“Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it’s easy
deal with the great while it’s small
the world’s hardest task begins easy
the world’s greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard”
(Taoteching, verse 63, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “To act without acting means to do only what is natural. To work without working means to avoid trouble by preparing in advance. To understand without understanding means to understand the meaning of the Tao through meditation.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “When we act without acting, we don’t exhaust ourselves. When we work without working, we don’t trouble others. When we understand without understanding, we don’t waste anything.”
WANG TAO says, “What people do involves action. What sages do accords with the Tao of non-action. ‘Work’ refers to the conditions of action. ‘Understanding’ refers to meaning of action.”
SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “To act without acting, to work without working, to understand without understanding is to conform with what is natural and not to impose oneself on others. Though others treat sages wrongly, the wrong is theirs and not the sages’. Sages respond with the virtue within their hearts. Utterly empty and detached, they thus influence others to trust in doing nothing.”
CHIAO HUNG says, “Action involves form and thus includes great and small. It is also tied to number and thus includes many and few. This is where wrongs come from. Only the Tao is beyond form and beyond number. Thus, sages treat everything the same: great and small, many and few. Why should they respond to them with anger?”
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “If we repay wrongs with kindness, we put an end to revenge. If we repay wrongs with wrongs, revenge never ends.”
HAN FEI says, “In terms of form, the great necessarily starts from the small. In terms of duration, the many necessarily starts from the few. Wise rulers detect small schemes and thus avoid great plots. They enact minor punishments and thus avoid major rebellions.”
DUKE WEN OF CHIN told Kuo Yen, “In the beginning, I found it easy to rule the kingdom. Now I find it hard.” Kuo Yen replied, “If you consider something easy, it is bound to become hard. If you consider something hard, it is bound to become easy” (Kuoyu: Chin.4).
WANG CHEN says, “If rulers disdain something as easy, misfortune and trouble are sure to arise from it. If they do not pay attention to small matters, eventually they will overwhelm even the greatest virtue. Thus, sages guard against the insignificant lest it amount to something great. If they wait until something is great before they act, their action will come too late.”
TE-CH’ING says, “When I entered the mountains to cultivate the Way, at first it was very hard. But once I learned how to use my mind, it became very easy. What the world considers hard, the sage considers easy. What the world considers easy, the sage considers hard.”
Today’s verse is full of great lessons that we would all do well to heed.
Acting without acting, working without working, understanding without understanding, these are all admonitions to practice the art of not-doing, effortless action, only doing what is natural, so you don’t exhaust yourself, or trouble others, or waste anything.
Whether they be great or small, many or few, repay each wrong with virtue. There is that “golden rule” which is so important to follow. Whether they be great or small, many or few – these distinctions can get us into trouble in a hurry. Plan for the hard while it’s easy. Deal with the great while it’s small. These aphorisms are too easily passed over as elementary lessons. I can already hear someone out there saying, “I know, I know.” I used to have that kind of attitude, as well. It got me into plenty of trouble. All of my own making.
The truth is the world’s hardest task does begin easy. The world’s greatest goal begins small. And we are too quick to dismiss it because it is easy, it is small. And soon we are overcome by the enormity of the problem we now have before us.
So, would-be sages, what should we do?
Sages never act great. And thus they achieve great goals.
“I know, I know.” Yes, and do you also know that they who quickly agree can seldom be trusted?
For the truth of the matter is, when you think things are easy, you will soon find them hard.
The sage therefore thinks everything hard, and finds nothing hard.
Think everything hard, and find nothing hard is a great summary of all of Lao-tzu’s teachings. If you think everything hard, you will be less inclined to want to interfere, to intervene, to want to do something. When you let nature take its course, when you let things be, when you convince yourself it would just be too hard to meddle, and you only do what is natural, and not try to force things in an effort to control them, how easy it will be to be content with your life.
In today’s verse, Red Pine introduces the following:
DUKE WEN OF CHIN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Chin and hegemon of the central states.
KUO YEN (FL. 7TH C. B.C.). Chief minister of the state of Chin during the reign of Duke Wen.