How Can This Be Good?

“In resolving a dispute
a dispute is sure to remain
how can this be good
sages therefore hold the left marker
and make no claim on others
thus the virtuous oversee markers
the virtue-less oversee taxes
the Way of Heaven favors no one
but it always helps the good”

(Taoteching, verse 79, translation by Red Pine)

TE-CH’ING says, “In Lao-tzu’s day, whenever the feudal rulers had a dispute, the most powerful lord convened a meeting to resolve it. But the resolution of a great dispute invariably involved a payment. And if the payment was not forthcoming, the dispute continued.”

WANG PI says, “If we don’t arrange a contract clearly and a dispute results, even using virtuous means to settle it won’t restore the injury. Thus, a dispute will remain.”

SU CH’E says, “If we content ourselves with trimming the branches and don’t pull out the roots, things might look fine on the outside, but not on the inside. Disputes come from delusions, and delusions are the product of our nature. Those who understand their nature encounter no delusions, much less disputes.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Murderers are killed, and criminals are punished according to their crime. But those who inflict such punishments offend their own human feelings and involve innocent people as well. If even one person sighs, we offend the Heart of Heaven. How can resolving disputes be considered good?”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “If someone lets go of both sides but still clings to the middle, how can he be completely good?”

CHENG LIANG-SHU says, “In ancient times, contracts were divided in two. In the state of Ch’u, the creditor kept the left half, and Lao-tzu was from Ch’u. In the central plains, this was reversed, and the creditor kept the right half.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Seeking to make peace with others is the Way of Humankind. Not seeking to make peace but letting things make peace by themselves is the Way of Heaven. Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace. Sages therefore hold the left marker because they rely on non-action and the subtlety of letting things be.”

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG says, “If one does not make demands of others, disputes cannot arise. If one constantly takes from others, great disputes cannot help but occur.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Those concerned with taxes cannot avoid making claims on others and thus cannot prevent disputes. This is why they lack virtue.”

MENCIUS says, “The rulers of the Hsia dynasty exacted a tribute [kung] on every five acres of land. The rulers of the Shang exacted a share [chu] on every seven acres. The rulers of the Chou exacted a tax [ch’e] on every ten acres. In reality, what was paid was a tithe of 10 percent” (Mencius: 3A.3; see also Lunyu: 12.9).

LU TUNG-PIN says, “Those who are good cultivate themselves. They don’t concern themselves with others. Once you concern yourself with others, you have disputes. The good make demands of themselves. They don’t make demands of others. The Way of Humankind is selfish. The Way of Heaven is unselfish. It isn’t concerned with others. But it is always one with those who are good.”

And RED PINE adds, “The Way of Heaven always helps the good because the good expect nothing. Hence, they are easily helped.”

Today’s verse is another one where I expect there to be some resistance. Why? Because the way of Humankind is so very contrary to the Way of Heaven.

As Sung Ch’ang-hsing notes in his commentary, “the way of Humankind is seeking to make peace with others.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with seeking to make peace with others? Yet, “the Way of Heaven doesn’t seek to make peace; Instead, the Way of Heaven is to let things make peace by themselves.”

Sung Ch’ang-hsing goes on to explain the reason for this. “Despite action and the expenditure of energy, energy and action seldom bring peace.”

Also, note what Lao-tzu says about those intent on resolving disputes. When they try to force it, “a dispute is sure to remain.” And, Lao-tzu wonders, “How can this be good?”

As good as seeking to make peace with others sounds, it hardly ever works out as well as we hoped it would. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to make peace with others?

Not at all; but that is where Lao-tzu’s practice of “doing without doing” comes in.

He points out how sages go about things, and how very different it is from the way Humankind does things. Lao-tzu says sages hold the left marker, a reference to the side of the contract which only involves one’s own obligations. It makes no reference to the other party’s responsibilities. Meaning, they don’t make any claim on others.

The need to resolve disputes can be avoided altogether, notes Chiang Hsi-ch’ang, if you don’t make demands of others. But great disputes can’t help but occur, if you are constantly making demands on others.

Lao-tzu finishes up today’s verse by saying, “The Way of Heaven favors no one, but it always helps the good.” I thought that sounded a lot like something Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

That quote wasn’t necessarily original with King. I did a bit of research and found that Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist calling for the abolition of slavery, published a collection of ten sermons in 1853 where he included figurative language about the arc of the moral universe:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; But I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long, Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”

And then there is is this gem from a book called “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish rite of Freemasonry” with a copyright date of 1871 and publication date of 1905. The author was not identified:

“We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary to God’s real law of justice continually endure.”

Lao-tzu in his Taoteching, constantly teaches the very same thing. In verse 73, he wondered, “What Heaven dislikes, who can know the reason?” That was his way of saying, things don’t always seem to work out the way we know they should.

The lesson we should glean from all of this is to do what we know in our own hearts to be right, and don’t worry so much about what others do. It will all work out right in the end — if we will only let it.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

CHENG LIANG-SHU (B. 1940). Classical scholar and a leading authority on the Mawangtui texts. His presentation of differences between the Mawangtui and other editions appears in Ta-lu tsa-chih vols. 54-59 (April 1977-October 1979). His study of Tunhuang copies of the Taoteching is also excellent: Lao-tzu lun-chi.

CHIANG HSI-CH’ANG (PUBL. 1937). Lao-tzu chiao-chieh.

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