High and Low, Long and Short, Give and Take: The Natural Way

“The Way of Heaven
is like stringing a bow
pulling down the high
lifting up the low
shortening the long
lengthening the short
the Way of Heaven
takes from the long
and supplements the short
unlike the way of Humankind
which takes from the short
and gives to the long
who can take the long
and give it to the world
only those who possess the Way
thus do sages not depend on what they develop
or claim what they achieve
thus they choose to hide their skill”

(Taoteching, verse 77, translation by Red Pine)

KAO HENG says, “In stringing a bow, we pull the bow down to attach the string to the top. We lift the bow up to attach the string to the bottom. If the string is too long, we make it shorter. If the string is too short, we make it longer. This is exactly the Way of Heaven.” Red Pine’s reading of line two, which agrees with Kao Heng’s, is based on the Shuowen, which says, “Chang means to attach a string to a bow.”

TU ER-WEI says, “Not only the Chinese, but the ancient Greeks and Hindus, the Finns, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho all likened the moon to a bow. Thus the Way of Heaven is like a bow” (Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. 97-98).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way of Heaven is so dark, we need metaphors to understand it. To prepare a bow for use, we string it by pulling down the top and lifting up the bottom. Likewise, the Way of Heaven is to take from the strong and give to the weak.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low. It does nothing and relies instead on the nature of things. Things that are high and long cannot avoid being pulled down and shortened. Things that are low and short cannot avoid being lifted up and lengthened. The full suffer loss. The humble experience gain.”

TE CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven is to give but not to take. The Way of Humankind is to take but not to give.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The way of Heaven is based on the natural order. Hence, it is fair. The way of Humankind is based on desire. Hence, it is not fair. Those who possess the Way follow the same Way as Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Way supply the needs of the ten thousand creatures without saying a word. Only those who possess the Way are capable of this.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Who can imitate the Way of Heaven and make it the Way of Humankind by taking what one has in abundance and giving it to those in need? Only those who possess the Way. The Yiching [41-42] says, ‘to take means to take from the low and give to the high.’ And ‘to give means to take from the high and give to the low.’”

LI JUNG says, “Although sages perform virtuous deeds, they expect no reward and try to keep their virtue hidden.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The skill of the sages is unfathomable and inexhaustible. How could it be revealed?”

And RED PINE clarifies, “When Lao-tzu refers to ‘the Way of Heaven,” he is not simply referring to the sky above but to everything that lives and moves.”

While today’s verse is one of my favorite ones, I worry that what Lao-tzu talks about in today’s verse will readily be dismissed by a lot of my followers. Because it sounds like socialism, and socialism is bad. Right?

Don’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion, however. What Lao-tzu is really doing in today’s verse is contrasting the Natural Way with forcing things.

The Way of Heaven (that is, the Natural Way) is like stringing a bow. A bow, here, is a handy metaphor (we can immediately picture one). When you are stringing a bow, you pull down the high and lift up the low, you shorten the long, and lengthen the short. This is how you string a bow, naturally.

Lao-tzu likens it to the Tao bringing the high down, and lifting the low up. It takes from the long (Too much here). It supplements the short (Too little there).

This taking and giving needs some explanation, though. Because it does sound like socialism. And socialism is bad, when it is forced. But stay with Lao-tzu here. For Lao-tzu isn’t talking about the way of Humankind, the forced way, here. He is talking about the Natural Way.

The Natural Way isn’t forced. Therefore, its taking isn’t forced. And, for that matter, neither is its giving. It is a most natural give and take, which keeps the whole universe in perfect balance and harmony. Note what Lu Hui-ch’ing says in his commentary, today. “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low.” (There is no intention, or desire, involved) “It does nothing” (acts without desire) “and relies instead on the nature of things.”

Yes, Humankind tends to force things. We are imaginative and innovative. We perceive a problem, and immediately want to “do something” about it. But, because we are motivated by desires, we don’t always manage to control our own selves. Even the desire to “do good” is problematic for us. (Wait, I could say that better.) Especially the desire to “do good” is problematic for us.

That is why Lao-tzu asks the question, “Who can take from the long and give it to the world?” And then he answers his question, “Only those who possess the Way.”

The problem with Humankind is that our giving and taking always devolves into force. We end up taking from that which is short (what already has too little), and giving to that which is already too long.

The sage’s skill at “stringing a bow” comes from possessing the Way. They don’t depend on what they develop, or claim what they achieve. In other words, they act without desire. That, I think, is what Lao-tzu means by “they choose to hide their skill.”

Acting without desire, my friends, is what it is going to take for us to have something to give to the world.

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