“Ruling a great state
is like cooking a small fish
when you govern the world with the Tao
spirits display no powers
not that they have no powers
their powers don’t harm the people
not that their powers can’t harm
the sage keeps them from harming
and neither harms the other
for both rely on Virtue”
(Taoteching, verse 60, translation by Red Pine)
In a poem bemoaning the absence of virtuous rulers, the SHIHCHING SAYS, “Who can cook fish / I’ll wash out the pot” (Kuei: 4).
LI HSI-CHAI says, “For the sage, ruling a state is a minor affair, like cooking a small fish.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If you cook a small fish, don’t remove its entrails, don’t scrape off its scales, and don’t stir it. If you do, it will turn to mush. Likewise, too much government makes those below rebel. And too much cultivation makes one’s vitality wither.”
HAN FEI says, “In cooking a small fish, too much turning ruins it. In governing a great state, too much reform embitters the people. Thus, a ruler who possesses the Way values inaction over reform.”
TE CH’ING says, “A cruel government brings calamity down on the people. The people, however, think their suffering is the work of ghosts and spirits and turn to sacrifice and worship to improve their lot, when actually their misfortune is caused by their rulers.”
THE TSOCHUAN says, “If the state is meant to flourish, listen to the people. If the state is meant to perish, listen to the spirits” (Chuang: 32).
WANG CHEN says, “The government that takes peace as its basis doesn’t lose the Way. When the government doesn’t lose the Way, yin and yang are in harmony. When yin and yang are in harmony, wind and rain arrive on time. When wind and rain arrive on time, the spirit world is at peace. When the spirit world is at peace, the legion of demons can’t perform their sorcery.”
WANG PI says, “Spirits don’t injure what is natural. What is natural gives spirits no opening. When spirits have no opening, spirits cannot act like spirits.”
CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “Spirits dwell in the yin, and people dwell in the yang. When both accept their lot, neither injures the other.”
SU CH’E says, “The inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are. Outside, nothing troubles them. Inside, nothing frightens them. Even spirits have no means of using their powers. It isn’t that spirits have no powers. The have powers, but they don’t use them to harm people. The reason people and spirits don’t harm each other is because they look up to the sage. And the sage never harms anyone.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The reason spirits don’t harm the people is not because they can’t but because the sage is able to harmonize the energy of the people so that they don’t injure the energy of the spirit world. The reason neither injures the other is due to the sage’s virtue. Hence, both worlds rely on the virtue of the sage.”
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “‘Neither’ here refers to spirits and the sage.”
LI JUNG says, “Spirits and sages help people without harming each other. One is hidden, the other manifest. But both rely on virtue.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Spirits are spirits because they respond but can’t be seen. Sages are sages because they govern but don’t act. The virtue of sages and the virtue of spirits is the same.”
In Lao-tzu’s day and for a long time after Lao-tzu’s day, the people were very superstitious. The people blamed spirits on just about any bad thing that happened to them. And, they sought to appease these spirits through sacrifices and worship, to avoid trouble, and otherwise improve their lot in life. But, Te Ch’ing, in his commentary on today’s verse, points out an important truth, which is true in all ages: It is cruel government which bring down calamity on the people. If you are suffering some misfortune, it may just be caused by your rulers.
Now, I believe, we live in a less superstitious age. Yet, we still don’t dare blame our calamities, our misfortunes, on those who govern us. Or if we do, we believe that we can appease these spirits with the next election.
Yet, Lao-tzu had it right when he said, “Ruling a great state is like cooking a small fish.” Stephen Mitchell, in his translation, adds “you spoil it with too much poking.”
And that is what gets those so-called spirits so pissed off! When a sage governs, they keep spirits from harming the people, and the people from harming spirits. These “spirits” are just another name for “bad shit happens when you don’t follow the natural order.” “Spirits” don’t respond when the sage, governing, doesn’t act [contrary to nature].
And because the inaction of the sage makes people content with the way they are, the virtue of the people is the same as the virtue of the sage. They both rely on the same Virtue. And those pesky spirits are ever kept at bay.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
SHIHCHING (BOOK OF SONGS). Collection of some 300 poems from China’s earliest historical period, between the twelfth and seventh centuries B.C. Arranged by style and region, it was reportedly compiled by Confucius from a larger corpus of over 3,000 poems. It remained an essential part of traditional education until the twentieth century. There are half a dozen English translations.
TSOCHUAN (ANNALS OF TSO). First comprehensive account of the major political events of the Spring and Autumn Periods (722-481 B.C.). It was compiled during the fourth century B.C. by Tso ch’iu-ming about whom we know nothing else.