As it acts in the world,
the Tao is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.
Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much.
The master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she
is better than anyone else.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 77, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is another one of my favorite chapters in the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu is explaining the way of nature. It is a constant state of flux. The tide ebbs, and it flows. And through its ebbs and flows it always maintains a perfect balance. This is the course of nature. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Oh, things are quite different. It is readily apparent to all of our senses. The sameness I am referring to is not a static thing. The static changes. It is the dynamic which is always the same. The yin and yang of nature, that is the dynamic. This is how the Tao acts in the world. Lao Tzu gives us a perfect illustration of this when he invites us to picture the bending of a bow. He doesn’t tell us to picture us bending a bow. He doesn’t tell us to take hold of the bow and bend it. He simply says that if we want to see how the Tao acts in the world, it is like the bending of a bow.
I am really wanting to get this picture across, today. There is no human agency required in this bending of a bow. The top is bent downward. The bottom is bent up. The Tao takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. The Tao is acting so that there is perfect balance. That is nature’s way.
But that isn’t human’s way. Humans want to take hold of that bow. They want to control the bending to their will and purpose. But the moment we do that, no matter how noble our purpose, we are going to end up going against the direction of the Tao. Why is that? Because the very act of taking hold of the bow is an act of defiance against nature’s way. We just want to help? Nature’s way is too slow?
And that is assuming that those taking hold of the bow really do have our best interests at heart. They seldom do. In reality, the reason people try to control, the reason they use force, is to protect their own power. We have seen this scenario played out throughout all of recorded history. They take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much.
That last sentence deserves more attention. Because the obvious objection is going to be, “according to who?” This is the ongoing debate. And the powers that be love to pit us against each other, fighting with each other, instead of the ones manipulating the bow. Are we talking about the redistribution of wealth here? Certainly, we are. But Lao Tzu very clearly is not advocating a forced redistribution.
Notice the difference between the first two stanzas. It is subtle, yet powerful. As the Tao acts in the world it takes from WHAT is too much and gives to WHAT isn’t enough. There isn’t any WHO. Now look at what happens when humans act in the world. They take from THOSE WHO don’t have enough and give to THOSE WHO have far too much. We, humans, make it all about us. When it never was. And because we do, some benefit at the expense of the many.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nature’s way is so very different. And, the results are very different. I am sure that some people are going to read this chapter and conclude that the many will benefit at the expense of the few. I think they are still clamoring to get ahold of that bow. If we just get the right people pulling, then we’ll get the results we want.
But, once again, we are making it all about us. And it never was. Try a thought experiment, if you can. Imagine that there are no humans. Just for a moment. Now, picture that bending of a bow. Excess and deficiency are adjusted. There is perfect balance. Now, at who’s expense did this occur? At no one’s expense. Because there is no one. Nature is impersonal; just like that.
Now, you can stop imagining no humans. I am not really intending this post as a diatribe against humans. Not really. I love humans. I happen to love myself. I want us to evolve; because I don’t want us to become extinct. And, if we are going to evolve, we need to stop making it all about us. We need to let go of our need to be in control. Let the bow bend. Let the tide ebb and flow.
So, is that it? We aren’t supposed to do anything? Well, actually, Lao Tzu wasn’t finished with the chapter yet. And, there is something for us would be leaders to do. I am not talking about those with a will to power, here. We know what our rulers want to do.
To us would be leaders, that is those of us who want to serve as examples, here is our example, the Master. She can keep giving because there is no end to her wealth. Please don’t make that about money. Wealth is much more than a commodity of exchange. She acts without expectation. See where we are going with this? Can we act without expecting something in return? Can we act without expecting anything at all? Or, does it have to be about us? What is in it for me? She succeeds without taking credit. That is a tough one, because I believe in giving credit where credit is due. How very human of me. But, do we really need to take the credit for what is accomplished? Can’t success be compensation enough? Or, an even more radical thought, can success not involve recompense? There is no end to her wealth, what more does she think she needs? What does she need? She needs nothing. And, as if that wasn’t nearly enough, she doesn’t think that she is better than anyone else. That is the toughest one of them all, for me. It is the demon I have wrestled with for all of my life. And, for all my complaining about my own personal demon, I keep him so well groomed and fed. You’d think I plan to keep him around for many years to come.