Something Everyone Knows, But No One Can Practice

“Nothing in the world is weaker than water
but against the hard and the strong
nothing outdoes it
for nothing can change it
the soft overcomes the hard
the weak overcomes the strong
this is something everyone knows
but no one is able to practice
thus do sages declare
who accepts a country’s disgrace
we call the lord of soil and grain
who accepts a country’s misfortune
we call the ruler of all under Heaven
upright words sound upside down”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 78, translation by Red Pine)

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “The nature of water is to stay low, to not struggle, and to take on the shape of its container. Thus, nothing is weaker. Yet despite such weakness it can bore through rocks. Rocks, however, cannot wear down water.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “The soft and the weak do not expect to overcome the hard and the strong. They simply do.”

HSI T’UNG says, “You can hit it, but you can’t hurt it. You can stab it, but you can’t wound it. You can hack it, but you can’t cut it. You can light it, but you can’t burn it. Nothing in the world can alter this thing we call water.”

CHU TI-HUANG says, “We can alter the course and shape of water, but we can’t alter its basic nature to descend, by means of which it overcomes the hardest and strongest things.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spies and traitors, thieves and robbers, people who have no respet for the law, disloyal subjects and unfilial children, these are disgraces. Excessive drought and rain, epidemics and locusts, untimely death, famine and homelessness, ominous plants, and misshapen animals, these are misfortunes.”

PO-TSUNG says, “Rivers and swamps contain mud. Mountains and marshes harbor diseases. The most beautiful gem has a flaw. The ruler of a state suffers disgrace. This is the Way of Heaven” (Tsochuan: Hsuan.15).

SHUN says, “If I commit an offense, it has nothing to do with my people. If my people commit an offense, the offense rests with me” (Shuching: 4C.8).

CHUANG-TZU says, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace” (Chuangtzu: 33.5).

MENCIUS says, “If the rulers of a state are not kind, they cannot protect the spirits of the soil and grain” (Mencius: 4A.3).

SU CH’E says, “Upright words agree with the Tao and contradict the world. The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.”

LI JUNG says, “The world sees disgrace and innocence, fortune and misfortune. The follower of the Tao sees them all as empty.”

KAO YEN-TI says, “The last line sums up the meaning of the abstruse phrases that occur throughout the Taoteching, such as ‘to act without acting.’ The words may contradict, but they complement the truth.”

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu returns to his favorite metaphor for the Tao, water, to show how nature teaches us “the soft overcomes the hard” and “the weak overcomes the strong.” Lao-tzu says “this is something everyone knows.” But this “knowledge” doesn’t result in actual understanding, for it is still something “no one is able to practice.”

As Ts’ao Tao-chung says in his commentary, “The reason people know this but don’t put this into practice is that they love strength and hate weakness.” What do we really value?

And, as Chuang-tzu teaches, “Everyone wants to be first, while I alone want to be last, which means to endure the world’s disgrace.”

This is what all sages declare: If you want to be first, you must first, put yourself last. To be on top, place yourself beneath.

For an aspiring “ruler” this means accepting their own country’s disgrace and misfortune. But, as Su Ch’e points out, “The world considers suffering disgrace shameful and suffering misfortune a calamity.” What Lao-tzu teaches is quite the opposite. He suggests, what is truly shameful, and a great calamity, is not suffering disgrace and misfortune.

What Lao-tzu teaches seems paradoxical, upside down. But, how different things would be if, instead of considering it upside down, we realized this is the Way all of nature behaves; and, Humankind, can and should behave this way, too.

What if we valued weakness over strength, the soft over the hard? Then, we would have no difficulty putting “what everyone knows” into practice.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHU TI-HUANG (1885-1941). Ch’ing dynasty official and early revolutionary. After fleeing China, he returned to devote himself to Buddhism and philosophy.

PO-TSUNG (FL. 8TH C. B.C.). Minister at the court of Chin. His views are reported in the Tsochuan: Hsuan.15.

SHUN (CA. 2250-2150 B.C.). Early sage ruler noted for his filial piety and noninterference in public affairs.

SHUCHING (BOOK OF DOCUMENTS). Collection of memorials from China’s earliest historical periods: the Hsia, Shang, and Chou dynasties. Reputedly edited by Confucius, there are two versions, one of which contains twenty-eight chapters and which most scholars think is genuine, and one with an additional twenty-two chapters of debatable authenticity. Translated into English by James Legge (1815-1897).

KAO YEN-TI (1823-1886). Classical scholar and member of the Hanlin Academy. In addition to providing several unique interpretations of his own, Kao’s commentary cites passages of the Taoteching that appear in other ancient texts. Lao-tzu cheng-yi.

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