Dispassion is the Best

“Weapons are not auspicious tools
some things are simply bad
thus the Taoist shuns them
in peace the ruler honors the left
in war he honors the right
weapons are not auspicious tools
he wields them when he has no choice
dispassion is the best
thus he doesn’t praise them
those who praise their use
enjoy killing others
those who enjoy killing others
achieve no worldly rule
thus we honor the left for happiness
we honor the right for sorrow
the left is where the adjutant stands
the commander on the right
which means as at a funeral
when you kill another
honor him with your tears
when the battle is won
treat it as a wake”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 31, translation by Red Pine)

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In times of decadence and disorder, we use weapons to defend the people.”

SU CH’E says, “We take up weapons to rescue the distressed and not as a matter of course.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The system of ritual devised by the ancient kings treated the right as superior and the left as inferior. Being superior, the right represented the Way of Victory. Being inferior, the left represented the Way of Humility. But victory entails death and destruction. Hence, those on the right were in charge of sad occasions, while those on the left were in charge of happy events.”

JEN FA-JUNG says, “‘Left’ refers to the east and the power of creation, while ‘right’ refers to the west and the power of destruction.”

HSUAN-TSUNG says, “When Tibetans, Huns, or other tribes invade our borders, the ruler has no choice but to respond. But he responds as he would to a gnat. He does not act in anger. The greatest victory involves no fighting. Hence, dispassion is the best policy.

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Sun-tzu discussed in detail the use of strengths and weaknesses and of direction and indirection in warfare. But he did not understand their basis (Suntzu Pingfa: 5-6). Lao-tzu says dispassion is the best policy, because it secures victory without a display. This might seem odd, but dispassion means rest, and rest is the root of victory. Meanwhile, passion means to act, and action is the basis of defeat.”

KING HSIANG OF LIANG asked Mencius, “How can the kingdom be pacified?” Mencius answered, “The kingdom can be pacified by uniting it.” King Hsiang asked, “But who can unite it?” Mencius answered, “One who does not delight in killing others can unite it” (Mencius: 1A.6).

LI JUNG says, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools. Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received the mourners.”

It probably needs saying. While Lao-tzu (in both yesterday’s verse and today’s) has taken aim at the use of weapons, first saying don’t use them to rule the land, and then saying they aren’t auspicious tools (not once, but twice), I think it would be a misunderstanding of Lao-tzu, and I know it is a misunderstanding of me, to think guns should be banned, or there should be some kind of gun-control. Just for the record, I am for self-control, just as I believe Lao-tzu taught.

However, this also needs saying. Whenever Lao-tzu repeats himself, I think it behooves us to perk up our ears and take notice. In today’s verse, he actually repeats himself twice. He tells us weapons are not auspicious tools twice in today’s verse. And he repeats what he said back in verse 24, some things are simply bad and should be shunned. These two things were important enough to Lao-tzu to emphasize, so I think we should consider them carefully.

First off, let’s remember what he was talking about in verse 24, when he said some things are simply bad and should be shunned. What he was talking about is anything that isn’t natural. And, the use of force, while it certainly seems to be the way of Humankind (if human history has anything to teach us) is not the Way of Nature. We talked about that in yesterday’s verse.

Secondly, in today’s verse, when he twice says, “Weapons are not auspicious tools,” he follows up by saying, while the Taoist shuns them, he does wield them when he has no choice. He does wield them, should settle any questions regarding the use of weapons as tools. No, they aren’t auspicious. In other words, their use doesn’t bode well. Yet, use them, some times we must. As I said in my commentary on yesterday’s verse, there are defensive purposes which are legitimate.

The key, I believe, is self-control. Keeping the use of weapons to their legitimate defensive purposes. As Li Jung said in his commentary on today’s verse, “The ancients used weapons with compassion. They honored them for their virtue and disdained them as tools.” Why disdain them as tools? Because they are tools of fear and violence, because they aren’t auspicious tools. This is why, “Once the enemy was defeated, the general put on plain, undyed clothes, presided over a funeral ceremony, and received mourners.” But, then, why honor them for their virtue? What virtue do these inauspicious tools have? Their virtue is they can bring an end to conflict; and as long as we have practiced self-control in their use, they can save lives.

But the cost is great! That is why self-control is so important. That is why using them for offensive purposes is so dreadful. That is why once a battle is won, it isn’t time for celebration, but mourning.

Somehow we have forgotten that. We glorify war, and pin medals on those who have shed the most blood. We erect statues, and hold parades honoring them. I am told over and over again I must support our troops and honor our veterans. What I can’t understand is why I should support weapons being used for offensive purposes, and honoring those who wield them in that way. I know better. It isn’t auspicious. Some things are simply bad. And I rightly shun them.

What if we wept instead of rejoicing? Who delights in killing others? And why would we want them leading us?

No, weapons don’t need to be banned. But we shouldn’t be proud about our use of them. We should be sad that any conflict came to that. That we couldn’t win without resorting to force.

Lao-tzu, in today’s verse, basically lays the fault for all of this at our passions. We haven’t practiced self-control. Dispassion is the best! That is what he says. And that is what he expects from each one of us. Don’t let your passions rule you. You can do better.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KING HSIANG (FL. 4TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the small state of Liang (now Kaifeng) and son of King Hui.

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