It Isn’t a Call to Action

“The Way of Heaven
is like stringing a bow
pulling down the high
lifting up the low
shortening the long
lengthening the short
the Way of Heaven
takes from the long
and supplements the short
unlike the way of Humankind
which takes from the short
and gives to the long
who can take the long
and give it to the world
only those who possess the Way
thus do sages not depend on what they develop
or claim what they achieve
thus they choose to hide their skill”

(Taoteching, verse 77, translation by Red Pine)

KAO HENG says, “In stringing a bow, we pull the bow down to attach the string to the top. We lift the bow up to attach the string to the bottom. If the string is too long, we make it shorter. If the string is too short, we make it longer. This is exactly the Way of Heaven.” Red Pine’s reading of line two, which agrees with Kao Heng’s, is based on the Shuowen, which says, “Chang means to attach a string to a bow.”

TU ER-WEI says, “Not only the Chinese, but the ancient Greeks and Hindus, the Finns, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho all likened the moon to a bow. Thus the Way of Heaven is like a bow” (Lao-tzu-te-yueh-shen tsung-chiao, pp. 97-98).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “The Way of Heaven is so dark, we need metaphors to understand it. To prepare a bow for use, we string it by pulling down the top and lifting up the bottom. Likewise, the Way of Heaven is to take from the strong and give to the weak.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven does not intentionally pull down the high and lift up the low. It does nothing and relies instead on the nature of things. Things that are high and long cannot avoid being pulled down and shortened. Things that are low and short cannot avoid being lifted up and lengthened. The full suffer loss. The humble experience gain.”

TE CH’ING says, “The Way of Heaven is to give but not to take. The Way of Humankind is to take but not to give.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The way of Heaven is based on the natural order. Hence, it is fair. The way of Humankind is based on desire. Hence, it is not fair. Those who possess the Way follow the same Way as Heaven.”

SU CH’E says, “Those who possess the Way supply the needs of the ten thousand creatures without saying a word. Only those who possess the Way are capable of this.”

LU HSI-SHENG says, “Who can imitate the Way of Heaven and make it the Way of Humankind by taking what one has in abundance and giving it to those in need? Only those who possess the Way. The Yiching [41-42] says, ‘to take means to take from the low and give to the high.’ And ‘to give means to take from the high and give to the low.’”

LI JUNG says, “Although sages perform virtuous deeds, they expect no reward and try to keep their virtue hidden.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The skill of the sages is unfathomable and inexhaustible. How could it be revealed?”

And RED PINE clarifies, “When Lao-tzu refers to ‘the Way of Heaven,” he is not simply referring to the sky above but to everything that lives and moves.”

Today’s verse always makes me kind of nervous. “Pulling down the high, lifting up the low…” What makes me nervous is those who think this is some kind of call to action. “Yeah! Take from the one percent. Take from the rich, give it to the poor. We need governments to redistribute the wealth.”

But that isn’t what Lao-tzu is teaching, at all. He says that is the Way of Heaven: Like when you string a bow, the high is pulled down, and the low is lifted up. What is too long is shortened, and what is too short is lengthened. The Way of Humankind is altogether different. And that is why this isn’t a call to action. For Humankind’s actions always, always take from the short and give to the long, always push the low further down, while raising the already high. Humankind isn’t about lifting up the oppressed, they are always about protecting, maintaining, increasing their power over others.

The rhetoric those in power use are always lies and deception. The Way of Heaven is completely natural. It is never forced. So, Lao-tzu asks, “Who can take the long, and give it to the world? Only those who possess the Way.” And those who possess the Way never use force to achieve their ends. “Thus sages don’t depend on what they develop, or claim what they achieve,” Lao-tzu teaches, “They choose to hide their skill.”

What that means is they don’t force anything. They let Heaven (what is natural) do its complete work. What makes a sage a sage is the alacrity with which they get out of the way, and thus follow the Way.

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