“My words are easy to understand
and easy to practice
but no one understands them
or puts them into practice
words have an ancestor
deeds have a master
the reason I am not understood
it’s me who isn’t understood
but because so few understand me
thus am I esteemed
sages therefore wear coarse cloth
and keep their jade concealed”
(Taoteching, verse 70, translation by Red Pine)
TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Nothing is simpler or easier than the Tao. But because it’s so simple, it can’t be explained by reasoning. Hence, no one can understand it. And because it’s so near, it can’t be reached by stages. Hence, no one can put into practice.”
WANG P’ANG says, “Because sages teach us to be in harmony with the course of our lives, their words are simple, and their deeds are ordinary. Those who look within themselves understand. Those who follow their own nature do what is right. Difficulties arise when we turn away from the trunk and look among the branches.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “The Tao is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. It is also hard to understand and hard to put into practice. It is easy because there is no Tao to discuss, no knowledge to learn, no effort to make, no deeds to perform. And it is hard because the Tao cannot be discussed, because all words are wrong, because it cannot be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray. Effortless stillness is not necessarily right, and action-less activity is not necessarily wrong. This is why it is hard.”
SU CH’E says, “Words can trap the Tao, and deeds can reveal its signs. But if the Tao could be found in words, we would have only to listen to words. And if it could be seen in deeds, we would only have to examine deeds. But it cannot be found in words or seen in deeds. Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find it.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The ancestor unites the clan. The master governs the state. Softness and humility are the ancestor of all words and the master of all deeds.”
YEN TSUN says, “Wild geese fly for days but don’t know what exists beyond the sky. Officials and scholars work for years, but none of them knows the extent of the Way. It’s beyond the ken and beyond the reach of narrow-minded, one-sided people.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The reason the Tao is esteemed by the world is because it cannot be known or perceived. If it could be known or perceived, why should it be esteemed? Hence, Lao-tzu is esteemed because so few understand him. Thus, sages wear an embarrassed, foolish expression and seldom show anyone their great and noble virtue.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The reason people don’t understand me is because my virtue is dark and not visible from the outside.”
CONFUCIUS says, “I study what is below and understand what is above. Who knows me? Only Heaven” (Lunyu: 14.37).
WANG PI says, “To wear coarse cloth is to become one with what is ordinary. To keep one’s jade concealed is to treasure the truth. Sages are difficult to know because they do not differ from ordinary people and because they do not reveal their treasure of jade.”
In our first verse this week, verse 67, Lao-tzu said, “The world calls me great, great but useless.” In today’s verse, Lao-tzu ties together being esteemed with being misunderstood.
Though Lao-tzu’s words are easy to understand, and easy to practice, no one understands them or puts them into practice. Lao-tzu had esteem issues. Not self-esteem, but world-esteem. The world esteemed him. But that was only because they misunderstood him. Or to put it in a different way, it is only because so few understand him, he is esteemed.
I like what Su Ch’e has to say in his commentary. “Only if we put aside words and look for their ancestor, and put aside deeds and look for their master, can we find [the Tao].”
But because so few understand this, sages dress in coarse cloth, keeping their jade concealed. What? Did you not think it is better to practice virtue than for others to understand you?
This is something I am beginning to put into practice more of in my own life, particularly on social media, where I am not nearly so eager to jump into the fray trying to outshine others with my own virtue-signaling. Perhaps we could all don coarse cloth more, and show off our jade less. What you conceal has more value than what you reveal.