A Matter of Life and Death

“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
one benefits
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”

(Taoteching, verse 73, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus, it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path” (Chungyung: 9).

SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. What happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanisms whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathom. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”

YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the hard and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”

When I share Lao-tzu’s teaching regarding the practice of not-doing, namely “not daring to act” I am often met with a particular response which Lao-tzu addresses in today’s verse.

What Lao-tzu teaches regarding daring to act, is that it means death; while daring not to act means life. It is a matter of life and death. I take it as seriously as Lao-tzu does. But I have friends and family that scoff at this. They echo what Su Ch’e says in his commentary today. “But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die.” And thus, say family and friends, you are wrong when you say “daring to act means death, and daring not to act means life” for it doesn’t always work out that way.

Lao-tzu addresses this when he says, “What Heaven dislikes, who knows the reason? That may not be very satisfying a response. I have been told, for instance, it is a cop-out. But is it?

What if Lao-tzu is offering a general principle, only a general principle. What exactly is wrong with that? Why would you really expect that you could read a little book and find the answer to every circumstance you could possibly encounter, with exactly the correct response in any given situation? Whoever told you life was that simple?

No, life is complicated. But, you can live simply, and greatly increase your satisfaction with it. Does it work every time it is tried? Why, no. There will be exceptions to the rule. As there are to a lot of rules which we never question.

How is this for a rule: I will live my life how I want to live my life, without infringing on your right to live your life the way you want. If you dare not fail to act, if you want that to be your rule for living, go for it. I won’t stop you. But don’t try to convince me that I must act every time you see some need to act. I won’t force you not to act, why try to force me to act?

The truth is none of us is wise enough to know the reason Heaven dislikes what it dislikes. And anyone who thinks they know is fooling themselves.

Having said that, the Way of Heaven (this is a general principle, mind you) is to win without a fight, to answer without a word, to come without a summons, and to plan without a thought. And the Net of Heaven (all-encompassing in a general sense) may have a wide mesh (in other words, some may live that dare to act and some may die who dare not to act) but nothing can escape it (in the long run).

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