Better Stop While You Can

“Instead of pouring in more
better stop while you can
making it sharper
won’t help it last longer
rooms full of treasure
can never be safe
the vanity of success
invites its own failure
when your work is done retire
this is the Way of Heaven”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 9, translation by Red Pine)

THE HOUHANSHU says, “What Lao-tzu warns against is ‘pouring in more’” (see the Houhanshu’s Lao-tzu biography).

HSUN-TZU says, “In the ancestral hall of Duke Huan, Confucius reports watching an attendant pour water into a container that hung at an angle. As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright. But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position. Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty’” (Hsuntzu: 28).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “This verse is about the basics of cultivation. These are the obstacles when you first enter the gate.”

LIU SHIH-LI says, “Since fullness always leads to emptiness, avoid satisfaction. Since sharpness always leads to dullness, avoid zeal. Since gold and jade always lead to worry, avoid greed. Since wealth and honor encourage excess, avoid pride. Since success and fame bring danger, know when to stop and where lies the mean. You don’t have to live in the mountains and forests or cut yourself off from human affairs to enter the Way. Success and fame, wealth and honor are all encouragements to practice.”

YEN TSUN says, “To succeed without being vain is easy to say but hard to practice. When success is combined with pride, it’s like lighting a torch. The brighter it burns, the quicker it burns out.”

WANG CHEN says, “To retire doesn’t mean to abdicate your position. Rather, when your task is done, treat it as though it were nothing.”

SSU-MA CH’IEN says, “When Confucius asked about the ceremonies of the ancients, Lao-tzu said, ‘I have heard that the clever merchant hides his wealth so his store looks empty and that the superior man acts dumb to avoid calling attention to himself. I advise you to get rid of your excessive pride and ambition. They won’t do you any good. This is all I have to say to you’” (Shihchi: 63).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Excessive wealth and desire wearies and harms the spirit. The rich should help the poor, and the powerful should aid the oppressed. If, instead, they flaunt their riches and power, they are sure to suffer disaster. Once the sun reaches the zenith, it descends. Once the moon becomes full, it wanes. Creatures flourish then wither. Joy turns to sorrow. When your work is done, if you do not step down, you will meet with harm. This is the way of Heaven.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “You need a raft to cross a river. But once across, you can forget the raft. You need to study rules to learn how to do something. But once you know how, you can forget the rules.”

And RED PINE adds, “This recipe for long life has been repeated in every civilized culture, and yet it has forever fallen on deaf ears.”

It seems so basic. Yet, we ignore Lao-tzu’s sage advice at our own peril. And, ignore it, we do. As Red Pine says in his own commentary on today’s verse, “This recipe for long life has been repeated in every civilized culture, and yet it has forever fallen on deaf ears.” Why is that?

I think it is quite clear. And we have been talking about it for days, now. The way of Humankind runs counter to the Way of the Tao.

We always want more. Surely, I can add just a little more. “Whoa there,” says Lao-tzu. “Better stop while you can.” “While you can” implies you can reach a point where you can’t stop. I think for some of us, it happens a whole lot sooner than we might think.

Rooms full of treasure. What a measure of the vanity of success! But those rooms will never be safe. Humankind’s vanity invites its own failure.

So, what is to be done? It is simple, really. Like I said, at the beginning of my commentary, it is basic. Just do your work, then stop.

As we said in yesterday’s verse, do your work with skill. Do your very best. But when it is done, treat it as if it were nothing. Let it go. Let it be. Don’t be attached to it. Don’t keep pouring. That vessel will only hold so much. Don’t keep sharpening. You only hasten it getting dull again.

Things flourish for a time, and then they die. Remember what Lao-tzu said, in yesterday’s verse, about moving with time? Don’t rush it. And don’t try to hold on to it. This is the Way!

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HOUHANSHU (HISTORY OF THE LATTER HAN DYNASTY). Compiled by Fan Yeh (398-445) for the period A.D. 25-220.

HSUN-TZU (FL. 300-240 B.C.). Teacher of Han Fei as well as Li Ssu, the First Emperor’s infamous prime minister. He is considered the third of the great Confucian philosophers, after Confucius and Mencius. However, his rationalism is often at odds with the idealism of his predecessors. His teachings are contained in a book of essays that bears his name.

LIU SHIH-LI (FL. 1200.). Lao-tzu-chieh-chieh.

SSU-MA CH’IEN (145-85 B.C.). Authored with his father, Ssu-ma T’an, the first comprehensive history of China. His biography of Lao-tzu (Shihchi [Records of the Historian]: 63) constitutes the earliest known record of the Taoist patriarch. There are several English translations.

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