They Dare Not Act

“It’s easy to rule while it’s peaceful
it’s easy to plan for before it appears
it’s easy to break while it’s fragile
it’s easy to disperse while it’s small
act before anything exists
govern before anyone rebels
a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot
a great tower rises from a basket of dirt
a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet
but to act is to fail
to control is to lose
sages therefore don’t act
thus they don’t fail
they don’t control
thus they don’t lose
when people pursue a task
failure occurs near the end
care at the end as well as the start
means an end to failure
sages thus seek what no one else seeks
they don’t prize hard-to-get goods
they study what no one else studies
they turn to what others pass by
to help all things remain natural
they dare not act”

(Taoteching, verse 64, translation by Red Pine)

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “We should act before anything exists, while things are peaceful and latent. We should govern before anyone rebels, while they are weak and few. But to act before anything exists means to act without acting. To govern before anyone rebels means to govern without governing.”

SU CH’E says, “To act before anything exists comes first. To govern before anyone rebels comes next.”

KUAN-TZU says, “Know where success and failure lie, then act” (Kuantzu: 47).

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “A needle creates a tapestry. A basket of earth makes a wall. Success and failure begin from something small” (Huainantzu: 16).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “From a sprout, the small becomes great. From a basket of earth, the low becomes high. From here, the near becomes far. But trees are cut down, towers are toppled, and journeys end. Everything we do eventually results in failure. Everything we control is eventually lost. But if we act before anything exists, how can we fail? If we govern before anyone rebels, how can we lose?”

WANG P’ANG says, “Everything has its course. When the time is right, it arrives. But people are blind to this truth and work to speed things up. They try to help Heaven and end up ruining things just as they near completion.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Others seek the ornamental. Sages seek the simple. Others seek form. Sages seek Virtue. Others study facts and skills. Sages study what is natural. Others learn how to govern the world. Sages learn how to govern themselves and how to uphold the truth of the Way.”

HAN FEI says, “The wise don’t fill their lessons with words or their shelves with books. The world may pass them by, but rulers turn to them when they want to learn what no one else learns.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The sage seeks without seeking and studies without studying. For the truth of all things lies not in acting but in doing what is natural. By not acting, the sage shares in the naturalness of all things.”

Today’s verse continues where we left off yesterday with the interplay of yin and yang, easy and hard. Remember, Lao-tzu’s counsel, “Think everything hard,” as he talks about when things are easy.

Probably the easiest thing for anyone to do is misunderstand Lao-tzu’s teachings regarding acting without acting. In today’s verse, he says, “Act before anything exists,” but he goes on to say, “To act is to fail,” and finally, about sages, “They dare not act.” So, should we act, or not?

That is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves every time we are tempted to act. Too often we already have made up our minds to act. Not acting isn’t even a consideration. And that is why we fail. What we need to master is acting without acting.

The lesson Lao-tzu teaches today about acting is that timing is everything. You want to act before anything exists. It has to be before. After is too late. He says, “Govern before anyone rebels.” This is when it is easy to rule, while it is peaceful. If your actions have brought on rebellion, further acting is only going to aggravate the situation more. Make your plans before it (i.e. a rebellion) appears. What you should be concerned with is two-fold, both how easy it is to break what is fragile (i.e. the peace), and how easy it is to disperse a rebellion while it is small. Your actions can be such that you can avoid rebellion and maintain peaceful rule. But, and this is a huge but, it depends on you acting without acting. If you fail here, if you act by acting, if you try to control, you will fail, and you will lose.

Lao-tzu offers three metaphors today to teach this lesson. The first being how a giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot. The second being how a great tower rises from a basket of dirt. And the third being how a thousand-mile journey begins at your feet.

He uses these as an admonition not to act. Too often we misread this as encouragement to act. That is completely taking them out of their context. To act is to fail. That giant tree, that huge tower, don’t bode well for you. Better it would be to not have them reach those heights. And that thousand-mile journey? A thousand-mile journey may not seem like much in our day and age. But in Lao-tzu’s day, that meant a whole lot of wandering, and all of it, far off course. It begins at the ground beneath your feet. The steps you choose to take matter. Where will they lead you? They might lead you a thousand miles off course. That is the admonition.

That is why sages don’t act. They don’t dare to. And because they don’t act, they don’t fail. They don’t control, so they don’t lose.

Here it is, our lesson for the day in a nutshell: When people pursue a task, failure occurs near the end. If we only put as much care at the end, as we did at the start, we would see an end to failure. What does care at the end mean, then?

Understand what Lao-tzu means by the end, here. He is referring to our purpose, our goal. This task we are pursuing, what is our end? What is our goal, our purpose? What are we seeking? That is where we fail. We seek what everyone else seeks. But, sages seek what no one else seeks. They don’t prize hard-to-get goods. They study what no one else studies. They turn to what others pass by.

Are you understanding what Lao-tzu is saying about our ends? Why they are doomed to failure? How sages avoid failure is by acting without acting, by only helping all things remain natural. In all other things they dare not act.

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