Who Understands the Difference?

“The ancient masters of the Way
tried not to enlighten
but to keep people in the dark
what makes people hard to rule
is their knowledge
who rules the realm with knowledge
is the terror of the realm
who rules without knowledge
is the paragon of the realm
who understands the difference
is one who finds the key
knowing how to find the key
is what we call Dark Virtue
Dark Virtue goes deep
goes far
goes the other way
until it reaches perfect harmony”

(Taoteching, verse 65, translation by Red Pine)

WU CH’ENG says, “To make the people more natural, the ancient sages did not try to make the people more knowledgeable but to make them less knowledgeable. This radical doctrine was later misused by the First Emperor of the Ch’in dynasty, who burned all the books [in 213 B.C.] to make the people ignorant.”

CHUANG-TZU says, “When the knowledge of bows and arrows arose, the birds above were troubled. When the knowledge of hooks and nets proliferated, the fish below were disturbed. When the knowledge of snares and traps spread, the creatures of the wild were bewildered. When the knowledge of argument and disputation multiplied, the people were confused. Thus are the world’s troubles due to the love of knowledge” (Chuangtzu: 10.4).

WANG PI says, “When you rouse the people with sophistry, treacherous thoughts arise. When you counter their deceptions with more sophistry, the people see through your tricks and avoid them. Thus, they become secretive and devious.”

LIU CHUNG-P’ING says, “Those who rule without knowledge turn to Heaven. Those who rule with knowledge turn to Humankind. Those who turn to Heaven are in harmony. Those who are in harmony do only what requires no effort. Their government is lenient. Those who turn to Humankind force things. Those who force things become lost in the Great Inquisition. Hence, their people are dishonest.” Liu’s terminology here is indebted to Chuangtzu: 19.2 and Mencius: 4B.26.

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “‘Difference’ refers to ‘with knowledge’ and ‘without knowledge.’ Once you know that knowledge spreads evil and lack of knowledge spreads virtue, you understand the key to cultivating the self and governing the realm. Once you understand the key, you share the same virtue as Heaven. And Heaven is dark. Those who possess dark Virtue are so deep they can’t be fathomed, so distant they can’t be reached, and always do the opposite of others. They give to others, while others think only of themselves.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Because it is so deep, you can’t hear it or see it. Because it is so distant, you can’t talk about it or reach it. Dark Virtue differs from everything else. But it agrees with the Tao.”

SU CH’E says, “What the sage values is virtue. What others value is knowledge. Virtue and knowledge are opposites. Knowledge is seldom harmonious, while virtue is always harmonious.”

LIN HSI-YI says, “‘Perfect harmony’ means whatever is natural.”

In yesterday’s verse we talked about how often Lao-tzu’s teachings are taken out of context and used to promote the very opposite of what Lao-tzu was teaching. Probably the most quoted saying of Lao-tzu, certainly the one most misrepresented, is the one about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with your first step. People use that to encourage you to act. But what Lao-tzu was talking about when he talked about that long journey was the importance of not acting. Today’s verse was also, and is also, misunderstood.

It is misunderstood because people are willfully ignorant of what Lao-tzu means by knowledge in his teachings. It should be noticed that whenever he talks about the practice of not-doing, he soon talks about the practice of not-knowing. The two go together, so ignorance of what he means by one, will obviously result in ignorance of what he means by the other.

Knowledge, or “knowing,” for Lao-tzu, in today’s verse and throughout the Taoteching, refers to presumption or “presuming to know.” The ancient masters weren’t trying to keep the people ignorant, far from it, they wanted the people to know that they don’t know. That is the only way to combat presumption. And notice, this didn’t just apply to the people. Even the rulers were subject to this need to know they don’t know. As Lao-tzu says, “Who rules the realm with knowledge is the terror of the realm. Who rules the realm without knowledge is the paragon of the realm.”

The key, here, is to understand the difference. To understand you don’t know what you think you know. Presuming you know will have you acting, when you shouldn’t dare to act.

But this is Dark Virtue and few understand, or “find,” this key. Still, this should be our goal. To go deep, to go far, to go the other way, until perfect harmony is reached.

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