and the master of all deeds.”

YEN TSUN says, “Wild geese fly for days but don’t know what exists beyond the sky. Officials and scholars work for years, but none of them knows the extent of the Way. It’s beyond the ken and beyond the reach of narrow-minded, one-sided people.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “the reason the Tao is esteemed by the world is because it cannot be known or perceived. If it could be known or perceived, why should it be esteemed? Hence, Lao-tzu is esteemed because so few understand him. Thus, sages wear an embarrassed, foolish expression and selfdom show anyone their great and noble virtue.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason people don’t understand me is because my virtue is dark and not visible from the outside.”

CONFUCIUS says, “I study what is below and understand what is above. Who knows me? Only Heaven” (Lunyu: 14.37).

WANG PI says, “To wear coarse cloth is to become one with what is ordinary. To keep one’s jade concealed is to treasure the truth. Sages are difficult to know because they do not differ from ordinary people and because they do not reveal their treasure of jade.”

Today’s verse tantalizes those who only look on the outside. “My words are easy to understand / and easy to practice” But because they only look on the outside, and never see their dark virtue (jade) on the inside, “no one understands them / or puts them into practice.” It is easy; yet it is difficult.

Words come from somewhere. Lao-tzu calls it an ancestor. Deeds have a master. What Lao-tzu is saying, here, is you have to see beyond words and deeds, which are just outward signs, to their origins. You have to delve deeper, and look behind them, to understand them and put them into practice.

Lao-tzu then personifies his teachings, saying “it’s me who isn’t understood.” He has done this before (see verse 67). “Because so few understand me / thus am I esteemed.” In verse 67 he says, “The world calls me great / great but useless.” The import of this, says Lao-tzu, is that if the world found him useful, they wouldn’t recognize his greatness.

On the outside, sages wear coarse cloth, their jade is concealed behind that coarse cloth.

It would be easy, here, to complain that if only sages didn’t conceal their jade, they would be easily understood. But that is to misunderstand the jade metaphor. Jade, like geodes, is found inside ordinary looking rocks. For the purpose of the metaphor, it has to be concealed, under what looks ordinary on the outside, for it to be jade.

In other words, it isn’t up to the sage to reveal their jade. It is up to the few who understand, to look on the inside to see the hidden jade.

Lao-tzu will have more to teach us on understanding with tomorrow’s verse. See you then!

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