“Whispered words are natural
a gale doesn’t last all morning
a squall doesn’t last all day
who creates these
Heaven and Earth
if Heaven and Earth can’t make things last
how much less can Humankind
thus in whatever you do
when you follow the Way be one with the Way
when you succeed be one with success
when you fail be one with failure
be one with success
for the Way succeeds too
be one with failure
for the Way fails too
(Taoteching, verse 23, translation by Red Pine)
WU CH’ENG says, “‘Whispered’ means not heard. ‘Whispered words’ mean no words. Those who reach the Tao forget about words and follow whatever is natural.”
WANG CHEN says, “Whispered words require less effort. Hence, they conform to the natural Way.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Something is natural when nothing can make it so, and nothing can make it not so.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If the greatest forces wrought by Heaven and Earth cannot last, how can the works of Humankind?”
SU CH’E says, “The words of sages are faint, and their deeds are plain. But they are always natural. Hence, they can last and not be exhausted.”
TE-CH’ING says, “This verse explains how sages forget about words, embody the Tao, and change with the seasons. Elsewhere, Lao-tzu says, ‘Talking only wastes it / better to conserve the inside’ [verse 5]. Those who love to argue get farther from the Way. They aren’t natural. Only those whose words are whispered are natural. Lao-tzu uses wind and rainstorms as metaphors for the outbursts of those who love to argue. They can’t maintain such a disturbance and dissipation of breath very long. Because they don’t really believe in the Tao, their actions don’t accord with the Tao. They haven’t learned the secret of how to be one.”
CHIAO HUNG says, “Those who pursue the Way are natural. Natural means free from success and hence free from failure. Such people don’t succeed and don’t fail but simply go along with the successes and failures of the age. Or if they do succeed or fail, their minds are not affected.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Those who pursue the Way are able to leave their selves behind. No self is the Way. Success. Failure. I don’t see how they differ.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who are one with success enjoy succeeding. Those who are one with failure enjoy failing. Water is wet, and fire burns. This is their nature.”
And RED PINE adds, “Success, failure, both lead to the Way. But the path of failure is shorter.”
In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu told us to hold on to just one thing. And, one of the reasons for this, must be because things can’t last. Lao-tzu illustrates this for us in the first half of today’s verse where he explains that Heaven and Earth can’t make things last. It is so obvious! Yet, Humankind doesn’t seem to get it. That is why we try so hard to make things last.
We need to learn the lessons all of nature teach us. And today’s lesson is things can’t last. So stop trying to make them last. Instead, in whatever you do, follow the Way of nature. Be one with it. Be one with its successes, for you will succeed. And, be one with its failures, for you will fail.
I will admit that every time I read the last line of today’s verse, it makes me pause. Does the Way (the Tao) fail too? Am I okay with this? I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t bothered by this.
And, it isn’t because I don’t know it is true. It is because, being human, I want to always succeed. So, naturally, I want this Way I believe in to always succeed, too. But, here, I need to do a little pondering about what Lao-tzu actually means by success and failure.
He is talking, again about the Tao’s waxing and waning. The Tao waxes. But, it also wanes. And we are going to wax and wane, as well. We can’t always be waxing. And, if we thought about it just a little while, we would be quite content with waning, too. It is, after all the Way of all nature.