“Those who seek learning gain every day
those who seek the Way lose every day
they lose and they lose
until they find nothing to do
nothing to do means nothing not done
those who rule the world aren’t busy
those who are busy
can’t rule the world”
(Taoteching, verse 48, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Learning’ refers to knowledge of administration and rhetoric, ritual and music.”
CONFUCIUS asked Tzu-kung. “Do you think I learn in order to increase my knowledge?” Tzu-kung answered, “Well, don’t you?” Confucius replied, “No. I seek the one thing that ties everything together” (Lunyu: 15.2).
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who seek the Tao don’t use their ears or eyes. They look within, not without. They obey their natures, not their desires. They don’t value knowledge. They consider gaining as losing and losing as gaining.”
YEN TSUN says, “Get rid of knowledge. The knowledge of no knowledge is the ancestor of all knowledge and the teacher of Heaven and Earth.”
WANG PI says, “Those who seek learning seek to improve their ability or to increase their mastery, while those who seek the Tao seek to return to emptiness and nothingness. When something is done, something is left out. When nothing is done, nothing is not done.”
HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “Those who are wise cultivate the inner root and do not make a display of the outer twigs. They protect their spirit and eliminate cleverness. They do nothing, which means they don’t act until others act. And yet there is nothing that isn’t done, which means they rely on the actions of others” (Huainantzu: 1).
TE-CH’ING says, “Those who seek the Tao begin by using wisdom to eliminate desires. Thus, they lose. Once their desires are gone, they eliminate wisdom. Thus, they lose again. And they go on like this until the mind and the world are both forgotten, until selfish desires are completely eliminated, until they reach the state of doing nothing. And while they do nothing, the people transform themselves. Thus, by doing nothing, the sage can do great things. Hence, those who would rule the world should know the value of not being busy.”
KUMARAJIVA says, “Those who lose eliminate everything coarse until they forget about the bad. Then they eliminate everything fine until they forget about the good. The bad is what they dislike. The good is what they like. First, they eliminate dislikes. Then, they eliminate likes. Once they forget their likes and dislikes and cut themselves off from desire, their virtue becomes one with the Tao, and they reach the state of doing nothing. And while they do nothing, they let others do what they want. Hence, there is nothing that isn’t done.”
SU CH’E says, “Everyone wants to rule the world. But when people see others doing something to possess it, they cringe. And when the people see the sage doing nothing, they rejoice. Those who are wise do not seek to rule the world. The world comes to them.”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, When someone uses laws to restrict the world, might to compel it, knowledge to silence it, and majesty to impress it, there are always those who don’t follow. When someone rules by means of the Tao, the world follows without thinking. ‘The world’ refers to the ten thousand things.”
WEN-TZU says, “In ancient times, those who were good rulers imitated the sea. The sea becomes great by doing nothing. Doing nothing, it governs hundreds of rivers and streams. Thus, it rules by not being busy” (Wentzu: 8).
What have you got to lose? Probably more than you think. And all of it, you would be wise to lose, to let go of; we are way too busy with something to do.
In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu took aim at our quest for knowledge, an outward quest for something external to ourselves, external to our nature. Desires drive us in this quest, but getting what we want isn’t a blessing, it is a curse.
Gain. That is why we seek learning every day. We seek to learn, we seek to gain. But Lao-tzu teaches this desire is in conflict with the Way. Those who seek the Way don’t seek to gain, they seek to lose. And lose. And lose. And in losing they gain.
What do they gain? The whole world. Not a world to be dominated and controlled; ruling their world is about self-rule, not ruling others. But others will look to them as an example of how to live their own lives. By seeking to lose until they find nothing to do, they discover the contentment of being content. Nothing to do and nothing not done. A contentment you don’t have to pursue, because you find it right where you already are.
It is already in your nature to be content; and if you find yourself discontent, looking to see where the grass appears greener, won’t bring you contentment. Contentment isn’t an external thing. It is an inward thing. You need to get back to your own nature. Cultivate contentment within your own self. That is the only Way to be content. Content with yourself. Content with your world. There is no other way.