The Contrary Way

“The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the things of this world come from something
something comes from nothing”

(Taoteching, verse 40, translation by Red Pine)

LIU CH’EN-WENG says, “Once things reach their limit, they have to go back the other way.”

WEI YUAN says, “The Tao moves contrary to how most people look at things.”

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN says, “To go back the other way means to return to the root. Those who cultivate the Tao ignore the twigs and seek the root. This is the movement of the Tao: to return to where the mind is still and empty and actions soft and weak. The Tao, however, does not actually come or go. It never leaves. Hence, it cannot return. Only what has form returns. ‘Something’ refers to breath. Before things have form they have breath. Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things are born from breath. Hence, they all come from something. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. Breath comes from the Tao. Hence, it comes from nothing. This is the movement of the Tao.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The reason the Tao works through weakness is because it is empty. We see it in Heaven blowing through the great void. We see it in Earth sinking into the deepest depths.”

TE-CH’ING says, “People only know the work of working. They don’t know that the work of not working is the greatest work of all. They only know that everything comes from something. They don’t know that something comes from nothing. If they knew that something came from nothing, they would no longer enslave themselves to things. They would turn, instead, to the Tao and concentrate on their spirit.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The ten thousand things all come from Heaven and Earth. Heaven and Earth have position and form. Hence, we say things come from something. The light and spirit of Heaven and Earth, the flight of insects, the movement of worms, these all come from the Tao. The Tao has no form. Hence, we say things come from nothing. This means the root comes before the flower, weakness comes before strength, humility comes before conceit.”

LI JUNG says, “‘Something’ refers to Heaven and Earth. Through the protection of Heaven and the support of Earth, all things come into being. ‘Nothing’ refers to the Tao. The Tao is formless and empty, and yet it gives birth to Heaven and Earth. Thus, it is said, ‘Emptiness is the root of Heaven and Earth. Nothingness is the source of all things.’ Those who lose the Tao don’t realize where things come from.”

SU CH’E says, “As for ‘the things of this world,’ I have heard of a mother giving birth to a child. But I have never heard of a child giving birth to its mother.”

WANG PI says, “Everything in the world comes from being, and being comes from non-being. If you would reach perfect being, you have to go back to non-being.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI says, “Those who cultivate the Way should act with humility and harmony. The slightest carelessness, any action at all, can destroy everything. Those who cultivate Virtue look to themselves for the truth, not to the words of others. For those who understand that what moves them is also the source of their lives, the pill of immortality is not somewhere outside.”

And RED PINE adds, “The moon can’t keep up with the sun, but as it gets farther and farther behind, the darkness of nothing gives rise to the light of something.”

We have come to the shortest verse in the Taoteching; now, if only my commentary on it could be just as brief. I can’t make that happen, though. For one thing, Lao-tzu packs so much into those four lines.

The Tao moves the other way: Contrary to how most people look at things.

The Tao works through weakness: While we obsess over strength.

The things of this world come from something: Yes, that hardly needs to even be said, but wait just a moment, there. Lao-tzu has something to add.

Something comes from nothing: And that, my friends, is the most important thing to understand. And I mean really understand. Mere mental assent isn’t sufficient. As I said in my commentary on yesterday’s verse, your understanding of this can’t be a passive understanding. No, what is required is an active understanding. An understanding that actually makes a difference in how we live our lives.

But, having said that, I need to offer something of a caviat to that word, active. For the active Lao-tzu is talking about here doesn’t require any activity from us, at all. While we, almost incessantly want to do something, what we really must do is nothing. We need to be actively engaged in doing nothing. Don’t worry, something will come from that nothing. And that something is what all the things in the world come from. But we have to be willing to let the Tao do its work through weakness, and not be surprised when the Tao moves the other way, a way contrary to how most people look at things.

I think this analogy may help in your understanding: I am just along for the ride. I don’t have to try to move the other way with the Tao. I don’t have to try to be weak. I don’t have to try to get something out of nothing. And I certainly don’t have to try to do nothing. Trying to do nothing is actually doing something, by the way. No, I just realize and accept that I am one with the Tao, and I am along for the ride of my life. The Tao doesn’t always take me in the direction I think I want to go. More often than not, it goes the other way. But, you know what? When it gets me where it is going, it is always on time, and good. Just think of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, and the Sun in its orbit around our galaxy. Here we are, just along for the ride. And it’s all good. I don’t have anything to do to make the Earth speed along on its path, and yet it manages to get along without any intervention or interference from me. Imagine that! Once you realize how little you control, how little you need to control, you stop forcing things.

Red Pine introduces the following sages with today’s verse:

LIU CH’EN-WENG (1232-1297). Poet and essayist. He held several official posts but spent most of his life in obscurity, if not seclusion. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching p’ing-tien.

CHAO CHIH-CHIEN Quoted by Chiao Hung.

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