When It’s a Choice Between Action and Non-Action

“Use directness to govern a country
and use deception to fight a war
but use non-action to rule the world
how do we know this works
the greater the prohibitions
the poorer the people
the sharper their tools
the more chaotic the realm
the cleverer their schemes
the more common the bizarre
the better their possessions
the more numerous the thieves
thus does the sage declare
I make no effort
and the people transform themselves
I stay still
and the people correct themselves
I do no work
and the people enrich themselves
I want nothing
and the people simplify themselves”

(Taoteching, verse 57, translation by Red Pine)

SUN-TZU “In waging war, one attacks with directness, one wins with deception” (Suntzu Pingfa: 5.5).

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Directness can be used in governing, but nowhere else. Deception can be used in warfare, but that is all. Only those who practice non-action are fit to rule the world.”

SU CH’E says, “The ancient sages were kind to strangers and gentle to friends. They didn’t think about warfare. Only when they ahd no choice did they fight. And when they did, they used deception. But deception can’be used to rule the world. The world is a mercurial thing. To conquer it is to lose it. Those who embody the Tao do nothing. They don’t rule the world, and yet the world comes to them.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “How do we know we can rule the world by means of non-action? Because we know we cannot rule the world by means of action.”

TE-CH’ING says, “Prohibitions, tools, schemes, possessions, all of these involve action and cannot be used to rule the world.”

WANG PI says, “Prohibitions are intended to put an end to poverty, and yet the people become poorer. Tools are intended to strengthen the country, and yet the country becomes weaker and more chaotic. This is due to cultivating the branches instead of the roots.”

WANG P’ANG says, “Prohibitions interfere with the people’s livelihood. Thus, poverty increases. Sharp tools mean sharp minds. And sharp minds mean chaos and confusion. Once minds become refined, customs become depraved, and the monstrous becomes commonplace.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “In cultivating the Tao, sages accept the will of Heaven. They don’t change things, and the people transform themselves. They prefer not to talk or teach, and the people correct themselves. They don’t force others to work, and the people become rich at their occupations. They don’t use ornaments or luxuries, and the people emulate their simple ways.”

CONFUCIUS says, “The virtue of the ruler is like wind. The virtue of the people is like grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends” (Lunyu: 12.19).

And RED PINE adds, “My mother used to say, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’”

There is a thread which runs its way throughout the Taoteching; and that thread is most visible in the verses we will be looking at this week. This thread is the art of governing, following the principle of non-action. It is a principle Lao-tzu teaches in the hope that not only our rulers, but everyone, would use it to rule their world.

In today’s verse, Lao-tzu begins by first contrasting governing a country using directness with using deception to fight a war. Most of us are aware, by now, that we are always in a state of war when it comes to our being governed. Our rulers don’t use directness to govern us, they use deception. Why? It is obvious they consider us, at the very least, potential enemies. Of course, those of us who oppose the State’s monopoly on the use of violence and force are enemies. We will always be at enmity with those who set themselves up as above and before us. And, they will always be at enmity with us.

But Lao-tzu teaches a better way to combat their deception. This better way is the principle of non-action. Non-participation.

But how will we ever “rule the world” by doing that?

The better question might be how do we really expect to rule our world without doing it. Do prohibitions work? No, the greater the prohibitions, the poorer the people. Do sharp tools work? No, the sharper the tools, the more chaotic the realm. Do clever schemes work? No, the cleverer the schemes, the more common the bizarre. How about having better possessions? No, the better the possessions, the more numerous the thieves.

All these actions fail in their mission. We should know, by now, they don’t work. But, how do we know the principle of non-action works? This is the lesson Lao-tzu (the sage) declares:

When I make no effort, the people transform themselves. When I stay still, the people correct themselves. When I do no work, the people enrich themselves. When I want nothing, the people simplify themselves.

When Lao-tzu says this is how to rule the world, he isn’t talking about ruling by force. He is talking about ruling by letting things happen naturally. Ruling by force doesn’t bring order, it brings chaos. It doesn’t produce wealth, it produces poverty.

Left alone, people will sort themselves out. That may not be something our so-called rulers will ever be interested in implementing. But we need not wait around for them to change their ways. Rule your own world following this principle of non-action. As I said earlier, this non-action means non-participation. You can stop participating in the present bankrupt system. Govern yourself according to this Way, and the world will follow along.

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