In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about acquiring more knowledge by looking outside ourselves. I said that Lao Tzu was dissuading us from doing that. Why? Because we already have everything we need right now, inside ourselves. Today, we are talking more about the pursuit of knowledge versus the practice of the Tao.
Lao Tzu says that in the pursuit of knowledge, every day you learn something new. There doesn’t seem anything wrong with that, in and of itself. But look at how the practice of the Tao differs. Instead of addition, there is subtraction. The practice of the Tao is about unlearning, or dropping things.
But what is Lao Tzu really going on about? It isn’t that adding knowledge is a particularly bad thing. What Lao Tzu is concerned about is whether we are forcing things. The practice of the Tao, the dropping of something every day, is letting go of the need to interfere with, or force, things. This is an every day practice. Less and less do you need to force things. You are dropping more with each passing day. Less and less remains.
We have talked about this before, of course. When you are adding, there is always more to add. But when you are subtracting, you do finally run out of things to subtract. You finally arrive at the point where you have emptied yourself. You arrive at the point of non-action. This not-doing doing, or effortless action, is a place where all desire has been dropped. Nothing is done and nothing is left undone. Or, to put it a different way there is nothing left to do.
I really don’t want this to sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo. This isn’t some mystical thing. It is simply non-interference. Not interfering with the flow of the Tao. Letting things go their own way is letting things take their natural course. That is the way of the Master. We become the master of our world by accepting the way things are, and letting them be the way they are, without interfering.