“Perfectly complete it seems deficient
yet it never wears out
perfectly full it seems empty
yet it never runs dry
perfectly straight it seems crooked
perfectly clever it seems clumsy
perfectly abundant it seems impoverished
active it overcomes cold
still it overcomes heat
those who know how to be perfectly still
are able to govern the world”
(Taoteching, verse 45, translation by Red Pine)
WU CH’ENG says, “To treat the complete as complete, the full as full, the straight as straight, and the clever as clever is mundane. To treat what seems deficient as complete, what seems empty as full, what seems crooked as straight, and what seems clumsy as clever, this is transcendent. This is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book: opposites complement each other.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “What is most complete cannot be seen in its entirety, hence it seems deficient. What is fullest cannot be seen in its totality, hence it seems empty. What is straightest cannot be seen in its perfection, hence it seems clumsy.”
SU CH’E says, “The world considers what is not deficient as complete, hence complete includes worn out. It considers what is not empty as full, hence full includes exhausted. The wise, however, do not mind if what is most complete is deficient or what is fullest is empty. For what is most complete never wears out, and what is fullest never runs dry.”
HAN FEI says, “Ordinary people employ their spirit in activity. But activity means extravagance, and extravagance means wastefulness. Those who are wise employ their spirit in stillness. Stillness means moderation, and moderation means frugality.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “We keep warm in winter by moving around. But sooner or later, we stop moving and become cold again. We keep cool in summer by sitting still. But sooner or later, we stop sitting still and become hot again. This is not the way of long life. This is how what is complete becomes deficient, what is full becomes empty, what is straight becomes crooked, and what is clever becomes clumsy. Those who seek balance should look for it in perfect stillness. Perfect stillness is the essence of the Tao. Those who achieve such balance are free from hot and cold.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Activity overcomes cold but cannot overcome heat. Stillness overcomes heat but cannot overcome cold. Perfect stillness or effortlessness doesn’t try to overcome anything, yet nothing in the world can overcome it. Thus is it said that perfect stillness can govern the world.”
CONFUCIUS says, “Those who govern with virtue are like the North Star, which remains in its place, while the myriad stars revolve around it” (Lunyu: 2.1).
In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu shared the secret to a long life full of enjoyment. In today’s verse, he once again addresses why we don’t enjoy it.
We should be content. And as Lao-tzu said in yesterday’s verse, that means knowing restraint. Instead, we chase after more, more. What really is perfectly complete, to us seems deficient. What is perfectly full, to us seems empty. What is perfectly straight seems crooked. What is perfectly clever seems clumsy. What is perfectly abundant seems impoverished.
It seems. In other words, we are letting our judgment be clouded. We let our eyes and ears deceive us. For, it may seem deficient, but if we will only let it, it will never wear out. It may seem empty, but if we will only let it, it will never run dry.
What is Lao-tzu teaching here? Stillness. Perfect stillness. Activity is great for overcoming the cold. It is great, that is, until we have to rest. And without that rest, we will die. Long life, that is what Lao-tzu is talking about.
Stillness, on the other hand, overcomes heat. It is great at overcoming heat, until you need to get up and actually do something. Then it isn’t so great. Lao-tzu understands how these opposites complement each other. As Wu Ch’eng points out, it is the meaning of Lao-tzu’s entire book.
So, what is the lesson to be learned? Neither being active or being still will do for long. They will work in the short run but we need something longer term. Something for a lifetime. An enjoyable lifetime. That is where perfect stillness comes in. Perfect stillness isn’t just still. It is perfectly still. Like the perfectly complete, the perfectly full, the perfectly straight, the perfectly clever, the perfectly abundant. It knows, perfectly, when to be active, and when to be still. Thus, we can use it to govern our own lives, and the world.