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)
Yesterday, we were talking about living, as being flexible; and dieing, as being inflexible. That was a good introduction for today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu begins by talking about the bending of a bow. The bending of a bow. That is the metaphor that Lao Tzu uses to point at how the Tao acts in the world. It is about how things are in the natural, living world. As the string on a bow is pulled, the top bends down and the bottom bends up. This is easy for us to picture in our mind, even if we have never actually handled a bow previously.
Lao Tzu tells us this metaphor represents how the Tao adjusts excess and deficiency, naturally. And through nature, perfect balance is achieved. The Tao takes from what is too much – that is, excess. And gives to what isn’t enough – that is, deficiency.
I want you to notice in this first stanza that the Tao is being represented as an impersonal force of nature. What is too much, not who has too much. What isn’t enough, not who doesn’t have enough. I think it is important for us to understand this precision. It is both natural and impersonal. It isn’t anything personal. The Tao is merely balancing the ledger books. Where in the short term there may be excess and deficiency, in the long run there is perfect balance. No excess. No deficiency. That is the way of the Tao. Everything is constantly changing. The bow is constantly moving.
Now, we humans, being persons, like to make things personal. And that is where we always end up coming into conflict with the Tao. The problem is we want to be in control. And we are ever ready to use force to both get and maintain that control. It is all about power. People don’t like not being in control. They want to believe they have the power. The Tao is an impersonal force of nature. It is a what. People don’t want a what in power. They want a who. And they would prefer that who to be them. Even if their seeming power is an illusion, that is okay, as long as they believe strongly enough in the illusion.
I think that is an important thing for us to understand, as well. It is something about all us humans of which we need to ever be mindful. I am not saying it is human nature; as in, it is the sum total of all that makes us human. But it is a very real part of our nature as humans. It is something that we need to guard against. Lao Tzu has a very high opinion of us humans. He lists us as one of the four great powers. Pretty significant, that. Still, we are only one of four great powers. And the other three are more significant. That is something for us to try to remember as we struggle to keep ourselves from thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.
So, given our tendency to try to control, is it any wonder that some will use force to protect their power? And inevitably, that will mean working against the direction of the Tao. Now, first of all, let’s take a look at those who have good intentions. That is how they always snag us, isn’t it? With their good intentions. The pace of nature is too slow. They just want to help the Tao along. They want to grab hold of that bow and pull with the Tao. Just faster and further. It is very important for us to understand that this isn’t going to help things at all. The Tao, and the Tao alone, knows how to bend the bow. All our efforts to bend the bow, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are not going to result in bringing things into balance any faster. They are only going to result in a tug-of-war. And guess who loses that one?
I wanted to first talk about those who promise they have good intentions because no one ever announces they have evil intentions. No one is ever going to say, “Hey, you know what? We want to take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much.” No one will ever own up to those kinds of intentions. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what your intentions are. Whether your intentions are good or evil, the results are going to be the same. When you try to control, when you use force to protect your power, you go against the direction of the Tao. That is the only way that it could be. Going with the flow means not being in control. It means not using force. The very fact that you are trying to be in control and are using force puts you counter to the Tao. No matter your intentions. And the results are the very opposite of what the Tao would otherwise achieve. Instead of excess and deficiency being adjusted, it is expanded. That is why we continually hear that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This just empowers the “Do-gooders” more in their efforts. And the more empowered they are, the greater the problem, they aren’t solving, becomes.
This is where the Master comes in. The Master, here, is a real leader. Not one of our elected officials. Because they are all about power and control and the use of force, they’ll never get it. But the Master gets it. We can learn a lot from the Master. Until we all become like the Master. She can keep on giving because there is no end to her wealth. Friends, this is not referring to money. We are talking about leaving the bending of the bow to the Tao here. And learning from the Master. There is no end to her wealth of wisdom. That is why she can just keep on giving.
She acts without expectation. Just let that one sink in. Acting, expecting nothing in return. She succeeds without taking credit. Hmmmmm. She doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. Wow! Do these seem like superhuman traits? They aren’t. Remember earlier when I was talking about our tendency as humans to want to be in control? To want to believe we have the power? Those are certainly human traits. But so are these traits of the Master. Consider them our better angels. Certainly we can be the worst that humans can be. But we can also be the best that humans can be.