How Can This Be Good?

“In resolving a dispute
a dispute is sure to remain
how can this be good
sages therefore hold the left marker
and make no claim on others
thus the virtuous oversee markers
the virtue-less oversee taxes
the Way of Heaven favors no one
but it always helps the good”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 79, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “In Lao-tzu’s day, whenever the feudal rulers had a dispute, the most powerful lord convened a meeting to resolve it. But the resolution of a great dispute invariably involved a payment. And if the payment was not forthcoming, the dispute continued.”

WANG PI says, “If we don’t arrange a contract clearly and a dispute results, even using virtuous means to settle it won’t restore the injury. Thus, a dispute will remain.”

SU CH’E says, “If we content ourselves with trimming the branches and don’t pull out the roots, things might look fine on the outside, but not on the inside. Disputes come from delusions, and delusions are the product of our nature. Those who understand their nature encounter no delusions, much less disputes.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Murderers are killed, and criminals are punished according to their crime. But those who inflict such punishments offend their own human feelings and involve innocent people as well. If even one person sighs, we offend the Heart of Heaven. How can resolving disputes be considered good?”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If someone lets go of both sides but still clings to the middle, how can he be completely good?”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, contracts were divided in two. In the state of Ch’u, the creditor kept the left half, and Lao-tzu was from Ch’u. In the central plains, this was reversed, and the creditor kept the right half.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Seeking to make peace with others is the Way of Humankind. Not seeking to make peace but letting things make peace by themselves is the Way of Heaven. Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace. Sages therefore hold the left marker because they rely on non-action and the subtlety of letting things be.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “If one does not make demands of others, disputes cannot arise. If one constantly takes from others, great disputes cannot help but occur.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Those concerned with taxes cannot avoid making claims on others and thus cannot prevent disputes. This is why they lack virtue.”

MENCIUS says, “The rulers of the Hsia dynasty exacted a tribute [kung] on every five acres of land. The rulers of the Shang exacted a share [chu] on every seven acres. The rulers of the Chou exacted a tax [ch’e] on every ten acres. In reality, what was paid was a tithe of 10 percent” (Mencius: 3A.3; see also Lunyu: 12.9).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Those who are good cultivate themselves. They don’t concern themselves with others. Once you concern yourself with others, you have disputes. The good make demands of themselves. They don’t make demands of others. The Way of Humankind is selfish. The Way of Heaven is unselfish. It isn’t concerned with others. But it is always one with those who are good.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Way of Heaven always helps the good because the good expect nothing. Hence, they are easily helped.”

Today’s verse has Lao-tzu talking about contractual obligations and conflict resolution. And, he uses it to illustrate the futility of intervention.

I recently took part in one of those silly quizzes on Facebook that is supposed to tell you something about yourself by simply answering a few simple questions. I don’t know why I ever do these, the answers they give you to choose between are never quite how I feel about a given topic. I think this particular quiz was supposed to tell me just how conservative or liberal I am. I went ahead and took the quiz, hoping I would break it, since I just knew I didn’t fit anywhere within the conservative/liberal, left/right spectrum. I had no such luck. In spite of my answers, the quiz identified me as “strongly conservative”; which is probably what my more liberal friends think of me, but would completely surprise my more conservative friends.

I specifically remember one of the questions particularly annoyed me. It was something along the lines of asking me to choose between a foreign policy that intervenes militarily and one that emphasizes diplomacy. Why did this annoy me? Because not intervening was not an option. We just have to intervene. The only allowable debate is whether the intervention is going to be a military intervention or a diplomatic intervention.

But Lao-tzu correctly points out the folly, the futility, of intervening — even to resolve a dispute diplomatically. How can this be good? A dispute is sure to remain. He then explains how contracts were arranged in ancient times. They were divided into a left and right side. On one side was one party’s obligations, and on the other side was the other party’s obligations. Lao-tzu, in effect, said sages uphold their end of the bargain without making any claim on the other party. This is true virtue. Fulfilling your own obligations, while making no demands on others.

But just try to be a third party who steps in and tries to resolve any conflict between two parties? Meddling, meddling, meddling. Why must we meddle? Where Lao-tzu says the virtuous oversee markers, I take that to mean, they observe boundaries. They don’t cross over to meddle. Where he says the virtue-less oversee taxes, I take that to mean they don’t respect boundaries, being more concerned with making sure they get what they want, which means force will be employed.

But, as Lao-tzu insists, the Way of Heaven favors no one. That is why meddling is a fool’s errand. He also insists the Way of Heaven always helps the good. Meaning, let Heaven sort it all out. Stay out of it. Leave it alone.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts. His presentation of differences between the Mawangtui and other editions appears in Ta-lu tsa-chih vols. 54-59 (April 1977-October 1979). His study of Tunhuang copies of the Taoteching is also excellent: Lao-tzu lun-chi.

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG (PUBL. 1937). Lao-tzu chiao-chieh.

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