“The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers
is because it has mastered being lower
thus it can govern a hundred rivers
hence if sages would be above the people
they should speak as if they were below them
if they would be in front
they should act as if they were behind them
thus when sages are above
the people aren’t burdened
when they are in front
the people aren’t obstructed
the world never wearies
of pushing sages forward
and because they don’t struggle
no one can struggle against them”
(Taoteching, verse 66, translation by Red Pine)
YEN TSUN says, “Rivers don’t flow toward the sea because of its reputation or its power but because it does nothing and seeks nothing.”
TE-CH’ING says, “All rivers flow toward the sea, regardless of whether they are muddy or clear. And the sea is able to contain them all because it is adept at staying below them. This is a metaphor for sages, to which the world turns because they are selfless.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “When sages possess the kingdom, they speak of themselves as ‘orphaned, widowed, and impoverished’ or ‘inheritor of the country’s shame and misfortune.’ Thus, in their speech, they place themselves below others. They do not act unless they are forced. They do not respond unless they are pushed. They do not rise unless they have no choice. Thus, in their actions, they place themselves behind others.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages rule over the people, they don’t oppress those below with their position. Thus, the people uphold them and don’t think of them as a burden. When sages stand before them, they don’t blind them with their glory. Thus, the people love them as parents and harbor no resentment. Sages are kind and loving and treat the people as if they were their children. Thus, the whole world wants them for their leaders. The people never grow tired of them because sages don’t struggle against them. Everyone struggles against something. But no one struggles against those who don’t struggle against anything.”
SU CH’E says, “Sages don’t try to be above or in front of others. But when they find themselves below or behind others, the Tao can’t help but lift them up and push them forward.”
YANG HSIUNG says, “Those who hold themselves back are advanced by others. Those who lower themselves are lifted up by others” (Fayen: 7).
LI HSI-CHAI says, “The people aren’t burdened when sages are above them, because the people aren’t aware they have a ruler. And the people aren’t obstructed when sages are before them, because sages aren’t aware the people are their charges.”
WANG CHEN says, “Through humility sages gain the approval of the people. Once they gain their approval, they gain their tireless support. And once they gain their tireless support, struggling over rank naturally comes to an end.”
We finished up last week with Lao-tzu teaching on the need for humility, if you want to be great. And, to finish up this week of verses, Lao-tzu is back to talking about the need for humility, returning once again to his favorite of metaphors for the Tao, water.
How is it the sea can govern a hundred rivers? It isn’t its reputation or its power, says Yen Tsun in his commentary, it is because it does nothing and seeks nothing. Lao-tzu says that is because the sea has mastered being lower.
Sages are like this, too. They don’t seek to be above or in front of the people. They have become masters at being below and behind them. And because they have mastered being lower, they find themselves above and before them. But though they are above and in front, they neither burden nor obstruct the people.
This is the result of mastering humility in governing. The world will never grow weary of pushing sages forward. Why? Because sages through their humility have gained the approval of the people, says Wang Chen in his commentary, and having gained their approval, they gain their tireless support. And having gained their tireless support, struggling over rank naturally comes to an end.
This is the vital lesson to be learned in mastering humility in governing. When you don’t struggle with others, no one will struggle against you. What a transforming life!
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
YANG HSIUNG (53 B.C.-A.D. 18). Gifted philosopher and writer of courtly odes. Known for his view that man is neither good nor bad by nature but wholly subject to his environment. A number of his odes are preserved in the literary anthology known as the Wenhsuan. The Fayen contains his philosophical maxims.